Vol. 34 No. 2 · 26 January 2012

Search by issue:

Speak up for feminism!

Jenny Turner’s ‘scrapbook’ on feminism begins and ends with girl rioters’ ‘flat-out joy’ and what might be called shopping situationism (LRB, 15 December 2011). The young women who joined last summer’s riots are, she tells us, ‘the problem with feminism’. But what is this problem? Young women ‘losing their heads’ or feminists who didn’t?

Yes, the riots were a problem: the medium – collective larceny and incendiary violence – obscured the inaugural message, that a black man, Mark Duggan, had been shot to death by the Metropolitan Police. The riots exposed a crisis of politics: a cruel gap between the cause and consequences of Duggan’s death. That crisis is those girls’ tragedy; it is our tragedy. Why doesn’t Turner address this? What has feminism done to deserve her rant?

One soul is exempt from Jenny Turner’s splatter critique: Selma James. Those of us who belong to the Women’s Liberation generation remember well James’s Wages for Housework campaign. Jenny Turner is right about one thing: James was never popular. Her virtuoso sectarianism was not attractive, and her leftist populism named an important issue (unpaid domestic labour) without challenging the power structure that produced it.

The Women’s Liberation movement didn’t adopt Wages for Housework because it didn’t challenge the patriarchal political economy, or the domestic division of labour, or men. Far from being an ‘intellectually ambitious attempt to synthesise Marxism, feminism and postcolonialism’, its theory was crude and its practice toxic.

However, a host of women certainly did undertake ‘intellectually ambitious’ work. Juliet Mitchell’s essay, ‘Women: The Longest Revolution’, published in 1966 in New Left Review, a pioneering analysis of the lacunae in Marxism (relations of social reproduction and the sexual division of labour), was a founding text of British feminism. Women’s Liberation was animated by a torrent of intellectual endeavour and awareness-raising (derided by Turner as sitting around but really another term for thinking). This didn’t impinge much on Wages for Housework, or on Turner either. She finds alluring a slogan most of us thought was bonkers.

Turner burdens feminism with both too little and too much power when she asks how it has ‘drifted so far out of touch’. After the 1970s Women’s Liberation lived on not as a thing, a place, an address – it had no institutional moorings – but as contingent politics: as ideas, as coalitions, as challenges in the professions, political parties and the academy, in women’s services, and in popular culture; it created new political terrain. All this is ignored by Turner, who relies on an American leftist critique that feminism has narrowed its focus from a politics of redistribution to recognition (identity) politics: recognition can be accommodated, redistribution cannot. It claims that feminism thrives in neo-liberalism. It does not thrive. Remarkably, however, it survives. There’s a difference.

The conditions for it to flourish were eroded by the rise and rise of what Stuart Hall calls Thatcherism’s ‘regressive modernisation’, the assault on state welfarism, the neoliberal sway of the global economy, and an ideological offensive in which it is right on to be right off.

Feminist activism in these islands exemplifies not the collapse of either recognition or redistribution but – in the most dispiriting conditions – their necessary synergy. Feminism is still breathing here, there and everywhere. It audits the cost/ value of the domestic division of labour as a form of redistribution from women to men, and its acute manifestation, for example, in the coalition’s budget strategy. The Women’s Budget Group last year amplified Yvette Cooper’s calculations on the coalition’s deficit reduction strategy: 72 per cent of the cost of the budget was borne by women. This evidence ignited a legal challenge by the Fawcett Society on the grounds that the budget strategy transgressed statutory equality duties.

Turner is distracted, however, by ‘a harsher divide’ between the privileged 13 per cent of women who earn ‘just as much as men’ and the rest. ‘Feminism overwhelmingly was and is a movement of that 13 per cent’ – the prissy, ‘let-them-eat-cakey’ monstrous middle-class regiment of women. Class discombobulates Turner. Would anyone in their right mind malign Angela Davis or Stuart Hall because they’re black and middle-class? Middle and working cultures have always been mobile, moving in and out of each other. Politics is where we can in engage in ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’, not as identity politics but as a way – and this is the point, after all – to overcome the subjective and social injuries of subordination.

