Vol. 36 No. 14 · 17 July 2014

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Like Alan Bennett …

Alan Bennett’s sermon is a welcome comment on the ‘unfairness’ of England’s problematic private school system, but he doesn’t discuss the effect of this unfairness on our ‘democratic’ style of government (LRB, 19 June). For example, 32 per cent of our MPs have been drawn from the privately educated 7 per cent, and 64 per cent of senior posts in the civil service and government administration. Since these MPs – like Tony Blair or the present coalition leaders – can be found in all three major political parties, the public school agenda is always lurking. Hence Blair’s New Labour, with its antipathy to trades, skills and manufacturing, its supplanting of professional diplomas in favour of university degrees, and its doing away with apprenticeships and polytechnics in favour of trumped-up universities. All this in the cause of making money rather than things, which has resulted in one English firm after another being flogged off, or privatised, in a desperate attempt to prop up the UK’s languishing balance of payments. Meanwhile, state education is failing because those who are making the money haven’t the slightest incentive to improve it: the system is perfectly adequate for creating a pool of semi-skilled or unskilled workers for the zero-hour jobs on offer, or for furnishing the army with recruits for its failing projects abroad. Finland got rid of its private education system some years ago. Until England does the same, and makes a clean sweep of it, ours will remain both undemocratic and derelict.

John Dooley
Castelnau-Rivière-Basse, France

I was educated in the state system until the age of eight, when I won a scholarship to a decent private prep school. From there I won a full scholarship to a well-known public school, and then went to Oxford. My parents were both teachers at comprehensive schools and would never have been able to afford to educate me privately. I’m sure there are, as Bennett says, ‘many excellent schools in the state sector’, but there weren’t any where I grew up. The school I was at couldn’t handle me: I learned more quickly than anyone else in my class, grew frustrated with the slow pace of lessons and, as so many other children in that situation do, started making mischief. Had I not been lucky enough to win my first scholarship I would certainly have been expelled. Private school rescued me, as it rescues many like me. If it’s taken away, or amalgamated with the state sector, bright children who aren’t being catered for by the state system will miss their chance of a decent education. Is that any fairer?

Graham Perry

It must be you

Jonathan Rée is right to characterise Collingwood’s Oxford realist opponents as ‘a pugnacious band of dons’ (LRB, 19 June). The philosopher J.O. Urmson, reflecting on the Oxford philosophical scene of 1935, commented: ‘It was, with some exaggeration, held to be impossible to gain an Oxford doctorate in philosophy in those days since the statutes of the university required … an original contribution to knowledge. But what was presented by a candidate was either already known to [H.A.] Prichard and therefore not original, or else mere opinion and therefore not knowledge.’ In the case of Prichard, this dogmatism was of a piece with his philosophy. The Oxford realists held that knowledge was a basic mental state, different in kind from belief and opinion. And whereas opinion could be supported on the basis of evidence, knowledge was a basic apprehension of truths. Someone who disagreed with you, then, couldn’t be argued out of his position by appealing to evidence. Rather, any disagreement could only be the result of one or other party to the dispute – most likely one’s opponent – failing to apprehend what was true clearly and rationally.

Anil Gomes
Trinity College, Oxford


Jacqueline Rose’s stellar essay ‘Mothers’ has one historical oversight (LRB, 19 June). In discussing women of ancient Greece, Rose states that a married woman after childbirth became a ‘mature female, which allowed her to enter the community of women’ and join civic society with new powers. What she does not say is that marriage in this period was usually an arrangement according to which girls of 14 and 15 were married off to men in their thirties. Their main function as brides was to make babies for the war machine, although when they were truly mature and experienced, they were valued as household managers. Indeed, much effort was made by (male) doctors to maintain women’s reproductive powers, even as one truly effective herbal abortifacient made available to women by midwives was so popular it became extinct. And while being allowed to enter the community of women was certainly a boon, the women welcomed into the company of men were more likely to be cultured concubines, whose worldliness made them far better company than the men’s largely uneducated and housebound wives.

Kathleen Connors
Indiana University, Bloomington

Jacqueline Rose argues that art and literature have censored the representation of mothers’ pleasure in breastfeeding. It’s true that in the classic Western canon, happy mothers are rare birds compared with murderers like Medea or Lady Macbeth, or tragic figures whose babies are snatched from them, like Patient Griselda or Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. But there are also women writers who are a lot more positive about the experience of motherhood than those Rose discusses. Breastfeeding is a key metaphor for creativity in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel-poem Aurora Leigh, and the passage in Naomi Mitchison’s The Corn King and the Spring Queen where the heroine Erif Der nurses her baby son is explicitly sensual:

He began to give little panting, eager cries of desire for food and the warmth and tenderness that went with it. Erif’s breasts answered to the noise with a pleasant hardening, a faint ache waiting to be assuaged … For a moment she teased him, withholding herself; then, as she felt the milk in her springing towards him, she let him settle, thrusting her breast deep into the hollow of his mouth, that seized on her with a rhythmic throb of acceptance, deep sucking of lips and tongue and cheeks … Now by turns he sucked and laughed, and she laughed too; his hands patted her, his whole lovely body was moving with the warmth and sweetness. He lay across her belly and thighs, heavy and utterly alive.

