Phil Gyford


Sunday 25 July 2004

PreviousIndexNext London Review of Books, 22 July 2004

Contents page online here

‘Stainless Splendour’ by Stefan Collini

It’s not just Victoria Beckham et al who expect to see themselves in every newspaper… Page 6:

Leavis found a text for his sermon readily to hand in the recently published World within World. There, [Stephen] Spender confesses (he rather cultivated confession as a mode) that from early in his life he wanted fame and saw poetry as a more promising route than politics, in contrast to his political journalist father: ‘but although I wanted a truer fame, I cannot deny that I have never been free from a thirst for publicity very like that of my father. Even today it disgusts me to read a newspaper in which there is no mention of my name.’

Page 10, good summary of the CIA-backed Encounter magazine of which Spender was an editor (without, apparently knowing who was financing it).

‘Female Bandits’ by Wendy Doniger

How does myth differ from history in its flexibility: (Pages 20-21)

But how much variation can there be without making th myth unacceptable or unrecognisable? Since Robin [Hood]‘s death is not a popular part of the story, and is rarely narrated, the Connery film [Robin and Marian] went, as Knight suggests, ‘one step too far for the Robin Hood faithful, and this version of the myth was outside the biography that most people acknowledge for the forest hero’. How do we define the boundaries of a myth, or exclude variants that go beyond it? History, like myth, varies, but the two genres of narrative have different limits. Even R.G. Collingwood admitted that, though you can indeed tell the story of Caesar’s assassination in various ways, there are ways in which you can’t tell it: you can’t say that Caesar killed Brutus. Myth, by contrast, can say that Marian killed Robin — or can it? And can it say that Richard I was a bad king? Robin and Marian, unlike most Robin Hood films, lost money, especially in America, and that’s as good a measuring stick as any: the audience voted with its feet that Robin’s death was not part of the myth.

‘Decay-Prone’ by Stephen Mulhall

Handy summary of the liberal dilemma: (Page 24):

Liberalism has been dogged by the suspicion that its commitment to tolerance is essentially duplicitous. The goal of respecting each person’s equal right to choose for herself how to live is surely definitive of a liberal conception of the good life for human beings; but if that is so, it requires a kind of neutrality from the state which flows from a belief in the superiority of that liberal conception. In short, advocating such neutrality gives expression to a partisan moral stance. Liberal tolerance cannot but be grounded in intolerance of its rivals.

This suspicion has never gone away, but neither has it proved easy to articulate in a way that is both clear and convincing. After all, if tolerance really is definitive of the liberal view of politics, how could we reasonably expect a liberal to be neutral between tolerance and intolerance? No conception of a just society can be entirely devoid of moral substance; and if we see social justice as a matter of respecting one another’s autonomy, we must reject visions of society that fail to embody such respect. The crucial distinction to draw, it might be said, is between those conceptions of politics that defend the individual’s freedom to choose and those that permit the state to act in ways that imply that only certain choices are worthy of respect. The latter approach would, for example, allow a confessional politics in which legal restrictions reflected the values of a particular religion, and so contradicted other values (religious and secular). So it does not seem misleading to describe the former approach as committed to neutrality between rival moral visions in a way that the latter is not.

But, a problem: In a liberal democracy there are many rival comprehensive visions of the good life. We cannot legitimately view other conceptions as irrational so we must acknowledge others in society may reasonably disagree with us. This raises a problem as our liberal vision of individual autonomy may conflict with the visions of others, and thus embody a failure to respect their freedom.

Goes on to summarise Rawls, who distinguishes “comprehensive conceptions of the good from purely political ones.” But I don’t understand the summary — it doesn’t make clear what political conceptions are. Goes on to talk about Martha Nussbaum’s Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame and the Law:

To begin with, Nussbaum is a longstanding advocate of the view that emotions are not essentially opposed to reason, but rather have an inherently cognitive aspect or function. Take fear: it typically has an object, and it embodies a particular understanding of that object (as threatening harm). Hence it involves a complex of beliefs without which it would not be the emotion it is, and it can usually be assessed as more or less reasonable (as a response to the situation at hand). Accordingly, Nussbaum cannot issue a general proscription of emotion-based illiberal lawmaking on the grounds that shame and disgust are entirely unthinking forces.

‘The Purchas’d Wave’ by Bernard Rudden

About the New River. Page 28:

The aqueduct begins at Chadwell Spring, near Ware in Hertfordshire, and is soon joined by a cut from the River Lea. It winds south for some twenty miles and, for most of its history, ended in Islington, a few hundred yards south of the Angel.

… The supply began with individual enterprise when, around 1600, Edmund Colthurst, an Elizabethan man of parts, sought royal approval of his plans. By 1605, it was seen rather as a matter of public service, and an Act of Parliament authorised the City to do the necessary work. Four years later it returned to private enterprise, when the City handed over its public powers to a goldsmith called Hugh Myddleton, whose name still adorns the streets of Islington. Three years after that it became a public-private initiative, with James I underwriting half the costs in return for half the profits. In 1631, Charles I was persuaded to swap equity for debt, a deal that proved most unfortunate for the Crown. Thereafter, the enterprise contrived to stay private for most of its long life, mounting an agile and determined defence against the 19th-century pressures of four royal commissions, dozens of select committees, scores of unsuccessful Bills, and over a hundred Acts of Parliament. In 1904, however, along with the other water companies, it was municipalised under the Metropolitan Water Board. Eighty-five years later it was privatised once more, becoming Thames Water plc, and has since been globalised into the Rheinisch-Westfälisches Elektrizitätswerk AG.

The water was originally provided by pipes made from elm (made at Pipe Borers Wharf, just downstream from London Bridge). These were leaky, which is probably why the water was turned off most of the time.

On ‘water day’ the turncock of a particular neighbourhood would open the stopcock and for an hour or two the water would run along the main and through each customer’s lead quill into a cistern at ground level or below. This tradition endured: even after elm was replaced by iron, the New River Company never attempted to provide a continuos flow, and until the 20th century most households’ supplies were intermittent.