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Letters

Vol. 26 No. 12 · 24 June 2004

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Tony Blair’s Schooldays

David Runciman is wide of the mark in adducing Tony Blair’s experiences at Fettes to throw light on his attitude to risk (LRB, 20 May). Runciman claims that when Blair, 13 years old and ‘still a Tory’, arrived at Fettes in 1966, he would have imbibed the attitude to risk of the British political establishment and learned the price to be paid for political recklessness through folk memories of an event that had occurred at the height of the Suez crisis ten years previously. This was the burning in effigy on 5 November 1956, not of Guy Fawkes, but of Hugh Gaitskell for his opposition as leader of the Labour Party to Eden’s disastrous Egyptian venture. Runciman claims that the school was a place where the humiliations of Suez would have been particularly keenly felt because Selwyn Lloyd, the foreign secretary at the time, was an old boy. He goes on to paint a bizarre picture, worthy of Lindsay Anderson’s If …, of the school being turned out to witness the ritual burning of Gaitskell as a reminder to the boys of the meaning of treachery.

It makes a good story, but the reality was altogether more banal. I was at Fettes, in my upper sixth year, during the Suez crisis. There was no campaign of unquestioning support for Eden (and Selwyn Lloyd) and execration of the ‘Wykehamist’ (as if this had anything to do with it) Gaitskell. Indeed, I remember taking part, from a position of almost total ignorance, in a debate on the rights and wrongs of the Suez campaign. Moreover, I have no recollection at all of the burning of the Gaitskell effigy and neither do a number of my contemporaries.

What seems to have happened is this. A relatively junior master, who always struck me as a posturing buffoon, apparently burned an effigy of Gaitskell on a fire (bonfire night as such was never celebrated in the five years I was at the school: this was Scotland, after all) in front of a small group of the most junior boys. That this childish incident should have so traumatised the school that memories of it continued to reverberate ten years later, giving Blair his initiation into the world of Realpolitik and impressing on him the lesson that imperialist adventures should not be attempted save in conjunction with the Americans, makes no sense at all.

However, this particular hare will now have entered the historical record, joining other myths about Blair’s time at Fettes, the most egregious of which, put about by Blair himself, is that he was so fearful of having to return to the ‘ultra-establishment’ (Runciman’s expression) nightmare that was Fettes that he smuggled himself on board a plane from Newcastle to the West Indies. There had never been a flight from Newcastle to the Caribbean at this time, but this was not allowed to stand in the way of a good, and politically convenient story.

Richard Clogg
St Antony’s College, Oxford

In his comparison of the Suez adventure and the Iraq war David Runciman writes: ‘The Suez conflict was fought over a canal, but when it was lost, and British ships carried on using the canal anyway, it became a war about something else – the wider threat of Soviet domination.’ This makes it sound as if the canal remained open; in fact it was blocked for seven months during 1956-57 with serious economic consequences. Among other things, petrol was rationed for six months and cars limited to 200 miles a month. The wider threat of Soviet domination had been demonstrated, in the same week the canal was blocked, by the suppression of the Hungarian uprising.

Patrick Renshaw
Sheffield

Tastefully Expunged

Lewis Harvey is right to call attention to the bizarre implications of airbrushing the Abu Ghraib photographs (Letters, 3 June). On the one hand, interviews with tortured prisoners have made it very clear that nakedness before others and their cameras is a source of deep shame, and publishing unedited images could only make this worse: this is the best of the reasons given for not releasing the other photos we have heard about. On the other hand, under Western eyes, where the same shame coexists with a belief in revelation and display, the effect is to locate Lynndie England and her friends as sex tourists in postures of pornographic Orientalism. Similar airbrushings feature in TV advertisements for porn videos. The power of condensation in these images may even be enhanced by the editing, which provides an icon of the obscene/ modestly unseen and foregrounds the pornographic aspect of these acts of torture. Pornography, like violence, is disturbingly central to America's self-image and thus to its routines of self-doubt. It is the sight of Americans misbehaving, as much as any deep sympathy for the victims, that seems to be keeping this issue alive. The prisoners themselves are collectivised (in a heap) and unseen (under hoods) – airbrushed away. The editing out of their genitals may, in some troubling way, earn these victims more attention, under Western eyes, than they would otherwise receive.

David Simpson
University of California, Davis

I hope that some people felt, as I did, that airbrushing the private parts of the prisoners was a gesture of respect. Reproducing the pictures unedited would have needlessly added to their humiliation. Whatever their reasons, the newspapers got the balance right between exposure of wrongdoing and protection of individuals.

Ian Hennessey
Honiton, Devon

Mind the toffs

If by ‘Short Cuts’ is meant caricature, then Thomas Jones’s treatment of my book is completely justified (LRB, 20 May). But might I be allowed to point out that I am not calling for the revival of hereditary aristocracy but rather for an appreciative inscription to be put on its tombstone – i.e. for the end of anti-aristocracy. Every country needs a political class, and the current prejudice against aristocracy in England, which in turn has bred a peculiarly vicious strain of anti-elitism, is a barrier to evolving a good one. Hence the collapse of our political institutions. Only by doing justice to what aristocracy stood for in the past can this country hope to transcend aristocracy in the future.

