In his piece about Lord Northcliffe, Jonathan Parry mentions the 38,000 bunches of sweet peas entered for a competition organised by the Daily Mail in 1911 (LRB, 1 December 2022). One of the entrants was Mr Fraser, a young parish minister at Sprouston in the Scottish Borders, who applied to the paper for two entry forms, one for himself and the other for his wife. On Tuesday, 25 July, two bunches of sweet peas were selected, wrapped in greaseproof paper and cotton wool and placed in separate cardboard boxes, as the rules required. Early the following morning they were taken by bicycle to the post office in Kelso. It says something for the train and postal system of the time that they arrived at the Crystal Palace on Thursday before the 9 p.m. deadline.
The organisers were aware, given the number of applications for entry forms, that there was going to be a huge response to the competition. Five hundred scouts and their scoutmasters were deployed and a large marquee was set up for the preliminary judging. More than half the entries never got past the marquee. By Friday morning 2500 vases of sweet peas were set out in the main hall of the Crystal Palace. Ten judges selected nine hundred bronze and one hundred silver medal winners, leaving just three finalists.
Mrs Fraser won the first prize of £1000 and her husband the third prize of £50. The family says that Mr Fraser, given the responsibility of choosing between their two entries, put his wife’s name against what he thought was the better of the two bunches. The full story is recorded by Mr Fraser’s nephew Henry Donald in A Bunch of Sweet Peas (1988).
Helensburgh, Argyll and Bute
I’m not sure why Jonathan Parry’s reference to Lord Northcliffe’s appointment as ‘director of propaganda in Enemy Countries’ led me to look up ‘propaganda’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, but it seems worthwhile, in these verbally mephitic times, and because mistakes in the OED are surely vanishingly rare, to point out that its definition is wrong. It reads: ‘The systematic dissemination of information, esp. in a biased or misleading way, in order to promote a political cause or point of view. Also: information disseminated in this way; the means or media by which such ideas are disseminated.’
The trouble is that if something is information then it’s true: misinformation isn’t information, false information isn’t information. And while truths can certainly be propagated in a biased and misleading way without ceasing to be true, and while some propaganda is of this kind, a vast amount of it isn’t. What’s more, the quotations in the OED that illustrate the use of the term contradict the definition, for they include A.J. Russell’s distinction, from 1976, between ‘white propaganda, the truth; grey, a composition of half-truths and distortions; or black, a pack of lies’. Nor is propaganda restricted to the promotion of specifically political causes – we owe the term to the Catholic Church.
Though there’s little to disagree with in Tessa Hadley’s assessment of Josephine Tey, I do think there’s more of a case to be made for Tey’s ‘odd’ or ‘uneasy’ novels: for the splashes of surprise and subversion amid the (sometimes egregious) prejudice and snobbery, and particularly for what one might now call the queer sensibility that quietly permeates a considerable part of her work (LRB, 1 December 2022).
What’s unexpected about Miss Pym Disposes, published in 1946, isn’t just that, as Hadley observes, men are entirely absent, but that they are entirely unnecessary. The elite PE training college in which the book is set is a complete ecosystem. The primary aim of its splendidly athletic female students (enviously though apparently innocently admired by Miss Pym) is a good teaching post and financial independence. Marriage is barely mentioned. Moreover, while Miss Pym is hailed – not least by Tey herself – as the no-nonsense sceptic who has put psychology firmly in its place, she is also slyly exposed as having utterly failed to read the college’s sinister undercurrents and rivalries, and when there is a murder, she (along with everyone else) blames the wrong person. In Tey’s most unexpected novel, To Love and Be Wise (1950), like several of her works a crime novel without a crime, almost all the characters are gay or queer, and the sexual politics revealed in the dénouement aren’t just genuinely surprising, but feel surprisingly modern.
For the most part, however, it’s true that the interesting parts of Tey’s narratives are tightly interwoven with what is distasteful. In the now almost grotesquely unreadable The Franchise Affair (1948), the 15-year-old schoolgirl antagonist is a knowing, dishonest, working-class slut/changeling (a war orphan), who ‘picks up’ a married middle-aged man, goes with him on a business trip to Denmark, and is then beaten up by his wife. This, Tey is in no doubt, she entirely deserves, along with the public shaming and excoriation she eventually receives (no opprobrium attaches to the man). But alongside this she also foregrounds the all too plausibly ugly persecution and hounding – egged on by salivating press coverage – of two solitary, isolated, difficult (and, it must be said, genteel) older women.
