John Lanchester suggests that I was responsible for setting up the committee that chose the chief executives of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region when China assumed sovereignty after 1997 (LRB, 19 December 2019). It would of course have been an agreeable act of generosity on the part of Beijing to allow Britain to decide the selection process for who would run Hong Kong after Britain’s departure. These arrangements were in fact put in place under the direction of the Chinese Communist Party’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and with the agreement of Beijing’s hand-picked trusties for the city. Before 1997 the last British governor had tried to ensure that the agreed arrangements for electing members of the Legislature Council were as fair as possible. This led to a good deal of argument at the time. Whatever my other crimes and misdemeanours, I was not responsible for putting in place a system which provided Hong Kong with an undemocratic way of choosing its chief executive.
John Lanchester writes: It’s a fair cop, guv.
August Kleinzahler, in his reflections on the Democratic primary, bewails the party’s prospects come November (LRB, 5 March). Like many older liberals, Kleinzahler believes that Bernie Sanders – who is currently poised to seize the nomination – cannot win the presidential election. The evidence suggests otherwise. In most recent polls, Sanders performs as well as or better than the other Democratic candidates, nationally and in swing states. The difficulties he would face – the disenfranchisement of African American and Latino voters, the power of the incumbency, the belligerence of the right-wing media, not to mention the sheer unpopularity of the Democratic Party itself – would be faced by whichever candidate emerges from the preliminary contests.
But then the argument against Sanders has never really been about whether he could win, even when it is framed that way. Many are hostile to him, as Kleinzahler is, out of old-fashioned ideological disagreement. Kleinzahler thinks ‘we’re fucked’ because ‘the economy is booming,’ which makes it difficult to mount a credible argument that the country needs an alternative to Trump. Kleinzahler’s view of things, that is, is the same as the GOP’s. And it is wrong. For many Americans, the economy is not great. The stock market may be booming, but real wages haven’t budged. Millions are uninsured, underemployed, buried beneath mountains of debt. Young people are mad for Sanders because his criticisms of Trump are about substance rather than style. The biggest obstacle to left-wing politics at the present time are Bernie’s well-meaning but short-sighted peers.
Luc Sante wonders if the red coat that the elegant Dr Pozzi is modelling in Sargent’s painting is perhaps a dressing-gown rather than a coat (LRB, 5 March). I’d like to suggest instead that the painting may be reprising the magnificent robe worn by Cardinal Richelieu in the portrait by Philippe de Champaigne, which still hangs in the Louvre. The draped curtain behind the cardinal, the gleaming linen, the tapering and expressive hand gestures and, above all, the sumptuous study in scarlet – Sargent wittily echoes this grandest of Ancien Régime portraits. Even the tassels on Pozzi’s belt bring to mind a cardinal’s hat, though in the Champaigne portrait, Richelieu is holding a biretta. Sargent might be offering a comment – sly, affectionate, admiring, determinedly secular – on the magnificence of the Parisian doctor and his range of influence.
I was a member of the original City Limits collective and one of those responsible for organising the initial financing of the magazine. Jenny Turner writes in her elegiac appreciation of Deborah Orr that the magazine had been ‘kept afloat, really, by a grant from Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell’s GLC’ (LRB, 20 February). The Greater London Council’s contribution to City Limits wasn’t a grant but a loan, and a commercial loan at that, with a schedule of repayment and a healthy interest rate. Even so, it was a political hot potato and our financial plan was scrutinised line by line by the GLC’s assistant director of finance on a daily basis over the first few months of the magazine’s existence (the director of finance himself was fully engaged defending the GLC’s other, larger political hot potato, the Fares Fair policy). The GLC loan was only a part, albeit the largest single part, of the magazine’s financing – many thousands of pounds came in the form of donations and loans from supporters, well-wishers and, indeed, one or two venture capitalists. Plus, in the event, only the first two of the three tranches of the GLC’s loan were ever drawn down.
In the light of Karl Mannheim’s view that ‘stability and organic change do not result in the formation of generations,’ William Davies wonders whether Generation X ‘is much of a generation at all’ (LRB, 20 February). Those of us who entered adulthood between the mid-1980s and late 1990s did experience the rapid change and upheaval that Mannheim sees as generation- forming. During early adulthood my generation was witness to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Central and Eastern European communist regimes, the opening of China to global markets, financial deregulation and the Big Bang, and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Swathes of us graduated during the early 1990s recession and our first years in work, shaped as they were by the rise of the internet and the invention of the World Wide Web, bore scant resemblance to those of previous generations. While reports of the ‘end of history’ may have been exaggerated, it is undeniable that the sensibilities of Generation X were shaped by this constellation of economic, political and technological upheavals. Just don’t call us slackers.
