Other Things on Their Minds
At the end of his Diary (LRB, 6 July), M.F. Perutz gives his answer to the question of why J.D. Bernal did not win a Nobel Prize: ‘he started many things, but lacked the single-mindedness and patience to carry them through.’ Perhaps; but I suspect the Committee may have had other things than chemistry on their minds. How many Western scientists, I wonder, however brilliant, went on to get a Nobel Prize after being awarded the Order of Lenin?
Unnoticed by Noel-Tod
Jeremy Noel-Tod’s attempts to pin down Thom Gunn demonstrate very clearly the desire of English critics to trivialise Gunn’s work and their willed blindness to his American range of reference. Gunn was supposedly ‘hymning Elvis and black-leather “boys” on motorbikes’ in the late 1950s. If one actually reads those poems, especially the ones included in My Sad Captains, it is a growing sense of the light and landscape of California, and of the possibilities of formal experiment, that mark them out from the earlier work, not some banal poetry as ‘rock rebellion’ analogy. As to the source of this change, Noel-Tod might at least have mentioned Yvor Winters, whose love for the 16th-century ‘plain style’ (not C.S. Lewis’s clumsy ‘modern Drab’) and mastery of metred yet wholly American poetry Gunn continues to explore, admire and wrestle with.
What Zeus Did
Zeus’ incandescent epiphany didn’t make Semele conceive, as Frank Kermode suggests (LRB, 22 June), it made her miscarry. Zeus retrieved the aborted foetus and brought it to term inside his thigh. The comparison still works, in a way, even if Empson didn’t know this, if you think of the earth receiving the ejected pine-seeds rather as the god’s thigh gave womb-like accommodation to the foetus.
Trashing the 1960s
Joining the growing list of scapegoats in these self-regarding times are those guilty of the sin of nostalgia. Jenny Diski's trashing of Sheila Rowbotham's memoir of the 1960s, Promise of a Dream, is exemplary (LRB, 6 July). Blaming mummy and daddy for our personal woes, and, even more complacently, for our social miseries, is everywhere encouraged and rewarded. In her writing, Diski excels at the former. But piecing together the thoughts and practices which motivate collective efforts to transform the social terrain is declared terminally boring. Given her customary acuity, Diski's complete lack of interest in how one young woman, often bewildered by the macho atmosphere of 1960s rebelliousness, managed nevertheless to be uniquely influential in the founding of the Women's Liberation Movement in Britain is puzzling. Her rather pedestrian thoughts on the psychic structures of generational consciousness – from protest and struggle to inevitable failure and hostility towards the young – may soothe her discontent, envy or sense of irony. But they provide a very misleading commentary on Rowbotham's memoir. Rowbotham does not denounce young people today for the ways in which our visions have been distorted when accommodated by the mainstream. Nor does her memoir suggest that the movements which grew out of the 1960s resulted only in failure. The ideals and struggles of successive political generations are not eternally the same. Passionate young rebels often show a remarkable interest in their radical forerunners – as the women's liberationists themselves did.
Birkbeck College, London WC1
So Jenny Diski has joined the anti-Left chorus, heaping scorn on Sheila Rowbotham for being a 1960s socialist, and wanting to change the world while at the same time displaying all the ridiculousness of a 20-year-old. This desire was apparently due to a bout of generational rebellion, after which all these pseudo-socialists (who were actually self-indulgent acid-trippers) settled into their positions of power. But the 1960s socialists were not the first young utopian socialists and nobody writes off the Saint Simonians, Narodniks, anarcho-syndicalists, Wobblies and the rest, although they may have been ‘embarrassing’ utopians, too.
Remember the 1950s: the Cold War, McCarthyism, the atom bomb, middle-class conformity, British university élitism, Notting Hill riots, the Korean War, Hungary, Suez? The Sixties came wearing a decidedly new cultural badge. Suddenly there were new films, books, music, a strong anti-Vietnam movement, an independent culture of the Left and a new generation inventing its own politics and its own slogans. They were their own people rethinking their present and now they are trying to understand the past, even if this includes a little sober self-mockery.
In Experience, Martin Amis writes of the 1970s: ‘It amazes me, now, that any of us managed to write a word of sense during the whole decade, considering that we were all evidently stupid enough to wear flares.’ By ‘now’ he can’t possibly mean in the year 2000 – I know people who took up wearing flares five or six years ago – which confirms a suspicion I’ve had for a while that Amis still thinks it’s 1989. And how odd of John Lanchester (LRB, 6 July) to pick up on it as a ‘dead-on observation’. Perhaps he meant just ‘dead’?
