Over the years I have often wondered if the John Sturrock listed as the LRB’s consulting editor was the same John Sturrock who was senior French master at my old school, Hurstpierpoint College (only eight miles from his last home at Lindfield), in the early 1960s. The photograph accompanying Mary-Kay Wilmers’s memoir shows that it was (LRB, 21 September). In a staff-room replete with characters straight out of the works of Hilton and Delderfield, he belonged to a small group of exotics who seemed to have wandered in inexplicably from a wider and more exciting world. His open-top Sunbeam Alpine (I think it was) was considered very racy, as indeed were his trouser legs, which were much narrower than those we boys were allowed. While other teachers would bustle across, gowned up for action, from the main school to the classroom block when lessons began, J.A.L. Sturrock would approach at a dignified amble, hands in pockets and apparently deep in thought, his gown thrown casually over one shoulder. In class, his imperturbable seriousness and air of languid authority were relieved by an occasional wry smile.
My special memory is of a last-lesson-of-term talk he once gave my sixth-form Subsidiary French class on the Dreyfus Affair: lucid and compelling, delivered without notes, visual aids or hesitations for nearly forty minutes, either leaning on the lectern desk before him or half-sitting on the windowsill at his back. It comes as no surprise to learn that this keen, cosmopolitan intellect was destined not to remain buried in the depths of the Sussex countryside, but to enjoy an illustrious career in journalism, translation and authorship. I don’t regret becoming a classicist, but I have always regretted the impermeable barrier between ancient and modern languages that existed at my school fifty years ago.
What Is Great about Ourselves
Pankaj Mishra’s ad hominem essay about various people he disagrees with is a good example of what Mark Lilla has called ‘expressive not persuasive’ writing (LRB, 21 September). It reflects ideologically tribal thinking in which it is assumed the reader shares the views of the writer and will therefore be satisfied with, for example, airy dismissals of the extensive literature criticising multiculturalism, from both left and right, as aiming at a ‘straw man’. A neutral reader would struggle to discover anything substantive about the five books supposedly under review or about the actual beliefs of the writers, at least if the caricatured views imputed to me are anything to go by.
Apparently I believe that cultures are ‘exclusive and unchanging across time and place’. I do believe, even in our more individualistic age, that group cultures, whether of class or ethnicity, do still matter but only a fool would think they are exclusive and unchanging. He also claims that I am ‘indifferent to the changes in working-class life and immigration patterns since 1945’ although I have just written two books largely about these very subjects.
Mishra’s abstract, fact-free, globalist leftism – widely dismissed by reviewers of his own recent book Age of Anger – sees economic disadvantage as the only legitimate motive for political action (would he have favoured colonialism if it had led to greater wealth and equality?). He mentions ‘obscene inequality’ and the erosion of the welfare state in the UK but seems unaware of the most basic socio-economic facts: that spending on social security today as a proportion of GDP is almost twice what it was in the social democratic heyday of the mid-1970s; that levels of inequality, though too high, have remained essentially unchanged since the early 1990s; and that the desire to reduce inequality is shared by all the main political parties.
Mishra is equally slapdash in his personalisation of the argument. He dwells on my privileged background (Eton and York University, not Oxford as he states) and implies that this precludes me from understanding or sympathising with the ‘common people’. By the same token he should put down his own pen. For the last two decades at least he has been part of the affluent, educated elite in both India and the West and is now married to the daughter of an Old Etonian and baronet.
He also sneers at Prospect magazine (which I founded and edited for 15 years, and for which he was once happy to write) and says it was an uncritical mouthpiece for Blairism. But in my time as editor it challenged many of the assumptions of Blairite liberalism and opposed the Iraq war. He also wrongly states that Prospect is now owned by a financial investment firm in the City: it is now owned by Clive Cowdery’s Resolution Foundation, a charity which also supports a centre-left think tank focusing on work and pay in the bottom half of the income spectrum.
Georgina Baidoun’s account of being accused of ‘slumming it’ by a fellow bus passenger in the North-East is indeed suggestive of the lack of social cohesion in our country (Letters, 5 October). However, she seems to think the insult was unjust because she is in fact a member of the same class and community as her assailant. But she presented as someone from another region and class, so the insult was really directed at that posh visitor from the South-East. I am not suggesting that one should go about equipped with an armoury of regional accents ready to deploy in such situations, only that any cultural migration through accent and dress must be lived. You can’t have the cake and still eat the bread.
