Vol. 36 No. 18 · 25 September 2014

Search by issue:

Why I Quit

As the only colleague in Marina Warner’s department free of all obligation to our former employer, the University of Essex, I would like to share my recent experience (LRB, 11 September). After my three-year ‘probation’ as a part-time lecturer in creative writing came to an end this summer, I was offered a full-time (1.0) post. I hadn’t applied for one, can’t do one, and don’t want one. I asked the executive dean if I could continue in my 0.5 position and was told that I would have to reapply and re-interview, but that the post would for a short while be ring-fenced for me. An interview date was set six weeks in advance and I cleared my diary. Forty-eight hours before that date, the interview was switched to the following day – a date impossible for me as I had a long-standing engagement at a literary festival. When I made this clear to the administration I was told that if I didn’t attend on the altered date – i.e. dump the literary festival at 24 hours’ notice – my post would no longer be ring-fenced, but advertised nationally. I refused. When I complained about this situation, I was told that my reapplication had in any case been filled out incorrectly. So am I to believe that the interview was arranged so that the executive dean could kindly inform me that my application was filled out incorrectly? Perhaps she was going to help me with it. Stranger things have happened at Essex this year.

Glyn Maxwell
London N1

When I went up to Essex in the 1960s I hadn’t read Vice-Chancellor Sloman’s Reith Lectures, but by then they’d been absorbed into a popular vision of the ‘new university’. Essex was tiny, certainly smaller than the school I’d just left, with about 650 undergraduates – the size of a large Oxbridge college. Those 650 students saw Sloman wreck his own vision. First, there was the wilfully stupid suspension of three students (among them the future Lord Triesman) after the Porton Down protest in May 1968. Then there was the abolition of continuous assessment, the radical but unacceptable idea that we were not to be judged by a series of three-hour exams like 15-year-olds. The inauguration of the first senior common room not long afterwards was the last nail in the coffin of Sloman’s big idea, and his undermining by the very people he had hired. By the 1970s, and by this time I was fumbling with a PhD and teaching, most new undergraduates had never heard of Sloman’s lectures and spent their three years without setting eyes on him – he was just that bloke on the rostrum on graduation day. I don’t think I exchanged a word with him myself after 1972. He retreated from his creation when the Hulk tore off its shirt and turned green. He became the campus hermit, Mariana’d in his moated grange on one of the Wivenhoe Park lakes, and left the university to the ‘enforcers’: staff who clearly did not and never had shared his vision. I was approached – or was it merely mentioned in passing? – as a lit alumnus on the matter of the fiftieth anniversary. I passed on it. I am not the only writer who did. As E.J. Thribb (17½) once wrote,

So, Farewell then Albert,
Superslo we used to call you,
Your idea died
Long before you did.

John Lawton
Ashbourne, Derbyshire

I agree with almost everything Marina Warner says, but I would add that administrators are operating under similar conditions. The neat trick that senior management teams employ – and I should point out that these roles are usually filled by experienced academics – is to create a classic divide and rule line between academic and non-academic members of staff. As a result, each side views the other with suspicion while the ideologically driven managerialism that is propelling our institutions towards full marketisation is left unchecked. Higher education is a scary place to work right now: self-preservation seems to trump ethics in the actions of otherwise reasonable colleagues, both administrators and lecturers.

London W3

Two phrases stand out in Marina Warner’s Diary: ‘These REF stars – they don’t earn their keep’ and ‘an ecstasy of obedience’. The first illustrates the terrible damage inflicted on academia by successive assessments run by a funding authority (HEFCE) that changes the rules as it pleases with no thought as to long-term goals. Five years ago it was all ‘research, research and don’t teach too much’; now it would seem to be the opposite. How on earth are we supposed to live with such wayward paymasters? The second nicely skewers those university authorities (and that means all of them) who refuse to stand up to constant bullying, preferring to knuckle under and bully in turn. Colleagues in the US look on in disbelief at the way successive governments in this country have undermined our academic freedoms via the pay packet and constant petty assessment. I was fortunate enough to be able to take early retirement; my heart goes out to those who must continue to try and maintain one of this country’s greatest success stories against such appalling odds.