Strange, says Turner, how often feminism hasn’t engaged with race and class. Strange, I say, that she hasn’t registered the intensity of these engagements. Cue her allusion to the white American abolitionist and suffrage campaigner Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Turner says she ‘opposed votes’ for black freedmen. No, not quite: she insisted on votes for black men, and women black and white, at the same time. It split the suffrage movement. The great Sojourner Truth, born into slavery, had sympathy for this argument. She told the American Equal Rights Convention in 1867 that ‘man is so selfish that he has got women’s rights and his own too … he keeps them all to himself.’ Multiple oppressions and modalities of power have always – inevitably – circulated in feminist politics.

This brings us to Turner’s larger problem: politics itself. She gets all roused up over the wrong question. Why did a book catalyse feminism, she asks. Being a book, it ‘only works for middle-class women’. So, working-class women don’t read? Actually, Women’s Liberation bounced out of activism not texts: the detonator was black and white women’s humiliation within the liberation movements of the 1950s and 1960s: the Freedom Rides, the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. The American Women’s Liberation movement was born out of resistance to racism, war and male chauvinism, in that order. These histories are withheld from Jenny Turner’s undignified tantrum. We learn that she is angry – but she is angry with the wrong people.

Beatrix Campbell
London NW1

Jenny Turner attributes the phrase ‘straight up the down escalator’ to ‘the economic historian Teresa Amott’. Actually it derives from Bel Kaufman’s title for her novel Up the Down Staircase, published in 1965. The novel portrays the challenges, frustrations and triumphs of an idealistic English teacher in an inner-city school and was made into a film and a stage play.

Jim Valentine
Woodland Hills, California

Where have all the fact-checkers gone?

I’ll take up only three points in Deborah Friedell’s review of my book Charles Dickens (LRB, 5 January). She asserts that I suggest ‘out of the blue’ that Dickens ‘actually died at Nelly’s house in Peckham’. Nowhere in the book do I suggest that Dickens died anywhere but at Gad’s Hill. Are there no fact-checkers at the LRB?

A propos my being hoaxed by the Dostoevsky letter story, she writes: ‘She might have been less susceptible had she not so badly wanted it to be true.’ In fact Malcolm Andrews, distinguished Dickens scholar and editor of the Dickensian, first accepted the Dostoevsky story. As I have already explained in print, I found it in Andrews’s Charles Dickens and His Performing Selves, looked up the source he gave – the Dickensian, in 2002 – and presumed he had checked its authenticity. Michael Slater, a pre-eminent Dickens scholar, also accepted it and printed it in his biography of 2009. We were all caught out. The hoax was a clever one precisely because it convinced so many Dickens scholars.

I did not argue in The Invisible Woman that Nelly Ternan was more central to Dickens’s life than other biographers had thought, as Friedell states. I simply set out to tell Ternan’s story as best I could. That was twenty years ago, and in no sense is my new book ‘a return to that project’, as Friedell wrongly informs your readers. The earlier book was about Ternan, the new book is a life of Dickens.

Claire Tomalin
London WC2

Deborah Friedell’s critique of Claire Tomalin suffers from a lack of bibliographical precision. Tomalin’s suggestion that Dickens died, not at Gad’s Hill, his country house outside Rochester in Kent, but at Ellen Ternan’s home in Peckham, is not presented ‘out of the blue’ in the new biography, as Friedell claims. In fact, Tomalin first advanced this hypothesis in 1991, in the second, paperback edition of The Invisible Woman, where she gives a plausible account of Dickens’s death ‘in compromising circumstances’, based on information sent to her by a reader whose great-grandfather had been told the alternative version of Dickens’s last hours.

Mark Bostridge
London NW3

Deborah Friedell writes: I refer Claire Tomalin to Mark Bostridge’s letter and to pages 395-96 of her Dickens biography. There she notes inconsistencies in the usual account of Dickens’s death at Gad’s Hill and offers ‘another possible version of the events of Wednesday 8 June’, in which Dickens may have ‘made the familiar journey by train and cab to Peckham’, given Nelly her housekeeping money and soon after this collapsed. Then Nelly would have secreted the ‘inert or semi-conscious’ man to Gad’s Hill so that his body wouldn’t be found with his mistress. But Tomalin doesn’t tell the story in the conditional mood and though she says that ‘it seems wild and improbable,’ she also says it’s not ‘entirely impossible’ and explains why.

