SIR: It is Friday and Friday is a good day for me because this is the day I get my giro. As I eat my breakfast, it sits next to me smiling through the windowed envelope. Yes, it seems to say, I’m all yours – a gift from the taxpayers of Merry England. I pick it up and give it a quick welcoming hug. Then I take it out of its little see-through envelope and fondle and pat it a dozen times. I’m in love with this giro. £56.10 for two weeks. The whole of breakfast is spent dreaming about how best to spend this marvellous sum. £28.05 a week. Over £4 for every single day of the week (£4 and .714285p, to be precise). I cast a quick appreciative glance out of the window at the long line of congested traffic that passes by my house early each morning. Thank you.
Now, £28.05 is not an awfully big sum to live on for a week, but those of us without work are getting sound advice from the DHSS and even from Mrs Thatcher herself, who says that the unemployed only have to choose their food carefully to maintain their standard of living. Thank you, Mrs Thatcher: on your £53,600 a year, that is very good advice – the voice of experience, I’m sure. But much as I would love to shop at Harrod’s food hall every day, choosing only the freshest lobsters, the fact is that the unemployed must choose between Tesco’s mild cheddar, or (for those who like their cheese to taste of something, even if it isn’t cheese) mature farmhouse cheddar at only 48p a quarter from Woolies.
The DHSS has also been thinking hard about how to help its claimants and I have been taking their advice. They tell us, for instance, that the unemployed have no need of doormats – newspapers will do. They’re absolutely right. I sold my doormat in Brick Lane last Sunday and now use the free advertising newspaper which is delivered weekly and has the advantage of falling just where the doormat used to lie. (I hope no one from the DHSS reads this – I think I was meant to declare the 20p I got on that mat.) The DHSS also suggests that the unemployed can save on expenditure for kitchen utensils by using their saucepans as frying-pans – or the other way round, I forget which. Here they reveal a sad lack of imagination. For over a year now, I have been using my saucepan not only as a frying-pan but also as a hammer, cup, plate, washing-up bowl, chamber-pot, and even, occasionally, as a hat. It also makes a very good begging bowl. Yet despite these Helpful Hints from the Welfare, there is a new sense of dread amongst the unemployed. At one time, there actually was a kind of security in being on social security – I mean you were secure in the knowledge that at least things couldn’t get worse. You’d touched bottom, and life was as bad as bad could be. But it seems, after all, that things can get worse and are doing so very quickly. The DHSS is stopping special payments for articles like beds and shoes, obviously in the belief that it really won’t do to have the unemployed going around with shoes on and sleeping in beds (they’ll never look for work if you spoil them). And in a further attempt to keep them out of bed and on their bikes – or rather on their toes, since I think it was only Norman Tebbit who ever gave out bicycles – the DHSS has stopped payments of housing benefit to anyone under 26 who lives in a hostel or a bed-and-breakfast place. In their dream of creating a nation of nomads looking for work, the DHSS limits a stay in any one hostel to between two and eight weeks, depending on where you are living. Stop the unemployed enjoying themselves, seems to be their message. Were the unemployed ever enjoying themselves?
Talking of dreams, a couple of months ago the Iron Lady said it was her dream to create a society without class distinctions. I don’t know where she could have had this dream but it certainly couldn’t have been in Grimethorpe, or even in Battersea, where I live. From where I sit there’s still ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ and an increasing number of ‘Them’ who fear that they will very soon be joining ‘Us’. And they will be. Some seven million people are already living below the poverty line.
Happily, my copy of the LRB also arrives on a Friday (God bless gift subscriptions – for people with friends but no money). I always turn to the classified ads page first and look for the ‘Employment Offered’ ads, but since there never are any, I turn to the ‘Exhibitions and Festivals’ column to find out which exhibitions and festivals I won’t be going to. This is great fun. (I wonder if I’m too late to ask the DHSS for a special payment for one of those super LRB T-shirts. Alas, I think so. 42˝ chest, in case any of you tax-paying LRB readers are not yet fed up with your own charity.) Next I turn to the Diary, always in the hope that it will be A.J.P. Taylor. This week (6 June) someone called Michael Stewart is writing. That name rings a bell. Didn’t he write that staggeringly insular article on the miners’ strike? In fact, didn’t I furnish the letters page with a reply? Indeed, I remember now, I did. And here he is again with his dry, nodding reasonableness and cool monotones, sounding for all the world like an airline pilot: ‘Unemployment is very high and rising.’ Yes, indeed. Three cheers for Political Economy. It is not that I am set against Mr Stewart’s statistical world-picture, it’s just that his facts seem to have about as much to do with people as Mr Gradgrind’s definition of a horse has to do with horses. What a contrast with Sam Miller’s article on the strike in the same issue. The air he breathes smells something rotten, but it’s the kind of air that fills people’s lungs.
