All the Testosterone
I last read John Updike in 1968 when I was an undergraduate English major struggling through all the testosterone in ‘Contemporary American Novels’ (LRB, 10 October). I’ve waited 51 years to have a good laugh about it. Today, I have been cured of the psychosis of appreciating Updike’s prose while at the same time hating the sensibility that created it. Thank you, Patricia Lockwood. I’m a new woman.
Justice eBay Style
Frederick Wilmot-Smith considers the implications of using the online court to review a decision to remove someone’s Disability Living Allowance (LRB, 26 September). In fact, most DLA removals nowadays are connected to a claim for its replacement, Personal Independence Payment. Only children under 16 can make new claims for DLA. Almost all adult DLA claimants (some of the oldest are protected) will, sooner or later, be invited to claim PIP, and their DLA will end whether they make that claim or not.
The result is that the majority of DLA appeals are about children, and involve questions different from the ones posed in Wilmot-Smith’s discussion. Work, for example, is rarely relevant. Even if DLA appeals were about adult claims, work still wouldn’t be directly relevant, as both DLA and PIP are intended for the extra costs of disability in a person’s domestic and social life, and have no conditions attached to working.
Wilmot-Smith’s wider point about the difficulty of establishing without a public hearing what is in dispute in a case is brought home by the fact that when benefit claimants submit their appeals online (which they can already do), they will often be confused about the conditions of benefit, giving facts that aren’t relevant and leaving out others that are. In any case, the vast majority of people claim benefits because they desperately need to do so. And this means, very often, not having a computer, not having wifi at home, and not necessarily being able to get online, fill in an online form, or repeatedly log into a system. As a welfare rights adviser, I know this all too well because of the problems there have been with universal credit. HM Courts and Tribunal Service has assured us that disabled people will not be disadvantaged by the move to an online system (and indeed it would be unlawful if they were), but it is difficult to see how they will not be, even if other routes to appeal exist.
We also know that being represented at an oral hearing increases the chances of success. But with no legal aid for welfare benefits at the first tier tribunal level, qualified and experienced representation is increasingly not available. Digitising the benefit appeal system runs the risk that more claimants will give up trying to appeal, more appeals will be heard on insufficient facts, fewer appeals will be allowed, and benefit decisions will appear to be more ‘accurate’ while the vulnerable, powerless and most in need will lose out yet again.
In 1984 I was appointed director of the National Interactive Video Centre, sponsored by the Department of Trade and Industry. In those days ‘interactive’ meant linking a videodisc player to a BBC-B computer. My job was simply to see anyone and everyone who was interested in the emerging technology – which I did, five days a week, for seven years. Frederick Wilmot-Smith will not be surprised to hear that many of the eager seekers after innovation were civil servants. Invariably they were interested in the possibility of making electronic versions of paper forms. And, even in 1984, it was fairly easy to say: ‘You can do that if you like but it will still be a form and people will still not know whether to answer yes or no to question 57b.’ They never believed me. It sounds as if things may not have changed all that much.
When, after a great deal of advance instruction as to how I should behave, the senior judge in charge of county and local courts came to visit, we laid on a very careful demonstration for him. He asked why he was being shown this. I replied that my understanding was that most of the court officials needed training in the interests of a standard approach across the country. ‘Bugger the officials,’ he said. ‘It’s the bloody judges I want to train.’
Bere Ferrers, Devon
He never goes away
David Crook insists that Enoch Powell was not from Birmingham, but was a ‘yam-yam’ from the Black Country (Letters, 10 October). As a proud yam-yam myself, I would point out that while Powell’s constituency, Wolverhampton South West, is thought to be in the Black Country (the boundaries are contested), he was born in Stechford in East Birmingham, lived there until he was six, then moved to Kings Norton, also in Birmingham, where he went to school before going to Cambridge. I believe it is safe to say he was a Brummie and not one of ours.
In Hong Kong
Iain Mackintosh recalls defending Hong Kong as a gunner in 1956 (Letters, 12 September). I was there too, as a regular, in late 1969. I had returned to my regiment unwillingly, having completed a degree at the army’s expense, during which I had learned of Britain’s deplorable military record across the Middle East. I no longer wished to bear arms on behalf of the state. Anxious to avoid life in the mess, I volunteered for border observation duty. At 6 a.m. every morning I’d watch the Chinese peasants start work. At 8 a.m. everyone stopped work and gathered in clusters, field by field, while someone read from the Little Red Book. Morning prayers!
We dutifully recorded the patterns of activity, including every passing motorised vehicle, even mopeds. This may seem silly now, but just four or five years earlier, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, PLA forces had threatened the border. Our predecessor regiment, I was told, had been duly deployed in support of the infantry brigade, laid their guns on set targets, and received the order to load over the radio, something gunners never do unless the intention is to fire (given the tiresome business of extracting the shell). After a tense hour, during which everyone must have thought they were about to engage in an act of collective suicide, the order came to ‘Unload!’, to intense relief.
On one occasion, back in barracks, my commanding officer, at a loose end and knowing I was a bolshie, invited me to argue about something political with him. So I asked him why no effort was being made to establish democracy, given that there were only another 27 years before handover. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘the Hong Kong Chinese aren’t remotely interested in democracy, only in making money!’
Craig McFarlane asserts that J.D. Bernal’s ‘commitment to Marxism-Leninism as exemplified in the Soviet Union trumped his commitment to science’ (Letters, 10 October). It’s complicated. I happened to be with Bernal and his partner, Margot Heinemann, on 29 July 1969, the day of the moon landing. Although Bernal’s speech was severely affected by a second stroke, I gathered from Margot that he wished to see the event on television. As we sat and watched Neil Armstrong take ‘one small step’, I turned to Bernal and asked if he was excited by what he saw or upset by this proof of America’s new dominance in the space race. Margot interpreted his stuttered reply: ‘Des says: “It is not a triumph for the Americans. It is a triumph for science.”’
Craig McFarlane is, no doubt, right to argue that J.D. Bernal’s role in the Lysenko affair was unforgivable, but it is another matter to suggest that his ‘commitment to Marxism-Leninism’ remained unchanged from the Stalin years to 1969. I never knew Bernal, but in 1970 or thereabouts his son Martin told me his father had confided to him that he now realised he was more a Wellsian than a Marxist. Anyone who reads The World, the Flesh and the Devil will understand what he meant.
If, as David Runciman suggests, David Cameron’s world is divided between team players and wankers, it’s obvious why Theresa May is barely mentioned in For the Record (LRB, 10 October). Clearly she wasn’t a team player, but surely an Eton-educated, English gentleman would find it impermissible to imagine a woman wanking.