George Bernard Shaw was once so angry with a subeditor that he complained to the newspaper. “I ask you, sir,” Shaw wrote, “to put this man out.” The cause of his fury? The editor had insisted on “correcting” split infinitives. “Set him adrift and try an intelligent Newfoundland dog in his place,” Shaw fulminated, “without interfering with his perfect freedom of choice between ‘to suddenly go’, ‘to go suddenly’ and ‘suddenly to go’.”
This spring a new edition of The Economist’s style guide is published. Many of its changes are of a kind only a copy-editor would notice; but on an issue that has set teeth grinding for centuries, it marks a sea-change that Shaw would have appreciated. It says infinitives may be split.
This is not a story of a high-octane career in a pioneering surgical field; it’s not a memoir filled with blockbusting anecdotes. Instead, it is a gently remarkable book about what it means to be a nurse, what it means to care. It struck me again and again how little we hear from nurses, how quiet their voice is, how poorly represented they are on our bookshelves. All this despite the crucial role they inevitably play in our lives and those of our families. It also struck me how poorly we understand what this role truly involves – even if, like me, you have worked alongside them.
A distinctly post-Brexit novel, it is set in an unnamed city that both is and isn’t London, thick with the atmosphere of the riots of 2011, and the stricken, devastated aura of the days after the Grenfell fire. It is oblique, and bleak: it is never quite clear what has happened or is happening, what is it about our world that has finally broken or overflowed. There is an army, people are being arrested, council blocks have fallen into disrepair. But why, and how?
Between the jokes, which are divided into 23 brief sections, Baum sprinkles light analysis and commentary. She tacitly proposes that what unites and explains the less recent humor in these pages is the outsider status Jews have endured almost everywhere and almost always. Only professional, consummate outsiders could make a joke out of a Jewish panhandler pretending to be Christian next to a confessed Jewish one: The goyim’s dislike of Jews will make them give double to “the Christian.” (This joke — or the Jewish plight it references — had no respect for the Iron Curtain. I heard a version of it from my grandfather.)