I wish that, when writing what mercifully now looks to have been a valedictory piece about the prime minister, Ross McKibbin could have found another form of words to describe Blair’s policies towards the Middle East and the United States (LRB, 7 September). It’s not the fact that they might be ‘irrational and alarming’ that has appalled so many of us who would certainly once have counted ourselves as entirely friendly towards the present government, but that they were so horribly, lethally wrong: that they were immoral, in a word. To describe them as irrational is a cop-out: it’s not a judgment on the decisions of Blair and whatever members of his kitchen cabinet he consulted before taking them, but a judgment on the psychological state of the prime minister and the men and women who should have known a whole lot better than to go along with him. The decision in July not to demand an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon, on the false and outrageous grounds that a ceasefire brought about too hastily might not stick – as if any ceasefire in the Middle East could be guaranteed to stick, especially one imposed only after further days or weeks of indiscriminate killing – must have been the last straw even for those surviving Blairites who had proved sufficiently irrational to swallow Iraq. That indefensible decision was taken by a man who, we had been led to suppose, and insofar as he has any stable beliefs at all in these matters, believes in the ideology of ‘humanitarian intervention’. It was that decision above all that I would like to think has now finally led to a party whose spinelessness McKibbin is so very right to castigate stirring itself to get rid of a leader who will prove to have done it lasting harm. Harm not only electorally, since they are now clearly going to find it hard, if not impossible, to win the next general election, but also morally, for having defaulted from principles of humanity in the field of foreign policy that it should have been their business to embody, not undermine.
‘The cabinet is so complicit with Blair’s policies,’ Ross McKibbin writes, ‘that it is unlikely ever to revolt.’ The non-events of the past few days, culminating in Blair’s non-announcement this afternoon at a school in St John’s Wood, to a chorus of ‘Murderer! Murderer!’ from outside the school gates, seem all too sadly, despite their early promise, to have borne McKibbin’s prediction out. Ever since the prime minister announced he would step down, there was never any real possibility of him staying beyond next summer. Those who have resigned did so at no real cost to themselves: junior Blairites as they were, their jobs in government would have been far from secure once Blair finally cleared out of Number Ten. And now that the smoke has dispersed, we can see that nothing has changed. It’s almost enough to make one wonder if Blair didn’t orchestrate the whole performance. No one from the cabinet has quit, or seems likely to. Blair hasn’t named a date for his departure, though he has confirmed – surprise! – that he won’t be prime minister in a year’s time. The Blairites and Brownites – between whom, as McKibbin points out, there’s barely a whisker of difference when it comes to policy rather than personality – are still squabbling; British soldiers in Afghanistan, not to mention civilians in Iraq, are still dying; hospitals are closing; and the only alternative, which is no real alternative at all, presents itself in the empty smirk on David Cameron’s bland, pervasive face.
Probably not a cowardly government, despite what Ross McKibbin says, but certainly a timid one. Perhaps the best comparison is with the situation in the Soviet Union after the death of Lenin. Brown/ Trotsky is far brainier and makes a huge success of the army/economy, but is completely outclassed in political canniness by Stalin/Blair, who knows exactly when and how to make the right move to consolidate his power. Both Stalin and Blair can nevertheless make monumental misjudgments in foreign policy – the German invasion of 1941 and Iraq (etc etc).
Richard Lloyd Parry says that when foreign writers arrive in Japan the results are usually disastrous, and ‘the best that Clive James could come up with was the smirking comedy Brrm! Brrm!’ (LRB, 17 August). As a gaijin who arrived in England in 1943, I have found Brrm! Brrm! a very perceptive depiction of the bafflement of any new voyager adrift on the sea of English inscrutability. James’s verse epigraph bears witness to his sympathy for the puzzled Suzuki-san, whose deeply affecting farewell scene with his poor mad hippy girlfriend is hardly ‘smirking’. Suzuki could have profited (as I have) from Kate Fox’s Watching the English:The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (Hodder, 2004).
Richard Lloyd Parry treats Donald Richie as a dilettante, only one of whose books, The Inland Sea, is likely to survive. The Films of Akira Kurosawa is an indispensable work of reference for anyone with a serious interest in that director.
Like many British Jews, I am disappointed, but no longer surprised at what seems to me the British media’s bias towards the Arab terrorists in relation to the Israeli/ Arab imbroglio. But I did not consider that Charles Glass deserved the condemnation of your correspondents (Letters, 7 September). If his facts were wrong, they should have said so and specified where. To write that Hizbullah have been intelligent and in some ways successful is not to defend their commitment to genocide; since when have intelligence and success been moral qualities? If Charles Glass’s article were the worst we had to grumble about, I think many of us would be much happier.
