Vol. 36 No. 3 · 6 February 2014

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Forget about Paris

Perry Anderson complains that ‘19th-century literature could represent life outside London only with vague gestures of generalisation’ (LRB, 23 January). That is itself a too sweeping generalisation. What about Jane Austen’s Bath? Or Trollope’s Barchester? The Barchester Chronicles, based on a lightly disguised Salisbury, are redolent of local politics in a High Victorian cathedral city, especially The Warden, which deals with the changing balance of power between church and municipality and with the maladministration of poor relief. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (as distinct from television’s Cranford) delicately picks through the social shifts and economic calamities that brought the backwash of industrialisation to small country towns. There is nothing vague about Emily Brontë’s Yorkshire, and I cannot find any ‘drawing up of skirts’ about the Manchester of Mary Barton, in which Esther the prostitute tries to intervene in Mary’s fate and is arrested for vagrancy as a consequence. At the end of the century Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns – begun in the 1890s, and followed by the Clayhanger novels – surely made more than a gesture towards the realistic portrayal of life in the Potteries. Dickens in his concentration on London was far from typical of 19th-century fiction.

George Pegler
London SW15

In the LRB of 13 April 2000, Dan Hawthorn referred to Paris having a directly elected mayor. Not so, rejoindered George Jones of the LSE: all French mayors are chosen by the elected councillors of the commune. The message clearly didn’t reach Perry Anderson, who claims that in France ‘every city enjoys a directly elected mayor.’ ‘Mayor’ is a cognate of maire but in electoral terms the French version is disappointingly similar to the now horribly unexciting and passé ‘council leader’ one still finds dotted about the country.

Mat Pires

In discussing the relationship between Paris and the French provinces, Perry Anderson refers to the novelist Julien Gracq who ‘in later years taught geography, a subject occupying a larger place in French than in English culture, which lacks equivalents to Vidal de la Blache or Braudel’. He might have added the name of Jean-François Gravier whose Paris et le desért français of 1947 had a huge effect on French postwar planning. Gravier was at heart a right-wing Rousseauian ruralist but such was the impact of his critique of the macrocéphalie parisienne that successive French governments sought to establish a greater degree of economic and demographic equilibrium between the capital and the rest of the country. Nantes Saint-Nazaire was one of eight métropoles d’équilibre established in 1963 in a by no means unsuccessful effort to counterbalance the growth of Paris.

Incidentally, it may well be that if geography occupies a larger place in French than in British culture, the fault – a trahison des clercs surely? – lies with those many distinguished geographers who, in postwar years, have sought to practise their discipline in the more rewarding environments of California and British Columbia.

Martin Brayne
High Peak, Derbyshire

The Housing Disaster

James Clark accurately describes the way scores of plotlanders, smallholders and amateur home builders have been surviving in the backwoods of West Cork for the last thirty years (Letters, 23 January). I once sold a pigsty, which is now a disguised dwelling, and built a cabin from a hundred pallets nearby. I have not willingly used a flush toilet for forty years; drink only rainwater; and have never driven a car. Anecdotally I have heard that local planners have given up on the lanes of shacks, thatched cabins, living vans and tipis that grace a certain hillside north of Dunmanway. In Munster the ubiquitous ‘sitka slums’ provide ridge poles, firewood and long walks. I have long thought that constructing one’s own home is the most character-building activity there is, to use an unfashionable term.

Chris Walker
Co. Tipperary

Joe Haines, who served as Harold Wilson’s press secretary, claims in The Politics of Power (1977) that in the 1970s the Labour government looked into offering council tenants the right to buy. Haines first became interested in the idea after Peter Walker (environment secretary under Edward Heath) had proposed in September 1975 that council tenants of more than twenty years’ standing should have the ownership of their property transferred to them free of charge. He began work on a notion of offering tenants a lifetime leasehold interest on these homes, with the property reverting to the local authority on the death of the tenant or his spouse or any dependant relatives. A proposal was submitted to the Downing Street policy unit for further work and one official, Robin Butler, proposed a variation to the scheme so that when a tenant sold his house back to the local authority the tenant would benefit from some of the increase in its value during his period of ownership. The proposals were put before a ministerial meeting in March 1976. Haines wasn’t invited to the meeting, and after a brief discussion the ministers moved on to the next item of business and the proposal disappeared into history.

