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Letters

Vol. 13 No. 22 · 21 November 1991

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Homage to Wilson and Callaghan

You sent me Ross McKibbin’s piece (LRB, 24 October), which I naturally read with a lot of interest. Perhaps he gives too much credit to Harold Wilson and myself: but we have suffered too long from gross exaggeration the other way, so I certainly do not complain about Ross McKibbin’s contribution. I always thought, if only from an electoral point of view, how foolish was the attitude of many Labour activists in the Eighties in disowning the previous Labour government. When I listen to the radio I frequently find myself contrasting their attitude with that of present-day Tory backbenchers, who even now are capable of defending what is clearly indefensible to everyone else, when our record was so much better. However, it is rather nice to cease to be a kind of non-person.

James Callaghan
House of Lords

Now that Neil Kinnock has managed to rid the Labour Party of most of its ideological baggage and thus solved Wilson’s problem of a divided party, the danger is that, however well his government administers things, the style will once again be bland. What Thatcher seems to have taught us in the Eighties is that the excitement of ideology, though it often makes an appalling mess of good government, seems a necessary component to the winning of elections. If, therefore, Labour is to rediscover and celebrate the history of 1964 to 1979, it must look to the exciting radical peaks, like the abortion, divorce and homosexual reforms of the Sixties, as well as to the technically successful but politically grey Callaghanesque administrative track record.

Christopher Price
Leeds

Sweden’s Turn for the Worse

Alan Brownjohn’s smug and superficial report on Sweden’s recent election was distressing (LRB, 10 October). Is this how we must be made to appear before the world? A threnody for the apparent downfall of yet another socialist vanguard society was perhaps to be expected from the LRB, but I can hardly recognise the country he claims to have visited, much less the electoral climate he describes.

How did he manage to miss the point so completely? Well, he seems to have spent a lot of time watching television, never a smart thing to do if you hunger for complex knowledge, and to have listened with pious attention to the likes of Sture Nordh, ‘chairman of the large local government officers’ union’ – a decent enough chap, I’m told, but clearly bound by his oath of office to desire nothing but the same procedure as last year, only lots more of it.

So what is the point? Quite simply this: the welfare state, as pioneered by Sweden and applauded by the world, is ceasing to function, and there is no way that eight million Swedes can go on paying for what’s become of it. Taxes can’t be raised any further but will, in fact, have to be lowered (a process actually initiated under the Social Democrats), to help Swedish industry recover its productivity and to discourage the amazing spread of corrupt fringe benefits, tax evasion and plain stealing. Such taxes as will be collectable can be expected to keep the welfare machinery in place and ticking over, civil servants and local government employees can probably count on salaries being met and consciousness-raising seminars paid for: but the supposed product of it all, the actual tiresome welfare, which has been getting very shoddy, will become shoddier still, in some areas more or less extinct. The dream is dying. Horrible reality looms. People fear having to go into hospital, fear being mugged in the streets, fear asking their children what they are taught in school, fear their children, fear growing old and helpless.

I might offer myself as a case in point. I was born in 1934 and when I was a kid in school during the war there wasn’t a lot of welfare around, but then my parents didn’t pay a lot of taxes either. As I grew older, the welfare state got going, sorting out a number of things that certainly needed sorting out; and just about when it went into overdrive I graduated into taxpaying, and I have continued to pay my entire working life, at increasingly confiscatory levels. I have been doing this, if not gladly, then at least in the expectation that promises made along the way would be kept. In my old age I would be getting what I had paid for, right? So shut up.

