Phil Gyford

Writing

Thursday 15 July 2004

PreviousIndexNext London Review of Books, 8 July 2004

Contents page online here

Reasons to Be Miserable‘ by James Meek

Lengthy quotes, but it’s a fascinating article.

Page 3

It is well known that there was a Russian Alaska. It is less known that there was a Russian toehold in northern California until, in 1841, the land was sold to a German immigrant for $30,000. What is now a lovely place for mainly American visitors, within comfortable driving distance of the wealth of Marin and Napa counties and Silicon Valley, was once seen from St Petersburg (when it was thought of at all) as the most remote, God-forsaken hellhole in the empire. It was beyond Siberia. It was beyond Alaska! It was fit only for the damned and the insane.

It takes more than endurance and greed to make an empire. It requires imagination, and the more centralised an empire, the more imagination is required: not just to visualise what might be made of a newly acquired territory, but to believe that the very remotest fringes exist as real places. If anyone in St Petersburg thought of Fort Ross as a jumping-off point for an effort to colonise the west coast of North America, they did not act on it. Alaska was an adjunct to Siberia, and Fort Ross was a perilous adjunct to Alaska, only occupied in the first place because the Russians thought it might provide crops for the Alaskan settlement. This project failed. Even before the US began to make its power felt, Fort Ross was encircled by settlers from Mexico.

Russia lost California.

Page 3

If the heating hasn’t broken down and they have the right clothes, Russians won’t actually feel the cold, but that doesn’t mean they like it, and the inhabitants of cities such as Norilsk (average January temperature: -35°C) live like residents of a community in outer space, ever conscious of the mercilessness of the environment outside their triple-glazed rooms.

Page 5

The most misleading passages in Hill and Gaddy occur towards the beginning, when they rhapsodise about something called ‘Zipf’s law’, which declares that ‘across all countries and across time … a country’s largest city is approximately twice as large as the second-largest city, three times as big as the third city, four times as large as the fourth, and so on.’ Put aside the fact that Mr Zipf has devised something that, even if it was correct (it isn’t), would be an observation, not a law. What is misleading is that Hill and Gaddy brazenly treat Russia and the Soviet Union as if they were the same thing. They argue that Russia ‘breaks’ Zipf’s ‘law’ because Soviet planners put too many people in big cold cities in Siberia and not enough in big warm cities in the west. They disregard the fact that Soviet central planning ceased to operate in January 1991, when the USSR ceased to exist, and that when it did operate, the planners placed Russians in big, relatively warm cities which are no longer in Russia: places like Kiev, Tashkent, Almaty and Minsk. Hill and Gaddy pretend that the warmer non-Russian parts of the USSR, with their combined population of 147.5 million - uncannily, almost exactly the same as that of present-day Russia - never existed.

This would matter less if Hill and Gaddy did not base so much of their case on maths. Their other big excursion into numbers is with the invention of the ‘Temperature Per Capita’ concept, or ‘TPC’ - a figure produced by multiplying each region’s population by its average January temperature, then adding the ‘person-degrees’ for all regions together and dividing the sum by the total population of the whole country. Russia’s TPC, unsurprisingly, is not only colder than the nearest equivalent country - Canada, whose population is clustered along the relatively warm US border - but went down by about a degree between the early Soviet years and 1989, while Canada’s went up by about a degree in the same time.

This is interesting, but demonstrates nothing about the economic wellbeing of Siberia or the Russian Arctic. The issue is not how extreme the weather is in a particular place, but whether the economic activity in a particular place makes it worth paying to deal with those extremes. Hill and Gaddy come up with figures to show how each degree of cold negatively affects a country’s GDP. But anyone can play this game. You could look at average temperatures in August, rather than January, and work out how much of an economic burden it is to keep the air conditioning running in hot, humid cities like Houston and Washington DC. Los Angeles and London would score badly on water per capita; San Francisco and Tokyo on earthquakes per capita. If we took into account only how expensive it was to live on an island, it might make economic sense for us to transfer the whole UK operation to Afghanistan.

