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Monks Hill Books Blog

Books and Covid-19

Posted on 09/07/20, filed under Fresh News | No Comments

Books, as many will agree, can be very useful during the country’s Covid-19 lockdown.  My daughters gave me, last Christmas, Factfulness by Hans Rosling.  Basically it tells you that things are getting better, not worse, and encourages you to look more closely at the actual statistics, rather than using your own out-of-date prejudices.

However, I am also a (semi-) retired pensions lawyer – and one of the delights of being a pensions lawyer is that you are sent all sorts of updates relating to pensions.  One of these comes each week from the Continuous Mortality Investigation (CMI).  This is a body set up to provide actuaries with the information they need to calculate how much money the employers (which includes the government) need to set aside to pay for the pensions promised to their employees.

As part of its weekly reports, the CMI gives a figure for ‘excess deaths’, that is, the number of deaths exceeding the figure for the same week in the previous year.  Naturally the Covid-19 outbreak has played havoc with these figures this year.  As at 7 July 2020, the CMI now say we have had in the UK 62,500 more deaths since the start of the pandemic than if mortality rates were similar to those experienced in 2019.

That sounds an appalling number – like 125 jumbo jets crashing.  Very tragic.  However, the average number of deaths per week in the UK in 2019 was 12,045.  This is a normal part of life.  You can’t live without dying at some time.

Besides, simply quoting figures of thousands of deaths makes the news sound worse than it might otherwise be.  You also have to take into account the size of the country’s population.

What is significant is the number of deaths as a proportion of the total UK population.  As Hans Rosling has pointed out in his book, this proportion has been going down since records began.  In the UK, the proportion reached an all-time low in 2011 with 0.87% of the population dying.  It has been rising a little since then, which may reflect the annual flu vaccine being ineffective one year, to say nothing of cuts in NHS funding and a worrying rise in obesity.

But if we add the CMI’s figure of 62,500 ‘excess deaths’ on to the 2019 figure for total deaths, and divide the result by the total UK population, you get a total percentage of just under 1.03%.  Bear in mind this is a worst-case scenario.  The CMI acknowledge that a large proportion (some say over 90%) of the deaths attributed to Covid-19 were of people who had some pre-existing medical problem, such as diabetes, obesity or a damaged immune system.  It is entirely possible that some of those may have died this year in any event.

There is also the problem of deaths being treated as caused by Covid-19 when the patient died having tested positive for the virus.  Any doctor will tell you that most men over 80 have prostate cancer, but in the majority of cases the cancer is not active and cannot be said to have caused the man’s death.  The UK also has an unjustified reputation for high numbers of people dying with heart disease.  This has been traced to doctors entering the words ‘myocardial infarction’ on the death certificate when the patient’s heart simply stopped beating.  Statisticians collecting statistics on causes of death were entering this in the box ‘heart disease’ when supplying statistics to the World Health Organisation.

So a patient who dies with Covid-19 does not necessarily die from Covid-19.  The pneumonia he contracted because of his faulty immune system caused by his diabetes (probably caused by his obesity) would have carried him off anyway.  But the doctor, very understandably, puts down ‘Covid-19’ on the death certificate and rushes back to save those patients who are still alive. 

Even assuming the percentage of 1.03% is correct, this still brings us back to the position we were in for every year up to 2000.  We did not have social distancing or face-masks or widely-available flu vaccines then.  We just got on with life and accepted that everyone has to die some time.

On the clear difference between customer service and the quality of books sold

Posted on 04/12/17, filed under Fresh News | No Comments

In September 2017 I took a week’s holiday in the Transylvanian region of Roumania.  I was away for exactly a week.

During that week a customer ordered a book.  By the time I had returned from my holiday the customer had decided that I was not going to send the book and had put in a formal complaint to PayPal, who process card payments for me.  So the business’s email folder was full of automatically-generated emails warning of dire but unspecified consequences.

When I emailed the customer to explain why the book had not been sent, I received a curt reply asking for a refund of her money – which I did instantly.  PayPal, with an obvious sigh of relief, said it was closing its file on the matter.

I decided, being by training a lawyer, that I ought to investigate what the legal position was.  It turns out that a supplier has 28 days within which to fulfil the order, unless the supplier has a different, shorter, period in its own terms and conditions (which we do not).  So we would have been justified in sending the book in the second week and arguing with PayPal that we should not be blacklisted . . .  But that seemed a lot of hassle for a very small point.

I fully accept I may be a bit odd.  If I order a book, I would rather wait eight days and receive a well-packed book in very good condition, than receive the following morning a tatty ex-library book stuffed into an old Tesco carrier bag.

Do I really need something the next day?    Not unless I have been really stupid about missing an important birthday.  You will see time and time again on The Website That Is Intent on World Domination books described with one word (‘Good’), and then lines and lines of guff explaining how wonderful the seller’s customer service is.  So the ‘outstanding’ customer service is very far from being a Unique Selling Point.  Every seller has it, it would appear.

On first editions

Posted on 04/09/17, filed under Fresh News | No Comments

first_edition_fetish

Back in the 1980s I thoroughly annoyed a lot of booksellers by writing an article for the grandly-named Antiquarian Book Monthly Review – the article was entitled ‘Every Book Has a First Edition’.  Those were the days when the mere fact that a book was a first edition was enough to increase its value.  If the book was in fine condition in the original dustwrapper, the sky was the limit.

This produced some totally ludicrous results.  The first book Ian Fleming wrote was an office manual for Kemsley Newspapers.  In the early 1980s at Piccadilly Rare Books we sold a copy for £180 (over £700 in today’s money).  It had no literary merit whatever.

My article pointed out that gullible book collectors had been duped by unscrupulous booksellers into paying far more than the books were actually worth.  Graham Greene publicly disowned his first two novels, saying they were dreadful.  This only had the effect of enhancing their value.  Nobody could establish which of three different bindings was the first printing of Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, so no-one would pay good money for any of them.  The sole criterion was scarceness, and one tiny line on the verso of the title-page.  Nothing else mattered.  As a lot of booksellers made a lot of money from first editions, I was not at all popular.

The illustration above is the cartoon by David Kidd from the front cover of Antiquarian Book Monthly Review of September 1982.  Although the cartoon is excellently drawn, I find it rather depressing.  The book is seen as an object of reverence, and is not being judged by its literary merit or its historical significance. 

It is, however, highly significant that the book (Tolkien’s The Hobbit) was written for children.  As parents know only too well, children do not treat books as adults do.  Children spill milk and orange squash on the pages, and leave biscuit crumbs everywhere.  The book’s dustwrapper will probably be scribbled on and will soon become tatty.  So a mint copy of The Hobbit in the original dustwrapper has almost certainly never been near the person the book was actually written for – and hence its extreme scarcity.