In his review of David Means’s The Secret Goldfish, James Wood considers a story written in the second-person present and asks himself if there is ‘an example in literature of a success in this mode’ (LRB, 17 March). Success is a slippery concept, but Michel Butor’s La Modification (which uses the formal ‘vous’) and Georges Perec’s Un homme qui dort (which uses the informal ‘tu’) come to mind as pretty solid attempts. Wood later discusses Means’s influences, hearing echoes of Flannery O’Connor and Stephen Crane. It is strange that he does not mention J.D. Salinger, to whom the title of the collection is clearly a tribute. On the first page of The Catcher in the Rye Holden Caulfield says that his brother D.B. ‘wrote this terrific book of short stories, The Secret Goldfish, in case you never heard of him’. ‘The Secret Goldfish’ is not a re-creation of D.B.’s story (‘about this little kid that wouldn’t let anyone look at his goldfish because he’d bought it with his own money’); but it is Salingerian in its misdirection, its quietly menacing atmosphere, and its superb portrayal of children’s sensibilities and familial conflicts.
Say no to pokies
Ross McKibbin is right to say that the Gambling Bill deals primarily with gaming and not with betting, but he doesn’t explain why (LRB, 3 March). The reason, I believe, is that betting is changing radically in a way that will severely restrict the revenue the government can extract from it. The catalyst for this change is the internet. Few services are better suited to virtual delivery than betting: the only things that change hands are money and information and both can be easily exchanged electronically. Better still, the traditional bookmaker (and his margin) can be bypassed. That is why betting exchanges will continue to grow at the expense of high street bookmakers, with their high overheads and fat profit margins. Virtual exchanges can operate from any jurisdiction, so it is hard to tax them too aggressively in case they move offshore. By encouraging super casinos (although only one is now planned, rather than the eight originally envisaged), the government was hoping to keep as big a portion as possible of the gambling pound where it could be readily taxed. Its proposed legislation is a near-naked attempt at revenue protection: talk of ‘modernisation’ merely dresses it up.
What is Labour for?
In his review of Stephen Pollard’s biography of David Blunkett, John Lanchester presents Blunkett as having moved from the ‘loony left’ of his Sheffield Council days to a right-wing authoritarian position (LRB, 31 March). Pollard’s book, however, provides evidence of continuities in Blunkett’s thinking and behaviour. Pollard shows – and I remember – that as a mature student at Sheffield University Blunkett displayed a mixture of contempt and amusement at the posturing of pseudo-revolutionaries, full of scorn for the Labour Party. When he became leader of Sheffield Council the Red Flag was hoisted over the town hall and Sheffield declared a ‘nuclear free zone’, but these were gestures that indulged the left and harmed no one. The real business was pushing through the compromises needed under Thatcher to get away with as much egalitarian reform as possible.
George Orwell’s 1939 novel, Coming Up for Air, is in part a parody and critique of In Search of England, the stereotyped and hugely popular travel book which, as Kitty Hauser writes, made H.V. Morton’s name and fortune between the wars (LRB, 17 March). Bowling, a fat, vulgar commercial traveller (the narrator of his own story, uniquely in Orwell’s fiction), drives off, like Morton, in his two-seater in search of ‘England’. For Bowling this is the small country town of Lower Binfield (Morton’s ideal village was Binsted). He finds everything horribly spoiled: all the comforting things he remembers have gone bad and the illusion of a traditional, largely rural England, which Morton later promoted for the wartime Ministry of Information, is shattered. Bowling’s reaction seems to have been much like Morton’s: a pathological hatred of the ‘spoilt lower classes’ and the ‘flabby’, pansy, sandal-wearing socialists who have desecrated his boyhood haunts. He stops short of Morton’s loathing of Jews and negroes; but that reminds us that Bowling is, in many respects, speaking for Orwell himself.
Isle of Lismore, Argyll
Obstacles to Seeking Asylum
Matt Cavanagh writes that the majority of ‘abusers’ of the asylum system are trying ‘to buy some breathing space to find illegal work’, and that ‘there must be some kind of trade-off between ensuring genuine refugees are given protection, and eliminating abuse of the system’ (Letters, 31 March). Most failed asylum-seekers are, in fact, people in need of protection, but who do not meet the stringent requirements of the UN Convention on Refugees. Many of my clients come into this category: the 21-year-old Roma woman, for instance, who claimed asylum because the systematic discrimination she suffered in her own country left her unemployed, marginalised and frightened to walk down the street; or the woman from Sierra Leone who watched her four-year-old daughter bleed to death after her hands had been chopped off, and wanted to work to take her mind off the memory. The former was refused asylum because the discrimination she had suffered did not reach the level of persecution required by the Convention, and the latter because the civil war in Sierra Leone was over, and there was no future risk from which she needed protection. Neither woman was a refugee according to the UK’s interpretation of the Convention, but they weren’t straightforward economic migrants either. One’s confidence in the asylum system is not increased when a former government adviser oversimplifies the issues involved in the way that Cavanagh does.
