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Letters

Vol. 11 No. 18 · 28 September 1989

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Blocking Butler

The complaint of Christopher Price (Letters, 17 August) about the ‘disinformation which both M15 and M16 have mounted against any politician of the left or centre, whether Labour or Conservative’ would command more attention if he himself had a greater care for the facts. In the review of the second volume of Alistair Horne’s Macmillan (LRB, 27 July), Ian Gilmour records the view of George Wigg in the memorandum he delivered to Harold Wilson before the Commons Profumo debate: ‘In my opinion, Profumo was never at any time a security risk.’ Yet, in the debate, Wigg opined: ‘the idea that at that stage Ivanov and Profumo were not security risks in the sense that they had not laid themselves open to blackmail is nonsense.’ Wilson made 27 references in the debate to the belief that Profumo, in one way or another, was a security risk: ‘For political reasons he [the PM] was gambling with national security.’ That this, to Price, is acceptable, even knockabout stuff, is indicated by his description of Profumo’s infatuation with Keeler as ‘the Profumo/Keeler/Ivanov bedroom rotations’, which, as Honeytrap shows, was a press invention.

Gilmour, in his review, rightly queries Horne’s assessment of the soundings of Cabinet and Commons which were taken by the Lord Chancellor and the Chief Whip in October 1963, and from which Lord Home emerged as successor to Harold Macmillan. D.R. Thorpe, in his biography Selwyn Lloyd, has put it succinctly: ‘by Friday 11 October the Chief Whip, the Lord Chancellor and the Party’s senior backbencher were all playing for Home.’ Neither the PM’s medical advisers nor those at the Palace appear to have transmitted to Macmillan the crucial uraemic fact attendant upon his condition: that he would be in much better health after a successful operation than he had been for many months prior to it – rendering foolish a resignation while he was ill and in pain; his doctor’s memorandum of 14 October and the advice proffered by chance to Lord Aldington cannot have stressed the point sufficiently.

Horne’s second volume of his official biography is magnificent but intermittently flawed. It is to be hoped that, before the book’s second printing, the errors in it will be corrected. Amongst those not already mentioned in the press are the following: nc fair-minded person who attended Lord Hailsham’s Party Conference speech at Blackpool could corroborate either Horne’s statement, ‘at times Hailsham seemed almost incoherent,’ or his description of Hailsham’s disclamation of his peerage, which was published next day in the press; his account of the Bay of Pigs invasion is a travesty of the facts, as a reading of Theodore Draper’s Castroism and Peter Wyden’s Bay of Pigs will show; the Times was the only newspaper not to publish or quote from President Kennedy’s congratulatory letter to Macmillan of 8 October 1963, a fact emphasised in Randolph Churchill’s The Fight for the Tory Leadership and reflecting the mutual dislike felt between Macmillan and ‘Halier-than-Thou’, the paper’s editor.

M.R. Meadmore
London W12

Blaming teachers

The question of who owns the English language and has a lawful right to interpret and teach it has been reopened, it seems, by Jane Miller (LRB, 17 August). ‘There are significant confusions here,’ she observes, after quoting a number of criticisms of the standard of English among recent generations of undergraduates at British universities. The critics are ‘irritable persons’; also, later, ‘tetchy pundits’ who are joining in ‘the abjectly ill-informed and irrelevant debate …’ Prince Charles ‘splutters’, Hugh Trevor-Roper ‘dreams of Greek particles’. Not much is gained by calling a debate ‘irrelevant’ without saying to what it is irrelevant; we can do our best to deal with the problem only where we find it, which for university teachers is with our students. It does not seem irrelevant to us when we have been confronted in recent years by a steep and alarming decline in the use and comprehension of the language, which manifests itself in incoherent writing and consequently in incompetence in developing coherent arguments. As for spelling, which I place at the lower end of the spectrum of concerns, intelligent people sometimes have a spelling ‘block’, but the phenomenon becomes more disturbing when it is only one symptom of a general linguistic impairment.

The recent phase of this debate was actually provoked by a comment of the Oxford University examining board in Modern History in 1988 on what it called evidence of ‘creeping illiteracy’ among finals candidates. At a subsequent faculty meeting at which I had spoken, I was requested by the Chairman to write a paper for the Faculty’s next meeting. In this paper – in which I added the word ‘galloping’ – I cited some cases of the misuse of English in the House of Lords, on the BBC and in the Times, but went on to argue that university history tutors have a responsibility for teaching clear writing to their own students, which they cannot brush aside with the disclaimer, ‘Our job is teaching history, not English,’ on the grounds that the latter ends as well as begins in the schools. I said: ‘There can be no history without knowledge, and there can be no understanding of history without interpretation, which necessarily involves an ability to explain.’ And also, a bit later: ‘Most of the people we teach may be able to survive twenty years later with only a tenuous grasp of whether the Normans did or did not introduce feudalism into England, but they emphatically will need to know how to construct a sequential argument and to elucidate the analysis of a complex problem.’ I would obviously not wish to confine these arguments to the discipline of history.

