Encounter with an Impostor
Tom Crewe’s recounting of Robert Peters’s long, incredible career as a fraud reminded me of my own encounter with Peters in 2000, five years before his death, when I was dean of the School of Advanced Study and he was seeking to establish some kind of relationship with the School (LRB, 6 June). By that time, he was quite well known for what he was, but I don’t remember much of what passed between us. I do recall that he was very anxious to introduce me to a friend of his, the poet Kathleen Raine. In due course he invited me to have tea with her. As I was walking towards her house I recognised him about fifty yards ahead, unmistakable – to me – in his black cape and with his slightly sideways limp. He had recently started wearing a patch over one eye, and carried a white stick. He didn’t spot me, and I didn’t hurry to catch up with him. But when he reached the front door, I watched him straighten up, whip off the patch, put away his white stick and stride in over the threshold. When I rang the bell a few moments later it was this rejuvenated, fully-sighted Peters who opened it, welcoming me into the house, where he was entirely upright, agile and at home (in fact I think it was he who made the tea); Raine clearly didn’t know him as blind or semi-disabled.
The really bizarre aspect of this for me was that Peters didn’t seem to care what I thought about this sudden shedding of one of his disguises. Was I to take it for granted, almost as if I was being let in on a secret? And how was I meant to treat him next time I met him, back with the patch and the white stick?
Sir John’s Slippers
Michael Dobson identifies John Gielgud as the first actor to play Shakespeare in Edward Bond’s Bingo (LRB, 6 June). In fact, when the play was first staged, at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter in November 1973, Bob Peck took the leading role. Gielgud did appear in the first London production at the Royal Court. A footnote in theatre history: the programme acknowledged Anello and Davide as suppliers of Gielgud’s slippers. One expected to see them in the scene in the dying Shakespeare’s bedroom, but in fact they made their first appearance when Sir John took his curtain call.
Modi does it again
In his assessment of the Indian elections, Tariq Ali is entirely justified in highlighting the emphatic victory of Narendra Modi’s BJP and the profound failure of the Gandhi-led Congress (LRB, 6 June). But on matters of detail Ali is off-beam. The BJP did indeed fail to win a single seat in the southern state of Kerala, but Kerala was not ‘the only state which didn’t fall to the BJP’; Modi’s party also failed to win a seat in two much larger southern states, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The Communist-led Left Front did not win ‘handsomely’ in Kerala. Quite the opposite, it was reduced to a single seat; this was the one state where Rahul Gandhi’s Congress made significant gains.
The BJP made dramatic inroads in West Bengal, and the Communists were wiped out in the state that was for decades their bastion – but this does not mean that all secular forces there have been banished, as Ali suggests. West Bengal’s dominant party remains Trinamool (it means ‘grassroots’), whose charismatic – if erratic – leader, Mamata Banerjee, campaigned loudly for secular values. There are four Muslims among Trinamool’s new batch of MPs, roughly in proportion to the size of the Muslim community in West Bengal.
As for the Hindu nationalist BJP, it put up six Muslim candidates nationwide. All six lost. So in the new Indian Parliament, among the 303 directly elected BJP MPs, there is once again not a single Muslim.
Clair Wills’s survey of the history of Northern Ireland since 1922 hardly mentions the role of British governments in the decades leading up to the 1960s, which ended in violence and, in 1972, the collapse of Stormont (LRB, 23 May). Stormont could not have maintained Unionist supremacy without at least the tacit support of British governments. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) put down an early marker as to how it meant to continue by passing the first of the Civil Authorities Acts (commonly known as the ‘Special Powers Act’) in 1922, and introducing a second in 1933. In Great Britain, there was only minimal, occasional interest in how Northern Ireland was being governed by the UUP, a rare example being a commission of inquiry and report by the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) in 1936 on the Special Powers Acts, whose repeal later became a key aim of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). Geoffrey Bing, a Labour MP born in County Down, was a founder member of the NCCL and active in the Friends of Ireland Group. In 1950 he published a Tribune Group pamphlet, John Bull’s Other Ireland, a catalogue of discrimination. Even though the pamphlet ran to three editions (more than a hundred thousand copies), it made little impact. There was occasional interest at Westminster, for instance when in June 1951 George Thomas, later to become Speaker of the House, proposed an amendment to the Government of Ireland Act 1920, in the belief that ‘people in every part of the UK were entitled to the free exercise of their religion, civil liberty; an impartial police force and the opportunity of choosing their parliamentary and local representatives by universal franchise under fair conditions’; he also noted that it was ‘the first occasion that the House has had an opportunity to debate the whole issue’.
