Vol. 18 No. 19 · 3 October 1996

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Arafat’s Palestine

My colleague Edward Said’s searing account of Palestinian life and governance (LRB, 5 September) elides too many questions. Here are some. 1. For many years, indeed decades, he and virtually every Palestinian intellectual (including those with safe havens) muzzled their independent intelligence in the interest of the national struggle in full knowledge of the corrupt and authoritarian tendencies of the PLO in Lebanon and Tunis. Why, then, the tone of surprise about Arafat’s post-Oslo regime? 2. Said shows how the experience of occupation has skewed and narrowed Palestinian political possibilities (though, as he notes, no current Arab regime seems to be doing any better than the praetorian bunch governing from Gaza and Ramallah). Reciprocally, why does he not consider how the quotidian Palestinian actions he describes, including the banning of his prose, contuse the prospects of the Israeli peace camp? 3. He mentions the ‘outrages’ of the winter bus bombings in passing, as if they were not integral to the current suffering of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians. Yet, together with the Rabin assassination, these were the pivotal events of the past year, the ones that tilted the post-Oslo world into the current no-peace-no-war impasse, increasing local hardships and humiliations and sharply diminishing Palestinian political prospects. Is it credible to direct so much vituperation at Arafat and his obsession with security given this recent history? 4. Said continues to write, as he has for years, as if distinctions inside the Israeli political mainstream hardly matter. Peres or Netanyahu: who cares? The announcement on 9 September by Yossi Beilin, Peres’s most important aide in the post-Oslo negotiations, of the formation of the Mashov Circle inside the Labour Party – a group committed to a Palestinian state covering most of the West Bank and Gaza, with Jerusalem as the joint capital for it and Israel, and with the capacity to accept diaspora refugees into its territory – might give Said some pause.

Perhaps Arafat deserves the appellation ‘Papa Doc’ assigned by Said; I don’t know what Said knows or has experienced on his recent brief visits. Arafat’s wager on Oslo might indeed confirm the undesirable current situation as the long-term outcome. But the result is not yet fixed. How would Said counsel Arafat to proceed with the Likud Government? And where in circumstances of official impasse might partners for Beilin be found? Alas, not from the academic precincts of Morningside Heights.

Ira Katznelson
Columbia University

The Buttocks Problem

Apart from general arguments against corporal punishment, Paul Foot is clearly right (LRB, 5 September) about the grotesque unsuitability of Anthony Chenevix-Trench as a headmaster in a position to beat pupils. Trench no doubt had academic gifts and teaching abilities, but he quite possibly owed his appointment to an establishment-minded respect for his war service, and the horrors and humiliations he had suffered in a Japanese POW camp; and it may well have been these that actually helped to make him even more unsuitable. Imagine being taught, and perhaps flogged, by Lawrence of Arabia! Never trust any sort of war hero where boys are concerned? But like many in the age group that missed a major war, Foot may prefer not to know what happened to those who did not miss it. It was a common attitude after both world wars (see the memoirs of Powell and Waugh) and a very natural one. Although war bores were still two a penny in the Fifties, Trench at least did not perpetrate a Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

John Bayley

To read Paul Foot’s Trenchiad within weeks of his piece on Kincora Boys’ Home and MI5 (LRB, 5 September) is a disturbing experience. The tone, the language, the hatred, is much the same for a case of paedophilic sexual abuse condoned and exploited by government agents and that of a schoolmaster who misused his legitimate powers of corporal punishment. These are not the same offences, nor ever have been in any legal canon. I know nothing of Kincora, but I did know Trench, probably not a lot less well than Paul Foot. The effect on me of reading the two pieces together is to doubt not my own memories but the balance of Foot’s Kincora judgments.