Peregrine Worsthorne
Hedgerley, Buckinghamshire

Don’t blame Wellington

Paul Foot over-eggs a good argument in his review of Edward Pearce's Reform! when he states that Wellington and his ministers hanged or transported Captain Swing rioters (LRB, 6 May). Wellington's government fell on 23 November 1830, and the trials were held in the following weeks by special commissions set up by Melbourne, Peel's home secretary. In Hampshire, 101 prisoners were capitally convicted but only six were hanged; the others had their sentences commuted to transportation. There may have been miscarriages of justice, though 96 of those charged were acquitted. The figures (to be found in Captain Swing by Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé) were similar in other counties. Most of those hanged had been accused of offering serious threats to life and limb. Wellington himself would not allow his agent to enclose land on his Stratfield Saye estate, and by the standards of the day was a generous landlord.

Julian Rathbone
Thorney Hill, Hampshire

Who got rid of Aristide?

Peter Dailey says that Haiti’s November 2000 presidential election ‘was boycotted by the opposition and only 10 per cent of those eligible turned out to vote’ (Letters, 20 May). In fact, six opposition parties ran candidates (although three pulled out at the last minute). The official results gave Aristide 92 per cent of the vote, on a 60 per cent turnout. Had the opposition fully participated and rallied around a single candidate, and had every registered voter who either did not vote or voted for someone else voted for that candidate, Aristide would still have won.

Dailey’s claim that Aristide’s policies had ‘isolated’ Haiti from the ‘international community’ is true only if ‘international community’ means the wealthy countries of North America and Western Europe. Integration in the Caribbean Community increased, Thabo Mbeki made a state visit, and a special mission of the Organisation of American States set up shop to support the democratisation process. The Caribbean Community and the Africa Union, which together comprise a third of UN membership, called for an investigation of the coup.

Inside Haiti, according to Dailey, Aristide’s government had been ‘denounced by virtually every element of the coalition that supported his rise to the presidency in 1990’. This is true if ‘virtually every’ means ‘everyone except the poor’. The anti-Aristide movement united a broad spectrum of the elite, from Marxists and anti-globalisation crusaders to Duvalierists and sweatshop owners. But every indicator, from Gallup polls to the relative size of demonstrations, showed that the government enjoyed solid support from the vast majority of Haitians who were not an ‘intellectual or artist of note’. The anti-Aristide camp knew this, and so refused to allow legislative elections.

The ease with which Haiti’s leftist elite and its foreign supporters joined sweatshop owners, Duvalierists and the Bush administration in a crusade to overthrow Aristide says more about the fluidity of their own political commitments than about Haiti’s government. The real cleavage in Haiti has always been not left-right but up-down. When push came to shove, class allegiance trumped any professed commitment to social equality or democracy.

Brian Concannon
Joseph, Oregon

Future Histories

James Wood is mistaken as to OUP's intentions (LRB, 20 May). We do indeed plan to commission volumes of literary history devoted to Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Jonathan Bate, as general editor, the press and their team of authors configured the Oxford English Literary History series with this prospect very much in mind.

Andrew McNeillie
Oxford University Press

Nihilism

Criticising the Israeli military, and Israel's mystique about it, is one thing; attacking the entire peace camp, and falsely representing it, as Yitzhak Laor does, is something else (LRB, 3 June). It is nihilism to heap scorn on the 150,000 Israelis who attended the 15 May peace rally in Tel Aviv. Yossi Beilin, the head of Israel's new Socialist International affiliate, the Yahad Party, addressed the rally; there was nothing pro-Sharon in his speech, or in the political thrust of the event.

Ralph Seliger
New York

Like Alan Bennett . . .

Alan Bennett wonders what became of the scholarship examinations for Oxford and Cambridge (LRB, 3 June). I sat the Cambridge examination from a state school in 1982. But the examination whose passing I most regret was at Cambridge itself: General Historical Problems, three hours, answer one question out of 32. Question 32 was the gem: ‘Why, in general, have the English not eaten their horses?’

Martin Pierce
London SW14

On arriving at Leeds Modern School in 1966 I was given two pieces of information which impressed me. The first was that the headmaster, ‘Cheesy’ Holland, had been the first grammar school head to be appointed to the Headmasters’ Conference. I was told the second rather grudgingly by the history master: Alan Bennett, recently seen on television, was an old boy. This was meant as an admonishment, and an indication of some drift in or threat to the school’s standing.

Geoffrey Thompson
Itteringham, Norfolk

Mistake

R.W. Johnson twice says that Churchill consulted Smuts about the Seretse Khama ‘problem’ when he returned to power after the war (LRB, 6 May). Churchill returned to power in October 1951; Smuts died on 11 September 1950.

Michael Wright
Oxford

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