The subtitle of The Invisible Woman is ‘The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens’. On the first page Tomalin writes that Nelly Ternan ‘played a central part in the life of Charles Dickens at a time when he was perhaps the best-known man in Britain’ though she was ‘wholly excluded from the great biography of Dickens written by his friend John Forster’. The LRB does indeed have fact-checkers.

Before He Made It

I’m not sure why Neal Ascherson calls Jacques-François de Menou ‘Napoleon’s butcher of the Vendée’, which suggests that Napoleon was somehow responsible for Menou’s actions there (LRB, 15 December 2011). In 1793-94, when the worst of the fighting and repression was taking place in the west of France (mostly overseen by Carrier and Turreau), Napoleon was down on the Mediterranean coast, first as a mere captain of artillery, then as an artillery commander at the siege of Toulon. He remained on the Franco-Italian front until the spring of 1795, when he was ordered to take command of the artillery of the Army of the West in the Vendée. Given his special interest in, and knowledge of, the Franco-Italian front, he regarded this as ridiculous, refused to go, and went on sick leave. It wasn’t until the revolt of Vendémiaire in Paris that Bonaparte ‘overtook’ Menou, but he still wasn’t a prominent figure. Paul Thiébault describes going to the Convention and asking for Menou, whom he took to be the commander. ‘“Menou?" they replied. “Mercy of God! That traitor is no longer commanding us. Barras is our general-in-chief, and Bonaparte is his second." “Bonaparte?" I said to myself. “Who the devil is that?"’ Napoleon wasn’t always in charge of everything.

Martin Boycott-Brown

Universities under Attack

‘If we can’t speak the language of our enemies, not only will they not listen to us,’ Michael Wood writes, ‘but they can’t’ (LRB, 15 December 2011). He is far too defeatist. Under New Labour, the arts were told that statements about value, quality and excellence were irrelevant and self-serving, and would be rejected out of hand by the Treasury. Unless the arts could demonstrate, numerically, their instrumental utility to society, the economy, the environment and social development, they would never get a decent hearing in Whitehall. For a decade, arts leaders demonstrated that they could run their organisations in ‘business-like ways’ – which is totally different from running them ‘like businesses’. The sector poured out instrumental indicators by the ton. But the arts never gave up their own language for describing the real nature of their activity.

The essential question for higher education is not ‘will they listen?’ It is ‘will we speak out?’

John Tusa
London N1

Alan Bennett reminisces…

Alan Bennett reminisces about the ‘arrangements’ by ‘someone (first name forgotten) Hartley’ (LRB, 5 January). It was Fred Hartley (1905-80), who also published under the name ‘Iris Taylor’. He was appointed head of BBC Light Music in 1946. You can hear him on the British Light Music Classics Series, though I ought to be wary about publicising this, since one of those tasteless sparks who choose the music for Essential Classics on Radio 3 might decide to slap one of these vile concoctions slap bang next to a movement from a Beethoven sonata, say, or a snippet of Missa Solemnis.

Bernard Richards
Brasenose College, Oxford

Alan Bennett misunderstood the few minutes he heard of the 29 August Prom devoted to Hollywood music. When MGM sold some of its real estate in the late 1960s all the original scores of its musicals were destroyed. The music he heard that night has been resurrected by John Wilson, who spent a year watching the films over and over so that he could painstakingly reconstruct the original scoring. He would spend a whole weekend on just four bars. To equate this with what Fred Hartley used to do for the Palm Court Orchestra on the Home Service every Sunday night belittles Wilson’s remarkable achievement.

Patrick Renshaw

I was very pleased to read Alan Bennett’s thoughtful mention of the passing of the great British trumpeter, Maurice Murphy. Murphy was one of the greatest trumpeters of the last hundred years. Recognition of his artistry extended far beyond the fame he acquired for his performance of the trumpet solo in Star Wars. His passing was mourned around the world, not only by those of us who are members of the professional trumpet community, but by many who listen to and love great orchestral playing.

