Our Paedophile Culture
Andrew O’Hagan’s ruminations on the dark corners of light entertainment offer a glimpse into just how difficult it is for anyone to confront child abuse (LRB, 8 November). No sooner is child abuse aired than we are warned against witch hunts, obsession and hysteria. Always. It is happening again; it is de rigueur. O’Hagan’s rendition of Savile as a man ‘made to the public’s specifications’ ignores the other publics who have for many years been challenging marauders like Savile. It also fails to recognise that the broadcast media do not merely reflect public taste, they participate in the creation of it. Why did the BBC harbour Savile? What was it about his horrible persona that the BBC wanted?
Ever since sexual abuse was added to the inventory of statutory concerns about children in the 1980s, child protection has been a war zone. Actually, it is defeated. For three decades child welfare institutions have been unable to withstand the outrage of accused adults and civil libertarians. Yet a determination to tell the story persists. The ‘choke and sting of experience’ – the words of Indian anthropologist Veena Das – finds its way, somehow, into public knowledge. But O’Hagan prefers to argue that ‘child abuse is now a national obsession,’ which produces ‘an unmistakable lack of proportion in the way we talk about the threat posed to children by adults’. What does he make of the muted, hesitant, ashamed voices of Savile’s victims? And what of the dull defensiveness of the institutions, or the dismal response of the criminal justice system to the majority of rapes and sexual assaults reported to the police? Isn’t denial of child abuse the national obsession?
The first three reports into Jimmy Savile’s appearances on Top of the Pops compiled by the BBC’s audience research department suggest that the majority of viewers took exception to him from the outset:
1 January 1964. But the greatest number of objections was aimed at Jimmy Savile, mainly because of his appearance. ‘What an odd looking individual,’ said a solicitor; and others expanded this to call him ‘a cross between a Beatle and an Aldwych farce curate’, ‘like a Presbyterian minister’, ‘like something from Doctor Who’ … ‘Really horrific. It ought to have an X certificate. And there was Mr Savile presiding over the orgy like a Puritan clergyman resurrected from his own churchyard’ (Retired Naval Officer).
29 January 1964. It is clear, too, that many found Jimmy Savile’s manner and appearance (in introducing the programme) disconcerting to a degree. ‘Is this Jimmy Savile sane? I must say his most peculiar appearance and manner suggest otherwise. I couldn’t understand a word of his “gabble”, either’; ‘a real nit’, ‘a proper twerp’, ‘a big idiotic nothing’.
10 December 1964. Jimmy Savile, who introduced the programme on this occasion, was obviously disliked by a large number of the sample audience. Many indicated their aversion to this artist by remarking that anything they had to say about him would be ‘quite unprintable’, whilst comment by those who freely expressed their feelings was liberally larded with such terms as ‘this nutcase’; ‘this obnoxious “thing”’; and ‘this revolting spectacle’. True, a small number admired and liked him – ‘Of course he is utterly zany but he puts life and laughter into the programme and he is clearly “with it” as regards pop music’ – but even some of those considered his hair style ‘a bit too much’. ‘As a disc jockey he is great but I think he ought to get his hair cut because as it is it looks ridiculous.’ Many more, however, clearly found him ‘an abomination’ in every respect.
University of Reading
Having been on the receiving end of what Jemma Mazower refers to as ‘tender feelings towards adolescents’ (which she distinguishes from ‘violent abuse’), I am, decades later, still in therapy, and have had serious problems with depression (Letters, 22 November). One should not need to be writing, in 2012, about the reasons sexual activity involving power imbalances and young people whose physical and mental development is incomplete cannot be considered consensual in any meaningful sense of the word. Just as egregious is the manner in which Mazower responds to a national scandal involving the abuse of boys and girls with a letter about ‘the problems of being gay when homosexuality was illegal’. I have no idea whether the International Lesbian and Gay Association had UN consultative status in mind when it decided to expel North American Man-Boy Love Association members; it is perfectly possible that, as the majority of homosexuals are no more attracted to children than heterosexuals, they wanted no relationship with organisations or people who defended such behaviour.
