Vol. 36 No. 22 · 20 November 2014

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The state washes its hands

A footnote to Frederick Wilmot-Smith’s excellent artice about legal aid (LRB, 6 November). It was Kenneth Clarke, as lord chancellor in 2012, who summed up the ideological basis for destroying legal aid when he told the International Bar Association: ‘What we mustn’t do is just leave untouched a system that has grown astonishingly, making the poor extremely litigious.’ Grayling inherited his policy, but lacks the political acumen to make it palatable. The measure of how unpalatable it is can be seen in a judgment on 31 October 2014 by Sir James Munby, the president of the Family Division of the High Court, and the UK’s most senior family law judge. In a case (for which there was no legal aid) between a family and a local authority which wanted to take their child into care, Munby said: ‘Thus far the state has simply washed its hands of the problem, leaving the solution to the problem which the state itself has created – for the state has brought the proceedings but declined all responsibility for ensuring that the parents are able to participate effectively in the proceedings it has brought – to the goodwill, the charity, of the legal profession. This is, it might be thought, both unprincipled and unconscionable. Why should the state leave it to private individuals to ensure that the state is not in breach of the state’s – the United Kingdom’s – obligations under the Convention? … It is unfair that legal representation in these vital cases is only available if the lawyers agree to work for nothing.’ For Grayling, if not for Clarke, part of the ‘solution’ appears to be withdrawal from the European Convention of Human Rights – so that the state no longer has obligations to ‘extremely litigious’ and poor parents who can’t pay for lawyers to help them keep their children.

Francis FitzGibbon
London WC1

So-Called Paintings

I cannot agree with John-Paul Stonard that despite the grandiosity of Anselm Kiefer’s themes, ‘his work never feels overblown’ (LRB, 6 November). There is a distinction between scale and sheer size; his works are histrionic illustration. I agree with Gerhard Richter when he said of a Kiefer exhibition from 1985:

These so-called paintings. Of course this is not painting at all; and since they lack this essential quality, they may well have the initial, shocking fascination of the macabre. But when that wears off, if not before, these ‘paintings’ convey just what they do possess: formless, amorphous dirt as a frozen mushy crust, nauseating filth, illusionistically creating a naturalism which – while graphically effective – has, at best, the quality of a striking stage set … The one thing that frightens me is that I might paint just as badly.

Roger Cook
London SW15

Four Degrees

I share David Campbell’s anger about rising emissions but his targets seem ill-chosen and his reasoning false (Letters, 6 November). Climate change mitigation may not produce an absolute reduction in overall emissions, but it is certainly reducing the rate of their increase: in other words, less carbon is going into the atmosphere than would otherwise be the case. Far from being a waste of effort, this is pretty much the only thing worth doing in relation to climate change. At the very least, it means that more of the earth’s creatures (Campbell seems interested only in the humans) will survive and thrive for longer. And if we buy time, who knows what will happen – India and China may come to their senses, some technological fix may emerge. To do otherwise is to stop bailing out the boat because water is coming in. Who does that?

Nick Totton
Par, Cornwall

In suggesting that we abandon attempts at mitigation in favour of adaptation, David Campbell adopts a position on climate change policy which is superficially pragmatic, hard-headed and mature. To secure this position, he caricatures environmentalists as wasteful fantasists and shakes his wise head over the ‘very regrettable’ consequences of their actions. Who would not wish to side with the grown-ups on such a serious matter?

Those of us who accept the reality of climate change are of course anxious about what lies ahead. It’s not surprising that we waste energy establishing positions on the issue which suit our temperament, return some sense of control to us and allow us to feel untroubled by our own behaviour. What such positions do not represent is any sort of serious contribution to dealing with climate change.

Yes, the stance of the newly industrialising countries is challenging. Yes, there has so far been no absolute reduction in global carbon emissions. Yes, current political practice makes it hard to establish global institutions to aid mitigation. This doesn’t apply only to the NICs: there has been a failure of democracy worldwide, with governments acting in the short-term interests of an elite rather than the long-term interests of all.

But the situation is dynamic in at least two ways. First, the climate itself is changing, making the need for action ever more difficult to ignore. As the bill for immediate adaptation begins to mount (enhancement of flood defences, insurance payouts, increased food prices, conservation measures), mitigation looks more and more like the prudent option. And second, public attitudes are changing too, and will continue to change as the reality becomes clearer. How can Campbell claim that mitigation is impossible? In fact it’s happening already – the level of emissions is lower than it would have been without individual and political action. Who is served by arguments such as Campbell’s? Certainly not our children and grandchildren, who, if mitigation fails, will be faced with a task of adaptation beyond present imagining.

