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Letters

Vol. 32 No. 9 · 13 May 2010

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Salmondella

Scotland has never been spoiled with public intellectuals but it is distressing to see that the species is now as rare as ospreys (LRB, 8 April). On the evidence of Tom Nairn’s uncritical review of Christopher Harvie’s Broonland, the sole surviving mating pair is showing signs of succumbing to a dreadful form of mind poisoning called Salmondella, which could wipe it out completely in the near future. I speak of this as a former sufferer who has now mercifully recovered. In my former life as a newspaper executive in Scotland, I used to cluck merrily in support of SNP manifestos, often alongside Nairn and Harvie, but I publicly abandoned my partisan perch when the Highlands and the Lowlands were shaken to their foundations by the great economic crash.

That the primary cause of this disaster, in the UK’s case, was the total recklessness of the two main Scottish banks, RBS and HBOS, is an inconvenient truth that we could never expect the current SNP leader to confront, especially as he was previously employed as an economist by one of those now zombified institutions. Even more inconveniently for Alex Salmond, the twin pillars of the once proud Scottish banking sector are now being propped up by the British state (i.e. largely English taxpayers). Salmond’s response to this economic earthquake has been to blame a pair of Anglo-Scottish traitors, Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, for failing to regulate the financial sector properly. This skates over the most inconvenient truth of all for the SNP: up until the crash occurred, Salmond was calling for even lighter financial regulation than that imposed by New Labour. In an interview with the Times on 7 April 2007, he stated: ‘We are pledging a light-touch regulation suitable to a Scottish financial sector with its outstanding reputation for probity.’ The reality is that Salmond was the king of the ‘spivs and speculators’ he has been denouncing of late and, were they living in Salmondistan rather than Broonland today, his compatriots would be in even direr straits than the citizens of Iceland or Greece.

Christopher Harvie cannot confront that reality because he shed any lingering pretence of intellectual independence the moment, in May 2007, he was elected to the Scottish Parliament from the SNP list in Fife. Tom Nairn isn’t similarly constrained, yet the one-time guru of left-wing nationalism seems to have contracted Salmondella all the same. The only academic to have faced up fully to the current intellectual bankruptcy of Scottish nationalism is Tom Gallagher in his book The Illusion of Freedom, but it scarcely got a mention in Scotland’s now anaemic ‘national’ press.

Rob Brown
Dublin

In a Cleft Stick

Stefan Collini doesn’t mention transgender people when he lists the ‘strands’ he says are ‘defined by existing legislation about equality: gender, ethnicity, disability status, sexual orientation, religion or belief, and age’ (LRB, 8 April). It has taken a huge effort over many years to get the Equality and Human Rights Commission to recognise transgender equality. This it now does, but current UK legislation protecting transgender people remains unworkable. On the one hand, I have a Gender Recognition Certificate. A condition of getting this is that ‘for all purposes’ I refer only to my acquired gender: I am required to keep my previous gender private, also ‘for all purposes’. On the other hand, the law protecting me from discrimination requires that I disclose at the outset in any dealings with employers or suppliers of goods and services that I am transgender: otherwise, any claim of discrimination I could lodge with the courts against an employer or supplier would evaporate on the grounds that they didn’t know. This is the cleft stick we find ourselves in. It appears that the Single Equalities Act, which received Royal Assent on 8 April, hasn’t addressed the problem; I have asked the Government Equalities Office for clarification.

Natasha Thoday
Brighton

Twice-Baked

Frank Kermode and Geraldine Lindley are both barking up the wrong tree (LRB, 25 March and Letters, 22 April). We are certainly not dealing with rusks.

The Greek work epiousios is indeed unusual and in fact occurs only twice in the New Testament, in each case referring to the petition in the Lord’s Prayer for ‘daily bread’. The word is best translated as ‘necessary’, rather than ‘daily’. What is required for the journey, food for men (and women) wayfaring – padkos, in Afrikaans (‘roadfood’).

The Latin tradition of supersubstantialis, which Kermode mentions, is frequently connected with the Eucharist in Christian piety and almost certainly alludes to the giving of ‘manna’ (bread) to the Israelites in the desert. Their instructions were to go out and collect the manna on a ‘daily’ basis every day for six days: on the sixth day, however, they are to collect twice as much because there will be none on the seventh, God having put his feet up. The sixth day’s collection therefore became epiousios because it was necessary for the seventh too. The petition in the Lord’s Prayer thus has to do with getting the correct tucker to keep you going for the required period.

Bruce Bridgewood
London N11

Education, education etc

Nicholas Spice, bemoaning the continuing social division in British education, refers to the Fleming Report of 1944, which recommended that a quarter of all places at private schools should go to children from the state system (LRB, 8 April). He adds that because this was to be on a voluntary basis, ‘nothing was done.’ That isn’t quite true, for there was the ‘Gilkes Experiment’ at Dulwich College, which enabled the late Eddie George, for example, the son of a postman, to attend the public school in South London and go on to become governor of the Bank of England.