Richard Bowring

Trampled by an Elephant

It was important to be reminded by R.W. Johnson that Clement Attlee – executive midwife of the National Health Service, Town and Country Planning, as well as the nationalisation of coal, the railways and canals, iron and steel, the Bank of England and civil aviation – should have regarded ‘Indian independence’ as his administration’s ‘greatest achievement’ (LRB, 11 September). That he should say this reminds us of the international preoccupations of administrations now mostly memorialised in domestic terms, but also of significant party-political differences over decolonisation, which notions of postwar bipartisan ‘Butskellism’ have largely obscured. Posterity has sometimes treated decolonisation as an inevitable process largely independent of the tenancy of Downing Street, but it can’t be happenstance that Labour was in office when the landmark postwar decolonisations of India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma took place. Keir Hardie had visited India in 1907, and Ramsay MacDonald in 1910 before publishing The Awakening of India. Attlee served on the Simon Commission on constitutional reform in India (1927-30); MacDonald called the Round Table Conferences on Indian self-government (1930-32); Stafford Cripps was sent there in 1942 to try to secure Indian support for the war effort in return effectively for postwar independence. It’s hard to imagine how the process would have been transacted under the fire-breathing imperialists on the Conservative benches, led by Churchill, who famously remarked, ‘I hate Indians … They are a beastly people,’ and said that Gandhi ‘ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new viceroy seated on its back’. Less speculatively, Churchill’s return to office in 1951 marked the beginning of what David Cannadine has called the Empire Strikes Back phase of British imperial policy, sustained most obviously in Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus. No colony gained independence (with the exception of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in 1956) until Suez changed everything, generating Macmillan’s ‘wind of change’ rhetoric and the flurry of decolonisations in Gold Coast/ Ghana and Malaya in 1957. It’s instructive to note that the major parties weren’t always so close in their attitudes to territorial secession.

Simon Skinner

R.W. Johnson refers to Attlee as ‘a man without any apparent ambition’, as well as to ‘his style’ and the brevity of his speech. All the above is best expressed in a limerick included in a letter that Attlee wrote to his brother Tom in 1956:

Few thought he was even a starter
There were many who thought themselves smarter
But he ended PM
CH and OM
An earl and a knight of the garter.

Peter Betts

On Being Stalked

I am sympathetic to the plight Helen DeWitt found herself in when it transpired that her neighbour was a stalker (LRB, 21 August). But can it really have come as a complete surprise that, having moved to an isolated cottage on 11 acres of woodland, in winter, in the United States, the only person living nearby was an oddball menace? Even a childhood viewing of Psycho should have offered some warning; and if not Norman Bates, then Kathy Bates in Misery. A gun mounted on the back wall and visible from the front door might have saved a lot of bother, though why anyone wants to live in the countryside survival-style is beyond me.

Eoin Dillon

Helen DeWitt doesn’t need a baseball bat or a gun; she needs a full aerosol can of wasp/hornet spray. It works at a distance and requires no skill to use. Let E get up the stairs and give him a face full when he’s just a few feet away. It probably won’t kill him, but it’ll make him wish he was dead and immobilise him until the cops get there. Good luck!

Hazel Beeler
Dublin, Virginia

How bad are we?

Bernard Porter questions the extent to which, in the 19th century, the extermination of the Tasmanian aborigines fed larger, racist narratives about the inevitability of imperial progress, and the idea ‘that Britons took a particular imperial pride in genocide’ (LRB, 31 July). In 1897, H.G. Wells published The War of the Worlds in serial form on both sides of the Atlantic. In the famous first chapter he cautioned his readers against judging ‘too harshly’ the genocidal ambitions of the invading Martians:

We must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

Alexander Smith
University of Warwick

Significant v. Important

Thomas Jones gives a clear account of the paper by Kramer, Guillory and Hancock, in which they manipulated people’s Facebook newsfeeds in order to demonstrate ‘emotional contagion via social networks’ (LRB, 17 July). However, neither he nor the authors emphasise the difference between statistical significance and importance. Statistically significant means that the observed relationship between two variables is due to cause and effect, rather than to chance, at a stated level of probability. One can find a relationship that is significant at a high level of probability by collecting a lot of data, as the authors did. Whether that relationship has an important effect on subjects is another matter. Importance is measured by, for example, Cohen’s effect size. An effect size of 0.2 to 0.3 is described as ‘small’, but the authors found much smaller effect sizes, ranging from 0.001 to 0.02. The conclusion must be that there is a statistically significant relationship between negative (or positive) Facebook posts and negative (or positive) status updates, but that relationship is not an important one.