Foot will not have had to read far into the book to find my own encounter with Chenevix-Trench’s penchant. I seem to be one of few who bettered the little man, surely because I was by then very senior and potentially quite a nuisance. Like Foot, I was appalled by that aspect of his schoolmastership. In my final year, I conspired with the now Chief Secretary to the Treasury to conduct a public debate on corporal punishment that very nearly persuaded senior Etonians of the mid-Sixties – not easily persuaded of this or anything else – that corporal punishment had to go. Trench could have stopped us, and probably wanted to. But he didn’t. The reasons for telling which story are its demonstration, first, that a few, a growing few, of us were by then becoming aware that beating was a revolting means of punishment, precisely because of the way it distorted the behaviour of otherwise potentially enlightened people at both ends of the cane, our own headmaster among them; but second, as Foot well knows, that the Sixties saw the first steps towards the disappearance of a means of disciplining the young that had been standard since as far back as we know about education. Birch-rod humour had been a staple of young male culture for two and a half millennia at least. The point about Trench is not that he did it like his predecessors, the admired Robert Birley, the infamous Keate and all the rest – but that there was something odd about the way he did it. The reasons were doubtless sexual. No doubt they were so in thousands of other cases of pedagogic brutality. That does not make Trench or any of the rest of them into child-abusers on a Kincora scale. He deserves better than to become a by-name because he came at the end of a very long story where there have been many villains as bad or worse. If corporal punishment is child abuse, then it is a fact, regrettable but undeniable, that this vice lies at the root of Western (and not only Western) culture.

I carry no particular torch for Chenevix-Trench. He had many good ideas about what should happen to Eton, nearly all of which were blocked by unregenerate reactionaries of a sort that more usually people Foot’s well-stocked pillory. But he was not an easy man to like; and, yes, he was no great teacher. Foot is right about his pervasive charm. But he was a sad case, not a bad one. Which brings me to a final point. However many child-abusers Foot may or may not have known, he must have known many, many ‘drunkards’. He is surely conscious enough of alcoholism to be aware that those who drink as Trench did are not the exponents of yet another vicious habit but victims of a tragically destructive disease. The odds are that, had Trench been born twenty years later, that weakness could have been corralled, just as the other must perforce have been reined in.

In reading and admiring Foot’s searing pieces, I have sometimes wondered where all this fury comes from. Perhaps the answer is, after all, the wretched Trench; in which case, Foot stands convicted of the same posterior obsession as his tormentor. My view of the world, that of a historian rather than a journalist, is that it is peopled by inadequates, not villains; people who misuse (much more often than abuse) power, precisely because they have no real clue what to do with it. Foot persuades me that Kincora was a story of unrelieved villainy. My experience of Trench, as of most rulers of academic establishments where I have studied and taught, was not of a villain but of a figure both waving and drowning. Really good educationalists are extremely rare. Utter shits, in my experience, are rarer. Trench was neither. Foot’s villains need exposure. His inadequates deserve something more penetrating.

Patrick Wormald
Christ Church, Oxford

It was not only masters who were floggers and not only boys who were flogged. I was regularly beaten by my father from the age of seven or eight, usually for ‘being rude to Mummy’. I soon realised that he would stop as soon as I cried and so, like D.O. Endall (Letters, 19 September), made it a point of honour not to cry. This prolonged the beating but also gave me – I felt – the moral victory. With the exception of Curzon’s governess, Miss Paraman, I know few examples of women as floggers. There was no corporal punishment at my girls’ boarding school. Instead, we were punished by humiliation: being forced to eat lunch standing up in front of the whole school, for example. I don’t think I minded this very much. It certainly wasn’t as bad as being beaten. I’m sure my father wasn’t a sadist and I don’t think he enjoyed beating me. He probably did it to save face with ‘Mummy’. She would be in a nearby room, crying, while my punishment was meted out and would hug me and apologise afterwards.

Angela Lambert
London SW5

Paul Foot’s admirable Diary has made me feel that there is still some hope for the country. When, in 1978, my book The English Vice: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian England and After was published, sniggers were audible. Why didn’t I write something serious? Since then corporal punishment has been abolished in the state schools and virtually so in those hotbeds of flagellomania, the ‘prep’ and ‘public’ variety, thanks in no small measure to pressure from Europe, where the sado-masochistic connotations of the practice have long been recognised. So it would seem that there is some consensus that the beating system was pernicious.

