Is Andrew O’Hagan taking a Foucauldian line: between the 1960s and the present there has been a major shift in the disciplinary regime relating to paedophilia such that earlier norms of behaviour are no longer tolerated (LRB, 8 November)? Or is he going along with the ethical humanists: people always knew that what was going on was morally repugnant, but turned a blind eye ? I found it difficult to decide. But O’Hagan’s claims about the national adulation of Savile certainly seem overstated. Quite apart from any concerns about his paedophile tendencies, there was surely always a significant swathe of the population who found no entertainment in watching his programmes, and nothing very lovable about the entertainer himself.
Rodmell, East Sussex
Andrew O’Hagan wants us all to be in this together. ‘If the Savile story turns out to involve a great conspiracy,’ he writes, ‘it will be a conspiracy that the whole country had a part in. There will always be a certain amount of embarrassment about Savile, not because we didn’t know but because we did.’ O’Hagan elides an important distinction. It is no doubt true that public demand helped to create the light entertainment department whose ethos he describes, which in turn allowed Savile to exploit his fame. But it is wrong to infer that the public, as consumers of the department’s products, shares the responsibility for his abusive behaviour. Whom does he mean to include in the ‘we’ who knew? That Savile was popular says much, and nothing good, about the tastes of his audience; but however eccentric, his performances on screen did not shout ‘paedophile’. Whatever ‘the nation’ wanted Jimmy to get away with, did it want him to get away with that?
Niceties of class and power: if you are lower middle class and like boys you’re a paedophile; if you’re a toff you just happen to like boys. What do you call someone who isn’t quite either and likes boys? And what do you say of the boys? Are public schoolboys ‘abused’, or is that something that happens only to the ‘victims’ of paedophiles?
I couldn’t help feeling that Andrew O’Hagan underestimated the problems of being gay when homosexuality was illegal. Abuse is, of course, unacceptable, no excuses. But anti-gay prejudices thrive, despite the laws. As long as homosexuality remains stigmatised there will be many more who do not feel free to act on their desire, let alone come out as gay. Those unable to join the gay community today are, in particular, that most traditional of homosexual types, men, including married men, attracted to adolescent boys. Whereas Gay Liberation saw boy love as an integral strand in the gay rainbow, the organised gay movement of today proves its respectable credentials by joining in the witch hunt against ‘paedophiles’ – a term deliberately recycled to equate the tender feelings towards adolescents so commonly acknowledged in the past with a small number of violent abusers. In 1994 the International Lesbian and Gay Association formally expelled organisations that defended ‘boy love’, such as the North American Man-Boy Love Association. This was its ticket to consultative status with UN organisations.
‘Everywhere nowadays has its price,’ Alan Bennett mourns, ‘and the more inappropriate the setting the better. I scarcely dare suggest that Pentonville or Wormwood Scrubs be marketed as fun venues lest it has already happened’ (LRB, 8 November). Although the real inmates have long departed, the prison environment is in fact a well-established part of English hotel life. The former Oxford jail is a Malmaison, marketed with the blurb ‘You’ve been bad. We know. It’s time to pay for all those second-rate hotel rooms … This time you’re going down. Guilty as charged.’ Pictures on its website show original secure doors and a main cell block beautifully set up as a wedding reception venue. In London the former Marlborough Street Magistrates’ Court is the Courthouse Doubletree Hotel, which clearly takes pride in the history of the building. It ‘unites refined luxury with an approachable demeanour’, being ‘home to many historical visitors and scenes from John Lennon and Mick Jagger to Oscar Wilde’ (they all appeared as defendants). Along with offering the Magistrates’ Suite and the world’s only Lalique crystal penthouse, the hotel has located its restaurant in a nearly intact former courtroom, with the original judge’s bench, dock and witness box in place. Presumably between courses one can stand in the dock, like Mick Jagger, ‘defending his name when it was alleged he was caught in possession of cannabis (and Marianne Faithfull!)’. Perhaps the oddest aspect is the bar, ‘another quirky gem’, ‘featuring the original prison cell blocks as cosy VIP rooms’. I knew these as a young barrister, where I tried to take instructions from clients who had been arrested the night before. Now the cells are for ‘private use and can host up to eight people. These can be booked in advance or are available on a first come first served basis.’
