After the rush of EU migrants post-2004, the day rate for self-employed building workers in Southampton fell by 50 per cent. The 15,000 new arrivals were accommodated by private landlords turning family homes into multiple occupancies, thereby changing the character of streets and neighbourhoods. Some schools were ill-equipped for their first non-English-language-speaking students. At the time I regarded these as legitimate concerns but I learn from Gavin Jacobson (Books, 30 November) that I was just another “nationalist and xenophobe”. His assumption that any worry about immigration is evidence of a pernicious outlook skews his review of several important books on populism. Still, it’s good to learn he is working on a history of the 1990s. When he gets to 1997 he will find that “For the many, not the few” was the title of Labour’s winning manifesto. He may become a little less confident that its use in 2017 is proof of a “fundamental break with the post-politics of the Blair years”.
Labour MP 1992-2015 and former cabinet minister
A tale of hubris
I enjoyed Marigold Johnson’s reflections on her husband, Paul Johnson, the editor of the New Statesman when I first began reading it (Diary, 7 November). This is a small addition to her story. As a student journalist and editor at Oxford, I was offered, with my friend Tony Holden, a special two-year traineeship on the Sunday Times by Harold Evans once we graduated.
It was the best of all the journalist trainee offers imaginable and I was delighted. Then the blow. I was sent a letter apologising that the offer had to be withdrawn as the National Union of Journalists chapel on the Sunday Times insisted on applying the then NUJ rule that no one could work for a national paper in Fleet Street without first doing two years in the provinces.
I was furious and wrote a pompous, self-important article denouncing the conspiracy between the Fleet Street establishment and the NUJ denying access to new young energetic journalists who could shake up the cosy closed-shop cartels of journalism. I sent it to Paul Johnson at the New Statesman for consideration. He kindly asked me to see him, and there he was, flame-haired and the most famous left-wing journalist of the day, in his tiny office in Great Turnstile. He was friendly and asked about my journalistic plans but said much as he thought my article was well written, he could not publish it as it was too unfair on the trade union, the NUJ.
I grumped out, though appreciative of his courteous contacting of an over-cocky young man. I went to work as a trainee journalist in Birmingham and it was the best time of my life, before I crossed the floor into political and trade union activism. Some time in the 1970s, Paul Johnson crossed the floor into undiluted worship of Margaret Thatcher and utter contempt for trade unions and most of the principles and beliefs he supported as editor of the NS. The passage of young left journalists into reactionary rightists is as old as the hills.
I hardly saw Johnson again, other than when I wrote a biography of François Mitterrand and we talked at a Labour party conference about French politics, on which he was very knowledgeable. But even if he didn’t – thank goodness – publish my article attacking the NUJ, the president of which I became a decade later, I remember with great warmth his reach-out to a young student journalist of whom he knew nothing.
As usual, Helen Lewis is spot on in her column about homelessness (Out of the Ordinary, 30 November). I remember writing a piece years ago in the parish magazine to mark the beginning of Shelter. We now face a much more widespread problem.
It occurs to me that we have a good number of empty shops in the very town centres where homeless people need to be. Is it really beyond the wit of man to put these two together? We can reinvigorate the high street by giving dignity and security to those who live there. They have much to teach us.
Reverend Peter Wolfenden
John Gray and Rowan Williams (The Critics, 30 November) agree that “avoiding cruelty is not there or very weak” in pre-Christian, pagan ethics. Not so. Pythagoras’s respect for all life, human and animal, derived from his belief in the transmigration of souls; he was one of the first to propose that illness was caused by bodily imbalances, not malevolent gods. Hippocrates said of epilepsy that it was a disease, not a god, that injured the body.
In many countries doctors still take variations of the Hippocratic Oath, “to do no wrong or injury to man or woman, bond or free”. We still have Aesculapius’s snake and rod as symbols of medical knowledge. At a time when infanticide was prevalent and taken for granted as a means of population control in hard times, Aristotle suggested less cruel abortion instead. Were not all these actions evidence of compassion and avoidance of cruelty? Neither were the gods merely unruly diversion-seekers. At the opening of The Odyssey, Zeus laments that the gods are blamed for mankind’s troubles, “when it is their own transgressions that bring them suffering”: an ethic of individual responsibility to which Christianity has added only footnotes.
What a shame that pitiless, intolerant monotheists did not take Xenophanes’s observation to heart: “In human affairs there is no certain truth and all our knowledge is but a woven web of guesses.”
John Gray and Rowan Williams think that “we have actually learned our morality: it didn’t come from nowhere”. They do not say how or why, or what source teaches us a supposedly modern morality.
Their history of ethics traces compassion to Christianity. Yet they overlook Buddhism, the Dhammapada, and the need of Homer’s warriors to keep to honourable rules of warfare and to show pity. Might not part of the relish in being cruel, and in dishonouring and enslaving others, be fuelled by knowing how they suffer? That would involve deeply knowing both pain and pleasure in ourselves and in others.
The rather masculine intellectual history, to which Gray and Williams refer, was mainly written by the victors, not by the suffering oppressed who include women and children. The Old Testament is an exception. Whether it is history or myth, Exodus expressed the immemorial longing of sorrowful slaves for their freedom so powerfully that it echoed millennia later in US civil rights protests.
Professor Priscilla Alderson
University College London
Only the lonely
Dr Nishat Siddiqui (Health Matters, 23 November) surely misses the point about social prescribing (SP). The idea behind SP is not to see issues such as loneliness through “the prism of medicine” but rather, to offer an alternative approach to these problems; so for example, a referral to a day centre might be made for an isolated older person, instead of a prescription being made for antidepressants. The rationale behind GP surgeries being used to promote SP is clearly demonstrated by Dr Siddiqui’s eloquent description of her consultation with “Mary”: for many older people, contact with their GP may be the only significant social contact they have.
University of York
Given Nicholas Lezard’s distinctly artisanal working and sleeping habits I wonder if he has thought of reinstating Saint Monday, whereby before the tyranny of the factory and the clock, workers abstained from employment at the beginning of the week, staying in bed or the pub all day, and working to meet deadlines towards the end of it.
We reserve the right to edit letters
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special