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Letters

Vol. 11 No. 6 · 16 March 1989

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I could have fancied her

‘But Ms Dickinson, come off it! is far prettier than Henry Kissinger, even if she won’t see fifty again, and I doubt her boyfriends urge her to put a bag over her head unless that is what they always like to do.’ Come off what, Ms Carter (LRB, 16 February)? Neither Kissinger nor bags over heads are mentioned in my Beauty in History: Society, Politics and Personal Appearance c. 1500 to the Present, though, as it happens, I support the sentiment. Indeed, there is far more in the book about ugly men (David Hume, John Wilkes, Thomas Turner, Dudley Ryder, Oliver Goldsmith, Alexander Pope, assorted American Presidents, Louis Napoleon, Edwad VII) than about ugly women, though I do make the point that far from being universally powerful, some were deeply miserable. In the six months since publication I have learned a number of lessons, including: a. literary editors (male usually) believe that anything mentioning ‘beauty’ should automatically go to a female reviewer; and b. female reviewers, if they do not immediately encounter the comforting myths of the women’s magazines and the routine feminist denunciations of male oppression, are not prepared to contemplate the possibility that the author might have other serious purposes in mind. How incidentally, does Ms Carter know that I had a ‘perfectly straight face’ in using the phrase ‘lovely cavorting dolly birds’? In fact, as anyone not obsessed with being outraged would have appreciated, I was mimicking the language of the Sixties (as when, in defending Nell Gwyn, ‘the tart who consorted with Royalty’, I was mimicking the tones of the Establishment which calumnied her – a point lost on another female reviewer, equally set upon taking offence). My book sought, however fumblingly, to open up an entirely new area of historical investigation, bringing out, in particular, the manner in which good looks, in males and females, have become an autonomous characteristic of high value. This, in the age of Dan Quayle, is a matter of some significance, worthy of the kind of knowledgable survey one counts on the London Review to provide: what a pity your usually perceptive reviewer let silly idées fixes prevent her from writing it.

Arthur Marwick
London NW3

Angela Carter writes: As is well known within my circle, I use the name ‘Angela Carter’ only in order to gain publication by feminist presses and am in reality a Church of England vicar. I hope this assuages at least some of the humiliation Arthur Marwick felt at being reviewed by a woman.

Thatcherism

Inviting a Labour MP to review Thatcherism is like asking an atheist to review theism: you get what you expect but you’re none the wiser. Some of Gordon Brown’s assertions (LRB, 2 February) are plainly wrong – North Sea oil revenue has contributed to a £70 billion increase in Britain’s net external assets, for instance – while others are mischievous: unemployment in Britain is the lowest in the EEC and less than half the rate of Italy’s or Spain’s. If Thatcherism is so unsuccessful, why is it that Mrs Thatcher’s economic policies have been emulated all over Europe, including Socialist Spain? Simply because they are seen to be the only policies which work. Here in Madrid, in the seventh year of a Socialist government, our economic policies include most of those which Gordon Brown denounces: the emphasis on monetary policy versus fiscal, the sale of public assets to the private sector, encouraging individual arrangements for pensions and home ownership. Like Britain, Spain has just tightened, again, the money supply and increased interest rates to cool what is evidently an overheated economy – and that with 18 per cent unemployment. Mrs Thatcher is one of the Spanish Socialist Government’s least favourite Europeans, but they have had the good sense to adopt her policies which work. Yes, they have upset the UGT (Socialist union). But the Socialist Workers’ Party has also won two elections in a row and is the favourite party to win the 1990 elections. Why doesn’t the Labour Party look to its more successful cousins?

Living and travelling abroad, I’m constantly amazed at the respect and admiration in which Mrs Thatcher is held. It’s understandable in America, where she is actually liked, but more difficult to understand in Europe, where she’s often disliked for her abrasive character and dictatorial instincts. This sneaking admiration is for her determination, which – take a deep breath, Mr Brown – broke the Union stranglehold on the British economy, won the war in the Falklands and sticks up for Britain’s interests in the EEC. It seems to me that the Labour Party has consistently underestimated Mrs Thatcher’s staying-power. Gordon Brown MP perpetuates this error with the head-in-the-sand affirmation that ‘overall it is the general philosophy of the Labour Party … that is more in tune with that of the electorate.’

