Third Way, Old Hat
Ross McKibbin is right to question the empty rhetoric of the Third Way (LRB, 3 September), but his own thinking is old hat. He implies that today’s economy is little different from that of 1931 and that we need to relearn a few simple lessons. Rather than parade his Old Labour prejudices, perhaps he could explain just how the lessons of Britain’s economic and monetary policy in the Twenties are relevant to us in 1998. Has he not noticed the change in the levels of taxation and of transfer payments in the intervening period? Or the fact that more than twice Britain’s annual income is now traded in London in one form or another every day? Or that the main cause of death is heart disease not TB, as I believe it still was in 1931? He asks why no one today believes that the best way of solving a social problem (when he really means poverty) is to throw money at it. If only life was so simple. He doesn’t seem to have appreciated the universal truth of human behaviour that Mrs Thatcher knew very well: no one likes paying taxes. Furthermore, the more tax levied on us to transfer to poorer people, the more entitled we feel to some of that money.
And what about Europe? McKibbin writes as if we were an island entire unto ourselves. An independent central bank is part of the price we have to pay to allow our entry into the single currency. In this respect, the Government is very New indeed. Does McKibbin believe that joining the single currency is even worse than giving up power over interest rates? Or does he agree with the now apparently orthodox view among Euro sceptic Conservatives that a little bit of inflation is good for us and that we can easily survive with ‘more flexibility’ outside this new currency area?
Kingston on Thames
Ben Pimlott’s conclusion (LRB, 3 September) about Tony Crosland’s ministerial career – great guy, good thinker, hopeless minister – is, I suspect, a by-product of the consistent denigration of Crosland by the Jenkins pro-Europe camp which never forgave his mild Euroscepticism. The description of his record at Education could not be more inaccurate. Legislative enforcement of comprehensive education would have caused endless bickering with local councils; encouraging them to eliminate eleven-plus selection through a range of different mechanisms on a voluntary basis achieved a rapid cross-party consensus with such astonishing momentum that Mrs Thatcher, when she became Education Minister in 1970, could do nothing to stem the tide. Pimlott is also wrong to say that Crosland was ‘culpable’ in the failure to abolish public schools. Some public schools had wanted a measure of integration in the aftermath of the Second World War, which had hit their finances very hard; but by 1965, with new laboratories built for them gratis by British industry, they were in an immensely powerful economic position once more. The attempt of the Public Schools Commission to integrate them by threatening their charitable status was a nice try but never a runner. Neither local councils nor the public schools themselves wanted any truck with integration. All the postwar ‘one nation’ idealism had dissipated and Britain’s educational apartheid was already re-set in concrete. It is true Crosland disliked the Open University, partly because Jennie Lee, with her exclusive access to Wilson, was using it to eat into his own education budget. But the polytechnics, which he did invent, have just as big a claim (many would say a far bigger one) in terms of access and curriculum development to be ‘the greatest innovation in tertiary education of the age’. No Labour minister since the war has a better record of opening up opportunities to those who would otherwise have been denied them and acting as an advocate for an inclusive education system – not just with mumbled phrases about social exclusion but with a personal integrity which is both refreshing and instructive to look back on today.
Settle, North Yorkshire
I had wondered whether John Sturrock would reply to the (initial) nine irate, if not stupefied letter-writers appalled at his apparent defence of French ‘social science’. I now see that he did so quite promptly, with his appreciation (LRB, 20 August) of that most stout symbol of Britishness, W.G. Grace. Surely I am hardly the only reader to hear the editorial chuckle as that selection was put together – and so soon. Confound them. But, in his fetching review of the Grace biography, Sturrock unwittingly displays the difficulty of cross-cultural observation. He hesitates in suggesting an Australian fast bowler’s apology to Grace in 1896 after delivering a bumper was not necessarily sincere. An Australian, on the contrary, would instantly know, with a smile, what ‘Sorry, Doctor, she slipped’ meant: an apology that was in no way an apology.
John Sturrock (LRB, 16 July) is surely right to remind us that literary discourse, because it deals with the metaphorical, is itself subject to metaphorical exaggeration. This is Keats’s ‘fine excess’, and one of the nicely old-fashioned things literary theory of the past twenty years has done is remind us of this ineradicable literariness: it could be said that almost every word of Roland Barthes – an exceptionally fine critic – is exaggeration. One hardly ever believes Barthes. But it is difficult to see how Luce Irigaray’s statement, that E=mc2 is a ‘sexist’ equation, can be included in this category. To say that ‘Melville is always Gnostic’ is a pardonable exaggeration, and we pardon it in part because it is a truthful fiction about a set of truthfully fictional texts – a metaphor about metaphor. But E=mc2 is not a metaphor, though it is a representation. For as Thomas Nagel has argued in a different context, against Richard Rorty, E=mc2 is not a representation of another representation: it is ‘a representation of a physical element’. Anyone who practises science, or who grew up with scientists around them (my father was a zoologist), knows that science simply cannot be practised – cannot even be started – in a world according to Irigaray.
