SIR: No one, surely, can be surprised at the fact that Arthur Scargill reviles the media. Most of them are unashamedly right-wing. Most of them simply assume that he is bent on ‘the destruction of the British way of life’ and say so in clichés of this kind. But in a paper like the London Review of Books it is, to say the least, disappointing to see a long line of such clichés wheeled out under cover of rational reflection (LRB, 6 September).
In the first place, it is sad, if scarcely surprising, to see a professional economist taking as wooden a view of what is ‘economic’ as did the courts in the face of the case against the GLC’s decision to reduce London’s fares. Australian and South African coal is indeed cheaper than most of our own. ‘Comparative advantage’ would indeed seem to suggest that we should switch to it. The Japanese did so ten years ago. But if the Japanese had always interpreted comparative advantage as rigidly as Michael Stewart does, ‘they would,’ as Stephen Marglin has recently said in the New York Review of Books, ‘still be exporting silk cloth and parasols rather than automobiles, cameras, television sets and semiconductors.’ Terms of trade are not easy to predict. One’s future advantages and disadvantages are a complicated gamble. ‘By the end of the century,’ says Stewart, ‘Britain ought to be exporting knowledge-intensive goods and services in exchange for cheap coal.’ Well yes, it ought to be. But one could be forgiven for thinking that the present government, in pricing one such service, higher education, out of the international market, takes a different view. And there is no good reason at all why I should be writing this letter on a cheap and by the standards of 1984 technically very simple word-processor which is imported from the USA, except that there is no British equivalent. It is not inconceivable that by the end of the century we could be importing even more in value, in these goods and services as in others, than we are now. The economics of the present dispute between the NCB and the NUM are not so ‘relatively straightforward’ as Stewart says they are.
Nevertheless, one might allow the NCB the fact that it’s difficult to see future costs and benefits, and concede that on a more immediately narrow economic calculation, some pits should now be closed. Nor is there any doubt, as Stewart grants, that ‘the community as a whole has a responsibility to help those on whom the costs of [what Stewart and MacGregor and the Daily Mail believe to be] economic progress fall most heavily.’ I am not sure what ‘the community as a whole’ is. I certainly know of no economic or political agency of that name. Stewart must mean the Government, which, as he says at the end of his piece, commands the assent of but 31 per cent of the enfranchised ‘community’. And this Government as he also points out – let alone the 31 per cent who voted it in – has a somewhat attenuated sense of social responsibility. More surprisingly, it has a somewhat attenuated sense of economic responsibility too. For if it were to shake itself free of its atavistic dogmas, it would see that the Japanese Government anticipated the diseconomies of domestic coal production, planned its demise, and with the extremely firm financial control that characterises its still very successful capitalism, made sure that most of the members of what economists would call the high-quality workforce were re-trained for new firms within reach of their homes. The oddest feature of the British Government’s economic policy is the assumption that ‘the market’ and not it must govern. Even the present Administration in America has got itself out of its recent difficulties with a series of classically Keynesian moves.
But of course, and as Stewart in effect concedes, Thatcher cares less about the economy than she does about the distribution of power within it. When the Social Democrats appear if only by default to agree with her, when the Labour Party havers, and when even the General Secretary of the TUC justifies his recent decision to retire by saying that there is no large issue facing his movement, is Scargill self-evidently mistaken to believe that someone has to do something? Obviously, he cares most about his industry and about his power within it. He would not be worth his job if he didn’t. Naturally, he sees that against the NCB, the Government, the media, even the Labour Party and parts of the TUC itself, he has to be clever and on occasion unscrupulous. He would not survive a day in politics if he didn’t. Certainly, he is selective in his recourses to ‘democracy’. But even Stewart agrees at the end of his piece that what he calls at the beginning – against all the more plausible accounts of how it has come to be – ‘the present painstakingly constructed British political edifice’ is being dismantled, with breathtaking ease, by the Prime Minister herself.
‘Democracy’, one is embarrassed to have to point out, is not so straightforward. The law against ‘secondary picketing’ is not so clearly more acceptable than the law against crossing state lines for the purposes of inciting a riot which was hastily passed by a frightened Congress in 1967. The present interpretation and enforcement of existing laws about disturbing the peace and obstructing the highway and so on is not so clearly more reasonable than the interpretation and enforcement of comparable laws in Alabama and Mississippi in 1965. And it is by no means agreed that every contentious decision taken by an elected body in the name of its electors should be balloted. If it were, one is again embarrassed to have to say, most of the liberal legislation that people like Michael Stewart and me and no doubt you yourself approve of and enjoy would never have been enacted. Enlightened élitism in the supposed interests of others is not the prerogative of the élite.
