My personal experience of present-day academia confirms the points that Marina Warner makes: an institutional anxiety about international reputation, to be achieved with no reference to academic judgment, combined with a bullying, indeed punitive, attitude towards any member of staff who dares to stick her neck out and disagree with the direction of university policy (LRB, 11 September). In my case I had concerns that doubling student numbers to ‘balance the books’ was morally questionable, since this could not be accompanied by an increase in the number of jobs available to our graduates. (Mine was a vocational MA which achieved over 90 per cent employment after graduation.) Like Warner I was engaged in a number of international projects and so unable to complete one of the REF outputs I had signed up for. That occasioned being hauled before a university star chamber and threatened with disciplinary action unless I agreed to resign. Other colleagues had similar encounters.
Of course there is a long history of academic disagreement with university administrators. In the present case neoliberal management policies are applied to a sector where it is almost by definition impossible to judge their effectiveness, and this is combined with a peculiarly British contempt on the part of management for the workforce, from security guards to the professoriat. But it also has to be said that there is far too often a weak response from the trade union (UCU) at college and regional levels. Individual staff affected often have to take expensive legal advice (which in my case was that no one wants to get bogged down in a two-year-long argument at an employment tribunal: best to sign a gagging order and get out). And students are reluctant to risk their prospects through supportive industrial action. ‘Who needs a dean,’ one of ours asked, ‘when we can have a CEO!’
Richard Bowring writes about the terrible damage inflicted on academia by ‘wayward paymasters’ and the funding councils (Letters, 25 September). I returned from teaching in US universities in 1996, eventually to become the ‘chief executive’ of the University for the Creative Arts.
I was expected to attend the Hefce annual conference. It didn’t take me long to realise that, as with the Regent Street Christmas decorations, something new had to be presented and explained every year to make such a regular gathering necessary and important. Furthermore I was, de facto, a department head in the University of England, whose vice-chancellor was the chief executive of Hefce. At the conference, some of the most powerful departmental heads (the Russell Group) would argue the toss; the CE or one of his officers would acknowledge that the particular colleague’s view was very interesting, would, of course, be taken away, considered … and then kicked into the long grass when nobody was looking. As for the former polytechnic heads, they tended to keep their heads down. Perhaps they were satisfied simply to have been invited, though they did tend to arrive in the most splendid cars complete with personal driver. As for the lowest form of life, the specialist college heads, of which I was one, we just sat at the back, bemused and, with luck, forgotten.
The absurd Hefce and its equivalents throughout the UK should be dismantled as soon as possible. That means the government trusting each British university and returning to something like the old UGC – the Universities Grants Committee, closed down by Margaret Thatcher in 1989. Until that time, what Marina Warner accurately describes as ‘an ecstasy of obedience’ will continue to infect every level and corner of university life.
Jenny Diski wonders how she should refer to Doris Lessing, who took her in when she was a teenager (LRB, 9 October). I think the term she is looking for is ‘guardian’, if not quite ‘guardian angel’.
Keith Gessen offers his observations after a trip he took to Ukraine last August (LRB, 11 September). Regrettably, they come out as biased – strongly pro-Russian. He quotes gossip and supplies misrepresentations. Among them is his ‘story’ that a Kharkiv professor showed him ‘an order from the Ministry of Education demanding that all senior university officials take part in mobilising staff for the ATO [Anti-Terrorist Operation]. Those who “sabotaged" the process, would be found guilty of “separatist tendencies".’ This is very difficult to believe. The Ukrainian minister of education is the highly respected former rector of the National University Kyiv Mohyla Academy, Professor Serhiy Kvit. I sent him Gessen’s text, and he responded saying that the claim was ‘complete and utter nonsense’.
Keith Gessen replies: My apologies. The order in question, warning against ‘sabotage’ of the partial military mobilisation, came from the Ministry of Defence. It was accompanied by orders for speedy compliance from the university administration, under a Ministry of Education letterhead. The University of Kharkiv, more formally the V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, is one of the oldest and largest universities in Ukraine. Would that this were all complete and utter nonsense.