Phil Booth

Erasure and Experimentation

Helen Vendler notes disapprovingly that Philip Larkin and Monica Jones amused themselves for a good part of the 1960s by ‘defacing’ a copy of Iris Murdoch’s The Flight from the Enchanter (LRB, 6 November). Yet Larkin and Jones were in good subversive company: just around the time they were adding bawdy comments and underlining sentences such as ‘Today it seemed likely to be especially hard,’ Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell were being sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for adorning books stolen from Islington libraries with collage covers and dust-jacket blurbs (a gibbon’s face pasted on the Collins Guide to Roses etc). And in 1965, Tom Phillips, inspired by the cut-up techniques of William Burroughs, began to paint over much of the text of a copy of W.H. Mallock’s forgotten novel A Human Document (1892), finding in Mallock’s leaden prose a jaunty comic voice. Perhaps it’s time to think about Larkin and Jones’s bookwork as part of an emerging tradition of erasure and experimentation with the physical book: a tradition alive today in works such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes.

Gill Partington
Birkbeck, University of London
Adam Smyth
Balliol College, Oxford

Constable v. Turner

Rosemary Hill writes that ‘while his contemporary Turner bestrides the history of European art, Constable remains a largely domestic taste’ (LRB, 23 October). This is to ignore Constable’s popularity in France, where he sold more paintings than in England, and where his ideas and techniques influenced a generation of artists. Within a decade of Constable’s death a group of painters had gathered at Barbizon dedicated to what he called the ‘close observation of nature’. No such school had yet been inspired by Turner, who was still alive at this point and producing the late works that even his great champion Ruskin considered ‘indicative of mental disease’. Not until the retreat from realism in the later 19th century was Constable’s reputation eclipsed by that of his rival.

Tim Hawken
London SE14


Regarding Derek Schulz’s trenchant ruminations from New Zealand about the parlous future of the Kiwi shag, I suggest it has been that way since Christopher Isherwood sounded his clarion warning in about 1925 (Letters, 23 October):

The common cormorant (or shag)
Lays eggs inside a paper bag,
The reason you will see no doubt –
It is to keep the lightning out.
But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

The terrible non-rhyme at the end suggests that Isherwood could be as unobservant as the shag, or cormorant.

David Cobb

How did Ceaușescu die?

Adam Shatz writes that Nicolae Ceaușescu, the former Romanian dictator, was killed by a mob (LRB, 23 October). In fact he was executed, together with his wife, Elena, by a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989 following trial by a drumhead court-martial. The charges against him included genocide and the gathering of wealth. The legitimacy of the court and the manner in which the trial was conducted continue to be seen as highly controversial, inside and outside Romania; some claim that Ceaușescu was subject to unnecessary cruelty and unjustly treated. The death penalty was abolished in Romania soon afterwards.

Oana Uiorean

HH, FSS and IB

The feisty reply by Frances Stonor Saunders (FSS) to my letter about her article on Doctor Zhivago confirms the truth of the adage ‘When in a hole, stop digging’ (Letters, 6 November). What is not bluster or plain wrong is with one possible exception unconvincing. Your readers will not thank me if I reply at similar length. So let me simply list her main points – apart from those that seem to me absurd, evasive or self-refuting – and offer the briefest of responses.

‘I attributed the first quote about “the victims of a shipwreck" to Berlin, but not the quotes that followed.’ This is not made clear in her review, illustrating again the pitfalls of concealing one’s sources.

Berlin quotes Tsvetaeva’s description of Pasternak as looking like ‘an Arab and his horse’. FSS cites this in defence of her own ‘an Arab and his horse’. It was the italics I objected to, not the perfectly reasonable rendering of Tsvetaeva’s i ot araba i ot ego konya.

‘As to Berlin’s mention of Zinaida on that same visit [on 18 August 1956], I still can’t find it.’ I quoted it in my letter – from the shorter version of Berlin’s account, published in two books of his, The Soviet Mind and The Proper Study of Mankind.

FSS denies that it is unnatural to refer to Jamie Hamilton as ‘an editor at Hamish Hamilton’. Jamie and Hamish are one and the same person/name. Would she refer to Jonathan Cape as ‘an editor at Jonathan Cape’?

I am grateful for the reference for Berlin’s comment about the BBC broadcasts of Zhivago, but FSS doesn’t tell us where the other quotation I asked about (‘to stem the flow of “vulgar propaganda"’) comes from.

FSS thinks I took offence at her failure to reference the edition of Berlin’s letters of which I am a co-editor. Not at all. I meant only that readers should be told where they can find Berlin’s letters in print. It sounds from her account as if they need to go to the Bodleian to read them.

She defends her construal of the phrase ‘to suffer as all the true Russian poets have always suffered’ as Pasternak’s ‘own words’. Ripellino, who quotes the phrase, does not say it is Pasternak’s, though it may be. Let me end on this note of modified agreement.

Henry Hardy

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