Despite the suffering that goes on in families where the parents are unemployed, there are still those who think of the unemployed as scroungers. You get the man who has just spent lunch gazing at his salary slip, and for all that he now has a handsome sum to bank, his mind keeps coming back to that part of the slip that tells him what he will not be taking home, because, of course, we all have to pay taxes (even the unemployed, indeed). It’s not Trident or the Falklands or even the miners’ strike that makes him sore: it’s all those people scrounging off the state. I met such a fellow just the other day. When he found out I was unemployed, he exclaimed, only half-jokingly, and embarrassed because he was actually angry: ‘Oh, so you’re living off me, in other words.’ The man who said this was a computer operator and I pointed, out to him that since his job had been created at the expense of four others, and since I might have been one of those four, he was, in effect, living off me. This sent him into a delirium in which he started shouting things like, ‘Well, someone had to have that job,’ and ‘You can’t stop progress, you know.’ Guilt. It does something to a man. Earlier, this same chap had been flaunting the quickly-acquired profits on his British Telecom shares. This was once a nationalised company and, in principle at least, belonged to me as much as to my tax-burdened companion. The shares were put up for sale to that part of the nation that could afford them. The unemployed lost out again. So who’s living off whom? We’re all living off each other, of course, but it is how we live off each other that determines what kind of society we live in. Both those with closed hearts and those who simply demand rights have misunderstood the real nature of giving and sharing, which ask something active from us. The problem for the unemployed is that they are condemned to be perpetual recipients. But the unemployed, too, want to give and if any society is really to prosper then it must find ways of accepting their gifts. At the moment an increasing number of people are being told that what they can give is of no economic use to society and, therefore, of no use at all. Fortunately, in times of crisis and with little money around, one finds new ways of giving and receiving – ways which, though they are ‘uneconomic’, are still of value. That, I believe, is what the miners learnt, and that is why they were not defeated.
SIR: I am sorry that Tom Paulin chose to reply (Letters, 6 June) to critics of his piece on Geoffrey Hill by giving so much of his space to metrical analysis rather than to an attempt to clarify his views on the poems as a whole. Craig Raine’s rumbustious mockery (Letters, 20 June) was fairly comprehensive. But Paulin’s difficulty with Hill’s line about the dove that ‘plunges its wings into the green twilight’ ought not to be left untackled. Paulin thinks that the rhyme-word ‘flight’ two lines earlier ‘distorts the natural vernacular spondee’ ‘twilight’ and turns it into a ‘fast freakish iamb’. He does not say why this should be offensive to someone who finds the poem from which the line comes rhythmically monotonous, as he does; presumably he expects some sort of meaning in the distortion of the rhythm in order to justify it. Let me suggest some of the elements of meaning that do attach to it.
‘Twilight’ is not a ‘natural vernacular spondee’. It carries a stress on the first syllable (see, for example, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, if no experienced speaker of English is to hand). Hill’s rhyme inhibits the falling accentuation normally given to the word and so emphasises the succession of three long vowels with which the line ends. This effects a contrast with the ‘untidy sound’ among the leaves which the dove has left in the previous line and with the short vowels which introduce the next line describing the ground which has been left ‘forsaken’. However, since the emphasis given to the second syllable of ‘twilight’ by the rhyme conflicts with the ‘natural vernacular’ emphasis on its first syllable, the twilight’s naturally ambiguous quality, between day and night, is also stressed in the form of words chosen by the poet. The ambiguous feeling about the dove’s new domain implied by this conflict of stress is consistent with the poem as a whole in what it implies about 19th-century British Christianity and, indeed, about Christianity generally. Paulin may not like this – he finds my exposition of the poem ‘evasive’, I think, because it follows the logic of the poem in neither endorsing nor condemning simply the historical process with which it deals – but much of human experience is ambiguous, whether we like it or not.
