Beastly to Priestley
Stefan Collini contrives to miss the point of both Priestley and English Journey (LRB, 19 November). According to Collini, Priestley’s attachment to the ‘England of the Industrial Revolution’ is mere nostalgia for old buildings remembered from his Edwardian Bradford childhood, and nothing to do with the ‘ideas and social practices’ which went on in them. This is the exact opposite of the truth. It was the material squalor of industrialism that Priestley deplored: its ideas and social practices (or his idealised version of them) were the closest he got to a golden age, and he invoked them repeatedly throughout his life. What he valued about this society was its supposed democratic spirit – Jack was as good as his master, and would tell him so – and its robust, independent civic culture. Across the North, Priestley tells us, wealthy industrialists have fled the cities to play at being country gentlemen, leaving former cross-class communities to rot, culturally as well as physically. The only thing that can replace the old ruling class is the people, acting together, and it is this spirit of populist collectivism – rather than, as Collini implies, some vestigial Victorian individualism – that makes Priestley wish the workers of Bournville were looking after themselves rather than relying on their employer. The same spirit suffused Priestley’s influential wartime broadcasts idealising the summer of 1940 as a moment of popular mobilisation, as well as earlier novels like Let the People Sing (1939). It informed both his support for Labour in 1945 and his later scepticism about the top-down welfare state.
About the England of consumerism and suburbia, Priestley is ambivalent (who isn’t?). Certainly consumerism breeds passivity, but Collini underplays the welcome Priestley gives to its classless, democratic spirit; and indeed to modernity itself, with which English Journey is utterly besotted, from the ‘power and beauty’ of Southampton’s giant ocean liners to the awesome expertise of the new industrial technocrats. It is this which makes Collini’s picture of Priestley as some kind of 19th-century anti-industrial moralist in the tradition of Carlyle, Arnold and Ruskin so unconvincing. These names were, I suspect, mentioned more often in the review than in the whole of Priestley’s writing.
Sheffield Hallam University
Greg Grandin is full of praise for the new left’s political regeneration of South America (LRB, 22 October). Whatever criteria he is using, they wouldn’t be shared by an environmentalist. While the jury is out on Bolivia, and Ecuador is trying to claim ‘indulgences’ (actually pay-offs) in exchange for not cutting down 20 per cent of its Oriente rainforests, the other new left leaders in South America are busy doing exactly what previous leaders did: ignoring economic inequality and destroying resources with the voracity the transnational corporations have always encouraged.
Peru is completing a trans-Andes highway that will open up land from the coast all the way to Bolivia and Brazil, to squatters, forest destruction and fast-buck development. Puerto Maldonado, already a frontier town, will become the Las Vegas of Brazil. Alluvial gold miners are already destroying the magnificent Madre de Dios River. As for all the tourist money going into Cuzco and ‘ecotourism’, I don’t think the million inhabitants of the squalid Lima favelas along the coast are going to see any benefits, any more than their counterparts did in the slums of Caracas, São Paolo, Rio etc. Like the US, these governments don’t seem to think that the environment, global warming or social justice are worth doing anything about. Does Grandin?
Brooklyn, New York
I cannot agree with Alan Bennett’s catty description of W.H. Auden’s speaking in ‘harsh, quacking tones’ (LRB, 5 November). From hearing Auden speak his poems to packed audiences in November 1966 and 1968 at Great St Mary’s, the Cambridge University church of which my father, Hugh Montefiore, was then vicar, and from meeting him on both occasions when he came for a meal at our house beforehand, I recall the poet’s speaking voice vividly. It was medium-range, neither very deep nor high, rather gravelly because of his heavy smoking but certainly not harsh, and with the usual accent and intonation of the educated English upper middle classes, except for his flat transatlantic vowels (‘măster’ rather than ‘māster’), which did sound unexpected in that accent. (Copies of Auden’s reading in 1968 are held by the Poetry Library on the Southbank, if anyone wants to check.)
When Bennett overheard Auden conversing at Exeter College high table, the poet was presumably dining there at the invitation of his old friend and teacher Nevill Coghill, then Exeter’s English tutor. The sound of their convivial and probably well-oiled conversation may well have intimidated the shy provincial undergraduate, as Bennett has so often described his young self.
