What has Labour done?
The Poverty Lobby discredits itself even in benevolently neutral eyes when it goes in for hysterical exaggeration. Thus Ross McKibbin (LRB, 20 July) spoils his own case when he writes that ‘in Britain … income inequalities are now at late 19th-century levels.’ It is certainly true that since those days the educating classes have taken a gigantic knock relative to, say, hairdressers, but how on earth can McKibbin be so sure about the relative inequalities of the late Victorian age, given that the statistics are so inadequate? The British Army in the Boer War had to turn down a quarter of volunteers because they were physically too feeble, from malnutrition; the architecture of British towns tells its own story: the townhouses of the aristocracy and the plutocracy in Mayfair (one is now the Dorchester) or the middle-class fortresses of, say, Pollokshields or Kelvinside in Glasgow had to be kept going by an uncountable host of badly-paid domestic servants – a tenth of the adult population, if you could count them. And what of the millions of penniless Irish or Eastern European immigrants, crowding into the Jack the Ripper quarters of the great cities, or the Hebridean crofters forced to climb perpendicular rocks to lasso fulmars to give substance to their porridge?
It would have been more interesting had the Good Doctor said what might even be the truth: that relative inequality in the 1930s, or even the 1950s, was less than today. He would then of course have a problem: how to explain that, with state spending for the relief of poverty rising, relative poverty has got worse, not better.
For Ross McKibbin to reach a fair view of the Blair Government, he might have considered what has not happened since 1997. Handling Irish terrorism has been an extremely delicate operation and may yet fail, but Blair’s strategy of edging terrorists towards constitutionalism seems so far to have succeeded. Heading off separatist Scottish nationalism through devolution may also fail, but this is the only route towards that desirable outcome which a humane democracy can take. Diverting Britain from the dead-end of Tory Europhobia marginalises the Conservative Party with serious opinion, especially when Blair takes care to retain what was best in Thatcherism: privatisation, the curb on trade-union power and the retreat from corporatism. Failing to wreck the healthy economy inherited from the Major Government and keeping promises to the electorate may not thrill the Far Left, but at least it has shielded this Labour Government from the mid-term economic crisis that prevented its three predecessors from gaining two successive full terms in office. Abandoning the old, class-ridden, unrealised and therefore politically disillusioning promises on social issues may have provoked some of Labour’s conservatives, but piecemeal attacks on social problems (‘social exclusion’ in its various dimensions: sink estates, illiteracy, youth unemployment and specific areas of poor educational or health performance) offer some hope of consensual and therefore secure advance. And failing to reform the electoral system while simultaneously appropriating Liberal policies is the best way to re-create the party of the Left which marginalised the Conservatives for so much of the 19th century.
McKibbin, who has entertained us all during the past decade by taking pot shots at every government, perhaps needs reminding that a Labour Government which seeks re-election cannot afford to concern itself only with opinion on the Left.
Corpus Christi College, Oxford
Linda Colley in her review of John Campbell's Margaret Thatcher (LRB, 7 September) suggests that Thatcher's omission from her Who's Who entry of any mention of her mother suggests emotional or social repudiation. But four other postwar Prime Ministers – Attlee, Churchill, Eden and Macmillan – similarly omitted their mother. Of these, all but Eden cherished the memory of their mother most tenderly. The more likely explanation is that Thatcher, having been called to the Bar, noticed that the most expensive silks vie with one another to have the briefest entry in Who's Who. Her entry has accordingly always been pared down, and has always looked classier for its restraint.
Why read Ruskin?
Dinah Birch ends her piece about Ruskin (LRB, 10 August) by asking why we should still be interested in him. She gives several good reasons but omits the most important. Ruskin's study of architecture led him to investigate the life of the craftsmen who built and decorated the great medieval churches, and this led to a profound critique of the life of workers under capitalism. He challenged conventional economics in Fors Clavigera, among other works, and in doing so, made a vital contribution to the labour movement, inspiring one of the greatest English socialists, William Morris, and some outstanding labour leaders, such as Tom Mann.
Damn white folks
The caption to Paul Poole’s photograph of ‘Southern Belles’ before a graduation ball (LRB, 24 August) refers to the young women in the picture as an ‘apparently mixed-race group’. But there were no mixed-race balls at the time the photograph was taken – or only inasmuch as a light-skinned person might pass for ‘white’ at a white ball. Passing was the rage in certain quarters, which is why Jean Toomer, Eric Walrond and Nella Larsen wrote about it (Passing was the title of Larsen’s second novel). I would wager that all the ladies in Poole’s portrait are ‘black’, though at least one is demonstrably ‘white’.
