David Runciman is right to say that New Labour has brought us to the precipice of a crisis in democratic legitimacy (LRB, 21 October). But he misidentifies the nature of the crisis. He writes that ‘the British electoral system is now weighted in Labour’s favour (if Labour polls the same share of the national vote as the Tories, they could end up with over a hundred more seats, because of the way constituency boundaries are currently drawn).’ This is true, but the real crisis in legitimacy is caused by differential abstention rates. Because there is a fairly strong positive correlation between income and inclination to vote, politicians cast around for middle-class votes – increasingly, it is mostly the middle class that votes. In my ward, half of which is a council estate while half consists of much ‘nicer’ private dwellings, all parties are tempted on grounds of political expediency to concentrate their efforts on the richer half of the ward.
Why do so few political commentators understand this point, or, if they do understand it, decline to make it public? Perhaps because it is too uncomfortable to acknowledge that our political system has so gutted the faith of the less well-off that they have increasingly given up on it, leaving the middle classes to vote for policies that work mainly for their own long-term economic interests.
Proportional representation must be introduced, not because it will solve this problem – it will not – but because it is one of a set of reforms needed if public faith in our system of governance is to be restored. Such a restoration of faith will depend much more crucially on our turning away from neo-liberal, pro-globalisation policies which only encourage a sense of the pointlessness of contemporary politics. The problem is that all three main parties in Britain are now in thrall to just such neo-liberal orthodoxy.
City Hall, Norwich
When Reason Sleeps
Nicholas Penny’s review of Robert Hughes’s Goya is properly cautionary but in the end, I think, too cautious (LRB, 23 September). Almost the whole of the first half of Goya’s life was spent under the rule of Europe’s most enlightened monarch, Carlos III. He initiated a programme of reform that shook up the moribund universities, limited the powers of the Church, increased the powers of central government, created a road system that was the envy of Europe, built canals, issued edicts protecting people at their place of work and provided many other welfare safety nets. It was opposed by the Church, the Inquisition, the feudal landowners and the urban mob, but supported by a rising, if insecure middle class of bankers, merchants and industrialists, and serviced by doctors and lawyers from the reformed universities. Above all it looked to France for inspiration and its supporters were known as afrancesados. Goya and his friends were all part of this movement.
Carlos III was succeeded by the hopelessly weak Carlos IV, who could do nothing to prevent a vicious and sustained backlash following the French Revolution. His father’s reforms were swept away, and worse was to follow. In the name of the Revolution, but basically in order to keep Iberian ports open and protect the vulnerable areas of his empire, Napoleon seized Spain and placed his brother Joseph on the throne. The French, hitherto the standard-bearers of Enlightenment, were revealed as ruthless barbarians. Civil war followed, and after that famine.
I wouldn’t argue that one can explain all the contradictions and possibly psychotic elements in Goya’s work by placing it in this historical context, but to do so begins to account for the irony that underlies, for instance, an image of a line of priests garrotted by the French. El sueño de la razón produce monstruos is usually translated as ‘The dream of reason …’ but the first meaning of sueño is ‘sleep’. ‘When reason sleeps, monsters are produced’ is the theme of Los Caprichos and much of Goya’s later work.
Thorney Hill, Dorset
One State or Two?
Ilan Pappe mentions Edward Said’s support for a one-state solution in Israel-Palestine (Letters, 21 October). In fact, Said didn’t come round to that view until the last few years of his life, and not because, as Pappe claims, this is the way to secure the Palestinians’ right of return. Said, like many of us Palestinians, came to realise that the current vision of national Palestinian politics is bankrupt and its institutions corrupt. Said was an unsparing critic of Palestinian leadership and politics, but in the few articles in which he did allude to the one-state solution as the only way to achieve a fair peace, he did not say that it would also save the Palestinians from their corrupt leadership and from political cynicism. Those of us utopians who believe in the one-state solution mostly recognise that the idea is still premature. It is no secret that some Palestinians use it as cover for an intention to sabotage Israel, and that most of the few independent Palestinian intellectuals still reject the solution.
