When Michelle Obama remarked that her husband’s campaign had made her proud of her country for the first time in her adult life, Eliot Weinberger writes, he ‘knew exactly what she meant’ (LRB, 3 July). His piece almost beams with exuberance about Obama and about the liberal renewal an Obama presidency promises for America. Meanwhile, as the Wall Street Journal recently observed, Obama is ‘embracing a sizeable chunk of President Bush’s policy’. It’s not just the pandering to the Israel lobby or the call for expanding faith-based social programmes. Obama, once a critic of government surveillance, has come out in favour of retroactive immunity for telecommunications firms that co-operated in eavesdropping after 9/11. Having electrified American liberals with his opposition to the Iraq war, Obama now speaks warmly of General Petraeus and his surge. He has also declared his support for free trade, sided with the Supreme Court conservatives who dissented against the majority ruling that would ban the death penalty for the rape of children, and touted his support for welfare reform that ‘slashed the rolls by 80 per cent’. It’s hard to share Weinberger’s confidence that Obama and his team of advisers ‘are the people we’ve been waiting for’.
In his recapitulation of this spring’s Clinton-Obama tussle, Eliot Weinberger writes that the United States has never, with the exception of the Irish Catholic John Kennedy, ‘elected a president from even its white minorities … and had nominated only one other, the hapless Michael Dukakis’. He leaves out the Catholic Al Smith, four-time governor of New York, leader of the Irish-American community, and the Democratic nominee for president in 1928. With the help of Tammany Hall, Smith rose from the Lower East Side to the national stage as a champion of the working class. And although his doomed campaign was defeated by both a boom economy and serious religious prejudice, the Smith campaign did usher in a major demographic realignment that culminated in the New Deal coalition of FDR, Smith’s gubernatorial successor and great rival. Smith also had one of the great campaign songs in American political history: ‘The Sidewalks of New York’.
And there is another nominee who could be classified with Smith, Kennedy, Dukakis and Obama: John Kerry, a Catholic whose paternal grandparents were born Jewish and whose wife, the Mozambican-born Teresa Heinz, allegedly said she would be ‘America’s first African-American first lady’. Fingers crossed, it’s Michelle Obama who’ll achieve that milestone.
The front door to 10 Downing Street bears painted white numbers and not, as Peter Campbell has it, ‘brass numbers on black’ (LRB, 19 June).
West Harptree, Somerset
I used to get fed up, in the days when one was allowed to walk past Number Ten, with the spindly Trajan figures painted in white on its door. Then the uniquely scrupulous Georgian Raymond Erith was put in charge of rebuilding the whole complex. Part of his brief was to restore something of the original appearance. I was preparing a study of what I called English vernacular lettering at the time, and in 1962 approached Erith to suggest that the figures on the door shouldn’t be overlooked: why didn’t we try to get them back to what they might have been in the 18th century? He welcomed the idea and we were going to take it further – then there was silence. The whole project had become tangled up in a labour dispute, and the Ministry of Works moved in, took the project over with military briskness, and put Trajan firmly back on the front door.
When the job was finished, the result was even more dismal than before, with a kink in the capital O that stood in for the zero. Erith apologised for the ‘beastly’ numbers and all the other disasters and said he just wanted to forget the whole episode.
In a sense it didn’t matter. Soon British citizens were forbidden to walk through Downing Street. And then the door was given a makeover, with a glossy coating of black, and the number – still Trajan of course, with its kink, since that had become enshrined in tradition – was crudely emboldened in order to form an iconic background for photo opportunities.
Reading Jenny Diski’s Diary about her trip to South Africa, I despaired (LRB, 3 July). What South Africa achieved when it transformed itself from a separatist into a multiracial society was remarkable: no slaughter, no grinding, vicious, revenge-filled trials, virtually no recrimination of any sort towards the old ruling class. Truth and Reconciliation was a lesson to the world about how to behave. Yet writers visiting South Africa seem never to let slip any opportunity to remind the world about the crime in the country, the continued existence of slum townships and mass unemployment (exacerbated as that has been by South Africa’s generous acceptance of Zimbabwean refugees).
Clearly, the residue from apartheid was always going to take years to clear up, and so it has proved; clearly, for those who had had nothing, the sudden access to power and money was always going to mean corruption and waste, and so it has proved; and clearly the new democracy was always going to be sluggish to get to grips with the issues it had to deal with, and so it has proved.