Different Kinds of Bang
The pretext for the development of the US NMD anti-missile system discussed by Michael Byers (LRB, 22 June) – that it is needed to guard against ‘rogue states’ – completely ignores a technical issue: given the raw materials, making a missile is more difficult than making a hydrogen bomb. A modern bomb, of the type designed by endless simulations on Los Alamos supercomputers to shave off the last gram of weight and squeeze out the last joule of yield, is not what your average ‘rogue state’ is interested in. For them, a fifty-year-old Bikini-Atoll-style bang will do just fine. And for that you can run the design simulations on a room full of ordinary PCs connected as a Beowulf parallel processor. In contrast, you can go only so far in missile design using computer simulation before you have to do some real-world testing. And when you test, the satellites take your picture. A missile is an all-or-nothing device: it either gets to its target, or it falls into the sea. But a hydrogen bomb could go off in a dirty misfire and still achieve disproportionate terror and panic, especially if it is wrapped in cobalt-59. If you are a poor country, the easiest delivery system for your Heath-Robinson hydrogen bomb is not a missile, but the diplomatic bag, or a small yacht sailing into a marina. The hard bit is getting hold of the uranium, plutonium and lithium-6 deuteride and tritide in the first place. NMD doesn’t address the problem of countries acquiring nuclear weapons, or the delivery systems that poor countries are most likely to use. The ‘rogue state’ justification is logic-free.
University of Bath
The Albatross of Racism
Wilhelm Schmid (Letters, 22 June) correctly observes that Bartolomé de Las Casas recommended African slavery as an alternative to enslaving Indian peoples. As he matured, however, Las Casas came to oppose both African and Indian slavery. During the 16th century, of course, the number of people who spoke out against enslaving Africans or Indians was minuscule.
Cheese v. Relish
Where David Cooper gets it wrong on GM foods (LRB, 18 May) is in his optimistic assumption that ‘sound science … can provide a pretty accurate audit of risks and benefits.’ Scientists look too eagerly at the benefits and too reluctantly at the costs of their work. Take the example of ionising radiation: what is considered to be the safe dose has been decreasing since the time of Mme Curie.
As long as scientists are rewarded for finding interesting and useful things and are not rewarded for finding the bad side-effects, the benefits will emerge first and the risks later. Science works quite well within its limits; mainly because there are strong internal checks to keep scientists honest. If the sanctions against failing to find the bad side-effects associated with one’s discovery were as strong as those against failing to realise that one’s sample is contaminated or that one has neglected a background effect, science might be taken more seriously.
What’s My Lynam?
‘Some of you may have heard there’s a football match tonight.’ Des Lynam’s unforgettable intro to the BBC’s coverage of the Euro 96 semi between England and Germany was perhaps too obvious for Ian Hamilton to mention (LRB, 6 July), but it’s another example of his consummate ‘raised eyebrow’ style. I recall, too, the amused look on his face when he questioned whether beach volleyball was really a bona fide Olympic sport. He knows that sport can be pretty ridiculous, and in particular that soccer players and pundits talk nonsense most of the time, but also that we, the fans, wouldn’t want it any other way: laughing at them (at us) is part of the fun. Which explains why an e-mail list of Kevin Keegan’s choicest sayings – most of them almost certainly invented – sped around the country from office to office during Euro 2000. In case you missed it: ‘Despite his white boots, he has real pace and aggression’; ‘The tide is very much in our court now’; ‘I’d love to be a mole on the wall in the Liverpool dressing room at half-time. And not for the reasons you’re thinking of, Clive’ etc.
So I shall tune in to the ITV Premiership highlights show, despite its early slot on Saturday evening (has Ian Hamilton never heard of VCRs?). Adverts or not, the power of Des will never wane. it’s not for me to point out that an anagram of Des Lynam is ‘Men, sadly’.
Please point out to your contributor, Ian Hamilton, that Chicken Tonight comes in jars, not tins.
Said, Foucault, Sartre
In his piece about meeting Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris in 1979, Edward Said (LRB, 1 June) talks about a conversation he had with Michel Foucault and about Foucault’s reluctance to discuss Middle Eastern politics – a reluctance Said attributes to pro-Israeli sentiment. His evidence for Foucault’s troubling stance on the Palestinian question includes a piece of gossip told him by someone who taught with Foucault at the University of Tunis in 1967. Foucault claimed he left Tunisia that year out of horror at anti-Israeli riots after the June War, but Said’s informant suggests that he had been deported for ‘homosexual activities with young students’. Said admits, ‘I still have no idea which version is correct’ – and I still have no idea exactly what Said wants us to make of these ‘connections’ between Foucault’s homosexual activity and Arab-Israeli politics.
