John Ryle

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


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.

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.

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 ritual battles with gigantic...

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