A decent history of British culture in the second half of the 20th century, if it is ever written, will include a chapter or two on the vitality of the polytechnics from their creation in 1972 to their conversion into universities twenty years later. And while it is poignant, at least for me, to read what my old boss (Letters, 7 February) and my old union negotiator (Letters, 21 February) have to say about why I am leaving Middlesex University, they pay no attention to the big issue of cultural policy. A famously brilliant philosophy department which had 21 members when I first joined it was reduced to 8.5 staff at the beginning of this academic year and will be down to five when it ends. The survivors make a fine quintet, but that does not excuse the managers and governors of Middlesex University from presiding over the philosophical equivalent of disbanding a symphony orchestra.
Those of us who are working in the ‘new university’ sector, or trying to represent its staff, have become uncomfortably aware over the last few years that the phrase ‘has been made redundant’ has a specific meaning in an industrial relations context: a meaning which is obscured rather than clarified by Gabrielle Parker’s letter about Jonathan Rée’s departure from Middlesex University (Letters, 7 February). The issue isn’t whether or not someone leaves a job voluntarily, but whether when someone leaves a job, on a ‘voluntary’ basis or otherwise, it is part of a process of reducing staff numbers, increasing workloads for those who remain, and lessening contact between staff and students. It would be enlightening to hear from Parker whether or not this is what has been going on at Middlesex.
The radioactivity of thorium, cited by Rupert Holroyd (Letters, 21 February) as making monazite dangerous to process, is largely irrelevant. Monazite is heated to 1000°C to produce helium, but the melting point of thorium is 2000°C, so unless some idiot in the factory suddenly whacks up the central heating, helium production will continue to be as safe as it has been for the last 60 years. In fact, drinking coffee is far more dangerous: the radioactivity produced naturally by coffee beans is measurable without heating the beans at all.
Rupert Holroyd takes the line that monazite occurs in such small quantities that it does not harm local populations. This is a grave error to make, and one consistently made by Governments in countries such as Brazil, China and Mexico where it is difficult for local populations to gather the facts themselves. Thorium-232 has a longer lifespan than any uranium isotope: it has a half-life of 14 billion years. Thorium is especially toxic to the liver and spleen, and is known to cause leukaemias and other blood diseases. It decays to produce radium-228, then radium-224, which in turn produces radon gas (radon-220) in greater quantities than the helium found in monazite. Given that it takes just 20 milligrammes of thorium dust to kill an average-sized person within a month (inhalation would do the trick), there is no question that monazite sands present a risk. The danger comes not only from the existence of the monazite in local sands (leukaemia rates are higher in black sand areas where monazite is found), but from its processing, which must be performed in close proximity to the mining site due to the risks of environmental contamination, something that is rarely taken into account when monazite waste is dumped in landfill sites where indigenous populations are housed.
Contrary to what Rupert Holroyd might think, there is evidence to suggest that leukaemia rates are higher in monazite areas – which is indicative, but not necessarily proof of dangerous levels of radiation. Perhaps the respective Governments of Australia, Brazil, China and India would like to contribute to the discussion by revealing their own reports on blood disease levels in areas where monazite is mined. I am aware of no such report currently circulating from any of these countries.
Mary Beard notes in her analysis of the Astérix phenomenon (LRB, 21 February) that ‘the English can read him as a version of Boudicaa or Caratacus’ but seems not to know that it was in this form that the diminutive Gaul was introduced to many British children. In 1965, Ranger, a very ambitious and glossy children’s magazine, was launched, and included a comic strip entitled Britons Never Shall Be Slaves. Although four of the original Astérix books had already been published in English translation, this strip transferred the entire cast to Roman Britain, complete with new names (none ending in the Gallic ‘ix’). Ranger, a bold attempt to revive the old Eagle format, lasted only nine months, and so the anglicised Astérix soon disappeared.
Mary Beard seems to have missed an important and obvious point: the Astérix series is as much about the German occupation of France (and other countries) during the Second World War as it is about the Roman occupation. Consider the recurring vexed questions of loyalty and collaboration in the better Astérix books, the use of spies and agents provocateurs by the Romans, and the air of suspicion and paranoia that envelops the villagers when they are most under threat. The allegory isn't rammed home – that's one of the reasons the series is so successful.