If, however, it is advocated by anyone else, it is, so Stewart would have us believe (‘how else’, he asks, ‘explain’ it?), clear evidence of Leninist intent. He certainly provides no other. But it is not, of course, evidence of anything of the kind. If it were, we would have good reason to fear the Social Democrats’ reason for leaving Labour. Scargill doubtless does believe that things could be arranged better for ‘the working class’, or however one now describes those whom the economy and its corollaries disadvantage. Who can doubt him? Certainly not Stewart, who agrees that in this respect things are better in Eastern Europe. And if Scargill does believe this, he has some grounds also to believe, as I said before, that there is not much hope to be put in the Labour Party or even much of the TUC. Perhaps he does envisage a revolution, if by that is meant the capture of the state by force of arms in the name of some class or other. But if he is as ‘wily’ as Stewart says he is, indeed if he is even half-way sane, he almost certainly does not. To impute that belief to him is merely an insult and a smear.
What Scargill doubtless does believe, not least because it is a fact, appreciated by all except the most categorical of academic economists, is that the enemy is not now private capital but the state. The state is the largest employer, in the hands of a government like ours the most ruthless, and it has behind it, and behind its cloak of legitimacy, a force to impose its will that would have been beyond the wildest fantasy of a Carnegie or a Frick. Scargill, like almost everyone else, therefore sees that no dispute between a union and a nominally public corporation can be anything but political. Stewart’s imputation of Scargill’s political motive, presented as a discovery for us to wonder and shudder at, is what anyone who knows anything about any Western economy in the past two or three decades would regard as a statement of the obvious. And if, as Stewart does rightly and rather less obviously say, the extraordinary fact about Thatcher is that no one is standing up to her, in Parliament, in her own party, in the press (with one or two exceptions – including, on the matter of the Falklands, your paper) or in the judiciary, there is some reason, even if one is not a miner, and even if one accepts the most optimistic view of the supply of affordable energy at the end of the century, to be grateful for the fact that Scargill is. Indeed, one does not have to think too hard, although harder, it is true, than Stewart seems to be able to do, to see Scargill doing more for the general good than most others, with a more obvious obligation in the ‘political edifice’ to do so, are now doing.
SIR: In January 1918 Virginia Woolf writes in her Diary (LRB, 6 September) of a small book of verse published by Clive Bell: ‘very pretty and light … He can do his little owl very efficiently.’ The context suggests that this mysterious expression means something like ‘he can perform adequately some not very impressive task.’ Again, in September 1934, of a party at Charleston: ‘They acted: I did my poor old frenzied owl.’ Here the suggestion is that to do one’s owl is to do something not very impressive that is characteristic of one’s self. When Ethel Smyth comes to tea in August 1934 Virginia Woolf reports that she ‘did her owl – who is a red-wattled turkey cock – very vigorously’. The locution seems to have been understood and employed by Mrs Woolf’s friends. So Duncan Grant in February 1932 is reported as saying of Gerald Heard: ‘No, it’s not that he prevents me from doing my little owl.’
The Diary’s admirable editor, who tells us everything else that we want to know, perhaps had not space to comment on the little owl. It seems a useful expression and one that might be revived, if thoroughly understood. I had been haunted for months by the sense that I had once been familiar with the anecdote from which it springs. Memory suggested that it was to be found in some well-known collection of letters: letters, I seemed to remember, of a man, and with some 18th-century atmosphere lingering about it. In a quest for the little owl I turned again to the letters of Cowper, of Gray; and began on Horace Walpole. In vain. Then, thinking that memory might have misled me about the writer’s sex, I went through again the delightful letters of Emily Eden, published by the Hogarth Press and edited by Virginia Woolf’s friend, Violet Dickinson. By this time I was wondering if what did its little owl was perhaps a dog; and I was planning an exploration of Horace Walpole’s pets, Ton-ton and so on, when I was diverted, with no owl in view, to the letters of Edward FitzGerald. And there, in a famous letter, in print since 1895, I found the anecdote that explains all. Writing to Fanny Kemble in April 1879, FitzGerald says that he has finished his self-imposed task of abridging Crabbe’s Tales of the Hall and that once they are printed,
I shall have done my little owl. Do you know what that means? No. Well then: my Grandfather had several Parrots of different sorts and Talents: one of them (‘Billy’, I think) could only huff up his feathers, in what my Grandfather called an owl fashion; so when Company were praising the more gifted Parrots he would say – ‘You will hurt poor Billy’s feelings – Come! Do your little owl, my dear!’ – You are to imagine a handsome hair-powdered Gentleman doing this – and his Daughter – my Mother – telling it.
And so it is I do my little owl.
The delicate consideration shown for the imagined feelings of a pet by the 18th-century John FitzGerald reminds one of Boswell’s story of Dr Johnson and his cat Hodge. ‘ “I have had cats whom I have liked better than this"; and then, as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding: “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed." ’
SIR: J.I.M. Stewart’s excellent review of Mrs Spurling’s Secrets of a Woman’s Heart (LRB, 19 July) contains interesting remarks about the sources of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s fiction. Miss Compton-Burnett herself told me that she had been influenced by stichomythia, the kind of dialogue in which each speaker utters one line or two lines in turn in Greek tragedy.
SIR: Simon Raven’s elegiac paragraph about out-of-print school stories (LRB, 19 July) is moving but inaccurate. We still have Horace Annesley Vachell’s The Hill in print.
John Murray, London W1