Stephen Sedley writes about the prosecution for obscenity of The Little Red Schoolbook (LRB, 10 March). In 2008 I examined the files of the director of public prosecutions and interviewed a number of the people involved for a Radio 4 documentary on the subject. The impetus for the prosecution came from Mary Whitehouse, who lobbied the DPP, but the department had a hard time working out exactly what was obscene about the book, and the lawyer charged with assembling a case, Marisa Phillips, found it difficult to turn up prosecution witnesses who would give credible testimony. She was reduced to contacting the headmistresses of her daughter’s school and of the City of London School ‘because she was a patient of my husband … I knew a psychiatrist, and I contacted her, but she declined to give evidence.’
By the time of the Crown Court appeal, the department had got its act together, with the help of the Festival of Light and the Responsible Society, and had assembled an array of witnesses, including Elizabeth Manners, headmistress of Felixstowe College, who had just published her own broadside against the permissive society, The Vulnerable Generation. She wrote a letter to the DPP, where an official noted: ‘She seems to have grasped the sort of evidence we require.’ One of the pieces of advice she attacked was the book’s comment about masturbation, ‘If anyone tells you it’s harmful, they’re lying.’ Manners wrote: ‘It is not true to say that masturbation (for girls) is harmless since a girl who has become accustomed to the shallow satisfactions of masturbation may find it very difficult to adjust to complete intercourse.’ (In 2008, she recanted this view.)
While the Schoolbook might not now be considered obscene, some sections would be harder to publish today than in 1971. A section on 'Child Molesters or Dirty Old Men’ says: ‘In the old days people used to talk about “dirty old men”. Children were told they were dangerous. This is very rarely true. They are just men who have nobody to sleep with.’
‘Surely no one from ninth-century north-west Europe can ever have seen a flamingo?’ Tom Shippey writes (LRB, 24 February). Not Vikings, perhaps, but it isn’t impossible that the occasional confused bird made its way to the British Isles. In the early 19th century John Clare described a ‘strange bird … shot three or four Winters ago by a labourer … its wings was very long and its neck about the length of a goose. Its eye was large and black and its bill black and hookd exactly like an Hawk the upper mandible hooked over the other as if for tearing at its food.’ This bird, ‘its feet webbed with odd large claws’, sounds like a greater flamingo. Even today, flamingos breed as far north as the border between Germany and the Netherlands.
William Davies writes about student plagiarism and what it tells us about the way children learn in the internet age (LRB, 24 February). My own pre-pandemic experience as an exam board chair in the UK was that plagiarisers were most often first-year undergraduates, white, male and privately educated, not students from what universities call ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’. The former thought it normal to work together in small groups with students from backgrounds similar to their own and to ‘get help’; they saw nothing wrong in appropriating the work of other people without acknowledgment; and they regarded university as a finishing school rather than a place of intellectual inquiry.
However, as Davies suggests, the plagiarism problem isn’t information overload as such, but the failure to help students in schools and universities handle these challenges. Although most UK degree programmes include a single module in ‘study skills’, there is no space for intensive small-group tuition in how to write. Indeed, many lecturers write poorly themselves, their own education having suffered from the same defect.
Newcastle upon Tyne
William Davies worries about the fate of the humanities in a digitised environment where ‘snippets of text circulate without context,’ ostensibly self-complete. Confirmation is to be found at my own university, where assorted aspirational nouns – 'culture’, ‘integrity’, ‘scholarship’ and so on – have been inscribed in the concrete of the main square. If you follow this chain of verbal icons as if they were breadcrumbs, they lead you to the site of the campus bookshop, now permanently closed.
In his review of The Letters of John McGahern, Colm Tóibín states that McGahern’s ‘frank epistolary style caused the end of his relationship with Michael McLaverty’ (LRB, 27 January). As McLaverty’s joint literary executor, with his daughter Maura Cregan, I would like to point out that the assertion is incorrect. The correspondence, begun when McGahern wrote to McLaverty in 1959 to express admiration for his work, continued until 1979, and was unfailingly cordial.
Tóibín’s claim rests on a letter written in 1991 by McGahern to an unnamed ‘researcher’. In it McGahern says that his failure to praise the older writer’s novel The Brightening Day (1965) ‘ended what was always a cautious tentative relationship’. He goes on to say that McLaverty ‘did not want to see me when I came to give a lecture in Belfast, it must have been 1967 or 1968’. In fact, the reason McLaverty didn’t meet McGahern was that he was ill, suffering, as he had intermittently since his retirement from teaching in 1964, from a bout of severe depression.