Later in his essay, Said remarks on Jean Genet’s ‘strange passion for Palestinians’. Such ‘passion’ might not seem so ‘strange’, nor the relationship between ‘homosexual activities’ and politics so bewildering, if sexuality were taken more seriously here. Said muses with reference to Sartre: ‘I guess we need to understand why great old men are liable to succumb … to the wiles of younger ones.’ I couldn’t have put it better myself, other than to add that what we need to understand are the complex and contradictory ways sexual relations can nourish (Genet?) and impede (Foucault?) political sympathies and solidarities.
Edward Said cites two of three recent biographies of Foucault, neither of which suggests that Foucault left Tunis ‘in some haste’ or because of Middle Eastern politics, much less that he was ‘deported because of his homosexual activities with young students’. That Foucault’s outrage against the Holocaust made him, like Sartre, a philo-semite seems virtually certain. Why that should be a blot on either of their reputations, Said has failed to explain.
No Such Thing as a Fish
Richard Fortey (LRB, 6 July) uses his review of my book, Deep Time, to launch cheap shots at my late friend and his former colleague Colin Patterson. Fortey starts his review with an account of the alleged academic authoritarianism of the Swedish palaeontologist Erik Stensiö. He closes his review with a declaration that Stensiö was the palaeontologist most admired by Patterson – a crusader against authoritarianism. Patterson, one of the finest evolutionary theorists of the age, died a couple of years ago and cannot defend himself.
Fortey is entirely right in his suspicion that I have never published a cladogram. He has published lots, however – and the implication in his review is that I therefore have no right to discuss them, and that he, being older and wiser, knows better. This is precisely the kind of authoritarianism that Patterson strove to unmask – indeed, it resembles the actions of Stensiö that Fortey himself condemns.
Kings Langley, Hertfordshire
Small Questions about Prams etc
Zachary Leader (Letters, 6 July) asks for assistance in deciphering the meaning of the word ‘pram’ in Betjeman’s line ‘Miles of pram in the wind and Pam in the gorse track’. The US Airforce has an operational software program called the PRAM program – it stands for Productivity, Reliability, Availability and Maintainability. Does that help?
Gorse grows on heaths and open spaces, where Surrey nannies might well have pushed prams. All walking out at the same time, they would have formed long files, hence ‘miles of pram’. As to the ‘smell of prams’, a well-known high street chemist’s own-brand baby powder used to have a perfume reminiscent of the coconutty smell of gorse and it was this that was born ‘in the wind’ – which brings us neatly back to Pam and the gorse.
Zachary Leader wonders about the meaning of the first phrase in John Betjeman’s line ‘Miles of pram in the wind and Pam in the gorse track’ from his poem ‘Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden’. According to Eric Partridge in A Dictionary of the Underworld, ‘pram’ has been an affectionate euphemism for a motor car ‘since the late 1930s’. ‘Miles of pram in the wind’ must therefore refer to the lingering fumes from a traffic jam. This would also help explain the rhetorical question in the same poem’s eighth line concerning the path ‘over there by the pram’ – that is, the footpath observed to the side of a prominently parked vehicle, as well as the ‘smell of prams’ (that is, exhaust fumes) alluded to in Betjeman’s poem ‘NW5 and NW6’. The detail is as appropriate to the suburban location of the first poem as to the suburban ambience of the second. In both instances the word perfectly expresses Betjeman’s well-known love-hate relationship with modern modes of transportation.
I attended a boys’ Catholic grammar school in South-East London during the 1970s. Boys were beaten regularly. Common implements used included straps (short and thick or long, thin and forked), canes (a boy’s finger was broken by one) and ‘slippers’ (usually gym shoes). Lengths of wood, table tennis bats and tennis rackets were used less frequently. On one occasion, a whole year (about 80 boys) were ‘slippered’. By the end of my first year my form teacher had hit every boy in my class except one, who was a haemophiliac. My partner attended a Catholic primary school in the same area. She and her schoolmates were regularly slapped or hit on various parts of their bodies.
Contrary to what Justin Horton may believe (Letters, 6 July), not every wash hung out to dry in Corby would be covered in a layer of orange dust. According to my father, a steelworker, the dust was a by-product of the blast furnaces and didn't carry much beyond a quarter-mile radius. My Grandma Calver, still living within coughing distance of the steel site, confirms she was one of those who suffered. My Grandma Cowan, two hundred yards further on, was not. Prevailing winds played no part in this.