How depressing to read Ferdinand Mount’s assertion that to move the House of Lords to ‘some undecided location in the North’ would ‘cut the Lords out of the national dialogue’ (LRB, 20 February). Little wonder that so many people in northern England have voted in protest against metropolitan orthodoxy in recent years. That said, I must admit that my own experience supports Mount’s view. For many years, I commuted on a weekly basis from my home in the Yorkshire Dales to a well-paid job in the South-East. I was a member of several CBI and other industry committees engaged in parliamentary lobbying. When I retired a few years ago, I was asked by several bodies to continue with the lobbying work, but as soon as it became apparent that someone would have to fund my travel and accommodation for meetings in London (where else would they be?), enthusiasm waned and, solely by virtue of living in Yorkshire, I too found myself excluded from the national dialogue. Until the government, and the country generally, find a way to reconnect with those of us who live outside the M25, I fear that resentment against the centre will continue to manifest itself at every opportunity.
Burnsall, North Yorkshire
Ferdinand Mount celebrates the change from the rule of the imperialist and authoritarian Pericles in Athens to the ‘greater reliance on expert managers and professional generals’ in the context of a ‘recomplicated’ Athenian democracy after his death. Mount’s picture would be better balanced if he had mentioned that this recomplication resulted in a series of military and political disasters, from the Sicilian expedition to the Aegospotami, the humiliating defeat in the Peloponnesian War which resulted in the replacement of democracy by a tyrannical puppet government.
Christopher Tayler mentions John Buchan’s sojourn in South Africa (LRB, 20 February). In the early 1980s I went to the South African village of Haenertsburg for the unveiling of a monument to Buchan in the countryside that was the setting for Prester John. It commemorates his words: ‘Two pictures I have always carried to cheer me in dismal places … One is of a baking noon on the high veld … the other is the Wood Bush in the Northern Transvaal … I resolved to go back in my old age, build a dwelling, and leave my bones there.’ Some South Africans proudly cling to the memory of that commitment, though Buchan died in Canada and was buried in England. It rained in the Wood Bush and we had to retreat to the nearby Magoebaskloof Hotel for the ceremony. Buchan’s son, the 2nd Baron Tweedsmuir, was to have been the guest of honour but he was too old to travel. Instead he had recorded a message. We assembled to listen as the tape was played. The plummy Old Etonian voice intoned: ‘My father comma while he was in South Africa comma …’
Howick, South Africa
Jonathan Parry mentions the ‘thick bonds of mutual appreciation between the Windsors and the armed services’ (LRB, 6 February). I have served in the British Army for 16 years, and, unlike many of my colleagues, have no appreciation for the Windsors. An increasing number, however, particularly those who have been in contact with the loathsome Prince Andrew, are questioning whether the presence of royals in uniform is good for the military. I regard serving in the military as a vocation to be approached with professionalism, not a hobby that keeps upper-class twits off the streets. When I and many others like me have had to work hard to get where we are, the presence of the royals dictating what they would like to do next (biking in Africa, flying helicopters, Afghan tour) is something of a poke in the eye.
It isn’t hard to see why Harry, who treats my profession as a glorified dressing-up box, should feel entitled to pick and choose which aspects of royal duty he would like to observe. He has been picking and choosing his whole life. One need only look at his baffling decision to get married in an army frock coat wearing a major’s rank, while at the same time thinking it beneath him to shave his beard.
Further to Jeremy Mitchell’s recognition that the royal family are ‘just like us’, I recall my mother’s reaction to the news that both her children were to be divorced: ‘I’m beginning to feel like the queen’ (Letters, 20 February).
It is true, as Clare Bucknell suggests, that the life of junior officers in the East India Company army was one of relative privation, but one shouldn’t feel too sorry for Thomas Munro when he describes his experience of hunger and thirst in his early career (LRB, 5 March). He and his three brothers had sought their fortunes in the East when their father, a merchant in Glasgow’s Virginia trade, was bankrupted in the wake of the American Revolution. Within just a few years as an officer in the Madras section of the East India Company, Munro was investing his pay in the indigo trade and other ventures. Ultimately, he became Sir Thomas Munro, governor general of the Madras Presidency.
