Follow the money
David Conn implies that it was Lord Justice Taylor who, in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, instigated the recommendation that all standing be replaced with seating at major football grounds (LRB, 30 August). I believe that this is not the case. Ten years ago I gave a lecture whose main thesis was that when the density of a theatre or stadium is reduced the motive is not safety, but profit. Most Edwardian West End theatres held around 75 per cent more people when they were built than they do today because the audience originally sat on tightly arrayed wooden benches. The capacity of the theatres fell when plush seating was introduced, but the take increased because, simply put, poorer people were banished and the differential between top and bottom prices was reduced from around ten to one to three to one. In the course of preparing my lecture, I asked Roy Hattersley, who comes from Sheffield and was shadow home secretary at the time of Hillsborough, to put in writing his memory of his conversations with Taylor. He wrote to me on 2 January 2003: ‘[Taylor] actually told me that the obligation to all-seater stadia had been included in his report after pressure from both the government and the Football Association. The government needed an alternative bright idea to enable it to back away from the unworkable notion of only allowing registered club members into grounds and the football authorities wanted the extra revenue which flows from seating – the extra costs can be borne by the different sort of customer it attracts.’
As a boy in Edinburgh I paid 6d at both Easter Road and Tynecastle to attend matches with my father. I cannot offer this experience to my grandchildren. I blame the football authorities for taking the game away from its core supporters. Taylor didn’t argue that supporters shouldn’t stand in the first draft of his report; but he certainly did recommend against the handling and penning of crowds.
One important omission from David Conn’s historical survey was the abolition of the maximum wage in 1961. Johnny Haynes of Fulham became the first £100-a-week footballer. It was this that wrecked the chances of teams outside the major cities – Manchester, London, Liverpool, Leeds – of winning a series of trophies, because it meant that the big city clubs were able to turn their huge gate receipts into wages. Since then the only teams from outside those cities to have won more than the odd trophy were teams managed by Alf Ramsey and Brian Clough. This seems unlikely to change.
The Great Electricity Sell-Off
While I do not disagree with the details of James Meek’s horrific account of how the privatised electricity industry has developed, I worry that readers might conclude that the answer to the problems he describes is nationalisation (LRB, 13 September). I worked several years ago for the National Coal Board, the Electricity Council, the Central Electricity Generating Board and, finally, as secretary of the Water Authorities Association, where I helped with the privatisation of those authorities. My experience leads me to doubt Meek’s main conclusion, that ‘a reliable, badly run British electricity system was destroyed, rather than being reformed, only so that a large part of it could be taken over by a foreign version of the original.’ Perhaps Meek should remind himself of the studies published by the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries in the 1960s and 1970s. The committee thrashed around desperately in report after report for ways of reforming the nationalised industries, but never succeeded. Political interference, Treasury constraints and powerful trade unions, combined with the interests of the industries themselves, thwarted any realistic reform.
Privatisation provided a way out of those dilemmas, and still would, provided there were effective regulation and only a minimum of political control of matters such as cross-border ownership. In the 1990s I tried vainly to persuade Labour Party representatives to stop wasting their time opposing privatisation in principle instead of concentrating on the details of regulation.
Fear not Britannia, for on the privatisation of publicly owned electricity you do not stand alone. Where the mothership goes, so go we. In the 1990s our distribution networks were privatised against the public wishes of the day. A large number of those companies rapidly accumulated into one, which ended up in the hands of the Queensland government, allowing New Zealanders, whose average income is 20 per cent below Australians’, to help relieve the pressure on the Australian taxpayer. Despite which, and once again against the public wishes of the day, our generating system is now being put up for tender. There is a fiercely held opinion over here, that Kiwis are degrees more canny than their counterparts across the Tasman. With our four major banks now owned by Australians and our hydroelectricity system likely to go the same way, this myth has proven to be false by a large margin. Though with 40,000 Kiwis a year emigrating across the Ditch, the gap is rapidly closing.
Raumati Beach, New Zealand
‘The triple meltdown of reactors at Fukushima after the earthquake in Japan last March prompted the German government to shut down its nuclear sector entirely,’ James Meek writes. In fact, the German nuclear phase-out began in 2000 with a signed agreement between the government and the nuclear industry; it was put into law in 2002. In 2009, Angela Merkel announced a new time-frame for the phase-out: the lives of the country’s nuclear power stations would be extended by between eight and 14 years. But about ten weeks after the Fukushima incident, in response to heightened public concern over reactor safety, Merkel announced a return to the original policy of 2000. Eight of Germany’s nuclear power stations are now out of service and will not be started up again; the remainder are to be shut by 2022.