Women’s Rights in Afghanistan
May Jeong interviews a woman entrepreneur in Kandahar, who tells her that the ‘fiasco around women’s rights’ did not ‘spring from the bottom up. It is something that was imposed from the outside’ (LRB, 7 September). That is not true of the women who were fighting for women’s rights under the Taliban before the American invasion and are now running women’s NGOs in Afghanistan. The Support Association for the Women of Afghanistan (SAWA-Australia) works with two of them and can vouch that they are grassroots organisations. They run literacy centres offering classes in English and computing in several cities, and educational centres in havens for orphans and girls brought to them by their families. In March a Kabul-based women’s NGO celebrated International Women’s Day in remote Farah province for the first time, in a health centre run by the NGO.
There is no doubt that attacks against initiatives to improve the situation of women are on the increase. Fundamentalist elements in Afghanistan now attack not only women but also those who support them. This is only partly the result of the Taliban’s having gained control in some provinces; the blame lies mainly with the government for not enforcing existing legislation and turning a blind eye to atrocities. But none of this will shake the determination of Afghan women’s grassroots organisations and their supporters to work for a new society in the cities, in the hope that eventually change will take hold in the rest of the country.
Frank Conley is right about the account of the transfiguration in the New Testament, but not about Raphael’s Transfiguration (Letters, 7 September). Raphael presents two separate biblical scenes: in the upper section, from Mark 9:2, the transfiguration with Peter, James and John; and in the lower section, from Mark 9:18, the apostles who had not been chosen to accompany Christ, who are trying unsuccessfully to heal an epileptic boy. The Ashmolean head is a study for the apostle in the middle of the lower section, pointing with his right hand at the boy. He may or may not be St Thomas but it is certainly possible: Peter, James and John are in the upper scene, and a number of the other apostles have also been identified.
Jon Day’s review of the Wyndham Lewis exhibition at IWM North has something of a de haut en bas tone (LRB, 5 October). Lewis ‘flirted with’ being a poet, ‘tried his hand’ at Cubism, ‘churned out’ manifestos and merely ‘considered himself’ to be a satirist. After the First World War, we are told, he ‘worked as a jobbing portraitist’, and his war service (close to the Menin Road during Passchendaele) was no more than ‘spotting and marking out targets’. There are ‘no explosions’ in Lewis’s war art, Day says, though the shell bursts in Study for ‘To Wipe-out’, Officer and Signallers, Great War Drawing No. 2 and A Battery Shelled (all in the exhibition) must be clear to anyone.
A large number of paintings from his 1937 exhibition at the Leicester Galleries, forming what Lewis called ‘a sort of series’, are grouped together at the IWM for the first time in Britain since 1980. When they were originally exhibited, a letter signed by Henry Moore, Paul Nash, W.H. Auden and Rebecca West (among others) called for Lewis’s ‘deep and original art’ to receive public recognition. Thomas MacGreevy, who disliked Lewis and accused him of writing ‘like a barbarian’, nevertheless called the large painting Inferno ‘a grave and powerful picture’. It has been loaned from the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, and should be seen while there is the opportunity.
Wyndham Lewis doesn’t need ‘rehabilitation’, but he is never going to be particularly popular. His work is not often shown (no Tate retrospective since 1956, for instance), but he was a serious artist; arguably the most important modernist painter and theoretician working in England, at least until 1925, and probably later.
Highfields Caldecote, Cambridgeshire
18 Hours in Vietnam
In his piece about the PBS documentary series The Vietnam War, David Thomson notes that although there’s no way to prove it, ‘liberals and media mavens’ cling to the belief that exposure to graphic colour TV footage was a decisive factor in turning Americans against the war (LRB, 21 September). That is by no means the only enduring misconception about the conflict, the closing stages of which I covered for the Sunday Times.
Contrary to the widespread perception that teenage conscripts were fed into the mincer, two-thirds of all US troops were volunteers. It isn’t true, either, that the war was universally detested by those who fought: in 1980, five years after it ended, a Harris poll found that over 90 per cent of Vietnam veterans were glad to have served. Neither is it correct that black soldiers were drafted in disproportionate numbers or that they suffered inordinately high casualties as a result of being thrown into combat more freely than white troops. Over the entire war, black soldiers accounted for 12.1 per cent of total deaths – a figure closely in line with their proportion in the US population at the time – though in the early years of the conflict, when the Americans were learning a hard lesson in fighting Vietnam-style, black casualties were strikingly disproportionate, at close to 23 per cent.
Overtones of Eternity
Philip Rush points out that we don’t use the present tense much to talk about ‘now’ (Letters, 5 October). He might have added that even when we do talk about ‘now’ we tend to use the continuous present. This wasn’t always so, but today Puck would probably say: ‘I’m going, I’m going; look how I’m going,/Swifter than being on a mighty Boeing.’ (In fact, he’d probably be like: ‘I’m going, I’m going, keep your hair on.’)
Eyes on me!
George Duoblys describes the highly intrusive and controlling disciplinary methods used in some schools (LRB, 5 October). In my experience, the closer students get to GCSE exams the more rigid and structured the regime becomes, and this is because the goal is not autonomy but performing well in exams. GCSEs are norm-referenced rather than criterion-referenced, so the distribution of grades has to fit, roughly, a bell-shaped curve. When schools improve overall in this system, the grade boundaries change and the best-placed schools continue to work it to their advantage, while other schools may improve but are still left ‘failing’ their students. If assessment were criterion-referenced, in which case it would in theory be possible for all students in all schools to achieve a five-GCSE pass rate (including English and maths), the effects could be so radical as to undermine the secondary education system as it is now constituted.
Patrington, East Yorkshire
How Not to Do Trade Deals
Martin Sanderson points out that manufacturing accounts for only a small share of the UK workforce, and reasons that it is hardly right to say blue-collar British workers determined the referendum result (Letters, 5 October). We agree that the share is small – about 10 per cent – but the term is used to refer collectively to people in the regions of the UK that have suffered from the decline in manufacturing over the past thirty years, before which manufacturing accounted for 30 per cent of the workforce. Regions that relied directly or indirectly on manufacturing (including those dependent on tourism, for example), have experienced low and stagnating real wages. The work of our colleagues at the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics shows that people in these lagging regions were more likely to vote to leave the EU.
Some people have suffered disproportionately for a variety of reasons: education, income, race, region, industry. Several of these markers are highly correlated with each other or are determined by common factors. Interpreting their individual contribution to the referendum vote is difficult, but together they can be taken as markers of deprivation and a lack of social mobility. These deeper economic problems will not be fixed merely by settling the matter of whether or not the UK remains in the EU.
Swati Dhingra; Nikhil Datta
London School of Economics
Huang Yuan says that Mark Zuckerberg must agree to censorship of Facebook in China, ‘and he will – if he wants to get in’ (LRB, 5 October). Not really. Facebook (a bigger nation than China) is launching a constellation of satellite internet hubs to allow everyone on Earth to get online with, essentially, American First Amendment free-speech rights. Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Google have similar schemes.
Whether we’d rather have Zuckerberg or the Chinese government deciding what people can and can’t do online is moot. But recent history has unequivocally shown that humans are happy to trade their privacy for free data. As long as the band width is high enough, it is almost inevitable that people worldwide will choose free satellite internet and phone service over land-based fibre connections which they have to pay for and are controllable by governments.
Paul Grimstad mentions Edmund Wilson’s dismissal of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction (LRB, 21 September). There is nothing scary, Wilson said, about an ‘invisible whistling octopus’. According to Grimstad the creature ridiculed here ‘appears at the end of the 1928 story “The Call of Cthulhu”’. But Cthulhu is not invisible and does not whistle. Wilson was referring to the flying polyps in Lovecraft’s 1936 novella, ‘The Shadow out of Time’: ‘There were veiled suggestions of a monstrous plasticity, and of temporary lapses of visibility, while other fragmentary whispers referred to their control and military use of great winds. Singular whistling noises, and colossal footprints made up of five circular toe marks, seemed also to be associated with them.’
The Flight to Dunkirk
It’s like sounding a klaxon in a symphony concert to insert a quibble into Jonathan Raban’s fine account of the Dunkirk disaster, but you can’t keep a good pedant from his nit-picking (LRB, 5 October). The metal that the justifiably proud chainmakers of Cradley Heath were working was steel, not iron, and would not have been melted, merely brought to a red heat for forging. Bessemer’s mid-19th century innovations in steel-making had rendered obsolete the wrought iron that made such wonders as Brunel’s Saltash Bridge, another reason the Black Country, the home of the older industry, was reduced to such poverty.
In his article about Dunkirk, Jonathan Raban talks of the yellow letterboxes his father would have glimpsed from army trucks as he travelled across France. In 1940 British troops would have seen blue letterboxes. Yellow was adopted by the PTT in 1962.
Not Recommended Reading
The 22 science fiction stories Eliot Weinberger includes in ‘Not Recommended Reading’ (LRB, 7 September) are all usefully listed, complete with summaries that Weinberger has comically truncated, in Everett F. Bleiler’s annotated bibliography, Science-Fiction: The Early Years (1990).