There cannot be ‘some kind of trade-off’: this is a matter of Britain’s legal obligations. As government policy stands – with off-shore controls preventing people from reaching the UK, and officials slapping visa requirements on nationals as soon as it becomes clear that large numbers will require protection (as in the cases of Colombia, Zimbabwe and Jamaica) – any trade-off is not favouring those Cavanagh calls ‘genuine refugees’. Next to nothing has been done to ensure that they are ‘given protection’. The government resettled only 60 of a promised 500 refugees in the first year of the Gateway Protection Scheme. It has ignored calls to fast-track those likely to be ‘genuine’ refugees and instead concentrated on increasing capacity to fast-track those it thinks unlikely to have well-founded claims. It has pumped money and effort into tweaking and tightening the appeal structure, rather than improving the shockingly bad standard of initial decisions.
Immigration Advisory Service, London SE1
Which 78 per cent?
Myron Kaplan claims that ‘Jordan … comprises 78 per cent of the land of Mandate Palestine’ (Letters, 31 March). The British government made no promises to Jewish groups about the eastern boundaries of the Jewish homeland. The boundaries were drawn at the Jordan River because Jewish claims in those areas were weak. Even when the Mandate was approved in 1922, it stated that the allocation of territories east of the Jordan would be ‘ultimately determined’ by the British. Later in 1922, the League of Nations approved a British memorandum concerning the organisation of the territories east of the Jordan as ‘Transjordan’. To say that Transjordan was ‘carved out’ of Palestine or is part of a promised Jewish homeland isn’t correct.
The Two Totalitarianisms
Slavoj Žižek could have spared himself the curious argument that Communism’s authenticity is shown by the greater irrationality of its arrests and show trials, as compared with the Nazis’ concentration on dissidents and Jews (LRB, 17 March). In fact the Gestapo system was fuelled by a stream of denunciations for crimes such as disloyalty or hoarding, which attracted penalties ranging from indefinite detention to death. I am also puzzled by Žižek’s assertion that ‘dissident Communists’ had no National Socialist equivalent. One obvious example is Hitler’s early ally Otto Strasser, who was exiled in 1930 and spent the next fifteen years agitating for a more ‘socialist’ form of National Socialism. (He returned to Germany after the war and died in 1974.) The differences between Communism and National Socialism are clear enough to survive the admission of the odd awkward resemblance.
University of Manchester
Paul Laity doesn’t consider the ideological underpinnings of Humphrey Jennings’s wartime documentaries (LRB, 3 March). They were, after all, made under the auspices of the Ministry of Information and intended as propaganda. Jennings’s representations of working-class popular culture and his rose-tinted nostalgia for a pre-industrial rural society take for granted certain ideological attitudes and assumptions. The films were not simply visual poetry. They nourished a backs-to-the-wall wartime spirit, and encouraged nostalgia for a stable hierarchical society in which everyone knew their place.
Andrew Saint rightly describes the centre of Hampstead Garden Suburb as ‘limp’, but his suggestion that this ‘stemmed from failures of investment, possibly also of community size, not design’ is too kind (LRB, 31 March). The fault is that of Edwin Lutyens, who persuaded Henrietta Barnett to drop Raymond Unwin’s plan for a central square with shops and a market, presumably because these would detract from Lutyens’s own monolithic Free Church and St Jude’s, two of the most enervating buildings in North-West London.
Hitch a ride
Sean Wilsey’s piece on rats reminded me of a startling sight during my morning drive to work last month (LRB, 17 March). On a busy San Francisco Bay Area freeway, a rat came out of the median, crossed the high-occupancy-vehicle lane, and clambered up into the right rear wheel well of the black Acura 2.2CL sedan stopped in traffic in front of me. It hitched a ride for four or five miles, then disembarked and ran back across the high-occupancy-vehicle lane to the median.
Christopher Prendergast (LRB, 17 March) might like to know that his father, Jim, polled 122 votes (8.5 per cent) in the Bell Street ward of St Marylebone in the 1959 borough elections. One of the successful Labour candidates was the Countess of Lucan, mother of the famous absconder.
Gerard McBurney is right to point out that my father couldn’t have fallen on the non-existent escalator at Tufnell Park (Letters, 31 March). The name of the tube station was mistakenly inserted by the LRB’s editors; the episode in fact occurred at St John’s Wood.
University of Copenhagen