Steve Lane
Bethesda, Maryland

Domestic Fumbling

In her article on the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Jean McNicol makes no mention of the blurbs on the gallery walls (LRB, 11 September). Fair enough: they’re no worse than the usual for such shows – with one exception. The account alongside a photograph of George Duckworth and Virginia Stephen reads: ‘His petting and fondling of Virginia were unwonted and, in her mind, broke some taboo.’ Surely such a transgression broke more than a taboo in a young girl’s mind. Kathryn Hughes made a similar thoughtless remark in the Guardian, where she dismissed Woolf’s experiences as ‘domestic fumbling’ at the hands of her ‘pig-eyed half-brother’ – experiences that, fifty years later, have become the ‘common coin of misery fiction’. Woolf first revealed that she had been incestuously molested in ‘A Sketch of the Past’, which is far from a miserable read. It’s a pity that such an event should be so casually disregarded at a time when historical cases of child sexual abuse are finally being taken seriously.

Jean Owen
London SE3


David Runciman makes some mistakes in his essay on gambling (LRB, 21 August). Stoke-on-Trent is not a town and hasn’t been since 1925. Stoke City (which I support) isn’t ‘the town’s’ football team: the city has the honour of also hosting Port Vale, for those who like their football resolutely unglamorous and unsuccessful. Bet365 doesn’t just ‘sponsor’ Stoke City: it owns the club, no doubt as a useful tax loss vehicle – but at least the company pays taxes in the UK, unlike many of its rivals.

Gambling establishments such as the one next door to my flat have hollowed out city centres and prey on the poor, but they play a greater role in funnelling money offshore while creating poor-quality jobs with few transferable skills. Wolverhampton Council has claimed that ‘jobs’ justify licensing a new mega-casino, although the jobs are largely unskilled and minimum-wage. It has, however, devoted £9000 to fund gambling addiction remedies, which must represent at least an hour’s turnover for the casino, so clearly there’s nothing to worry about.

Aidan Byrne
University of Wolverhampton

‘Gambling is a morality tale about government,’ David Runciman concludes. Given the strong historical influence of the Protestant churches and women’s movements in New Zealand, gambling was long considered anathema to governments here. However, the embracing of the free market in the mid-1980s saw a liberalisation of gambling laws and the introduction of electronic gaming machines (‘pokies’). By 2003, 24,221 non-casino pokie machines had been installed in social clubs and taverns, disproportionately in the country’s poorest areas. The deleterious social consequences were soon recognised and, thanks to community opposition, some local authorities introduced policies to discourage them. By June 2014, the number of non-casino pokies had dropped to 17,130. Of course, government continues to collect significant tax revenue from these machines. The starkest morality tale, however, lies with the pokie machine concessions granted in 2013 to Auckland’s SkyCity casino in exchange for a national convention centre and the promise of job creation. The responsible ministry noted that the increased problem gambling which resulted from the concessions would lead to ‘suicide; family violence; children inadequately clothed and fed, and other examples of deprivation and poor parenting’. The government considered these outcomes a price worth paying.

Jonathan Barrett

David Runciman writes that residents of Bethnal Green and Bow spend more than twice as much on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals as their far wealthier counterparts in Chelsea and Fulham. The government imposes a 25 per cent tax on FOBTs. This is deeply regressive taxation. Such easy money makes the government addicted to gambling – just as the Chinese government is addicted to smoking because of the revenue it derives from its tobacco monopoly.

Richard Abel

According to a 1997 paper by E.L. Grinols and J.D. Omorov, 50 per cent of net casino revenue comes from addicted and problem gamblers, 4 per cent of the adult population. They make up about 10 per cent of casino customers. Casinos are predatory; so is the government that shares the spoils.

Arnie Lieber
Coalition against Gambling, New York


In the LRB of 31 July I discussed the concept of separative work units, SWUs, which are used to measure the amount of enriched uranium that a centrifuge can produce. Around 200 SWUs are needed to produce one kilogram of 95 per cent enriched uranium, weapons grade. It seems that the proposal apparently being negotiated is to limit Iranian SWU production to 10,000 per year. There are now 18,000 centrifuges operating some of the time in Iran. Since each produces about one SWU per year – probably somewhat less – the programme would have some plausibility. But a recent report issued by the Institute for Science and International Security contains a disturbing bit of news: Iran has claimed that it has produced a new centrifuge 16 times more powerful than the existing ones. There is no plausible need for this centrifuge. Its development once again makes it clear that when it comes to nuclear power, actions in Iran must be scrutinised with great care.

Jeremy Bernstein
New York

The best things in life are free

Catherine Robbe-Grillet (Letters, 11 September) is concerned that, in light of the LRB’s reputation, the inaccuracy about her being a dominatrix for hire is ‘likely to be taken as gospel’. Does she mean taken as the absolute truth or its original sense of good news?

Sunny Tailor
London N22

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