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Class and Style

I was very surprised by Jean McNicol’s review of Harriet Harman’s book (LRB, 14 December 2017). There is no doubt that a commitment to women’s equality has been at the centre of Harriet’s political life. But it is wrong to give the impression that there weren’t others fighting the good fight. I think particularly of Jo Richardson, who chaired the party’s Women’s Committee and led us in many parliamentary battles to prevent further restrictions on abortion rights. She also led efforts to get more women elected to Parliament.

When I took over as chair of the committee, it was clear that all previous efforts to increase the number of women had failed; we therefore recommended imposing all-women shortlists on half the winnable seats, as the only way of getting a single-member constituency system to change. There was great resistance to this. John Smith strongly supported it. Tony Blair had doubts, but we got it through Conference because trade union women persuaded reluctant union bosses to give their support. The policy was then implemented across the country by Deborah Lincoln, an able and persistent women’s officer. This was the sea change that led to a big increase in women in the House of Commons in 1997 and in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. I believe it also shamed the Tories into making progress later. Harriet wasn’t central on either issue.

Harriet tended to work alone. She strongly supported and was favoured by New Labour. It’s true that many men in the Parliamentary Labour Party resented her. They called her Harriet Harperson! Some of it was I think about class and style: the same men tended to love Jo Richardson.

Clare Short
London SW4

In 1982, according to Harriet Harman, ‘there had never been a pregnant candidate in a general election.’ At the risk of seeming competitive, that isn’t quite right. Miss Elizabeth Havers stood in the 1959 general election and five days later, I was born – her first child. She didn’t stand much chance contesting Vauxhall for the Conservatives, though she may have got some sympathy votes for her apparent status as a single pregnant woman.

Frances Butler
London NW5

Trump and the Russians

Jackson Lears calls the Trump dossier written by Christopher Steele ‘hearsay’, ‘plainly political trash’ and ‘fantastic’ (LRB, 4 January). In fact, the sources behind the dossier had a credible track record. The information they provided formed the basis for a series of unrelated reports Steele wrote after 2014 on the war in Ukraine which were shared widely in Washington and read by US Secretary of State John Kerry. Nor was the dossier the only source of the collusion claims. The FBI began investigating in summer 2016 following tip-offs from UK, European and Australian spy agencies. The agencies detected meetings between Trump aides and Russian intelligence assets, including at a London hotel. Lears ignores the Cold War backstory and Russia’s recent adventurism. The Soviet government wooed Trump in New York, and subsequently arranged and paid for his trip to Moscow in 1987. Why would it do that? Later, Deutsche Bank loaned Trump $300 million, and at the same time laundered money in Russia for shadowy VIP clients. Did the Soviets know Trump would be elected US president? No, of course not. But did he have the kinds of characteristic the KGB tended to be on the lookout for: vanity, ambition, greed, inconstancy? You bet.

Putin has shown a willingness to conduct risky operations abroad, whether military (the annexation of Crimea, conflict in Donbas), geopolitical (Syria) or cyber (the 2015 attack on the German Bundestag, attributed by Germany’s domestic intelligence chief Hans-Georg Maaßen to Russian hackers). There is evidence out there; Lears has only to look. He might start with Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned with a radioactive cup of tea in a Mayfair bar in 2006 by two Kremlin assassins. As with hacking in the 2016 US election, Moscow denied involvement. It took ten years and some painstaking police work before a public inquiry got the truth. Two years ago it concluded that the FSB, Putin’s old spy agency, was responsible. Sir Robert Owen ruled that Russia’s president ‘probably approved’ the murder. The Russian half of the collusion story is deeply buried: we may never get it. In the meantime, Robert Mueller is making good progress with the US half.

Luke Harding
Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire

Owing to a typesetting error, the printed version of my essay ‘What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Russian Hacking’ contained a misstatement suggesting that the Democratic National Committee hired an anti-Russian think tank, the Atlantic Council, to investigate the theft of their emails. The online version is correct: it makes clear that the DNC hired the cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike to investigate the email theft – and that Crowdstrike’s chief technology officer, Dimitri Alperovitch, is a fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Jackson Lears
Furman’s Corner, New Jersey

A New Dark Age

Nick Richardson may be right that we are on the cusp of a ‘new dark age’ but he isn’t correct to say that ‘religion is on the rise’ (LRB, 14 December 2017). Any global change in the popularity of the major religions stems from net population change, not conversion. Every index of religious interest in the West shows steady decline relative to total population; the decline began at different times in different societies, but once it starts it appears to be irreversible. Church attendance in the US was 40 per cent in the 1970s; it is now below 20 per cent. In the UK it is between 5 and 7 per cent. The few areas of growth in the UK (essentially black Pentecostal churches in the south-east of England) come nowhere close to compensating for decline elsewhere.