The publication of this paper in the Times HIgher Educational Supplement (9 June) led to correspondence from which I soon learnt that other British universities had already begun to introduce remedial courses in English structure and usage. Ms Miller says there is ‘no evidence whatsoever to suggest that things were otherwise in the past.’ Well, ‘whatsoever’ is strong language; British universities, so far as I know, have not found it necessary to establish remedial courses in the past. I am not sure whether Ms Miller does not wish to admit that a serious problem exists, or does not want teachers to be blamed. Or perhaps she thinks that it is undemocratic to maintain that a connection exists between the principles of grammar and ultimate clarity of thought and expression. (Some people do think this.) I am sorry to say that I agree with her about the lack of will in this country ‘to provide excellent education for all children’. But that does not explain all the shortcomings of the education that the country does provide. Soon after this debate had broken out (and I was happy to welcome Prince Charles as an ally, though I think he should take more care in selecting his own staff) I heard some portentous official duffer on the BBC assuring us that in the Midland working-class areas where he teaches it would be pointless to tell children about past participles (or words to that effect) because they wouldn’t know what on earth you meant. Here one wishes to agree with Ms Miller’s axiom of good teaching that failure should not be blamed on the learners.

Our critics imply that we are a bunch of toffee-nosed élitists, no doubt using the language as an instrument of class exploitation: but if so, I fear that I am the kind of élitist who finds it offensive to suggest that working-class children (or immigrant children) either cannot understand or will never need to understand the finer distinctions of which the language is capable. The diagnosis of the recent deterioration needs to be directed towards the theories of educationalists more than to the will of politicians. I do not recede from a remark I made that a ‘softening process’ came over English educational philosophy around the Sixties – it had appeared earlier in the United States – which seems to have infected a significant proportion of those now charged with teaching with the conviction that any form of mental effort inflicts brain damage on children. I and some of my irritable colleagues seem to have a higher opinion of children than many of those who teach them.

One of my correspondents told me, however, that the trouble began in the Fifties with HMIs going round discouraging teachers from teaching grammar on the ground that it stifles children’s creativity. I have never understood this argument. Of course you can teach anything, including literature, and probably creativity, in a way that stifles creativity: that is a reason for doing it well, not for pretending that it doesn’t matter, and wiping it off the educational agenda. I believe that this has been a substantial source of the decline, and has nothing to do with social class or political will.

Our young people are brought up in a world in which visual and graphic means of communication overwhelm written forms. But it has yet to be demonstrated that visual communication makes for clearer thinking or more rigorous analysis, or that it conveys a level of understanding comparable to that of the written word for either depth or permanence. That will never cease to be a responsiblity of universities, but it is one that begins in the schools, and it should be returned to them. A lot of children don’t go to universities.

J.R. Pole
Rhodes Professor of American History and Institutions, Oxford

OED2

It is of course always pleasant to read a review listing the shortcomings of a new, 20-volume dictionary which one has no intention of buying. However, Charlotte Brewer, in her indictment of the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (LRB, 31 August), makes one continual mistake: to wit, the apparent assumption that no other dictionaries exist: ‘More worrying is the failure … to include many words from half a dozen recent American dictionaries … if the OED passes them over, how will historians two hundred years hence make sense of many aspects of our popular culture?’ The answer is simple: if you want to know in detail about American usage from a particular period, consult an American dictionary of that period. In any event, to find out about such ‘trivial and (possibly) transient’ words, surely no one would turn to a dictionary where, between the start of publication of the first and of the second editions, there is a gap of some hundred years. A great deal of words would, in that time, have come, served their purpose and left, leaving no trace; the dictionary would simply fail to record many of them, particularly those beginning with the letter A.

Later again Ms Brewer writes: the new edition ‘did not attempt to provide modern examples for words and senses which were recorded in OED1 and provided with at least one 19th-century quotation there, and are still current … Is it really possible that usage has remained so static? And indeed, in many cases it has not: the problem is sometimes that current usages are not recorded in OED2, sometimes that this dictionary gives a misleading indication of the current acceptability or frequency of earlier usages.’ Ms Brewer cites the example of greed, where OED2 makes no connection with food, and then of the adverb darkling: ‘No indication is given that the word is now … strictly limited to poetic use. How will this be useful to the dictionary-user two hundred years hence?’ No doubt it will not: but the sensible dictionary-user two hundred years hence will turn to a dictionary produced more regularly and more able to keep up with trends in usage. The outstanding example on this side of the Atlantic is, as many LRB readers will testify, Chambers. Let us see how it fares: the first words under the definition of greedy are ‘having a voracious appetite’; the unfortunate adverb is listed as darklings and marked poet. (the form darkling itself is not so marked).

