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Vol. 32 No. 11 · 10 June 2010

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The End of the UK

David Runciman in his piece on the election refers to the ‘risible’ performance of the BNP (LRB, 27 May). If only. It is true that Nick Griffin failed dismally in Barking and that the party lost all of its councillors in Barking and Dagenham. But, largely by fighting on a wider front and tripling the number of its candidates, it doubled its national vote from 2005 to 1.9 per cent. Nearly two in every 100 votes went to a party described by both David Cameron and Alan Johnson as fascist. In 2005, the BNP put up 119 candidates and gained 0.74 per cent of the vote; in 2010 it put up 339 candidates and gained 1.9 per cent. On average, its candidates attracted 1647 votes each in 2005; in 2010, 1663 votes. Nearly twice as many voted for the BNP as voted for the Greens, and more voted for the BNP than voted for the Scottish National Party or Plaid Cymru, who won six and three seats respectively. In the 1930s, in the midst of a depression, when educational and living standards were far lower, Mosley’s Fascists failed to win a single council seat, and were unable to put up candidates in the general election of 1935. The BNP is doing far better. It now has 28 councillors – down from 56 in 2008 – and a member on the London Assembly, where it secured 5.3 per cent of the vote in 2008. It also has two members of the European Parliament, where it gained 6.2 per cent of the vote last year. The rise in BNP support has not been noticed because it did not win any seats. But it is now the fifth largest party in the United Kingdom.

Vernon Bogdanor
Brasenose College, Oxford

And what of the new New Labour? What a bunch of deadbeats – and so young. Deadbeats used to be old like Harold Macmillan.

Brian Lee
Great Hexham, Northumberland

The Shudder

In his fascinating piece on ‘Eliot and the Shudder’, Frank Kermode relates Tennyson’s ‘And like a guilty thing I creep/At earliest morning’ to Wordsworth’s ‘our mortal Nature/Did tremble like a guilty Thing surprised’ (LRB, 13 May). Surely, each of these also echoes a previous association of dawn, guilt and surprise, in Horatio’s description of King Hamlet’s ghost at cock-crow: ‘And then it started like a guilty thing/Upon a fearful summons’?

Tony Sharpe
Grange over Sands, Cumbria

T.S.Eliot (and Frank Kermode) make some acute points on Charmian’s final words in Antony and Cleopatra. I’m not sure, however, that their effect is quite as difficult to explain as Eliot claimed. The extraordinary resonance of Charmian’s expostulation, ‘Ah, soldier!’ lies, surely, in the pause, the single beat, that follows it before Charmian herself dies: an instant in which Cleopatra seems to come back as an echo, while Charmian wordlessly recalls her life, vivacity and nobility of spirit. A lesser, if more explicit, note of valedictory wonderment is made a few lines later by the Guard’s epitaph on Charmian:

O Caesar,
This Charmian lived but now; she stood and spake:
I found her trimming up the diadem
On her dead mistress; tremblingly she stood,
And on the sudden dropped.

Even in the moment preceding her own death, Charmian’s thoughts, we see, are of her mistress; one can imagine the force a talented actress could give to the words ‘Ah, soldier!’, which somehow manage both to lament Cleopatra’s suicide and celebrate her life.

Duncan Bush
Ynyswen, Powys

Mubarak’s Last Breath

Adam Shatz writes that Egyptians ‘fear that they will never know democracy because of the “American veto"’ (LRB, 27 May). It’s true that the US has been a less than enthusiastic backer of Egyptian political reform during the Mubarak years, but it’s still worth pointing out a few important, and indeed hopeful nuances of US policy. As Shatz notes, Mubarak managed to circumvent American pressure to democratise, thanks in part to Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, which took the wind from the sails of George W. Bush’s quixotic quest for democratic reform. After 2006, regime insiders relaxed, gloating that they ‘knew how to handle the US’. Yet Obama has proved far harder for Mubarak and his cronies to read. Gone is the two aspirins at bedtime Bush prescription for democracy, but it isn’t business as usual either. Obama has kept Mubarak at arm’s length, notably deflecting the Egyptian president’s offer to introduce him at his speech in Cairo in June 2009. When Obama spoke, he walked to the podium to the cadence of ‘Hail to the Chief’, and Mubarak was nowhere in sight – a marked contrast with his speech two months earlier in Ankara, where he addressed the Turkish parliament and was introduced by the Speaker. As many Egyptians remarked, the Cairo speech gave no comfort to Mubarak and his fellow kleptocrats. In another sign of a sterner, less tolerant US tone, Hillary Clinton has assailed the Egyptian government for its recent extension of the Emergency Law. This suggests a more skilful approach than in the Bush years, one that might help restore some vibrancy to Egypt’s dismal politics.