I am the unnamed researcher to whom Tóibín refers, but I was not, as he seems to think, writing a thesis about McGahern. In fact, I had several years earlier completed a doctoral thesis on McLaverty, and had been given access to his complete archive, including the full correspondence with McGahern. In 1991 I wrote to McGahern to ask for permission to quote from the letters in a study of McLaverty I was then completing, The Silken Twine. He declined, not through any ill will towards McLaverty or myself, but because he disliked the publisher of my book, who had for some years also published McLaverty. When in 2005 I was considering updating The Silken Twine, McGahern wrote in reply to a query by Maura Cregan that he foresaw no difficulty in granting permission. After his death, Madeline McGahern gave her permission for the entire correspondence to be published.
A letter from McGahern received by Cregan on 20 September 2003, in response to our request that he speak at a celebratory colloquium on the centenary of McLaverty’s birth (ill-health prevented him from accepting the invitation), may provide the most accurate summary of relations between the two:
There was never any rift, on my part, or anything other than affection. If any such rumours exist they are untrue. Michael didn’t like The Dark and wrote candidly to me and I wouldn’t have expected him to do otherwise. He sent me The Brightening Day and it disappointed me and I wrote him that. As well as the respect in which I hold his work, I also respected him for never stooping to the easy politic lie.
Simon Reynolds claims that my Life of Malcolm McLaren lacks a ‘moral appraisal of its subject’ (apart from ‘a bit of tut-tutting’ about McLaren’s teen-sex advocacy in the early 1980s) and that I give his ‘cruelties and callousness a pass’ (LRB, 10 March). Reynolds is confusing serious biographers – whose primary task is to deliver objectively drawn, fully rounded portraits from which readers can draw their own conclusions – with those music writers whose work favours judgmentalism, personal reminiscence and the airing of hollow opinions over critical evaluation.
It’s worth noting that this cohort – predominantly white, male, straight and middle-aged – is united in its antipathy to McLaren. As I write in the book, ‘this may in part be attributed to his singular personality. As an interviewee McLaren could be abrasive, arrogant, combative, posturing and verbose … Journalists, particularly males, don’t like to be outwitted conversationally and often ploughed their dislike into the copy they filed.’
In fact my book is clear-eyed about McLaren’s fallibility. From the get-go, I state that he was consistently ‘mercenary and mercurial … years later there are people who nurse the wounds of association.’ In addition to his considerable achievements, I detail his failings throughout, starting with Fred Vermorel’s description of him as ‘the biggest liar I have ever known’ and going on to refer to his boorishness, callousness, coarse nature, cruelty, lack of interest in parenting, disloyalty, divisiveness, erratic behaviour, emotional immaturity, fecklessness, infidelity, lack of empathy, manipulativeness, narcissism, near obsession with teenage sexuality, neglect of partners, opportunism, prurience, self-aggrandisement, self-destructiveness, selfishness etc.
Chris Moore refers to two sexual histories of the Great War from 1937 (Letters, 10 March). Earlier, in 1920, Charles White and William Herbert Brown of the RAMC published An Atlas of the Primary and Cutaneous Lesions of Acquired Syphilis in the Male, based on their experience of 19,000 cases at the Rochester Row Military Hospital. Brown was a photography enthusiast, though the copious illustrations of syphilitic and other venereal afflictions are credited to Corporal H. Lee. Most of the photographs are stereoscopic pairs, and only those investing 7s 6d in adjustable periscopic lenses could gain a full appreciation of the depth of luetic ulceration, or the florid vegetations of genital condylomata. No mention is made of the means by which the lesions were acquired, nor of sexual partners of either gender.
Like Jo-Ann Wallace, I have never lost the ability to speed-type, thanks to the rigorous typing class I took in high school with Sister Joseph Paul, famous for her grouchy perfectionism (LRB, 24 February). I hoped to become a writer, so I revelled in it, but many women of my acquaintance refused to learn, fearing that good typing would condemn them to lowly office work for the rest of their lives. Little did any of us know, back in the 1960s, how valuable that humble skill would be in a world dominated by – of all things – the keyboard.
Kitty Burns Florey
I’m grateful, I suppose, to my friend Bernard Richards for correcting my error (Letters, 10 March). Henry James said of one of his characters ‘I really think I could stand a stiff cross-examination on that lady’ and not, as I had it, ‘sit a stiff examination’. So the remark is about forensic interrogation rather than the challenge of a three-hour paper. My gratitude is only complicated because I have fondly carried that latter phrase around as part of my mental furniture for years, ever since I heard John Bayley credit it to James in a class, evidently much amused by the thought of the Master so ready to enter the exam hall and turn over his question paper. Bayley wrote in his memoir of Iris Murdoch that James said he could ‘take “a stiff examination”’ and in his Essay on Hardy (1978) that he ‘could answer a stiff examination’, a telling contrast to Hardy who, Bayley was quite sure, ‘would fail on Tess, would not even know an exam was on’. I was evidently quoting a fading memory and I stand corrected, but I admit to feeling a little bereaved.
Balliol College, Oxford
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