Eric Hershberg writes that whenever Cuba ‘has been faced with a trade-off between national sovereignty and social welfare, the former has consistently taken precedence’ (LRB, 28 May). Prostitution, however, is an exception to the rule. Banned in 1959 by Fidel, who viewed it as a symptom of Cuba’s neo-colonial subordination, prostitution has become one of the island’s liveliest industries, attracting tourists from Europe and North America. As the website sexincuba.com informs us, ‘Cuba is the place to get laid … man, woman, straight or gay! There may not be freedom of speech but there certainly is freedom of sex.’ Go to any nightclub in Havana at midnight and you’ll find entire queues composed of middle-aged white men arm in arm with Cuban women known as jineteras (jockeys), many of them barely out of their teens. If a jinetera is lucky, she’ll land a man who will send her care packages from abroad, or, even better, take her out of Cuba. There have been crackdowns on the horizontal trade, but mainly the government has looked the other way, occasionally consoling itself with the thought that the jineteras are independent contractors, rather than proletarian employees of brothels. After all, sex is a major source of revenue. Revolutionary Cuba has indeed proved ‘more flexible than its detractors care to admit’, as Hershberg says, but this flexibility has come at a price.
When Mark Kishlansky claims that the English Civil Wars have been ‘the fulcrum of British history’ ever since David Hume, he is talking bunk and not history (LRB, 11 June). Far be it from me to say what actually happened in the mid-17th century, but the received wisdom after 1688 – the true fulcrum – was precisely as Blair Worden suggests: that the Civil Wars were a pointless, bloody exercise which led nowhere. For nearly 300 years thereafter the master narrative of English history glorified the seamless continuity of a conveniently unwritten constitution going all the way back to the Saxons. The great reward of this constitution was its peaceful combination of order and liberty which, in contrast to continental Europe, preserved the country from absolutism in the 18th century, revolution in the 19th century, and dictatorship before 1945. In all these respects English history at the height of its power and prosperity was the absolute antithesis of what the Civil Wars stood for: violence, disorder, the rule of the military, and constitutional rupture. As such this was a history which had to be buried; and it was left to Scots, radicals and poets to keep its memory alive, however faintly. One would never guess from Kishlansky’s eulogy that Carlyle failed to write his great history of Cromwell and the Civil Wars because, in his opinion, the English were unworthy to receive it. Of course, the celebration of England’s insular uniqueness has long since died out, and this is why Kishlansky, like so many 17th-century historians, can think the way he does. But his delusion, though common, is still a delusion.
St Anne’s College, Oxford
Getting off at Mill Hill
I can understand Bob Hall’s glee at having (as he thought) found me out, but I’m afraid the Blackburn residents Kate Fisher interviewed for her study of birth control did use ‘getting off at Mill Hill’ as a metaphor for withdrawal, for the simple reason that their ‘Mill Hill’ was a suburban train station on the way into Blackburn (Letters, 11 June). Had they been Londoners it would obviously have made no sense, but they weren’t and adopted their own local bus and train stations to get across what they meant. One of the Lancashire residents Lucinda Beier interviewed for her study of public health advised that one should ‘get off the bus at South Shore, don’t go all the way to Blackpool.’ It’s hard to imagine an activity (or a phrase) less conducive to linguistic standardisation.
Columbia University, New York
As any sailor could have told Susan Pedersen, the safe procedure is to ‘get out at Fratton’, the last station before Portsmouth.
Carbost, Isle of Skye
My version of the ‘getting off’ expression for coitus interruptus is ‘getting off at Paisley’, the station before the terminus at Glasgow. I am also reminded of a Glasgow colleague’s expression, ‘getting off at Govan’. Tom Leonard has a poem ‘A Priest Came On at Merkland Street’, and Merkland Street was the old Partick Station underground stop, the one before Govan, itself the stop for Ibrox, the Rangers football ground. Can anyone decode this?
It would seem that it is in the history of each major English city to have an alighting point. Perhaps its proximity to the final destination is a reflection of the inhabitants’ approach to risk.
‘My Friend, the Enemy’
Charles Glass portrays Uri Avnery as a soldier who went into writing and activism, which is true enough, but Avnery’s life is more interesting than that – especially his clandestine activities (LRB, 11 June). In the late 1950s, while he was editing Haolam Hazeh, Avnery met the Egyptian-Jewish Marxist Henri Curiel, who was raising money for the Algerian FLN from his exile in Paris, and at Curiel’s suggestion set up the Israeli Committee for a Free Algeria. This was quite a radical idea, given Israel’s alliance with the French against Nasser, and its covert support for right-wing colons – and given the natural sympathies which the Algerians felt for the Palestinians. Still, the Algerians appreciated the committee’s support, and when they heard from Curiel that the founders included veterans of the Zionist underground, they asked whether the Israelis might send experts to Yugoslavia to train FLN members in the art of chemical sabotage. To his regret, Avnery could not find the qualified ‘ex-terrorists’, but his efforts to make common cause with the Arab left continued, and by the early 1970s he was travelling frequently to Europe for secret meetings with the PLO. Glass mentions his dealings with the PLO leaders Said Hammami and Issam Sartawi, but not his memorable account of these experiences. It was published in 1986 under the title My Friend, the Enemy, and is still worth reading.
