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This item is taken from PN Review 166, Volume 32 Number 2, November - December 2005.

Letter from Bernard Bergonzi
Culture and Democracy


John Lucas's polemical zeal makes him say some odd things, such as that my scepticism about aspects of democracy may have been inspired by Yeats's nuttier flights extolling aristocratic values. I'm just as sceptical about them, I can assure him. He asks one direct question, which I can answer. It was a talks producer on the Third Programme who told me that the audiences for some of its broadcasts - not all of them - were too small to be assessed. He seemed rather proud of the fact.

Lucas takes the opportunity to tell me things I already know. Yes, I was aware that the experience of working men in the armed forces during the war contributed to the election of the 1945 Labour government. And I agree that the rapid destruction of the Festival of Britain by the incoming Conservative government was an act of cultural vandalism. As it happens, I have written about these events in a book called Wartime and Aftermath (OUP, 1993). Although I was too young to vote in the 1945 election I well remember the excitement associated with it, and remain impressed by the achievements of the Attlee government. In 1951, shortly before it closed, I visited the Festival of Britain, and remember it as a cheerful and jolly entity.

Lucas unloads anecdotal family information, and I am happy to do the same. My mother, a Londoner, was born in 1899 and grew up in a poor and dysfunctional family in the East End; she used to tell me how much she owed to her Board School education, where she found warmth, both literal and figurative, kindness, and a sense of an ordered life and intellectual opportunity. My father came from a slightly higher social niche, as the son of a London Italian waiter. He served in the last months of the First World War as an eighteen-year old infantry-man. I knew from my mother's extended family that working people often had pianos in their houses, and knew how to play them. One such was my Uncle Will who could perform a lot of music by ear. He was a strong Labour supporter, and - to match Lucas's invocation of Labour worthies - I recall my mother saying, with some satisfaction, that Uncle Will had once approached Herbert Morrison at a public event and had asked him for help in finding a job, but had been rebuffed.

I myself left school before I was sixteen, and educated myself by wide undirected reading, evening classes, the Third Programme and little magazines, before l got into university on a mature student's scholarship ten years later. (I suspect that Lucas's entry into academia was more straightforward). As I said in my previous letter, I wouldn't want to live in anything other than a democratic society, but that does not blind me to its failings. In his final sentence Lucas refers to 'what is truly meant by democracy'. That cautious formula leaves room to reject the head-counting populism that many people now believe is what democracy means. It is not clear to me how far Lucas and I are really in disagreement.

Leamington Spa

This item is taken from PN Review 166, Volume 32 Number 2, November - December 2005.

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