In a narrow pass
I am not permitted to respond to Derek Hirst’s personal remarks about my judicial doppelgänger (LRB, 19 November), but I wish to say something about his suggestion that my co-editor and I have tinkered with the evidence in our edition of John Warr’s pamphlets, A Spark in the Ashes.
As the introduction makes clear, we have transcribed Warr into modern orthography for ease of reading. It was a careful editorial choice to keep Warr’s capitals for ‘the Everlasting Gospel’. To say that we have done it ‘with no explanation or even announcement’ is a bit silly, since anyone can see the capitals and the explanation is set out at length in the introduction. It is correspondingly untrue to say that with this one exception we ‘modernise and lower-case throughout’, as a flick through the book will show. We use capitals wherever we think a modern writer would.
That the radical millenarian heresy of the Everlasting Gospel was espoused by Warr is, we think, clear from the text (which Professor Hirst, who bases his critique on the premise that Warr or his printer was ‘liberal in the use of capitalisation, for nouns and modifiers alike’, may not have seen in its original form). The two key passages of ‘Administrations Civil and Spiritual’ – the second passage being the pamphlet’s concluding words – read in the original:
Within this Vail are many Secrets, which the fleshly Birth, or the man of Form, neither understands himself, nor can bear in others; for here is hid the Everlasting Gospel, and the spiritual man converses with all the mysteries contained therein.
A particular View of all these, and other secrets of this state (being all parts pf the Everlasting Gospel, not circumscribed in word or letter, but bearing an equal latitude with the essential Will, of which it is the Image,) may be discoursed of distinctly, if the Lord will, another time.
The introduction sets out our reasons for thinking that Warr was referring in these passages to something known and particular, not simply to some inchoate body of doctrine. If Derek Hirst thinks otherwise, it would be courteous to give some reasons rather than resort to the cheap charge that the editors ‘slant their editing to make their point’. A decision to substitute lower-case initials would have been just as much a ‘slant’, but one that Derek Hirst happened to approve of.
Whether you are an advocate or a disinterested scholar (to quote Hirst’s interesting dichotomy), a writer or a reviewer, impugning the standards of people you happen to disagree with is not a good advertisement for your own position.
Give them the credit
If, as Paul Foot suggests (LRB, 22 October), Mordecai Vanunu ‘knew that most people in Israel, and the world, did not realise that Israel was a nuclear power’ then Vanunu was sadly ignorant of the society he belonged to. Israel is a small country with thousands of people in the Army, the military and aircraft industries, the atomic energy commission and around campfires on reserve duty. Most of them have wives or girlfriends (sometimes both) and old friends. My own estimate is that ‘a’ per cent of Israel’s population knows (100 – a) per cent of its military secrets: half the population knows half the secrets, one-quarter knows three-quarters, 10 per cent knows 90 per cent, and so on. (Should a mathematician point out that at low values of ‘a’ – say, one five-millionth in the case of the prime minister – information still falls slightly short of 100 per cent he would be right: the Army often has secrets from the prime minister and vice versa.) With the French having built the Dimona reactor, and American and Russian satellites photographing everything once or twice a day, most governments must have known what was and was not going on here from the start. The rest of us Israelis will have heard or read about it shortly afterwards.
Mr Foot says that there was no nuclear deterrent in Israel’s case. It was widely believed here that if Israel dropped an atom bomb on an Arab country, a similar retaliatory bomb would fall on Tel Aviv within hours, from the direction of that Arab country. The fact that it was made in Russia and dropped with the help of Soviet ‘advisers’ would be a detail to be discussed afterwards.
Mr Foot writes about how Vanunu ‘was pounced on by goons from the Mossad, knocked out with an injection, bundled into a van to La Spezia and carried in a stinking hold to Israel’ where he is now ‘in captivity of the most unspeakable wretchedness’. If I had to add a recipe to the popular manuals on suicide, it would go like this: 1. get a job at a nuclear plant making atom bombs; 2. take photographs when nobody is looking; 3. publish them abroad; and 4. say your last prayers if the secret service involved will give you the time. Couldn’t our ‘crazier than ever’ authorities which have imprisoned this ‘courageous and gentle man’ at least get the credit for not making him disappear on the spot, as most secret services would have done?