Flagellomania is no sniggering matter. It catches on well before puberty, and once established, it stays put. ‘I was so us’d to ’tat Westminster School I could never leave it off since,’ says Snarl to the prostitute in Shadwell’s The Virtuoso (1676). The remark pinpoints the obsessive nature of the flagellant fantasy – and the certainty of impotence without its assistance. Freud found that patients could only talk about it ‘with hesitation’, such was the deep shame involved.

London’s telephone boxes today are eloquent proof that thousands of professionals are still needed in the capital to provide some relief to what one hopes are the last victims of the vice anglais. A national sickness perpetrated from on high and ably represented, we now know, by the repellent Chenevix-Trench.

Ian Gibson
Restábal, Spain

Caught reading – C.V. Wedgwood’s Thirty Years War, I recall absurdly – during a tedious science lesson, I was sent by the master to Tony Chenevix-Trench, my housemaster, bearing a petulant note recommending a caning. Perhaps delighted that a pupil of his should read anything not frivolous, C-T tore up the note and gave me an impromptu and vivid demonstration of how the Japanese took him prisoner. Seizing his bicycle from the wall he rode crazily round his study and me – much startled – explaining how in Singapore he was riding a motorbike from which he fell, at which point in his narrative he crumpled at my feet with the bicycle on top of him. Whether he was inviting flagellation, who knows? Resuming his story, C-T got to his feet and found he was surrounded by Japanese soldiers. What saved his life was the discovery that he was shorter than the smallest of them!

That C-T acquired much notoriety – and contempt – for his degrading practice of offering boys the choice of being caned with trousers up or spanked with trousers down is well attested. I have wondered since whether this oddity was not so much sadism on Tony’s part as his equally odd method of detecting latent perversion in those who preferred a spanking: he would spend hours getting to the root, as it were, of boys’ difficulties – to be sure a questionable if well-meaning practice.

Mark Peel’s biography – a decent and sympathetic work – leaves one with a strong impression that Tony was an inadequate personality, though I remember to this day what an inspiring teacher he was and the élan with which he threw Thucydides at us! What really grated with boys was Tony’s transparent unreliability; to promise 36 boys a place in the Henley First Eight may have been kindly meant (or euphoria on Tony’s part) but to his boys it seemed silly and untrustworthy. Excessive chumminess and his beating habits became a joke and undignified.

Michael Hodges
London SW17

Paul Foot’s Diary recalls my own experience of flogging at Fettes where Chenevix-Trench’s penchant for the cane led to his second, final, sacking. But beating was a long-established practice at that snobby Edinburgh school, and I was disappointed to hear Tony Blair, another Old Fettesian, declare in the course of a BBC radio interview, that he had been at a flogging seminary and it ‘had done him no harm’.

In my day there, when rain poured down on half-holidays, we had to go on a long run instead of playing rugby. If you felt sophisticated, as I and three friends did, aged 14 or 15, you booked a fives court and went on a permitted short run; and if you were still smarter, you missed even that by dodging unobtrusively into another house for half an hour or so, cooling your heels. But we were spotted that Saturday, and on the following Monday we were summoned before the head of school and given a pie-jaw of which we understood not one word except that we had ‘disgraced the school’. These were innocent times and we had not heard of, much less practised, the sexual perversions which it was assumed, as a matter of course, we had been up to. The six prefects administered six whacks each on our behinds with what resembled billiard cues. This seemed excessive punishment for not going on a short run.

Only later that term, when the head of school was expelled for the offence it was alleged we had committed, did we learn what it was. We did not resent the beating too much for we enjoyed being celebrities for 24 hours – perhaps another reason for deploring a maladroit and ludicrous practice, Mr Blair!

James MacGibbon
London NW3

Thus is the magic prion born

Tim Radford’s discussion of the BSE fiasco (LRB, 5 September) fails to mention the considerable and growing school of thought which sees organophosphorous (OP) genetic poisoning as the true cause of BSE and new CJD alike. Their common pathology (similar patterns of plaques of rogue prions) clearly suggests a common origin, but on the other hand does not offer the least support to the causative connections which the scientists involved initially snatched at. Only a common vector is indicated.

