Vol. 46 No. 14 · 18 July 2024

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Get Out Now

In the light of Adam Shatz’s superb piece on Israel and the US it is depressing to reflect on the extent to which propagandists for Israel have succeeded in defining any attack on its government’s policies as antisemitic (LRB, 20 June). Two decades ago I was shocked when the New Zealand Herald fired its longstanding cartoonist Malcolm Evans for a work that dared to compare Israel’s oppression of Palestinians with the policies of apartheid South Africa. But I wasn’t entirely surprised: Evans had expressed a somewhat radical view for the time and the Herald was known for its conservative opinions. Much more disturbing was last year’s decision by the supposedly left-leaning Guardian to sack Steve Bell. Arguably the greatest British cartoonist and caricaturist since George Cruikshank, Bell had published in the Guardian since 1981. He had produced a caricature of Benjamin Netanyahu that now seems prophetic: completed on 9 October 2023, shortly after the bombardment of Gaza began, it shows Israel’s prime minister engraving a map of Gaza on his stomach while his speech bubble orders ‘Residents of Gaza, get out now.’ The cartoon, explicitly labelled ‘After David Levine’, was closely based on Levine’s depiction of Lyndon Johnson from 1966, showing his stomach scar as a map of Vietnam. But the Guardian accused Bell of employing an antisemitic trope deriving from the ‘pound of flesh’ episode in The Merchant of Venice. They refused to publish the cartoon; Bell posted it on Twitter, and was fired. Looking at it now, I find it hard to imagine how the connection with The Merchant of Venice could have been made; but once such an allegation has been uttered, there seems to be no escaping its consequences.

Michael Neill

Not in Front of the Servants

Stefan Collini’s review of Polly Toynbee’s family memoir and Hubert Murray’s subsequent letter prompt me to recall my relationship, as a very young child, with my great-grandfather Gilbert Murray (LRB, 6 June and Letters, 4 July). My grandfather Denis Murray (1892-1930) was Gilbert and Mary’s oldest son. He died, from an excess of drink and a rackety, rather tragic life, when my mother was only ten. Toynbee records Gilbert’s ‘chilling coldness’ towards Denis both as a boy and as a troubled young man.

My experience of the formidable man was rather different. I have typed letters sent to me by Gilbert dated 20 December 1948 (when I was all of six months old) and another on 27 October 1956 (less than a year before he died). I am sure he typed these himself; the second has, rather touchingly, a few typos. In the first, he thanks me for his Christmas present (‘the biggest and most elaborate diary I have ever had’) and goes on to say: ‘We are hesitating about our present for you. It is either to be a Shetland woollie or else a black bear. Of course you and I would prefer the bear, but very likely your mother will think the woollie is more useful, and of course mothers have to be humoured – especially if your mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all stand together. But I am sorry about the bear.’ The second, in response to letters I must have sent to him (I was eight by then) says: ‘It must be fun being at your new school, a proper boy’s school with football and so on. Some birds won’t eat coconut but they all like fat. But they like eating the raspberries and plums better than anything.’ I maybe had sent him a coconut and, for the record, I hated playing football.

If there is any point to these little anecdotes it is, as both Toynbee and Collini testify, that there was much more to Gilbert Murray than a worthy, moralistic, exhaustingly high-minded scholar and public intellectual devoted to saving the world. The recent flurry of publishing around the Murrays, the Howards, the Toynbees et al has made me reflect on the contradictions and pressures (often disguised or unspoken) of growing up in a dynasty where academic achievement seemed to be valorised and prized above all else. In an undogmatic and very ‘liberal’ way my parents were guilty of this and it has been a weight on my shoulders throughout my working life. I recently retired from the University of Glasgow, where Gilbert Murray remains the youngest person ever appointed professor, at the age of 23. This connection does not displease me.

Simon Murray

Housing Crisis

James Meek, writing about the UK housing crisis, mentions that outsourcing companies such as Serco are hoovering up private rented accommodation in which to place asylum seekers, removing properties from the rental market and thereby exacerbating the problems facing ‘local people of limited means’ (LRB, 4 July).

As home secretary in the early 2000s, David Blunkett introduced a number of measures to address the influx of record numbers of asylum seekers to the UK. These included a requirement that judges regard an applicant’s credibility as damaged if they had journeyed across the safe countries of Europe to reach the UK; and that accommodation and support be denied to any asylum seeker deemed not to have claimed asylum ‘as soon as reasonably practicable’. There was a backlog of more than 450,000 asylum claims in the 2000s, many of which took years to resolve, but at least the applicants and their families generally had places to live – in the empty properties and ‘hard to let’ council flats Meek writes about.

The austerity of the 2010s, in particular the 60 per cent cut in local authority housebuilding, has led to competition between local authorities, outsourcing companies and the Home Office itself to secure cheap rented property and downmarket hotels in which to house asylum seekers. In 2020, when the most recent accommodation contracts were drawn up, the National Audit Office noted that potentially better long-term solutions, such as paying asylum seekers mainstream benefits and building more houses, had not been modelled.

