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Vol. 33 No. 9 · 28 April 2011

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Don’t Blame Us

Adam Roberts’s suavely patronising response to the ‘characteristically spirited’ Iain Pears will not do (Letters, 14 April). His attempts, as president of the British Academy, to dispel the anxieties expressed by Pears and felt by many arts academics and intellectuals cover up a failure of leadership. To take a key example, Roberts writes that the British Academy ‘played a leading part in reframing the notion of “impact"’. He makes no apology, he says, for engaging with the issue, and congratulates himself on having argued that the proposed weighting for impact in the new Research Excellence Framework should be reduced from 25 per cent to 15 per cent. (It won’t be.) However, the argument made by Pears and many others is that the impact agenda is inherently damaging to arts research (and indeed, all research). It should not be modified, reformed or ‘engaged with’: it should be rejected wholesale as detrimental to the intellectual activity that the British Academy and the research councils exist to promote and defend. Had the impact agenda not been imposed, would Roberts independently have proposed it as a good thing? If it is a good thing, then why didn’t he and his BA fellows come up with it many years ago? Or did he simply need prompting by the government in order to see that impact would enhance our research, but only if we rename it ‘public value’? Does he really believe that the government will alter its own crude version of this, in which public value or ‘benefit’ (the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s preferred retitling of impact) is construed as ‘producing an immediate economic return’?

Pears also criticised the AHRC for allowing the Big Society ideological agenda to become a funding priority. The AHRC’s defence is that Connected Communities (the research programme at issue here, which is also supported by several other research councils) predates the election, and is therefore ideologically neutral. However, in June last year, just after the formation of the new government, the AHRC held its first summit on the programme. Shearer West, the AHRC’s director of research, gave a presentation which set the scene for the programme explicitly in terms of the Big Society framework. The only other presentation archived on the AHRC website from that summit was given by Bert Provan of the Department of Communities and Local Government. His title: ‘Connected Communities; or, “Building the Big Society"’.

While Adam Roberts is right to insist that the British Academy should engage with government, it is a great pity that such engagement never seems to take the form of saying no. The supposed pragmatism of engagement and of reforms that never work trumps the argument from principle every time. It is this failure to argue from principle that provokes despair and anxiety among those who are trying to maintain the integrity of higher education.

Thomas Docherty
University of Warwick

I was forcibly reminded of Iain Pears’s warnings of the coalition’s attempt to ‘extinguish all meaningful independence in higher education’ when I recently learned how Cambridge University, my own institution, plans to maximise its returns in 2013 (Letters, 14 April). There are staff whose whole lives are now devoted to working the system and we are being forced to follow suit. There is, of course, tremendous pressure to conform, not least with regard to one of the most worrying developments, the spurious measurement of ‘impact’. I have been asked to produce a pilot example of how the research of one member of my department (East Asian Studies) has had influence on the wider world and in doing so I must avoid any mention of the quality of the research. The guidelines too place a premium on presentation rather than substance. They are eloquent testimony to our betrayal of precisely the standards we try to instil in our students.

All institutions, all vice chancellors, should refuse to play the game and submit nil returns under the impact heading, but this won’t happen because we are simultaneously pusillanimous and venal and will play the game in the hope that our own fictions will prove to be more persuasive than those of others. How can I face graduates and urge them with a straight face to enter a profession that is so easily suborned? The concept of a community of scholars has been replaced by a system designed to set university against university in a fight for what money remains on the table after most of it has been frittered away. We shall all suffer for our willingness to participate in this cynical game, which leaves our European and North American counterparts amazed at what is happening and waiting with open arms for the talent that will continue to flow their way.

Richard Bowring
University of Cambridge

Threats of Hell

‘No one believes in eternal punishment any more,’ James Wood writes (LRB, 14 April). His words reminded me of those, recorded in shorthand, spoken by a Dominican friar who preached at Santa Maria Novella in Florence: ‘Today, people think they needn’t bother about threats of Hell because no one believes in it [nullo non credono].’ The date was Lent 1305.

Alexander Murray

Lord have mercy

Katherine Duncan-Jones writes ‘had the theatres never reopened’ after being closed because of plague, Shakespeare ‘would have written, and published, many more non-dramatic poems’ (Letters, 14 April). This is no more than a guess. He might just as well have returned to Stratford disillusioned with the literary and theatrical profession and taken up, or resumed, his father’s craft of glover. Or have become a soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor or even a country schoolmaster. Moreover, informing us how ‘unusually well situated’ she is to assess the impact of the plague on Shakespeare’s writings, Duncan-Jones writes of the ‘fact’ that the narrative poems and the Sonnets were published ‘through the poet’s own agency’. So far as the Sonnets are concerned this is not a fact but a hypothesis espoused and expounded by Duncan-Jones and based on a dubious interpretation of the evidence. As she writes of her correction of James Shapiro and Jonathan Bate, ‘it makes a difference.’

