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Vol. 30 No. 15 · 31 July 2008

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An Element of Unfairness

The Labour Party was not as indifferent about the abolition of public schools as Ross McKibbin suggests (LRB, 3 July). It is true that Attlee was unsympathetic to abolition, but in 1945 it did not seem a priority. The divisive effect of the 1944 Education Act was not really understood until the 1950s when the need to integrate the public schools into the state system (i.e. abolish them) was seen by many in the Labour Party as a necessary precondition for a juster and fairer education system. Regular resolutions to debate their abolition were made at party conferences in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and led to Labour’s pledge in its 1964 election manifesto to ‘set up an educational trust to advise on the best way of integrating the public schools into the state system of education’. This resulted in the creation of the Public Schools Commission in 1965, but few if any of the 15 worthies chosen as members were sympathetic to outright abolition. When their report was published in 1968 it gave a lot of space to the ‘problems’ of abolition and to other options short of abolition. By this time the Wilson government was in any case more concerned with the economic crisis it faced. After its defeat in 1970, the Labour Party, both in power and opposition, was diverted from addressing the public school problem by the need to defend ‘comprehensivisation’ and the performance of the comprehensives against continuous criticism in the media and elsewhere. But many in the party saw the period between 1964 and 1968 as a great lost opportunity in the effort to create a truly comprehensive secondary education system.

Tony Judge

Ross McKibbin provides some enlightenment on the issue of academies, but the central point about English education is painfully simple. England has a lottery, in which class, money and religious faith give some parents an advantage over others. Blair saw himself not as the administrator of an education system, but as superdad. He wanted the chance of a better school for his own kids, and he wanted the support of voters who felt the same way. He never bothered to work out how these exciting extra options could fit into the system. As for what comes next, stand by for escalating rhetoric, further fragmentation of provision and a lousy deal for most of our children.

Paul Francis
Much Wenlock, Shropshire

Obama Myopia

Barack Obama is clearly the most progressive presidential nominee in decades, so naturally lefties like Allen Singer are complaining that he’s not Noam Chomsky (Letters, 17 July). Singer even quotes approvingly the Wall Street Journal’s ridiculous claim that Obama is ‘embracing a sizeable chunk of President Bush’s policy’. This is a line cleverly being promoted by Karl Rove, the WSJ, the National Review and their ilk to weaken support among Democrats and especially independents. There’s an argument against every item on Singer’s shopping list, but I’ll take only the most important one: Obama’s position on Iraq has not changed at all. Of course he has to praise the military – the guy is running for president. And having his ‘patriotism’ questioned every day in the media.

Jason Farago is quite right that I forgot the great Al Smith as the other ‘white minority’ nominee (besides Dukakis). But the song ‘The Sidewalks of New York’ was not written for Smith’s campaign; it was more than thirty years old at the time, and merely appropriated, the way Bill Clinton endlessly didn’t stop thinking about tomorrow. As for John Kerry, he may be a Catholic with some Jewish ancestors, but he is hardly associated with any minority group, other than members of the Yale Club.

Eliot Weinberger
New York

Fight and Fight Again

Daniel Soar is incorrect when he says that Enoch Powell resigned from the House of Commons in 1958 (LRB, 3 July). Powell, the financial secretary to the Treasury, resigned along with the chancellor of the exchequer, Peter Thorneycroft, and the economic secretary, Nigel Birch, in protest at the government’s plans to increase public spending, but he did not resign his seat.

It is difficult to think of any true precedent for David Davis’s decision to resign and then fight for his own Parliamentary seat. George Lansbury in 1912, mentioned by Soar, may be the closest parallel. There have been a few cases in which an MP has resigned after switching parties in order to fight in his new colours: Dick Taverne at Lincoln in 1973 after defecting from Labour over the Common Market issue; Bruce Douglas-Mann at Mitcham and Morden in 1982 after defecting from Labour to the fledgling SDP. But perhaps the only precedent for an MP (or MPs) resigning to fight on a single issue when they agreed with their own party but disagreed with government policy was that of 15 Ulster Unionist/Democratic Unionists in 1986, in protest against the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. One of those MPs was Enoch Powell, in his later incarnation as an Ulster Unionist.

Neville Twitchell
Harlow, Essex


I’m grateful for Mark Engel’s information about the proper way to avoid trichinosis, but it doesn’t convince me that pork wasn’t originally avoided because of its occasional mysterious tendency to make the eater ill (Letters, 3 July). Pythagoreans had some very arcane reasons for banning the broad bean, but that prohibition, similarly, was almost certainly due in the first instance to its ability to provoke a haemolytic crisis. The perennial human need to give every practical rule a timeless religious or moral protreptic twist accounts for all those survivals centuries after the need for them has passed.