Augustus Richard Norton
Boston University

Men, men, men

What an oddly male drama Diarmaid MacCulloch purveys in his portrait of the Roman Inquisition (LRB, 13 May). To read his account, you would think the inquisitors thought about men, conversed with men, interrogated men, burned men’s books and sometimes burned men themselves without giving a thought to the myriad women who began to make a noise on the chaotic scene of the Counter-Reformation. Only at the very end, when MacCulloch gives the final word to the source material, do we hear something that sounds like the return of the repressed: ‘By inflicting pain and torment on women, who are admittedly little different from brutish beasts, you may appear as guardians of the Christian faith.’

Lotte Folke Kaarsholm

What We’re about to Receive

Jeremy Harding’s article on food sustainability brings to mind the work of Lester Brown on the impact that a combination of population growth, unequal distribution and climate change may have on current cultures of over-consumption (LRB, 13 May). Brown rather breathlessly predicts a global shift in economic power from net food-importing nations – which have long benefited from agriculture’s poor terms of trade – to exporters, who in his view will soon be able to dictate to global markets for the first time.

If Brown is correct, the winners would be in the Americas (Argentina and Brazil especially, as well as the US and Canada), Australasia and Central Asia. The biggest losers would be small, overpopulated nations in Asia and Europe, notably Japan, Singapore and, potentially, the UK. But it would also be disastrous for most African nations, whose food production systems are so inefficient that they are net importers, even though the majority of their populations are farmers.

Reduced consumption is not an option there, and after decades of neglecting agriculture, a shift towards state-subsidised food self-sufficiency would be the most sensible response. Malawi’s current fertiliser subsidy programme is a shining example of how this can be done even in a very poor country. Whether such a phosphorus-dependent strategy is economically or environmentally sustainable in the long term, however, remains to be seen.

Crucially, the same is true of hydroponic production in the UK, such as Thanet Earth. The economic and environmental cost (in terms of carbon emissions) of producing tomatoes under stadium lights is far greater than that of shipping them from Africa. The concept of food miles – as opposed to, say, food carbon units – is fundamentally flawed. Imported fruit and vegetables usually taste better and help to reduce the inequality that lies at the heart of the impending global food crisis.

In the present, European agricultural subsidies and import tariffs, under the Common Agricultural Policy, remain a horrendous impediment to agricultural growth and poverty reduction in Africa. A new focus on food sustainability in the UK sounds like a good idea in principle, but if it is based on environmentally harmful production and trade barriers that perpetuate global poverty, it could make worse the problem it seeks to address.

David Hall-Matthews
Leeds University

Had it not been for Lead Belly

I was glad to see Eric Hobsbawm give the late folk/blues great Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, credit as the inspiration for Lonnie Donegan’s recording of ‘Rock Island Line’ (LRB, 27 May). Newly released from Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, he first learned the song from Kelly Pace, a convict at the Cummins Prison Farm in Gould, Arkansas, whom he encountered in 1934 while working as a driver for the musicologist John Lomax, then travelling through the South collecting songs for the Library of Congress. Lomax recorded Pace leading a group of seven men, one of them doing an imitation whistle. When they heard their song played back later, they threw down their hats and beamed with pride. Lead Belly liked the song as well, and before he quit work that day he had learned it.

Years later he would add his own introduction, which Donegan copied: ‘I got cows, I got sheep, I got goats, I got horses.’ During the Second World War Lead Belly sometimes switched to the more topical, ‘I got guns, I got tanks, I got bombs, I got Jeeps.’ The Beatles acknowledged the Donegan recording as one of their main influences. George Harrison told his publisher, Brian Roylance, that since Donegan’s repertoire consisted mostly of Lead Belly songs, there would have been no British rock scene had it not been for Lead Belly. ‘No Lead Belly, no Beatles,’ said George Harrison.

John Reynolds
New York

Through the Northwest Passage

Thomas Jones notes that in recent times the Northwest Passage has been navigated by several icebreakers and nuclear submarines (LRB, 27 May). It does not, however, require quite such heavy-duty vessels. Willy de Roos achieved the passage from east to west in his 45-foot steel yacht Williwaw; Jeff MacInnis and Wade Rowland achieved a west-east crossing in their 18-foot catamaran, Perception, in 1986; and David Scott Cowper, over three seasons, went through in a 42-foot converted lifeboat, the Mabel E.Holland, reaching the Bering Straits in August 1989.

Mike Bender
Exeter University

In a Cleft Stick

I may have overstated the likely potential of the Equality Act 2010 (Letters, 27 May). It appears that employers have only a power, not a duty, to engage in positive discrimination in recruitment and promotion. Moreover, caste discrimination will only be made unlawful by means of secondary legislation after August if a report from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research indicates that such a change is warranted.

Chris Purnell
Orpington, Kent


The illustration on John Barrell’s review of the Paul Sandby show at the Royal Academy was mislabelled, muddling Boxley with Bexley (LRB, 13 May). The caption should have read: A View of Vintners at Boxley, Kent, with Mr Whatman’s Turkey Mill (1794).

Editor, ‘London Review’

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