The constitutional convention that ‘matters of administration for a minister in Northern Ireland could not be discussed at Westminster’ had been in place since 1923, and its rigid interpretation lay at the heart of the deliberate inaction of British governments. The Home Office acted as the main channel of communication between the two governments but over the decades no home secretary showed much interest, preferring to let Stormont function without interference. Charles Brett, a leading light in the Northern Ireland Labour Party, was scathing about the inactivity of the Labour home secretaries Frank Soskice and Roy Jenkins in particular; Soskice spent only a single afternoon in Belfast in the course of his tenure. Brett warned his colleagues in the British Labour Party of the real possibility that religious division would lead to violence, but he went unheeded.
The Campaign for Democracy in Ulster (CDU), founded in 1965 by the Labour MPs Paul Rose and Fenner Brockway, was one of several groups systematically gathering evidence of discrimination, gerrymandering, unfair housing allocation and administrative malpractice. The CDU’s pressure for a Royal Commission on the governance of Northern Ireland and the reform of election law met with resistance from the Wilson government, and its output and activities were dismissed as ‘baseless and scurrilous’ by Terence O’Neill, the prime minister at Stormont, in April 1967.
Even in August 1969, when it became inevitable that Stormont would have to ask for troops to be sent in, so strong was the British government’s desire not to get involved that James Callaghan, the home secretary, waited until the last possible moment before issuing the instruction. It soon became obvious that the troops could not be withdrawn in the short term, and the government turned its mind to ways of securing an orderly disengagement. Callaghan wanted to push for institutional changes (though he stopped short at power-sharing) but others, notably Denis Healey, then the defence secretary, felt that ‘they must push Chichester-Clark [by then the prime minister at Stormont] only as far as he wanted to go’ while planning to offer a review of the role of the Ulster Special Constabulary (the ‘B Specials’) and the workings of local government. In the event, somewhat unexpectedly, Chichester-Clark proposed a more radical approach: a complete British takeover of security and a full-scale inquiry into the police and B Specials. At this point Wilson stepped in and announced the immediate dissolution of the B Specials (without informing Chichester-Clark, who had assumed they would continue to exist under military control). By 11 September the cabinet had decided that these measures were going to be inadequate: Richard Crossman recorded in his Diaries that Callaghan believed ‘British troops were tired and no longer popular and the terrible thing was that the only solutions would take ten years, if they would ever work at all.’
Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire
Clair Wills writes that ‘every member’ of the Northern Ireland Assembly ‘must designate themselves either nationalist or Unionist – no waverers allowed’. In fact they can choose the designation ‘other’, as increasing numbers do. This will become plainly apparent and politically salient, should the Assembly elected in 2017 ever meet. It will be the first such Assembly without a ‘unionist’ majority. That is no doubt one reason the Democratic Unionist Party is in no hurry to restore devolution in Northern Ireland, especially as long as it holds sway at Westminster.
Queen’s University of Belfast
Imps and Ogres
Marina Warner is perhaps being unfair when she writes that Queen Henrietta Maria ‘was pleased with her new toy’, referring to Jeffrey Hudson, who, ‘at the age of seven, was 18 inches tall’ (LRB, 6 June). The evidence is that the queen loved him. Shortly after he was installed at Somerset House Jeffrey fell out of a window. He was unhurt, yet the queen was devastated and refused to dress and emerge for her daily activities. This would be in 1626 or 1627 (before Henrietta Maria had children). Nick Page’s Lord Minimus: The Extraordinary Life of Britain’s Smallest Man (2001) tells the full story of Jeffrey’s career.
