Not Strong on Facts
SIR: Hilary Wainwright’s logic (Letters, 7 January) still leaves me baffled. She says Labour has nothing to fear from an electoral system which would have banished all majority Labour governments from the history books – and then looks to a future in which ‘socialism’ (not just Labour) goes far beyond the always unattainable 50 per cent to gain ‘the overwhelming majority’. What are we talking about here – 70 per cent, 85 per cent, 99.9 per cent? The only way of gaining access to figures such as these is by Eastern European methods or the use of hallucogenic substances, and I am not sure which of these Ms Wainwright is recommending.
The same peculiar hallmark is present in the discussion of the NUM. It simply will not do, when talking of the NUM’s resources, to attempt to elide away the difference between pre-strike wealth and post-strike poverty by using the deliberately vague phrase, ‘the NUM of the Eighties’. The fact is that before the strike the NUM was, member for member, probably the wealthiest union in the country and that its funds rivalled those of unions many times its size. Of course it is true that it could not afford to keep its whole membership on full strike pay for a year – neither I nor anyone else was suggesting that. What Ms Wainwright refuses to face up to is how truly remarkable it was that, during the coal strike, the NUM leadership appealed to other unions and to all of us, the general public, to help relieve the terrible suffering of the miners’ families by direct donations, while itself giving no such relief. Instead, the leadership used its discretion to waste vast sums on always hopeless and thus quite irresponsible legal antics and to send large sums winging round the European banking system. That same discretion could have been exercised to spend the same money on affording some relief, however slight, to the suffering of NUM members and their wives and children. It is silly to speak as if the NUM rules somehow prevented this: it was purely a matter of discretion how the funds were used. The leadership, in the event, used its discretion to throw the money away.
Ms Wainwright surely also knows how murky and controversial the question of money within the NUM during the strike is and how inadequate it is to pretend that the whole matter can be disposed of by reference to a resolution about the disposition of the salaries of Scargill and his henchmen. For a start, the NUM continued to pay all the tax, national insurance and other contributions of its officials throughout the strike. Moreover, these officials all had access to expense accounts and it was commonly alleged by NUM members that some officials seemed to be almost better-off during the strike than before it. We all remember the press brouhaha over the expensive foreign holiday taken by one NUM official after many months of strike had depleted to misery levels the resources of mere members?
There is also the unhappy fact that very large sums of money were contributed by sympathisers and that the disposition of this money was not always satisfactorily accounted for, giving rise to all manner of recriminations within the union. Perhaps the most remarkable case is that of the very large sum raised by Soviet miners – many of whom contributed a whole day’s pay in support of their British colleagues. The fact that there is no trace at all of this sum in the NUM accounts has led to some extremely bitter questioning, and it would be fair to say that the answers provided by Mr Scargill are far from satisfying even some NUM officials. What is certain is that the money was sent and that it is traceable as far as the French CGT; thereafter the trail goes cold. The secretary of the Soviet miners’ union, when recently in this country, was closely questioned on the matter by darkly suspicious NUM members. He appeared clearly upset and disconcerted at the way in which this money had vanished, apparently for ever, into thin air.
Ms Wainwright is surely too close a political associate of Mr Scargill’s not to be fully aware of certain resemblances to that other entrepreneur of the hard Left, Derek Hatton – he of the BMW with the personalised number plates. She must know that of all the NUM expense accounts, Mr Scargill’s was – and is – the largest and that he retained his chauffeur and large car throughout the strike. (Which other union leader would go from one picket-line fracas to the next in a chauffeur-drive Jaguar? The style is reminiscent of African chieftaincy, Buthelezi-style, or perhaps an Auberon Waugh parody on the English working class. Can anyone who has read Animal Farm avoid a snort of recognition at such behaviour? A grunt, even?) Since the strike Mr Scargill has astonished many of his members who are slowly and painfully digging themselves out of debt by lashing out on a £150,000 house (a sum that buys a palace in West Yorkshire). It is not entirely clear whether this is Mr Scargill’s second or third abode – his previous house does not appear to have been sold and the new one, in which Mr Scargill actually lives, is in the name of his student son-in-law. Mr Scargill has also acquired a flat in the Barbican.
