Vol. 25 No. 18 · 25 September 2003

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Blair’s Narcissism

In telling us of how he came to be disillusioned with Tony Blair, Peter Clarke (LRB, 11 September) refers to and quotes from the fly-on-the-Downing-St-wall account of the Prime Minister at war written by the former editor of the Times Peter Stothard. Clarke goes on to say: ‘All credit to Blair for admitting Stothard to his circle. It shows that the Prime Minister felt that he had nothing to hide.’ All credit be damned; admitting a journalist to his circle at such a fraught moment, when its deliberations ought quite certainly to have been conducted without the presence of a hired diarist, smacks at best of an unpleasant narcissism on Blair’s part, and at worst of a determination to ensure that the writing of the History that he likes to invoke as one fine day justifying his Government’s actions in respect of Iraq should begin at a moment when he is there in person to oversee it. The openness commended by Clarke strikes me as a positively creepy innovation, entirely consonant with the Blair circle’s urge to govern via the media. It strikes me as horribly predictable also that Stothard’s book should have been published by an imprint owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Margery Rowe

A Play for Plotters

Nobody seems to have been bothered by Blair Worden’s article ‘Which play was performed at the Globe Theatre on 7 February 1601?’, which attacked the established view that the play commissioned by the friends of Essex on the eve of his rebellion was Shakespeare’s Richard II (LRB, 10 July). But we still need answers to the following questions.

1. Are we to suppose that Shakespeare’s company, already the owners of his five-year-old play on the subject, now commissioned another, based on John Hayward's book?

2. Hayward’s book was published in February 1599, and continued to be in demand. Could Shakespeare's colleague, Augustine Phillips, have plausibly described a dramatised version of Hayward as ‘long out of use’ in his testimony before Chief Justice Popham in February 1601?

3. Are there any comparable instances of such instant dramatisation?

Frank Kermode

Who gets the loo roll?

In answer to Katha Pollitt’s rhetorical question (LRB, 11 September): no, Ian Sansom isn’t the only man who’s plunged into domesticity and childcare. And writings which depict the impossibility of women ‘having it all’ serve only to insult such men and to legitimise the stance of others who perceive men to be de facto ‘like this’ and women inexorably ‘like that’. But perhaps literature depicting people who successfully combine career and family makes dull reading. If equality is to be achieved, it is, after all, people who have to change, not just men. Many of my female contemporaries have arrangements with their husbands/partners which I find quite astonishing: both have demanding full-time jobs, but she cooks and cleans, does the shopping and manages the household. If either of them has the career break or abandons work outside the home altogether when children arrive, it will be her. Women, for whatever reason, are complicit in the role they play, and many women don’t want to change, don’t want to challenge the stereotypes that define their aspirations. Maintaining these stereotypes, however, is as much the work of literature that examines the difficulty of combining work and home as it is of the magazines that show how to make your man the perfect soufflé, because it carries the implicit assumption that it is women who have to combine both, not men. There is a long way to go in redefining male and female roles, in accepting that people can be more different from members of their own sex than from members of the opposite one. Children’s school textbooks may have been excised of sexism, but notes come home from primary school inviting Mum to bake cakes and Dad to help out with a spot of DIY. Until women relinquish their tenacious hold on domesticity and childcare and ‘give’ men the responsibility for maintaining the stocks of loo roll, why should men bother?

Felicity Harper
Clevedon, Somerset

On Criticising Israel

Some years ago, during a period of retrenchment at the University of Edinburgh, the chair of Scottish history fell unexpectedly vacant. We were in a two-year university-wide freeze on all appointment, and in principle, the chair could not be an exception. But there were many who clamoured for it to be. After all, it was surely unthinkable that the study of Scotland’s history should be left leaderless in Edinburgh.

The next faculty meeting was better attended than any in my thirty years at the university. Backwoodsmen had been summoned to vote down the embargo on the chair, though any vote against it could only be advisory. In the event, there was a large vote in favour of an immediate replacement, and although I can’t remember the details, I believe a compromise was reached, the chair duly advertised and a candidate eventually appointed.

What I do remember, vividly, is the way in which many of the contributors to the faculty discussion began their remarks. Again and again they introduced their support for the immediate renewal of the chair with ‘As a Scot …’ or, much less often, ‘As a non-Scot …’ What I wanted to say, but was not bold enough, was that being or not being Scottish was (or should be) irrelevant to what people had to say about the importance of the chair. The case should have been made on intellectual grounds, not according to emotion and ethnic/tribal allegiance. For me it was a disappointing and somewhat shameful day. Like Judith Butler (LRB, 21 August), I maintain that you can oppose current Israeli statist policies and still not be anti-Israel, certainly not anti-Jewish or anti-semitic. Indeed, for the president of Harvard even to imply that there is an equivalence is trahison des clercs, as it would be for any academic, and so it was in that Edinburgh meeting, where it seemed to be implicit that all Scots would wish the chair to be excluded from the freeze and that non-Scots had no locus standi on the issue.