Christopher Gilkes was appointed master at Dulwich in 1941 and was determined to revive the fortunes and academic standards of the war-battered, near bankrupt school, founded by Edward Alleyn in 1619. He followed the recommendations of the Fleming Report and embraced the scheme established under the 1944 Education Act which allowed local authorities to pay the fees at independent schools. By 1957, 90 per cent of boys at Dulwich, having passed the 11-plus and an entrance examination, were paid for by the Inner London Education Authority, Kent County Council et al. The school’s new concentration on academic ability horrified some governors and Old Alleynians, not least the most famous of them, P.G. Wodehouse (never mentioned in my day because of his wartime behaviour).

What Gilkes and his successor created in the 1950s was essentially a super-grammar school with a public school ethos. It was elitist and single-sex and might not secure approval from progressive opinion today. But it did suggest a way of bringing the independent and state sectors together which could, and should, have provided a model for other public schools. Unfortunately, the plug was pulled on it by Harold Wilson’s government when it ended the Local Education Authorities award scheme and, despite the later introduction of the Assisted Places Scheme, fee-paying pupils gradually became the majority again.

Gavin Stamp
London SE23

How they laughed!

Jenny Diski’s piece about ‘crabs’ reminded me that there’s also what might be called ‘illusory parasitosis’: the belief that you’ve been infested by insects when the real source of your itching and twingeing is something else that isn’t in your head either (LRB, 22 April). Some years ago I was living in a cottage on the edge of Silicon Valley in an area known for its flea-friendliness. One morning I woke up covered with bites, which I recognised from a past unhappy house-sitting experience. I bundled up bedding and clothing for the laundromat and went to the hardware store for flea-spray, and that evening sprayed every room in the cottage. During the night, though, I could feel tiny mandibles leaving new bites. I threw on the light and examined myself and the sheets, but couldn’t catch the fleas at work. The next night I was sleeping naked with the light on, but the little devils were still faster than I was. On the third day I began to feel really rotten and decided I was killing myself rather than the fleas with the flea-spray. Wondering whether the problem might be to do with the tiny poisonous spiders also known in the Bay Area, I went off to the library, where the librarian took one look at my sweaty, flea-bitten face and sent me off to a corner by myself with a book about Californian arthropods. By the next day the itching was intolerable and I went to my local clinic in search of anti-itch medicine. How they laughed! My flea problem turned out to be chicken pox.

Judith Rascoe
San Francisco

Jenny Diski writes: Ah, yes, I remember in the bin there was a young Australian woman (we were all young then) who was there because she had a psychosomatic rash that wouldn’t go away no matter how many antidepressants and antipsychotics she was given. Eventually, after she insisted, they tested her for allergies. She was allergic to rubber. She always slept with a hot-water bottle – cold in England for an Australian. They let her out.

I don’t know what you’d call that.

Unforgiven

Jackson Lears seeks to exonerate Ralph Nader from the charge of having cost Al Gore the 2000 election, thus inflicting George W. Bush on this country and the world (LRB, 8 April). According to Lears, though Nader is a ‘convenient target’ for liberal ire, Gore actually ‘won’ the election and was deprived of his victory only by ‘wholesale Republican electoral fraud in Florida’ and a ‘scandalously partisan Supreme Court decision’. This is specious. The Supreme Court’s decision certainly reflected partisan bias but nobody knows who really won Florida, and thus the general election, because there is no agreement on which disputed votes should have been counted.

By the official count, which Lears does not cite, Bush carried Florida by 537 votes out of 5,963,110 cast. If the Republicans committed ‘wholesale’ fraud, they cut it awfully close. And they also evidently had sufficient powers of divination to know in advance that Patrick Buchanan would win the votes of thousands of Jewish retirees in Palm Beach County, presumably intended for Gore, because of a poorly constructed ballot. What is undisputed is that Nader got the votes of 97,421 Floridians and that Gore certainly would have netted more than 537 votes from those people had Nader not been in the race or urged his followers to vote for Gore in close states. In fact Gore would probably have increased his total by thousands of votes.

For weeks before the 2000 election, it had been clear that the Nader vote might well swing it for Bush. I don’t think it unfair in the slightest not to forgive him for the 2000 election.

Peter Connolly
Washington DC

Back to the Land

My parents were members of the Distributist League, or the Back to the Land Movement as I knew it, which Jonathan Raban writes about (LRB, 22 April). Though it certainly influenced the lifestyle and informed the attitudes of those like my father – artists, craftsmen, writers, teachers, Catholics – who were seeking an alternative (and an answer) to Communism, what marked out these individuals was that they wished to escape from and replace the realities of industrial life; they were moralistic, idealistic, isolationist and, often, highly eccentric. They were also educated, coming mostly from the middle to upper classes. For them to subordinate themselves to the grind of agrarian life, and to relative poverty, was not easy. Some had money. One was delivered to the entrance of the Laxton colony (out of sight) in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce; another celebrated the planting of his plot with a crate of champagne worth more than its year’s produce. And, of course, there was a great deal of talk. Some were deeply sincere and strived to create the good life but came up against high-minded but self-interested and impractical people with whom they were expected to share their lives and labour. There were arguments and resentments. It was strange that my mother and her like-minded friends in the Laxton colony did not talk of the wartime imposition of an aerodrome on the colony as a disaster and I suspect this was because it had the effect of disguising the more fundamental cause of its demise.

As my mother made clear, the Distributists were not ordinary people; never did the ordinary factory worker cross their threshold.

Joseph Nuttgens
High Wycombe

Non-Specific Gravity

Benjamin Kunkel’s magisterial – or should that be discipular – survey of the work of Fredric Jameson includes one puzzling sentence: ‘So did every weightless postmodern artefact in fact testify to the specific gravity of the fully capitalist planet it only appeared to float free of’ (LRB, 22 April). ‘Specific gravity’ is a (slightly old-fashioned) way of saying ‘relative density’: that is, the density of one substance as a ratio of the density of another, standard substance. Measuring the specific gravity of a barrel of fermenting beer, for example, will tell you how much less dense it is than water, which will in turn tell you how much alcohol there is in it. But what can the term mean in Kunkel’s sentence? What is the reference standard that will give us the relative density of the fully capitalist planet? And how is that relative density testified to by only apparently weightless postmodern artefacts? I hope these questions have answers, and it isn’t disappointingly the case that Kunkel simply means ‘gravity’ or, if you want the extra syllables, ‘gravitational pull’.

Meanwhile, on the letters page of the same issue, Kunkel says that the Incas ‘controlled an empire spanning 32 degrees of latitude, a territory larger than the Ottoman Empire at its height’. Further from end to end isn’t the same as ‘larger than’: the Ottoman Empire in the late 17th century covered an area of more than two million square miles, roughly three times that governed by the Incas.

Martin Sanderson
Ipswich

Not Simply Not True

Christopher Bollas takes me to task for using the phrase ‘simply not true’ to describe his claim that ‘Freud was never able to answer the question … isn’t every dream a wish-fulfilment?’ though Freud categorically claimed in 1919 that traumatic dreams are not wish-fulfilments and held onto this view for the remaining two decades of his life (Letters, 8 April). Bollas also rebuffs my assertion that he was wrong to claim that ‘Freud’s error was to confuse mental content with mental form,’ though Freud explicitly warns the reader of this confusion and says: ‘It is the dream-work which creates that form and it alone is the essence of dreaming.’

Bollas accuses me of artificially weakening his case by not quoting him saying of Freud: ‘He found dreams that seemed to be beyond the human wish.’ But he wrote that sentence to support his overall thesis that Freud was never able to make up his mind. Obviously, someone who didn’t make up his mind would be likely to think, on the one hand, that dreams seem to be wish-fulfilments, and on the other, that some seem not to be. But my point is that Freud clearly did make up his mind that traumatic dreams are not wish-fulfilments. I didn’t quote that sentence because it neither strengthens nor weakens Bollas’s case. In support of his position, the one passage Bollas quotes from Freud is: ‘The wish-fulfilling function of dreams is not contradicted by anxiety-dreams.’ To be sure; but Bollas’s claim in the book isn’t that Freud did not make up his mind about anxiety dreams, but that he didn’t make up his mind about whether every dream is a wish-fulfilment. Freud did reach a settled view that traumatic dreams are not wish-fulfilments. Thus he did reach a settled view that not every dream is the fulfilment of a wish.

Bollas says his position is that Freud ‘did not create a sustained view of form’. This is a plausible view (though not one I share), but what he says in The Evocative Object World is that Freud’s error was to confuse mental content and mental form. It is this claim of error and confusion that I said was not true. In the later chapters of The Interpretation of Dreams as well as in his essay ‘The Unconscious’, Freud puts in a tremendous effort to distinguish the forms of unconscious mental activity from the content of unconscious thoughts.

Jonathan Lear
University of Chicago

LP v. CD

Frank Kermode regrets that Benjamin Britten, who died in 1976, did not live to enjoy present-day recording technology as represented by CDs and digital techniques (LRB, 28 January), but reckons the composer was ‘unlikely to have been bothered about inferior means of reproduction’. Inferior means of reproduction! In fact analogue recording, which is what Britten would have known, is still alive and well, and many musicians and critics prefer the real-time accuracy and musicality of the analogue process as represented in LPs and tape recordings. There are sound recordings from European and American sources from the 1930s that are as highly prized even today as any sound on a digital CD. A chief recording engineer at Sony in New York told me early in the 1990s that he and his colleagues, tired of the mechanistic unmusical sound of early CD music, kept copies of LP records at home. Only in recent years, as 24-bit high resolution digital technology has become generally available, has the best of analogue sound been approached.

Jim Van Sant
Santa Fe

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