Page 5

Hill and Gaddy describe Moscow as Russia’s only economic success story. Yet they are forced to acknowledge that the riches on which Moscow’s success is founded have their source in Siberian raw materials. How do they get around this? With the following formula: ‘There is nothing in economic thought that suggests that a region is entitled to make a major claim on revenues because the resources that generate them are physically located within its territory.’ Perhaps. But I have an economic thought. Perhaps if I had invested decades of my life building and working in an oil refinery for very little pay on the understanding that I was working for the good of my country, and then that investment, and the investment of thousands of my friends, was handed over for practically nothing to individuals who proceeded to spend much of the return on that investment on villas in the South of France, private jets and English football clubs, I might feel entitled to be resentful. Perhaps, I might think, if that money had instead been invested in renovating my city’s heating system, building good housing and giving former gulag inmates a decent retirement somewhere warm, it would be harder now for American academics to write books describing my city as an ‘offender’ against Russian prosperity.

Not the least of the attractions of The Siberian Curse is that it shows how little US academia has learned from its clumsy interventions in Russian economic policy in the early 1990s, when a flood of America-knows-best advisers introduced unscrupulous Russians to the Pandora’s box of shareholder capitalism without taking any real interest in the checks and balances - trade unions, subsidies, lobby groups, public transport, welfare - which enable the ‘free’ market to work without complete brutality, even in the US.

‘Enemies of Hindutva’ by Tariq Ali

Page 6.

The suicide rate in the [Indian] countryside is rocketing; just under 40 per cent of the population live below the poverty line and 47 per cent of children suffer from malnutrition. There is no running water in Delhi’s slums, while the five-star giant hotels in the city consume 20,000 litres of mineral or purified water every day.

… The growth [of the Indian economy] is undeniable, but it has increased the gulf between rich and poor in both town and country, as well as widening the gap in living standards between urban and rural populations. The reason is that the growth has been mainly in information technology, manufacturing and the service sector, which doesn’t help the 65 per cent of the population that still live in the countryside. The increase in manufacturing has been concentrated on capital-intensive products - cars, washing-machines, dishwashers - rather than labour-intensive ones, and so urban unemployment has remained largely unaffected.

The capital vs labour intensive dilemma is echoed in Sassen (p285): high-income, labour-intensive gentrification vs capital-intensive middle-class suburbs. Does this imply that reaching the state of high-income gentrification is better for the poor who will then have more work?

Page 7

I happened to be in Delhi in 1982 soon after the release of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. One sunny winter afternoon, a group of us were tormenting an Indian co-producer of the film, accusing him of selling out to Hollywood and all that. After several minutes he turned on us: ‘The film was not made for people like you. We wanted to show the ferangi‘ - foreigners/Westerners - ‘that Indira Gandhi was Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter and no relation at all to Mahatma Gandhi. In this noble aim we succeeded. A small step forward for humanity. So why don’t you guys pick on someone else?

Some months later in London, I sat next to the great director and asked him to confirm the producer’s story. ‘Oh yes, of course, that was the only reason,’ he grinned. ‘But it didn’t entirely work. After a White House screening, Ronald Reagan walked up to me and said: “Great movie. Great man. Just like his daughter.”’

‘Associated Prigs’ by R.W. Johnson

I don’t recall coming across the notion of the “family wage” before, until I read Sassen recently. Page 20.

Eleanor Rathbone is best remembered for her classic work, The Disinherited Family (1924), but her theoretical breakthrough came in 1912, as she puzzled over the economic position of married women and the fact that women’s wages were always lower than men’s. Previously, experts had put this down to women being less well educated, having fewer skills, not being unionised or just having simpler needs, but Rathbone believed the key lay in the fact that, on marriage, the vast majority of women withdrew from the labour market. This meant that ‘the great bulk of the financial cost of rearing fresh generations has to come out of the earnings of the male parent,’ who accordingly drew a ‘family wage’, while women were paid what was thought adequate for a single person only. This was wrong, not only because it offended against the principle of equality but because in practice many women did have dependents. Moreover, the whole of the family age was paid to the man, who could by no means be relied on to pass its share on to the rest of the family. Housewives performed work crucial to society but their wages were, in effect, paid to men. Rathbone was the first to grasp that poverty mostly affected women and children and the solution had to be a system of family allowances, paid directly to mothers.

‘Uneasy Listening’ by Paul Laity

Fascinating review of two biographies of William Joyce / Lord Haw Haw; I’d heard the name but knew nothing about who he was or what he did at all. You can hear some of the broadcasts here. Page 22:

The only alternative [to stuffy, dull, censored BBC radio] was to tune in to one of the many English-speaking overseas stations: Moscow radio had a Cockney newsreader; the service in Chungking ended its transmission with ‘The British Grenadiers’ played on Chinese instruments.

