Jonathan Coe describes my friend Roger Law, the artist, caricaturist and satirist, as ‘one of the puppeteers behind Spitting Image’ (LRB, 2 November). To my mind, that’s like calling Paul McCartney a ‘guitar technician’. Roger, who can take a joke better than the next, nonetheless abhors inaccuracy and has asked me to tell you that he ‘fucking hates puppets’. He and Peter Fluck used grotesque latex homunculi to scandalise the bourgeoisie, piss off the pompous and give the rest of us a good laugh. Highly skilled puppeteers played a vital role, but the mind boggles at the prospect of Roger Law, a 6’5" giant, crashing about under lights on a Sunday night with his hand up Margaret Thatcher. He’s bigger than that.
Jonathan Coe notes that the ‘quintessential Englishness’ of Ealing comedies ‘wasn’t total’. Indeed, the best of them treated Englishness as a kind of smokescreen, behind which it would be dismantled. Whisky Galore! (1949) set Englishness and ‘the essence of Britishness’ in opposition to each other. The two English characters, Basil Radford’s Home Guard captain and Bruce Seton’s sergeant, spend the film failing to comprehend the alien – albeit in fact British – culture on the Isle of Todday. The film was based on the novel by the Scottish nationalist Compton Mackenzie, directed by the Scottish American Alexander Mackendrick, and the cast included monoglot Gaelic speakers from Barra, where the location scenes were filmed.
I write as an American who moved to London seven years ago. So perhaps when it comes to British comedy I’m missing something. I often find British humour elusive, and its contents silly and bathroom-oriented. Sly but silly and often prudish. Laughter coming from a sense of ‘We know who’s in and who’s out; we know who to make fun of.’ But then again, there is Monty Python.
It’s true, as Ewan Gibbs points out, that a thorough and unsentimental account of the inner workings of mining communities during the 1984-85 strike, as distinct from a ‘high political’ analysis, is overdue (LRB, 2 November). To that end, I’d like to add a couple of notes. The first relates to the Yorkshire ‘super pit’, Kellingley colliery. As Gibbs makes clear, it was part of the NUM’s strategy to make the largest mining area, Yorkshire, the central platform for resistance to the government’s closure programme. Kellingley, as one of the country’s biggest mines, was vital. If the strike was to have a credible chance of success, Kellingley would need to be a solid striking pit. I was a coalface worker at Kellingley for ten years, from 1979 until 1989, and was on strike for the duration. My father was the NUM branch secretary. The effort needed to ‘keep the pit solid’ was enormous. It required strong communal political mobilisation, which was much more important to the prolonging of the strike and its potential for success than the choice between mass or ‘guerrilla’ picketing cited by Dave Douglass, the NUM delegate at Hatfield colliery.
It is often claimed that, prior to the strike, Scottish, South Wales and Durham miners thought the miners of Yorkshire and other areas less politically aware and less militant. I come from three generations of Scottish mining families, and I have never once heard a Scottish miner or activist say as much. The denunciations were reserved for union leaders, who were seen as persistently manipulating and attenuating the potential militancy of the larger areas. From the early 1970s onwards, the leadership in Yorkshire, the North-West and other regions was opposed by the likes of the Barnsley Forum, at the centre of which were ‘incoming’ Scottish and Durham activists. One early attendee was the young Arthur Scargill.
Manchester Metropolitan University
Eyal Weizman recalls the words of Moshe Dayan in 1956, after an attack on the Nahal Oz kibbutz, to the effect that given the Palestinians’ dispossession by Israelis, the attack should not have come as a surprise (LRB, 2 November). In the same issue Adam Shatz discusses the FLN-fomented uprising of 1955 in Philippeville, Algeria. He notes that to the French the violence seemed unprovoked. However, this uprising shouldn’t have come as a surprise either. General Duval, who had crushed an uprising at Sétif and Guelma in May 1945, was under no illusions. In his report he warned the government: ‘I have given you ten years of peace. But we must not deceive ourselves. Everything must change in Algeria.’ Nothing changed, and he was correct almost to the month.
James Butler neatly captures the absurdity of UK arms export controls in the face of the wars on Yemen and Palestine, but his characterisation of the UK arms industry as ‘a rare economic success story’ requires some qualification (LRB, 16 November). That success is dependent on heavy state subsidies provided ultimately by UK taxpayers: arms company research and development costs are primarily paid for by the state. The arms industry receives state support far in excess of the employment and overall value it contributes to the economy. In short, the costs are socialised while the profit is appropriated privately. And, increasingly, it is asset managers and investment firms that profit. New research by Khem Rogaly at Common Wealth indicates that the top three investors in the arms industry (BlackRock, Vanguard, State Street) hold 16 per cent of the shares in major UK arms companies. From this perspective, the ostensible economic success story of the arms industry looks like one more, particularly egregious, form of corporate welfare, from which both British taxpayers and racialised populations overseas suffer the consequences.