Paulin’s attack on Hill declares itself to be an attack on the reactionary politics implicit in his poems. For this reason Paulin would wish them to be as simple-minded as he appears to find them. Yet his arguments depend on readings of only two poems, neither of which he seems to understand. Discussing Peter Robinson’s argument that Hill alludes to Enoch Powell’s notorious speech of 1968 and its discriminatory views, Paulin implies an identity of view between Hill and Powell, whilst suppressing the fact that Robinson’s point was precisely that the poet did not reach conclusions similar to Powell’s. Suppression of Robinson’s case saves Paulin from the need to argue against it, but it also weakens his own case in the eyes of anyone willing to refer back to the book he was reviewing. Paulin now evades the issue whether or not he was suggesting that Hill sympathised with Powell’s views on immigration by making out that his point, circuitously arrived at, was that Hill agreed with Powell about nuclear weapons – or at least that it is a ‘possible interpretation’ of the last lines of ‘Idylls of the King’ that it shows that Hill and Powell are both ‘chthonic nationalists’. Paulin does not present a scrap of evidence for this assertion. He should show how he arrived at it. At the same time he might tell us what ‘chthonic nationalists’ are and whether a belief in nuclear deterrence is a necessary part of their programme.
SIR: Couldn’t Craig Raine have attacked Tom Paulin without using the metaphor of a disease like tinnitus (Letters, 20 June)? Such metaphors wound more people than they are intended to – to wit, the sufferers from the disease, who have a heavy enough cross to bear already.
SIR: Noel Annan’s assertion that Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Augustinianism’ made him ‘a deviant’ (LRB, 20 June) is very surprising. The views he attributes to Waugh – that ‘men’ can’t ‘change things for the better’ and that ‘progressives, reformers, liberals and socialists’ are misguided and probably harmful – are surely close to those of most 20th-century English writers who have been celebrated as of high literary stature. In 1916 T.E. Hulme endorsed the ‘system of ideas you find in Sorel, the classical, pessimistic, or, as its opponents would have it, the reactionary ideology’, embracing ‘the conviction that man is by nature bad or limited, and can consequently only accomplish anything of value by disciplines, ethical, heroic or political. In other words, it believes in Original Sin’ (and making the trains run on time).
This outlook is explicit or implicit in most English Modernist writing, running through to ‘theatre of the absurd’. Novelists like Graham Greene, Angus Wilson, Iris Murdoch and Anthony Burgess also return repeatedly to the issue, often tending towards the ‘Augustinian’ view. Nigel Lawson even derives the idea from Shakespeare: ‘Shakespeare was a Tory, without any doubt … I am not a great believer in progress … man’s nature doesn’t change. The same problems are there in different forms’ (and he means to keep it that way).
Waugh’s hostility to attempts to improve the conditions of the vast majority of people, so that they might approach those in which he and his friends lived, was far from deviant. What is unusual, and for this we should read and appreciate the novels, is the frankness with which Waugh acknowledges the social and political implications of his credo. They should have served as warning against Nigel Lawson.
School of English and American Studies, University of Sussex
SIR: I was astonished to read a letter from a member of the notorious anti-Romanian lobby (Letters, 7 March). I had thought that Michael Titus had silenced them for good in The Magyar File. It is, of course, nonsense to say that Romanians ‘constituted a minority in Transylvania until World War 1’. Dacians, later Daco-Romanians, had lived in Transylvania for centuries before the Magyar-speaking tribes appeared in Europe at the end of the ninth century. The capital, Cluj-Napoca, was given the name Napoca by the Romans. Some Romanians ruled Hungary, it is true; perhaps the greatest king of Hungary was Matei Corvinul, and Nicolas Olhus was Primate of Hungary.