Marina Warner in her generous piece about Carmen Callil says that she ‘commissioned ambitiously’ (LRB, 15 December 2022). She also commissioned with splendid impulsiveness. In August 1982 the LRB carried a piece I had written about the background to the political upheavals in Bermondsey. The day after the issue appeared she called me at work – mentioning in passing that she was in bed – to say that she wanted to commission, there and then, a book about the new left as epitomised by Peter Tatchell, whose defeat in the notorious by-election would take place six months later.
I immediately put her on to Tatchell (and the newly appointed editor of Tribune, Chris Mullin) and pointed out that if the book was to work it would have to reflect the roots of Tatchellism in community action. Things then went quiet until December, when another of her wonky hand-typed Chatto postcards arrived saying she had ‘got more or less nowhere on the idea’ but would I care to write her an outline. I did so but again silence, until 1 February when another card arrived saying she had been trying to call me.
By then it was too late. As assistant secretary of Bermondsey CLP and thus Tatchell’s deputy I was so totally committed to the by-election on 24 February, which was already looking ominous, that I couldn’t take the book any further myself. The disastrous result terminated the project – which might well have hurtled towards the remainder shops anyway. But I’m glad she tried and I still admire her zest and commitment.
Stefan Collini writes that Oxford and Cambridge ‘only abandoned Latin as an entrance requirement in 1960’ (LRB, 1 December 2022). I don’t know about Cambridge, but I still have a yellowing copy of the November 1969 General Translation Paper A Latin, part of the joint scholarship and entrance examination to the five women’s colleges at Oxford. The two-hour paper required candidates to translate a passage (Anon., de bello Africano, 22), and a choice between a verse passage (Carm. Epig. 1109. 7-30) or a prose extract (Cicero, de finibus III. Xi.36). Having crammed O level Latin for a year in preparation for the exam, I found it daunting, to say the least. But the alternative, Greek, would have been downright intimidating.
Michael Wood mentions that in Oliver Hermanus’s film Living, four men who work for London County Council are shown on the morning commute wearing suits and bowler hats (LRB, 1 December 2022). I worked at County Hall in the early 1960s, and I can’t recall any instance in which an employee wore a bowler hat. Indeed, the film’s portrayal of work at County Hall is a fantasy.
One thing I can record, however, and with deep regret, is that a colour bar was operated against black men who applied for the heavily advertised jobs as ambulance drivers. I have no idea how far up the chain of the Labour-controlled council this policy was sanctioned. ‘Turn them down on whatever reasonable grounds you can think of,’ I was told when I worked at the Council’s Waterloo Road Ambulance HQ for a couple of months. One or two of these applicants had to be interviewed, I was also told, ‘but for goodness sake don’t mention the colour of their skin.’
Owen Hatherley outlines the myth of Birmingham ‘as a city of hundreds of small trades rather than one great trade like, say, Bradford or Rochdale’, with ‘a highly skilled workforce that could adapt easily to fluctuations in the trade cycle’, and notes that this was said to explain ‘Birmingham’s relative imperviousness to the labour movement’ (LRB, 3 November 2022). He adds that Asa Briggs popularised this hypothesis in the 1960s as a ‘corrective to Marx and Engels’s vision of the Lancastrian industrial capitalist metropolis as the wave of the future’. This contrast between the industrial structures of Birmingham and the cities of Lancashire, and the different socio-political attitudes among their populations, has a history that precedes Marx and Engels. Tocqueville, travelling through England in 1835, noted:
Separation of classes, much greater at Manchester than at Birmingham. Why? Large accumulations of capital, immense factories … At Manchester a few great capitalists, thousands of poor workmen and little middle class. At Birmingham, few large industries, many small industrialists. At Manchester workmen are counted by the thousand, two or three thousand in the factories. At Birmingham the workers work in their own houses or in little workshops in company with the master himself.
He goes on to point out that ‘from the look of the inhabitants of Manchester, the working people of Birmingham seem more healthy, better off, more orderly and more moral than those of Manchester.’
‘In London … Jacobite leaders were being hanged, drawn and quartered before cheering English crowds,’ Neal Ascherson writes (LRB, 15 December 2022). Not quite: those leaders, notably Lords Kilmarnock, Balmerino and Lovat, were brought to London to be tried, and were beheaded in 1747, but that peculiarly sanguinary refinement of castration and disembowelment wasn’t enacted in England (apart from in one obscure case) after the end of the 17th century. There may have been a limit to how much gore even Londoners enjoyed watching.
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