October 2020: Letters to the Editor

David Starkey was damned by his own words, says a reader


Damned by his own words
David Starkey used to rejoice in his reputation as the rudest man in Britain; indeed, I have heard him boast of it.

His self-pitying defence of himself in your pages (September) is, therefore, far from Roman and dignified as he claims. He excuses his lack of care with his words partly because he was comfortable in his own home and partly blames it upon the interviewer, who should have allowed him to “rephrase and re-record”.

A man who has made a career and a fortune out of an acerbic tongue deployed in the media must accept perishing by the same weapon. To expect a journalist to ask him to edit out one of his trademark provocative phrases is merely vain self-delusion.

His defence is also built on the fact that “damn” is a mild expletive merely used as “a numerical intensifier” by his generation. He offers “so many damn books” to argue that the word merely underlines the quantity. That is tendentious at best, solipsistic at worst.

Nobody ever says: “I have so many damn books on my shelves that it delights me.” The underlying tone is clearly negative: “I have so many damn books to read, I am swamped.” The tone of his comment was equally negative: “There would not be so many damn blacks (with such stupid views such as this claim of genocide …)”

The intensifier he claims to have used is also a negative modifier impacting our judgment on books/blacks.

Finally, Dr Starkey ignores the inherent racism of merely describing black people as “blacks”. Politeness alone (yes, I know) should dictate that we talk of black and white people, allowing our shared humanity as well
as merely our colour to signify us. Consider how any politician would fare telling parliament, “Our policies will be good for blacks.”

Starkey’s casual use of “black” as the entire signifier he was willing to give that diverse group of humankind was overshadowed by his use of the word “damn”. His omission of the word “people”, was however, just as telling. There are indeed many black people, black voters, black parents and black children. They are not, however, merely blacks. Invoking Latin to underline the desperate unfairness of it all, he laments his spectacular fall at this pons asinorum.

Quantum meruit surely?

Julian Johnson-Munday

Headmaster, Culford School, Suffolk

Swashbuckling Myths
I am responding to David Starkey’s article “A perversion of Puritanism which aims to trash our history” (July/August).

Statues and monuments can only reflect the passion and whims of those that put them up. After that they should stand solely upon their own historical merit. If a broader awareness of the history of these figures indicates a more accurate and questionable merit, then surely their monumental legacy must be reviewed. I wonder if many of those who accuse others of revisionism are perhaps burdened by guilt of ignorance and fear of being wrong.

I, too, fear that voices are being marginalised as they don’t fit the “new criteria” — I am glad to read your point of view therefore. But your view is not counterbalanced here. As a white person I will always struggle to appreciate the life experience of being black. I believe empathy to be a powerful tool, the willingness to do so is vital.

It is hard to fully understand the ingrained frustration, hurt and terror that racism carries. But, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s awful death, it is understandable that anger consumes in such an immediate, widespread and pointed manner. Are we still too smugly privileged not to believe this?

Our curriculum should continue to evolve and accurately reflect the history of our diversifying population. It is crucial that young Britons feel that history lessons tell their story truthfully and don’t pander to our heroic white swashbuckling myths.

It tells a great deal that in school I would have heard of the politicians who sought to abolish slavery, but never of the compromises made to plantation owners in order for this to happen.

Is it any wonder that many wish to reclaim these payments? Many monuments carry a jarring legacy of civil benevolence built on the ordeal of enslavement. How can a black parent ever explain such a homage to their child?

In a hundred years, long after we’ve gone, the UK will be a more diverse and multiracial nation. We owe to the generations that succeed us the conditions to build a country they can feel proud of. The alternative is separation, resentment and, ultimately, our collective failure.

Edwin Green

Abingdon, Oxfordshire

Good Companions
I was delighted to read Laura Freeman’s review of Wanderers: A History of Women Walking by Kerri Andrews (September). But “They always walked alone”, as the headline claims? Not so.

In When We Two Walked, Rita Snowden’s beautiful 1939 account of a tramp around the south coast of England, she could not conceive of the idea of walking alone. She delighted in sharing the time with her friend Ann, because “the riches of one’s journey are more than doubled by a companion”.

She knew that not everyone shared that view, quoting Robert Louis Stevenson’s opinion that “To be properly enjoyed, a walking tour should be gone upon alone.” Anything else, he maintained, risked being “more in the nature of a picnic”. Perish the thought!

The quote is from Stevenson’s essay, “Walking Tours” (Cornhill Magazine, June 1876), which he wrote in belated reply to William Hazlitt’s “On Going a Journey” (New Monthly Magazine, January 1822). Hazlitt had written of how he liked “to vegetate like the country” when out for a walk.

Hazlitt’s take was, perhaps inevitably, a bit more complicated than that. A shared love of walking was not enough to resolve the differences between him and his wife Sarah Stoddart, whose prodigious daily mileage Freeman notes.

But in The Gentle Art of Tramping (1926), Stephen Graham quotes Hazlitt saying, “Give me a companion on my way, be it only to mention how the shadows lengthen.”

That’s more like Snowden. Companionship in walking, as so often in life, is often found in the sharing of place and time, not of words. What she really loved were the “miles when, because a friend is a friend, you’ve no need to speak at all”.

Mark Baker

London N1

Waugh no bore
Eleanor Doughty’s attack on Brideshead Revisited (Sacred Cows, September) fails to tell us what Evelyn Waugh said its “presumptuously large” theme is: “the action of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters”. Yes, this is a Catholic theme, but literary critics should make an effort to understand a writer’s worldview.

If she doesn’t like Brideshead because it is “overly preoccupied with Catholicism”, huge amounts of European literature must be closed to her.

Her failure to engage with Brideshead’s theme accounts for her extraordinary claim that the novel’s punchline never comes. How did she manage to miss the climactic scene in which the dying Lord Marchmain finally accepts his previously rejected Catholicism? The agnostic narrator Charles Ryder realises that this moment is like the veil of the Temple being torn in two.

Waugh’s Catholicism arose directly out of his early satirical novels: he came to see how grace could act on people despite the world’s chaos and absurdity. This is also the unifying theme of his World War II Sword of Honour trilogy — but perhaps Miss Doughty finds that “a bore” too.

Andrew Nash

Abingdon, Oxfordshire

Wrong Eruption
In his article “So long Sloanes” (July/August) Graham Stewart wrote that 1816 was known as “the year without a summer” because of the eruption of Krakatoa.

It was the eruption of Tambora, about 900 miles east of Krakatoa, in 1815 that caused the weather disruption in 1816. Krakatoa did not erupt until 1883.

Linda Beskeen

Redruth, Cornwall

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