There are no Hungarians in Romania. There are Magyar-speaking Romanians. During the 11 years I was Secretary of the British Association for Romanian Studies, and in charge of the Unesco literary translations programme for Romania, I tried to get this message across when the Paprika Gang first got itself organised. I did not succeed in convincing some sub-editors that Romania is spelt like that – there never was a Rume, capital of a Ruman Empire. And, while we are at it, the BBC still pronounces the father of modern monumental sculpture Brankoosi, instead of Brancush (Brancusi), and I read only the other day that Tzara, founder of Dadaism, and Ionesco, pioneer of the Theatre of the Absurd, were French.
John Ryle’s article in the issue of 2 May on the coup in the Sudan misses the point. As Gordon (who kept order there for years) knew and said often, the Muslim Arab North of the Sudan and the Christian and animist South cannot form part of a viable state. One day or other they must go their separate ways. When he was murdered by the Mahdi’s troops, Gordon was planning to take the South with him to the Congo, where it would form part of a state ruled by him for King Leopold of the Belgians. It is misleading to write of the Umma Party as ruling the Sudan ‘in the 1890s under the Mahdi’. The man known as the Mahdi had been dead long since.
Denis Mack Smith must have been glad to have Jonathan Steinberg (author of Why Switzerland?) puffing his books in the issue of 23 May. His Cavour and Garibaldi did not cause an uproar, except in high-school staffrooms – university teachers in Italy had slopped churning out the old lies about both for years. There are two really good books on Cavour: one is the Cavour e il Suo Tempo, the definitive biography, and the other is Valitutti’s study of Cavour, Church and State. Mack Smith’s good luck was to be taken up by the dotty Left. Though my life of Mussolini has been a standard text in many countries for two decades, it never appeared in Italy because I do not get on well with the dotty Left. Enzo Biagi managed to get five instalments of my book published in L’Europeo, which was the first time millions of Italians heard some of the truth about their past, but then the curtain came down. The same is true of my history of the Fascist Militia. When I taught the History of Fascism in the Corso di Alta Cultura at the Italian State University for Foreigners, I was always being asked if he were not Denis MacSmith. That serves me right for mentioning him while teaching, in Italian, in a kilt.
Italian State University for Foreigners, Perugia
SIR: Crushed and trembling though I am under Patricia Craig’s passionate rejection of my opinions (Letters, 20 June), I still venture to correct her on yet another fact about C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. She says that Lewis ‘clearly means [Narnia] to be taken as a version of the Christian heaven’. Lewis clearly does not – on the contrary, he makes it very plain, by introducing sin and evil into Narnia, that both Narnia and Earth are worlds created by God, or Aslan. When heaven does appear, in The Last Battle, both Narnians and Earth-dwellers inhabit it. Ms Craig ‘could say that [the Pevensey children] are half-dead all along.’ I couldn’t. Nor, I should I think, could most readers of the Narnia books. That, as I pointed out in my first letter, is the great difference between us.
Patricia Craig writes: ‘By the Mane of Aslan’, as Caspian said in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, here we go again. Can we say that, throughput the series, the Pevensies are on the way to heaven – ‘the real Narnia’, of which the shadow-Narnia is simply a foretaste, God and all – and leave it at that?
SIR: Please tell Alan Bennett (‘The Wrong Blond’, LRB, 23 May) that Chester Kallman’s grandmother’s name was almost certainly not Bobby. ‘Bobby’ or ‘Bobi’ is what many Ashkenazi Jews call their grandmothers. It is used not only as a form of address but as a class name, as in ‘My Bobby (or bobby) lives in the Bronx.’ I’m not sure if it actually means ‘grandmother’ or if it’s just a term of endearment – related, perhaps, to ‘bubbela’, often used with children.
Fair Haven, New Jersey
SIR: Alan Bennett draws certain conclusions about Chester Kallman because ‘his grandmother’s name was Bobby, his stepmother’s was Syd.’ Bobbie, may I point out, is, in this case, not the diminutive of Robert and not a boy’s or man’s name. It is the Yiddish bobbe, derived from the Russian word baba (‘old woman’) or babka (‘grandmother’). ‘Bobby’ is obviously an Americanised form of the Yiddish-Russian word for ‘grandmother’. Syd, however, is Syd.
Yale University, New Haven