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Letters

Vol. 16 No. 22 · 24 November 1994

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Trouble at the Ritz

Mr Jonathan Aitken is not, as it happens, the first Tory minister to get into a spot of bother as a result of staying in the Paris Ritz. During the winter of 1939-40, when I was working in Paris with Polish exiles, Leslie Hore-Belisha, then Minister of War, came over from London. He surprised the Embassy by insisting on staying in the Ritz rather than with the Ambassador. In the event his visit was curtailed by a feverish cold, which forced him to rush back to London in his RAF transport plane, all wrapped up in blankets like a mummy.

A week after his abrupt return home a wonderfully packed cylindrical cardboard box was delivered to the Embassy. When this was opened it revealed a dome-shaped support on which reposed a wig, all curled and scented. It had come, addressed to the Ambassador, from the best Paris wig-maker; the box contained a label with the name of Mr Hore-Belisha. Sir Ronald Campbell did not know what to make of it; he felt that there must be some catch somewhere so he wanted a member of his staff to contact the wig-maker who had sent it.

The explanation that was uncovered revealed a little-advertised aspect of the Ritz Hotel’s service. In a hotel of Ritz standards it seems that guests flush valuable items down the water-closets often enough for the management to need to take appropriate precautions. All waste-waters from each room are led down to a sub-basement, where they are discharged from their numbered pipes, onto a grid over which presides a trusty employee with an instrument rather like a croupier’s rake. Thus, when a diamond and ruby necklace appears, it can be fished up and returned to its owner.

One day, a wig was discharged onto this grid, somewhat the worse for its journey. Retrieved, it was hosed down and sent to a Paris wig-maker for a wash and set; it had a label on the inside with a London maker’s address and a serial number. The Paris wig-makers contacted their London confrère to check the number. They had thought it prudent to verify that it really did belong to the tenant of the room, the Right Honourable Leslie Hore-Belisha. The fact that it had been flushed down from his suite did not identify for whose head it had been made: after all, it might have belonged to one of his guests. (It would be interesting to know whether the Al Fayed brothers have been ready to accept the cost of retaining such levels of attention – and even to learn something of their more recent catches.)

The number was identified as being that of Mr Hore-Belisha’s own wig. It seems that on the day it went down the drain the floor staff had realised that things were taking a very bad turn in the Hore-Belisha suite: raised voices, door bangings and sudden departures. It appears that a guest had seized the Minister’s wig and flushed it down the drain, slamming the door behind him as he left. Since the Minister was completely bald, he had decided to catch a bad cold, curtail his stay and go home with a blanket over his head. He had left his spare wig behind in Albany.

Seen in 1994 one can appreciate the better the relative social grace of those times. It has taken me 55 years – not 55 minutes – to present this account for publication. I did not even need to fax the Ritz. To make sure that there are no misunderstandings perhaps I should add that Mr Hore-Belisha’s hotel bill never came up for discussion.

K. Sinclair-Loutit
Rabat, Morocco

An Inspector Calls

John Sutherland (LRB, 10 November) draws attention to the comprehensive inadequacies of the Government’s assessment of teaching quality in English universities, which he describes as an affront to common sense. It is, above all, nonsensical to seek to assess the quality of a whole department of perhaps thirty members and four hundred undergraduates in the course of a visit lasting two and a half days, conducted by a motley team of five assessors drawn from disparate backgrounds and ‘trained’ for two days. Yet Sutherland wants the categories (hitherto ‘excellent’, ‘satisfactory’ and ‘unsatisfactory’) toughened. Unfortunately it seems that his wish is to be fulfilled and that tests will now be applied to six criteria with at least four classifications. This will in time lead directly to funding, performance indicators, top-up fees and individuated accounting. The teaching in the institutions with the poorest resources and the lowest staff-student ratios will plummet and a class structure will be introduced to accord with that in society at large. Sutherland has an extraordinary remedy for the present discontents. He wants to hand over to the Government the decision whether teaching should be carried on in small groups or by ‘cost-effective, technology-aided, large-group methods’. Such an abdication of professional responsibility must encourage the Government to intervene even further in matters where it has already shown its incompetence.

J.A.G. Griffith
Emeritus Professor of Public Law,

McCulture

When a respected fitness expert starts patronising fast-food joints, observers take away the message that Big Macs can’t be bad for you or, worse, that watching your diet can’t matter very much. When a Richard Rorty, renowned as a sophisticated and scrupulous thinker, lapses into propagating trite, received ideas, the message is that those ideas must be OK, or that vigilance against complacent, doctrinaire thinking can’t be all that important. His appraisal of multiculturalism in the US (LRB, 20 October), though more balanced than typical discussions of the topic, is still badly skewed by the kind of unexamined assertions often found in such discussions.

Rorty minimises multiculturalism’s threat. He may be right – but his analysis fails to provide reliable support for that position, because it measures multiculturalism’s influence within overbroad contexts. Whatever danger it presents is not best assessed by looking at American culture overall, as in Rorty’s repeated contrasting of multiculturalists with the religious Right. If a threat exists, its primary impact lies in institutions of higher education (especially the few dozen top universities, which feed so many graduates into leadership positions in management, government, law and the press). These have a tremendous influence (if often an indirect one) on the ideas held by Americans, in particular those in positions of power.

