Vol. 38 No. 3 · 4 February 2016

Search by issue:

Who are the spongers now?

Stefan Collini (LRB, 21 January) provides another excellent commentary on the latest government plans for higher education, once overseen by the Department for Education and Science and now by the Department for Business, Industry and Skills (could almost stop there). He refers to the financial incompetence of the fees policy. Not only, as he sets out so clearly, does it not make sense in its own terms but UK graduates who choose to work abroad and non-UK EU graduates who move back home will be outside UK tax jurisdiction and never pay back their loans however much they earn. Now, with the prospect of the loan book being sold to a private finance house, the only way for it to pay its way will be for the private company to impose crippling interest rates, so that UK graduates choosing to stay in the UK will be subsidising yet further the fees of others. Secondly, within universities the burgeoning cost of administration has two effects. It sucks more and more money from the primary purposes of teaching and research, contrary to the avowed aims of the government. And it is changing the balance of influence in universities. Traditionally, the role of the administration (including vice-chancellors) was to support the academic staff. Today, perhaps by default, the academic staff are told what to do by an ever larger and more powerful administration, now called ‘management’. So, as Collini points out, academics have been made the new target not only of government, but also of the universities themselves.

Norman Gowar
London N1

That can’t be right

I was puzzled to read in Benedict Anderson’s ‘Frameworks of Comparison’ that Anderson overheard Allan Bloom remarking that the ancient Greeks had no concept of power, and that Anderson could not find any entry for such a concept in the ‘Classical Greek dictionary’ that he rushed to consult (LRB, 21 January).

It seems hard to accept that either he or Bloom could be so easily misled. Even if Anderson misheard Bloom (as it seems he must have: Bloom was after all trained as a classicist), a cursory dip into ancient Greek thought would have brought his attention to words such as dynamis or ananke, usually translated as ‘power’ and ‘necessity’ respectively. Nor do we need to wait for Plato and Aristotle, as these ideas were explored with great subtlety and explicitness in their political dimension by earlier Greek writers. Just to take the most obvious example, whose neocon credentials would be complete without name-checking Thucydides and the Melian Dialogue?

Colin Wells
Westport, New York

I was reminded, reading Benedict Anderson’s comments on comparative method, of Wordsworth’s definition of ‘creative agency’:

                The song would speak
Of that interminable building reared
By observation of affinities
In objects where no brotherhood exists
To passive minds.

The affinity between the two is striking, not least because Wordsworth himself ended up rather resembling the frog under the coconut shell Anderson strove not to be.

Michael Falk
University of Kent

Why do they do it?

Alan Bennett notices the disappearance of warders’ chairs at the National Gallery (LRB, 7 January). I don’t believe I’ve ever seen warders at the Met in Manhattan sit down in collection rooms. Nor are they offered chairs, it seems. I’m happy to relay, though, that the guards have offered me lively opinions on the Met’s controversial Etruscan chariot; shown me Matisse-inspired, handcrafted stationery; pinpointed the location of a Messerschmidt bust at a great distance; and discussed festive conventions in Hals.

David Podgurski
Norwalk, Connecticut

Prompted by Alan Bennett’s remarks, Karl Sabbagh suggests that ‘homeless people or students’ could be engaged to wander around the National Gallery answering questions etc, ‘in exchange for a cup of tea and a stale bun, just to keep warm’ (Letters, 21 January). Actually, what he describes is what most people would call ‘a job’, deserving of what’s often termed ‘a wage’. But then, if firms can take on unpaid interns, perhaps char and a wad, and the chance of lingering by a radiator, now constitute an adequate remuneration package.

Gerald Haigh
Bedworth, Warwickshire

Alan Bennett identifies 4 April 2015 as Easter Saturday. The Saturday of the Easter weekend is Holy Saturday or Easter Eve. Easter Saturday is the Saturday following Easter.

Roy Williamson
Winchcombe, Gloucestershire

Notable Failures

The American war of independence was not, as Inigo Thomas claims, the only time British colonial ambitions were rebuffed (LRB, 21 January). The first Anglo-Afghan war of 1839-42 was the most notable failure, ending with the slaughter of almost the entire occupation army, some 16,000 men. The empire had other reverses too, most notably Francis Younghusband’s intervention in Tibet in 1903. When this proved more difficult than it looked, it was dismissed as overreaching by a maverick adventurer. But if it had worked, the border of the empire would have extended northward, as it did eastward after a similar, but more successful, opportunistic raid into Burma.