Paul Dawson
London SW19

The grass is always greener

To an American, Katrina Forrester’s stories of official penetration of left-wing groups in the UK are shocking in an unexpected way (LRB, 7 November 2013). Compared to the US, the scale of infiltration was puny. According to Forrester, from the 1970s until 2008, the Special Demonstration Squad typically deployed ten officers to investigate the entire scope of radical activism outside of communist or Irish Republican orbits. In recent years, spying by the New York Police Department alone has dwarfed these efforts, and each of the departments in most major US cities has employed its own corps of infiltrators. This is nothing new. During the 20th century, dozens of local ‘red squads’ surveilled every kind of subversive organisation, while the FBI ran thousands of undercover agents; the joke was that their dues kept the US Communist Party functioning.

Van Gosse
Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Was he or wasn’t he?

R.W. Johnson may be congratulated for having worked out, long before it was finally admitted by the South African Communist Party (SACP) late last year, that Nelson Mandela was a party member at the time of his arrest in 1962 (Letters, 9 January). This is far more than a mere historical detail. The history of the anti-apartheid struggle is widely misunderstood as a result of the consistent manipulation of historical information by or at the behest of the SACP over the last fifty years.

The armed struggle in South Africa was initiated in the form of a resolution passed at an SACP conference in December 1960. Mandela was one of the 25 people present, most of whom were white. The account of a debate within the ANC on armed struggle in mid-1961, made famous by Mandela’s speech from the dock at his trial in 1964, takes on a different meaning when it is known that the party had mandated Mandela to win over the ANC. In fact, the ANC itself never voted in favour of armed struggle. It agreed only that it wouldn’t expel those members who joined the new guerrilla army, Umkhonto we Sizwe.

The effect of all the lies and half-truths has been to represent apartheid as having been overthrown mainly by the ANC’s armed struggle. This provides the ANC today with one of the main planks of its legitimacy. Black Consciousness, Steve Biko, the United Democratic Front, are all being written out of history. Yet these were the grassroots movements that did more than anything else to loosen the grip of apartheid on South African society.

Stephen Ellis

There was some controversy over Gerry Adams’s presence in a guard of honour at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. That there were links between the IRA and the ANC military wing has always been known, but for obvious reasons their precise nature has been unclear. Adams, meanwhile, has been dogged by claims that he was a member of the IRA, something he has always denied, though no one believes him. So why does he persist? A plausible answer lies in R.W. Johnson’s explanation of Mandela’s consistent refusal to admit that he was a member of the South African Communist Party: he was under orders from the party to deny it at all times. Similarly, Adams is under discipline to deny his membership of the IRA.

Eoin Dillon

On My Bike

I know where Tong is (Letters, 23 January). The editors don’t.

Alan Bennett
London NW1

Giving Back

Caroline Weber writes that Marguerite de Valois, la Reine Margot, was exiled from court for decades (LRB, 23 January). But it should be added that once she agreed to the annulment of her marriage to Henri IV, she was allowed back to Paris, granted the title of ‘queen’ and an independent royal household in her palais in the rue de Seine.

Weber is right to say that Catherine de Médicis made Diane de Poitiers return Chenonceau along with the crown jewels, but she gave her Chambord instead. Catherine and her daughter-in-law, Mary Stuart, handed their crown jewels over to the treasury too. Catherine’s intention was not so much to mark her victory over the mistress as to establish her authority as regent.

Margrit Windlin

In Mogadishu

It wasn’t al-Shabab that was tossed out of Mogadishu by African Union forces, as Owen Bennett-Jones has it in his piece on al-Qaida (LRB, 19 December 2013). Al-Shabab didn’t come into existence until after the Islamic Courts Union had been trounced by the US and its Ethiopian-Christian proxies in yet another instance of the US creating rather than eliminating terrorists. The ICU, by all accounts, was more than happy to do business with the US and was even willing to address the issue of piracy.

Sean Paul Kelley
San Antonio, Texas

Crazy Talk

‘There are very few people left in the world,’ Adam Mars-Jones writes, ‘who can calibrate the difference’ between ‘meshugeh’ and ‘meshugeneh’ (LRB, 23 January). Actually, there may be upwards of two million Yiddish speakers, and many more who know only a bit, who can parse the difference: the former means ‘crazy’, the latter a ‘crazy person’, and to top it off ‘meshugas’ means ‘madness’.

Norbert Hirschhorn
London NW6


Evan Kindley quotes the editors of the second volume of the Oxford History of Modernist Magazines, describing 3.1 million words as the equivalent of 21 books the length of Ulysses (LRB, 23 January). In fact Ulysses has roughly 286,000 words, so the correct figure would be 11 books the length of Ulysses, which is less cumbersome than 21 books the length of The Last of the Mohicans.

Geoffrey Taunton
St Romain, France

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