Even migrants to the West from more religious regions show signs of secularisation. Only half of the UK’s nominal Muslims claim to be religiously observant, and that figure probably includes a fair amount of exaggeration. New Age spirituality is a washout: no more than 5 per cent of the population engages in yoga, meditation and the like, and at least half do so for physical and psychological reasons, rather than spiritual enlightenment.

What has changed is that some religious people have become aggressive in response to the waning in influence of their faith. But notoriety is not the same as popularity. People do not protest when they are winning: fundamentalisms are reactions to loss of influence, not proof of hegemony. Religion becomes politicised when it is no longer taken for granted. And once a culture has reached the point where most people have little familiarity with any religion, notoriety backfires because it makes the rest of us think that any faith taken too seriously is trouble.

Steve Bruce
University of Aberdeen

What was it that drove him?

David Runciman is perhaps a bit unfair to suggest that Gordon Brown’s ‘typical’ day as prime minister was no busier or more challenging than that of other top professionals (LRB, 4 January). Not many people have peace in Northern Ireland or the global financial crisis crossing their desks in the course of a day’s work. But it is the clutter of Brown’s other responsibilities that is alarming, revealing a serious failure to delegate. Why was he unveiling a memorial to a police officer in Bradford, and opening an academy school and a Sure Start centre and visiting a steel business in Sheffield?

Brown excelled in his area of expertise but, unlike Blair, was hopeless at the more difficult task of juggling several balls at once. The all-consuming scale of the financial crisis granted him a brief reprieve from this shortcoming, allowing him to return to his specialism for one last hurrah.

Bill Asquith
London N5

The Hunter-Gatherers Were Right

Anne Summers wonders why James C. Scott in Against the Grain doesn’t ask what for her is the ‘biggest question of all: how and why did people start to eat grain, and make it the staple diet of large communities?’ (Letters, 4 January). In fact Scott does address, at some length, the second of these questions. The first hardly needs asking. Cultures that subsist largely on gathering eat a huge variety of foods and have sophisticated systems for classifying plants, usually according to functional criteria – food, fabrication, medicine etc. They also understand how natural phenomena such as the weather affect the availability of foods. Because any of the food plants might fail in any given year, gatherer communities know all the edible plants in their environment. Most grasses figure quite low on the scale of culinary preference, but they do survive conditions that wipe out more highly favoured foods. Such knowledge persists down to the present. Solzhenitsyn records the use of grass for soup in the gulag. Gatherers would also know which grass varieties, such as the wild Anatolian wheat which Scott mentions, yield most nutritional value.

Scott gives us his view as to why such species should become established as staples: ‘My guess is that only grains are best suited to concentrated production, tax assessment, appropriation, cadastral surveys, storage and rationing … If we were evaluating crops from the perspective of the premodern “tax man”, the major grains … would be among the most preferred.’ In other words, the causality runs in a direction opposite to the one previously supposed.

Rick Osborn
Worlingworth, Suffolk

Steven Mithen writes that overgrazing by the goats kept by indigenous people was the ‘first step’ towards the arid landscapes of the Middle East (LRB, 30 November 2017). Diana Davis has written on the sorry influence of this myth (The Arid Lands, 2016), and Mithen himself contradicts it in statements about his own excavations in Jordan (‘I suspect they were also practising some form of environmental management’). Indeed, indigenous peoples have always modified their environments; even the deepest, most remote tropical forest bears the signs of shifting cultivation. But they also have rules about not destroying their own livelihoods. The loss of trees and present-day aridity of the Middle East was the result of the long-term drying of the climate, not of overgrazing.

Mithen also writes that hunter-gatherer fecundity was ‘effectively limited by the demands of travel to having one child every four years’. The four-year gap was caused by the suppression of the menstrual cycle by breast-feeding (lactational amenorrhea). Hunter-gatherers such as the !Kung of the Kalahari breast-feed every few minutes on demand, night and day. Coupled with their diet, the energy demands of milk production make eggs and new babies impossible to produce. It was the change in nutrition of settled agriculturalists that reduced the effect of lactational amenorrhea, leading to a reduction in the inter-birth interval and hence an increase in overall fecundity. This nutritionally mediated method of adjusting the birth rate to the level of available resources makes perfect biological sense, fitting in with what we know about many other mammals. The ‘demands of travel’ does not.

