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Letters

Vol. 9 No. 18 · 15 October 1987

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Anti-Anti-Racism

SIR: Ann Dummett (Letters, 17 September) accuses me of misrepresenting the Swann Committee’s views on Racism Awareness Training (RAT). She correctly states that the Committee recommended evaluation of RAT, but fails to consider why they should have done so if they are opposed to it. Moreover, she challenges the view of Frank Palmer, editor of Anti-Racism: An Assault on Education and Value, that Swann wanted RAT ‘extending’. On pages 587/588, para.3.17, the Swann Report says this:

The objective of RAT is very much in keeping with our own views on the need to acknowledge and challenge manifestations of racism … The development of distinct RAT courses is still at an early stage … We find ourselves therefore uncertain as to the value of such courses. It may well be that such a short course – RA courses last no more than 10-15 hours – which is concerned so explicitly and directly with the controversial and complex issue of racism, may stand less chance of effectively influencing the attitudes and behaviour of a teacher who has not previously considered this aspect of his or her work, than would a longer and more broadly-based in-service course or school-based activities which set racism in a wider perspective.

If this does not mean extending RAT, what in heaven’s name does it mean? The real character of the anti-racist ideology which Ann Dummett has consistently supported (she is, of course, a former director of that well-known, campaigning, antiracist pressure group, the Runnymede Trust) can be judged from the authoritarian disposition of those local councils which have espoused it. When I was a head teacher in Bradford, I, and all other heads, was informed that unless I attended RAT I would be denied the right to assist in appointing staff to my school.

Anti-racism, of course, is not just about RAT. It is about the systematic and continuing attempt to depict this country as a ‘racist society’, and the ethnic minorities as a uniformly depressed and exploited underclass – a view Mrs Dummett repeats in her penultimate paragraph. In fact, Britain has a very favourable record regarding immigration and the treatment of ethnic minorities; and an infinitely better record on human rights than many of the countries from which many of our minorities originate. The socio-economic position of our ethnic minorities is far more complex, and encouraging, than Ann Dummett appears to want to recognise.

I believe the sort of anti-British pessimism Ann Dummett displays, far from improving race relations, may be doing the very reverse. (See her and her husband’s ‘The Role of Government in Britain’s Racial Crisis’.) If you go on attributing a moral and institutional defect to a whole people, which is precisely what anti-racism does, rather than to stress positive qualities, you may well help to create the very thing you are seeking to eliminate.

Ray Honeyford
Prestwick, Manchester

London Lefties

SIR: Curiously Paul Foot, after himself giving a factual explanation for the ’81-’86 GLC’s socialist folklore standing, immediately switches to saying that the facts and folklore are very far apart. Is he trying to add drama to his contribution? The actual effect is one of factitiousness. Having praised GLC achievements, solidly, and cited the support they engendered in Londoners, he goes on to say that ‘all the evidence’ (that dolorous expression!) is that the ‘London factor’ cost Labour general election votes. In Paul Foot’s hindsight, Livingstone has become a ridiculous boaster. In two contiguous sentences Paul Foot refers to achievements of which Ken Livingstone has most right to be proud as having had the ‘whole political tide’ turn against them, then says that this, retrospectively, renders that pride ridiculous! If it is silly Ken for being unable to read the future, what does one make of a Paul who cannot sustain his conviction from one sentence to the next?

Oliver Owen
Hove

Oxford and Labour

SIR: R.W. Johnson (LRB, 23 July) calls for Labour to start selecting Oxford graduates as Parliamentary candidates, as a way of increasing its intellectual status. As a mature student at Oxford, with a trade-union background, may I state that I do not really believe Mr Johnson fully understands the reasons why Labour no longer draws its intellectuals from Oxford. He correctly points out that the greatest period of Oxford influence was in the Fifties and Sixties. That was a period of consensus, compromise and agreement, with Oxford reflecting this mood. Political discussions took place in the comfort of the common rooms, and student politicians received their training in the elegant surroundings of the Oxford Union. It was also a time when higher education was largely confined to those people coming straight from school, with only the most brilliant scholars from the working class being accepted. Public schools and the upper middle class held sway. Unfortunately, that is an atmosphere which still prevails in modern Oxford, and which has led to its decreasing influence in Labour affairs. Oxford politics are still about consensus, and therefore of course the party of consensus, the SDP, dominates Oxford’s political circles. Outside of Oxford, the streets are burning but dons still hanker for the golden era of detached intellectual debate. Mrs Thatcher has shattered the ideals of compromise and has polarised the country, but still Oxford cries out for a middle way. Mr Kinnock may not be an intellectual giant but he does represent and symbolise the anger and frustration of people who have seen their lives destroyed by this government.