Elsewhere Ms Brewer complains ‘the entry on finalise gives us no clue that thirty years ago this word was fiercely resisted in the States.’ But it is not an American dictionary – nor, obviously, is it being published thirty years ago. As to more contemporary disputes, Chambers marks the offending usage of hopefully as coll., of refute as loosely and of swell as slang. Of the use of infer to mean ‘to imply’, it remarks, ‘a use now often condemned, but generally accepted for over four centuries’ – a nice example of the wry humour which endears the dictionary to so many users.

The moral is clear. For precise details of contemporary usages, turn to a dictionary which is published regularly. If any readers are yet unconvinced I suggest that they compare the two dictionaries’ definition of Sloane Ranger. OED2: of, pertaining to or characteristic of ‘an upper-class and fashionable but conventional young woman in London. Also occasionally extended to any member of the class to which such young women belong.’ This is followed by a number of quotations which nevertheless – perhaps because they are out of context – never quite capture the flavour imparted by Chambers: ‘A young person, typically upper-(middle-) class and female, favouring expensively casual clothing suggestive of rural pursuits, speaking in distinctively clipped tones, evincing certain predictable enthusiasms and prejudices and resident (during the week) in the Sloane Square area of London or a comparable part.’

I imagine that the complete corpus of editions of Chambers published this century would take up less shelf space than one 20-volume OED, and the wise historian two hundred years hence will do well to invest in it.

Mark Wainwright
Trinity College, Cambridge

As time goes by

Freddy Hurdis-Jones (Letters, 31 August) attributes the words of ‘These Foolish Things’ to Jack Strachey. I thought Eric Maschwitz wrote the words and Jack Strachey the music. But how does one check these things. The ODQ is no help. Those who compile dictionaries of quotations seem to have little respect for the great lyricists. Noel Coward and Cole Porter scrape in, but usually you look in vain for Hart, Gershwin, Mercer or Loesser. It’s a scandal.

On the same page we have Norman Stone trying to make as many spelling mistakes as possible and absent-mindedly getting ‘officially’ right. So few of my pupils are able to add ‘-ly to adjectives ending ‘-al’ that I’m offering them a packet of crisps for each word they find that really does end ‘-aly’. So far I’ve paid up for: waly, paly, shaly, scaly, anomaly, mealy, vealy, hydrocephaly, acromegaly, coaly and shoaly. I’m not extending the offer to LRB readers.

Keith Norman
Wimborne, Dorset

Barking up Wordsworth’s tree

Jenny Graham is right to point out that Priestley’s appearance in Copenhagen House is historically inaccurate in that he was living in America by 1795 (Letters, 17 August). But as Jonathan Bate shows (Letters, 18 May), his presence in Gillray’s cartoon is understandable as imaginative caricature. Gillray was not offering a ‘pictorial representation’ of the Corresponding Society as a factual image of the event, although a number of individuals known to have attended the mass meeting do appear in the cartoon. Priestley’s sullen, saturnine figure is, as Ms Graham says, at odds with Gillray’s earlier and comparatively vital likenesses of him. In Copenhagen House he appears at the focal point of the cartoon, but as a spectator ab extra. His figure is a reminder that – as Ms Graham says – ‘Priestley exercised, even in exile, a profound influence upon English intellectual life’; his rueful detachment is congruent with his forced retreat abroad.

That Gillray’s likeness of Priestley should be ‘unrecognisable except possibly for the wig and the nose’, as Jenny Graham puts it, is wholly unsurprising. How else does she think caricature works?

Nicholas Roe
University of São Paulo, Brazil

Heil Heidegger

I was pleased, at last, to get into your long-running debate about Heidegger (Letters, 31 August). J.P. Stern writes a nasty letter, and I squirmed all the way through. We academics have to put up with this sort of thing, of course. However, the tone of his last words (‘let alone from Mr Jones’) forces me to remind you that my own letter to you (Letters, 27 July) had actually been about Mrs Thatcher’s universities.

G.O. Jones
Oxford

Two correspondents of the same surname have been active on our Letters page. There came a point when we failed to keep up with these Joneses.

Editors, ‘London Review’

Poetic Licence

John Levett (LRB, 17 August) might like to know that singeing of hair is still administered at Trumper’s, Curzon Street, London W1.

David Mills
London W1

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