Francis Gilbert
University of Nottingham


Colin Burrow accuses Philip Pullman of indulging in Oxporn, quoting from La Belle Sauvage: ‘as the grey light faded outside the 600-year-old windows of Duke Humfrey …’ (LRB, 4 January). Pullman also has his dates wrong. The windows in Duke Humfrey’s Library are, at most, 530 years old and were first refurbished 420 years ago. Most existing Oxford college and university buildings date from the plunder of the British Empire, not the tithes of the Middle Ages. Most of the town resulted from even more recent industrialisation. The grey light fades over a city mythologised more than any other by children’s authors. None of this would matter much if it didn’t result in the highest house-price-to-wage ratio in Europe, astronomical rents and the growing dysfunctionality of forty thousand people a day driving cars across a green belt because they cannot live where they work. Oxporn isn’t the real picture.

Danny Dorling

It was considerate of Colin Burrow to distance himself from some examples of extremely popular children’s books before quickly moving on to the job of critiquing Philip Pullman’s work. That way he was able to signal that he wasn’t some kind of child-centred critic of children’s books but someone who could treat this material in an appropriately adult way. Putting to one side the claim – not made by Burrow – that popular children’s books are only popular because their popularity has been constructed by canonisation and/or capitalism, is there a role in serious criticism for the discussion of children’s literature as something that has meaning for children?

Michael Rosen
Goldsmiths, University of London

Top Brands Today

Nicholas Penny, in the course of attacking most things contemporary in art, mentions that the Hayward Gallery opened in 1978 (LRB, 14 December 2017). Actually it opened ten years earlier, in July 1968, when the queen cut the ribbon on an inaugural Matisse exhibition. In its first decade the Hayward mounted some memorable shows. My first art memory is of Rodin there in 1970. And not all of those shows were contemporary: alongside Anthony Caro and Bridget Riley and kinetic art were Van Gogh, Klee, the Surrealists, Palladio, Lorrain and Millet, Islamic carpets and frescoes from Florence.

Martin Caiger-Smith
London SW8


I fear our last moments will be worse than Alan Bennett imagines when he foresees that someone from the private outsourcing firm that is ‘the highest bidder’ will be holding our hand when we go (LRB, 4 January). Since a contract is awarded (unless the head of the firm has donated to the ruling party) to the lowest bidder, we’ll more likely spend our last moments with a zero-hours worker who will be looking at their watch, impatient to be done with the day’s quota.

Rhoda Koenig
London SW2

The President and the Bomb

Adam Shatz quotes Carl Schmitt: ‘He is sovereign who decides’ (LRB, 16 November 2017). The first sentence of Schmitt’s Political Theology (1922) in fact reads: ‘He is sovereign who decides on the exception,’ or, depending on the translation, ‘He is sovereign who decides on the state of exception.’ Many contemporary thinkers have argued that in our time, the state of exception has become the rule; if that is true, then Trump, far from being the ‘decider’ Shatz makes him out to be, is better understood as a symptom of a larger problem.

Cory Stockwell

About Penguins

Werner Herzog would be disheartened to read Joanne O’Leary’s description of his film Encounters at the End of the World as a ‘documentary about penguins in the Antarctic’ (LRB, 4 January). As he makes clear in a voiceover at the beginning of the film, he set out precisely not to rehash March of the Penguins. Rather his film is a documentary about humans in the Antarctic, in particular those at the McMurdo research station. Penguins come up only because Herzog, true to form, wants to know whether they are capable of being either homosexual or insane. Neither, explains a laconic scientist, though they do sometimes become fatally disoriented.

Kenneth Champeon
Augusta, Maine

The Road to Reading Gaol

Sean French notes apropos the card left for Oscar Wilde by the Marquess of Queensberry that ‘one might as well get it right’ (Letters, 4 January). In fact, photographs of the card, readily found online, show that Queensberry wrote not ‘To’ but ‘For Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite’.

David Martin

Killed by Tigers

Colin Munro tells of the savaging of his namesake, Hector Sutherland Munro, by a tiger on Saugor Island near Calcutta in 1792 (LRB, 4 January). Death by tiger in the 18th century occurred in mainland England as well as in India. Being at one time a regular visitor to the town of Malmesbury, I became familiar with the story of Hannah Twynnoy, who died in 1703 after being mauled to death by a travelling menagerie tiger. The poem on her gravestone in Malmesbury Abbey reads:

In bloom of Life
She’s snatchd from hence,
She had not room
To make defence;
For Tyger fierce
Took Life away.
And here she lies
In a bed of Clay,
Until the Resurrection Day.

The unfortunate Hannah, as a now lost plaque once memorialised, was a servant at the White Lion Inn who ‘imprudently took pleasure in teasing, not withstanding the repeated remonstrance of its keeper. One day whilst amusing herself with this dangerous diversion the enraged animal by an extraordinary effort drew out the staple, sprang towards the unhappy girl, caught hold of her gown and tore her to pieces.’

Simon Down
Anglia Ruskin University