Not only does Rorty write about the US as a whole, rather than the relevant sub-community: when he does focus on higher education, he dilutes the proportion of the ‘Nietzscheanised’ Left by measuring its membership across all universities, obscure as well as influential, and across all disciplines. Moreover, when he estimates that a mere 10 per cent of university teachers of the humanities and social sciences belong to such a Left, the implicit suggestion is that these are opposed by the other 90 per cent, when in fact the percentage of those actively opposing, rather than just quietly accepting or tolerating, the 10 per cent is vastly lower. Perhaps most important, Rorty offers only a static snapshot of the size of this Left, entirely neglecting the question of its growth trend. A 10 per cent that is doubling every five years is quite a different matter from a constant (or declining) 10 per cent. If even Richard Rorty can fall into such rhetorical ruts, then the prospects for a precise, open-minded, unregimented, honest discussion of group-focused social issues seem quite dim.

Lawrence Beyer
Stanford University

It’s Only Roc and Roll

Surely it was no rook chick, as William Gass alleges (LRB, 10 November), that made a meal for the whole crew, nor vengeful rook parents that dropped a rock on the ship which split and sank, only Sindbad surviving? My authority is a tattered volume (Chandus Classics, one and sixpence hardcover) that lived on the catholic shelves of my Scots Presbyterian grandfather’s study. Don’t deprive me of my fabulous ‘roc’.

Hope Robinson
Canterbury

On the Edge

I was pulled up sharply by Mary Hawthorne’s use of the fashionable buzzword ‘parameter’ in her review of The Informers by Bret Easton Ellis, when she wrote that he was ‘pushing to the limit the current parameters of literary transgression’ (LRB, 10 November). In the current edition of Sir Ernest Gowers’s Plain Words we are warned that it is ‘a mathematical term which, it is safe to say, not one in ten of those who use it understands’. The entry in the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary confirms its complex meanings. In the above case one wonders if a simple word like ‘boundaries’ might not have been preferable. The point is possibly worth making because journalists are frequently employing the buzzword inappropriately, even to the extent of using it as an alternative to ‘perimeter’.

James MacGibbon
Manningtree, Essex

Two to Come

John Worthen said in his inaugural lecture at the D.H. Lawrence Centre at the University of Nottingham a week ago that, unless they are corrected, statements of fact become legend. I see that Frank Kermode in his review of four books about D.H. Lawrence (LRB, 10 November) refers to ‘ten more biographies’. It is true that I, as Lawrence’s literary executor, did say those words, but that was four years ago. Since then biographies by Jeffrey Meyers, John Worthen, Keith Sagar, Brenda Maddox, Rosie Jackson, Elaine Feinstein and one or two others have been published and the only two of those ten which have not yet made an appearance are by Mark Kincaid-Weekes and by Janet Byrne; both are scheduled for 1995. There may well be, as Frank Kermode says, ‘many more’ in due course, but they are not yet on the horizon.

Gerald Pollinger
Lawrence Pollinger Ltd,

Doggerel

As one who runs an annual limerick competition in the Comparative Literature Department at Princeton, I was fascinated to read the recent exchange in your periodical. Not only do French limericks already exist, such as the following gem –

Il y avait un jeune homme de Provence
Dont les couilles étaient vraiment immenses.
‘C’est un grand avantage,’
Disait-il, ‘quand je nage,
Mais ça gêne quand je baise ou je danse’

– but more are being created, in spite of the obvious difficulties in transposing a form that depends on stress accents into a syllabic metre. I submit a more anglicising piece on the lately great Jacques Derrida, and a hybrid effort by Christophe Lagier which attempts to reduce Waiting for Godot to lines of six and 12 syllables.

Un garçon qui s’appelle Maître Jacques
A beaucoup de problèmes à sa fac
Car à chaque quest-i-on
Il répond ‘oui et non’ –
Il’ va pas réussir à son bac.

Acte premier

Vladimir pensait nulle chose un peu trop fort,
Pauvre Estragon oubliait demain sans remords.
Grand Dieu qu ‘attendait-il?
L’espoir d’une mort facile?
Une corde même ne suffit à I’ accord …

Acte deuxième

Impotent Pozzo la solution porta:
Un portant Lucky domina et fouetta.
Aveugle comédie,
Qui troubla fort Didi,
Qui dit ‘on y va’ bien que le départ ratât.

Rideau

Joshua Landy
Princeton University

Some years ago in the language department of a Midwestern university, there was a brief fad of attempting the clerihew, that other eminently English form, in French. I retain two, the first reminiscent of something, perhaps a limerick?

M. Gustave Flaubert
Avait un sourire amer.
Son regard morne, superbe
Traitait toute chair comme herbe.

Mais le comte de Buffon,
Dans son sentiment profond,
Et son oeil doux et clair,
Voyait toute herbe comme chère.

Like the contrepèterie, the limerick drifts towards the salacious; the clerihew seems altogether more conservative in its values.

Robert Cunliffe
Hollis, New Hampshire

Not altogether in French, admittedly, but the following limerick in franglais may find a place in your collection.

It concerns:
Une jeune demoiselle de Nantes
Si chic, petite, élégante;
Sa chose was so small
There was no room at all
Sauf for la plume de ma tante!

The origin is unknown to me, but George du Maurier seems an unlikely source.

Bernard Cashman
Bedford

The LRB launched a critique
On the ethnic soul of the limérique.
Francophobe and pedantic,
‘Town’s Celtic,’ they granted,
‘Mais do-guerre-al – pas magnifique.’

Wendy Doniger
Chicago

Flying Carpet

I doubt that everything in this world is quite as ugly and dark as Paul Foot suggests (LRB, 10 November). Look at the LRB’s nice covers for a start; that one with the flying carpet was a topper. Most of them, in fact, are busy doing their bit for Beauty. Right enough, though, I’ve heard that the guy with the paintbrush is never to be seen in the boardrooms of the more corrupt multinationals. Like I say, this is what I’ve heard.

Larry Rhodes
London N16

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