Tom Carver repeats the canard that Kim Philby’s father also worked for the British secret service (LRB, 11 October). He didn’t, but the Soviets thought he did, one reason they wanted Kim as an agent despite his obvious drawbacks as a young recruit – a stammer and a desperate lack of self-confidence. Carver’s account is largely accurate, but in the last few lines he descends into the kind of blackguarding that has been a feature of writing about the Cambridge spies ever since the 1950s. ‘He badgered Eleanor to join him in Moscow,’ he writes. ‘Soon after she arrived he repaid her loyalty by having an affair with the wife of Donald Maclean.’ This continues the tradition of describing Philby as a ‘philanderer’ and, to borrow Hugh Trevor-Roper’s melodramatic description in his 1960s book The Philby Affair, someone who ‘touched nothing which he did not destroy … Institutions, persons, friendships, marriage, all crumbled around him.’
The point that Carver glosses over is that Kim and Eleanor’s marriage survived for more than two years after his defection, and that they built a life together in Moscow against the odds (the cold, the erratic food supply, her lack of enthusiasm for the Soviet system). What ended things was Eleanor’s need to return to the US to see her daughter, and the confiscation of her passport by the US government, preventing her return for five months. Communications from her to Philby were blocked, and he thought she might never come back. In that time Philby, lonely and vulnerable, fell prey to the discontented and nervy Melinda Maclean, whose marriage to Donald had long been on the rocks, and who envied the Philbys’ happiness. When Eleanor eventually returned, Philby found it impossible to make a decisive break with Melinda, who had become emotionally dependent on him, and in the end Eleanor pulled out. The regret was mutual.
All this is told by Eleanor Philby in Kim Philby: The Spy I Loved (1968). Was she deluding herself about her ex-husband’s character? It seems unlikely. His fourth wife, Rufina, a Russian and a very different type from Eleanor, tough and politically astute, also wrote an affectionate memoir of her life with Kim, to whom she was married for 18 years until his death. The picture of Kim Philby as a husband that emerges from the two accounts is remarkably similar: a gentle, faithful, home-loving, sentimental man, an excellent cook, a creature of habit, amusing and kind, whose only fault was his love of alcohol. Not many men can have received glowing book-length testimonies from two former wives.
It’s always the way with the Cambridge spies. Burgess is written off as a slovenly, chaotic homosexual – only part of the truth about him, as a recent biography by Michael Holzman points out. Maclean has been variously described as a closet homosexual (he may well have been bisexual), a pederast (untrue) and a drunken degenerate (there were occasional drinking bouts at times of stress, but aside from those he was a diligent and serious man). In the 1980s Noël Annan wrote a damning account of Philby as a sexual predator: ‘After he fled to Moscow he took Melinda Maclean away from her husband, and then realising that advancement in the KGB would be more likely to come if he married a Soviet citizen, he ditched her.’ In fact Rufina was not at all to the KGB’s taste, given her friendships with political dissidents prior to meeting Philby. She was outspoken enough about her political sympathies to put him at risk with the KGB men who listened in on their private conversations via bugging devices in their flat. Only Anthony Blunt, in Miranda Carter’s biography, is shown as a complicated man with many qualities, a man of several distinctive and apparently incompatible parts.
I was interested in Anne Carson’s translations of the Ibykos fragments, and tried an experiment today which resulted in ‘Wyatt through the washing machine’ (LRB, 8 November). This is constructed by testing the fabric of the original poem ‘They flee from me that sometime did me seek’ by putting it through a sequence of computer translations. This was a semi-random sequence, but could be thought of as the journeys of Wyatt when he was reborn as a Viking. English is translated into Italian, which comes out beautifully. Italian into Catalan, which you can still understand, introduces the word afanyosament. Then Catalan to Basque, which takes it out of range, but introduces nire camera lurking and gogoratu. Basque to Filipino loses lurking but introduces the highly durable mapagpakumbaba (probably ‘meek’) which maintains its position through all subsequent translations. The Icelandic version from the Filipino gives the taut
flyja mig thegar eg begirati
Myndavelin min felur berum fotum.
Eg sa blidur hond og mapagpakumbaba.
Then from here Haitian Creole gives us begirati kamera mwen fe sa kip ye fem wen te we blithur men ak mapagpakumbaba. You can see that not only mapagpakumbaba but also the Icelandic blithur has survived the transition. The move from Creole to Polish brings the text off the rails at the start, though it preserves the word newfangleness. From Polish to Finnish we get nain lithur mutta mapagpakumbaba and towards the end ystavellinen ja newfangleness, on the principle that the words the computer cannot understand it preserves without trying to guess. Finally, from Finnish to French we get a difficult text from which a few Mallarmé-like lines shine out: mais espeselman après la recherché d’un mince delicieux … une baisse de tuiles lâches … et me prit par la main, et le grand et le petit doux pour m’embrasser après l’obtention du diplome Amour … genre étrange et newfangleness.
