Using Ofcom data and his own analysis, David Elstein (Letters, 5 November) attempts to demonstrate the BBC’s ‘super-dominance’ in the matter of the public’s news consumption (75 per cent) compared with that of Murdoch’s newspapers (6.3 per cent) and the Mail group (5.7 per cent). Robert Peston, in his British Journalism Review Charles Wheeler Lecture in June, said he found it ‘most frustrating’ the way that BBC news ‘is completely obsessed by the agenda set by newspapers … There is slightly too much of a safety-first [attitude]. If we think the Mail and Telegraph will lead with this, we should. It’s part of the culture … The safest thing is to go with what the newspapers are going with, even at a time when the influence and power of newspapers is radically declining.’ If, as Elstein says, ‘the left seems primarily concerned about which of the newspaper moguls has a larger share of a disappearing readership,’ it may be with good reason, when two or three print media proprietors are so easily able to use the broadcast media’s leverage to amplify their own agendas.
Kingston upon Thames
Bee Wilson writes of Alma Mahler that her ‘empire over men extended far beyond those she slept with’ (LRB, 5 November). It extended, in the opinion of some of her entourage, into the afterlife. When the playwright Gerhart Hauptmann told his wife of his desire to be Alma’s lover in the hereafter, she caustically replied that even there he would have to wait his turn. He might not have had to wait too long, however. Alma clearly found Hauptmann attractive, admiring the Aryan appearance of this ‘gold-yellow glowing man’, which she contrasted with the ‘darkness’ of the Jews. Hauptmann didn’t share her anti-Semitism: when his Jewish friend Max Pinkus died in 1934, he and his wife were the only Aryans at the funeral – a dramatic gesture of defiance at the time – and in 1937 he wrote The Darknesses, a one-act ‘requiem’ dedicated to the ‘Jewish spirit’.
Streetly, West Midlands
While I agree with the gist of Ross McKibbin’s argument that a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to make the sort of inroads required to produce a change of government, I would disagree about the causes he cites: the Tory press, Corbyn’s small base in the Parliamentary Labour Party, his inevitable compromises and the nature of Labour’s leadership election (LRB, 8 October).
All the data over many decades suggest that the polls have a primal effect on MPs. If the polls were to show Labour in the ascendant, the PLP would quickly swallow its reservations about Corbyn. Were the polls to tell Labour MPs that they’re all going to win their seats and might even have a shot at power, every single one of them would be sending Corbyn expensive Christmas cards. Second, the compromises usually don’t matter much. Wilson started out with a left pedigree and that meant his compromises were generally regarded as necessary by the left. The same would doubtless be true of Corbyn. And third, the electorate are singularly uninterested in how a given leader was chosen. There is no evidence that the multiple changes in both the major parties’ leadership election methods since 1965 have made a blind bit of difference to their mass support. In effect voters expect the parties to produce their leaders by whatever hocus-pocus they choose; then they get down to the serious business of working out which party (and leader) they would prefer.
I would be more inclined to see Labour and Corbyn’s difficulties in the tremendous deterioration of the solidaristic associational memberships that used to bind the Labour vote together: the trade unions, the large public sector, working men’s clubs, solid council house estates, even the decline in Catholic religious practice. The result has been the atomisation and dispersal of the Labour vote with whole chunks falling off the side to the SNP and Ukip. By contrast the institutional base of the Tory Party – private schools, the Anglican Church, wealthy housing districts, the expanded private sector and even home ownership in general – is as healthy as ever. The result is a one-sided decay of the class cleavage, with the Tories holding onto their old hinterland far better than Labour has.
However much McKibbin dislikes the Blairites – and I do understand why – the truth is that rather than dreaming of how it might renew some of these dynamited old structures of support, Labour would do far better to sally forth and see how it can turn to its advantage some of the features of the brave new world that has replaced the old. The key point is that inequalities of wealth and income are growing rapidly. Labour needs to mobilise the bottom 60 per cent adversely affected by this process. That means it has to appeal to small businessmen, shop-owners, small farmers and so on. This probably entails a shift to social conservatism on some issues, however horrific that sounds. It is a tough ask. But I’m not sure Corbyn is even thinking about what might be required to win.
Neal Ascherson in his review of Celts at the British Museum failed to mention the crucial issue of acoustic Marmite (LRB, 22 October). Many of the exhibition rooms were filled with ‘pan pipe’ music. Julia Farley, the curator of the exhibition, said she wanted to destroy any ‘reverent silence’ but admitted the ‘Celtic music’ was a ‘bit of a Marmite thing’. Yet while some people like Marmite and others loathe it, no one is ever forced to eat it. In contrast, everyone is forced to listen to music piped into a room. Piped music now fills most shops, cafés and pubs. To have it in museums seems a final indignity.