The merits of the ryotwari system of direct taxation of peasants, which he promulgated, are debatable, but his reputation in India is such that his stirrupless equestrian statue in Chennai has so far survived post-imperial revisionism. What’s more, he is still venerated as semi-divine in two temples in Andhra Pradesh. At Mantrayalam, he restored the temple’s endowment after an interview with Sri Raghavendra Swami, a Hindu saint who had died two hundred years before, and whom only Munro could see and hear. Similarly, near the temple of Veeranjaneya Swami at Gandi, only Munro could see, stretched between cliffs across the Papagni River, the Golden Garland of flowers which in the Ramayana had welcomed Rama after his victory over the demon king Ravana. Unfortunately, this particular vision, while it was said to be granted only to the great and good, also presaged death, and Munro was overtaken by cholera soon after. He left more than £150,000, which bought his family an estate on the edge of the Highlands from which his grandson Sir Hugh Thomas Munro ventured out to tabulate Scotland’s highest mountains. In all, not a bad legacy for an impoverished subaltern from Glasgow.
In her study of political failure on Red Clydeside, Jean McNicol mentions Harry McShane, a close colleague of the revolutionary John Maclean (LRB, 2 January). As McNicol says, radical socialism had more or less died as a popular movement in Glasgow by the end of the Second World War. Personal convictions, however, were a different matter. In 1984, more than sixty years after Glasgow’s insurrectionary moment, I went to interview McShane in his Glasgow hospital bed. He was 93. The city’s manufacturing industry, which had given socialism so many recruits, was in the final stage of decay. Was he pessimistic? ‘No, I’m optimistic,’ McShane said. ‘You have to be optimistic. That woman [Mrs Thatcher] thinks she’s Adam Smith. Every man his own capitalist. But it’s daft stuff, son, daft stuff. No, Burns and Marx were right. Mind what Burns said: “It’s coming yet for a’ that.”’
Danny Dorling describes my novel The Northern Clemency as depicting people in Sheffield living ‘secretive lives ... narrowminded and selfish’ (Letters, 5 March). That wasn’t my intention, and I don’t believe it’s a rational reading of the book. What’s more, if Dorling wants to demonstrate the generosity of spirit of the electors of Sheffield Hallam, he perhaps shouldn’t use the example of their having chosen a Labour MP in 2019. If he lived in the constituency during the period my book is set, 1974-94, as he says he did, he will know that Sheffield Hallam returned a Conservative MP for all but two years between the creation of the seat in 1885 and 1997. A Labour MP was first elected in June 2017, but since he only lasted until October 2017 before having the Labour whip withdrawn for making obscene remarks online about women and gay men, I don’t think Dorling would be wise to cite that as evidence of anything much.
David Elstein refers to the requirement that all salaries above £150,000 funded by the BBC licence fee be made public (Letters, 5 March). This is not the whole story, since it applies only to those employed directly by the BBC. Most people who now appear on BBC channels are employed by independent producers. The salaries of those people do not have to be published, so no one knows what is paid to the likes of Graham Norton.
Clapton in Gordano, Somerset
Adam Shatz, in his piece about Oliver Lee Jackson, claims that ‘the struggle against racism is neither the subject nor the underlying theme of his work, any more than it is in the paintings of Alma Thomas, Norman Lewis, Jack Whitten, Ed Clark or Frank Bowling’ (LRB, 5 March). Maybe, but not so fast. There is a pretty clear line of development connecting the Alma Thomas painting March on Washington (1964), with its wide swathe of semi-abstracted protest signs across the top half of the canvas, something between sails and shifting planes, to the colour-field paintings she became known for, dominated by irregularly shaped shards. The struggle may not be an underlying theme in her work exactly, but it is a coded one.
‘Is it OK to have a child?’ Meehan Crist asks (LRB, 5 March). I thought this the right question to ask thirty years ago, and I still do. It is a philosophical, political and personal question rolled into one. It concentrates the mind, and forces one to think seriously about what to do with one’s life on this fragile Earth. Asking the question (and discussing it at length with friends, family, fiancé) led me, 28 years ago, to have a vasectomy. It is a decision I have never regretted, not least because it has made possible the life I have lived, in which I have sought to make the world a better place for future generations. My dedication to that task has been more single-minded absent the enormous commitment of time and energy involved in having a family.
University of East Anglia, Norwich
Andrew Cockburn thoroughly dismantles the technical and strategic bases for hypersonic weaponry, but it is worth noting that the US did deploy at least one hypersonic missile for a few months in the 1970s – the Sprint anti-ballistic interceptor (LRB, 5 March). Aficionados of YouTube missile test videos will note that the vehicle did indeed glow white-hot in the course of its 15-second flight.
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