Where are the backbenchers?
If, as Ross McKibbin suggests, ‘electoral calculation’ lies behind the reluctance of the Parliamentary Labour Party to act to remove Tony Blair, perhaps the MPs should do their sums again (LRB, 8 July). The PLP may be dominated by members willing to sell their souls for a ministry post, but electorates have less to lose and can be more principled. They can also act with a collective purpose that continually surprises the pundits, as we saw with the landslide against the Conservatives in 1997, and now the local election results of 10 June.
What happened in Newcastle upon Tyne, where all the seats were up for re-election, is particularly worth their attention. A Labour city if ever there was one, it is now controlled by the Liberal Democrats, who took the council with an 18-seat majority. The dominant issue in the campaign was, of course, Iraq. Whether the fury of Labour’s natural voters means they will vote Lib Dem again in the general election is uncertain, but I suggest the three Newcastle Labour MPs should not be the only Labour members in safe seats to consider as a matter of urgency a near-future outside Parliament.
Newcastle upon Tyne
It would be a good thing if the power of the prime minister was constrained and more authority lay with back-bench MPs. To this extent I am with Ross McKibbin's proposed changes to the way the Parliamentary Labour Party works. If, however, he thinks this would somehow produce a more left-wing and anti-war Labour Party I am much more doubtful. There is an honourable group of Labour backbenchers, Jeremy Corbyn and others, who have stood out and campaigned against the war. The rest have gone along with it, even though it is clearly electorally unpopular. For that we might reasonably blame the politics of New Labour rather than the constitution of the PLP.
Over the Limit
Tim Flannery wonders whether 200 adult ancient Egyptians could have drunk six litres of beer a day (LRB, 24 June). I suspect not, but if the children in the village were drinking it too, the volume consumed by each person would be much more reasonable. Many early societies brewed beer with a very low alcohol content. In these instances, as in early 19th-century London, beer was drunk as the staple liquid in favour of a scarce or potentially contaminated water supply.
Newcastle upon Tyne
Poles and Jews
I don’t contest John Connelly’s depiction of the opposing interests of the London Poles (and their Home Army – the AK – in Poland), the Soviet leadership and the Nazis, but it is not correct to dismiss the Polish units which fought under Red Army command as ‘collaborators’ (LRB, 24 June). After all, while the AK was lying low during the war, it was these ‘collaborators’ and their like who fought the Nazis not only alongside the Red Army (as did the Polish units on the Western Front) but also in the underground units that took on the Nazis in Poland itself.
Connelly enters the controversy over the attitudes of ‘Poles’ towards ‘Jews’ in Poland before and during the war as if each were a homogeneous entity. He questions Norman Davies’s possibly exaggerated figures for the number of Jews saved by Poles, and appears to prefer the lower figure of 40,000 (as against Davies’s 100,000). However, the point that is not often made about such figures is that under the conditions of Nazi occupation no one Pole could save or hide one Jew: it required the co-operation, acquiescence and enormous risk-taking of innumerable other non-Jews. Both Connelly and Davies have missed the point of that mass demonstration of courage. The same is true of the singling out of individual ‘righteous gentiles’ for praise in saving Jews, which minimises the breadth of effort made by decent people in Nazi-ruled territories.
John Gittings, in his account of One China, Many Paths (LRB, 8 July), errs on three basic points. He Qinglian is not ‘the only contributor to the volume who has been forced to leave China because of her views’. Its editor, Wang Chaohua, was one of the 21 most wanted students by the government after the Tiananmen massacre, and is an exile. So too is Wang Dan, twice imprisoned for his role in the same events, and her interlocutor in a round-table on the upheaval of 1989 that ends the book. Nor is it the case, as he suggests, that – either in China or in the book – ‘the intellectual debate has not so far been an exploration of Many Paths,’ but simply an echo of ‘Deng’s de facto capitalism’. Deng’s capitalism is clearly rejected by nearly all the contributors to the book, among whom can also be found sympathetic views both of the Chinese Revolution and of socialism, as well as sharp critics of these. Finally, it is wrong to say that the question ‘what will happen to the Communist Party?’ remains unasked in the book.