The infective feed theory, on the contrary, requires BSE to cause new CJD by a magic prion action converting healthy tissue to a cancerous variety. This relative absurdity from a scientific point of view results from the need to find the vector in feed which has been rendered or cooked. Hormones do not survive heat treatment, so of course they are not found in the feed. Some end proteins – a far more robust and stable variety – do; so the prions survive.

Thus is the magic prion born! As sole survivor of cooking and rendering it must be infective. But infection is by live cellular microorganisms, bacteria, fungi or viruses; not just by molecules, however complex. You do not expect to catch a brain cancer from the patient in the next bed. Hormones and enzymes are giant organic molecules with thousands of radicals and can respectively trigger or modify protein formation. Not everybody knows that some 80 per cent of the human genome is otiose and unexpressed. Much of it is shared with our fellow mammals, a museum of evolution, and can still be expressed if the hormone to trigger it comes along. This is how we come to share with our bovine cousins the same rogue sectors of DNA which can be triggered into production of rogue protein. It is clear the common vector is a hormone mimic.

All the laboratory tests of brain tissue injection into animals merely confirm that hormones (uncooked) do the trick if the DNA is present. But since the hormones are not present in cooked/rendered feed these laboratory tests destroy the credibility of this Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food magic prion infective feed idea. The chances of a hormone reforming after being broken down by heat are as likely as the classic case of a Flying Fortress being reassembled by a hurricane blowing through a scrap heap in the Mojave Desert. Who, other than MAFF, would want to fly such a kite?

Organophosphorous insecticides contain the same nerve gas agents that Saddam Hussein used on the Kurds. In a thoroughly misjudged bid to be the first in the EC to eradicate the warble fly from the national herd, the Ministry of Agriculture authorised and indeed required the douching of cows at four times the strength thought safe anywhere else in the world. The warble fly campaign was a success: unfortunately it has eradicated far too many of the national herd as well.

The OP has phosphate radicals identical to the phosphate radicals composing the side chains of DNA, enabling them to exchange; thus breaking into the DNA chain and exposing the rungs of peptides on the inside so that RNA forms on the exposed sectors and then goes on to assemble amino-acid chains (proteins) in the cell, mediated by enzymatic catalysis. This is the hormone function exactly, so the OP can be described as a hormone mimic triggering rogue protein formation.

There are over six hundred officially recorded cases of brain damage in farmers caused by the use of OP insecticides on MAFF files, dating back to the beginning of their use for dipping sheep. But MAFF blames farmers for not covering themselves adequately and accepts no responsibility, although they have never addressed the question of inhalation, a rather bizarre omission when dealing with a nerve gas.

The only other countries to have used OPs for warble fly douching of cows were Eire and Switzerland; and they are also the only two countries other than Britain to have had cases of indigenous BSE recorded. They have had about two hundred cases apiece, with OP used at a quarter the strength used in the UK, compared with 167,000 cases in this country. In a rational society that would terminate the debate. In Northern Ireland full-strength douching was introduced three years after the rest of the UK; and BSE cases have followed the UK pattern, three years later. The feed exported to France after the ban in the UK was pig food, not cattle feed. There are no French (or other) cases of spongiform encephalitis in pigs.

The accusations of failure to comply with or enforce the regulations were presented to explain the mismatch between feed theory and the epidemiology. So were the supposed cover-ups in the EU. The long incubation was derived from a similar predicament; it is otherwise unevidenced.

Dairymen lost a month’s milk cheque if they used insecticide douches other than OP, because OP was thought not to infect milk. Beef farmers with no milk cheque to lose mostly avoided OP because of its poisonous record with sheep dipping. That is why over 80 per cent of BSE is in dairy herds. MAFF has tried to argue it is because dairy herds got more feed. But they have been forced to argue at the same time that a single gram of infective feed is sufficient to trigger BSE – the weight of offal in feed (the brains mostly went to France where cows’ brains are a delicacy, but they have not had any increased BSE as a result) was otherwise insufficient to have triggered the cases which have occurred. It is rather unscientific to try and have it both ways.

