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Vol. 41 No. 18 · 26 September 2019

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The following entry in my (unpublished) diary for 22 June 2009 seems appropriate to the moment:

‘The big story of course is the election of the speaker. I had agreed to nominate Margaret Beckett because there’s something about John Bercow I don’t understand. But as I thought about it over the weekend I decided that Margaret Beckett or George Young were speakers for the House of Commons looking inwards to itself and its own. Bercow for all his faults was a speaker for outside and for the people even though he has many many faults and question marks over him.

‘I went yesterday to speak to the Board of Deputies of British Jews at the National Union of Teachers headquarters off Euston Road. It was like speaking to an NUJ Congress with lots of energetic and active people with aggressive views on lots of issues. I made the point that the Daily Mail was a permanently xenophobic paper picking on Poles today as it picked on Jews in the 1930s. And I gave as an example a Mail on Sunday article attacking Bercow which described him as “oily" – one of the traditional slur adjectives used against Jews.

‘The Tory establishment and Tory MPs are very hostile to Bercow and I fear that there is some unconscious or possibly even some conscious antisemitism in that reaction. At any event, after the second ballot for the speaker I saw Bercow and Julian Lewis standing in the Members’ Lobby by themselves just outside the doors that lead into the chamber. I went up to chat to them and straightaway both were asking me how John’s speech, which was quite cheeky with a good imitation of Peter Tapsell and a joke at the end about his being rather small but he could grow into the job, had gone. I said it was fine, fine. And then of course it hit me that Julian and John are both London Jews who have thrown their lot in with the Conservative Party and tried to please it by being very right-wing and anti-European and anti-communist. But the Conservative Party only has a limited toleration for pushy Jews. Julian and John are wonderfully fluent on their feet, able to rattle out whole sentences and paragraphs without any break at all. And yet neither has been given any real promotion or preferment. Minor front bench jobs after many years of actually being much better as back bench MPs … But in the end the old Etonian Anglican Tory Party isn’t gonna find much space for the old Estonians. So instead they make a power grab for what they can get because of the disaster of the expenses and the incompetence of Michael Martin, namely, the speakership. And it comes off as Bercow is elected on the second ballot. Straightaway the Daily Mail goes into overdrive to denounce and trash him as incompetent and a fiddler, a cheat, not really a good MP, perhaps not even English. In other words, Jewish. The ghastly, evil Quentin Letts who destroyed Michael Martin’s confidence by calling him “Gorbals Mick" doesn’t quite hit Bercow by calling him “John Jewboy" but the implication is there. It’s at times like this that I really hate British Conservatism.’

Denis MacShane
London SW1


Josephine Quinn writes: ‘In 1976 Edward Luttwak in The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire tried to explain [the huge Roman effort in Masada] as a lesson to others contemplating revolt: “The Romans would pursue rebellion even to mountain tops in remote deserts to destroy its last vestiges regardless of cost"’ (LRB, 12 September). ‘If so,’ Quinn continues, ‘other historians have pointed out, it is strange that not a single surviving Roman inscription or other document mentions the episode.’

I am surprised by this, since the non-survival of any inscription is surely irrelevant. Quinn and I and the world have known the story of Masada not from tenuous epigraphic survivals but from the book that Josephus wrote in Rome while on the imperial payroll as a de facto propagandist. Its central theme was precisely the irresistible tenacity demonstrated by the Romans in the reduction of Masada. The book wasn’t written in the author’s Aramaic or Hebrew but in the imperial language, Greek, so that the warning could resonate. We can infer that the Josephus text was published in many copies because its survival did not depend on an attenuated chain of transmission as with most other Roman texts.

Incidentally, those ‘other historians’ who could not find the unnecessary evidence are not idiosyncratic but rather fashionably ‘woke’, and therefore must reject a priori the notion that at Masada or anywhere else the Romans could pursue purposeful strategic aims – which they take to be an impossibility for ignorant, violent men obsessed with the pursuit of booty and glory.

Edward Luttwak
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Safety First

Helen McCarthy’s review of Sarah Knott’s history of mothering – with its privileging of anecdote, and determination to ‘uncouple the mother-child dyad’ – reminded me of a vignette I encountered in Jenny Uglow’s In These Times, about the British home front during the Napoleonic Wars (LRB, 12 September). The novelist Maria Edgeworth, unmarried at thirty, was a year older than her (third) stepmother, Frances, to whom she became closely attached, describing her as her ‘beloved friend and mother’. In June 1799, the family was staying with friends in Bristol when Frances gave birth: ‘At nine minutes before six this evening, to my great joy, my little sister Fanny came into this world,’ Maria wrote to an aunt shortly afterwards. It was her task to proudly bear the baby downstairs to show to her (and Maria’s own) father, but the stairs were uncarpeted and appeared suddenly treacherous. Frances described what happened next:

When she had descended a few steps a panic seized her, and she was afraid to go either backwards or forwards. She sat down on the stairs, afraid she should drop the child, afraid that its head would come off, and afraid that her father would find her sitting there and laugh at her; till, seeing the footman passing, she called ‘Samuel’ in a terrified voice, and made him walk before her backwards down the stairs till she safely reached the sitting room.