Keith Johnson
University of North Texas, Denton

Alan Bennett tells us that in the TLS review of Ian Kershaw’s The End there is a picture of Goebbels, during an inspection of the Volkssturm in Silesia in 1945, ‘shaking hands with Willi Hübner, a child of 16’, who happens to be standing next to a Peter Cook lookalike, also in the Volkssturm. In my copy of The End the only picture of Goebbels and the Volkssturm shows a wide street on a very rainy day in Berlin on 12 November 1944, and a long column of middle-aged men parading past the dais, months before the battle of Lauban in Silesia in March 1945. However, in Antony Beevor’s Berlin: The Downfall 1945, there is a picture identical to the one you reproduced, which shows the same smiling Goebbels decorating ‘a Hitler Youth after the recapture of Lauban’, but we are not told the name or age of the child standing next to ‘Peter Cook’. How did Alan Bennett or the TLS know the name and age of that child?

John Amson
Anstruther, Fife

Have they already been?

Brian Porter imagines Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the Moon outlasting man’s presence on Earth, while Peter Slessenger thinks all traces of Armstrong’s footprint will have disappeared in a few thousand years (Letters, 1 December 2011, Letters, 15 December 2011). They might be glad to learn that a study published in November in the Acta Astronautica indicates that an artefact could survive on the surface of the Moon for a period of ‘hundreds of millions of years’. This isn’t for ever, but it expands the time range of objects we could look for. If the aliens were to bury an object below the regolith, which a magnetic survey could pick up (as dramatised in 2001: A Space Odyssey), then the time range might be even longer.

Alan Penny
University of St Andrews

The Death of Dag Hammarskjöld

In her response to my book Who Killed Hammarskjöld?, Suzy Nelson refers to the Rhodesian inquiries into the plane crash that killed the UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld in September 1961 (Letters, 15 December 2011). I am grateful for this opportunity to clarify the difference between the initial board of investigation, which was set up immediately after the crash by the Rhodesian Department of Civil Aviation; and the subsequent Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry, which included public hearings. The first inquiry, in which Nelson’s father, the late T.R. Nelson, participated as technical adviser to J.P. Fournier, the accredited representative of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, concluded its report in January 1962; the second, in February 1962. It is understandable that over the 50 years since the crash, these two investigations have become conflated in people’s recollections.

Nelson claims that her father ‘supported the findings of the Rhodesian investigation’, according to which sabotage was ‘ruled out’. She adds: ‘My father agreed that the crash was the result of pilot error.’ But the board of investigation’s report was more qualified. It stated that they were unable ‘to determine a specific or definite cause’. It regarded pilot error as one of several probable causes, but also considered other possibilities, including the ‘wilful act of some person or persons unknown which might have forced the aircraft to descend or collide with the trees’. The board regarded this as unlikely but was unable to rule it out completely, ‘taking into consideration the extent of the destruction of the aircraft and the lack of survivor’s evidence’: between 75 and 80 per cent of the fuselage had been burned.

The subsequent Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry drew on the work of the board of investigation, but reached a conclusion which it claimed was ‘more precise’: it identified pilot error as the cause of the crash on the basis of an elimination of the other suggested causes. Mr Nelson was not a member of the commission, but gave evidence as an expert witness.

A third inquiry was set up by the UN and reported in March 1962. This reached an open verdict and did not rule out sabotage or attack. While it could not exclude the possibility of pilot error, it ‘found no indication that this was the probable cause of the crash’. It was Mr Nelson’s belief, according to Suzy Nelson, that the UN verdict was due to political pressure and to the Swedish government’s reluctance to blame the Swedish crew. However, she does not tell us what her father’s evidence was.

Nelson notes that in one of the photographs in my book, I wrongly identify two out of four men as Rhodesians. One of the men, she explains, was her father. On the back of his own copy of the photograph, she adds, he described the three others as Swedish government representatives. I have since learned that one of the men was almost certainly B. Virving, chief engineer of Transair Sweden, the company which owned the plane. The fact that Mr Nelson made such a mistake, though in the photograph himself, illustrates the difficulties involved in the identification of people and their roles in such photographs.