Having been persuaded by the inset illustration of a nude – something of a jolt to a long-time reader of the LRB such as myself, but a nicely calorific response to the frozen underwear experienced elsewhere in the issue by James Meek – to read further into Liz Jobey’s account of the photographic career of Bill Brandt, I was disappointed, I have to say, to discover that the illustration was not what it seemed: it was not a photo of a policeman’s daughter at all (LRB, 8 July). I wished it had been, rather than, if the book under review is to be believed, one of a prostitute and so captioned as a reference to an ‘unpublished’ bit of smut by Swinburne – though I don’t see that Brandt was likely to have come across unpublished Swinburniana. Given the date of the photograph, my mind at once went back to the homely features of PC Dixon, even if the corner of architecture visible in the background was clearly too up-market to be found in Dock Green. I’m not sure that photographers, even ones as arty as Brandt was, should be allowed to put trick titles on their work, referring more to their own troubled psyches than to the world around them, when innocents like me go on craving veracity from the camera.
One expects better
It is all very well for Tariq Ali to gibe at India's neo-liberal economics (LRB, 8 July), but this, alas, is the only show in town. It would be imprudent for any Indian leader to await an Ali tome on correct economic theory and practice. The rites of passage of a society struggling to modernise are inevitably painful. The idiocies of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and similar backwoodsmen of Hinduism cause justifiable merriment and consternation, but India is the sum of its diverse and contradictory parts. And, by the way, the Sikhs are a religious minority, not an ethnic minority as Ali claims. One expects better from a Lahore-born Punjabi.
The Trouble with Memoirs
In his remarks about how difficult it is to get memoirs published nowadays, Thomas Jones doesn’t mention how easy it seems to be to get a thinly veiled roman à clef into print (LRB, 24 June). Bookstores are crammed full of first-person present-tense diary entries by graduates of British universities, slightly modified to resemble dramatic fiction. The fashion for putting ‘A Novel’ on the cover of books may come from an embarrassed awareness that they are actually memoirs.
Creative-writing tutors encourage student authors to ‘write about what they know’ and to ‘keep it real’. Perhaps our literary culture would be livelier if they dished out more sensible advice: write about what you don’t know, write only about people you've never met, in places you've never been to, for readers you’ll never know. Maybe then Richard Wollheim’s marvellous memoir (LRB, 15 April), which reminded me a bit of English translations of Proust, would never have made it into print. As things stand, however, it might have had an easier time getting published by a ‘major publisher’ if it were called ‘Germs: A Novel’.
Miller’s Dale, Derbyshire
It is splendid news that Richard Wollheim's memoir is to be published as a book. Apart from the fact that it absolutely deserves publication, it would have been terrible if his life story had ended up smelling of newsprint.
Put off thy shoes from off thy feet
David Simpson says that the phrase used to describe the World Trade Center site, ‘sacred ground’, was first used at Gettysburg (LRB, 20 May). What Lincoln actually said at Gettysburg was: ‘We cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow this ground.’ As for who coined ‘sacred ground’, it isn’t clear. My own guess would be that it’s a paraphrase of Exodus 3.5, where, at least in the King James Version, Moses is told to ‘put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.’ So far as I can tell the term ‘sacred ground’ is not found in the Bible.
Thomas Jones is wrong to place Sirmium, the Roman town where Emperor Claudius Gothicus died of plague, in modern day Kosovo (LRB, 3 June). What used to be Sirmium is now called Sremska Mitrovica and is a regional centre of Srem, one of the three constituent parts of the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina (in Roman times known as Panonia). Jones was probably confused by the similarity between the names of Sremska Mitrovica (‘Mitrovica in Srem’ in Serbian) and Kosovska Mitrovica (‘Mitrovica in Kosovo’).
It’s a shame that Paul Laity hadn’t read Hugh Pennington’s article on ‘The Great MMR Disaster’ when he wrote that William Joyce ‘caught rheumatic fever from wearing damp fatigues’ (LRB, 8 July). Rheumatic fever is caused by an immune response to infection by the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes, not by wet clothes.
Catholic University of America, Washington DC
Don’t write Jesus off
It would be a shame if your readers wrote off Christianity because of Ian Sansom's experiences (LRB, 8 July). John Wimber, though he was a sincere believer, caused havoc in the church by overemphasising the importance of a person's experience of Jesus, without ensuring that that experience was founded on the facts in the Bible.
Virginia Price Evans
Arthur Askey did not shout ‘Wakey Wakey’, as Hugo Williams suggests (LRB, 15 April). He used to kick off his act with ‘Hello, playmates, how do you do?’ The Wakey Wakey man was the bandleader Billy Cotton, who might have come in useful at a line’s end somewhere in a poem about memory loss.
We have quite a nice house, several antiques, a few bits of silver, some jewellery and even a couple of rare books, but the only thing that's ever been stolen in all the years is the 6 May issue of the LRB.