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This item is taken from PN Review 162, Volume 31 Number 4, March - April 2005.

Letter from Ralph Maud
Major Third


Neil Powell's article 'Third Best' (PNR 161) rang bells and struck chords for me. I was seventeen when the Third Programme started in 1946, and it had a great deal to do with my literary (and to a lesser extent) musical education for several years until I got myself into Oxford as a youngish mature student. I am old enough to remember MacNeice's The Dark Tower, which I was fascinated by; I have never ventured to read it in case the fascination is dispelled.

In the 1950s I started contributing literary pieces myself to the Third. Even though the fees were modest, it provided a useful source of patronage for hard-up writers; among the producers were literary types such as the critic and Italian scholar Donald Carne-Ross, and the poets Anthony Thwaite and George Macbeth. The sprezzatura of the set-up was remark-able. The listening figures for some programmes were so small that they could not be assessed, but no one was bothered. If it was worth doing then it was worth doing, regardless. As Powell says, the broadcasters spoke to the listeners as total equals, which was in itself educational. The chummy manner that is so tiresome these days is a sign of absolute insecurity; about values, standards, shared points of reference, the nature of the audience, everything. It is the blight of our age that highly intelligent and educated people feel the need to come across like yobs, a veritable trahison des clercs, in Julien Benda's phrase. Kate Whitehead's book, The Third Programme: a literary history (OUP, 1989) is a valuable account of the rise and fall of a remarkable cultural phenomenon.

Powell's final rhetorical question, asking why things can't be better, can be answered with two large words: democracy and capitalism. I certainly wouldn't want to live in anything other than a democracy, but as Churchill once said, it is a bad system, with all other systems a lot worse. Crudely translated into cultural terms it has disastrous results, as Peter McDonald points out in his excellent essay in the same issue. Long ago, de Tocqueville had similar thoughts. Capitalism is now the only show on the road, but it means different things at different times. The old Third Programme and the literary magazines that no longer exist flourished in a capitalist society, but the current version, 'turbo-capitalism' as it has been called, means the dominance of the market, so that for many (again intelligent) people now, numbers are the only criteria: a book that has a lot of readers must be good, and a programme that has a lot of viewers or listeners, must be good, and it's a waste of time to bring in other issues. The principles that supported the old Third Programme would be simply unintelligible to the people who run our society, from the Leader downwards. But I'm grateful to Powell for the glimpse of far-off days.

Leamington Spa

Not Into Temptation

I suppose I should just sit by while Jane Yeh misreads my poems (PNR 161), but I find I cannot let stand the impression that I have titled a book True Love in order to be cynical about it. Paraphrasing 'An Old Wive's Tale,' Ms Yeh writes, 'It's not love but "conventionality" - and a lack of outside offers - that keeps a wife from straying.' But what the poem says is:

... Thank God temptation seldom struck
and when it did her scruples and
hard-won conventionality kept her true.

Ms Yeh may equate 'temptation' with 'outside offers,' but the poem does not; nor does it make an either/or dichotomy of love/convention as she does. The speaker is unambivalent in her gratitude for her fidelity and for the contraints (of manners and morals) that help keep her true. When the same poem explicitly asks, of marital fidelity, 'What good was it?' ('aside from making a home' - a rather large aside, granted), it answers: '...their years accured concentrically/in rings, the first ring deepened by the last/ circumference of horizon long surpassed.' That is, the lovers' experience of time is cyclical, the stuff of the mythic and eternal. Far from cynical, or even resignedly realistic, these poems are supported by animpulse deeper and more romantic than Ms Yeh, apparently, can imagine.

In sum, just because 'True love, like compass North, is not quite true', there's no reason to discard your compasses. Even the best of them wavers.

As I've just remembered, the poem initially began as a response to the first of Donald Davie's 'Three Moral Discoveries':

The genuine prayer, when all is said and done,
Is 'Lead us not into temptation.'

via email

This item is taken from PN Review 162, Volume 31 Number 4, March - April 2005.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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