In the same edition of the LRB the immediately following review by Anthony Giddens of the Colborn-Dumanoski-Myers book on organic polymer pollution of the environment is entirely relevant to all this. Unfortunately, ecological arguments against runaway pharmaceutical innovation can be ridiculed as the musings of pinkies with bees in their bonnets. After all, science, mediated by the international conglomerates, is beneficial and progressive.

The truth is that some is, but some, when errors are made, can land us all in disaster. This is what happens when mistakes by officialdom are covered up and science is distorted for the purpose: you end up having to accept one excess after another to continue the false line of reasoning first introduced. When you add the confrontation between technologists with commercial tenure and those with academic tenure (at half the pay), you have the makings of a fiasco.

Merton, Norfolk

Learned Ladies

Mary Beard (LRB, 5 September) rightly denounces too cosy and introverted a reading of Cambridge women’s lives. It is a pity, then, that by confining her interests to Cambridge she fails to make more of the career of one who got away. Eileen Power left Cambridge for good in 1920 (not the Thirties) for the more mixed and cosmopolitan environment of the LSE. But even here, in a university where women were accepted in large numbers and made academic careers alongside the men from the time it opened in 1895, they were undermined. They were paid less than the men and their careers were held back, as attested to by Lilian Knowles’s trenchant disputes with the administration, and by Power’s treatment at the hands of Jessy Mair, the secretary and companion to the LSE’s director, William Beveridge.

Beard seeks to disentangle myth from reality in Cambridge women’s lives. Had she read more about Power, she might have found positive evidence to the point. Power’s life as recounted after her death was that of the exemplary female scholar in whom personal qualities and gender took priority over scholarship and vision of a discipline. She became the ‘learned lady’. But the myth was not simply perpetrated by male academics. There was a sense in which Power conspired in it. She assumed a personal style which would express the aesthetics she admired in a certain type of historical writing. Her glamour and political integrity also made her an attractive role model to a generation of female students and academics, and she used these qualities to further her aims of making economic and social history central to the historical disciplines. She paid the price for this, for she was afterwards remembered as the female scholar rather than for the history she wrote and the discipline she helped to found.

Power’s life also provides the counter to Hugh Lloyd-Jones’s claims, endorsed by Beard, that the lives of scholars are irrelevant to their work. Power’s feminism and her internationalism, as well as her decision to leave Cambridge to teach medieval history among the social sciences at the LSE, did change the content of her writing, the subjects she wrote about and the zeal with which she promoted her discipline – economic history.

Maxine Berg
University of Warwick

If Mary Beard had bothered to discuss the second of the two books she was ostensibly reviewing – Maxine’s Berg’s intriguing biography of Eileen Power – she would have provided Power’s answer to the question attributed to Beard’s article on your front cover: ‘Should Blue-Stockings Breed?’ Power’s view, according to Berg, was definitely in the affirmative.

Power spent much time in the late Twenties and early Thirties overseas at British colonial outposts looking for a husband and was for a time engaged to a prominent British imperial activist in China (played by Peter O’Toole in the film The Last Emperor). Finally she had to settle for her former graduate student, Michael Postan, ten years her junior, who (according to Berg) was said by Power’s housekeeper to ‘know how to get to her’. Relative to the breeding question, Power wrote to Postan just before their marriage expressing her regret that she was too old to give Postan a child.

Power’s father was a convicted white-collar criminal: this certainly depreciated her prospects in the middle-class marriage market and forced her and her sister to become career women. Whenever Power got a good fee for an article, she would immediately head for the airport, fly to Paris and buy a new dress.

Norman Cantor
New York University

Good Things

Colin McGinn was right (LRB, 5 September) to praise the work of the late Warren Quinn. His extraordinary talent made Quinn pre-eminent in the small group of philosophical friends working together on moral philosophy in the UCLA philosophy department of the Eighties. But McGinn was wrong to suggest that Gavin Lawrence’s work is derived from Quinn’s. I know this because Lawrence had expounded his views to me (thus helping me to abandon desire-based theories of reasons for action) long before he came to UCLA and met Quinn.

