An interesting stat for those of us, like Sarah Walker, who are following the under-representation of women in the LRB (Letters, 16 March). In the latest archive email shot, 80 per cent of the recommended articles are by women. The subject? Divorce.
James Meek’s piece on the move of Cadbury from the UK to Poland eloquently describes the desertion of one place by capital for another with lower wages and state subsidies, leaving the hapless workers behind (LRB, 20 April). Soon, both they and their low-wage overseas competitors will be automated out of those jobs altogether: as Meek says, robots don’t eat chocolate.
History teaches us that passing laws changes little, or takes a generation or longer to have an effect. Deep changes to people’s lives can be made almost instantly, however, by the introduction of a new technology that everyone wants. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, has had far greater influence on the world than Theresa May, Vladimir Putin or Angela Merkel ever will. The engine of history is engines.
Legislative solutions to job displacement and automation, such as taxes on robots or the introduction of a universal income, are unlikely to produce significant change, but a popular technological solution just might. Our grandparents sent their clothes to the town laundry. Nobody does that anymore because we all have a robot in the kitchen to clean our clothes. Courtesy of our computers, we have taken the previously industrial processes of printing, photo processing and music recording into our homes. Many of us generate our own (for the moment subsidised) electricity using solar cells on our roofs. When any technology gets simple and cheap enough, economies of scale are reversed and we take it back from industry to enjoy the convenience of running it ourselves.
If I am known at all, it is for the RepRap: a 3D printer that makes useful goods and which can also print its own components. I open-sourced it, meaning that anyone with a RepRap can freely use it to print another RepRap for a friend. (The most widely used 3D printer in the world – the Prusa i3 – is a RepRap.) My intention was to place the means of production irrevocably in the hands of each member of the proletariat without any of that vile revolution stuff, or even any requirement for additional laws.
We used to pay repeatedly to have our photographs developed. Today we can process as many images as we like having paid the one-off cost of a computer. Tomorrow, when we have the means to print the computer, we will pay only the lesser cost of the raw materials. The day after that, when we’ll be growing the raw materials themselves, we will pay only the cost of access to an allotment. Money is not wealth; money is a compact means of storage. Goods are wealth. Our society precedes one in which production will be both personally and automatically performed by evolved and designed self-reproducing machines.
My failure to supply an adequate headcount of female characters (or influences) in any text I have written, or talk that I deliver, is invariably the first challenge when it comes to the dreaded Q & A. Sometimes the tone is hurt but forgiving, sometimes fierce in the conviction of its own entitlement and originality. I’ve tried to answer that charge in my new book, The Last London, with a chapter celebrating the flâneuse and photographer Effie Paleologou. Paleologou has already appeared in London Orbital, as well as the novel Dining on Stones. I am always fired by the forensic beauty of her work, the intensity of her negotiation with the minute particulars of London.
I think that Ruth Maclennan has been selective in her reading (Letters, 20 April). She deplores the absence of Angela Carter, who is the subject of a long section of London Overground, in which I try to express my gratitude for her support when I was starting to publish. Reviewing Downriver in the LRB of 7 March 1991, Carter wrote that it was ‘haunted’ by the presence of Edith Cadiz, an ‘enigmatic Canadian performance artist’. She also picks out the appearance of Mary Butts, whose quote about the ‘first wraths of the guns at the Thames’s mouth’ sets the tone for the whole enterprise. Muriel Spark, Ann Quin, Shena Mackay and Rosemary Tonks are cited in London Overground. Nicola Barker and Iris Murdoch are frequently quoted in other texts. Murdoch’s night walks along the river mean almost as much to me as the peregrinations of Beckett and Murphy. I have collaborated on publications with Rachel Lichtenstein – whose persistence and human sympathies I have referenced many times – and with the artists Oona Grimes, Emma Matthews, Emily Richardson, Sarah Simblet, Susan Stenger and Susan Wood. I have written at length about Rachel Whiteread, whose intervention with House was one of the major elements in Lights Out for the Territory. And about the artist Sue Webster in her quest to restore the house of the burrowing Mole Man of Hackney. Muriel Walker, an early associate of Alexander Baron and Lionel Bart at the Unity Theatre, told me wonderful stories of her adventures with Anna Magnani in Italian cinema. But perhaps the most important element of all this, the nature of the city itself, is caught in the title of Michael Moorcock’s great novel: Mother London.