Schuyler, Elmslie and Koch
Michael Hofmann's piece on James Schuyler (LRB, 7 February) makes no mention of the first selection to be published in Britain of Schuyler's poems, in 1974, in the Penguin Modern Poets series, Vol. 24, along with Kenward Elmslie and Kenneth Koch. As poetry editor at that time, I had invited John Ashbery to be guest editor of that volume which, interestingly, did not include Frank O'Hara. With the exception of Lee Harwood, no one in Britain, as far as I know, paid any attention to Schuyler's or Elmslie's work. Elmslie was Schuyler's closest friend, collaborator and supporter, along with Ashbery, and there are affinities in their work far and above any with O'Hara, or the so-called New York Poets – let alone with Lowell, Bishop, Rilke and Brodsky. Another revealing connection between Ashbery, Elmslie and Schuyler is their admiration for the work of the painter Fairfield Porter who, too, remains virtually unknown in this country.
James Waterson (Letters, 21 February) believes that Tariq Ali is guilty of ‘sensationalising’ the Crusaders’ sack of Jerusalem in 1099, when men, women and children were massacred. Waterson writes that this episode was just ‘a routine three-day medieval sack, totally acceptable by the standards of the day in a citadel resisting occupation’. Well, yes and no. Medieval commanders sought Biblical justification for the slaughter of resisting populations from Deuteronomy (20.1-20); but Deuteronomy explicitly sanctions only the slaying of male inhabitants of a city taken by storm and when that city lies in the besieging lord’s patrimony.
Tariq Ali, meanwhile, draws attention to Richard I’s execution of prisoners at Acre, but fails to offer any mitigating explanations (in medieval terms, at least) for this measure: chief of these were Saladin’s late payment of the prisoners’ ransom (a deliberate stalling tactic) and his decapitation of Templar and Hospitaller prisoners at the Battle of Hattin four years earlier. Ali also relates how only ‘a few of the Crusaders broke with Christian fundamentalism and made peace with their neighbours.’ This ignores the changing political realities on both sides. During the drought of 1185, Count Raymond of Tripoli, the regent of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, agreed a truce with Saladin whereby the latter furnished the settlers with all the supplies they needed. Even in the Crusades, political expediency was far more important than religious fervour.
Bradford on Avon
James Waterson describes Tariq Ali as ‘a historian with an agenda’. This he certainly is and as such is no exception to the norm. One of Ali’s great attractions, apart from his ability to write about complex and, for me, obscure matters with considerable clarity, is the fact that he makes no attempt to conceal his agenda under a cloak of affected impartiality. The same is true of the London Review of Books, described by Waterson as ‘a journal already under attack for perceived bias from many of its readers’. The best that can be hoped for from a journal is that it should be honest about its bias while even-handed in its letters page.
Sheffield Hallam University
What MPs Read
Brian Towers (Letters, 21 February) notes that there is no mention of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in my review of Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, and asks whether this was ‘an omission on the part of the reviewer, or the author, or both’. The hint of reproach in ‘omission’ may not be quite fair to either of us. Rose mentions Tressell’s book three times: once when discussing the reading of Jewish workers in the East End, once to note that it figured (though not prominently) among the very wide range of books borrowed from one of the Welsh miners’ libraries for which records survive, and once to quote a self-educated factory labourer who ‘rejected the crude “pamphleteering”’ of the book. Part of the achievement of Rose’s book is precisely to complicate and sometimes challenge the received wisdom about ‘working-class reading’, especially where that wisdom really reflects the concerns of a politically engaged minority. It therefore seemed right to draw attention to its possibly more surprising findings about authors such as Frank Richards and Mrs Henry Wood (mentioned three or four times as often as Tressell), as well as about such major figures as Bunyan and Dickens (mentioned ten and thirty times as often respectively).
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was a book about the working class: it wasn't ostensibly for them – which is why it hardly appears in Jonathan Rose's book. The works of Arthur Morrison or Stephen Law were more readily available to the working class, being sold from the old Clarion vans rallying the workers to the socialist cause. Tressell wrote his book for the coffee tables of the dissenting middle classes rather than for plebs like Towers and me.
Richard Boston (Letters, 21 February) must have misunderstood what I wrote about Churchill. I suggested that he would have preferred the Nobel Peace Prize to the Literature Prize he was awarded in 1953. I also asked whether the admiration for Sweden’s ‘warriors’ he expressed in his letter to the Swedish Nobel Committee (apologising for not being able to collect the Literature Prize personally) might have been a sly dig at Sweden’s neutrality. For the life of me I can’t see how the fact that the Peace Prize is awarded by a Norwegian Committee, which of course I knew, makes that ‘unlikely’. It has absolutely no bearing on it.