The queen had lost her first child in a dangerous miscarriage and wanted a trained French midwife present for the birth of the next. In 1630 Jeffrey went with others to France to collect the midwife, Mme Peronne. On the return trip Dunkirker pirates captured the party, reducing king and queen to tears. ‘They were more upset than they would have been had they lost a fleet,’ the Venetian ambassador reported. The Archduchess Isabella of Flanders intervened. The party was safely returned home minus the priceless gifts sent by Marie de’ Medici for her daughter.
Jeffrey remained a member of the queen’s court, performing in the 1630s masques and helping at the ceremonies after the wedding of Princess Mary (aged nine) and Prince William of Orange (aged 14) in May 1641. In the late summer of 1642 a Dutch ambassador came to take formal leave of Henrietta Maria, kissing Jeffrey’s hand, mistaking him for the Prince of Wales (the future Charles II, then aged 12): he must have been sumptuously dressed and standing at the queen’s side.
Jeffrey was one of the small group that accompanied Henrietta Maria on her escape to France in July 1644. There he won a Pyrrhic victory. In an atmosphere of strained boredom, before the queen and her followers made it to Paris, he was goaded by other (taller) young men and challenged Charles Crofts to a duel. Crofts turned up to fight armed with a large syringe filled with water as his weapon. Jeffrey shot him dead. Honour was satisfied but the French royal government was bent on exterminating duels and the English queen’s court was a focus of attention. Henrietta Maria could hardly risk alienating the Crofts family. But neither did she want her authority infringed by a French investigation. She wrote to Cardinal Mazarin requesting that he allow her to settle the matter herself. Permission was granted. She banished her favourite.
On his way back to England Jeffrey’s problem was in a sense solved when he was captured, this time by Barbary pirates. He became a slave in North Africa for the next 25 years, working as an agricultural labourer. Hard work out of doors appears to have stimulated his pituitary gland, as he put on 18 inches in height. After his eventual release, he reappears briefly in English records in 1669, the year Henrietta Maria died. By then she had been resident in France for four years.
Marina Warner suggests that Lynne Vallone might have avoided using the term ‘pygmies’ by instead opting for ‘San or Khoi’. But that would be to confuse two different groups of indigenous Africans: the Pygmies of Central Africa, and the San (or Bushmen) of southwestern Africa. The term ‘San’ means ‘hunter-gatherer’, but not in any language of the San hunter-gatherers themselves; instead it appears in the dialects of their cattle and sheep-herding Khoekhoe neighbours. Despite its appearance of ethnographic rectitude as compared with ‘Bushmen’, the term ‘San’ was also something of an imposition, and isn’t without negative connotations: herders regard their forager neighbours as low-status people or even as thieves. (‘Khoi’ or ‘Khoe’, meanwhile, is a word meaning ‘people’, and names the group of Khoi languages. The Khoekhoe pastoralists are thus ‘people of people’.)
The term ‘Pygmy’ is used to refer to several groups in Central Africa – the Mbenga in the west, the Mbuti in the east, the Twa in the southeast – who, despite being separated by large distances, have commonalities. These are not limited to genetics (and stature), but also include music, notably the intricate and virtuosic polyphonic singing of the Mbuti and Mbenga. The term ‘Pygmy’ continues to be used, there being no obvious alternative. It is a helpful aspect of exonyms that are obvious exonyms – like ‘Bushmen’ or ‘Pygmy’ – that in their crudeness they signal that they come from outside.
Mary Hannity is right to detect in W.T. Stead’s 1885 experience of imprisonment in Holloway an echo of the comforts and privileges available in pre-Victorian gaols to those able to purchase them (LRB, 9 May). But it would be wrong simply to view Stead’s ‘first-class’ status as an anachronistic hangover from an earlier penal era. ‘First-class misdemeanants belonged to a category introduced in 1843 in response to wide variation in the treatment of Chartists imprisoned for sedition, allowing the courts to spare ‘a gentleman of acute feeling’ (as the Northern Star’s proprietor Feargus O’Connor had been described in Parliament in 1840, after O’Connor was handed an 18-month sentence for seditious libel) the harshness and indignity of prison conditions. This saved Peel’s government from having to acknowledge political prisoners officially as a distinct class: the law provided no criteria for eligibility, which was left to judges to decide. Those sentenced to imprisonment in the first class were allowed to order food, wine and beer from outside the prison, to receive books and newspapers, to furnish their own cells, and to employ another prisoner as a servant. In the event, few Chartists received the classification, though it was later granted to prisoners sentenced for a range of offences deemed to lack criminal intent, including libel, attempted suicide, failure to comply with the 1873 Vaccination Act, and public order offences committed by Salvationists and other outdoor preachers. After 1877, it was applied automatically in cases of contempt of court or sedition, the latter by now mainly involving supporters of Irish Home Rule. But it was not, as Hannity seems to suggest, available to any prisoner simply willing to pay a fee to an ‘entrepreneurial jailer’, fee-taking in English prisons having been outlawed as early as 1815; neither was it available to those condemned to penal servitude – that is, to anyone whose sentence exceeded two years. In fact, Stead himself, who had been sentenced to three months’ imprisonment in the second class, was not legally entitled to first-class privileges, and received them only when the Home Office bowed to pressure from influential public figures.