Melanie McFadyean does not correctly state the difference between statute law and the common law (LRB, 25 September). While it is true that ‘common law evolves through case law,’ it is not true that statute law isn’t susceptible to being ‘interpreted and reinterpreted by judges’. There is a more general tone of disdain for judge-made law in the article, in particular the complaint about the ‘legalese of judges’ statements at trial and appeal’, and the view that ‘the demands of social policy, not to mention the media, play a dominant part in their interpretations and reinterpretations of the law on joint enterprise.’ Judges are not robots, and are unlikely to be completely deaf to the demands McFadyean lists. However, they are less inclined to play to the gallery of reactionary public opinion than politicians (as is evidenced by the citation from Lord Falconer later on in the article). McFadyean’s stated desire for a statutory codification of the law on joint enterprise may be a case of ‘be careful what you wish for.’
James Camp doesn’t mention that Jack London’s ‘Love of Life’ was read aloud to Lenin by his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, two days before his death in 1924 (LRB, 25 September). ‘It was a very fine story,’ Krupskaya later wrote. ‘In a wilderness of ice, where no human being had set foot, a sick man, dying of hunger, is making for the harbour of a big river. His strength is giving out, he cannot walk but keeps slipping, and beside him there slides a wolf – also dying of hunger. There is a fight between them: the man wins. Half-clad, half-demented, he reaches his goal. The tale greatly pleased Ilyich.’ Small wonder. The following day Lenin asked to be read ‘more Jack London,’ Krupskaya continued. ‘But London’s strong pieces of work are mixed with extraordinarily weak ones. The next tale happened to be quite another type – saturated with bourgeois morals … Ilyich smiled and dismissed it with a wave of the hand. That was the last time I read to him.’ One wonders which London story so displeased him. George Orwell was not the first to ponder, as he put it in a radio broadcast in 1943, ‘this rather queer conjunction between a writer of thrillers … and the greatest revolutionary of modern times’.
James Camp does not mention my rather definitive early biography of Jack London, based entirely on his papers. In his review of Earle Labor’s belated biography, Camp says that London died of uraemia. Not so. London’s inheritor, Milo Shephard, on the Wolf House ranch showed me the syringes and ampoules that killed him: an unpremeditated overdose of morphine and atropine sulphate, wrongly diagnosed as uraemia.
Yiannis Baboulias’s account of the uses of tear gas misses some of the history (LRB, 11 September). CS, the most commonly used agent, was developed at Porton Down in the 1950s. It was tested on UK servicemen with the inducement of weekend leave. Informed consent wasn’t on the agenda. The irritation that CS causes does, as Baboulias points out, involve nerves, but so does a gnat bite. The term ‘nerve gas’ is reserved for those lethal agents that hit the central nervous system and lead to paralysis and death, such as sarin, a Second World War German invention used by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988, and most recently in Syria.
CS is formally a ‘non-lethal’ agent, and to the chemists who make the stuff, a spray not a gas. It was first used extensively in war by the US forces in Vietnam, who pumped it into the tunnels used by the Viet Cong either to suffocate them or to drive them out to be killed. It was not until the 1990s that CS and related agents were banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention for use in interstate conflicts, though, as Baboulias points out, they are permitted for use against a nation’s own citizens.
The first massive use of CS in the UK was by the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Derry’s Bogside in August 1969. More than a thousand canisters of gas were fired. Knowing something of the effect of chemical weapons in Vietnam, I went immediately to Derry together with Russ Stetler, then Bertrand Russell’s assistant, to investigate its effects on civilians. We surveyed the residents of the block of flats that had been the focal point in the battle, and found that just as Baboulias describes, although CS was an irritant, it had no significant impact on the combatants’ capacity to defend the flats. However, it caused considerable distress, most of all to eyes and breathing among the young, the sick and the elderly, especially where the canisters had been deliberately fired into the flats rather than at the street fighters. We gave our survey results to the Himsworth Inquiry established by the UK government in response to public outrage. The inquiry concluded that although by and large CS did not cause lasting injury, police should instruct their targets to keep their eyes closed when the spray was being fired at them.
R.W. Johnson is in error when he says that ‘Truman was personally a Zionist’ (LRB, 11 September). As John Judis demonstrates in his recent book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, Truman was a firm believer in the separation of church and state and personally would have preferred a federated or even bi-national state in what had been British Mandate Palestine. However, he was under enormous pressure from the American Jewish community, including the Zionist Organisation of America and prominent liberals such as Felix Frankfurter, to assent to the partition of Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel.