What people had to say to Jenny Diski was sad, but irrelevant. The South African ‘miracle’ was not that the nation’s citizens changed their mindsets overnight (that would have required divine intervention), but that, despite apparently overwhelming odds, it could function, more or less, like any other country with massive poverty and glaring inequality. I would have loved to read what Diski had to say about the increasingly multiracial nightlife of Long Street. Today, bars with a largely black clientele share a street with bars with a largely white clientele. This is significant progress. And at some of the trendier spots, it is unexceptional to find blacks and whites together. Had Diski done a bit of homework, rather than feeling ‘strangely guilty and graceless’, she might have had some fun.
Poor Jenny Diski: she went to South Africa on holiday in search of ‘a place where minds had been changed’, only to find that it was ‘awful, really awful’. She ought to have visited the country during the apartheid years, when the moral clarities of the liberation struggle were made to order for revolutionary tourism. Alas, times have changed and many non-black South Africans – even, imagine, some whites! – have cause for complaint, as Diski discovered, to her shock and dismay. In a perfect world, the white liberals Diski spoke to would have gone on behaving like the daughter in Coetzee’s Disgrace who keeps the child of the black man who raped her and then marries the neighbour who’s harbouring him. But most people aren’t capable of such self-abnegation. And if black empowerment means accepting discrimination in employment, the neglect of infrastructure, pervasive corruption and a government that behaves like a one-party state, awards favours to a black elite, denies the connection between HIV and Aids and provides diplomatic cover for Robert Mugabe – if black empowerment means accepting this and more, it’s no wonder some white and coloured South Africans are exasperated. They express their disappointment coarsely, sometimes in language we find appalling, but it isn’t hard to understand how they got there.
Although John Lanchester’s Library of America holdings go unread because of their gorgeousness – like beauties no one dares ask for a dance – there are other reasons to leave them on the shelf (LRB, 19 June). One is that most of the volumes contain more than one work. You might want to read The Princess Casamassima, but it is off-putting to have to take down Henry James, Novels 1886-90, which also contains The Reverberator and The Tragic Muse, in order to do it. Individual works hidden in an omnibus don’t take their place in your memory as easily as a particular spine on a particular shelf. Further, one of the virtues of good, thin paper – it makes a book portable – is lost when several novels are bound together. Hardcover pocket editions like Oxford’s World Classics and Cape’s Traveller’s Library achieved a balance between portability and readability. It is a niche that paperbacks have only partly filled. They are planned for short lives: their paper yellows and their binding makes them clumsy and hard to open. I know the economic arguments, but ‘gorgeous’ and ‘readable’ aren’t exclusive categories. Books are objects that must work if they are to be read.
James Davidson writes that one of the many places Atlantis has been found is Cádiz (LRB, 19 June). He quotes Victor Bérard asking: ‘Must we note that Cádiz still has its Plaza de toros?’ Not any more it doesn’t. The city’s bullring closed in 1967 and was demolished in 1976 to make way for an underground car park. There is still a half-hearted campaign for a multipurpose bullring (as evidenced by graffiti and T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘Plaza de toros multiusos, ya’), but it is unclear what other purposes it might be used for. The last time the old ring was used for something other than bullfighting was when the Nationalists held, and often executed, Republican sympathisers there at the outbreak of the Civil War.
Patrick Collinson mentions that the Muggletonian sect of 17th-century Christians believed that ‘God was not some insubstantial thing, certainly not some spirit within every man, but a being shaped like a man (man a being shaped like God), and living not so far above our heads – six miles up in fact’ (LRB, 5 June). I am told they also believed that, once women reached heaven, they became men. This seems just about as reasonable as most religions I’ve come across. Anyway, the thought inspired this poem, ‘A Muggletonian Prays to His God’:
Lord let me meet her there, full six miles high,
Beyond the manufactory sky, with its veil
Of smoke and clouds, where us, all a welter in the dale
Below, labour righteous in the tangled alleys of Thy
Will. Allow I beg, my lass to stay a lass, and not be turned,
Once in thy paradisal room, into a bristle-chinned
Chap. I know Lord I have grievously sinned,
But, happily, my poor soul, weak as it is, yet burns
To see Thee face to face in Thy bright heaven. It’s just –
Dus’t see – I love my lass right as she is, and dunnat want
(Once our earthly husks are gone to dust)
To meet her there in Thy great room, and
Find her Charlie, not Charlotte;
Adams rib now standing, a second Adam,
Knowing all the secrets of our bed.
Yet I must not seek, I know, to understand my lot,
But take what I am given, and hope to find
safe haven In Thy room six miles above the earth. Amen.