The fact that so unconditional a Scargillite as Ms Wainwright can look hard the other way when the conversation turns to topics such as, well, chauffeur-driven Jaguars is perhaps to be expected. But the real key to the way Ms Wainwright thinks is that she should have been able to write a book in which the miners’ strike looms so large without ever once mentioning the leadership’s refusal to allow a membership ballot; indeed, she condemns another union because it did hold such a ballot. The word ‘Stalinism’ is too often and too loosely thrown around, but here we have a textbook example of what is meant: an unswerving devotion to the Great Leader, including the attribution of all manner of heroic and saintly motives to him, the suppression of key historical facts, with deviationists such as the Nottingham miners simply written out of history (they become entire non-persons for Ms Wainwright), the endless repetition of ideological catch-phrases and a straightforward disrespect for democratic procedure.
Finally, the GLC – where Ms Wainwright is, of course, similarly devoted to another Great Leader. Ms Wainwright suggests that the complete collapse of services in London is not obvious to me because I am, irredeemably, an Oxford don. Actually, if the dire predictions of the GLC leadership really had been borne out – ‘chaos’, ‘utter shambles’, ‘anarchy’ and so on – then maybe it should have been obvious even to someone like me: we’re not talking about the normal, ghastly Thatcherite cuts, after all, but about something closer to Götterdämmerung. Hilary Wainwright’s real problem is not with people like me but with the once-solid Labour voters of London, to whom the GLC’s predictions do not appear to be obviously true either. Had they held such a perception, it is inconceivable that they would have swung further towards the Tories this year while the rest of the country was moving the other way. Had Ken Livingstone’s GLC been anything like the success Ms Wainwright believes, it is inconceivable he would have succeeded in turning one of the safest Labour seats in the country into a marginal. Ms Wainwright is doubtless right not to worry that her ideas may have failed to pass muster with an Oxford don: the fact that the once-Labour working class of Brent feels the same might give her pause for thought.
Magdalen College, Oxford
What Labour must do
SIR: Bryan Gould is too vague when he says that ‘Labour must continue the process of democratisation … and welcome the influence of a wider range of opinion’ (LRB, 7 January). Since democracy is best served by an informed electorate, it would have been more heartening to read some definite proposals. These might have included a repeal of Section Two of the Official Secrets Act, the right of reply (to journalistic falsehoods), the breaking-up of monopolies and foreign ownership in the media, the security of the BBC from political influence and a Freedom of Information Act.
And that ‘wider range of opinion’ must be valued. It is no good bowing to media pressure for an all-smiling, all-nodding chorus line. We are drifting into a condition where open and informed debate, rather than being a precious social possession, is treated as an embarrassment. Labour must stand up for disputation as a normal and healthy process.
SIR: It is not necessary to know anything about Australian literary feuds, close as they may be to Mr Murray’s knuckle or any other portion of his anatomy, to recognise his poem ‘The Liberated Plague’ (LRB, 29 October 1987) for the classic piece of homophobia that it is. In self-defence (Letters, 7 January) Mr Murray disavows any anti-homosexual prejudice, so I suppose we must classify his poem as an instance of ‘liberal’ homophobia. He claims to share Alan Wearne’s concern for ‘victims of Aids’ (who through their own self-help organisations call themselves ‘persons with Aids’). He adds: ‘I was writing not primarily about Aids but about a different sort of plague.’ Intentions are slippery things, and it is really beside the point whether Mr Murray writes in bad faith or is merely self-deceived. We have his poem as a public text.
In a cultural moment in which violent popular prejudice has been incited against gay men through the tabloid press’s designation of Aids as the ‘gay plague’, to entitle a poem ‘The Liberated Plague’ has one overriding effect. It takes the aspiration to being ‘liberated’ voiced by the gay movement and erases its emancipatory dimension by condensing it with the tabloid invention. ‘Liberation’ is a precious word for us, and represents an aspiration voiced also by the women’s movement and numerous national movements. Regardless of Mr Murray’s impeccable liberal professions, the conjoining of the two terms in his title equates gay liberation with gay plague, and adds the further connotation of fascism, as in the poem’s paranoid vision of embracing couples ‘like desperate swastikas’. The editor of LRB, for all his disclaimers, knows perfectly well the title’s target as his editorial comment indicates: ‘Les Murray’s poem is entitled “Liberated Plague”, a more ominous name than “Aphrodite Street” from some points of view.’
Ominous indeed, but what does his omen portend? Nothing less than the poem’s participation in that demonising mentality which converts the thousands killed by the disease into its causes, because of their sexual practices and ethics, of which Mr Murray, like the tabloid press, so violently disapproves. It is sad that it should be necessary to insist, in a journal such as LRB, that neither homosexual practices nor gay liberation cause Aids, as the millions of heterosexuals in Africa infected with the HIV virus, who know neither, tragically exist to testify. Mr Murray claims that his real target is another plague: ‘a certain demeaning sexual ethos which has been dominant in Western society for a generation’, and which threatens, he assures us, children, family life and the three cardinal virtues. His poem makes homosexual love represent this demeaning ethos or plague, not only by its title, but through a consistent pattern of allusion. We have caricatures such as ‘scholars Flaunt and Vaseline’ with their appeal to vulgar homophobic stereotypes.