Money is being made. In May, it was reported that Graham King, the founder and majority owner of Clearsprings Readyhomes, one of the three current holders of contracts for asylum accommodation, had entered the Sunday Times Rich List. Meanwhile, as a result of cuts at the Home Office, delays and backlogs in asylum processing have ballooned again. In 2010 there was a backlog of just over nine thousand; today there are more than a hundred thousand asylum applicants in the system.

Anti-migrant political views have existed in the UK for decades. What has changed is that the housing crisis has raised the cost of warehousing asylum seekers and at the same time rendered them ‘hypervisible’. We read that it costs £8 million per day to house them ‘in hotels’; or they are placed in large groups in the countryside or in barracks. As the situation worsens, radical solutions are proposed: asylum seekers are to be sent to Rwanda; or, much more likely, interned on UK soil, at least until the inevitable stories of hardship, sickness, abuse, suicide and uprisings reach the media. One hopes that the new Labour government will properly diagnose the problem. Asylum seekers are here now, and more will arrive: a housebuilding programme prioritising social housing is essential to make sure that Meek’s ‘local people of limited means’ are not driven to see asylum seekers as their enemies.

Sheona York
Kent Law Clinic, Canterbury

Special Period

Rachel Nolan describes the effects of Cuba’s economic crisis of 1990-95, which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its annual $5 billion in subsidies (LRB, 6 June). There is an interesting public health footnote to the severe food shortages that resulted. Using data from successive surveys from 1980 to 2010, researchers reported in the British Medical Journal in 2013 that during the deprivations of the Special Period people in Cuba ate less and, thanks to a shortage of petrol, exercised more. As people became thinner (the average adult weight loss was 5.5 kg in a population that by today’s standards was not particularly overweight) there was a rapid decline in new cases of type 2 diabetes and mortality from heart disease. After normal service was resumed in 1995, there was a population-wide increase in weight, immediately followed by a marked increase in the incidence of diabetes.

Tim Cundy

Helping Saddam

Andrew Cockburn describes the way the United States covered up its assistance to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, and blamed Iran for gassing thousands of Kurds in Halabja in 1988 (LRB, 4 July). Britain was at it, too, as I learned when reporting for the Guardian on the Scott Inquiry into the export of arms to Iraq, triggered by the collapse of the trial of three executives at the Matrix Churchill machine tool company. Unbeknown to the customs authorities who prosecuted the executives for breaching export controls, MI5 and MI6 had encouraged them to trade with Iraq and feed back intelligence about what Saddam was up to. British officials also initially blamed the Halabja gassing on Iran but later reluctantly acknowledged that Saddam had ordered the massacre. That did not stop Geoffrey Howe, the foreign secretary at the time, from drawing up a paper about ways to export more weapons to Saddam. He told his officials to keep it secret. ‘It could look very cynical,’ he said, ‘if, so soon after expressing outrage about the treatment of the Kurds, we adopt a more flexible approach to arms sales.’

Richard Norton-Taylor
London N10

Origins of the Unconscious

Adam Phillips notes that the word ‘unconscious’ was first used in English in 1712 (LRB, 20 June). Not quite true: a translation from the Latin of Thomas Hobbes used it in 1678. But as the noun ‘the unconscious’ it appeared first in 1818, the author being Samuel Taylor Coleridge, making notes for a lecture on 10 March: ‘As in every work of Art the Conscious – is so impressed on the Unconscious, as to appear in it.’

John Worthen
Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany

War Chariots

Tom Stevenson, imagining a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, refers to ‘hundreds of thousands of soldiers’ (LRB, 4 July). The entire PLA ground force is less than 950,000 personnel, more than half of whom are in support structures. Of the 400,000 deployable troops, at least 80,000 are serving on the Sino-Indian border, with another 40,000 in the rear to support them. In the absence of dedicated border forces, the PLA must provide rear security along at least twelve sensitive borders. With a little effort (say, to the Finnish level) and a little money, Taiwan could see off any invasion attempt.

Edward Luttwak
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Truth to Power

Clare Bucknell, writing about Henry VIII’s fool Will Somer, mentions the conceit, found in Erasmus and King Lear, of the fool’s capacity to ‘speak truth to power without fear’ (LRB, 4 July). She adds that this had little to do with the reality of the court fool’s experience; in one episode Henry VIII nearly murdered his fool (perhaps Somer) after an ill-judged sally. This brings to mind a story told about Henry III. Informed by his jester that he was like Christ, Henry fell into the trap and asked how so. Just as Christ was as wise at the moment of his conception as when thirty years old, the jester answered, so the king was as wise now as when a little child. Enraged, Henry ordered the jester to be hanged, but his courtiers, serving a very different master from Henry VIII, instead went through a mock form of execution and told the jester to clear out till the king calmed down. Fools and jesters had to know their audience.

David Carpenter
London SE3

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