Life: A Terminal Condition
In his review of Synecdoche, New York, Michael Wood points out that sufferers of Capgras syndrome believe that a family member or close friend has been replaced by an impostor (LRB, 11 June). I would also point out that people with Cotard’s syndrome often come to believe that they are dead, or have ceased to exist in a physical sense. Occasionally, sufferers come to believe that they are rotting, or losing blood and skin (sound familiar?). Kaufman’s films to date have been littered with characters who appear to suffer persistent delusions or debilitating anxiety. Synecdoche’s normalisation of such behaviour is deeply sympathetic, suggesting that the human tendency to worry, to be self-reflexive and to retreat inside one’s own head, is merely part and parcel of life as a terminal condition. In this way, Kaufman effectively destroys the myth perpetuated by much mainstream cinema: that sufferers of (chronic or reactive) mental illness are childlike or innocent, cutting through the complexities of life and helping others to see truth or to find themselves. Far from marginalising serious, or common, psychosocial disorders, or relegating them to the status of plot devices, Kaufman forces us to look at them head-on. Messy, complex and (occasionally) depressing as his films may be, they are also quietly revolutionary.
Life: A Terminal Condition Robson
‘When I said there was a replica of Manhattan in a warehouse in Manhattan, I was simplifying wildly,’ Michael Wood confesses in his review of Synecdoche, New York. ‘There is a replica of the warehouse in the warehouse, and perhaps another one inside that.’ In fact, there are four warehouses (at least); so Wood was simplifying even more wildly than he thought.
John Lanchester has fallen for that old market myth called bootstrapping (LRB, 28 May). He goes along with the idea that, because the market is stupid, a company can pull itself up by its bootstraps. That is, a company with a high price to earnings ratio (PER) – that’s eWidget in Lanchester’s example – can combine with a company with a low PER (Goodwidget) and the combined earnings will be valued at the high PER, thereby ‘magically’ adding value. In fact eWidget’s share price will not change. In this example, a high growth company (PER 50) with earnings of £200 million last year combines with a low growth company (PER 10) with earnings of £500 million to give a combined company with medium growth (PER 21.5).
There is no magic involved in corporate valuation. The market values cash. More of it adds value and less of it destroys value.
London Metropolitan University
John Lanchester might have added that a prime piece of Thatcherspeak, ‘market forces’, has not been heard in the land for the past year or two.
Colonels and Other Colonels
Charles Nicholl writes of Lieutenant-Colonel Fawcett that ‘he is always styled “Colonel”: a piece of discreet self-promotion’ (LRB, 28 May). Not so. As I was informed many years ago by a particularly overbearing retired officer, ‘It is customary to address a lieutenant-colonel as “Colonel”.’ Richard Holmes explains in his book Redcoat (2001) that ‘there were two sorts of colonel’ in the British army: ‘What we may call colonels proper held a substantive rank,’ which was primarily a desk job; by contrast, ‘field officers comprised lieutenant-colonels and majors,’ and regiments were ‘usually commanded in the field by a lieutenant-colonel’. So no self-promotion there.
A Car of One’s Own
‘Britain was a nation,’ Andrew O’Hagan writes, ‘because it made Jaguars. Germany was a nation because of Volkswagen. America ran the world because of General Motors. Italy made Fiats and France made Peugeots’ (LRB, 11 June). What O’Hagan doesn’t do is distinguish between internal and external notions of the ‘nationhood’ he refers to. The British or the French or the Italians might have had their identity/self-perception tied up with the brands of car they made, but this wasn’t the way they were viewed by the majority of outsiders. The Peugeot and Volkswagen brands were hugely popular in Nigeria in the 1980s because they had assembly plants in the country, and were thus (comparatively) cheap to own and maintain. The Mercedes Benz was expensive, and a fuel-guzzler, and therefore a perfect candidate for status symbol. Times have obviously changed and when the Asians came with their trendy, fuel-efficient brands, switching loyalties was instinctive.
Reading Andrew O’Hagan’s piece was an uncanny experience for me: perhaps a manifestation of what he calls the ‘returning ghosts’ of the automobile industry. Recently I’ve been writing a dissertation on Raymond Williams’s novel Second Generation (1964). The novel describes the fight against job losses at the Cowley works in Oxford. It clearly anticipates the themes of Television: Technology and Cultural Form, and The Country and the City, showing how cars are just one component of a pervasive system of ‘privatised mobility’.