Even Butler finds it necessary to declare her personal allegiance: ‘What do we make of Jews such as myself, who are emotionally invested in the state of Israel [and] critical of its current form precisely because we are invested in it.’ Butler does have a defence for her ethnic self-revelation, for as well as making her case, she is also exploring her own sense of herself as a Jew. And yet I’m not fully convinced, for she risks the implication that (only) Jews may criticise Israel, and, further, that only Jews may be critical of Jews. This is the nightmare of relativism. It is not in such ethnic confines that we will find the ‘public space’ Butler calls for ‘in which such issues might be thoughtfully debated’ and where we may prevent ‘certain kinds of exclusion and censorship’.

Alan Davies

If criticism is made in the context of supporting Israel's right to exist free from the attacks it has endured since its inception, then I believe that criticism will be viewed as constructive and not as anti-semitic. I think Lawrence Summers got it exactly right: the academic boycotts and divestiture initiatives are anti-semitic precisely because they single Israel out for censure when, as Bennett Lovett-Graff says (Letters, 11 September), there are in the world dozens of blatantly worse regimes doing worse things.

Emanuel Goldman
New Jersey Medical School

Bennett Lovett-Graff asks why the Palestininan cause is more visible than that of the Chechens, Tibetans or Corsicans. The answer is that the Israeli Government is dependent on the support of the US Government to an extent that the Russian, Chinese or French is not.

Timothy Burns
Seattle, Washington

Good and Bad Labour

I share Ross McKibbin's frustration (LRB, 7 August). Both as MP for a constituency with more than its fair share of deprivation and as Minister for Europe, I could wish for a different Britain. And yet in the last six years, much has happened that is positive. I became MP for Rotherham in 1994. We had 15 per cent interest rates, four million out of work, a visceral contempt for Europe, indifference to the savagery of Milosevic and Saddam, an all-white Parliament with the revising chamber controlled by hereditary peers, and a uniform electoral system supporting a centralised state. The windows of employment agencies in Rotherham were full of adverts for jobs at £1.80 an hour and the local schools and hospital had seen no new investment for years. Unemployment in Rotherham is now down to under 5 per cent; trade union membership is up; a new cancer wing opened recently at the local hospital; the ads for intolerable low-paid jobs have gone.

I can only deliver for Rotherham workers if there is a Labour Government. MPs can sit on government benches. Or they can make speeches and write articles in opposition. I know which the working class of Rotherham prefer.

Denis MacShane

Poetry by Numbers

Philip Larkin’s Oxford Book of 20th-Century Verse was thought by some to be rather eccentric, but not for the reason claimed by Ferdinand Mount (LRB, 7 August): ‘Larkin included seven of Sassoon’s poems; only Yeats and Hardy had significantly more.’ A glance at the index gives Kipling 13 poems, Edward Thomas nine, Lawrence 12, Eliot nine, Graves 11, Betjeman 12, Auden 16, Dylan Thomas nine.

Max Wright

Translating the Koran

I was fascinated by Robert Irwin's article on translations of the Koran (LRB, 7 August). I am a Pathan from the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, a die-hard Muslim. I say prayers five times a day in Arabic, yet I don't understand the language. Like many of my Muslim brethren, I therefore have to rely heavily on translations. I graduated in English literature in 1963, and was brought up mainly in convent schools here in Pakistan; hence my preference for an English translation. I have read the translations that Irwin mentions, but I still feel that Abdullah Yusuf Ali's is by far the best. Like Irwin, he could read and speak Arabic, and he had studied Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Shintoism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, to which he made constant references in his commentaries.

Sardar Ahmed Shah Jan
Peshawar, Pakistan

Over the Phone

Barry Schwabsky (LRB, 10 July) refers to ‘Rodchenko’s triptych of red, yellow and blue monochromes, ordered by telephone from the shop’. Is this so, or does Schwabsky have in mind Moholy-Nagy, who claimed to have had five paintings (titled Em, 1922) ordered by telephone?

Felix Wiedler

Cutty, One Rock

If August Kleinzahler’s imitations of his brother (LRB, 21 August), ‘down to his eccentric handwriting and way of holding a whiskey glass’ were learned while out with his brother in the bars of New York, where his drink of choice was ‘Cutty, one rock’, then surely that’s a whisky glass.

Rob Close
Drongan, Ayrshire

As if

Although I share just about all his prejudices, I shall not be writing to Man, 37, Box no. 16/06 (Personals, 21 August). He uses ‘like’ for ‘as if’.

Julian Rathbone
Thorney Hill, Dorset

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