Vol. 26 No. 5 · 4 March 2004

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Bravo l’artiste

John Lanchester draws attention to the ingenuity and contempt of Rupert Murdoch’s accountants in their efforts to minimise News Corp’s tax liability (LRB, 5 February). To be fair to Murdoch, he has been equally tireless in his determination to reduce the tax burden for his readers. His papers’ consistent assault on progressive taxation during the last thirty years has powerfully contributed to a climate in which proposals to increase income tax are now taboo for any ‘serious’ politician. What is pointed out less often is that Murdoch’s papers have seamlessly dovetailed this economic position with a broader ideological agenda, one which has relied on a biddable readership’s anxiety about one marginal group after another. In the 1980s, the attack on the ‘loony left’ was conducted partly through the drip-drip insinuation of stories decrying the funding of ‘local’ cultural initiatives. In the 1990s, the focus shifted to Aids charities. More recently, the ‘benefit-scrounger’ has found a new incarnation in the figure of the ‘bogus asylum seeker’. In all this, Murdoch’s papers have been abetted, and often exceeded, by the Mail. The assumption underpinning the stories is that government money is being diverted away from the schools and hospitals that ‘we’ want our taxes to be used for, towards ‘undeserving causes’: causes which do nothing for us and which, intolerably, help those who are at present socially excluded – which is how we’d prefer them to remain. The fantasy created is that our money is being used to fund our own disenfranchisement.

In fact, of course, the amount of government money used to fund such marginal causes is nugatory; but fantasy requires only the smallest provocation, and has little use for reality. It is difficult to understand, without the steady encouragement offered by papers such as the Sun and the Mail, how it is that so many people instinctively reject the idea of paying more tax on the grounds that ‘too much public spending goes on “undeserving causes" as it is’.

Agnes Hodgson
London NW5

Unloved Tomes

John Sutherland’s account of the economics of scholarly publishing is accurate in broad outline but less so in many specifics (LRB, 22 January). The monograph crisis is uneven, affecting some fields more than others. University presses still compete for many monographs, including revised dissertations, and, contrary to Sutherland’s belief, they pay advances for a significant number of them. Sutherland sees ‘the pricing up of the monograph to levels that only institutions can afford’ as a ubiquitous practice, but university presses have long been coping with the erosion of the library market, and pricing only for institutions is hardly a viable option for most of them. Many American university presses, in particular, work mightily to price monographs for individual buyers, and inexpensive original paperback editions of monographs are common.

It also needs to be said that a monograph selling five hundred copies may yet be important to a field of study. Should we scoff at scholarship on, say, classical Arabic literature because a transformative monograph in that field sells only a few hundred copies? To be sure, many presses cannot afford to serve such small communities of scholars, but let’s applaud those that do, and the universities and foundations that support their efforts.

The rumour of ‘profit-driven’ monograph publishing at the University of Chicago Press is false, and Sutherland’s anecdote about my exchange with his UCLA friend garbles almost every detail. To address just one, I can’t take credit for the statistical claim Sutherland attributes to me: that the crisis would be solved if every literature professor bought six new hardbacks every year. I’ve never heard, much less said, anything of the kind.

Finally, for the record, Stephen Greenblatt sent his letter about the monograph crisis to the MLA membership in May 2002.

Alan Thomas
University of Chicago Press

John Price’s suggestion that academic monographs should be published on the internet is highly enlightened (Letters, 5 February). There is, however, a problem. In Price’s model, individual universities would publish their staff and students’ work on their own sites, but this would leave the current situation unchanged: unread pieces of paper would be replaced by unread virtual papers. If national sites based on subjects were set up then university departments could join the relevant sites and contribute the material they wished to be published on them each year.

David Beer
University of York

Clare in Corduroy

Tom Paulin is wrong to say that ‘The Flitting’ is omitted from my anthology of Clare, to be published by Faber in October (LRB, 19 February): the poem is included, though in the text and with the title authorised by Clare for publication in 1835, ‘On leaving the cottage of my birth’.

He considers that I was on a wild goose chase in searching for the American poet ‘Corduroy’ mentioned in a reminiscence of Clare in the asylum. Of course he is right – as my biography says – that Corduroy is a projection of Clare himself, but we should not rule out the possibility that the allusion was also to a real poet (whose name may have been misremembered). After all, the American who wrote the reminiscence assumed that the real Corduroy was out there somewhere. Clare was well acquainted with the work of such American contemporaries as Bryant, Dana and Whittier, which is testimony both to the breadth of his reading and to the quality of library provision in 19th-century lunatic asylums.

Jonathan Bate
University of Warwick

What Not to Wear

Jeremy Harding’s ambivalent piece on the French veil debate misses a crucial point (LRB, 19 February). The invocation of the ‘Republic’ and of France’s secular tradition by supporters of the ban on the hijab is based on a historical misunderstanding. From the very outset there was bitter conflict as to who exactly should be the beneficiaries of liberty, equality and fraternity. Were these universal principles to be extended to women, unskilled workers or the blind? Babeuf was one of the few who argued for full citizenship rights for women.