Conway Xavier
Wadham College, Oxford

On the rant

SIR: If there is to be an extended public debate on the Ranters, let it be one of substance, not shadows. Despite the warnings of J.C. Davis and Jonathan Scott (Letters, 17 September) not to confuse contemporary politics with the act of historical enquiry – a confusion which they see in E.P. Thompson’s review of Davis’s study of the Ranters (LRB, 9 July) – they still focus entirely upon the political dimension, thereby avoiding the historical objections which Thompson raises. It is Davis’s intention to show that left-wing historians have been fooled by the pejorative image of the Ranters projected onto them by their enemies. Thompson rightly stresses that this image was not simply one of castigation but also a means for the imposition of discipline among radical Puritans after 1651. He wonders why Davis should make so much of this, when most other historians have long accepted the point. What he does not point out is that Davis does not ‘travel … to another way of thinking’, as Scott puts it, to place himself in the Ranter’s position. Rather, Davis accepts the straw man Ranter of the heresiographers and the Marxists, and shows how none of the individuals accused of being Ranters fit the bill. Instead, they usually turn out to be ‘spiritual enthusiasts’: and there Davis’s case ends, or rather turns back upon the shortcomings of left-wing historians and their rhetoric.

To me, ‘spiritual enthusiasm’ is the starting-point for enquiry. What is crucial is the way in which the externally-imposed name ‘Ranter’ interacts with each individual’s picture of him or herself. As Thompson shows, Davis fails to present the broad appeal, intellectually and spiritually, of the Antinomian and perfectionist strain so well portrayed by Christopher Hill. Paradoxically, it is through this rigid, limited vision that Davis is able to sort out some difficult problems. One of the best moments in his book is the demonstration that Richard Coppin was both Antinomian and universalist (or even Arminian). The rewarding ground for historians is the contradictory language of radical religion, with its codes, evasions and inconsistencies. So, while Thompson is right to stress the solfidian element in John Saltmarsh’s Free Grace (1645), he does not show how Saltmarsh attempted to reconcile free grace with the rhetoric of predestinarian Calvinism. Thompson has done an injustice to his own dissenting tradition by ignoring (as Davis does not) the historian who has done most to map the radical religious mind: G.F. Nuttall.

One of Davis’s theses is that the so-called Ranters did not keep in touch with each other. Davis actually suppresses published evidence which confirms that a small ‘Ranter core’ did write to each other during their brief period of notoriety. The evidence of letters and local records as well as pamphlets seems to point to a widespread nexus of radical spiritualists, closely in touch with each other, and interacting also with those outside the sects. It was in this milieu that the word ‘Ranter’ circulated, and in the 1650s ‘Quaker’ was no less an unstable or unfaithful term used to describe the individuals involved

Scott speaks as if it were possible to write a history free from political bias. This is absurd. The energy in historical writing is generated by the predispositions of the historians. Deciphering them is part of the trade of all historians.

Nigel Smith
Keble College, Oxford

Veni, vidi, scripsi

SIR: The clash between Ian Hamilton, one-time editor of the Review and the New Review, and Peter Craven and Michael Heyward, present editors of Scripsi (LRB, 9 July, and Letters, 3 September) strikes me as having great entertainment value. It isn’t every day you see a man who still imagines all the world is talking about what was once, quite a while ago, a perfectly good magazine, argy-bargying in this pathetic way with two others who know full well that a good number of people are talking about what is a perfectly good magazine now. From the ‘beardless, younger literati’ (hang on: is it wrong to be clean-shaven? or to be younger than Ian Hamilton?) through the suggestion that the elder statesman ‘piss off’ to Hamilton’s ‘Let me rush to say …’, this was a bunfight of the footling kind that only seems to happen when … well, when Ian Hamilton puts one of his graceless feet wrong, or in it. But the exchange is also interesting for a reason of greater consequence.