The session ends with the baby sucking his mother’s tongue.

Jan Montefiore

Jacqueline Rose writes that no one to whom she has mentioned Cleopatra’s children had any idea she was a mother. As Antony and Cleopatra closes in on the queen’s suicide, Octavius threatens her through her children: ‘by taking/Antony’s course, you shall bereave yourself/Of my good purposes, and put your children/To that destruction which I’ll guard them from,/If thereon you rely.’

Shakespeare contrives not to mention the children earlier (or again), but draws much attention to Cleopatra as ‘Egypt’s widow’ and to Antony’s age in comparison to the ‘scarce-bearded Caesar’ while Antony’s wife of convenience, Octavia, is ‘holy, cold and still’: childless.

Andrew Brown
Westbury, Wiltshire

I was very interested to read Jacqueline Rose’s article on mothers since the main focus of my work as a psychiatrist has had to do with women who suffer from the strange feelings they have about their babies. In my book Mother, Madonna, Whore: The Idealisation and Denigration of Motherhood (1988), I argue that the main difference between male and female perverse action lies in the aim. Whereas in men the act is aimed at an external part-object, in women it is against themselves: either against their bodies or against objects of their own creation – that is, their babies.

‘In some women,’ I wrote, ‘any sexual pleasure related to their breasts ceases not only in pregnancy, but for years after weaning has occurred. This phenomenon has been described to me by many women who experience a tremendous sense of loss when they renew lovemaking with their partners and become aware of this missing dimension that had previously afforded them such erotic excitement.’ This was the assertion that resulted in the book’s banning by feminist bookstores and in an outcry from some psychoanalysts, who maintained that perversion was the exclusive domain of men. But, as Juliet Mitchell wrote in a prologue to the latest edition, ‘at the centre of female perversion is the perversion of motherhood.’ The mother can use her child for her own sexual gratification, sometimes to an extreme degree. ‘Our whole culture supports the idea that mothers have complete dominion over their babies,’ I said later. ‘Thus we encourage the very ideas the perverse mother exploits. We help neither her nor her children, nor society in general, if we glorify motherhood so blindly as to exclude the fact that some mothers can act perversely.’

Estela Welldon
London W1

Todmorden wins

While not wishing to belittle Todmorden Grammar’s contribution to scientific progress, Cotham School in Bristol can boast, in Paul Dirac and Peter Higgs, two Nobel Prize winning alumni in the same discipline (Letters, 19 June).

Stephen Roser


John Lanchester writes that ‘the principle on which much market legislation rests is that it’s illegal to trade on the basis of information that is not publicly available’ (LRB, 5 June). Not exactly. US insider-trading regulations prohibit ‘the purchase or sale of a security of any issuer, on the basis of material non-public information about that security or issuer, in breach of a duty of trust or confidence that is owed directly, indirectly or derivatively, to the issuer of that security or the shareholders of that issuer, or to any other person who is the source of the material non-public information’. Lanchester’s suggestion that all trading on non-public information is or somehow should be illegal would extend far beyond high-frequency trading. It would criminalise a farmer’s decision to purchase securities or stocks based on his own observations of the health of his crop. The problem is that the information that forms the ‘basis’ of so-called ‘front-running’ strategies is just as public as the health of a farmer’s crop. High-frequency traders owe no duty to the people they profit from; if they did, the quasi-adversarial principle behind modern markets (everyone seeking a profit based on imperfect information) would be turned on its head.

Walker Boyd
Albuquerque, New Mexico

What about Mary?

Blair Worden describes the ‘Sidneian Psalms’ as being by Sir Philip Sidney, adding that they were ‘acclaimed by a poem of Donne’ (LRB, 19 June). The Sidneian Psalms were translated by Mary Sidney and Philip Sidney, and Donne’s poem not only refers to both sister and brother in his title, but mentions them both throughout: ‘Two by their bloods, and by Thy Spirit one,/A brother and a sister’; ‘this Moses and this Miriam’.

Like many before him, Worden simply writes the woman poet out of history. When they do recognise her authorship, scholars tend to downplay her contribution. Noting that Philip translated the first 43 Psalms, they credit Mary merely with having completed his work. They seem not to notice that this would mean that Mary had translated 107 Psalms. It was, at the very least, a joint project.

Penny McCarthy
London SE3

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