Richard Crosfield
Madrid

Child Abuse

As a child psychiatrist and consultant-trainer in psychiatric aspects of child abuse for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Crimes Against Children Division and the Florida Institute for Law Enforcement – and as a reader of literary texts – I would urge readers of the London Review of Books to look again at Michael Mason’s article on child sexual abuse in the issue of 10 November 1988. While the piece is ostensibly a review of five books on the Cleveland scandal, the position it takes on the nature, morality and effects of child sexual abuse stands on its own; Mason also takes a very clear personal stand on the issue of sex with children. His words are those which organised (male) abusers love to see in print: abusers, he tells us, ‘are not deficient or unwell, and if this is the only argument available against them, there will soon be a thriving Incest-Lib movement.’ ‘When the sexual acts involve no injury at all [sic],’ he assures his readers, ‘or the child is relatively mature, say at least twelve, what grounds are available, in the codes of most of us, for condemning the adult abuser?’ Which ‘most of us’?

Ample research has been available to Mr Mason for a number of years which documents the profound and enduring consequences of the sexual abuse of children. If Mr Mason is aware of it, he has dismissed it for his readers with a watered-down version of the less striking consequences, presented ostensibly as an extension of ‘the scope of consequentialist arguments (in an older terminology, utilitarian arguments) against child sex-abuse beyond the area of physical injury’. The studies supporting such consequences, Mr Mason tells us, ‘claim that victims of sex-abuse tend to experience various kinds of psychological and social disturbance in adult life. But these outcomes are not inevitable, being more in the way of statistical tendencies, and the notions of disturbance involved … can be unsatisfactory: “failure to form stable relationships", for instance’ [emphasis added]. ‘Perhaps incest can be expected sometimes to involve mild injury,’ Mason states, but ‘even with this proviso, are we all confidently opposed to incest?’ Those of us who must deal with its subtle and gross consequences are. As is repeatedly the case in Mason’s review, one has to ask ‘which “we" is he referring to?’ ‘Anal dilatation, for example, is agreed, even by those who believe it to denote abuse, to be a transient phenomenon.’ This ‘no observable physical harm = no real harm‘ argument is well-known to law-enforcement agencies, Child Protection Teams, paediatricians, child and adolescent psychiatrists, and attorneys who represent children in this country. Mason, however, does not appear to take child sexual abuse so seriously: ‘It starts to look as if Higgs and Wyatt were a little fuddy-duddy, and their enemies rather more up-to-date, rather more in tune with the sexual liberation of our time.’ Review – or position paper? Let the reader judge.

Denis Donovan
Children’s Centre for Developmental Psychiatry, St Petersburg, Florida

Michael Mason writes: By inexplicably ignoring the first part of my discussion of the Cleveland affair, Dr Donovan has very seriously distorted my views. The paragraphs from which he quotes were by way of an exploration of the attitudes that may underlie the bizarre hostility with which the pediatricians and social services at Cleveland have been regarded. The unfairness of the reaction was the subject of the first part of my piece, where I strove to indicate that the doctors, in particular, did well in a distressing predicament. Those who vilified them (Stuart Bell MP, for example) have behaved as if no amount of successful rescuing of children from abuse can outweigh even one unnecessary separation of a child from its family. I argued that the enemies of Higgs and Wyatt, if they feel any real disapproval of child sex-abuse, must accept that at some level of successful diagnosis the wrong diagnoses will be tolerable. I happen to agree with Dr Donovan that abuse is a terrible thing (and my opening paragraph sought to register such a feeling as strongly as possible), and I believe that the roughly 75 per cent of correct diagnoses implied in the Butler-Sloss report vindicates the behaviour of the doctors. This figure – or an even higher one – has just received some authoritative support from other Cleveland area doctors. Given his repugnance for child sex-abuse, Dr Donovan must surely agree that two of his English medical colleagues have been shamefully treated (and the tackling of abuse inhibited, by the way). Why does he not lend his authority to a vindication of them, instead of attacking me?

