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Letters

Vol. 31 No. 17 · 10 September 2009

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In Urümqi

Nick Holdstock in his article ‘In Urümqi’ might have made the following additional points (LRB, 6 August). First, the Han Chinese living alongside the Uighurs are not indigenous to the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. They have been settled there by the Chinese Government in order to colonise an area regarded as dangerously unreliable because of its Turkic, Muslim identity. Together with the massive military force policing the region, the Han settlers now approximately equal the Uighur and other ethnic groups. Second, the inducements for Han settlement have been guarantees of housing and jobs. In these respects they have been given priority over the indigenous population, hence the large-scale unemployment and deep resentment among the Uighurs. Given the scale of repression it seems surprising that Holdstock refers to reports of atrocities as ‘hysterical’. It seems much more probable that the reports are true.

Keith Sellars
Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey

Speaking up for the 1970s

Ian Jack’s review of Andy Beckett’s When the Lights Went Out is marred by a fearful howler (LRB, 27 August). It wasn’t Jack Jones who insisted on goujons of sole at monthly meetings with Treasury ministers, but Hugh Scanlon.

Joking apart, the IMF visitation of 1976 is still reliably posted as the ultimate failure of a Labour government. In fact, the IMF-precipitating episode of 1976 was sparked by someone at the Treasury, never identified, selling pounds for dollars in the wake of the cuts imposed and recovery achieved in 1975 by the chancellor, Denis Healey. Derek Mitchell, then permanent secretary at the Treasury, would later tell me that the entire 1976 episode, IMF and all, had been ‘strictly a headline crisis’. Indeed as the crisis broke, the scarcely pinko Investors Chronicle had asked: ‘why now, when the real crisis was last year?’

A few other important things haven't made it into the received record. The voluntary incomes policy, so successful until late 1978, owed its melancholy collapse essentially to James Callaghan, but for deeper reasons than the famously complacent ‘Crisis, what crisis?’ Callaghan had played with the notion of replacing Healey with the protectionist Tony Crosland and had withdrawn support in cabinet for a 2 per cent increase in the minimum lending rate until Healey threatened resignation. Initially sceptical about the voluntary incomes policy, when it prospered he promptly pushed it too far. An amazed and derisive Roy Hattersley tells how in 1978, a civil servant from the PM’s office, Kenneth Clucas, informed him that ‘Number Ten is thinking about 3 per cent.’

There had been sufficient warning across that year from union conferences – including the T&G’s, where Jack Jones had been booed – that even 5 per cent could not be held. However at the outset, November 1976, Healey had been advised by his Leeds constituency party chairman, Ashoke Bannerjee, that the influence of differential earnings was such that for the policy to work, ‘benefits ought to be lower compared with earnings.’ Healey had agreed and argued in cabinet for a year’s freeze on benefits. The cabinet’s refusal may be the single most significant cause of the Winter of Discontent, a revolt of the low paid if ever there was one. Callaghan’s later insistence on yet deeper wage restraint simply compounded his initial failure to fight for this painful but realistic principle.

By and large, Callaghan has had an indulgent press, but his own judgment of his actions can be found in the nervous breakdown, paralysis of will and complete failure to communicate with civil servants and ministers he suffered across two to three weeks at the end of 1978, going into 1979 – something related to me by his private secretary, Kenneth Crowe, but not included in the standard narrative. The 1970s are perhaps best remembered as a failure so nearly a success as to approach tragedy.

Edward Pearce
York

Evidence for the Generosity etc

Lara Pawson seems to confuse the statement that ‘First World hospital care’ saved R.W. Johnson – which it did – with the idea that ‘First World hospital care’ always saves people suffering from necrotising fasciitis, which it does not (Letters, 27 August). That which is necessary is not always sufficient, as she must know. As for her statement that ‘he was, we assume, able to meet the costs with his own money’: she shouldn’t assume what she doesn’t know.

Anne Summers
Birkbeck

Who’s the snubbee?

‘When one night the playwright Denis Johnston asked him for a lift to Foxrock, where they both lived, Beckett replied simply: “No."’ This story, told by Colm Tóibín in his review of Samuel Beckett’s letters (LRB, 6 August), has been circulating in various forms for some time but the earliest version of it is somewhat different. The late Doris Abramson published ‘A Tribute to Denis Johnston’ in the Massachusetts Review in 1982. In the course of an interview with Abramson, Johnston told her that one night when ‘we were both at the Campbells’ in a fairly large group,’ he witnessed Beckett giving the same snub to an unnamed third party. Given the tendency of oral history to rewrite stories in the interests of economy, it isn’t surprising that the version Tóibín heard has quietly cut the anonymous snubbee and substituted the story’s original narrator. I knew Johnston a little towards the end of his life (he was my grandfather) and if he had been the true victim of the snub, I doubt he would have missed the chance to report that he had once been the object of Samuel Beckett’s rudeness.

Alex Johnston
Edinburgh

Is it just me?