I’m loth to add to Amia Srinivasan’s fear of death but here is one additional reason for dismay: studies by clinical psychologists on those who have suffered the death of a loved one conclude that many bereaved individuals ‘exhibit only short-lived grief-reactions’ (LRB, 25 September). So it isn’t only that death brings oblivion, but that those we love undergo only a short period of grief and trauma before quickly adapting to our absence with little evidence of long-term distress. When I discussed these findings with a group of undergraduates, they thought this was a good thing and, indeed, that it would be even better were our loved ones to feel no grief at all.
Trinity College, Oxford
Book Action for Nuclear Disarmament (Band), which was active between 1983 and 1988, was a group made up of authors, booksellers, publishers and other people in the book trade that came together to campaign for nuclear disarmament, and in particular to protest against the deployment of cruise missiles in the UK. I was involved from the start, and when its activities ended, the archive stayed with me. It was recently accepted by the J.B. Priestley Library at Bradford University. Should anyone have material that they would like to add to the Band archive, please contact Alison Cullingford, Special Collections Librarian, J.B. Priestley Library: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tim Parks refers to the unusual make-up of the Simenon household (LRB, 9 October). I was amazed to discover at the end of one of the Maigrets that it had been written in Lakeville, Connecticut. The Simenon house, surrounded by about a hundred acres overlooking the lake of Lakeville, was just down the road from the house where my family spends the summer. The property was up for sale a few years ago for a fabulous sum. Simenon had chosen Lakeville in part because, as a resident, he could send his son, without fees, to the fine Hotchkiss secondary school, which also overlooked the lake. It seems the locals were outraged by the fact that his first wife lived in a smaller house on the property while he was ensconced in the main house with his current amour. They agitated against him sufficiently to lead him to sell up and move away.
Max Long writes about being sent away when he visited the house Patrick Leigh Fermor bequeathed to the Benaki Museum (Letters, 11 September). The gentleman whom Mr Long mentions meeting there is probably Roberto Calasso, who was a friend of Patrick Leigh Fermor and publisher of his books in Italy. The Benaki Museum is collaborating with Professor Calasso, and he was staying with his family at the house throughout August. Anyone who wants to visit the house can do so on request, either directly to the Benaki Museum or to the caretakers, who live in Kardamyli and are in direct contact with us.
Benaki Museum, Athens
While I would join Steve Lane in distinguishing between ‘statistically significant’ and ‘important’, I hesitate to follow his mortal leap from ‘significant’ to ‘cause and effect’ (Letters, 25 September). A statistically significant regularity in a properly constituted sample merely enables us to say that we would probably find a similar regularity in the population from which that sample has been drawn. True, a regularity begs an explanation, and attributing it to one or more causes is a common move. However, as Hume and others point out, the empirical evidence (in this case the sample) shows us only the regularity, not the ‘cause’. In the social sciences, explanations of regularities often make no reference to ‘causes’, but rather to reasons, motives, power etc, usually in the context of a broader culture. Such cultural regularities are in principle not universal and eternal, but changeable, especially under forceful criticism – unlike (we suppose) the causes involved in physical sciences.
University of Brighton
‘Cormorant’ is a lovely word, but you won’t find it in a New Zealand dictionary because down here in the South Pacific we calls them ‘shags’ (LRB, 9 October). This is something the omnisciently erudite James Joyce can’t have known when he wrote, ‘I would like to send a cormorant around this blue lagoon’ in Finnegans Wake. Something else he probably didn’t know is that a third of the world’s shag species find a home in these islands, though successive New Zealand governments decided to go one better than the US in culling these birds at the behest of recreational fishermen. They put a bounty on their heads and as a result we now have some of the rarest shag species in the world, though this hasn’t stopped the country marketing itself as ‘100 per cent pure’: ‘100 per cent shagged’ would be closer to the mark.
Raumati Beach, New Zealand
Mary-Kay Wilmers ascribes to Karl Miller the opinion that comparing Graves with Wordsworth or Rilke is ‘comparing a rearrangement of the room with a subsidence of continents’ (LRB, 9 October). In fact this was Randall Jarrell’s view in The Third Book of Criticism, where he is offering it as a qualification of his very high estimate of Graves. Such a motive has always seemed to me the only reason anyone would ever make such a comparison.
University of Liverpool
Nick Richardson praises Molleindustria’s Phone Story for sending a ‘message’ without the need for street protest (LRB, 9 October). Sadly, Phone Story’s message didn’t get as far as it should have. It was released on Apple’s iOS system but banned by Apple after only four days.
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