Vol. 29 No. 19 · 4 October 2007

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Our Ailing Democracy

One can but admire the energy that Simon Jenkins displays rowing strongly as he does when deciding on the treatment best calculated to cure our ailing democracy (LRB, 20 September). But that energy rather goes to waste once you appreciate just how regressive Jenkins’s basic proposal is: that the political parties in this country set about ‘re-engaging with the public’. How they’re to do this he doesn’t so far as I can see tell us. More important, why on earth should they want to re-engage with the public when they are doing very nicely thank you without making any such noble attempt? The thought of starting to redistribute the political power that has become – no doubt unhealthily – so unshiftably entrenched in central government, is unlikely to cross the minds of such as our recently retired prime minister, his successor or the party that has proved so docile in following where the leader of the day requires that they go. Party high-ups may now and again pay lip-service to the kind of democracy Jenkins hankers after, whereby local political activities can generate some real input into the country’s governance but I for one don’t believe for a second that we’re going to see New Labour, or whatever other party may one day replace them, planning to turn back the clock.

As for what the best system could be for political parties to raise the money they need, Jenkins once again takes a line so impractical as to read like defeatism. Party budgets have increased enormously since the days when they survived happily, supposing there ever were such days, on the money they managed to winkle out of their members. If we went back to a system in which party income was raised by that method, annual dues would be onerous to say the least, and the vast majority of people I don’t doubt would be unwilling to pay them. ‘If parties operating as now regulated cannot afford large establishments and advertising budgets, that is their business: they should cut their costs.’ Thus Jenkins. To which one can only answer: Pardon me? The example quoted, of Tony Blair in 1994, newly become leader of his party, going back to his constituency and recruiting 2000 local members, in order to show that from now on New Labour wasn’t going to be in hock to the subsidies it received from the unions, won’t wash. That was an exceptional situation. The local members had the rare experience of finding that their MP was now their party’s leader, which was enough in itself to persuade them to cough up. How many of them remain members of the Labour Party today? And how many of them would have joined had they appreciated Blair’s big reason for wanting them to join?

We can all allow that Jenkins’s political heart is in the right place, but the therapy he asks for is way out of reach. And as for the best system of funding the parties, I found by the end of what he wrote that I agreed with the author of the book he was discussing, that the sensible thing is for them to be subsidised by the state. ‘A party in receipt of state money loses its incentive to build its base,’ according to Jenkins. Unable as I am to perceive any such incentive as existing in our current circumstances, we might as well cut our losses and accept that state funding would be a whole lot more predictable and transparent than the haphazard system we at present live under, with all its murky opportunities for corruption.

Neil Forster
London N1

Spared the Trouble

Impressed by Oona King’s success in being elected to one of Labour’s safest parliamentary seats and contriving to lose it to a new micro-party a few years later, I briefly considered going to her talk at the LRB shop last month. How kind, then, of your editorial team to place the advertisement in the middle of an excellent article about the ongoing disaster in Iraq as a reminder to your readers of how this almost unique feat was achieved, saving us the trouble of having to come along to ask Oona King about it in person (LRB, 6 September).

Rory MacQueen
London N16

The Truth about Kadare

Ismail Kadare managed to write and stay alive under one of the harshest Communist regimes, and for that achievement Thomas Jones is right to praise him (LRB, 6 September); but to understand his survival and success in Albania, it is equally important to investigate his wider Balkan politics. His treatment of the Slavs, in particular, is subtle and deadly. Take The File on H, the novel closely based on the work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord, two Harvard classicists who, in 1933, went to Yugoslavia, recorded the epics of illiterate bards, and from there made the most important contribution to Homeric scholarship of the last hundred years. The novel accurately describes their fieldwork, but for one detail: the fictional scholars make their recordings in Albania rather than Yugoslavia. There is more: as they are about to return to the US with their precious tapes and an answer to the Homeric Question, a Serbian monk from Kosovo persuades the Albanian bards to destroy the tapes of their own songs. It’s true that Lord recorded some Albanian poems in a later trip to the Balkans, but Albanian epic has made no impact on Homeric studies and remains virtually unknown. Why? In Kadare’s novel, it’s because of a Serbian monk: as ever, the Serbs dupe the Albanians and wipe out their culture. Unfortunately, readers of the novel in translation will assume that Parry and Lord really made their Homeric discoveries on the basis of a trip to Albania: the notes accompanying the Harvill edition even state as much. Kadare was a brave dissident, but he can also be seen as a committed anti-Slav nationalist.

Barbara Graziosi
Durham University

Dead Babies

It is depressing to read that Marie Darrieussecq has defended her work from accusations of ‘psychological plagiarism’ by insisting on her real-life experience of dead babies (LRB, 20 September). Darrieussecq has, until now, had an interesting take on autofiction. In 2002, she published Le Bébé, a record of the first few months of motherhood (her first baby was born the year before) as well as an inquiry into what it is to be a mother, especially one who isn’t given to motherliness. Both an essay and a type of autofiction, the book resembles nothing so much as the commonplace books that are sometimes all that remains of 18th-century women’s reading, thinking and writing lives. Le Bébé subtly reworks the genre by fitting together older forms of women’s writing about themselves with present-day preoccupations.

And this should really come as no surprise: in 1997, Darrieussecq defended a thesis at Paris VII called ‘Autofiction and Tragic Irony in Georges Perec, Michel Leiris, Serge Doubrovsky and Hervé Guibert’. Darrieussecq’s academic work is concerned with the way male writers have written about their lives in the last thirty years, and her fiction experiments with different ways of writing about women’s lives, not least her own. It is disappointing to see a writer so alert to autofictional devices agreeing, as Elisabeth Ladenson puts it, ‘that one does not write about such a subject without a personal connection’: I would have expected her to produce a more nuanced defence of autofiction.

Flora Jeunet

Obscene Child

David Whalin writes that the US enacted the first copyright statute on 31 May 1790 (Letters, 16 August). From early Tudor times the Stationers’ Company, in the precincts of St Paul’s, operated a system of copyright protection for authors who had a copy of their original works deposited and recorded with the Company. This was given official sanction by royal charter and then by the Licensing Act of Charles II. The first ‘real’ copyright act is that of Queen Anne in 1709. It is the origin of our present system of rights, and books published in the Americas, Ireland and Scotland all originally benefited from the rights granted under the act.

Gordon Peilow
London SW19

A pedant writes

In his masterly (not ‘masterful’, as Dinah Birch in the same issue would have it) survey of the current state of the European Union, Perry Anderson twice uses the word ‘referenda’ (LRB, 20 September). But as every schoolboy once knew, or should have known, referendum is a gerund, and in Latin – once the lingua franca of the decrepit continent Anderson so brilliantly anatomises – there is no plural form of the gerund. It could conceivably be a neuter plural gerundive, though in that case it would denote a plebiscite on a number of issues, rather than a number of plebiscites. As bogus Latinate plurals go, ‘referenda’ may not be quite as egregious as, say, ‘quora’. Still, accuracy aside, ‘referendums’ is surely preferable, for much the same reason that no one in their right mind would talk about ‘watering the gerania’.

Martin Sanderson

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