The Real Mr Hodge
Frank Kermode, I’m sure, wasn’t surprised at Sir John Squire’s ‘vulgarity’ when it came to judging The Waste Land (LRB, 4 November). Squire was pretty good on the Georgians (Masefield, Drinkwater, W.H. Davies, Walter de la Mare and so on) and lyric poetry in general, but was never a man to tackle Modernism with any sympathy. Although his London Mercury was, in the 1920s, one of the most influential arts periodicals, its approach was firmly from the right of centre, and its reputation was mainly as a cheerful demolisher of sacred cows as well as a trasher of those younger writers who Squire himself thought were highfalutin and getting above themselves. He didn’t mind whom he used as demolishers or trashers, either. In 1925 he commissioned the comic novelist and spook-story writer E.F. Benson to launch a 20,000-word literary missile at the then much-revered Robert Louis Stevenson (‘a sedulous ape’ with a ‘childish and inconsiderate vanity’), and in 1928 a shorter but still pretty fierce attack on Virginia Woolf and Michael Arlen (‘precious … hollow … dreary’). Squire and the London Mercury were immortalised in A.G. Macdonell’s comic masterpiece England, Their England (1933) as Mr Hodge and the London Weekly. It should also be remembered that Mr Hodge was devoted above all else to cricket, pugilism and great foaming jacks of ale. Hardly The Waste Land.
John Sturrock is no doubt right to point out the silliness of the name ‘Munchausen’s syndrome’ (LRB, 7 October), but I would suggest that anyone interested in the syndrome itself carry out a literature search. They will find evidence establishing beyond any reasonable doubt the bizarre, persistent and ingenious behaviour of certain people in the pursuit of unnecessary medical or surgical treatment. Inquiries in any large accident and emergency department would convince most that there is something to be found here other than the fantasies of the medical profession or a desire for short cuts rather than accuracy in diagnosis. Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy is also clearly established. In the cases Sturrock cites, if I remember correctly, the unsafe verdicts were based in part on a misuse, by the courts, of medical statistics. They cannot be blamed on the fact that the weight of professional opinion supports the view that Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy is very real indeed.
Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat, Oman
Malinowski’s Best Friend
Adam Kuper’s piece on Malinowski may have left some readers with a misapprehension as to the identity of Malinowski’s closest friend (LRB, 7 October). He was not, as Kuper has it, ‘the painter and writer Stanislaw Witkiewicz’, but Witkiewicz’s son, the painter and writer Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, also known as Witkacy. Witkacy committed suicide not in 1919, as Kuper has it, but on 18 September 1939, on hearing the news that Poland, which had been attacked on 1 September by Germany, had been invaded on 17 September by the Soviet Union.
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Like Alan Bennett . . .
As someone who has also been the subject of a less serious, but still pretty unpleasant, homophobic attack, I read Alan Bennett’s piece with interest and empathy (LRB, 4 November). Although the police now take such matters a bit more seriously and some politicians condemn homophobia, the amount of energy put into creating a safe environment for all to walk the streets in peace is tiny compared to that spent on ASBOs, or on ‘controlling’ legitimate political demonstrations.
John Lanchester suggests that the word chav (LRB, 21 October), this year’s buzzword apparently, has something to do with ‘yob-thronged Chatham’. it’s much more likely to derive from the Romany. Not only was it once defined to me, memorably, as ‘a pikey with a council house’, but Jonathon Green’s Cassell Dictionary of Slang lists it as a 19th-century endearment (‘wotcher chavvy’) derived from the Polari word for ‘child’.
In Spain, a word for ‘child’ is chaval or chavala; it’s both shorter and more grown-up in Mexico, where chavo, chava means ‘teenager’ or ‘young person’, with many colloquial uses beyond that age. Chavos banda are the stylish young gang members of Mexico City. The origin is Romany.
Lorna Scott Fox
In the Family
According to R.W. Johnson, Lord Salisbury’s appointment of his son as a minister was ‘a piece of nepotism no other family would have contemplated’ (LRB, 7 October). Gladstone made his son Herbert a lord of the treasury in 1881, financial secretary at the War Office in 1886 and under-secretary at the Home Office in 1892.
The Real Thing
‘The Coke people could change the recipe tomorrow if they wished to,’ Jerry Fodor writes, and ‘the new stuff will still be Coke if they say it is’ (LRB, 21 October). Unfortunately for Fodor, the Coke people did once change the recipe, and still called it Coke. But those who drink the stuff refused to accept it as the Real Thing, and the Coke people had to replace ‘New Coke’ with the original, dare I say the essential, Coke.
Wim Wenders’s claim that ‘the Yankees have colonised our unconscious’ does not come from The American Friend, as Andreas Huyssen has it (LRB, 7 October), but from Wenders’s preceding film, Kings of the Road.
If Sapphic life were as wretched as Terry Castle finds it, or the pickings as lean, there'd be nothing for it but to run about in histrionic despair like Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks (LRB, 21 October). But what resonance have the overheated tarts of 1920s Paris for the contemporary lesbian? An informal survey of this particular North London salon prompts only bemused shrugs. Perhaps the truly rare birds are gay female academics, though they can't all be such moany-knickers. If TC fancies a good rollicking night out, I hereby offer to show her one.