In Praise of the Cockburns
Another notable thing about Patrick Cockburn’s great-grandfather is that when he blew off his right hand at the age of nine, eight members of his family sent him writing desks so that his preparation for a professional career would not be too much interrupted (LRB, 13 September).
The Henry Cockburn of the previous generation was uncannily like Patrick’s grandfather. As solicitor general for Scotland (and close friend of the critic and lawyer Francis Jeffrey, after whom the injured boy was named), he did his best to be humane even as he administered the often tyrannical laws of the time. When on his Hebridean circuit as a judge he had to try four crofters in North Uist for rioting and deforcing law officers – i.e. for using stones and sea-tangle stems against the laird’s thugs who were evicting them and burning their looms and roofs – Cockburn carefully absolved himself from ‘moral and political considerations’, and then imposed light sentences (four months) in keeping with the jury’s recommendation to mercy because of the ‘cruel, though it may be legal, clearance of Sollas township’. So Patrick is the latest in a long and decent family tradition, and must sometimes be glad that a journalist is at more liberty than a judge or a civil servant to hold his radical views.
We are a broad church
Not that it is at all surprising that a professor of English at Yale would ridicule a prominent American conservative like Paul Ryan, but David Bromwich’s piece about him is a classic in Ivy League anti-Tea Party snobbishness (LRB, 30 August). Bromwich can’t seem to stand the fact that there are millions of Americans who actually admire Ryan, take him seriously as a thinker and are grateful that he is helping to lead a discussion about the future of the welfare state and its economic sustainability. He dwells on what Ryan looks like and on his supposed obnoxiousness. He talks about Ryan’s roots in the ‘aristocracy’, as if Bromwich’s life in the halls of Princeton and Yale has been one of proletarian purity and blue-collar struggle. Please. And this passage is pure mean-spiritedness: ‘He has a lean and hungry look even when he smiles; and a relentless eagerness also, which will wear on people over time. His constant demeanour is cocksure; his face never registers reflection.’ I did not realise that there was a Bromwich-ordained standard of appearance that American politicians must meet. If he would supply more info, I would be happy to pass his suggestions on to the many intelligent, well-read people in the Tea Party. Many of us subscribe to the LRB.
I would like to thank Marina Warner for her friendly, amusing and sharp-eyed review of The Fate of Rural Hell: Asceticism and Desire in Buddhist Thailand, my ‘bizarre opuscule’ (LRB, 13 September). I am writing only to alert readers to two misapprehensions. First, at the end of a list of the tortures inflicted on the praed she mentions ‘breasts lopped off and genitals horribly swollen and luridly aflame’. Actually, part of the eerie eroticism of this popular, hellish collection of statues comes from the fact that breasts, penises and cunts are the only body parts which are never mutilated or disfigured. The abbot of Wat Phai Rong Wua surely had personal reasons for laying down this rule, but for local teenagers, would-be pilgrims and tourists, the allure comes from the inexplicable juxtaposition of tortures with large unharmed genitalia. This explains why male teenagers can get caught masturbating against full-breasted female praed. Besides, it would not be easy to find many X-rated nudes in conservative Siam’s museums or public parks.
Second, it is said that ‘the sinners are tormented by invisible demons.’ In fact, each sinner has a very visible male torturer of his or her own. I think the misapprehension here comes from the interesting way in which the agents of the absent God of Hell (Yama) are represented. The earlier agents look like wiry, barefoot Thai peasants, have the same height as the average Thai male, are clad in simple rural loincloths, and have quiet, expressionless faces. Later on, the abbot decided that these old-fashioned ‘demons’ were not frightening enough. The new generation of agents look physically like upscale versions of the two champion wrestlers who won medals for India at the recent London Hyperolympics: warm reddish-brown skins, quite handsome faces with curly-tidy moustaches and elegant short beards, wasp waists, and whopping thighs, chests and upper arms. They wear nice boutiquey boots, skin-tight shorts, armlets and fetching headcloths. (What the sculptors got from Superman and Batman was surely models of exotic masculine fancy dress.) The facial expressions are mildly intimidating, not a patch on those of India’s goondas or the grim gangsters who appear in Thai movies and on the streets of Bangkok. I described these second-generation agents as ‘gymrats’, but the term, alas, is not my coinage. It is sarcastic gayspeak for narcissistic fitness freaks.
