In his piece on the history of the National Health Service and its imminent prospects (LRB, 2 July), Richard Horton tells us that ‘a dramatic improvement in the standards of hospital and high-technology medicine to match those found, for example, in the US could be achieved easily only by discarding the principles of universal, comprehensive and free health care.’ This zero-sum game approach to healthcare is all too typical when the problems of the NHS come up for discussion, and it’s high time it was abandoned. The fact that many Americans can get very advanced medical treatment when they need it, and the fact that 40 million other, poorer Americans don’t have health insurance, and will get either inferior or no treatment, are not connected by economic logic: they are connected by a failure of political will and by an apparent withering of the social conscience that should be arguing for reform. Setting the terms of debate in this country in the stark terms favoured by Horton, as if the high-technological and the free and universal were inevitably opposed, and as if no middle way were feasible between them, is the opposite of helpful. We should simply be asking that the divide between the best care available and the worst be made as narrow as possible, and that if we’re going to compare standards of treatment we do so between different parts of one country, not between this country and others.
The Lao way with water goes beyond the fun and games described by Benedict Anderson (LRB, 18 June). Soon after taking power, the Communist Government decided to erect outdoor loudspeakers, the better to harangue the masses. The proletarians entrusted with the task carefully tilted all the megaphones slightly upwards. At the first monsoon the megaphones filled with rain, drowning the propaganda for good. Since then the authorities have wisely left the people in peace.
Shipley, West Yorkshire
While agreeing with much that Richard Poirier says about Walt Whitman (LRB, 4 June), including the importance of ‘mess’ and the topical presence of allusions to masturbation, I cannot buy his reading of ‘life-lumps’ as ejaculated gobs of sperm, in spite of the suggestion of the ‘ambushed womb’ of the future in the next line. Surely the reference is to such common phrases as ‘to take one’s lumps’, meaning to receive life’s hard knocks. Whitman is saying, self-sufficiently, that his is poetry of experience and, therefore, that he has little need for the approbation of religion or the press.
Internationalist and Revolutionary
Not being old enough to remember the events of 1968 I had to strain my imagination to reconcile Jenny Hinton’s assertion (Letters, 18 June) that the police beat up demonstrators, who just happened to turn up armed with razor blades, with the statement in her very next sentence that self-defence on the part of the police was impossible because their arms were linked.
The 1968 ‘revolutionary situation’ in Britain did not die ‘because Tariq Ali hadn’t decided what to do … next’, as Jenny Hinton claims, for the simple reason that there was no revolutionary situation in Britain in 1968. There most certainly was in Vietnam, France, Czechoslovakia, the USA and elsewhere, but over here radicals were basking in reflected glory from abroad. Why else are ex-radicals (and just about everyone else) in this country so nostalgic about the Sixties? Real revolutionary situations are grim and brutal and do not lend themselves readily to nostalgia. Americans have little affection for the decade – for them it means Vietnam and serious civil strife at home – they get their warm glow from harking back to the Fifties.
Our days of struggle came in the Seventies, when student radicalism (which did not die out in 1974, as many seem to think), along with punk anarchy and large-scale working-class militancy, had some tougher battles on its hands. In the Sixties students occupied university buildings: in the Seventies trade-union action brought down governments. In the Sixties, the establishment was ‘rattled’, as Christopher Hitchens says (LRB, 4 June): in the Seventies it was in the throes of paranoia – Special Branch infiltration and MI5 ‘burgling and bugging’, while plots involving private armies and political coups were hatched and organised fascism stomped the streets. In Northern Ireland there was civil war and counter-insurgent military action on a scale not seen in the British Isles for decades. The revolutionary situation ‘died’ when the Winter of Discontent of 1978-79 failed to convert working-class militant action into any kind of political programme (much as in 1926). It wasn’t all flared trousers and tank-tops in the Seventies, any more than the Sixties was all Carry On films and Engelbert Humperdinck.
Christopher Hitchens rants beautifully in his review of memoirs of the Sixties, but his opening claim that the My Lai massacre was an act of policy is not substantiated. On the one hand, to assert that American top brass were in the air above the scene does not prove that they gave their assent to the horror; on the other hand, to make such wild emotional claims captures the street spirit of the Sixties. Mr Hitchens is in tune with those times.
One of the Lads
Mary Beard, in her review of Anthony Birley’s Hadrian: The Restless Emperor (LRB, 18 June), does not mention Marguerite Yourcenar’s Mémories d’Hadrian, first published in Paris in 1951, or its sensitive translation into English by Grace Frick in collaboration with Yourcenar, published in 1955. As the author put it in her Note, ‘a reconstruction of a historical figure and of the world of his time in the first person borders on the domain of fiction, and sometimes of poetry; it can therefore dispense with formal statements of evidence for the historical facts concerned. Its human significance, however, is greatly enriched by close adherence to the facts.’ She goes on to consider her sources on eight pages. Her intention was to ‘approach inner reality, if possible, through careful examination of what the documents themselves afford’. Having continued to enjoy Memoirs of Hadrian as autobiography, I would despair, in the absence of significant fresh source material (manifestly not available to Birley), of trying to improve on it in a biography.
It is surely inexcusable that Lord Runciman he should have permitted himself the entry under 9 February in his Diary (LRB, 4 June). Here is yet another luminary of the English ruling class expressing his admiration for that ‘remarkable man’ Enoch Powell. And smiling approvingly at the way in which that perhaps remarkable but undoubtedly horrible man ‘trounced his left-leaning discussants’. One wonders if ‘trouncing’ turned out to mean showing them how wrong they were in supposing the worthy Powell to be a repellent racist, and wrong also, it may be, in not seeing the irrefutable rightness of his proposed policy for the repatriation of black Britishers. That Powell was indeed such a racist is borne out within a couple of lines, when Runciman tells his strikingly unpleasant little tale about Powell’s rudeness to a black waitress. By this stage of the old buffer’s reminiscences, however, I had given him up for lost.
Stave, Staved, Stove
Charles Nicholl says of Count Francesco Cenci (LRB, 2 July) that he had ‘his head stoved in’. The verb is ‘to stave (in)’, with past tense and participle ‘staved (in)’ or ‘stove (in)’, so: ‘had his head stove in’. There is a verb ‘to stove’, meaning ‘to heat in an oven’, which does have past tense and participle ‘stoved’. I haven’t met this before, but there is a parallel with ‘to heave (in sight)’, with past tense and particple ‘heaved’ or ‘hove’. The form ‘hoved (in sight)’ instead of ‘hove (in sight)’ has recently appeared more than once (in the Guardian). Presumably we don’t see ‘droved’ for ‘drove’ (or ‘drived’ for that matter) because this particular strong verb is in very common use.