Terence Hawkes announces (Letters, 20 August) with hilarious assurance that Sokal and Bricmont are deluded and simple-minded about the difference between discourse and the ‘facts’ that discourse represents. Well, we can take our pick between the entire scientific community on one side, or Hawkes on the other. I suspect that Sokal and Bricmont are perfectly well aware that there is no ‘simple’ separation of facts and discourse: what scientist is not aware of this? Nevertheless, that we can only approach the physical world via our representations of it does not mean that the physical world does not exist and has no laws independent of those representations. This is like saying music does not exist because we can only play it on musical instruments. Of course, music is a representation, and it is a reality. This is elementary, yet, as Patrick McGuinness suggests in the same issue, thousands of perfectly decent literary critics, such as Hawkes, have spent years of their time arguing against it. By all means, if it makes him happy, let Terence Hawkes believe that Shakespeare’s literary power is just ‘one of the stories we tell ourselves’, in Rorty’s parlance (along with, oh, Beethoven’s so-called ‘greatness’); but cancer and the circulation of the blood and the wing mechanism of the stick insect (my father’s wonderfully specific PhD thesis) and E=mc2 are not only stories.
The Unrewarded End
Many an old comrade must have delighted in V.G. Kiernan’s review of the two most recent accounts of the demise of Communism in Britain (LRB, 17 September). Mixed emotions of joy, nostalgia and embarrassment are conjured by those memories of far-off days when Hitler and Franco were the clearly defined enemies, when Shaw and the up-and-coming Michael Foot argued about the merits of Mussolini, when capitalism was represented by such benign figures as Baldwin, Chamberlain, Daladier and Roosevelt, when Fabians, forward-looking Liberals and trade-union activists held the land of Stalin and the Stakhanovites in undisguised esteem and there was no higher honour than to be a soldier in the International Brigade.
My uncle Jim (bless him!) had served his apprenticeship as a boilermaker with Harry Pollitt and the two men remained lifelong friends. Thus, at a very tender age I was introduced to the charismatic figure who was never without his collapsible soap-box, erecting it wherever a few working men were gathered together and fixing them with his lustrous black eyes. His voice resonated for miles; he could fill the Albert Hall or the Stratford Empire. I couldn’t say next morning what he had said but I remembered the effect he had on his audience. With what tedium afterwards did we, the mere mortals of the movement, sit and listen to bleary-eyed proletarian scholars in suburban terraces lecturing us on dialectical materialism.
It’s a pity that many of those larger-than-life figures seem not to have found a place in the memories of authors or reviewer. What about the fascinating, garrulous Claud Cockburn and his Week that kept the flag flying in the Party’s darkest days, and his non-stop, irreverent story-telling, lapped up by young journalists like myself amid the spit and sawdust of the Cheshire Cheese or in the bar of the City Road Eagle? Or the ever reliable Bill Rust, better known than Campbell as the editor of the Daily Worker, and the legion of journalists who served under both men, becoming favourites of the Fleet Street barons and usually ending up as the PR men of capitalist industry?
A Belated Encounter
Andrew Hillier (Letters, 3 September) draws attention to the ‘wealth of material in terms of letters and diaries’ relating to East Asia in private ownership in the UK and enquires about ways of making these papers better known. During the Seventies Noel Matthews and Doreen Wainwright compiled A Guide to Manuscripts and Documents in the British Isles relating to the Far East, published in 1977. The School of Oriental and African Studies has, for some years now, been building up a large accumulation of private papers relating to China and is always interested in hearing from those looking for a suitable place to deposit such papers. The Library holds papers of a number of leading officers of the Chinese Maritime Customs service, including Sir Robert Hart and Sir Frederick Maze; of China consuls such as Sir Challoner Alabaster, Sir Alwyne Ogden and P.D. Coates; of business firms working in China (John Swire & Sons); of diplomats (Sir John Addis) and bankers (Sir Charles Addis). SOAS is particularly strong in the archives of British missionary societies, including the London Missionary Society which sent its first missionary (Robert Morrison) to China in 1807 and the China Inland Mission, founded by James Hudson Taylor (1832-1905). There are papers on schools founded by the British in China such as Chefoo School and Tientsin (Tianjin) Grammar School and a vast range of material relating to the introduction of Western medicine in China. These papers are available for consultation, in a purpose-built reading room, by all those who can demonstrate a serious need to use them. For further details consult our website, or contact the archivists.
School of Oriental and African Studies,
Russell Square, London WC1
How It Is
St Augustine said ‘do not despair, for one thief was saved; do not presume, for one thief was damned’ a little before Beckett (LRB, 17 September).
Scaynes Hill, West Sussex