Name and address withheld
I’m not sure Andrew O’Hagan is right to say about Savile that ‘no one said, not out loud: “What’s wrong with that man? Why is he going on like that? What is he up to?”’ There was a lot of talk about what an undesirable weirdo he was. For example, a fake transcript of Paul Merton and Ian Hislop attacking Savile on the set of Have I Got News for You first appeared in 1999, and was very widely circulated. The fact that we’ve recently learned it was a hoax is irrelevant: among Merton’s many insults to Savile in the transcript is the accusation that Savile had ‘fucked 12-year-olds’. That so many people believed it genuine and asked the questions O’Hagan says we didn’t shows that the man was not trusted.
I, Lowborn Cur
It’s good to know that Colin Burrow is a convert to anagram studies (LRB, 22 November). I wish he were right that Shakespeare was obsessed with my name. Alas, none of the ALASTAIR FOWLER anagrams Burrow finds in the Sonnets will pass muster. They all infringe elementary requirements of the Renaissance anagram – stringent rules that guarantee intentionality. He may read about these in Jonsonian Soundings, a volume of essays edited by Richard Peterson.
University of Edinburgh
Colin Burrow writes that ‘Wodehouse learned a trick or two from Evelyn Waugh, for whom double-barrelled names tend to be for dimbos.’ Maybe: Gussie Fink-Nottle first appears after the publication of Waugh’s earliest fiction. But Cyril Bassington-Bassington, Gussie Mannering-Phipps, Algy Wymondham-Wymondham, Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, and Jasper ffinch-ffarrowmere suggest that Wodehouse got there on his own.
St Hugh’s College, Oxford
Eric Hobsbawm was mistaken when he wrote to Karl Miller that ‘the German-Swiss … never even tried to turn Schwyzerdütsch into a literary language’ (LRB, 25 October). From my mother I have inherited ten volumes by Simon Gfeller, all written in Bärndütsch, a worthy member of the Schwyzerdütsch family.
Terrace, British Columbia
Hot Foot from Transylvania
The incorrect attribution of the first Tibetan grammar and dictionary to Charles Bell by either Wade Davis or his reviewer David Simpson – it is not clear which – does injustice to Csoma Sándor, who published the first in English in 1834, under the auspices of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta (LRB, 25 October). Sándor’s feat was all the more remarkable given that his mother tongue was Hungarian and he had travelled to the Himalayas by foot from his native Transylvania.
Balingup, Western Australia
There are some rather obvious and unfair omissions in Bernard Porter’s account of Macaulay (LRB, 22 November). First, Porter refers to the absence of ordinary men and women in the History of England and says that Macaulay was ‘thinking only of middle-class men’ and ‘probably not of women at all’. But he does not mention Macaulay’s famous third chapter, an innovative (no doubt crude) attempt at social history, dealing with, among other things, the labour of children in factories, the growth of towns, the number of paupers, the state of the common people, agricultural wages and female education.
Second, although Porter may be correct that the History of England does not feature the ‘contemporary histories of most of Britain’s colonies’, Macaulay’s two essays on Lord Clive and Warren Hastings are detailed portraits of the period, and of India at the time. In fact, at the beginning of his essay on Clive, Macaulay bemoans the lack of general knowledge in England of colonial history. ‘It might have been expected,’ he writes, ‘that every Englishman who takes any interest in any part of history would be curious to know how a handful of his countrymen, separated from their home by an immense ocean, subjugated, in the course of a few years, one of the greatest empires in the world. Yet, unless we greatly err, this subject is, to most readers, not only insipid, but positively distasteful.’
Third, and perhaps most important, Porter refers to the ‘racism’ of Macaulay and his ‘pre-existing prejudice’. However, he doesn’t mention Macaulay’s remarkable article written for the Edinburgh Review in March 1827, ‘The Social and Industrial Capacities of Negroes’. This was a powerful attack on a report by one Major Moody which had been commissioned by the House of Commons. Moody had reported to the effect that the races should be kept apart or, as Macaulay puts it, ‘that there exists between the white and the black races an instinctive and unconquerable aversion which must frustrate for ever all hopes of seeing them unite in one society on equal terms’. Macaulay then devotes some thirty or forty pages to demolishing this thesis, pointing out that such differences are entirely social and not inherent at all. ‘We entertain little doubt,’ he stated, ‘that when the laws which create a distinction between the races shall be completely abolished, a very few generations will mitigate the prejudices which those laws have created and which they still maintain.’