We might guess that Mr Murray’s target is any sexuality not defined by family ties and the reproduction of children. Traditional moralistic thinking like his reduces the human capacities for desire, pleasure and love to the Manichaean polarities of ‘grace’ and ‘meat’. It persistently views sexuality outside familial constraints as a threat to them. The same unthinking movement that sees such sexualities as meat, plague and fascism is repeated in Mr Murray’s letter: ‘this ethos is now less seductive than it was, but efforts to keep it going still drive many unfortunates into the grip of Aids.’ The ideological reflex that condenses alternative sexual ethics and practices with disease is such a potent carrier of anxiety, fear and loathing that it blinds its ‘victims’ to the most obvious and repeatedly stated facts about the disease. The HIV virus is a blood-borne virus, not a venereal disease. It has no intrinsic connection with homosexual acts or any sexual acts. The virus knows no distinctions: neither homosexual, heterosexual, haemophiliac, married or unmarried. Faced with HIV, Mr Murray, there are indeed no virtuous metabolisms.
The author defends his deliberate choice of ‘doggerel’, but it is surely here, in its jaunty sing-song rhythms and self-congratulatory sneering tone, so close to gloating, that the poem’s real offensiveness is located, even more than in its borrowing of the tropes and images of a populist homophobic sentiment. I cannot help being struck both in poem and letter by the mechanism of projection, which classically characterises paranoid thought, and which constructs in the image of the hated Other a dark mirror of its own passions. For if it is ‘an ugliness of spirit’ that we are seeking, a spirit more bullying and sneering than any Aphrodite, can we find anything uglier than those opening and closing lines: ‘So it is back to window shopping on Aphrodite Street’? And what of the unforgivable sneering reference to the deaths of so many thousands of young gay men in their twenties and thirties, historically the first generation of homosexuals to have freed themselves collectively from the millennia-old hatreds and taboos on same-sex love? ‘When you look for that generation/half of it isn’t there,’ Mr Murray sings. By a perverse twist of thought, gay liberation is called to answer for the very ethos of commercialised and commodified sex that it has opposed and criticised from its beginning.
There are indeed moral signs to be read here, but they are not the HIV virus as the scourge of a permissive society. Rather they are the uses made of it to exact the old punishments, to inflict the old penalties: the activities of the moral ventriloquists like our poet – hanging about Aphrodite Street if only in imagination and waiting for the next one to drop – who seek to animate the tragic facts of Aids with their own hate-filled voices and visions.
Department of English, University of Warwick
SIR: Susanna Merry (Letters, 10 December 1987) has surprised and puzzled me with her comments on my short story ‘Home Place’. It came as a shock to learn that the horse in my story, like Lawrence’s St Mawr, is ‘used as a metaphor for human emotions: a cipher of the resentment of a farmer’s son for his father’. I certainly had not intended this. I always thought of the horse as just a horse. Ms Merry’s habit of equating her absurd interpretations with my intentions and then chastising me for failing to realise them satisfactorily has me nonplussed. Perhaps her careless reading is the cause. For instance, she blithely states that the father’s moral blackmail of the son occurs the night before the old man’s death. The story makes it perfectly clear that this happens the first night Ronald MacLean returns to his father’s house, months before the old man is killed. Now this is a crucial point, since the blackmail is at the root of all that subsequently transpires, including the son’s methodical and systematic desolation of the farm which the old man loves.
Yet Ms Merry, blinders firmly in place, keeps her critical eye fixed on the horse, ingeniously regarding it as the purveyor of all sorts of fatuous notions: ‘The idea that even (or only) the horsey consciousness knows that the only land-hoarding farmer worth considering is a dead one.’ The problem may be compounded by her insistence on trying to make a new story conform to a work with which she is already familiar – in this case, one of Lawrence’s. After all, someone is harmed by a horse in his tale and someone is harmed by a horse in mine. If Lawrence’s horse is a metaphor, mustn’t this horse be a metaphor too? I am only glad ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’ wasn’t fresh in Ms Merry’s mind when she wrote her letter.
