The Great Melanie Phillips Disaster
When my book, We Should Know Better, came out, I warned the great Vicky Barnsley of Fourth Estate that she had a real bummer. The Right would like my criticism of state schools, but reject my view that our unique system of educational segregation was largely responsible. The Left would applaud my analysis of private schools while claiming, with careless logic, that state schools were doing fine. I was wrong. After reading the book, Tony Blair asked me to discuss its ideas with his staff, which I did. It was well reviewed in the Independent, the Guardian and the New Statesman, and serialised, to my surprise, in the Daily Mail. The chairman of the independent schools’ Headmasters’ Conference,Tony Evans, also expressed interest. Quite a galère.
Only John Sutherland (LRB, 3 October) fell into the logical trap (state schools are doing fine, segregation is harmful) but then he has an excuse: he has not read the book. I want to spend a utopian five billion on opening independent schools to all, he writes. The figure I gave was one billion, plus the proceeds from the abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme, plus fees that the successful children of rich parents would continue to pay, as they do in university maintenance. The remaining four billion would be spent in state schools, on nurseries for all, smaller classes, higher pay for better teachers, science and technology. Utopia? Then he says I want to raise taxes by three pence to pay for the policy he so wildly misrepresents. Oh dear. Tax rises are specifically ruled out on another skipped page, the money to come from the running down of mortgage tax relief (hinted at by Labour) and the taxation of child benefit (proposed by the Commission for Social Justice).
A switch of spending priorities to education is creeping up the political agenda, as is the problem of segregation. Meanwhile, like the Times and the Daily Telegraph, Sutherland seems happier grazing old pastures. Could it be that, like many of my Tory colleagues, he is just another status quo merchant in disguise?
House of Commons
Replying to John Sutherland’s review of her All Must Have Prizes, Melanie Phillips (Letters, 17 October) lines me up in support of her polemic about falling educational standards. She writes that I told a Daily Telegraph correspondent that ‘standards have declined among applicants’ to the UCL English Department, of which I am admissions tutor and John Sutherland is head.
Even in my gloomier moments (two UCAS forms in a row professing admiration for the novels of ‘Jane Austin’), it would be difficult for me to argue quite this. I have been admissions tutor for about a year, and am in no position to chart the decline over time that would fit my views to the case made in her book. Indeed, I tried to suggest to the Daily Telegraph journalist that discussion of standards too often relied on a person’s sense of how things might once have been, and that this was more often determined by prejudice than by evidence.
I did tell the Daily Telegraph that I have a less optimistic view of the state of English in secondary schools than John Sutherland (which is why he suggested to the journalist that she might want to talk to me). I agree that some of my anxieties would chime with Phillips’s. I mentioned some of the changes in examining methods that seem to have taken place without much widespread discussion (in English, for instance, most A-level candidates now being allowed to take their set texts, annotated if they wish, into the exam). I also observed, from my recent experience, that it seemed possible to obtain an A in GCSE English Language and yet be unable to punctuate properly or construct lucid sentences. I did add that the candidates without these skills were not offered places.
Admissions tutors see all the unsuccessful applications, and those of my comments that match Melanie Phillips’s views applied to these. The standard of the successful applicants seems high to me (although perhaps, twenty years ago, UCL English students were even more wonderful). We do not have to run the kinds of remedial literacy courses that she describes in her book. If competition produces high standards, as Melanie Phillips believes, then she will be glad that competition for places in my department seems fierce, and is becoming fiercer. I am sure that such is the case for many English departments. My worry is that the advantage enjoyed by candidates from independent schools is increasing. This is why, as I told the Telegraph and would have been happy to discuss with her, I was more preoccupied by George Walden’s proposals for breaking the independent/maintained school divide in We Should Know Better, the other book discussed in John Sutherland’s review.