Dick Hill asks (Letters, 19 November): ‘On what basis does Ms Pitt-Kethley assume that the hedgehog of which she writes so feelingly is male?’ I assumed he was male because ‘Harry Houdini’ was the proud possessor of a penis, an inch and a quarter in length. I have not done research on the mensuration of animal genitalia, but I should imagine he was rather well-endowed – better, I might add, by a quarter of an inch, than one of the poets currently on the London literary scene, whose irate ex-girlfriend telephoned to let me know his not-so-vital statistic.
Readers may be interested to learn that the poem, ‘My Prickly Friend’ (LRB, 8 October), was banned from inclusion in a children’s anthology by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, presumably because of the turds in the last line. Mr Tiggywinkle is not allowed to have natural functions, it would seem. If I had mentioned his penis in the poem, the exclusion might have been slightly more understandable. Censorship of material for children can go too far. Any child who does not know about lavatories and turds by eight – the bottom age that the anthology was intended for – is in deep shit, so to speak. I have since, however, forgiven the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, become a member and bought items from their Hogalogue.
Michael Ruse, who complains that ‘My Prickly Friend’ was ‘about hedgehogs and not about penises’ should be relieved to hear that there will be plenty about the latter animal and nothing about the former in my next collection, Dogs, to be published by Sinclair-Stevenson in February. But just what did Mr Ruse expect from the title of my poem? If I am ever unlucky enough to be confronted by a prickly penis, I guarantee that I shall run like hell.
I was flattered that you should invite such a distinguished and long-serving reviewer as D.A.N. Jones to cover my book, Death in Chile (LRB, 5 November). Some years ago, in my biography of Colin MacInnes, I paid tribute to his precocious talents as a literary reviewer (out of a becoming modesty, no doubt, he doesn’t mention this book in an otherwise comprehensive rundown of my curriculum vitae). So when I found I didn’t recognise the book I was reading about – despite copious quotation – I took another look at it to see if I had been deluding myself; and of course I had. I must apologise not only to those who may have been rash enough to part with nearly £16 for a book about a Chilean whose ‘life and death … do not seem very dramatic, not remarkable at all’, but also to readers of this journal who had to endure a page and a half about his unremarkable life and mine. Mr Jones was only doing his painful duty in dealing with them at such length before moving on to the more rewarding task of praising another Chilean, the justly celebrated Ariel Dorfman, to whom I had referred slightingly in passing. Mea culpa.
One test of a reviewer, as of a writer, is how much he knows about the subject he’s addressing. Mr Jones passes this effortlessly. He knows more about me than I do – ‘He became, he thinks, rather left-wing’ (my italics) – more about my friend Cristian, too, who died ‘peacefully’, he says at one point, and ‘quietly’ at another, when I had omitted altogether to mention the manner of his death. But where he is most authoritative is in his understanding of Chile – about which he can quote from John Gunther’s ‘reliable Inside Latin America (1967)’ – and its people, particularly those ‘who had stayed put’ through the Pinochet era ‘surviving or collaborating’. These are ‘nice people, speaking good English’, he tells us, but ‘not very useful informants about a dictatorship’. One might imagine that such people would be the most useful informants, but they’re not, ‘they are too discreet’ – as I would have known if I had been, as Mr Jones was, in Greece in the Seventies or Iraq in the Eighties. I take what crumbs of comfort I can from Mr Jones’s subtle prose, as when he writes ‘Gould immediately adds a seeming non sequitur’ – thank God it wasn’t a real one. But I am suitably chastened when he penetrates my pathetic pretence of writing a book about Chile and Pinochet and reveals that what actually interests me is ‘the development of a type of Englishman, guilty about independent schools, cross with Mrs Thatcher’: in other words – though he is too kind to spell it out – a wet.
Newton Abbot, Devon
The title Chamfort gave to Sièyes’s pamphlet was ‘Qu’est-ce que le Tiers Etat? Tout. Qu’est-il? Rien.’ The translation, quoted by Neal Ascherson (LRB, 5 November), reads: ‘What is the Third Estate? Everything. What does it have? Nothing.’ You’ve got a nuance de taille there.
Neal Ascherson might appreciate knowing that W.S. Merwin made a fine selection and translation of Chamfort in 1969, called Products of the Perfected Civilisation (Macmillan; reprinted by North Point Press, San Francisco, 1984). The book also contains a lengthy, eloquent and informative introduction.
Melrose, New York
I ‘heard it here first’ all right. It’s anybody’s guess why a Democrat would write so confidently about Bush’s re-election to the Presidency on 3 November (Letters, 5 November). Mr Ewing should write back and explain.