Stanley Wells

No Joke

Jeremy Harding tells us of the library in the Front National stronghold of Marignane in Provence which wouldn’t buy Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (LRB, 14 April). Such attitudes, he says, are no longer evident. Across the Channel maybe. Dover public library recently ‘weeded out’ (its expression) all books by Freud. I must ask if it plans a bonfire.

Simon Darragh
Walmer, Kent

Eliot v. Mansfield

Jason Harding suggests that T.S. Eliot’s distrust of Katherine Mansfield had to do with a perception of Mansfield’s dislike of his wife, Vivien (Letters, 31 March). There are no grounds for this in the letters; and very clear grounds for an apprehension springing from the fact that his patron Lady Rothermere found the first issue of the Criterion ‘dull’ at a time when she was repeatedly telling the Eliots that Mansfield was ‘the most intelligent woman I have ever met’. This is what provoked Eliot’s anti-Mansfield outburst. But nothing in the letters suggests that Mansfield was responsible for Rothermere’s opinion, or said anything damaging to her about Eliot or his new journal. In fact Mansfield, who was so frank about her dislike of Vivien, only ever expressed admiration (tempered by amusement and pity) for Eliot.

‘And surely,’ Harding goes on, ‘Eliot was wise to mistrust John Middleton Murry’ – as if I had suggested otherwise. What I show is that Eliot began by disliking Murry but came to trust him too much (‘I feel a kind of dependence on you … You are the only person I want to be in touch with’). Murry was one of three friends Eliot asked to advise him when his marriage reached crisis point in 1925.

My view of the major actors in this mini-drama, which I didn’t spell out, but thought must be clear from the way I disposed the evidence, was that the Eliots were both seriously neurotic; Murry was charming and useful (he secured Eliot the Clark Lectures), but untrustworthy; while Mansfield was the sanest of the set but, alas, dying. Harding’s grumbling tone suggests he wants to propose an alternative view, but he doesn’t make it clear what this might be.

C.K. Stead

Intervention, Right or Wrong

I am not persuaded by Rory Stewart’s argument in favour of the no-fly zone in Libya (LRB, 31 March). As an American, I’m more than a little concerned that Obama has ignored the War Powers Resolution when the Democrats and Republicans are so divided on the issue. More heartening is that the military leadership has been as unenthusiastic in this case as it was about Kosovo. I was an active duty airman, a satellite operator in Space Command, during the last US attack on Libya in 1986. I found out about the campaign on my drive to work. Because I was one of the few enlisted personnel in my shop I often had scut work to do, cleaning up the officers’ break room and so on, but that night a television was moved to the operations area so that the lieutenants and a few enlisted people could get updates on CNN. There was uproarious celebration when the death of Gaddafi’s infant ‘daughter’ was announced. I laid into everyone there, calling them ‘bloodthirsty’. A few hours later, around three in the morning, the operations commander showed up bleary-eyed, and asked me to explain myself. I prattled on about the Geneva Conventions, frightened and defensive; he went home and I heard no more about it. Since then, though I’m more red than pink, I’ve had respect for the US command, and think they should probably be listened to when they don’t want to go to war.

Ralph W. Reed
Holyoke, Massachusetts


Peter McGill mentions those Japanese outcasts, the burakumin (LRB, 31 March). One of the ‘unclean’ occupations they were assigned was undertaking, a point delicately made in the Oscar-winning Japanese movie Departures. A newly married young man finds himself unemployed and applies for a job without knowing it involves ritually preparing the dead for burial. Although he soon overcomes over his disgust at coming into such close contact with corpses, it takes his young wife considerably longer. To avoid offending its Japanese audience no mention is made of burakumin, and so subtle was the film’s handling of the theme, it eluded most Western viewers. I no longer raise the subject with Japanese friends as I have found that, when I do, they pretend not to hear me.

Garth Clarke

Known Unknown

In his review of Donald Rumsfeld’s memoirs, Andrew Cockburn mentions that the US Department of Defense’s accounts were never audited under Rumsfeld, or under the current defense secretary, Robert Gates (LRB, 31 March). The Pentagon’s unwieldy funds have in fact never undergone a full audit. Rumsfeld and Gates are not solely responsible for the Pentagon’s financial bloat.

Andrew Burt
Washington DC

Nothing New

Theo Tait mentions that during the filming of The Killing, even the actors weren’t told who the murderer was until absolutely necessary (LRB, 31 March). The Killing doesn’t break new ground in this respect. Francis Durbridge always kept back the last episode of his television serials in the 1950s and 1960s until the last possible moment.

Marian Fowles
London SE3

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