Similarly with the hostility towards non-procreative sex, which goes back, as I said, for millennia. The need for it, however, was at an end as early as the Neolithic period, when, according to most estimates, the population, because of improved farming techniques and social stability, took an enormous upward jump. Hunter-gatherers didn’t move on because of increased population – far from it – but because they’d hunted and cropped an area bare. Engel’s Roman example comes from a later, highly urbanised period and is thus irrelevant.

Engel also believes the trendy notion that self-defined homosexuality only came to exist in the 19th century. Here is one notion that James Davidson and I are in complete agreement in opposing, even if, then as now, many homosexuals (but hardly Engel’s ‘vast majority’) were coerced into marriage and parenthood (Catullus telling Manlius in a wedding hymn that he’d better knock it off now with his boyfriends), or chose it as social cover.

Peter Green
Iowa City

No Shangri-La

Slavoj Žižek has misunderstood my book, The Golden Yoke, on the Tibetan legal system before the Chinese takeover in 1949 (Letters, 19 June). I have never represented Tibet as having been an oppressive and corrupted feudal society before 1949. I believe that China’s current occupation of Tibet is colonial, oppressive and completely illegal under any national or international legal system.

Rebecca French
State University of New York Law School

Poor Jenny Diski

‘Mandela’s heart must be broken,’ claims Jenny Diski’s Indian taxi-driver in Cape Town, lamenting the corruption and ineptness of Thabo Mbeki’s ANC government and its Black Economic Empowerment laws (LRB, 3 July). They’ve sacked the expert whites who built and know how to keep things running, and replaced them with untrained Africans. Blacks still believe whites ‘owe’ them; liberal whites feel paternalistic towards their servants and their servants’ dependants.

Diski’s piece is as fascinating as it’s depressing, as one tries to measure what she saw against what we once hoped – I lived in South Africa for a decade until 1957. Reading it brought recollections of my time there: a beautiful, steely friend, giving up her annual holiday each year to travel the thousand miles or so to Cape Town, to stand, day after day, with her Black Sash colleagues silently picketing the parliament buildings; my father and his friends setting out of an evening or on Sundays, signing up members of the Durban archdiocese to pledge a percentage of their monthly income in support of the Catholic hierarchy’s plan to keep its primary and secondary Bantu schools open, following the 1953 Bantu Education Act which stopped the government funding of church schools.

But the mindset of the majority of whites, including many English-speakers (who were mightily glad that the more ‘robust’ Afrikaners were codifying an apartheid that had always existed), was one of evasion: the sun shone, beaches cradled white bodies, the weekend braai beckoned and the rugby ’Boks were in their heaven. These were immutable facts, which held the country in stasis, a cultural desert with only one or two writers, and an art scene that produced only unpeopled landscapes and still lifes.

Africans, meanwhile, provided street art. Their bicycles, for example, might have handlebars replaced with a pair of mock buffalo horns, oversized wing mirrors, a six-foot whippy aerial upright behind the saddle and a toy red telephone between the handlebars. It was the time of the tsotsi, blacks depicted as petty criminals but who were mostly just determined to stand out as sharp dressers, in drape-shouldered zoot suits, garish ties and shades – styles seen in American magazines.

I remember one splendid incidence of tsotsism I witnessed in the late 1950s, waiting for a bus in Durban. I was at the head of a short queue, except for the powerful Zulu who, not presuming to stand with us, positioned himself ambiguously in front of me. He wore a canary yellow fedora, plastic wrap-around dark glasses, and an electric blue suit. And, over his trousers, a pair of tartan Y-fronts, through the open fly of which hung a generous loop of steel kitchen-sink chain, attached, presumably, to an inner fly button, the other end snaking into his right trouser pocket, where it connected to an impressively bulging pocket watch. For ten minutes I watched as, with an exaggerated gesture, he repeatedly hauled out his watch, not wholly concealed in his palm, and in fact a heavy stone, flat on one side, the size of half a cricket ball, which he tapped with annoyance, shaking his head at the lateness of the bus. When it arrived, he stepped forward to climb to the upper deck, where three rear seats were reserved for non-Europeans – if no white passengers were obliged through overcrowding to claim them. ‘No more kaffirs!’ the conductor barked, blocking the platform, and he stepped smartly back onto the pavement, as he’d doubtless had to do many times before. Glancing back as the bus moved off towards the Berea, I wondered how long it would be before his stone watch might tell him his time had finally come.

Sean Gallagher
London W14


Terry Castle refers to the ‘great walloping half nelsons’ in the diving repertoire of Maude Hutchins’s heroine Magda Smith (LRB, 3 July). Half gainers, maybe. A half nelson is a wrestling hold, not a dive. I just tried a half nelson out on my wife and she found it a bit painful but neither great nor walloping.

Charles Alverson

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