Susan Williams
London WC1

Susan Williams, in her book Who Killed Hammarskjöld?, details the long list of national, political, economic and racial interests in the outcome of decolonisation in general and the struggle over Katanga in particular. The provincial government in Elisabethville, its Belgian advisers and its mercenaries, foreign investors in the mines of Katanga, white Rhodesia, the British and other governments all had a vital interest in the planned meeting between Hammarskjöld and Moïse Tshombe, the president of the province of Katanga.

A central figure in this pattern was the British high commissioner in the Rhodesian Federation, Lord ‘Cub’ Alport, who had been instructed by his government to receive and look after the two participants in the meeting. On the day Hammarskjöld was due to arrive, Alport kept saying that Hammarskjöld might not, after all, come to Ndola. When his plane had, in fact, arrived over Ndola but hadn’t landed, Alport let it be known that the secretary-general ‘had gone somewhere else’, then went to bed, thereby causing an extraordinary delay in the search for the crashed plane.

Alport’s part in the events emerged only when some of his reports were declassified in the 1990s. In a document dating from 1963, Alport refers to an anonymous ‘representative’ he sent from Rhodesia to Katanga during the upheavals there. This was Neil Ritchie, a diplomatic ‘first secretary’ in Salisbury, but in truth an MI6 agent. During the 48 hours before the events at Ndola, Ritchie was intensively engaged, together with the British consul in Elisabethville and representatives of the Union Minière, in preparing a meeting to stop ‘the UN offensive’ in Katanga. It is difficult not to see the activities surrounding Hammarskjöld’s arrival over Ndola as a continuation of Ritchie’s efforts in Katanga.

Rolf Rembe

Dublin Not Untouched

Colm Tóibín says that Dublin ‘remained untouched by the Second World War’ (LRB, 5 January). In fact the German air force raided neutral Ireland seven times between 26 August 1940 and 24 July 1941; on three of those occasions Dublin was bombed. The intended target was probably Belfast, but Dublin’s blackout was only partial and German pilots must have seen its lights (which were bright enough for German navigators to use them as a landmark). Tóibín mentions that most copies of Flann O’Brien’s first book were ‘destroyed by a German bomb’ in 1941, but not that further bombs that night killed 28 Dubliners, injured 90 and left 400 homeless.

Both sides bombed neutral countries. In September 1939, RAF aircraft looking for German warships hit the Danish town of Esbjerg, 110 miles away; later in the war US air force crews dropped bombs on Switzerland. On 27 May 1940 an RAF bomber, aiming for a German airfield in Holland, flew into a magnetic storm which disabled the compass. Completely lost, the crew identified the Thames as the Rhine and bombed an airfield in Cambridgeshire.

Derek Robinson

That’s what I said (sort of)

Stephen Holmes and I agree: Russia under Vladimir Putin has become a warring and atomised kleptocracy (LRB, 5 January). Today’s Kremlin doesn’t much resemble its Soviet predecessors. Instead Putin and his team operate according to self-enriching mafia principles. Holmes misses my ironic tone when I describe Putin’s as a rational, vertical, Prussian-style state: this is what his regime pretends to be, rather than what it is. I mention Malcolm Muggeridge – the Manchester Guardian’s correspondent in Moscow in 1932 and 1933 – not because I think Russia is a rebooted version of the Soviet Union. It is merely that, in the absence of any new ideology or national idea, the Russian government has fallen back on traditional KGB ways of dealing with troublesome Western journalists.

Luke Harding
London N1

The Pope wears Prada

‘Does Benedict XVI go about in red slippers?’ Marina Warner asks (LRB, 5 January). She can rest reassured. He goes about in red handmade calfskin shoes. Anti-clerical rumours spread by the usual clique of godless Darwinians suggest they are made by Prada. In fact they are made by a specialist shoemaker based in Piedmont who also supplied his predecessor.

Donald Sassoon
Queen Mary, University of London

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences