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Letters

Vol. 34 No. 3 · 9 February 2012

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Speak up for feminism!

Beatrix Campbell’s letter about my piece on feminism raises a lot of interesting and interconnected questions and it’s going to take me some time to think about them before I can respond in a joined up and useful manner (Letters, 26 January). But she can be assured that I am thinking hard already and will continue to do so.

One small thing, however, about Wages for Housework. I wasn’t around in the 1970s so I don’t know anything at all first-hand about how members of this group might have conducted themselves at conferences and so on. From the Selma James writings I have read, however, it doesn’t seem to me true that her ideas fail to challenge the patriarchal division of domestic labour. I realise that this is the criticism levelled at James by many socialist feminists – e.g. in Campbell’s own Sweet Freedom: The Struggle for Women’s Liberation (co-authored with Anna Coote, 1982) – but it really does seem to me to miss a useful point. Once you’ve named unpaid domestic labour as a category, doesn’t it become much easier precisely to break down and move beyond that division? And isn’t there something to be said for a form of politics that makes that point so clearly, and with wit?

I didn’t mention Juliet Mitchell in relation to this question because unlike James she doesn’t have a new book out, and my piece was basically structured as a review of recent books. It’ll make an interesting topic, though, for some future feminist historian. Is the Wages for Housework approach really that incompatible with more orthodox socialist feminism, or might the two traditions not in many ways work well together? I wish I had made this point better in the piece as published, and that I had given more space to British socialist feminism in general – I’d certainly try to if I was going to write a sequel. Though at the moment, Campbell may be relieved to hear, I’m nowhere near doing such a thing.

Jenny Turner
London SE5

Dublin Not Untouched

Derek Robinson is correct when he reminds us that neutral Dublin was bombed during the Second World War, but misses Colm Tóibín’s point about the destruction of Flann O’Brien’s first novel (Letters, 26 January). At Swim-Two-Birds was first published by Longmans Green in London on 13 March 1939. ‘For one glorious week in April’, as Anne Clissmann records, it ‘replaced Gone with the Wind as top of the bestseller list in Dublin’. This was not as impressive as it might sound: after six months it had still sold only 244 copies. In the autumn of 1940 the Longmans warehouse in London was destroyed by German incendiary bombs and the remaining copies were incinerated (although some unbound sheets were recovered). As Myles na gCopaleen later proclaimed, Hitler ‘loathed it so much that he started World War Two in order to torpedo it. In a grim irony that is not without charm, the book survived the war while Hitler did not.’

As Colm Toíbín pointed out in his original piece (5 January), At Swim-Two-Birds had a modest reissue by Pantheon in 1951, but not until the MacGibbon and Kee edition of 1960 did it begin to reach a wider audience. It was published by Penguin in 1967 (a year after O’Brien’s death), and has gradually become one of the most revered works in the Irish literary canon, as well as something of a case study in scholarly debates on metafiction and postmodernism.

Keith Hopper
Kellogg College, Oxford

Derek Robinson mentions the bombing of the North Strand in Dublin on 31 May 1941. The Irish Times reported that two houses collapsed spontaneously the following day in Old Bride St, killing three people and injuring 15. The usual suspects blamed the British for the bombing, and it’s possible the direction beams that the Germans followed up the Irish Sea had been altered by British radar experts.

Both my parents joined the British forces. My mother, in the Wrens, recounted to me ad nauseam that when recruiting in Londonderry, she had to take one Catholic for every two Protestants, regardless of ability. My father ended up in an Italian POW camp and its flag was last seen as a bedspread in a cousin’s home. Nazi memorabilia regularly turn up in country house sales in the Republic and there is a flourishing Wehrmacht re-enactment gruppe here. At the moment a pardon is being mooted for the five thousand Irish Army lads who deserted to the Allies. I wonder what happened to the British soldiers who deserted and aided Sinn Fein in 1920.

Chris Walker
Bantry, Co Cork

Under New Labour

John Tusa writes that New Labour demanded of the arts an ‘instrumental utility to society’ irrespective of aesthetic quality and cultural value (Letters, 26 January). It is a cliché of popular journalism that art should be relevant – something that never seems to be spoken intelligently, but always with the shrill insistence of institutionalised thinking where the institutional authority is uncertain. What New Labour required was a retroversion to Socialist Realism without the socialism. Favouring consumer culture, it wanted not art but an advertisement for itself, art as a sophisticated kind of publicity, and society as an idealised notion of community, by turns nostalgic or modish, and always sentimental.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
Cambridge

One Wife Is Best

Adam Shatz says that the new rulers of Libya may be contemplating the restoration of Sharia law, ‘perhaps even polygamy’ (LRB, 5 January). But no prohibition of polygamy has ever been enacted in Libya. The only two Islamic countries that have abolished polygamy by secular legislation are Turkey in 1926 and Tunisia in 1956. Polygamy (probably more correctly ‘polygyny’) is rare in the Arab countries and specifically discouraged by the Quran, where a husband is commanded to be fair and to treat his wives with meticulous equality; if equality is not guaranteed (and the Quran says it will be impossible), ‘then one wife is best for you’.

Salah el Serafy
Arlington, Virginia

US Electoral Arithmetic

In his otherwise splendid discussion of the electoral mathematics of the upcoming American presidential election, R.W. Johnson makes a few mistakes (LRB, 20 October 2011). First, the presidential election in 1948 was not decided by the fact that the ‘black vote had rallied strongly to Truman’. None of the states that Johnson refers to had by any definition ‘large black electorates’ at that time. It was only after the massive black migration north that began during the Second World War was completed that the states that Johnson mentions had sizeable black electorates. Second, it was electoral tampering of a semi-criminal sort in the states of Texas and Illinois, rather than the black vote, which enabled Kennedy to beat Nixon in 1960; that, and the fact that Nixon’s share of the Southern white vote and the Catholic vote fell in 1960, which ensured that the Democratic candidate won the election. The importance of the latter is reflected in the fact that Kennedy won 80 per cent of a bloc which at the time constituted approximately 20 per cent of the electorate.

Charles Coutinho
New York

Two Facts about the Great Leader

‘Who the hell was Kim Il-sung?’ Tariq Ali asks (LRB, 26 January). ‘Where did he come from?’ Well, he first came to prominence in 1933 at the battle at Dongning when he led two Korean guerrilla companies against a strong Japanese counterattack. By 1937, mention was made of him as a talented leader against ‘Japanese imperialists’ in a Soviet military journal. Kim Il-sung’s fight against the Japanese in China and ‘Manchukuo’ is documented. It profits Ali little to question it.

R. Jakob Cambria
New York

The Pope wears Prada

We are indebted to Donald Sassoon for correcting the mistaken impression that the Pope may be shod by Prada (Letters, 26 January). Am I the only ‘Godless Darwinian’ among LRB readers to reflect that the ‘specialist shoemaker based in Piedmont’ presumably advertises his ‘By Appointment’ business with that phrase beloved of staunch Protestant areas of Northern Ireland, and indeed elsewhere: ‘Cobblers to the Pope.’

Bob Hall
Old Windsor, Berkshire

Religion, grrrr

I read Rachel Aviv’s review of Hugh Urban’s The Church of Scientology with interest (LRB, 26 January). Although I am not a member of the church myself, many members of my family are practising Scientologists here in Los Angeles. Aviv names Juliette Lewis as one of the celebrities who have allegedly been ‘recruited’ by the church. While Lewis is indeed a Scientologist, she was not recruited. Both her parents are Scientologists and, like her siblings, she was raised as a Scientologist. To be raised in a religion that one regards as normative is different from the experience of conversion or, if you will, recruitment.

Duncan Scrymgeour
Los Angeles

Where have all the fact-checkers gone?

Just to get it absolutely straight, I will quote what I wrote in my postscript, ‘The Death of Dickens’, to the paperback edition of The Invisible Woman (Letters, 26 January). The postscript began by giving two letters from Mr Leeson, who offered information that had come through his family about something told them by a church caretaker at Linden Grove in Peckham, which suggested that Dickens might have died there. I followed the quotes with this (p. 273): ‘Mr Leeson saw, as soon as he looked at the standard biographies, that the caretaker was obviously wrong in maintaining that he had helped transport the dead body of Dickens: there were too many witnesses to his actual death at Gad’s Hill.’ I then carried out a detailed investigation of what might possibly have happened, which I thought worth consideration. I still think it worth consideration, but since I went into detail in the postscript, I gave only a summary in the new book. I have never believed or suggested that Dickens died anywhere but at Gad’s Hill.

Claire Tomalin
London WC2

Imagined Extinctions

The reason Roger Hodge found it so ‘hard to discern a coherent historical thesis’ in Empire of the Summer Moon is that it is not a work of history but a piece of journalism catering for the Western fetish for an imagined extinction of the Indian at the end of the 19th century (LRB, 15 December 2011). It’s plausible to plot a rise and fall of a Comanche ‘empire’ but to narrate ‘the rise and fall of the Comanche tribe’ ignores the tribe’s survival into the 20th century and its existence as one of the many indigenous nations that find themselves going from strength to strength in present-day America.

Angus MacDonald
Cambridge

Alan Bennett reminisces

Alan Bennett writes in his Diary about an RAF Whitley returning from a raid over Dortmund that had to make an emergency landing near Austwick in Yorkshire (LRB, 5 January). The pilot of the plane was Leonard Cheshire’s younger brother, Christopher, whom my husband met when he was writing a biography of Leonard. His airfield was Middleton St George, but they overshot it and became lost, flying on until the fuel tanks were nearly dry. He had to take a chance, found a field and glided down into it. He recalled how the aircraft rolled to a stop just a few feet from the dry-stone wall at the field’s end. That was in 1941. In August that year he was shot down, taken prisoner and became a member of the team that organised the Great Escape.

Jane Morris
Harrogate

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