Richard J. Evans suggests that Fernand Braudel, writing his history of the Mediterranean in a German prisoner-of-war camp, may have developed his abiding fascination with the ‘longue durée’ as a ‘consolation for the disastrous turn events had taken in the present’ (LRB, 3 December). This may well be the case, but other members of the Annales School, notably Lucien Febvre, had less honourable reasons for dismissing events as mere ‘dust’. When the Germans occupied France, Annales was at risk of being banned because one of its owners, Marc Bloch, was Jewish. Febvre, his co-owner, persuaded Bloch not only to relinquish his share in the journal, but to remove his name from the editorial board in order to present an ‘Aryan’ face to the Germans. Bloch, who continued to contribute under the pen name ‘Fougères’, went into the maquis, and, in 1944, was captured, tortured and executed. Febvre had a comparatively peaceful war, but this didn’t prevent him trying to pass himself off as a résistant when, after the war, he was trying to obtain paper then in short supply. In a letter to the minister of information, unearthed by the historian Philippe Burrin, Febvre claimed that ‘alone among all the French historical journals’, Annales had maintained a spirit of resistance, ‘jusqu’au bout’.
Colin Kidd mentions Enoch Powell’s refusal to comply with the new MPs’ Register of Interests on grounds that it undermined the sovereignty of MPs and thus of the Commons (LRB, 3 December). His opposition to Britain joining the EEC was based on the same notion. At that time I thought this eccentric. Now that MPs are being, in effect, regulated by civil servants, with some of them subject to retrospective punishment for receiving allowances to which they were fully entitled, it’s easier to see the force of Powell’s argument.
Alex Abramovich, in his review of Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sydney Poitier, discusses Everett’s earlier novel Erasure, in which his protagonist, Thelonious Ellison, uses the pen-name Stagg R. Leigh (LRB, 19 November). Abramovich doesn’t mention it, but this is surely a reference to Stagolee, the protagonist of the song of that name. The first verse runs:
Stagolee was a bad man,
Spent one hundred dollars
Just to buy him a suit of clothes.
He was a bad man
That mean old Stagolee.
The song then tells how Stagolee shot Billy de Lyons, who had stolen his Stetson hat, despite his pleas on behalf of his ‘two little babes’ and his ‘darling, loving wife’. The sixth verse goes:
Twelve o’clock they killed him
Head reached up high
Last thing that poor boy said:
‘My six-shooter never lied.’
He was a bad man,
That mean old Stagolee.
Working for Lady Fuchs
Michael Neill relates his experience of being a ‘servant’ in Lady Fuchs’s home in 1966 (LRB, 22 October). My experience in the same household, a year or so earlier, could not have been more different. The personal circumstances were very similar – my husband was an impecunious 23-year-old graduate student, and we had a baby son – but we found the accommodation, behind the kitchen door, to be warm and comfortable, certainly compared with our previous damp, electrically unsafe flat.
Our own childhoods were very different from Neill’s: we both had university-educated parents in professional jobs, but no servants and a weekly cleaner only later when money became available. Perhaps this is why we never thought of ourselves as ‘servants’ but as live-in staff, paid mostly in kind, to carry out some of the household duties. Why should there be any resentment? Yes, it was hard work to break up coal every week for the boiler, but the housework and light cooking required were not onerous, usually leaving the rest of the day free. Lady Fuchs had her standards, but what’s wrong with cleaning the brass once a week, using a floor polisher on the hall floor and cooking cauliflower for four minutes in a pressure cooker?
Although I have lived most of my life in England, my Scottish family are what Andrew O’Hagan would probably call ‘wild creatures from the north’ (LRB, 5 November). I grew up with, and indeed played, the sort of music enjoyed by Hazel and Sandy. However, I’ve never heard anyone in Scotland refer to Scottish dance music as ‘accordion music’. Although the accordion dominates, the music is essentially fiddle and pipe music. And although the strathspey, strictly speaking, is a form of reel, we always speak of ‘the strathspey and reel’ – not ‘the Strathspey reel’. One more thing: my Highland granny would never have worn anything as gallus as a tartan apron. Perhaps Glasgow women did though. If they did, they surely would not have called them ‘plaid aprons’. Isn’t it only Americans who mistake a type of pattern seen on garments (tartan) for a garment (the plaid or ‘plaidie’)?
University of Nottingham
Must Be True
John Lanchester lays out most of the information needed to show that Jesus was a woman (LRB, 8 October). Women have two X chromosomes; men have an X and a Y chromosome. Some of Mary and Joseph’s children would get an X from Mary and a Y from Joseph, and be male. Others would get an X from Mary and an X from Joseph, and be female. But since Jesus was of virgin birth, Joseph did not contribute – both of Jesus’s chromosomes came from Mary. All she had to give were X’s, so Jesus was XX, a woman.
Should I continue to wonder who the three thieves might be, as represented by their knots on the cover of the 19 November issue of the LRB; or should I suggest to Peter Campbell that, if he finds himself in need of a reliable knot to join two ends of a rope (a ‘bend’), the reef knot is a safer choice?