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Letters

Vol. 33 No. 10 · 19 May 2011

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Guess thy way to Tewkesbury

While miners might be hidden away down the mines or textile workers in the mills, domestic servants were often the only members of the working class that other classes got to know. What I thought was missing from Joanna Innes’s account of Carolyn Steedman’s Labours Lost was anything much about the felt experience of being servants (LRB, 14 April).

My mother was the seventh child of an engine-driver. She had just one brother and all her five sisters ‘went into service’. This was in rural Gloucestershire during and after the First World War; that part of England, then as now, was dominated by the large houses of the gentry and aristocracy, and for working-class girls there was simply no alternative employment. My aunts had all left school at 14 and my grandmother had scouted round to find positions they might apply for: she would also have made sure, as the girls grew up, that they’d done enough domestic labour to be useful in a household. My aunts would laugh as they recalled getting up at 5 a.m. on cold mornings to start the day by killing all the cockroaches on the walls of the kitchen, using their shoes to swat them; they took it for granted that the kitchen of a large country house would swarm with insect and rodent life.

They saw themselves as answerable to the mistress of the household, and their relationships with the master and his sons were mediated through her. If one of the sons wanted to seduce a servant-girl, her worry would be ‘what would ma’am think?’ – a prospect sufficiently forbidding to stand in the way of such liaisons.

My grandfather, ‘Red Bill’ Hewer, was a trade unionist and Labour voter. When the government ordered troops in against the Welsh miners, he refused to carry them on his train. As an engine-driver he belonged to the aristocracy of labour and this brought him into frequent contact with the upper classes – it had been traditional since the days of the stagecoach for passengers to give a special salute to the coach driver. On one occasion, just after he had brought his express into Cheltenham, one passenger, a titled lady, swept down the platform before pausing at the engine and asking: ‘George, my good man, can you tell me the way to Tewkesbury?’ My grandfather replied: ‘How did ’ee know my name was George?’ Pleased, she responded brightly: ‘I just guessed it.’ ‘Well then,’ he replied, ‘thee can just guess thy way to Tewkesbury.’ Her family demanded that he be sacked, but the railway unions were far too strong for that to work.

No matter how normal my aunts made domestic service seem, I always felt glad that my mother escaped it. The reason was to do with the sixth child, the only boy. My grandfather, before becoming a railwayman, had from the age of 11 worked as a farm labourer and bitterly hated it. He accepted that five of his daughters should go into domestic service but he couldn’t countenance the thought that his son would have to work on a farm if the family stayed in the countryside. So the whole family moved to town in order that the son could learn a trade – he became an electrician. Thus when my mother left school at 14 she became a shopgirl at Boots, the urban equivalent, it was felt, of domestic service in a rural milieu. My mother, though, regarded this turn of events as a very lucky break and I’m not sure she was wrong.

R.W. Johnson
Cape Town

Interpretations of History

Richard J. Evans seems naive in citing the Ofsted report as evidence that children ‘regarded history as fun’ (Letters, 14 April). I currently study A-Level history, and the course is far from scintillating. Answers must be formulaic, and often the coursework is based on wild assumptions that can’t be challenged because of the ever-present ‘assessment objective’ – to stray from the expected response is to risk your grades. This is rarely admitted by teachers, who presumably don’t like to face up to the futility of their lessons, but every student knows that although the assessment objectives may be dull, and are often absurd, meeting them is the key to getting a good grade.

It’s no wonder that Ofsted failed to get the truth from pupils: after several years of taking inane exams, I have become so jaded that rather than challenge what’s expected, I try desperately to conform to it. Evans should maybe enter for a GCSE or A-Level history paper and see the truth for himself. Unless students have a full understanding not of the topic but of the bizarre machinations of the exam board, an A* is impossible. We don’t spend our history lessons doing anything very much beyond trying to understand the marking scheme. Complaining about it is of no use, because although its futility does incite a rebellious spirit, to fight it would be to sacrifice one’s place at university.

Ella Raff
Cherwell School, Oxford

They’re the same length!

Jerry Fodor writes that knowing about the Müller-Lyer illusion doesn’t make it go away (LRB, 28 April). That may be true, but different cultures can find the illusion more or less convincing. During the Torres Straits expedition of 1898 the physician and psychologist W.H.R. Rivers elicited the responses of Melanesian people to certain optical illusions, then compared the results with the responses of European subjects. The Melanesians, it turned out, were less likely than Europeans to be fooled by the Müller-Lyer illusion. One explanation later offered is that Europeans, unlike Melanesians (and others living in houses with no right-angled corners), are accustomed to seeing carpentered corners in their buildings, and so are more prone to perceive the Müller-Lyer figures as three-dimensional.

