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Letters

Vol. 33 No. 4 · 17 February 2011

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Front Row

Julian Bell refers to the fact that three of Eliot’s Four Quartets ‘were read out, each as it was published, on the wartime BBC’ and suggests the cultural patriotism that implied (LRB, 3 February). On 1 May 1943 Picture Post published pictures of a poetry reading held at the Aeolian Hall on 14 April. Poets read their own work, and during Eliot’s reading of ‘What the Thunder Said’ the front row included the queen, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, Arthur Waley, Walter de la Mare and Osbert Sitwell (who organised the reading with Edith Sitwell in aid of Lady Crewe’s French in Britain Fund).

J. Oldaker
Nuneaton

How Much Is Too Much?

Benjamin Kunkel regrets the absence of book-length Marxist works grappling with the current crisis before David Harvey’s excellent The Enigma of Capital (LRB, 3 February). However, there are at least two recent works that fulfil this criterion: Alex Callinicos’s Bonfire of Illusions and Chris Harman’s Zombie Capitalism. Harman’s book in particular, his last before he died in late 2009, is notable because it places the ‘tendency of the rate of profit to fall’ at the centre of the analysis.

This avoids the kinds of psychological explanation that Kunkel occasionally lapses into when he speaks of capital’s inability to realise the ‘expected rate of profit’ and recovery, relying on a ‘satisfactory profitability’. Harman, following Marx in the third volume of Capital, sees accumulation as ‘self-limiting’. As the value channelled into constant capital increases relative to the amount of labour power harnessed by the system, capitalism drives out the source of surplus value: exploitation of the labourer. The fall in the rate of profit that results progressively undermines accumulation. It is this self-limiting contradiction that led Marx to describe the tendency as ‘in every respect the most important law of modern political economy’.

The postwar period did see a tendential fall in profitability, up until the late 1970s, when ‘fictitious accumulation’ increasingly choked off ‘real accumulation’ and capital’s offensive against labour increased the rate of exploitation. What followed was a long period of problematic accumulation, sustained low profitability and financialisation, the effects of which we are seeing today. To borrow a phrase from Harvey, the crisis was not solved, merely ‘moved around’.

Kunkel’s notion that the ‘capital/labour ratio can simply be rejigged’ credits capitalists with too great an understanding of their system, ignoring the competitive pressure that drives accumulation regardless of its self-defeating consequences. Similarly, the idea that this process has been reversed by the ‘proletarianisation of huge populations in Eastern Europe and Asia’ rather begs the question of what these populations were prior to the collapse of Stalinism. Here, again, Harman’s conception of these societies as state-capitalist – based on exploitation and accumulation mirroring that of ‘free market’ capitalism – is of far greater explanatory value.

Joseph Choonara
London SE1

Benjamin Kunkel’s metaphor of ‘the grinding tectonics and punctual quakes of capitalist crisis’ is, though sonorous, inaccurate: tectonic plates don’t constantly grind away at each other, disturbed by occasional earthquakes. Most of the time, faults between tectonic plates are locked by friction; eventually the stress becomes too great and the fault slips: that’s what an earthquake is. There is grinding, but only if you’re looking at things on a geological timescale – in which case you won’t see the ‘punctual quakes’. No doubt that’s true of the history of capitalism too. But however you look at it, the grinding and the quakes are the same thing. Or perhaps that’s Kunkel’s point?

Martin Sanderson
Ipswich

Ongoing Genocide

Mahmood Mamdani, in his piece about Congo, makes no mention of the ongoing pygmy genocide by all parties, a slaughter which, as reported in the Canadian National Post by Geoffrey Clarfield, includes the cooking and eating of the pygmies, the country’s true indigenous people (LRB, 20 January). Is it simply that this horror cannot be blamed on the usual excuse of ‘institutional practices introduced under colonialism’?

William Sherman
Margate, New Jersey

Loyal Soldier

Reviewing David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, Neal Ascherson is right to be reminded of ‘those American war films, proclaimed to be ‘against Vietnam’, in which only the American victims are in focus’ (LRB, 3 February). Grossman’s novel – like most Israeli fictions about the conflict – is almost entirely preoccupied with Jewish suffering, its Arab characters never more than shadows that flit across the stage. What Ascherson misses is the thread that connects Grossman’s aesthetics and his politics. Grossman is, to be sure, concerned about what Israel has done to the Palestinians, but he’s far more concerned with what oppressing the Palestinians has done to Israel. The indifference to the inner lives of Palestinians and the emphasis on Jewish victimisation in To the End of the Land reflect the pinched sympathies – and imaginative failures – of the Zionist consensus to which he belongs. This is a major reason why Grossman is so enormously popular in Israel, even on the right. Despite his opposition to the occupation, he remains a loyal soldier. As George Packer touchingly noted in his New Yorker profile, ‘even though he is alienated from Israel’s leadership, he still sends his children into the army.’ The fact that he continues to support a two-state solution ‘even though Arab militants killed his son’ (Packer again) has been turned into another reason to admire him: an example of his supreme generosity (never mind that these ‘Arab militants’ were defending their land against an Israeli invasion). Purportedly an anti-war novel, To the End of the Land breathes new literary life into the old cliché of Israel’s anguished soul.

Morris Singer
San Francisco

The Raging Peloton

Iain Sinclair’s article on cycling in London reminded me of my short time working as a courier in the mid-1990s (LRB, 20 January). The semi-crazed feelings of megalomania that scything through the streets and pathways of the City of London gave me were intoxicating and frightening (and thankfully short-lived). The sense of invincibility and power was tempered by the guilt that roamed my thoughts in the evenings, after the adrenalin subsided and the dirt and sweat – sometimes blood – were washed away. Even today, when I see such freewheeling behaviour, I occasionally feel somewhat shamefaced at the memories. Frightened pedestrians, astonished motorists and dented cars were the collateral damage of work that relied on speed and aggression for its meaning, satisfaction and productivity: the quicker the jobs were completed, the more jobs done, the more money made. Your equipment mattered too. My Brick Lane-bought Raleigh road bike was woefully inadequate, but was soon painted (first kingfisher blue, then Marin fluorescent yellow) and modified. Derailleur gears were quickly removed and clothes and bag were adapted. I learned my lessons: about London, its geography, streets and how it fits together. Based at Slaughter and May’s car park near Moorgate, small gangs of us – novices, masters and legends – would smoke and eat and fidget with radios, keen to be on our way. Conversation was never very expansive. Stories of accidents and death were common. Some of the career couriers were cycling obsessives, had all the gear, and worked because it paid for their training. For others, like me, it was simply casual work, if somewhat in your face.

Simon Down
Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Wasn’t it Jarry, mentioned by Iain Sinclair, who used a revolver instead of a bicycle bell? And didn’t he reassure a pregnant woman who complained that he had so startled her that she might lose her baby: ‘In that eventuality, madame, I shall make you another’?

David Maclagan
Holmfirth, West Yorkshire

At the risk of being anorakesque I’d like to point out that Dr Alex Moulton did not invent any outer ring to protect the rider from chain ring teeth, and while a clip-on plastic ring appeared on F-frame Moultons, there is no such thing on later space frame machines (Letters, 3 February). Guarding against the chain goes back into early cycling history, the full chain case appearing on Raleigh, Humber, Rudge etc any time from 1900, and on Dutch bikes still today, although nowadays plastic. Top of the range Sunbeam, made famous by Elgar, had its patent Small Oil Bath. Riding my Sunbeam wearing plus-fours (correct period costume), I don’t need to worry about the social implications of trouser clips. Later chain guards became the ‘hockey stick’, light steel bearing decals of the builder’s name in Britain, often aluminium pressed with the maker’s name in Europe. As for ladies’ protection, the skirt guard needed many small holes round the top of the rear mudguard and a web of string down to the chain stay to keep the skirt out of the spokes of the rear wheel.

Some are of the opinion that the trouser clip is very middle class, any working man cycling to work just sticking his turn-ups into his socks, or if wearing overalls being unworried by oil. Should a Marxist academic renounce that bourgeois badge of shame the trouser clip by sticking his trousers into his socks?

Stephen Kay
Abergavenny, Monmouthshire

I recall the 1950s, when a group of cycle-clip unchallenged teenage friends would meet at Liverpool Pier Head on Sunday morning, cross on the ferry to Wallasey and cycle 30-odd miles on the New Chester Road (suicidal today) into the Clwyd Hills of North Wales, pack-lunch and back again; a prospect far less daunting than Iain Sinclair’s experience battling the Peletonistics of Boris’s Barclays branded bike battles on the towpaths of North London, where I imagine neither Moulton small-wheelers nor unbranded loose T-shirts are much in evidence (Letters, 3 February).

Gordon Petherbridge
Buckingham

Tennyson in the Nursery

Seamus Perry does a good job for Tennyson, but it isn’t quite good enough – or Tennyson isn’t (LRB, 20 January). The limitations of what he and others call Tennyson’s ‘infantilism’ can’t be so easily ignored; or at least need to be put into some kind of perspective. Wilfred Owen provided one such perspective. Owen knew his Tennyson; but he also knew that the lifeline of English poetry goes back through Keats to Shakespeare, and not through Tennyson to the nursery. Writing to his mother from Craiglockhart in August 1917, Owen remarks that he has been reading a Life of Tennyson (A.C. Benson’s biography of 1904), and quotes Coventry Patmore: ‘Tennyson, it seems, was always a great child.’ He goes on to point out the poverty of Tennyson’s experiential foundations. ‘I can quite believe that he never knew happiness for one moment such as I have – for one or two moments. But as for misery, was he ever frozen alive, with dead men for comforters? Did he hear the moaning at the Bar, not at twilight and the evening bell only, but at dawn, noon and night, eating and sleeping, walking and working, always the close moaning of the Bar; the thunder, the hissing and the whining of the Bar?’

Damian Grant
Villeneuve d’Ascq, France

How to deal with a boar

Robert Hammarberg corrects Lawrence Norfolk’s statement that wild boars are not to be found in Estonia (Letters, 3 February). It is true that wild boars were not seen in Estonia at the beginning of the last century, but since then the population has increased and is now around 13,000. Since Estonia has a forest area of just over 20,000 square kilometres a stroll in the woods is likely to involve stumbling over a wild boar, or at least some evidence of one. Norfolk is also mistaken in suggesting that wild boar meat is effectively inedible (LRB, 6 January). The market stalls here groan under the weight of wild boar sausages, and I have seen boar barbecued. If trying this at home, use a halved oil drum; draping a boar carcass over those dainty grills available at garden centres will disappoint. It is also not true to say that the differences between wild boars and domesticated pigs are not genetic. There is more to genotype than the number of chromosomes; a wild boar embryo implanted in a Large White’s uterus will not produce a Large White piglet. Norfolk is right, though, that when attacked by a wild boar, one shouldn’t try to run. Best practice here is to climb the nearest tree; it is advisable to do this as speedily as possible, while hoping that the tree isn’t already occupied by a bear: there are 600 of those to look out for in the Estonian forests.

David Arney
Tartu, Estonia

You and Me and Terry Jones

Jenny Diski uses Google’s 500-billion-word database to compare the frequency of ‘you’ and ‘me’ from the mid-20th century on, and she finds it ‘against all expectation’ that ‘you’ outnumbers ‘me’ in that period by an even larger margin than in previous centuries (LRB, 20 January). I would suggest that since ‘you’ is both nominative and accusative, the more accurate comparison is between ‘you’ and ‘me’ plus ‘I’. Come to think of it, since ‘you’ is both singular and plural, the proper comparison is between, on the one hand, ‘you’, and, on the other hand, the total of ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘we’ and ‘us’. That comparison might prove the existence of the ‘Me Generation’. Or is the whole exercise just silly?

Malcolm Mitchell
New York

Jenny Diski misremembers Stephen King publishing one of his novels online with all the words in alphabetical order. Maybe she was confusing King with Douglas Adams and Terry Jones, who published the latter’s novelisation of the computer game StarshipTitanic in this fashion in 1997. ‘Douglas, being enamoured of the internet,’ Yoz Grahame, who worked on the game, recalled, ‘wanted to put the whole text of the novel online, and was disappointed when the publishers nixed that idea. However, we still found a way to do it.’

Phil Gyford
London EC2

Endorsed by Gove

Robert Hanks is wrong to dismiss Dennis Wheatley’s library, and snobbish too (LRB, 20 January). It wasn’t made up ‘mainly’ of ‘erotica and modern first editions’ – as if that in itself would be a bad thing. In fact, Wheatley collected assiduously, and with considerable knowledge, books on archaeology, history, military history, travel, literature, biography, genealogy, church history and poetry. Of the 2274 lots in the catalogue (many of which contain more than one book), there is nothing that could be classed as erotica unless one included the likes of Boccaccio.

Wheatley evidently read the books he acquired, a large number of which are annotated by him. He had the 14-volume set of the Cambridge Modern History as well as various volumes of the Camden Society, many of which he had annotated. He owned Malleus Maleficarum, but less predictably W.H. Mallock’s Doctrine and Doctrinal Disruption. Furthermore, he received a large number of presentation copies, including several from Anthony Powell, who also wrote to him in 1972 asking for assistance with the plot of his latest novel – which suggests that Powell had a higher opinion of Wheatley than Hanks does.

Brian McAvera
Downpatrick, Co. Down

In Welsh, naturally

R.W. Johnson describes Lloyd George as a ‘passionate nationalist’, stating as proof that ‘he often addressed meetings in Welsh’ (LRB, 20 January). In Lloyd George’s time, and particularly in the areas from which he drew his early support, the vast majority of people spoke Welsh and many had little knowledge of English. It was more than good manners to address them in a language they understood, and as he was often advocating self-government for Wales, it would have seemed to the audience a strange contradiction to address them in English.

Osi Rhys Osmond
Carmarthen

£1 in 1660

The figure of £27 million given by Steven Shapin to convert William Petty’s rental income of £18,000 a year into today’s money appears to use the index of average earnings (LRB, 20 January). This might be legitimate since he is dealing with an income, but it clearly does not reflect purchasing power, as the Retail Price Index (RPI) would do. Using this index, the estimate obtained at measuringworth.com is that £1 in 1660 would be worth £112 today (and £1530 if the index of average earnings were used instead). In today’s money, Petty’s income would then be the equivalent of £1.8 million: not bad, but much less than the annual salary of many Premiership football players.

François Thouvenot
University of Grenoble

Too leak or not to leak

Slavoj Žižek isn’t quite right that WikiLeaks made a deal with ‘five big newspapers, giving them the exclusive right selectively to publish the documents’ (LRB, 20 January). WikiLeaks negotiated with four newspapers: the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Figaro and El País. The Guardian in turn leaked the documents to the New York Times. WikiLeaks also retains the right to publish the documents; it is not exclusively the right of the newspapers.

David Auerbach
Brooklyn, New York

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