University College London
Edward Said’s rage against the great injustices inflicted on the Palestinians (LRB, 5 September) is, of course, justified, and so is his pessimism over the prospects for peace in the region. But can anyone see a better policy for the future of the Palestinians than that of Yasser Arafat? Despite his many faults – and I do not think I could ever forgive him for the support he gave Saddam Hussein in his attempted genocide of my own people, the Kurds – Arafat had the courage to accept the only deal that grudging Israelis put in front of him in 1993. The alternative would have been to watch, from impotent exile in Tunis, Israel’s continued encroachment on the remaining third of the West Bank until, very soon, there would have been nothing left except a number of Palestinian towns surrounded on all sides by Jewish-owned land.
As a result of last May’s elections in Israel, we may now, in any case, be on the edge of the abyss. Earlier this month, I was present at a discussion with the Israeli Minister for Public Security, Mr Avigdor Kahalani, at the Royal United Services Institute. He said he would resign from the Netanyahu Cabinet if no progress were made with the Palestinians. Yet he also made it clear that his notion of progress was to give the Palestinians only a limited measure of municipal autonomy, with the Israeli Army present outside every Palestinian town, checking the permit of every Palestinian who set foot outside. ‘And he’s one of their “moderates”,’ I had to remind myself. But at least there is the chance that in four years’ time, when the inability of the present government to deliver security is clear to a majority of Israelis, a new Labour Administration may be voted back in power.
As for Arafat being undemocratic, is it not really too much to expect the Palestinians to develop modern institutions overnight when they have never been allowed by various occupying powers to rule themselves? I agree with Said that there is not a single truly democratic state in the whole world of Islam, but the Palestinians would be dependent on Israel and the West for a long time and they might, just might, prove the exception.
Edward Said’s extraordinary response to my questions is revealing and, lamentably, quite troubling (Letters, 17 October). Setting aside the castigation and invective, what does he say? Now substituting a language of explanation for his earlier (and, I trust, continuing) outrage about the suicide bus bombings, he repeats what he told Time before the Israeli election: better Netanyahu and the Likud than Peres and Labour; better the architects of permanent occupation than the negotiators of withdrawal. I guess Said is entitled to this peculiar politics. By comparison, Arafat, the man he calls ‘Papa Doc’, is a rational actor.
Professor Said’s letter also contains an impressively composed recitation of hideous actions, as if a chronicle of horror justifies any specific political stance. Were I to stipulate all he asserts in his jaundiced account of Israeli behaviour, forgo any reminder that Palestinian leaders cast aside many opportunities at co-existence before and after the UN partition plan of 1947, or suppress my (and his) recollection of the Mufti’s wartime support for Hitler, the massacre of children at Maalot, the Olympic slaughter at Munich, the once regular routine of hijacking, bombing and dumping of innocents into the sea, or the recent recruitment and anointment of child-martyrs, Said’s dead-end politics would still be irresponsible.
‘Did that man touch our car?’
Elisa Segrave’s welcome review of The Autistic Spectrum by Lorna Wing (LRB, 17 October) includes an account of her son Nicholas’s diagnosis with Asperger’s Syndrome on his 13th birthday. Segrave relates what appears to have been an astonishing leap of intuition on Nicholas’s part. Looking recently at photographs of his grandmother as a girl, following her own mother’s remarriage, he declared, ‘Your mother was away from love … Gladys wasn’t very nice to her daughter’ – an observation subsequently confirmed by an old friend of the family. I want, with due tentativeness, to query Segrave’s interpretation of Nicholas’s remarks. As the mother of a gifted son with Asperger’s Syndrome who was born in 1966, I can sympathise with the desire to find redeeming features amid the havoc wrought by the condition. Sufferers do manifest ‘splinter skills’ and ‘islets of ability’, notably in such domains as music, chess and mathematics, but it would be surprising indeed to find psychological insights among them.