Contributions so far printed in the LRB seem to me not to have focused the issue at stake. That issue is the residual British superiority complex towards the newer literatures in English. These literatures have an imaginative vitality that makes them fully the equal of current writing in Britain: but still the British are sniffy, still an Oxford anthology purporting to represent world poetry in English can exclude Allen Curnow, Les A. Murray, John Ashbery and Michael Ondaatje and include Patricia Beer, Robert Conquest and Vernon Scannell in their place, still British readers are kept from the poets and novelists and dramatists who are at the cutting edge of today’s literature in English – kept from them by the policy of the major literary publications (let’s be sure that most of our reviewing space continues to go on British or American writers) and of bookshops (let’s be sure to stock the latest Kingsley Amis, we needn’t bother with that Canadian bloke).

Of course the situation has improved immeasurably in recent years. Poets Enright banished from his Oxford anthology are read in Britain and some have even found British publishers to handle their work; the Caribbean lobby has (rightly) kept up the pressure, and even if the writers who are widely known in Britain are still few, at least they are getting a hearing; passing fashions for Indian and Australian writers have helped to bring other writers to attention who weren’t shortlisted or profiled or interviewed. But the fundamental attitude is still that high-handed arrogance which once characterised the British view of American literature. In a recent issue of PN Review I put the case for a more open reception of contemporary Canadian writing, since the British willingness to accept one or two writers (Atwood, Davies, Munro) seems to close doors to others – only a limited number can be processed at a time, it seems. I was promptly told in a reply by Adewale Maja-Pearce that Canada only had ‘second-rate writers’, and in any case, hadn’t Canadians recently been shortlisted for the Booker Prize? And furthermore, when did any Canadian writer ever win the Nobel Prize? Such responses are wholly characteristic of the offshore islands, in my experience.

Today it is taken for granted that American literature is fertile and vigorous and the equal of British in every way. If one pleads the case of Canadian or Australian or Indian literature, though, it is seen sniffily as special pleading, and the best one can hope for is a shrugging acknowledgement that perhaps there are one or two good writers – one or two. At worst, a writer of the eminence of Robertson Davies will be given to understand (as he told me when I interviewed him recently) that ‘in Britain, nobody is interested in Canada.’

In a sense, it may well be futile to complain of this; as in the case of American literature, only time is going to win the newer literatures the acceptance they already deserve. Tokenism certainly won’t do the trick: if the books are to be read, let them be read because they are as good as (or better than) books by other writers, not because they happen to be written in Melbourne or Toronto. But I don’t think one can hammer and batter enough at this anachronistic British superiority complex – and it’s that dreary leftover that prompts an Ian Hamilton to his polite sneers, and Peter Craven and Michael Heyward to their outburst of pent-up frustration and resentment. It has to go. The revolution happens daily, mercifully; so, unfortunately, does the restoration, on the typewriters of the Hamiltons. Looking to the interests and well-being not of an old colonial master but of the future vitality of literature, all one can sensibly say is: good luck to the revolution – and may it happen within.

Michael Hulse
University of Cologne

Friend of Rupert Brooke

SIR: How did Ka Cox pronounce her first name?

Geoffrey Cuming
Oxford

As in ‘car’

Editor, ‘London Review’

Cox

SIR: Several reviewers of the recent book about the Neo-Pagans have remarked upon Rupert Brooke’s notorious party trick. The poet would apparently dive into the river, naked but flaccid, and emerge moments later sporting a fully-fledged erection. Only one reviewer – John Bayley in the Guardian – proffered an explanation: he suggested that the sudden coldness of the water was the transmogrifying factor. Me and my mates have tried to emulate Rupert on several occasions but with nary an inch of success. Cold water, indeed, and pace Professor Bayley, has had the opposite effect from that desired. Is there something wrong with us? Has industrial effluent deprived England’s waterways of some conjuring micro-organism? Or could it have been, as one of our number sourly observed as he rose from the waves for the umpteenth time with no more than an acorn to show for his endeavours, that there was artifice involved in the original event? Had Brooke been wearing some cunningly concealed prosthesis – which was perhaps triggered by the impact of striking the surface of the water – it seems more than possible that those innocent neo-Pagans might well have been deceived. Can any of your readers offer a solution, be it literary, aquatic or psycho-sexual?

Bruno Nightingale
London SE22

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