Point of View

I was interested to read Chris Richards’s remarks about Barbara Vine’s novel The House of Stairs (Letters, 2 March). As the Executive Director of the Association to Combat Huntington’s Chorea, I can perhaps offer a non-literary but fundamental view on The House of Stairs: Ms Vine uses the disease throughout the book. Huntington’s Chorea has been described as ‘the worst condition which can now befall a human being’ and one in a thousand of the population of the UK is thought to be affected in one way or another by it, with perhaps six thousand actual sufferers at any one time. It would seem to me that an author contemplating such a sensitive and devastating issue would be even more careful than usual to ensure the accuracy of her basic research. Sadly – and surprisingly in an author of Barbara Vine’s (Ruth Rendell’s) eminence – this research appears to have been disturbingly superficial. One error of fact runs through the narrative: Ms Vine is clearly under the misapprehension that Huntington’s Chorea cannot manifest itself in anyone over the age of around fifty. There is a number of statements by the first-person narrator to that effect: ‘she knew, none better … that if the parent who carries the gene reaches fifty without it, you too will never get it.’ If only that were true, what a relief it would be to many of our suffering families! There are other errors and comments to which it is easy to take exception. The disease is said to be ‘madness of a kind … the schizoid delusions associated with our inheritance’. Untrue: insanity and delusions are rarely involved in Huntington’s Chorea. The sufferer is all too aware of the inevitable and irreversible breakdown of physical and mental functioning, and one of the horrors of the condition is that it traps a thinking, feeling mind in a twisting shambles of a body. The pre-symptomatic test which is available for a few individuals at risk to the disease is referred to as requiring blood samples from ‘at least seven’ relatives. Untrue. Often as few as two samples are required from other family members, and on rare occasions only one other relative need be involved. The narrator refers to a child of an ‘at risk’ parent itself being born ‘with a 50-50 chance of Huntington’s Chorea’. Untrue: the statistical risk for such a child is one in four.

R.V. Bates
Hinckley, Leicestershire

Pffwungg

A footnote to Stan Smith’s brilliant forensic account of Auden’s ‘What siren zooming is sounding our coming’ (Letters, 16 February). The source for ‘pffwungg’, Auden’s apparent nonce word for the noise of a gas jet, is the ‘Circe’ episode of Ulysses, when Stephen smashes the chandelier in Bella Cohen’s brothel: ‘THE GASJET: Pwfungg!’ Which explains a lot. Perhaps too much. Once assume a deliberate allusion and it is not difficult to establish a parallel. It’s possible, though, that Auden rewrote his final stanza, eliminating the ‘pffwungg’, to destroy the evidence of a youthful theft. That siren zooming may be a police car.

Craig Raine
Oxford

Goodbye to Mahfouz

With his rejoinder (Letters, 2 February) Edward Said has dug himself still deeper into the mire, for he clearly still thinks that Awlad Haritna is a trilogy and now imagines that its action can be dated. Still, even without knowing that book, he should have read my letter carefully enough to see that I was pointing out that the Trilogy (Bayn al-Qasrayn et cetera) culminates not in 1952 but in 1944.

Philip Stewart
Oxford Forestry Institute

The Cat

The name of Tehran Airport is always transliterated as ‘Mehrabad’, not ‘Mehrebad’, as in Robert Fisk’s ‘Doers of Mischief on Earth’ (LRB, 19 January). Secondly, there is no letter ‘h’ in either the Farsi or the English name of the Persian monetary unit, the rial. Finally, as any number of wry Iranian jokes testify, irrespective of how many cats Khalkhali may or may not have strangled, Montazeri is Gorbeh, the cat.

Malcolm Evans
St George’s Private College, Bolton

Unlisted

The correspondence about the papers of John Meade Falkner not listed in the Location Register (Letters, 8 December 1988) prompted me to see whether the volumes contain reference to his material among the Blackwood’s files at the National Library of Scotland. They do not. Whether it is a comforting thought or not, these papers show that publishers have always been dilatory in their habits. It is extraordinary that The Lost Stradivarius sold scarcely two thousand copies in the first fifty years of its existence. But, then, the Great War drew a veil over so much Edwardian fiction. There is surely a thesis to be written on the Nelson Library, which gives a marvellous survey of that world.

Frederick Barker
Newbold Heath, Leicestershire

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