After that first failed attempt in Afghanistan, Britain tried again approximately every forty years – i.e. once the lessons of the last war had been forgotten – during the period of the empire. The second war in 1878 was launched with the same hubris the US neocons showed in 2001. ‘Our advance would carry with it all the advantages of civilisation,’ Sir Henry Green, one of the most enthusiastic advocates of a forward policy, wrote in 1876, ‘and our presence would cause peace and plenty to follow us where now anarchy and confusion reign.’

David Loyn
London N1

It isn’t true, as Inigo Thomas writes, that Annie Swynnerton was ‘the first woman to be elected to the Royal Academy’. Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman were founding academicians in 1768. An early painting of the academy removed them from the company of their male peers by representing them in portraits on the walls of the scene depicted. No women were elected for the rest of the 18th century, or in the 19th, though from the 1860s women agitated for and gained some opportunities to attend classes. Not until 1936 did Laura Knight become the next fully accredited female academician. Like many narratives in women’s history, especially where the professions are concerned, the academicians offer little support to the Whig view of gradual and uninterrupted progress towards an enlightened goal.

Anne Summers
Birkbeck, University of London

Memories of the Fog

I don’t think the plane flown by Cliff Abrams’s father-in-law could have been a Dornier 18, since that was a flying boat used for reconnaissance – in which case making an emergency landing in the sea would have been a piece of cake (Letters, 21 January). It’s much more likely that the aircraft was a Dornier Do 17, known as the ‘Flying Pencil’, a bomber used extensively in the early days of the war.

Richard Carter
London SW15

The Poacher’s Song

Nick Johnson quotes a version of ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’ with the chorus ‘Oh it’s my delight on a shining night to bomb the bourgeoisie’ (Letters, 21 January). But I think he may be wrong to say that this was ‘the 1920s Communist Party version’. I first encountered this parody in a song book produced by the National Association of Labour Student Organisations; one of the compilers was Bernard Crick. Clearly it was a satirical account of the Communist Party’s change of line, from the ultra-left ‘Third Period’ (when social democrats were denounced as ‘social fascists’) to the Popular Front. As I recall the final verse ran:

In ’36 the line came through and we were sad to see
We had to join the middle class to save democracy,
And so I broke with Pollitt’s lads and joined the RCP.

This was anachronistic – the (Trotskyist) Revolutionary Communist Party was formed in 1944 – and presumably written after the Second World War.

Ian Birchall
London N9

How should they look?

Iain Sinclair is within his rights to scorn the co-opting of Beat Generation rebelliousness as a way to defang it, but he is mistaken in using Allen Ginsberg’s visit to the Virginia Military Institute in 1991 and my friend Gordon Ball’s well-known photograph of cadets reading Howl to make his point (LRB, 17 December 2015). He sees ‘frowning’ students ‘as if challenged to formulate tactics for understanding and eradicating the enemy within’; supposedly they were meant to find Ginsberg’s depiction of a disaffected generation ‘altogether too much to bear’. But that is not what the photo depicts. In fact, Ginsberg himself was just out of frame at the head of the seminar table. I know, because I was there. Gordon and I arranged Ginsberg’s visit to the school.

I was already a member of faculty when Gordon came to VMI, and one of the first things I did was arrange to bring Ginsberg, who was a friend of his, to speak to the cadets. In the event, he stayed for a whole week. He delivered a public lecture, gave a poetry reading (where he recited Howl publicly for the first time in perhaps ten years), and conducted a workshop in transcendental meditation. It’s true that some cadets, administrators, alumni and faculty were unhappy about it, though not because of Ginsberg’s homosexuality or drug use so much as for his pacifism during the first Gulf War. But there were also many people in all those categories who were excited by the visit, and the administration supported us, even requiring the entire corps to attend the poetry reading. Ginsberg was aware of this and at the intermission told the cadets that as far as he was concerned they had fulfilled their obligation and were free to leave. Roughly two-thirds of the corps stayed for the second half. Afterwards, cadets crowded around Ginsberg to speak with him and later lined up at the bookstore to get their copies of Howl autographed.

Ginsberg also taught several classes for us, which was not as unusual at the military school as Sinclair might think. We in the English faculty never thought it was our job to indoctrinate ‘uniformed warriors of free-market capitalism’, and the school’s administration did not pressure us to do so. When you know your students are likely to see battle, it is incumbent on you to help them think about what that really means. Hardly a year went by in my 27 years at VMI that I did not teach ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’, ‘Eighth Air Force’, or The Things They Carried. What you see in Gordon’s photo is not frowning, but concentration, weariness, and some confusion as Ginsberg walked students through this challenging poem. This is a class of freshmen, few if any are English majors. How do you expect them to look?

Alan Baragona
James Madison University
Staunton, Virginia

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