Clones, Darwin’s granddaughter and a popular politician

Reading about Britain’s first cloned dog today reminded me of what the celebrated literary critic, Prof John Carey, said at the splendid Cambridge Literary Festival last weekend where he was giving his new book, The Unexpected Professor, a plug.

He was asked to name his favourite contemporary author and the reply he gave, this lover of Milton and Shakespeare, was not what I expected. One of the books he singled out for praise was called Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro.

It is about human cloning, describing how life has a sell-by date, humans have a shelf life and death arrives in accordance with somebody else’s schedule. You are a body to be plundered and mined for parts. Prof Carey said while cloning seemed horrifying, it was probably not impossible. Does today’s news about Winnie the dachshund (pictured) demonstrate that what is science fiction today could really happen in the near future?

I haven’t read the book, but I saw the film and it was the most upsetting film I have ever seen. I found it difficult to watch characters I liked “die” in such a chilling way, particularly as they were young and good looking. For those interested, this is how Winnie the dachshund was cloned:

The process involves obtaining live cells from a living dog or a dog five days after it has died.

Dogs that have similar ovulation time are selected as egg donors and surrogate mothers.

Eggs are collected from the egg donor through a procedure called ‘flushing’ and the nuclei of the eggs, which contain DNA of the egg donor, is removed.

Then donor cell is then injected into the nucleated egg and the two cells are ‘fused’ together.

This fusion procedure produces a cloned embryo that is transferred into a surrogate dog.

The whole process takes less than a day but comes with a hefty price tag, at around $100,000 or £63,000 to clone one dog.

I went to a dozen events at the literary festival and the most popular figure I saw, the author who aroused the loudest cheer, was Labour politician Alan Johnson. His story about his impoverished early life was a big success in his book, This Boy. 

He was keenly lobbied with questions on political issues. When asked if he would return to the front benches if Labour won the next general election, he made it quite clear that his ministerial days were over, saying he had enjoyed writing his autobiography, and that a sequal would be published later this year, Please Mr Postman.

“That’s a shame,” could be heard whispered by his many disappointed fans.

Johnson told the audience how he had suggested to another politician that he should write his memoirs too after the man suddenly burst into floods of tears while talking about his life to him. Johnson told him that writing it down would be cathartic. Let’s see if he takes his advice.

I wanted to end this post by writing about the delightful and enchanting Gwen Raverat and her special book, Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood. Gwen’s fabulous book needs little promotion as it has been in print since 1952. Her grandson, William Pryor, and actress Anne Harvey, unveiled the extraordinary life of Charles Darwin’s granddaughter. She was a friend of Rupert Brookes and Virginia Woolfe, and a member of the Bloomsbury set. She made her name as a wood engraver and artist, but was also an accomplished, if not modest writer, and could not have foreseen that her book would still be read more than 60 years later.

She had written to Walter de la Mare asking for his views on her book, saying: “I can’t be bothered to write it, unless it’s good enough to publish. I am afraid that what I have written may be too flippant and rather odious, and I would like to know what some outside literary person feels about it.”

de la Mare’s response was immediate and positive and when Gwen was 66, she had finished the text and most of the drawings for Period Piece. Later that year she had a massive stroke that paralysed her down her left side. Nevertheless, the book was published on 10 October, 1952 at one guinea. It was an immediate success, with the TLS reviewer declaring: “Mrs Raverat is not a Darwin for nothing!”

This is one book I am looking forward to reading. I wonder if John Carey has read it too.



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