University of Sussex, Falmer
Karin Goodwin writes about drug policy in British Columbia, and specifically the role of harm reduction, or measures aimed at improving the health and well-being of people who use drugs (LRB, 19 October).
The UK has the highest level of drug-related deaths in Europe, with rates in Scotland highest of all. The Office for National Statistics reports that in 2021 there were 4859 deaths ‘related to drug poisoning’ in England and Wales; the equivalent figure for Scotland, according to the National Records of Scotland, was 1444 deaths. The UK’s latest drug strategy was published in December that year. One of its stated aims is the reduction of the number of drug-related deaths by a thousand within three years. The document is largely silent on how this is to be achieved. Harm reduction is mentioned, but only in passing. Some of the measures mentioned by Goodwin are endorsed; others, including drug consumption rooms, are rejected. UK governments have stubbornly opposed DCRs, arguing that they would encourage people to use illegal drugs; would be against the law; and that their use is opposed by the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board.
The first of these arguments doesn’t make sense: the people likely to use DCRs have a long history of existing drug use. When the second argument was advanced in Denmark in 2011 at a similar stage in drug policy review, the reformers’ response was ‘So change the law.’ And on the third point, the UK government seems not to have noticed that the INCB has altered its stance and, along with all other UN agencies, now calls for drug policies that prioritise harm reduction and public health, including drug consumption rooms. Where DCRs operate they have contributed to reductions in drug-related deaths and other conditions associated with drug use, in particular the transmission of blood-borne viruses such as HIV and hepatitis C.
So it is significant that approval has finally been given for the opening of a drug consumption room in Glasgow. All relevant agencies and organisations in Scotland approved the proposals in 2022, and they were accepted by the Scottish Parliament. The Westminster government gave its approval earlier this year: it isn’t clear whether this was because it had been persuaded by the arguments or because it wished to avoid further constitutional confrontation with the Scottish government.
Rosemary Hill, listing 18th-century visitors to Vesuvius, describes Pierre François Hugues d’Hancarville as a ‘libertine pornographer’ (LRB, 5 October). While it is true that d’Hancarville published two pornographic novels cheekily under the fabricated imprint ‘Rome: De l’Imprimerie du Vatican’ – Monumens de la vie privée des XII Césars (1780) and Monumens du culte secret des dames romaines (1787) – he also earned a reputation among his contemporaries as a professional antiquarian. He was the editor of Sir William Hamilton’s influential multi-volume Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities (1766-76), and followed this in 1785 with his magnum opus, Recherches sur l’origine, l’esprit et les progrès des arts de la Grèce, in which he argued, among other things, that the sources of religion can be found in sexuality and the creative urge.
Andrew Cockburn writes that, following the bombing of Hiroshima, Emperor Hirohito was allegedly petrified at the prospect that a further nuclear attack might be aimed at him (LRB, 16 November). This was perhaps justifiable, given that in May 1945 the target committee at Los Alamos discussed the possibility of bombing the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, noting that it had greater fame than any other potential target but the least strategic value.
Writing about the infected blood scandal of the 1970s and 1980s, Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite describes globus pharyngeus as a ‘permanent obstruction of the throat’ (LRB, 16 November). The symptom can be persistent, recurrent and long-standing, but it is not permanent. What’s more, it is a psychosomatic sensation of blockage in the throat, rather than an actual obstruction.
Writing about Albert Camus’s Travels in the Americas, Adam Shatz mentions Patricia Blake, the 20-year-old intern at Vogue with whom Camus had an affair (LRB, 19 October). Blake later became a specialist in Russian literary works written during the Soviet period, editing several collections in English translation. She also worked as a correspondent and editor at Time-Life covering Russian issues. She was married twice, first to the composer Nicolas Nabokov, and then to the author Ronnie Dugger, founder of the Texas Observer. She died in 2010.
Bee Wilson writes that Mike Todd, unlike Tom Cruise, knew what a tennis bracelet was, but he couldn’t have (LRB, 16 November). The sort of jewellery it refers to was around at the time he is said to have given one to Elizabeth Taylor for her 25th birthday, but the term wasn’t coined until 1978. During a match at the US Open, Chris Evert asked for play to be paused so that the court might be searched, explaining that ‘I dropped my tennis bracelet.’
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