Charles Lindholm
Boston University

To Halland via Bangkok

Thank you, James Meek. Now I know what’s amiss at the Gatwick mail centre (LRB, 28 April). We can blame a Japanese consultant for Rumsfeldian management techniques which have the workforce ‘finding solutions to problems they didn’t know were problems’. No doubt the mail centre scores better at that than at solving real problems of which it is aware. Here’s one. Every now and then the centre’s nice machine ‘sucks in and shoots out’ letters addressed to us – and sends them to Bangkok. Royal Mail suggests we remove the name of our village from our address, at a stroke wiping a community of several hundred people off the face of the earth. Do this on an industrial scale and there won’t be any postal workers’ pay and conditions to worry about: all the mail will be on its way to a sorting office in Thailand.

Pauline and Anthony Freeman
Halland, East Sussex

In the 1970s I was working as an architect in the former Ministry of Public Building and Works. Among the departments for which we provided a service was the Post Office. A colleague visiting a sorting office that had recently been modernised noticed that one of the sorters was dazzled by the sunlight coming in through the high window above his rack. My friend asked if the window was not a bit of a nuisance. The sorter put his letters down, turned to my friend and said: ‘Look mate, it took us 40 years to get windows in our sorting offices. We’re not bloody well giving them up now!’

Richard Hilken
Exeter

‘Under Review’

Christopher de Bellaigue writes that it is the ambitious goal of the forces occupying Afghanistan to turn it ‘into a place where there would be fair elections, free enterprise and women’s rights’ – a ‘sclerotic leap to modernity’, he calls it, which may be right with regard to elections and free enterprise, but when it comes to women’s rights what’s involved is not so much a leap to modernity as a return to the past (LRB, 14 April).

NGOs have introduced shelters to allow women to escape domestic violence and avoid forced marriages, but a law currently under consideration by the Afghan parliament would require a woman wanting to enter a shelter to be accompanied by her husband or a male relative; she would have to be handed back to the family if the family demanded it; while in the shelter she would have to undergo monthly medical checks ‘to monitor her sexual activity’. The law is currently stalled – officially said to be ‘under review’. But other laws that met with international outrage were kept ‘under review’ for a few months until public vigilance had waned and then gazetted without much international protest.

Another proposed law is designed to regulate weddings. Afghan weddings are traditionally an elaborate affair, and many families go into lifelong debt to finance them. So when the Justice Ministry says that it wants to limit the cost of weddings it sounds like a good thing. But the proposed law also provides for the establishment of committees to monitor weddings to ensure that women dress ‘modestly’ and that male and female guests attend in separate rooms. The committees would include representatives of the Religious Affairs Ministry and enforce Sharia-compliant dress.

Matthias Tomczak
Adelaide

Share the wealth

David Runciman misses the mark in his attribution of Alaska’s ‘share the wealth’ programme to Sarah Palin (LRB, 14 April). Alaskans dedicated 25 per cent of oil royalties to a permanent fund by constitutional amendment in 1976. Later, a dividend programme was adopted that would distribute half the profits each year. The fund’s value is now in excess of $30 billion. The confusion may have arisen because in her abbreviated term as governor, Palin, along with Alaska’s Democrats, successfully promoted a hefty excess profits tax on the industry as prices skyrocketed – an increase which her successor has been trying to undo. Were I looking for a model for a truly outstanding share-the-wealth programme, I would look across the Pole to Alaska’s neighbour Norway, which has dipped deeper for revenue, created a larger reserve fund and distributed it more wisely.

John Havelock
Anchorage

Threats of Hell

The papal bull Unigenitus was published in 1713 by Pope Clement XI (1700-21) and not, as James Wood has it in the LRB of 14 April, Clement XIII (1758-69). The bull condemned 101 propositions in the best-selling treatise by the Jansenist Pasquier Quesnel and resulted in a crisis for the Church in France.

Stephen Lovesey
Wantage, Oxford

On the 653

Andrew O’Hagan reports Harold Pinter as saying that a writer who stops taking the bus is likely to lose touch with the people’s speech, but adds that he can’t say whether this was true or not in Pinter’s case (LRB, 28 April). When Harold and I were lads together in Clapton we made frequent use of the old 653 trolleybus to Stamford Hill, and there he was an enthusiastic listener. He once regaled me with a dramatic rendering of an exchange between a conductor on the platform of a departing bus and a friend left on the pavement, which consisted of nothing but the reiteration of a loud and mock ironic ‘It’s all right for you – yeah!’ from both parties, until they were out of earshot.

Barry Supple
Whittlesford, Cambridge

Correction

A piece by Perry Anderson published in the LRB of 31 March stated that the Brazilian Supreme Court Judge Eros Grau had been ‘convicted of trafficking in influence’. It has been drawn to our attention that although Mr Grau was ordered in a judgment given on 19 September 2005 to repay 2.7 million reais to the Treasury of São Paolo for illegal contracts, that ruling was overturned in July 2009, five years after he had been appointed to the Supreme Court. We are happy to set the record straight in order to avoid any misunderstanding.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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