Am I the only person in the English speaking world who knows that the preterite of ‘may’ is ‘might’, an auxiliary verb used in the past subjunctive and in its verbal form without any other function in the English language? While the LRB is singularly free of the split infinitive, too often its contributors appear not to know the difference between ‘might’ and ‘may’ or between the indicative and subjunctive moods.

The issue of 9 July featured a photograph of a British soldier reading the London Review. The caption contained the sentence: ‘It would be nice to imagine, however, that the army’s own hard-pressed recruiters might exploit it’ – the photograph – ‘as suggesting the opportunities for the mind’s improvement that may come up in the empty intervals between the gunfire.’ The ‘might’ should be ‘may’, as it refers to the future. But I would have written the sentence differently in any case because the subjunctive mood is wrong. There is a wish in the phrase ‘it would be nice to imagine,’ and what is wished for is a fact: that the army’s recruiters exploit the photograph in the intervals between gunfire. The indicative mood is used for facts. Why not: ‘It would be nice to imagine, however, that the army’s own hard-pressed recruiters exploit it in the opportunities for the mind’s improvement that come up in the empty intervals between the gunfire’? ‘Might’ and ‘may’ should be avoided where unnecessary, but my essential point is that they should never be used interchangeably.

It’s a hard life.

Patrick Power
Raheny, Co. Dublin

At Pigotts

Deborah Friedell’s review of a biography of the writer Elizabeth Taylor made me feel that she is one of those authors onto whom other writers project the image they wish to see (LRB, 6 August). Thus, in his entry on Taylor in the DNB, Paul Bailey is lyrical about her gifts as a short-story writer, where most readers would probably rate her novels higher. Friedell, however, dismisses these same stories as simply purveying an easy picture of England for American consumption. The novels are given little notice. Mostly Friedell is concerned to emphasise Taylor’s supposed dullness and conventionality of character. There seems to be more to Taylor than this.

Young Elizabeth Coles, as she then was, grew up near Pigotts, Eric Gill’s art and sex commune in the Chilterns. Fiona MacCarthy’s eye-opening revelations about Pigotts were published in 1989 in her fine biography of Gill. Coles was one of Gill’s young female visitors. On a trip to Germany in 1930, Gill startled his aristocratic host, MacCarthy reports, ‘by getting out his sketchbook and showing a series of nude drawings of a girl with a fine figure in poses which John Rothenstein’ – another guest – ‘described as “of startling impropriety"’. MacCarthy reckons that the model was Coles, then in her late teens.

These may be some of the drawings which ended up, after Gill’s death, in what was then the British Museum’s ‘Private Case’. The Royal College of Surgeons had rejected them for its own museum as ‘not showing any pathological condition’. MacCarthy also records that Coles had a love affair with one of Gill’s assistants. Later, and by then safely married, Taylor wrote rather sharply about Pigotts in her novel The Wedding Group (1968). But this seems to be one case where a writer concealed more than she revealed.

Paul Barker
London NW5

Deborah Friedell writes: Paul Barker must be referring to the first edition of Fiona MacCarthy’s biography. As Nicola Beauman notes, by the time MacCarthy revised her book for the paperback edition in 1990, she’d decided that Gill’s nude model had not been Taylor after all: ‘It was not, apparently, another young librarian, Elizabeth Coles, better known as Elizabeth Taylor.’

No More Entitled

Stephen Burt writes: ‘We may imagine Auden or Byron, Pope or Muldoon sighing when Heaney calls poetry, in general, “a ratification of the impulse towards transcendence"’ (LRB, 11 June). Muldoon may not entirely belong in this company, however. In the Author’s Note to his Poems 1968-98 he announces his acceptance, and embrace, of a transcendence at the heart of poetic activity when he comments that ‘I have made scarcely any changes in the texts of the poems, since I’m fairly certain that, after a shortish time, the person through whom a poem was written is no more entitled to make revisions than any other reader.’

Anthony Paul
Amsterdam

Make way!

I can sympathise with Jenny Diski, following her brush with the Cameron contingent at the Open University. Some years ago when, ambling along a designated route at the Royal Show, I was summarily shoved aside by a bruiser to allow HRH the Prince of Wales to make a beeline across said route from lord knows where to the hospitality suite; all the more remarkable when, a few days later, in Oxford, I crossed paths with W.H. Auden as he shambled down a crowded Cornmarket in carpet slippers, alone and unremarked by the passing crowds, to be met with a wan smile when he recognised he’d been spotted.

Gordon Petherbridge
Shalstone, Bucks

Mistakes

Bernard Porter did his best to remind us that it wasn’t Carlo D’Este, the author of Warlord: A Life of Churchill at War, 1874-1945, but Churchill himself, who wrote: ‘Given an audience there is no act too daring or too noble. Without the gallery things are different.’ It was our mistake, and our mistake, too, that it went uncorrected (LRB, 27 August).

In Walter Benn Michaels’s piece in the same issue, the sentence ‘White people, for example, make up about 70 per cent of the US population, and 62 per cent of those are in the bottom quintile’ should have read: ‘White people, for example, make up about 70 per cent of the US population, and 62 per cent of those in the bottom quintile.’ Editorial gremlins, we’d like to think.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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