Marina Warner has become a mischievous cherry-picker of the Marian (LRB, 8 November). For every lovely motet in which she finds ‘serenity’ there are thousands of dismal plaster statues. She may prefer Mary the shop steward, but only by ignoring her place on the throne of heaven. Warner says the connection between stumbling into a Vietnam War atrocity and her early exploration of the Marian cult is ‘stretched’. But, by making it, she cannot help but locate the famous photograph of Kim Phuc in the myth of Christian death and resurrection. For, although she is present so little in the New Testament, Mary is as central as the immortal soul, likewise absent from sacred text and Conciliar creeds. Nor is there anything a movement of New Marians can do to detach her from her history as a source of solace in the deep shadow of the Father. As the Church came to play father confessor to post-imperial statelets, it became increasingly trapped by their own transformation into empires which could be held together only with almost constant, overweening violence. It was at least possible for elite Anglo-Saxon women to obtain high monastic office. The contrast with the status of women in the Carolingian court is compelling. It could only get worse until, twelve centuries later, European warfare manufactured widowhood on such a scale as to cause a shortage of men.
The sanitising of the martial into ‘rendition’ and ‘drones’, now console-operated at home in the UK, fits perfectly with the Mary whom Warner psychoanalyses out of the grasp of the ‘motherless boy’, Pope John Paul II. How can Warner airbrush out of her imagination the two millennia of organised, male violence which has always fired up passive, female Mary worship? Its revival can only be a matter of the same refusal from consciousness. America spent forty postwar years inventing a Soviet enemy capable of industrial-scale aggression. Following its unexpected collapse, the US has worked hard at its Islamic replacement. As empire begets empire, the last thing Warner’s Mary is going to do is tell those who worship at her shrine that men have to be stopped. On the contrary, prayer sublimates doing. It may be too late. Women are getting guns. Meanwhile, Warner finds it ‘a little less difficult to enjoy Marian worship’.
John Pemble represents David Ricardo as an intellectual father of the New Poor Law of 1834, which he was not (LRB, 25 October). According to Ricardo, Pemble writes, ‘all those who were fit and out of work were either malingering or expecting too much. Work was always available for anyone who was healthy and prepared to accept a subsistence wage.’ Ricardo argued no such thing. The real intellectual father of the New Poor Law was the Reverend Malthus, with his immensely successful Essay on Population, where he wrote that if a man ‘cannot get subsistence from his parents, on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, he has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him.’ Even in Malthus’s case there is no claim that ‘work was always available’: unemployment would not be eliminated by what today’s economists love to call ‘flexibility’, but by the physical elimination of the workers who could not find employment.
Giancarlo de Vivo
David Ricardo died in 1823, a decade before the Royal Commission that proposed the Poor Law amendment and wholesale reform was established; and nobody has yet succeeded in finding any direct evidence of Malthus’s opinions on the 1834 Act before he died later that year. The sample of what purports to be Ricardo-Malthus thinking offered by John Pemble confuses provisions drawn from the 1834 Act and much older abolitionist arguments of a kind that Malthus had abandoned by the early 1820s. It also elides the major issue on which Malthus was in sharp disagreement with Ricardo: the possibility of general overproduction.
Cooksbridge, East Sussex
I hope that Terry Castle (LRB, 27 September) will not think that I am nitpicking if I point out that Mercedes de Acosta may well have been a ‘rug rat’ (pejorative name for crawling infant) at one time, but at the time Castle refers to she was more likely a ‘pack rat’ (obsessive hoarder of stuff).
James Meek, in his account of the way Britain’s power industry fell into foreign hands, misses out one detail, which was crucial to the massive growth of EDF, the state-owned French company, and key to the way that it and other state-owned firms from elsewhere in Europe have been able to ‘renationalise’ utilities and services in Britain on behalf of foreign governments (LRB, 13 September).
I was at a couple of meetings in 1996 that brought together the rump of the state-owned enterprises that had survived the Thatcher and Major privatisations. They included the bodies running the Tube, the canals, Manchester Airport, the Scottish water supply, the Post Office and air traffic control. Apart from still being in public ownership, they had in common the need to raise money for capital investment. They were well aware of the rules in the rest of Europe that enabled (and still enable) a firm like EDF to behave like a private company but to enjoy the advantages of low borrowing costs backed by government. The case was made to the Labour opposition for the same rules to be adopted here. John Battle, then Labour’s shadow minister for energy, was one of those briefed, as was the shadow Treasury minister, Alistair Darling.
Nothing came of it. Some of the operations (like air traffic control) were privatised by Labour; others (like the Tube) were afflicted with private finance schemes; some, like the Post Office, staggered on with various concessions to private sector management styles. The canals survived Labour to be turned by the Tories into a charity.
