I’m not sure Billy Wilder would agree with Michael Newton that Montgomery Clift was neither sardonic nor amused enough for his films (LRB, 7 October). In fact, William Holden wasn’t Wilder’s first choice to play Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. It’s known that it was after a skiing holiday in Switzerland, when Clift read the script or at least parts of it, that he turned down Wilder’s offer. Either he thought of himself as not being either sardonic or amused enough, or he simply hated the script.
The original opening sequence, which took place in a morgue with several corpses talking to each other, was found laughable after a sneak preview and cut from the film: ‘It was the kind of laugh I dreamed of getting, but for a comedy,’ Billy Wilder tells Charlotte Chandler in Nobody’s Perfect: A Personal Biography. That’s a lost scene. What remains is some raw footage of the ambulance getting to the morgue and the corpse of Joe Gillis being wheeled in, and, of course, the memories of anyone still alive who was present at that sneak preview in Evanston, Illinois. There’s a story that one of them, a woman who wore a big hat with a ribbon and a feather, not knowing who Wilder was, addressed him on the stairs of the theatre: ‘Have you ever seen shit like this before in your life?’ ‘Never!’ Wilder answered.
Stefan Collini’s despair is fully justified (LRB, 4 November). A ‘student choice’ funding model was adopted in New Zealand in the 1990s, and the results were deplorable. The majority of students, especially when facing high fees, will tend to ‘choose’ the qualifications that are easiest and cheapest to complete, just for the sake of a qualification and to kill time before they have to seek employment. This is great news for business schools, which can provide relatively low-cost, high-throughput degrees with at least the appearance of vocational relevance. Overall, the students and the universities will compete on lower quality, as the former seek ease of completion and the latter seek bums on seats. The humanities and the natural sciences tend to suffer. The Clark government in New Zealand (in office from 1999 to 2008) had to spend a number of years trying to get some common sense and focus on quality back into our university system.
Massey University, Auckland
Since young people are being asked to invest in themselves, they should be given the same tax benefits as small business owners. A small business start-up is allowed to deduct 50 per cent of the cost against profits. Investors in education will not be given the same benefit.
Stefan Collini is right to criticise the baton passed from Mandelson to Cable that is the Browne Report. And rather than causing the Lib Dem leadership anguish, the proposals are completely in sync with its ideology: a simultaneous belief in the efficiency of markets and the rationality of their participants, on the one hand, and in the inability of markets to produce a sensible or beneficial outcome for society (such as enough well-trained doctors or teachers), on the other. One can only imagine that Clegg and Co, when signing up to the now abandoned pledge not to raise tuition fees, were either confident of not being elected, or canny enough to spot a shortcut to student votes. What Collini only hints at, however, is quite how enthusiastic many influential university managers are about Browne. They should be: they as good as wrote chunks of it. The submission by the Russell Group to the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance in May argued for variable fees, a removal of the cap on charges, support for Stem subjects, the introduction of a ‘real’ rate of interest, and increased repayment rates, while rejecting a ‘graduate tax’. It states that ‘an increase in graduate tuition contributions . . . represents the only viable option for ensuring sufficient funding for a world-class higher education system, in a manner that is fair, sustainable, and protects access,’ and that an increase in graduate contributions will also facilitate a more differentiated market in higher education. This will create a fairer system in which the graduates who secure the greatest benefits will make the greatest contribution, and where diverse models of teaching and learning can be efficiently supported. Graduate contributions also provide more incentives for institutions to improve quality and responsiveness to students’ needs as they encourage students to be more demanding of their universities. So wedded must some Russell Group VCs be to the principle of market forces that one of them referred publicly to unlimited fees as the ‘sunny uplands’ for higher education.
I wonder whether Robert Gottlieb’s biography of Sarah Bernhardt is as vitriolic as Terry Castle’s review of it (LRB, 4 November). Though I was only born the year the Divine Sarah died, I feel I came under her spell through the actor Esme Percy, whom I knew in his old age. In his youth he had been what would now be termed her stalker, and he remained a lifelong worshipper at the Bernhardt shrine. I well remember his reciting the ‘Marseillaise’ in her vibrant voice, with her phrasing and passion, as a sort of party piece, and it took one’s breath away.
Tom Paulin suggests that Larkin’s well documented antipathy to marriage is qualified by ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ (LRB, 21 October). The last lines of that poem are: ‘A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.’ The sense of falling communicates the ‘disappointment’, but Paulin identifies in the arrows/rain metaphor ‘a swelling sense of fertility and alert purpose, with more than a hint of tears’. Is this more positive construction justified? I read it differently, as a failure of aims: the guided impetus of the wedding moments, launching the happy couples, loses direction and purpose, becomes diaspora, and slowly disappears. It is surely a reading that is more consistent with the poem’s general tenor as well as Larkin’s broader prejudices.
University of Kent
Slavoj Žižek, in his review of Richard McGregor’s The Party (LRB, 21 October), seems to be suggesting that something new is happening in China. I can’t see it. To recover from the devastation of the Civil War, and to set the country on the road to economic modernisation in the absence of world revolution, the Bolsheviks turned to the capitalist market. At the same time, they tightened political repression for fear that the ‘alien class influences’ now to be unleashed might erode the Party’s monopoly of power. From there increased Party control over state and cultural institutions became necessary if market capitalism was to flourish. There would be no transition to political democracy, and if such a transition were to threaten, the only credible response would be a ‘left turn’, back to the future, as Stalin showed in 1929, when he felt the regime’s monopoly of foreign trade to be under siege.
Larkin got ‘blent’ from Yeats (Letters, 4 November)? Anyone of Larkin’s years, let alone Yeats’s, would have been familiar with the section of Childe Harold beginning with the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball (‘There was a sound of revelry by night’) and ending on the field of Waterloo: ‘heap’d and pent,/Rider and horse, – friend, foe, – in one red burial blent!’ Byron got it from speaking English. You could set up a Pedants Corner, like Private Eye.
In her journey down Linthorpe Road in Middlesbrough, Joanna Biggs unwittingly touches on one of the town’s most interesting ventures: the Linthorpe Pottery (LRB, 21 October). This was founded in the town in 1879 as a result of a meeting between John Harrison, a local landowner, and the designer Christopher Dresser. One of its aims was to alleviate local unemployment – some things never change.
Dresser worked in glass and metal; he designed wallpaper; and he was a potter. He had travelled widely, not least in Japan, but almost all the pottery was produced in Middlesbrough. Unusually, the factory paid attention to good working conditions: comfort, space, light and proper ventilation; it was the first in the country to use gas-fired kilns. Alas, this was too good to last. Dresser’s connection with Linthorpe Pottery ceased after only three years, artistic standards declined and the factory closed only ten years after it had opened.
The French students in May 1968 didn’t quite grasp the subtlety of De Gaulle’s famous remark. Or at least, they restrained themselves from doing so.
His denunciation of the riots as a ‘chienlit’, quoted by Jeremy Harding, was knowingly ambiguous between the old word for ‘carnival’, chienlit, and the scatological chier en lit – ‘to shit the bed’ (LRB, 4 November). But the students weren’t interested in the subtlety and posters were plastered overnight on every wall in Paris, reading ‘La chienlit, c’est lui!’
Jeremy Harding omits one of De Gaulle’s most improbable achievements. He ensured that France, universally written off at the time as a Great Power, nevertheless became one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.
President Truman was not ‘re-elected’ in 1948, as Jonathan Fenby has it, but elected, having assumed the presidency on Roosevelt’s death in 1945 (LRB, 21 October).