I can assure Giacinto Palmieri that people do fall into Regent’s Canal between Broadway Market and Victoria Park, for instance when they are nudged off balance by a walker’s oversized handbag (Letters, 20 April). A couple of years ago my ten-year-old daughter and I, cycling sedately in single file, had just passed beneath the Cambridge Heath Road Bridge, when I heard a shriek and a splash behind me. I jumped off my bike, turned round, and all I could see was my daughter’s helmeted head craning out of the turbid water. As I pulled her out, a small voice called my name from the window of one of the flats overlooking the towpath. It was a girl I had taught at primary school. Her family took my daughter in and showered and clothed her, while the man upstairs lent me a pair of trunks so that I could retrieve the sunken bicycle. He told me that someone went into the water every month on that stretch of the canal alone, and that once he had had to run down and fish out an elderly man strapped into a mobility scooter.
I would shift the beginnings of what Iain Sinclair calls the compulsion to imagine a final city from Richard Jefferies in 1885 to Anna Barbauld in 1812. Barbauld’s long poem Eighteen Hundred and Eleven imagines the collapse of civilisation in the ruin of London, heart of the British Empire. The poem is a prophecy:
Night, Gothic night, again may shade the plains
Where Power is seated and where Science reigns;
England, the seat of arts, be only known
By the grey ruin and the mouldering stone.
This vision of England extended to the whole of Europe, which Barbauld thought was over.
Tom Crewe writes that A.C. Benson’s diary was the ‘longest known to be in existence’ (LRB, 20 April). In fact, at four million words, it was merely on the nursery slopes. The American poet Arthur Crew Inman’s diaries ran to 17 million words and generated a play and an opera. Inman died in 1963. A severely abridged version in two volumes, edited by Daniel Aaron, was published by Harvard in the 1980s.
I am interested to know from Anthony Paul that Gerald Scarfe intended his drawing of the ageing Churchill to convey pathos rather than hostility (Letters, 20 April). Much as I admire Scarfe I don’t think he realised his intention in this case. The original, which is charcoal on four sheets of paper, did hang in Portcullis House, but is there no longer. On 5 April it appeared as lot 134 in Sotheby’s sale of works by Scarfe, where it remained unsold. Perhaps I am not alone in finding it unsympathetic.
I wonder if Julian Barnes is correct when he maintains that we, the British, have been ‘very unsatisfactory Europeans, the rude boys farting in the corner’ (LRB, 20 April). Many years ago when working at the BBC I interviewed the longest-serving, most experienced European commissioner at the time, the late Karel Van Miert, a Belgian. I have never forgotten his rebuke when I raised the problem that the British were such poor Europeans. The truth was quite the opposite, he said, the British were actually the best Europeans of all. We had gained our reputation, he said, because whenever new laws or regulations were proposed the British would kick up a song and dance, be it about curved bananas, straight cucumbers or the contents of sausages. But when a compromise agreement was reached the British, he said, would apply the rules quite strictly. By contrast, Continental politicians would make high-sounding speeches about the ‘grand European design’ – and promptly ignore any regulation that didn’t suit them. When I asked who were the worst offenders he was, for a politician, surprisingly frank: France, Italy and Greece. Sadly, I was unable to find a programme editor willing to run this part of the interview.
This attitude has continued over the years even for the most important decisions. When the two biggest economies, Germany and France, joined the euro they flouted the regulations; their budget deficits were too high, they should not have been allowed to join. At least the Greeks took the trouble to call in Goldman Sachs to cook the books.
It isn’t true that during the EU referendum campaign, Jeremy Corbyn was the ‘incredible vanishing man’, though Julian Barnes might be forgiven for thinking so. Corbyn’s presence at ten huge Remain rallies across the country was largely ignored by the media, which took their cue from skilful media managers and opponents within the Labour Party, such as Hilary Benn and Labour’s Remain campaign chief, Alan Johnson. They were determined that Corbyn be perceived as absent without leave.
‘As anti-Zionism may often disguise anti-Semitism,’ Barnes says in the same piece, ‘so Europhobia proves a handy disguise for wider xenophobia.’ By that argument, the dislike of anything at all can be seen as a disguise for dislike of something else.
St Leonard’s-on-Sea, East Sussex
Musing about unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, Julian Barnes asks: ‘Does no one ever wonder about Britain’s unelected bureaucrats?’ Tony Jay did, and so did I. We called it Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister.
In Julian Barnes’s piece, it was stated that the Daily Mail ‘gave its readers thirty pages of more important news and comment before deigning to report Jo Cox’s murder’. That was a mistake. The sentence should have ended: ‘before deigning to report the conviction of Jo Cox’s killer’. On the day after the murder, the Mail dedicated five of its first seven pages, including the front page, to the story.