Why is it always the same story?
The university is surely Fredric Jameson’s point of view, but is he writing about what he knows (LRB, 22 November)? Does he read the American fiction cobbled together in the workshops that are the subject of Mark McGurl’s The Programme Era, by writers who’ve come after Philip Roth, Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates? Jameson’s account of McGurl’s triads and dialectics doesn’t explain why the first sentences of so many stories in the Best American series follow the same formula. Start with the words ‘when’ or ‘after’; mention the first name of a character; dangle a pronoun with no antecedent; drop one heavy symbol or allusion; and use vaguely abstract phrasing to lay out a fairly banal situation. Here’s the first sentence of Maile Meloy’s story ‘Demeter’, about splitting child custody, in the 19 November issue of the New Yorker: ‘When they divided up the year, Demeter chose, for her own, the months when the days start getting longer.’ It’s odd that so many students told ‘find your voice’ so often find the same one.
In his essay on Walther Rathenau, Richard J. Evans mentions Burg Saaleck, where Rathenau’s murderers, Kern and Fischer, were run to ground and killed, as being in Bavaria (LRB, 22 November). It is actually in Sachsen-Anhalt, about fifty kilometres southwest of Halle, and recent events there indicate that the subject of Rathenau and the far right has not lost its topicality. Kern and Fischer were buried in the cemetery below the castle and their grave became, inevitably, a holy place for the Hitler regime, which had a large memorial stone placed there. This was still in situ in the 1980s, though the inscription had been removed by the East German authorities. After German reunification, Saaleck became once more a gathering point for the far right. The stone was therefore removed altogether in 2000. But last July it was reported that a large roughly worked stone had been smuggled into the cemetery by night and placed at the grave. It bore a crudely incised inscription with the names Fischer and Kern and the date they died: 17 July.
At Nature’s Mighty Feast
Commenting on my comments on Ricardo and Malthus, Giancarlo de Vivo recycles the old caricature of ‘Parson Malthus’ – a final solutionist in a dog collar preaching ‘physical elimination’ of the unemployed as a remedy for unemployment (Letters, 22 November). Elimination was never a part of the Malthusian agenda; it was a natural catastrophe that the agenda was designed to avert. The claim that Ricardo wasn’t an ‘intellectual father’ of the Poor Law of 1834 is equally odd, given how far policy was governed by his diagnosis. Ricardo’s was the classic indictment of the old system, which subsidised low wages from taxation: ‘The principle of gravitation is not more certain than the tendency of such laws to change wealth and power into misery and weakness … until at last all classes should be infected with the plague of universal poverty,’ he wrote in Principles of Political Economy. He joined with Malthus to urge reform, but they differed on fundamentals, and Donald Winch rightly criticises me for not making this clear. AlthoughRicardo agreed that the poor would benefit if they were less inclined to marry, he didn’t regard population pressure as a primary cause of dearth and famine, which he saw as mostly unpredictable and unavoidable. Like Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say, he reckoned that since every producer is also a consumer with a limited stomach but an insatiable appetite for commodities, the risk of famine in advanced populous societies is outweighed by the impossibility of general overproduction. I erred where the legislators of 1834 led. By trying to be both Ricardian and Malthusian they perpetrated, inevitably, a botch.
Hans Belting’s Florence and Baghdad, reviewed by Julian Bell, does injustice to a third civilisation in its treatment of the theory of vision (LRB, 25 October). One of the greatest achievements of ‘classical Islam’ (Bell’s term) was the combination, particularly fruitful in science, of the best parts of the Greco-Roman and Indus civilisations. The outstanding example was al-Khwarizmi, who introduced the Indian number system to Europe and combined it in his works with Greek geometry – his name lives on in our ‘algorithm’. Likewise, Ibn al-Haytham studied Indian sources and developed them further in his theory of vision. Four hundred and fifty years before him the Indian astronomer and mathematician Varahamihira had already stated that vision is the result of light being received by the retina, and developed a theory of reflection and refraction. Selling Indian achievements off as Muslim innovations has a long tradition (Indian numerals keep being referred to as Arabic), but credit should be given where it is due.
Port Adelaide, Australia
Should they annex Canada?
Christian Lorentzen writes that ‘unless they pursue the annexation of Canada, the Republicans can no longer win national elections just by being the white guys’ (LRB, 22 November). It’s true the Canadian electorate is slightly more ‘white’ than the American – maybe 84 per cent, according to the 2006 census. But Canadian trends are similar. It’s projected that about 30 per cent of Canadians will be members of ‘visible minorities’ by 2031. But annexing Canada would be folly for any Republican administration (and not a few Democratic ones – think Minnesota, or Vermont). A pre-election poll found 66 per cent of Canadians, given the choice, would vote for Obama. Canada’s population being only a little smaller than California’s, annexation would, in principle, be a permanent grant to the Democratic Party of two senators and probably all fifty-odd (conceivably, very odd) representatives.
Speedy on the Draw
Will Self is surely right about Northrop Frye’s speed on the draw (LRB, 8 November). Frye, who lectured at me during five years of English studies fifty years ago, came second in a speed-typing competition in Chicago at the age of 17 or so. Along with his contemporary Marshall McLuhan he was so good at everything he touched or uttered (the two of them made a brilliant double-act, outclassing anyone I listened to at Cambridge a few years later), I only wonder which genius out-typed him.
Will Self describes Doom as ‘the first video game that featured immersive graphics, allowed for multiplayer gaming, and introduced the psychopathology of the first-person shooter to virtual reality’. I’m not sure what exactly he means by ‘immersive’, but Maze War, in which players appeared as giant eyeballs and shot their way out of a series of increasingly tricky mazes, featured primitive 3D graphics, a multiplayer ‘deathmatch’ mode and a first-person point of view. It came out in 1974, twenty years before Doom, and felt pretty immersive at the time.
They aren’t all gay
Adam Mars-Jones’s reaction to the Baghdad story reported by Michael Halperin in How to Be Gay reveals an unsure grasp of camp (LRB, 22 November). Not campy: soldier quoting in Italian a prima donna in unseemly circumstances? Come on.
The quote is not in the least ‘erudite’ (Tosca is nothing like a rarity, most opera lovers know it, and they are not all erudite any more than they are all gay) and obviously not ‘solemnly statesmanlike’ (unless statesmen are all uneducated impulsive performers like Floria Tosca). It has all the cheap drama of Sardou and was already pretty stagey as uttered by Sarah Bernhardt in the original play (‘Et c’est devant ça que tremblait toute une ville!’). In Puccini’s opera, as spoken (rather than sung) by a prima donna milking each word for effect, it is frankly campy. Under the circumstances of Saddam’s death, the whole idea is at best as vacuously stagey as in Sardou, at worst like something out of Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be.
And while we are at Tosca, Mme Vera Galupe-Borszkh channels the Essential Diva rather than a specific singer, and if one should be mentioned, it would be, rather than Maria Callas, the famed Met (and Covent Garden) Tosca of the 1950s and 1960s, Zinka Milanov of the Balkan accent and memorable lines (‘This girl is wonderful: she sounds like a young me!’) – not to mention the glorious voice.
Plagiarism doesn’t exist
Adam Shatz refers to Lacan’s grasping ‘Derrida’s hand warmly in his oily palms’ and attributes the words to his biographer, Benôit Peeters (LRB, 22 November). Not quite: they’re straight from Elisabeth Roudinesco’s Jacques Lacan & Co: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-85 (1990). It’s fortunate that, as Lacan once put it, ‘the symbolic belongs to everybody’ and therefore ‘plagiarism doesn’t exist.’
Book your cell
Is Alan Bennett aware that Pentridge Jail in suburban Melbourne, with its executed murderers buried in the grounds, was pulled down and replaced by condominiums (LRB, 8 November)? Who in their right mind … ?
Into the White
Should we demand for turning what was rare
Into a cheap couvade or proxy paradise,
Just one more travelogue to make the groundlings stare?
Thus Louis MacNeice in the script for The Conquest of Everest, lines later included in Autumn Sequel (Letters, 22 November).
Brasenose College, Oxford