The current revisionism in the Labour Party doesn’t have much to do with the ‘soft Left’, despite Ross McKibbin’s claims (LRB, 7 August); it is driven by Blair’s desire to make Labour the ‘natural’ party of government, a project endorsed by all ranks in the Party and his own ministers – many with hard Left, often Trotskyite, pedigrees. Natural parties of government always tend to ditch ideology, as the Conservatives did for much of the 20th century. McKibbin is right, however, to point out that massive Parliamentary majorities emasculate political parties and their ideologies. In the late 1960s a tough and resilient left-wing block in the PLP made it impossible for Wilson to send British troops to Vietnam; the Cabinet and the PLP proved too feeble to repeat the process over Iraq.
Ross McKibbin writes that ‘the crisis of the contemporary Labour Party is, in fact, a crisis of our political system,’ but is it a genuine crisis or merely a giddy spin on the electoral roundabout? And is his solution to Labour’s difficulties – that the Party should ‘repoliticise itself’ – anything more than another way of describing the problem? McKibbin’s recommendations for this are pretty feeble: a vague appeal to ‘social solidarity’ and a bathetic entreaty to the far from ‘plausible’ Robin Cook to campaign against the leadership. I wonder whether another agenda isn’t lurking. With McKibbin’s references to constitutional reform seeming pressing in the 1980s, and tactical voting representing a kind of spontaneous electoral reform, is he hinting that the only long-term solution is PR? This might explain the talk of systemic crisis. Of course, another alternative – passive and discouraging though it may be – is to wait. We are living through a strange period, with Labour so strong and the Tories so awe-inspiringly hopeless, but one thing is for sure: this is bound to change. And with that change in electoral fortunes will come some reinvigoration of Labour’s institutions and, with luck, a challenge to the Blairite idolatry of ‘the American model’, the refusal to conceive of public services and projects unmolested by profiteering corporations.
Kathleen Jamie should have used quicklime rather than caustic soda to deflesh her gannet's skull (LRB, 7 August), but maggots would have been best. Some years ago, a badger was killed by a car and left by the side of the narrow lane down which my daughters had to run each morning to catch the school bus. It began to stink and the girls complained, eventually threatening to play truant rather than go past the corpse again, so I was compelled to remove it. The stench was atrocious, but I managed to shovel the maggot-ridden body into a shallow grave. Three weeks later I dug it up and found only a clean, odourless skull, which now sits on a shelf where I work. On the subject of gannets, in Sea Room Adam Nicolson tells how his life was imperilled then saved when one dived straight at his boat with such force that it penetrated the hull, but in so doing plugged the leak with its head and enabled him to row back to his Shiant island.
High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire
James Meek’s review of The Hungry Gene (LRB, 7 August) reminded me of an unconvincing documentary broadcast earlier this year by Channel 4, proposing that obesity might be caused by a virus. The programme makers tested a dozen or so fat people for antibodies to the virus in question and it was horribly sad to see the responses of those who tested negative: learning that they hadn’t been infected plunged them into guilty despair. Meanwhile, the advertising of SlimFast is apparently being stepped up in an attempt to combat the success of the Atkins diet: Dr Atkins’ New Diet Revolution (1992) is second only to the new Harry Potter in the bestseller lists – never mind that low-carbohydrate, high-fat, high-protein diets have been linked to colorectal cancer, heart disease and kidney damage. Sometimes it’s healthy to be a little overweight.
John Sturrock (LRB, 7 August) suggested that our destination-starved tourists should be offered holidays in Iraq, with the bonus of ‘their own weight in Air Miles’ if they managed to finger a few scuds. This occasioned some rapid-fire debate around the office as to whether such a competition might work, but assuming one stone in weight is equal to a thousand Air Miles, it could be a rather dangerous competition to launch.
The ‘unholy theatrical performance’ that John Sturrock complains we are now caught up in over Iraq, the weapons and who exaggerated about what to who threatens, as he says, to ‘run and run’. First, we have just had to endure the unedifying fuss about whether it would be right for this member of the Government or that to go to David Kelly’s funeral, when what most of us would have wanted and expected was that no member of the Government should attend. And now we have to endure the proceedings of the Hutton inquiry, seemingly forbidden by its remit from answering the one question we want to have answered publicly: why was the intelligence the Government got about Iraq so incompetent, which it must have been if it was genuinely thought sufficient to justify a war? With Hutton, the politics of spin will of course turn into the politics of spinning out, as the inquiry drifts on, takes time off to produce its report and then some time next year gives its findings when interest in them will be much reduced, Alastair Campbell having long since left his job, Andrew Gilligan having been moved around within the BBC and so on. Given Hutton’s Northern Irish background, how fitting that his inquiry should be going on at the same time as the interminable Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday, whose findings are unlikely to be published in the lifetimes of half those originally involved.
David Runciman (LRB, 10 July) is wrong to say that ‘the first referendum held in the British Isles took place in Northern Ireland in 1973.’ There were referendums on Sunday licensing in Wales in the 1960s.
Paul Simon (Letters, 24 July) corrects Donald MacKenzie for writing that ‘sailing close to the wind’ is ‘the way to sail fast’. But Simon is equally mistaken in asserting that ‘you move more quickly … running before the wind.’ it’s when the breeze comes from the side, and slightly abaft of abeam, that a vessel can achieve its fastest point of sail. Only then can the vector sum of boat-speed and wind-speed combine to amplify a vessel’s velocity, allowing the wind-speed to be equalled or exceeded.
You can tell from the caption to the Japanese illustration of a cancer operation accompanying Peter Campbell's piece (LRB, 7 August) that it has been printed back to front. I imagine that the person laying out the page instinctively placed the picture so that the woman was on the right facing left, because of the direction in which we write. Japanese texts traditionally move from right to left, and so pictures tend to be read from right to left.
Selwyn College, Cambridge
Editor, ‘London Review’ writes: We reproduced Kamata Keishu's illustration as it appeared in Medicine Man: The Forgotten Museum of Henry Wellcome, the book which accompanied the exhibition Peter Campbell discussed.
You rarely print letters of simple praise. Your typical correspondent carps about a mistranslation, a geographical inaccuracy, an obscure word obscurely misused. I'd like to say how much I enjoyed Sean Wilsey's piece about skateboarding (LRB, 19 June). It told me about a way of life I never knew existed, and made me feel like going out and buying a skateboard. At 60, am I too old to start?