Lord Haw-Haw [the name was given by the British press] became a craze. It was ‘one of those moments’, Mary Kenny writes in her biography of Joyce, ‘when a fashion, a fad, a talking point and a comical inspiration are synthesised into a minor cult’. Haw-Haw was discussed every day in the press, and ‘Germany Calling’ or ‘Jairminy Calling’, the words which began his broadcasts, became a catchphrase. By Christmas 1939, a comedy revue had opened at the Holborn Empire starring Max Miller and called, simply, Haw-Haw; there were dozens of stage acts, impersonators and songs (‘And yet in the winter it’s rather pathetic/ He’s frozen to death, ‘cause his pants are synthetic/ Lord Haw-Haw, the Humburg of Hamburg,/ The comic of eau de Cologne’). Smith’s Electric Clocks came up with an advert which features a monocled donkey at a microphone with the caption: ‘Don’t risk missing Haw-Haw. Get a clock that shows the right time always, unquestionably.’ ‘There’s a feeling you can’t turn off,’ a bricklayer told Mass Observation, ‘you’ve got to listen to him.’

‘I love him and all his tricky sayings,’ one correspondent told Mass Observation. ‘I think that, secretly, we are rather terrified by the appalling things he says,’ another admitted. ‘The cool way he tells us of the decline of democracy and so on. I hate it: it frightens me. Am I alone in this? Nobody has confessed as much to me.’

Early ratings wars… Page 23

The attempt to kill propaganda by ridicule has resoundingly backfired. ‘Our English radio broadcasts are being taken with deadly seriousness in England,’ Goebbels noted in his diary. ‘Lord Haw-Haw;’s name is on everybody’s lips.’ ‘I tell the Führer about Lord Haw-Haw’s success, which is really astonishing,’ runs an entry from March. ‘He is magnificent … the best horse in my stable.’ After only a short time, the British government was regretting the ‘unfortunate mistake’ that had been made in allowing Haw-Haw to get so much publicity, and the BBC was considering a new schedule which pitched stars such as Arthur Askey, Gracie Fields or George Formby against Joyce. Eventually, the Corporation chose Norman Birkett, a well-known lawyer, who began to make weekly broadcasts at the same hour as Haw-Haw. Goebbels was exultant: ‘They want to put somebody up to talk against him. This would be the best thing that could happen. We’d have him for breakfast.’

‘Check out the parking lot’ by Rebecca Solnit

Page 32

One of the reasons often given to explain why the American film industry settled in Hollywood is Southern California’s ability to simulate almost any part of the world: it has lush agricultural areas, deserts, mountains, forests, oceans and open space in which to build Babylon or Atlanta, all drenched in ceaseless light. That is to say, to be in California is to be everywhere and nowhere and usually somewhere else (in the posher parts of LA every house seems to be dreaming of elsewhere: this half-timbered job is in the Black Forest and that one next door is the Alhambra). And as the Los Angeles writer Jenny Price recently remarked, to say ‘I ate a doughnut in Los Angeles’ is a different thing altogether from saying ‘I ate a doughnut.’ [Isn’t this the same with any place though?] The invocation of La throws that doughnut on a stage where it casts a long shadow of depravity or opportunity (which, here, might be the same thing). She added that just as L&eecaute;vi Strauss once remarked that animals are how we think, so Los Angeles, and by extension California, are also how we think - about society, about urbanism, about the future, about morality and its opposite.

Page 33

Throughout most of the English-speaking world, citizens speak English like, well, native speakers, and the ability to speak well is a pleasure and a power. But from George W. Bush on down, the United States, especially its male portion, is fraught with inarticulateness and often committed to it as well. Jane Tompkins, in West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, traces some of this to a frank distrust of language and an association of speaking with opening up, compromomising and otherwise surrendering. John Wayne, she points out, spoke in mono-syllables, often to denounce communication and chatter. Yup. Nope. It was, after all, gay men who would argue in the heyday of Aids activism that silence = death, an equation that goes well with Tompkins’s argument that speech amounts to the unmanly opening up of an orifice. I sometimes think that a certain kind of right-wing belief system is propped up on syntactical delusion: conspiracy theories rest on beliefs and associations that don’t make sense politically but can be swallowed by those who can’t make sense grammatically.”

Diary by Ian Sansom

pp34-5. A wonderful account of the author getting involved in Christian groups as a teenager, running away to spread the word, and how he looks back on it. I’d have to type the whole thing out to get it across.