Segrave mentions that Nicholas had been seeing a child psychoanalyst three times a week for five years, and also that he is a superb mimic. We will never know what took place in all those therapeutic sessions but I suspect that they are the source of Nicholas’s pronouncements about love and failures of niceness. Left to themselves, individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome rarely pass judgment on relationships, detect unspoken meanings or even give expression to their own affective states. Such silences are intrinsic to the condition. But we constantly ask them how they feel and why, and urge them to pour their hearts out, so, in their desire to expedite the interrogation, and with the aid of some advanced echolalia, they try to give us what we seem to want. For this reason, autobiographies by autistic authors which promise first-hand revelations should be read with caution, an eye for editorial interpolations and an ear for the echoes of the voice of the well-intentioned psychotherapist.
The defection of the Serbian Chetnik commanders in 1942 was a serious matter for the Allies: only they, at that time, could have taken effective action against enemy communications with North Africa. They failed to do this, and most of them began to help the enemy instead. This turnabout was a grim blow to the anti-Nazi cause, and led to the British military and political decision, taken initially in January 1943 at prime-ministerial level, to reduce the volume of our arms supply to the Chetniks, and eventually, after long hesitation and various appeals to Chetnik commanders, to cancel all further supplies to them.
The fullest and most reliable account of these matters became available in 1984 with the publication of the relevant volume in the British official history of the Second World War, compiled after free access to documents by F.H. Hinsley and three professional colleagues: British Intelligence in the Second World War, Volume III, Part 1, especially pp. 137ff. Here one may see what really happened, and why. In her letter on the same subject (Letters, 17 October), Jessica Douglas-Home evidently prefers to wander among various mythologies provided by her friends about these painful events. It would be tedious and fruitless to follow her there. Nothing in what she says adds any useful information to the enormous pile of relevant evidence that we have already. Having apparently lost confidence in the post-1941 Chetniks she had previously defended, Mrs Douglas-Home has discovered new heroes in what she terms ‘the non-resistance’, whatever that may have been, as well as the dastardly hand of a few senior British officers, unnamed by her of course, and their ‘Soviet-sympathising agenda’, whatever that may have been and whoever may have promoted it. All this appears to belong to the realm of fantasy and innuendo, of no historical or indeed factual value at all. That war, on the contrary, was a very real and savage affair.
Just as Sartre defended Flaubert against vulgar Marxists who said he was bourgeois (‘but not every bourgeois is Flaubert’), so not every tourist is Perry Anderson. His frankly touristic Korean Diary (LRB, 17 October) is a fine piece in many ways; and so rarely does the world’s 11th biggest economy rate two full pages anywhere that we should be grateful, and I am. Enough to overlook (well, almost) the middle-aged bloke who ogles the girls while likening their parents to spuds, and tells us the trains run on time (so to say). Nor am I too bothered by the odd date that the distinguished historian doesn’t quite get spot-on. Kims Dae-jung and Young-sam split in 1987, not 1988; Beijing and Seoul tied the knot in 1992, not 1991; the next election is in 1997, not 1998.
The real trap for the voyager-voyeur is that Korea is so rich and varied that everyone from the SWP to Alfred Sherman and beyond can find kindred spirits there. It’s a heady experience, with Narcissus never far away. So New Left Review’s éminence grise salutes his alter ego Paik Nak-chung, and envies his sales figures (but everything sells better in Korea). And inevitably, the editor of Student Power, the well-red Penguin Special, revels in a polity where student revolt really does topple governments – or does it? The workers did at least as much: odd for a quondam Marxist to play that down. But not so odd as to say: ‘Even churches were caught up in the contagious energies released by student activism.’ In the second most Christian nation in Asia after the Philippines, it was the churches that bred the student movement, not vice versa.
Finally, there’s reunification (or will be), on which our historical materialist collapses in rampant idealism. He of all people should know that revolutions have winners and losers, and so it will be in Korea. Here as everywhere capitalism has triumphed, while socialism (or a grotesque parody thereof) is dying. All that remains to be settled is the precise manner in which the North will make its historical exit, and to pray it will be peaceful. But that unified Korea will be today’s South Korea writ large, as in Germany, is as plain as day. What else could it be?
Leeds University Korea Project