I now expect to retire in not so many years – and where, I wonder, are the massive funds to pay for my various retirement needs and benefits? The official proclamation hasn’t been made yet, it will probably take some time to come up with the proper market-oriented disguise, but the bitter knowledge has nevertheless begun to percolate through the system: the funds are just not going to be there. The Pyramid Game is reaching its predestined end. It was all just a con, and my generation is the crucially conned one. We shall have to pay all over again, to the smooth entrepreneurs that are now oozing out of the woodwork (this is being ideologised as ‘privatisation’), or hope to be taken on by some privately-funded benevolent association. Yes, ‘charity’ is making a big comeback, ideologically at least, cheered on by spokesmen for the Apparat who would prefer to spend what tax monies may remain on projects dearer to their hearts than the care and feeding of me and the other dummies in our declining years. Some version of this rather fundamental angst would have been told to Alan Brownjohn by just about every Swede from the obeying classes, if he had bothered to ask what we were worried about instead of just assuming that Sweden’s only current moral problem is how to keep the socialist banners flying in the increasingly adverse winds of world politics.

Worries such as these, obviously, were what put the New Democrats and the Christian Democrats into Parliament and gave the Conservatives a chance, if a rather meagre one, to grab the rings of power. I carry no brief for the New Democrats, painted by Brownjohn in the demonic colours dear to every Swedish power-broker and bureaucrat. Organising rapidly from scratch, they have indeed fielded some rather unappetising people. Bert Karlsson (sic), the party co-founder, is a bit of an ass, and asses will bray: but it isn’t immediately clear to me, as it must be to Brownjohn when he echoes the ‘stern rebuke’ of the pompous Speaker (now ex-, by the way), that Karlsson’s first obligation, having been elected on a stridently anti-Establishment platform, should have been to kowtow to that woolly symbol of our Establishment, the Riksdag. All important decisions are taken elsewhere, its debates are a joke (why do you think we admire Britain’s Parliamentary proceedings, available on cable television, so much?), party wheelhorses traditionally fill its seats. So why shouldn’t Karlsson put his feet up? It’s about all the place seems to be good for. A dose of coarseness might even be morally preferable to the miasma of log-rolling, pay-offs and bien-pensant rhetoric which has taken the place of politics.

To the undercurrent of despair caused by the accelerating decay of the fabled welfare system has recently been added another, intensifying factor which Brownjohn hasn’t deigned to notice. We’ve been seeing socialism lose its bearings – but we’ve also been given a good long look at the unacceptable face of capitalism: the financial merry-go-round of overheated property speculation which gave such a very special stench to the late Eighties. This will enter history as a scandal on a scale comparable to the Savings and Loans mess in the United States.

Those pillars of society, the bankers – never averse to telling me fatly how to manage my life and how to invest my tiny all – really proved to have rather less sense than Bingo ladies. On the assumption that property values would go up and up and up, for ever, they handed out billions of badly-secured loans to facilitate the speculations of a number of non-producing sharks and asset-strippers. When, strangely, property values didn’t keep rising, the recession forcing them down instead, the speculators found themselves unable to pay the banks what they owed on their multiplying acquisitions. These gentlemen, I am pleased to report, are now going down the drain one after the other (though the occasional million may well have been salted away abroad where the cops and the taxmen are unlikely to stumble over it), and the most incompetent banks have taken gigantic losses. It was on the news the other day that we may be talking about some sixty billion crowns, which will have to be found or at least somehow guaranteed by the state – i.e. the long-suffering taxpayer – because you can’t let the banking system collapse, can you? Is it a wonder that a climate of mistrust, irresponsibility and greed is growing like cancer? That immigrants and refugees – blameless as the great majority certainly are, guilty as some of them equally certainly are of adding their own piquant strands to our lush homegrown repertoire of criminality, corruption and sloth – will be victimised by eruptions caused by our national psychosis? We Swedes have been lying to each other for too long about too many things. Who can be sure any more what the truths are?

I am not, as may be reasonably clear by now, a socialist. Do I, then, expect great things from the coalition government now in power? Not really. The opposition parties managed to make a sad hash of things in 1976. The brave pre-election words of the Conservatives are now being eaten daily, to keep a four-party government performing under a Conservative prime minister, Carl Bildt. The real and possibly disruptive priorities of the Liberal, Centre and Christian Democrat partners haven’t yet emerged. Bengt Westerberg, the nice, possibly over-nice Liberal leader, is now the Minister of Social Affairs and obviously hasn’t a clue how to go about dismantling the system that brought him forth. As for Olof Johansson, the Centre leader – but no, I won’t even try to explain Johansson or to forecast his actions.