But not only does my horse fail to pass muster as a metaphor, it fails as a real horse also. Maybe, I tell myself, Susanna Merry’s experience of ‘green, rough-broke’ cattle ponies is more extensive than mine. Still, mightn’t she be a little less categorical in her pronouncements? ‘No horse will freeze, then buck, then bolt.’ No horse? Ever? I once rode a horse that did exactly that.
And although Ms Merry wishes to scorn the notion of a bucking, bolting horse she happily abandons this position and contradicts herself when she volunteers an explanation for why my bucking, bolting horse finally stops doing what she has said it would never do. ‘More likely the startled creature galloped until it felt sure there was enough space between it and the source of its fear.’ This explanation she offers as more plausible than my own. But at this point the only possible source of the animal’s continuing fear is a man attached to it with a length of wire. If one stopped and thought about it, one could see that no amount of galloping could put any distance between it and the source of its fear. Unless the wire breaks (which it doesn’t) the space would remain constant.
She finds it unbelievable that the old man ‘knows this animal for a spirited beast yet he uses it on a job that will require a loose rein.’ This ignores the fact that the old man did not want to use this particular horse. He wanted to use the mare but couldn’t catch it. Still, why did he run the risk of riding the gelding? Because, as I took some pains to suggest in the story, Gil MacLean is obsessed with the farm. Ashamed of his son’s neglect of the fences, he feels compelled to mend them. Needing a horse for the job, he settles for what he can get. But does he really require a horse? Ms Merry thinks not. ‘The bale of wire which can be fitted over a saddle horn must be so small that one would hardly have thought it would be worth attempting the job from a horse anyway.’ First of all, she ought to keep in mind that Gil MacLean is not building a fence, he’s patching one. Wire likely to be sufficient for this purpose can be carried in a coil looped over the horn of a Western-style saddle. My father has been doing it all his life. Second, Gil MacLean has to locate the breaks in a fence enclosing 640 acres. In the opening paragraph of the story he is described as ‘tottering around on legs stiff as stilts’. In the part of Saskatchewan where the story is set fence lines often run through bush and up and down hills where a truck cannot go. Either this old man totters four miles over rough country packing wire, wire-stretchers, hammer, staples, fencing pliers etc, or he rides a horse. And if it is necessary to stretch wire out any appreciable distance, it is likely that he does so using the strength of the horse. But Ms Merry is confident that she knows what farmers in this part of the world would do and wouldn’t do, would think and wouldn’t think. She seems satisfied that she understands ‘the well-known type of plains farmer out West somewhere’. The precision of the characterisation alerts us to what a firm grip she has on the ‘type’.
Finally, she takes exception ‘to it was bad luck to get tangled up in the wire.’ She is having none of this. ‘It was more than that. It was impossible,’ she rejoins. This conclusion seems to be based on the properties of a variety of barbed-wire which I find unrecognisable and the assumption that it is being payed out from the saddle horn when it isn’t. In any case, none of her arguments would carry much weight with the man I know who did get tangled in wire in just this way.
Ms Merry ought not to assume every new story is trying to be an old one, or that whatever she knows of British farming and British farmers provides a fool-proof standard of believability when applied to conditions thousands of miles away.
SIR: There is a parasite multiplying in the bowels of your organ. How it took hold I cannot remember – perhaps I was not yet born. This parasite converts intellectual debate into a glutinous compound of prejudice and abuse. It excretes intolerable boredom. The host/victim eventually suffers death by column inches. The name of this parasite is ‘Anti-Anti-Racism’. A correspondectomy is the only known cure.
SIR: Me and the lads have been wintering down here in Morocco, and can thoroughly recommend the kebabs. More to the point, we have been trying out the Rupert Brooke rope-trick (Letters, 15 October 1987) in more propitious circumstances. We are obliged to inform John Bayley that even diving into warm water before a bevy of Club Med stunners while dreaming of nuns in naughty nickers has zero effect on the cut of the jib. If, as Professor Bayley observed, sex is mostly in the head, then our conclusion must be that Rupert Brooke had a pretty funny old head.
Hotel Palais Jamai, Fez
SIR: Bruno Nightingale raises (sic) a question which has troubled us in this hemisphere, despite its warmer waters. It does seem from our studies that Brooke must have enjoyed some submarine assistance during the performance of his most remarkable party trick. Could it be that Wilfrid Gibson may have been near to a discovery of the hidden element when he recalled Brooke in the following terms?
I do not understand
I only know
That, as he turned to go
And waved his hand,
In his young eyes a sudden glory shone.
We can only wish Mr Nightingale all the best in his search for the secret.