National Secretary, Pipedown, Salisbury, Wiltshire
Neal Ascherson remarks that it’s ‘odd’ how the names of Asterix’s creators – Goscinny and Uderzo – ‘sound Polish’. It’s not so odd in Goscinny’s case: his parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland, and the name Gościnny, as Ascherson suggests, does indeed mean ‘hospitable’. Uderzo’s family was from La Spezia, which is about as far south as the Celts got in Italy.
Andrew Richardson’s ostensibly damning revelation of the Duke of Windsor’s meeting at the German Embassy in the Netherlands in January 1940, at which he reported that German battle plans had been compromised and revealed how the Allies were going to counter them, makes a powerful impression (Letters, 8 October). But even such apparently straightforward evidence should be seen in context. The duke’s sympathy with the Nazis was well known, so well known that it would be surprising if he had had access to such sensitive information. I wonder if in fact he was not only a traitor, but also a dupe of British intelligence. Perhaps it was felt that a German assault through western Belgium posed the greatest danger, and it would be useful to divert the attack into the Ardennes. If the ruse were to succeed it would be necessary to keep defensive preparations against such a move as unobtrusive as possible. In the end, the defence failed, but the best laid plans often do.
Fredericton, New Brunswick
As fog once again blankets much of the country, I think I can top John Mitchell’s story about the Charlton Athletic v. Chelsea football match of Christmas 1937 (Letters, 5 November). The 1940 New Year’s Day Edinburgh derby match between Hibs and Hearts was played in dense fog at Easter Road. Bob Kingsley had been sent to commentate on the game for the armed forces’ wireless service, but could see absolutely nothing from his seat in the commentary box. However, BBC chiefs were ordered to provide a full commentary so that the Germans would have no inkling that there was heavy fog in the Firth of Forth; the state of the British weather was classified information during the Second World War. Only a few months earlier, on 16 October 1939, the Luftwaffe had launched their first air raid of the war on Royal Navy ships moored under the Forth Bridge; 24 sailors had been killed, and a Spitfire from 603 Squadron (City of Edinburgh) had claimed the RAF’s first kill of the war by downing a Junkers 88 bomber.
As Mark Smith wrote in the Edinburgh Evening News on 11 December 2001, ‘a complex system of runners and information chains was set up by the struggling BBC man to make sure he covered the game’s major talking points, such as goals and corner kicks’. The adrenalin rush must have been considerable since Kingsley continued commentating on the invisible game for 15 minutes after it ended. Meanwhile, two players who failed to hear the final whistle lingered on the pitch for a further ten minutes waiting for a ball that never arrived.
Now that we know the outcome of Canada’s election, it’s much easier to see what was important about it than it was when Ben Jackson was writing (LRB, 22 October). To my mind, this election reveals that the committed conservative base remains at just over 30 per cent, which is where it has been for years; the great majority of political opinion continues to be centrist or centre-left, and because it was less fragmented in this election a moderately progressive majority government was elected; this majority was the outcome in part of a lot of strategic voting for ‘Anybody but Harper’. Finally, negative advertising doesn’t always work – the Liberals did little of it and still won.
The Liberals also promised electoral reform and will have trouble abandoning this commitment. Currently there’s widespread dislike of first-past-the-post, but most people have yet to think through the implications of the various alternatives. None of them, though, would favour the conservatives.
Nelson, British Columbia
Michael Wood notes that the science in The Martian is flawed, but it’s worse than he says (LRB, 22 October). Not only is the air too thin for a sandstorm to knock over a spacecraft (air density is less than 1 per cent of Earth’s, so wind speeds would have to exceed 1000 miles per hour to reach hurricane force), but night-time temperatures even at the equator drop to 80°C below freezing – much too cold for potatoes – and the movie made only intermittent and inconsistent attempts to show that the gravitational acceleration on Mars is little more than a third of Earth’s. But the most flagrant violation of physics occurs in the rescue scene, when Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, linked by the tether line, are revolving around their common centre of mass. They pull themselves ‘up’ against centrifugal force, hand over hand, until they are close enough to grab onto each other. As filmed, this flouts the law of conservation of angular momentum, the principle that makes an ice dancer revolving with arms outstretched turn faster when she brings her arms in towards her chest. By the time Damon and Chastain are within hugging distance, they should be spinning around like a pinwheel propelled by that extraordinary sandstorm.
You would think from reading Colm Tóibín’s review that castration conferred on the boy not only consummate musicianship but the voice of an angel (LRB, 8 October). What happened to all the duds?
Dún Laoghaire, Co. Dublin
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