Toomer himself was ‘apparently white’ and could have passed, had he wished. One negro who was ‘white’ was a man by the name of Walter White, a secretary of the NAACP and one of the first writers of the Harlem Renaissance to be published. On a tour of the South, where he was investigating race incidents for the NAACP, he could get around freely as a ‘white’ person, thanks to his blond hair and blue eyes. There were no incidents, the story goes, until the day of his return to the North, where he stepped back on the railway platform – you guessed it – and stood on the toes of a ‘full-blooded’ negro, who mumbled under his breath: ‘Damn white folks! Always stepping on black people’s toes.’
Several years ago, I advertised in your paper for information on your readers’ favourite red-light districts. Quite a few of your subscribers were kind enough to write to me. I would like to thank them all and apologise for not managing to make it to all the locations. I wound up covering only 15 countries in Red Light Districts of the World, which is now published by the Tamworth Press. At that stage, money ran out due to lack of publisher investment and I was also suffering from acute brothel fatigue. Some of your readers will recognise the symptoms.
I am at present sending some free copies to my main helpers around the world. I would particularly like to contact one of your readers. I shan’t mention his real name, because I am sure he would rather I did not. ‘Don’ was an academic at Hong Kong University before the takeover and was kind enough to introduce me to ‘Madame Kwai’ while I was over there. Madame Kwai was a cautious individual who made her customers wear condoms on all their fingers as well as elsewhere before they were allowed to touch. ‘Don’ introduced me as someone about to start a massage-parlour in Hastings – Madame Kwai didn’t like journalists. (Unfortunately I never did start the massage-parlour and am still a poor writer.) Madame Kwai’s establishment was in the ‘few mirrors’ category. The more you pay for sex in such establishments, the more mirrors you get, the implication being that in Hong Kong important clients like to see themselves! ‘Don’ also went beyond the call of duty in his efforts to help me by interviewing the two girls he was with in Cantonese while on the job.
So, wherever you are, ‘Don’, please contact me, your free book awaits!
7 Ebenezer Road, Hastings
What about the cheese?
Did Murray Gell-Mann take the word ‘quark’ from James Joyce? This origin, as related by Thomas Jones (LRB, 24 August), may be apocryphal. But if Finnegans Wake is indeed the source, there arise two questions: where did Joyce get the word, and how should it be pronounced? As an old German word still in use, the masculine noun, Quark, has the meaning: ‘curd(s)’; and, figuratively: ‘trifle’, ‘trash’, ‘filth’, ‘slime’. In Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles, conversing with God in the ‘Prologue in Heaven’, says contemptuously about humans: ‘In jedem Quark begräbt er Seine Nase.’
As to pronunciation, there appears to be a variant in English. It may rhyme with ‘mark’, as in the Joyce quote, or with ‘quart’. Purists prefer the first, though the second appears to predominate today. Joyce may well have been familiar with the German Quark, but Gell-Mann may have known this word independently as well.
Alex Ross writes (LRB, 24 August): ‘For a while, composers were competing to see who could end a work with the most deafeningly over-orchestrated major chord, and thanks to Gurrelieder, Schoenberg held the trophy for a few years. Mahler took it back in the coda of the Eighth.’ Although Gurrelieder was mostly composed around 1900, Schoenberg didn’t complete the score, in the process orchestrating the final chord, until 1911, six months after Mahler’s death, and no one heard the work for another two years after that. Hand over the trophy, Arnold!
Colm Tóibín (LRB, 10 August) perpetuates an error by claiming that Brian Moore used pseudonyms for all his early thrillers. Moore's first two novels appeared under his own name. They were published by a Canadian house – Harlequin – recommended by a Montreal colleague, Ronald Cooke. Both books were issued in 1951: Wreath for a Redhead in March and The Executioners in July. Half a dozen of Moore's next efforts were published under pseudonyms in the US – I acquired several while editor in chief of Fawcett World Library.
Unfair to Carr (again)
Anatol Lieven’s review of Jonathan Haslam’s biography of E.H. Carr (LRB, 24 August) contains the gratuitous neologism of ‘swedenisation’, defined as ‘sanctimoniousness tempered by cowardice’. I take this to be a slur on the people and policy of an entire country, rather than an attack on my family or myself.
I was wondering whether J.G. Owen (Letters, 7 September) could throw any light on the vexed question of whether or not an Airfix anorak, c.1960, was supposed to glue the finished model of the Me 109 to the translucent base provided with the kit or leave it roosting precariously, at the mercy of enemy fire from envious model enthusiasts. The really dedicated, I've heard, would suspend their models from the ceiling by fine thread, in a guise of flight. Which neatly dispenses with the problem of the base and leaves one eager for a glimpse of Mr Owen's attic.