In the meantime, as Meek makes clear, privatisation led to a succession of takeovers; many of the original buyers are now forgotten, replaced by foreign companies. Meek concentrates on the energy sector and the growth of the French EDF, but there is a similar story to be told about the transport sector. One of the biggest companies running buses and trains, Arriva, is majority-owned by the German government. SNCF, the French state railway company, is said to be eager to bid for HS2, the next high-speed rail franchise.
Of course the government has had to intervene in the rail industry when private companies have failed. Thus we have the quirkily named Directly Operated Railways, created to run the East Coast line when National Express pulled out. We have the extraordinary National Rail, whose finances the Labour government bent over backwards to keep off the books. The company is largely owned by self-appointed members, despite being heavily dependent on state finances. Justine Greening, until recently the Transport Secretary, admitted she was unable to veto its directors’ bonuses (they later decided to waive them).
One of the main reasons Labour would not adopt European borrowing rules, it said, is that it would create unfair competition if a public company could borrow more cheaply than its private sector rivals. Yet this is exactly what many French, German and Dutch state-owned firms now do. It may not be the only reason they are so competitive, but it certainly helps when they want to buy a slice of Britain’s transport or energy sectors. Britain is judged in the same way as its EU competitors: it has to report to the IMF, follow the European System of Accounts and adhere to the Maastricht Treaty. But it refuses to take advantage of these rules in the way that other countries do, by treating state-owned businesses differently.
There is one exception: the privatised banks. We spent so much on them that the sum is simply too huge to be counted as part of government debt, so the government created a loophole for itself, effectively applying international rules just in this one case.
Given that successive governments have flogged off practically all the state-owned enterprises (as will presumably happen soon with the nationalised banks), these issues might be thought no longer to matter. But actually they do, because local authorities still own tram companies, markets, the odd bus company and Manchester airport. Most important, they own two million council houses. It would be a massive boost to localism if these self-financing enterprises (where most or all of the income comes from charges to customers) could borrow to expand, without affecting the headline figures for public debt. There is a powerful argument for allowing this when the economy badly needs boosting. Nothing in international rules prevents it from happening, only the Treasury’s aversion to letting go of the purse strings.
David Runciman writes that in Spain the unemployment figures apply to the 50 per cent of young people not enrolled in higher education (LRB, 25 October). That isn’t so. The International Labour Organisation includes in its definition of unemployment citizens of working age in full-time education who say they are available for work and would take a job (including a part-time job), yet cannot find one. Hundreds of thousands of the young unemployed in Spain are likely to be in higher education and looking for a part-time job.
Demos, London SE1
David Simpson fears that the Mallory film The Epic of Everest has gone the way of very many old films (LRB, 25 October). Not so. I saw it in the Vondelpark, Amsterdam in 1995. Dutch National Archives projected it onto a screen in the park using a 35mm projector mounted in one of the archive’s windows. The film ends with the figures of the climbers disappearing into the distance.
Epic of Everest is available to view at the BFI Mediatheque. Not only that: the BFI has definite plans to restore it, to join their stunning restorations of Frank Hurley’s record of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, South (1919), and Herbert Ponting’s The Great White Silence (1924). Clips of John Noel’s Everest footage can also be seen, in the 1953 film of Hillary and Tensing’s ascent, The Conquest of Everest, narrated by Louis MacNeice.
Mary Ann Lund
University of Leicester
Neal Cassady’s fateful letter to Jack Kerouac prescribing the New Method, quoted by Thomas Powers, repeats almost to the word Rilke’s advice in Letters to a Young Poet: ‘Start from the beginning as though you are the first man, and say what you see and experience, love and lose’ (LRB, 25 October). Rilke was no stranger to spontaneous outpourings of ‘automatic prose’. His bestselling novella, The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke, took only two nights, and in 1920 he claimed to Baladine Klossowska that he had dispatched that morning ‘115 letters. Not one less than four pages and many as much as eight or twelve written in my tight little hand.’
Contrary to what Jenny Diski writes in her melancholy article about the Wrotham Hill murder, James Chuter Ede was not an abolitionist any more than Herbert Morrison, his Labour Home Office predecessor, had been (LRB, 8 November). His Criminal Justice Bill of 1947 was widely assailed for its rigidity and he retreated, conceding that all capital sentences should be assessed on their merits. He signed death warrants across his six years as home secretary, but did later soften his views in the light of the Timothy Evans case.
Michael Kulikowski writes that ‘the Roman Republic never built ships bigger than threes’ – that is, triremes (LRB, 25 October). According to Polybius in 260 BC, during the first Punic War, the Senate built a hundred quinqueremes, ‘fives’, and in the course of the war called for the construction of many more ships of this class.
East Carolina University
Greenville, North Carolina
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