Philippa Foot

It’s an occupational hazard of philosophers, as professional purveyors of theory, to reduce all wrongdoing to theoretical error. Challenging those, like Philippa Foot and Bernard Williams, who deny that a moralists are irrational, Colin McGinn says that since it’s absurd to say that the thinker’s desires, rather than logical validity, decide whether it’s rational for him to infer q from p and ‘if p, then q,’ it’s also absurd to think that it’s rational for an agent to act on his desires, rather than doing what morality tells him.

This analogy is beside the point. Those, like Williams and Foot, whose moral thinking is strongly influenced by Humean philosophical psychology, simply deny that there is a relevant analogy between inferential reasoning (which Hume described as involving only ‘relations of ideas’) and practical reasoning manifested in action: in the philosophical idiom of a later age, Hume thought the assumption that there was such an analogy commits a category mistake. This may be false, but given the Humean denial, analogical argument is as question-begging here as it usually is in philosophy.

Denying that the amoralist as such is irrational need not, as McGinn seems to think, entail that ‘morality’s apparent universality is a fiction.’ Assuming McGinn means that what is held to be fictional is morality’s being universal, rather than the fact that it so appears, it is consistent to deny the amoralist’s irrationality, while agreeing that moral talk often cites universalistic reasons. The latter are reasons which (unlike their so-called ‘prudential’ counterparts) are not withdrawn when someone, for intelligible reasons, can’t be bothered with morality. Someone may rationally decide, when confronted with such reasons, that they’re not for him; he may thereby show himself to be a poltroon or a knave, but need not be a fool.

As this suggests, the analogy mislocates moral culpability too. Does McGinn really think that what’s wrong with liars and murderers is all of a piece with the bungling of fresh-men who aren’t much good at propositional calculus? If so, sympathy is due to McGinn’s students, for more reasons than one.

Glen Newey
University of Sussex

Would you want to know the plot?

Christopher Prendergast (LRB, 5 September) is unnecessarily snooty about ‘the proliferating genre of literary biography’. In response to his question ‘Would you want a plot summary of a novel before reading it?’ I raise my hand. I remember as a small child being told, by a slightly older child who had just seen the play, the complete plot of Hamlet – ghost, murders, Ophelia, fencing match, poisoned cup, everything. I was fascinated and have remained so.

As for Frederick Brown’s Zola: A Life (which Prendergast was reviewing), it was a great help to me in preparing a literature class on Germinal this year. It would have been a better book at half the length. But one can skip. We do not all have at our fingertips the knowledge displayed by Brown of the year-by-year development of the political, economic, social and artistic history of France in the 19th century. I find most novels easier to enjoy when set in their historical context. To return to plot summaries, I have read only two other Zola novels; but, having read Brown, I shall read more.

Robin Hope
Todi, Italy

Call me Tim

How long are we readers supposed to endure the rantings of sell-styled literary outlaw, Mr Iain Sinclair? His latest exercise in bad judgment (LRB, 22 August) not only regaled us with some lengthy and insufferable musings on why ‘Tim’ has ended up being such an embarrassing moniker. It also concluded with perhaps the most offensive paragraph seen in the Review for some years. Apart from its dubious reflections on the lost ‘kingdom of fiction’, this extraordinary passage freely indulged the rankest and most bilious misogyny. Sinclair’s powerfully paranoid vision of a legion of ‘women who photograph well’ bringing his noble art down into the muck of Grub Street, his portrait of Tim Binding being ‘thrown on the mercy of a coven of Judys and Louises’, might have passed for wit in the pages of the Spectator. In the esteemed Review, however, it looks like precisely what it is: calculated political uncorrectness, or reactionary drivel.

Julian Murphet


In the last issue Richard Drayton’s piece on Kew Gardens contained the sentence: ‘In the Edwardian period [Kew] was a victim of the immaturity of both university science and the apparatus of colonial administration.’ It should have read: Kew’s ‘Edwardian stature depended on the immaturity of both university science and the apparatus of colonial administration’.

Editors, ‘London Review’

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