Freeville, New York
I agree with Bruce Whitehouse, who quotes me in support of his argument that the collapse of the government in Mali might be a portent of a wider problem with the international system of governance created after World War Two (LRB, 30 August). However, I am not convinced of the likelihood that countries like Mali will be left to sort out their conflicts on their own, as he hopes. The former European colonisers do not dominate Africa like they used to, but there are plenty of other powers that will no doubt make efforts to shape the political environment of African states unable to deliver what outsiders require from them. In Mali’s case, such foreign powers certainly include Algeria and the US. In Africa as a whole, China now has such substantial interests that it will also feel obliged to take part in the reshaping process. The postcolonial period may be over, but the powerful continue to pursue their interests, and the weak may still recruit outside force as leverage in local quarrels.
Afrika Studiecentrum, Leiden
Pain and Peril
A.E.J. Fitchett refers to my comments on the service of ‘churching’ in the Book of Common Prayer and suggests that I am thinking of its 1549 predecessor in referring to ‘overtones of purification from ritual uncleanness’, rather than the version re-edited in 1662, with its greater emphasis on thanksgiving (Letters, 30 August). Formally he might be right; but his insight escaped three centuries of English Anglicans, who continued to think in terms of uncleanness in childbirth, for which the service would provide a remedy. Strange that their clergy did not manage to disabuse them of this idea over so long a period. This remained the case with very many working-class Anglicans up to the 1960s: the mothers of young mothers would not allow them to participate fully in everyday life until they had been churched. I speak from childhood experience in my father’s rural Suffolk parish; one of his former parishioners was reminiscing to me of those days only last year. Margaret Houlbrooke’s book Rite Out of Time provides further rich confirmation that Wetherden in the 1960s was not exceptional. The complete collapse of the rite of churching since then reflects a great rebellion on the part of young mothers of that generation when their own daughters came to have children. The Anglican Communion is a many-splendoured thing. If the Church in Aotearoa can wipe the cultural slate clean and use the service of churching afresh for the purposes of thanksgiving in childbirth, then good luck to it.
In his list of not-yet-standardised measuring systems, Steven Shapin could have added the phenomenon of ‘vanity sizing’, whereby the actual sizes of garments have increased over time relative to their nominal size (LRB, 30 August). This practice entails lying about the measurements used, in order (presumably) to sell more clothes to people who want to imagine themselves thinner than they might be. It’s very annoying.
Arundel, West Sussex
Neither Oxymoron nor Paradox
Stephen Sedley prefaces his review of a book entitled Living Originalism with a sideswipe at ‘secular spirituality’, which he labels, along with the title of the book in question, a ‘well-meant oxymoron’ (LRB, 30 August). It isn’t that, nor even a paradox, but a legitimate mode of thought and feeling by which people outside the conformist orthodoxies live. Private experience apart, the publicly accessible evidence Sedley overlooks is an immense body of European poetry and other fine writing since Goethe and Wordsworth.
The Queen’s College, Oxford
Unpleasant Young Men
I enjoyed Lidija Haas’s piece on Georgette Heyer and was especially intrigued by the apparent contempt she felt for her ‘thrillers’ (LRB, 30 August. In his excellent overview of the figure of the detective in fiction, Murder Will Out (1989), T.J. Binyon recognised Heyer as a ‘supreme practitioner’ of charmingly written, well-plotted (i.e. complex) novels. They may bow to the conventions of the genre and admit little of contemporary war and politics, but her dialogue and characters, especially extremely unpleasant young men, are wonderfully entertaining and avoid the hokum of, say, Gladys Mitchell, Philip Larkin’s favourite detective writer.
Rosemary Hill tells us that William Morris was ‘not a member of the Labour Party’ (LRB, 13 September). It would be remarkable if he had been, as the Labour Party did not come into existence until 1906, ten years after Morris died (and individual membership of the party was not possible until the new constitution of 1918).
Man in a Mac
David Trotter writes that rubberised cotton stank, but he may be overlooking one aspect of its appeal (LRB, 30 August). When I worked at Faber in the 1980s it was not uncommon for would-be authors to bring in their typescripts in person. One morning I was called down to find a distinguished-looking man in a three-piece suit and stiff overcoat, with a soft New York accent. His memoir, which he handed to me, opened with him as a four-year-old sheltering from some unknown fear beneath first a kitchen table covered in oilcloth, then his mother’s skirts, which carried the reassuring smell of rubber. I looked up and as our eyes met he showed me a card which read: ‘Member, the Mackintosh Club’. ‘We meet regularly,’ he said, and strolled out.
Scarborough, North Yorkshire
There is a decidedly pre-Lawrentian timbre to the following ditty once recited to me by someone old enough to have been subjected to the 1920s campaign by the Rubber Growers’ Association:
I put my little bit in rubber
And if it came off,
I married the girl.