John Ryle

John Ryle a journalist and anthropologist, is the author of Warriors of the White Nile.

Zero Grazing

John Ryle, 5 November 1992

Seventy-four years ago a viral pandemic began in America, most likely on a pig farm in Iowa. Fifteen months later it had killed over eighteen million people, 1 per cent of the world’s population, as many as died in two world wars, almost ten times as many as have died in a decade of Aids. The virus, transmitted by airborne mucus and saliva, spread via coughs and sneezes. In San Francisco and other American cities public health officials warned against all body contact, including shaking hands; ordinances were issued forbidding citizens from appearing in public places without face masks. Possibly because of such measures there were only a few thousand deaths in San Francisco during the first year of the pandemic, but elsewhere, including Europe, the toll was much higher. In Alaska and Central Africa and Oceania entire communities were wiped out. In India, it is estimated, the virus claimed twelve million victims – 4 per cent of the population.

Kiss and tell

John Ryle, 28 June 1990

The fascination of other people’s letters and diaries lies in the fact that what seems most private in us is what we have most in common. This is also one of the discoveries of love: love letters, therefore, are over-determined in their revelatory banality. The intimacies of others may be embarrassing, but they can never be entirely uninteresting. They put us in mind of our own secret memories; we measure our experience against theirs. And if the sentiments ring true, we steal the words.

World’s End

John Ryle, 13 October 1988

European and American imperial expansion carries with it an apocalyptic strain in which the march of empire is identified with the coming of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Last Days. According to this millenial view, the prospect of the Christian message finally being heard in every part of the world brings mankind near to the end of time, a moment predicted in the Book of Revelation. It comes when the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19 to the Apostles is fulfilled, when disciples have been made among all peoples. At this point there appears ‘a great multitude … from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues … crying out with a loud voice “Salvation belongs to our God” ’. These events usher in the new heaven and earth foreseen by St John where righteousness reigns and death is no more.

Chronicle of an Epidemic

John Ryle, 19 May 1988

There is no good news about Aids. With a total of 85,000 cases reported at the beginning of this year the World Health Organisation estimate of the true figure is nearer 150,000. Their global estimate for HIV infection is between five and ten million. Most HIV-positive individuals have no symptons and don’t know they are infected: but the majority of them – possibly all of them – will eventually develop Aids and die; in the meantime, of course, they may infect anyone they have sex with and any children they bear.’

Least said, soonest Mende

John Ryle, 4 December 1986

The Mende are a forest-dwelling West African people, numbering about a million, one of the two principal ethnic groups in Sierra Leone. They owe their existence to the 16th-century diaspora of the Mande-speaking inhabitants of the Mali Empire and the incorporation by these conquering bands of a number of small coastal tribes. Mende history until the colonial era is one of raiding and slave-holding, their economy is agricultural and their traditional religion the veneration of ancestors and nature divinities under the aegis of a creator god. They do not figure largely in ethnographic literature, nor in accounts of African art, though their highly polished black wooden masks are found in many collections. Radiance of the Waters, in fact, is only the second book to be written about them (the other is by Kenneth Little, an anthropologist whose The Mende of Sierra Leone first appeared in 1951).

Being on top

John Ryle, 20 February 1986

What is more important: is it the project of understanding why sexual desire is, or has become, a problem for us like no other, fraught with particular anxiety and special perplexity; or is it the task of establishing – maintaining, perhaps – principles according to which this desire can be regulated, guided, temporised? The change in relations between the sexes and the concomitant change in relations between members of the same sex, the double alteration that has come over us in the last two or three generations makes a certain kind of intellectual investigation possible for the first time. The impure hush has ended; the tongues of desire have been freed. Texts that were formerly read selectively, through a haze of anxiety, or feverishly perused for the legitimation of proscribed longings have at length entered ordinary scholarly discourse.

The Coup in Sudan

John Ryle, 2 May 1985

In Africa the fall of a tyrant does not always presage better times. Worse things have happened in Uganda since the overthrow of Idi Amin – even worse than happened under his regime. Imperial autocracy in Ethiopia was succeeded by a military dictatorship which has proved equally repressive and a great deal bloodier. In countries where political life has been stifled, traditional leadership undermined and educated people wiped out or driven into exile, there may not be the wherewithal to establish representative government of any kind. This is not the case in the Sudan. There are all too many people waiting to form a government. President Nimeiri’s 16 years in power were characterised more by political confusion and economic mismanagement than by outright repression. The executions and amputations of the last two years were the last stratagem of a demented Machiavel who thought, perhaps, that he could safeguard both his soul and his worldly power by playing the Islamic card.’

Dennis Nilsen, or the Pot of Basil

John Ryle, 21 February 1985

Murderers are frequently reported by acquaintances to be civil, diligent, pleasant in manner, if a little reserved, normal in appearance, cultivated to a degree, kind to animals and, with certain fatal exceptions, to their fellow human beings. If such characteristics were grounds for suspicion, Dennis Nilsen, who strangled and dismembered 14 or 15 youths in North London over a period of five years, would have been rounded up with the rest of us. But there were no grounds for suspecting anyone of being guilty of these murders, for until the grim day in February two years ago when a plumber found human remains in the sewer of the house where Nilsen lived in Muswell Hill there was no indication that any crime had even been committed. The victims were vagrant youths whom nobody missed, rent boys, no-hopers, waifs of the West End. They were seldom even reported missing. No wonder they went home with him. When they disappeared, nobody cared, except, perhaps, Dennis Nilsen.


Sign of Maturity

23 June 1994

Is the number of human beings who are dead greater than the number who are alive? Jenny Diski (LRB, 23 June) asks an important question. The answer, by most estimates, is no. For the first time in human history the living outnumber the dead. In the last few decades the scales have shifted: now we outweigh the ancestors. This may be why we are in so much trouble.
Jon Elster has got his signals slightly crossed. It is only at night in Brazil, when the roads are less congested, that drivers routinely cross red lights. The rationale for this is partly the fear of highway robbery: but mostly it is impatience. Drivers do not simply run the lights: they treat the red signal as a caution instead of a halt sign, as if it were flashing amber. Vehicles coming the other...

Most aggressive

7 December 1989

In his review of Redmond O’Hanlon’s In Trouble Again (LRB, 7 December 1989), Mark Ford speaks of a journey of exploration ‘in search of a remote and ferocious tribe called the Yanomami … reputedly one of the most aggressive peoples on earth’. The Yanomami, according to the reviewer, ‘are said to’ practise female infanticide; their young men engage in bloody...


6 December 1984

SIR: General Gordon – who ‘kept order’ in the Sudan as a whole for just three years – could not, pace Mr MacGregor-Hastie (Letters, 18 July), have spoken of the ‘Christian and animist’ South since at his death Christian missionary activity had barely begun there and ‘animist’ had not yet become an odd-job word for tribes outside the influence of world...

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