The introduction of universal education and the separation of church and state were scarcely a simple expression of the onward march of Enlightenment. Jules Ferry, the founder of universal secular primary education, also oversaw the colonisation of Indochina. There was no contradiction here: the myth of the ‘civilising mission’ lay at the heart of French imperialism. France, in the late 19th century, was a largely peasant country in which many citizens had only the vaguest notions of national identity. The Vatican still carried considerable political weight; the aim of laïcité was to ensure that French workers and peasants looked to Paris, not to Rome.

If the French left is ever to face the challenges of the new century, it will have to reexamine the whole ‘Republican’ tradition.

Ian Birchall
London N9

Preserving the Owl

Amartya Sen makes a coherent philosophical case for the incorporation of environmental responsibilities into concepts of citizenship (LRB, 5 February). But what would be the most effective mechanisms to persuade citizen-consumers to do anything about this remains unclear. Consumption is, for better and worse, an integral aspect of our status in post-industrial societies and often drives our actions far more than concepts of citizenship. Analysis of shopping trends suggests that while 30 per cent of shoppers say that ethical or environmental considerations inform their shopping, this only translates into 3 per cent of market share for products with demonstrable ethical/environmental benefits. Better information alone is not enough. European eco-labelling has enjoyed a very uneven history; and ‘fair-trade’ products have grown in number but remain limited to a small range of products (bananas, tea, coffee, chocolate). Sen is right to highlight the patchy role of governments in leading this agenda, but progress will depend on institutional change involving businesses, civil society, investors, government and consumers.

John Sabapathy
AccountAbility, London N1

Lunch at the Club

The Century Association that Walker Evans joined is not a ‘club of private clubs’, as Mary Hawthorne calls it (LRB, 5 February). It is one club located on West 43rd Street in New York. If I had to describe it, I would say that it’s comparable to the Athenaeum in London, one of our sister clubs, except that we don’t have rooms for guests to stay overnight. There is another difference. At the Century there is a tradition of not introducing yourself at lunch. When I stayed at the Athenaeum people were constantly introducing themselves. I’ve often had lunch at the Century with no idea who I’ve been talking to. For all I know, one of them might have been Walker Evans.

Jeremy Bernstein
New York

Poor Sir Hugh

Colin Burrow dismisses ‘the notorious Hugh Platt’ as a ‘quick fit artist’ who wrote ‘quack books’ on gardening (LRB, 19 February). Sir Hugh Plat (as he spelled his surname) produced one complete book on gardening, Floreas Paradise, in 1608 but mentioned the subject in several other works. A further volume was published posthumously in 1660. The lack of organisation of the short sections of advice in Floreas Paradise may have influenced Burrow’s impression of the work, but this was down to haste because of Plat’s approaching death, as he explains in the preface: ‘not knowing the length of my dayes, nay assuredly knowing that they are drawing to their periode’.

Plat had hands-on experience in the garden at his home in Bethnal Green (where, for instance, he sowed artichokes and herbs). More significantly, he collected gardening advice from gardeners to the gentry such as Mr Fowle, the queen’s gardener and a melon expert; Lord Burghley’s gardeners; and nurserymen, most notably Vincent Pointer, a tree specialist of Twickenham. Mr Andrews, ‘the greate saltmaker of Ireland’, told Plat how caterpillars might be killed and spring onions raised the year round in pots; and Sir Edward Denny, adventurer at sea, soldier in Ireland and MP, told Plat that he had, in Ireland, raised liquorice in ‘such grownde as by Nature is stony or rocky underneath the earth’. Some of Plat’s most innovative ideas were provided by Master Jacob, a London glass-maker, who piped surplus heat from his factory to hothouses where he grew carnations in the winter.

Some of this advice was false and some falsehoods were included in Plat’s published works, but there is much good material mixed with the dross.

Malcolm Thick
Harwell, Oxfordshire

As Easy to Fly as a Bicycle

Fred Starr is not the only anorak to have noticed the shortfall in Robert Macfarlane’s technical expertise (Letters, 19 February). Unfortunately, he commits an error of his own when he claims that ‘the Wrights designed their aircraft to be unstable.’ The book forming the basis of stability theory was not published until 1911, and the theory was not placed on a sound footing until thirty years after the Wrights’ first flight in 1903.

Michael Carley

Robert Macfarlane is wrong to assert that Orville Wright was the first man to fly an aeroplane. Karl Jatho made the first powered flight, of sixty feet, over the Vahrenwalder Heide on 18 August 1903. Three months later, in November 1903, his aircraft ‘soared’ for 262 feet at an altitude of over nine feet. Both flights took place before Wright’s on 17 December 1903.

Lanny Anderson
Richmond, Virginia

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