Ian Hacking describes Lorna Wing, the world’s outstanding autism expert, as a psychiatric social worker (LRB, 17 August). In fact, she is a consultant psychiatrist.
Trinity College, Dublin
Eleanor Birne politely takes notice of the notices telling her not to touch Ron Mueck’s sculptures (LRB, 7 September). I expect there are good practical reasons for the warnings; no doubt Mueck’s painted resins would soften and sag under the touch of so many hot hands. But that isn’t why there are quite so many notices, or why they’re quite so large. We already know that we’re not supposed to touch in galleries; even when we’re invited to, we hesitate, wondering whether the invitation isn’t part of the work and if it might be a faux pas to accept.
Mueck makes such a big deal of the prohibition because his work depends for its effect on our being allowed to get as close as possible to his models without actually touching them. He wants us tantalised, our arms outstretched. The closer we can get and still be unable quite to believe that they aren’t real the better. Mueck’s suggestions as to how you’ll think or feel in front of his waxworks notwithstanding, an encounter with them isn’t a profound experience so much as an unsettling one: you feel uneasy confronted with things apparently so close to the boundary between the real and unreal, the authentic and the fake, the living and the dead.
There’s nothing new here. Mueck is remaking Olympia over and over again, and if, like E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Spalanzani, he puts the eyes in last, it’s because he imagines that they are what animates his statues, brings them near to life. It’s a good trick. And maybe it’s enough, too, if what you want from art is the fleeting thrill of the uncanny. Mueck wants spectators who are more interested in sensation than aesthetics. Birne’s response is about right: she isn’t moved by A Girl, but she isn’t unsympathetic, either, when she overhears someone else say it makes her want to throw up.
Perhaps it doesn’t appear on the road signs that Patrick Wright sees on his way through Rutland to Nottingham (‘where I teach’) from wherever it is he lives (LRB, 7 September), but England’s smallest county has a motto that dovetails with Douglas Goldring’s view of Little England: ‘multum in parvo’. It is printed in suitably small type on the signs that greet drivers hurtling along the A1. Incidentally, reading Jeremy Harding’s Short Cuts – inset on Wright’s piece – about the glowing example set by the prime minister when it comes to trimming carbon emissions, I couldn’t help wondering whether Wright shouldn’t do his bit for the atmosphere by moving across Rutland permanently to live a little closer to his place of work?
I shouldn’t have named Ford Madox Ford among those who persuaded Douglas Goldring out of his initial enthusiasm for the First World War. Ford was not the otherwise unnamed ‘influence’ mentioned by Goldring in his autobiography Odd Man Out. Indeed, he was strongly in favour of the war against Germany.
Yitzhak Laor writes of ‘Israeli casualties’ when he refers to the Jewish Israeli soldiers who were killed at Bint Jbeil (LRB, 17 August). When he talks of ‘the kitsch to which Israelis grow accustomed from childhood’, again he means Jewish Israelis. When he writes that ‘we now appear to be a lynch-mob culture, glued to our televisions,’ the ‘we’ and ‘our’ in that sentence surely do not embrace Israelis of Arab, Druze or any other non-Jewish identity. Israeli identity cards, incidentally, denote the ‘nationality’ of Israeli citizens as ‘Jewish’, ‘Arab’, ‘Druze’ and so on; and as we know, Israeli citizens of Jewish ‘nationality’ are privileged in ways that other Israelis are not.
The irony of unintended consequences is on full display in David Runciman’s discussion of the baseball steroids scandal (LRB, 3 August). In 1949 I was a graduate student in organic chemistry at the University of Manchester. I was one of a research team, directed by the late E.R.H. Jones, trying to synthesise the steroid hormone cortisone. Our effort was prompted by the recent discovery that cortisone brought miraculous relief to rheumatoid arthritis sufferers. At the time it was available only by extraction from massive quantities of the adrenal glands of slaughtered animals. The race was on for a commercially viable method of synthesis.
We were in competition with other groups in Britain, the US, Mexico and Switzerland. There were many late nights and weekends in the lab. The result of all this effort was an explosive advance in steroid chemistry (until then a fairly sedate branch of ‘natural products’ chemistry). Thus cortisone and cortisol and their more potent synthetic analogues became available, along with many other physiologically active steroids, the ‘Pill’ and various anabolic steroids among them. The versatility with which chemists have modified steroid hormone molecules to produce subtle changes in their properties has been remarkable. But until recently attention had focused on their clinical use. No one in those hectic early days of research could have imagined a stadium full of baseball fans chanting: ‘Steroids! Steroids!’