Fiona Gray

A Craving for Action

Thomas Meaney explores the connection between the growth of white nationalism and the effects of the Vietnam War on white soldiers returning home (LRB, 1 August). He emphasises the racial divide they came to know in the army. A separate cause of the movement may have been a craving for some violent stimulus commensurate with the excitement of war itself. The correlation between US combat experience and white nationalism is likely to be just as strong, for the same reason, among veterans of more recent wars. Therapists working with veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have noticed a pattern of bewildered non-assimilation to civilian society, which the soldiers often trace to the love of action and danger they learned in wars. Many join the police – the hierarchical structure is familiar and reassuring – but some find it too sedentary. The uncertain legal status of the vigilante groups may add to the sense of danger and their appeal.

David Bromwich
North Haven, Connecticut

Memories of Leavis

Robert Fothergill mentions that F.R. Leavis had ‘little or nothing to say’ about contemporary writers (LRB, 12 September). That called to mind a rare, rather revealing instance of his having something to say about one of them, at least. Kingsley Amis, in his memoirs, writes that ‘I did, I believe, once have the honour of passing him, open-necked shirt and all, in King’s Parade.’ He goes on to recall that, on the subject of Amis’s college and its attitude to Cambridge parking problems, Leavis apparently said: ‘Peterhouse can’t expect to be taken seriously about anything now that it’s given a scholarship to a pornographer.’

Bob Jope

Robert Fothergill writes that undergraduates arriving at Cambridge in 1958 were ‘the first mostly not to have National Service’. He may have avoided it, but the final year for National Service conscription was 1960, meaning that as late as 1962 there were freshmen who had been in uniform.

Derek Robinson

No Faster Bird

Jon Day writes: ‘There are faster birds – peregrine falcons, the pigeon’s main predator, can reach two hundred miles per hour on the stoop – but none can fly horizontally, under its own power, as quickly as a pigeon’ (LRB, 4 April). I loved this unlikely fact, which has become part of my children’s education. But in the LRB of 15 August Katherine Rundell says of swifts that ‘they are the swiftest of all birds in level flight (a peregrine can outstrip them in a dive, but they can outfly her in a flat race).’ I should never have believed that stuff about the pigeon.

Rollo Whately
London SW1

Our Alien Planet

‘It may be symbolically significant for the UK government to declare a “climate emergency",’ Francis Gooding writes, ‘but what is urgently needed are vast, co-ordinated programmes of decarbonisation’ (LRB, 1 August). Strictly speaking, Gooding’s statement is incorrect. The government declared nothing. It was Parliament which in May passed a symbolic motion declaring a climate and environment emergency after the government met with Extinction Rebellion and decided not to oppose the motion. What we really need is for the government to declare an emergency and a plan to address it, starting with its next budget. This will not happen unless there is vast, co-ordinated public pressure: that is what Extinction Rebellion is planning to create in October.

Rupert Read

Utopian about the Present

Having grown up with the social housing estate Dawson’s Heights on the horizon, I was astonished to hear from Christopher Turner that it is modelled on an Italian hill village (LRB, 4 July). Practically anyone – at least in areas south-east of them – will tell you they are supposed to look like battleships. They will also tell you they are ‘apparently very nice, once you get inside’.

Janet Wood
London SE23

The Student Loan Sell-Off

As a securitisation lawyer who has tried (and failed) many times to explain the concept of securitisation to others, I tip my hat to Andrew McGettigan for his lucid description of the UK student loan sale (LRB, 12 September). There are just a couple of small inaccuracies in his otherwise spot-on account. It isn’t quite right to describe the most secure tranches of notes in the loan sale as being ‘the ones consisting of loans associated with the lowest risk of default’. First, securitisation notes don’t exactly ‘consist’ of loans – rather, repayments from the securitised loans are used to pay off the principal and interest of the notes. Second, every tranche of notes is associated with all the loans being securitised – there is no direct link between the riskier note tranches and the individual riskier loans. What makes one tranche in a securitisation more ‘secure’ than another (rated higher by rating agencies, pricier and offering a lower return) is its position in what’s called in the trade a ‘waterfall’: on a regular basis, all repayments received from all the securitised loans come in and are applied to pay interest (and eventually to repay the principal) first on the highest-ranked tranche of notes, then the next highest, and so on until the money from the loan repayments runs out.

James Tanner
London, W14

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