It is a good thing John Lanchester didn’t combine his two interests by watching the last season of Game of Thrones dubbed into Spanish (LRB, 6 June). He would have been flummoxed when one of the characters shouted ‘Sicansíos’, a word not to be found in a Spanish dictionary but which bears some resemblance to ‘She can’t see us.’ It turns out that the translators were stumped by the Geordie accent of one of the actors and decided to go ‘phonetic’.
The Socialist Lavatory League
As a Crohn’s sufferer, like Owen Hatherley, I know too well the agony of seeking convenience where there is none (LRB, 9 May). Fortunately in 2004 in Australia the National Continence Programme launched the National Toilet Map website and app. More than 19,000 public toilets are listed with a detailed inventory of each toilet’s facilities and opening times. It also allows you to plot a journey and highlights conveniences along the way.
Matthew Topham’s ire against Mary Wellesley’s ‘insistence on her blinkered hermeneutic of oppression’ would have been more productively expressed if he hadn’t chosen to end by ridiculing the horrors of childbearing (Letters, 6 June). According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, 8.9 out of every 100,000 live births in the United Kingdom result in the mother’s death from pregnancy or complications in childbirth; the latest UN statistics suggest that 303,000 women a year die in this way. These are today’s statistics: I don’t think it’s too much of an imaginative stretch to suggest that in the Middle Ages life as an anchorite would have been an appealing alternative.
Abenomics, Kristin Surak writes (Letters, 6 June), ‘may have boosted the profits of big exporters, but it has shrunk real household incomes in a country that is now one of the most unequal in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Nearly every country in Europe has a more equal income distribution than Japan, where one in six children now grows up in poverty.’ But one in six is low compared with many countries in the OECD, and Japan is not one of the most unequal. The policies of Abe Shinzo may not be good for Japan, but as Sagiri Kitao and Tomoaki Yamada explain in a report issued in May, ‘rapid and massive demographic ageing is the driving force of the aggregate trend of inequality.’ In all societies people tend to be paid more equally when they are young; the disparities are widest between those nearing retirement. However, the report also found that ‘income inequality of households above age 65 has declined sharply since the 1980s’ as a result of the ‘more comprehensive coverage of the public pension system’. In other words, the rise in inequality is owed to ageing within the working-age population, not ageing overall.
Kitao and Yamada use the National Survey of Family Income and Expenditure, issued every five years. The OECD comparisons to which Surak refers are based on the Comprehensive Survey of Living Conditions, conducted every three years by the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare, which is known to give misleading results in international comparisons.
A comparison between Japan and the UK may be instructive. In February this year the UK’s Office for National Statistics reported that the share of household equivalised disposable income received by the richest 1 per cent of individuals in the UK in the financial year ending in 2018 was more than seven times the average, and had risen since the previous year. The share taken by the best-off 1 per cent of UK households is even higher than for individuals. In Japan, the top 1 per cent of households receive between 4.4 and five times the average.
In May, it was reported on the basis of data gathered by End Child Poverty, a leading action group, that roughly one child in three is now living in poverty in the UK – twice as many as in Japan. You have to go back several decades to find child poverty figures as low in the UK as they are today in Japan. Earlier this year British social scientists estimated that the proportion of adults starving in the UK was around 3 per cent. They also found that between 2004 and 2016 food insecurity among the least well-off almost doubled.