I should think that Alan Brownjohn may rest easy. In just a few years he can come back and have another pleasant visit with Sture Lundh and Mona Sahlin, short skirts and all. It is to be hoped that there will be enough left in the till to pay for their lunch, as they get together to rejoice in the staying-power of socialism in Sweden.

Göran Bengtson
Stockholm

Browning and Modernism

In his article on Browning (LRB, 10 October), Donald Davie, quoting the poem beginning, ‘Nobly, nobly’ – twice, Mr Davie – ‘Cape St Vincent’, comments, ‘Pronouncing “Africa" “Afrikay" pushes poetic language away from common usage,’ and suggests that ‘Browning skewed his rhyme schemes … deliberately.’ Perhaps because I was brought up on music-hall songs, I have always read this rhyme to myself as ‘Afrikay’, led to this no doubt by the opening lines of ‘Percy of Pimlico’:

When I go out, the people shout
‘Here he comes! Clear the way!’
They think I’m a millionaire, you know,
From Johannesburg, in South Afrikay

I doubt whether the writer of this deliberately skewed his rhyme schemes: ‘Afrikay’ probably sounded right to Cockney ears of that, and Browning’s, time.

Freddy Hurdis-Jones
Malta

It seems that Browning added the second of these ‘noblys’ when he came to revise the text of the poem in question which is given in the edition in question.

Editors, ‘London Review’

Conrad and Impressionism

In his review of Jeffrey Meyer’s Joseph Conrad: A Biography (LRB, 26 September), John Bayley asserts that ‘Conrad – no admirer of modern art – compared’ Paul Gachet’s ‘flat full of paintings’ (by implication, his collection of works by the Impressionists) to ‘the lunatic asylum at Charenton’. This interpretation of Conrad’s letter to Marguerite Poradowska of 2 July 1891 is well-established – even the annotations to the Collected Letters suggest that ‘Conrad is probably referring contemptuously to the so-called “crazy" paintings of the Impressionists’ (Collected Letters, Vol. I, 84). Unfortunately, as Gene Moore has recently demonstrated (‘Conrad and the “School of Charenton" ’, the Joseph Conrad Society 17th Annual International Conference), it is also incorrect. Dr Gachet’s Impressionist paintings were not kept at his Paris flat but in his house in the country, and Conrad’s reference to ‘paintings of the Charenton school’ is not a figurative allusion to the Impressionists, but a quite literal description of the very different kind of painting that decorated the walls of the doctor’s apartment.

Moore’s research not only provides the correct reference for this allusion in Conrad’s letter, but also, of course, re-opens the question of Conrad’s attitude towards Impressionist painting.

Robert Hampson
Royal Holloway and Bedford New College,

Good Old English

Valentine Cunningham (Letters, 7 November) has taken exception to my review of the Cambridge Companion to Old English, in which I reminded readers that Old English is the earliest part of the English literary heritage; is not taught in schools; thus needs underwriting in English courses if students are to know the complete extent of the tradition. This safeguard is needed if workaday English departments here are to compete with better-endowed North American centres drawing on stronger graduate programmes and widespread interest in the pre-Colonial past. Dr Cunningham, where he is, may take that past for granted. But what do his students think of the compulsory Old English which caused them ‘so much misery’? Only 40 per cent of students responded to an Oxford survey last term, but of the third-years who voiced their opinion, 6 per cent were unsure, 23 per cent against compulsion and 71 per cent in favour of it.

Richard North
University College London

Verboten

Mr Peter Marsden (Letters, 24 October) was of course quite right to reproach me for saying Ungeboren meant anything at all, and certainly not ‘undepraved’. Martin Amis gave his character the name Unverdorben, a word I dutifully looked up. Having ascertained that it meant ‘undepraved’, I then converted it to ‘Ungeboren’, for reasons which cannot possibly concern anybody except me and, possibly, my analyst.

Frank Kermode
Cambridge

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