Frank Kermode is not taken by Nicola Beauman’s decision to write of ‘Morgan’ and, on occasion, of ‘Morgie’ in her biography of E.M. Forster (LRB, 13 May) It is, he suggests, excessively intimate; her predecessor, P.N. Furbank, ‘was quite right to regard the familiarity implied by regular use of the first name as out of place in a biography written for those who had no claim to it’.
I write, not to protest, but to seek further elucidation on this vexing subject. Should Nicola Beauman have written of ‘Charteris’ and then of ‘Asquith’, or, in deferential tones, of ‘Lady Cynthia’ in her last book? Why did it seem quite acceptable for Victoria Glendinning to write about ‘Rebecca’, ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘Vita’, but less so to refer to ‘Anthony’ in her life of Trollope? Is it the case, as this would seem to suggest, that we are quite happy to have women written about in a more familiar way than men, or is our judgment guided by some invisible, unspoken rule of decorum? Michael Holroyd would surely have been mocked for writing of ‘George’, ‘Bernard’ or ‘GBS’, but ‘Lytton’ sounded a good deal better than ‘Strachey’ would have done in an earlier life. Should Nicola Beauman be rebuked for writing of ‘Morgan’ when nobody dreamt of querying Lord Skidelsky’s almost equally familiar ‘Maynard’? Why does the prospect of a life of ‘Woolf’ rather than ‘Virginia’ sound dauntingly severe, while nothing objectionable suggests itself in lives of ‘de Beauvoir’, ‘Riding’ or, in due course. ‘Sontag’? To bring self-interest to the fore, am I, in writing the life of a man who was ‘Robert’ to almost everybody (a striking exception was made in what was probably the rudest letter he ever wrote, to Bertrand Russell, signed icily, ‘Graves’), inviting derision if I do not choose to follow Professor Kermode’s injunction? Where does correctness end and pomposity begin?
In an otherwise illuminating survey of modern Croatia (LRB, 13 May) Mark Thompson states of Branka Magas that her book The Destruction of Yugoslavia ‘proves that a pro-Yugoslav leftist carrying the full weight of anti-nationalist baggage was quite capable of discerning which forces were killing the federation, and of opposing them, without lapsing into the resignation that wishes a plague on all national projects alike.’ Few people will recognise Magas in this description. A virulent pro-Croatian nationalist is how most of us on the left would describe her. When she talks of Serbia as a regime as oppressive as Pol Pot’s Cambodia she is perhaps using allowable rhetorical means. But her recent claims that Serbia is ‘intrinsically evil’ have led even some of her former comrades in the International Group to distance themselves from her position. Magas was one of the signatories of a letter to the Guardian on 10 April which called for military action against Serbia: the deployment of ground troops, to punish the Serbs, is even more problematic. Backers of such acts would not, conventionally, be described as ‘leftist’, though Mark Thompson is free to find creative uses of the word in his desire to find something to admire in the wreck that is modern Croatia.
Alan Bennett’s piece on Philip Larkin (LRB, 25 March) was so subtle about the impact of the art on the life (and especially Larkin’s tendency to use his ‘fall-back position as Great Poet’ as a let-out for banal everyday selfishness) that it was a surprise to see Bennett approach the question of the impact our knowledge of the life should have on our reaction to the art by citing Auden: ‘Time … will pardon Paul Claudel, Pardons him for writing well.’ The surprise is partly that forgiveness or otherwise doesn’t seem to be the issue in appraising the work, unless you think the poetry’s literary merits rest on its claim to be a peculiarly authentic piece of moral reportage, which implausibly grants to poetry as poetry a degree of innocence we have long since ceased to ascribe to prose auto-biography. (Then again, Bennett remarks that one of Larkin’s comments on his childhood ‘comes from a poem not an interview, so Larkin is telling the truth rather than the facts’, so perhaps he does believe poetry to be this innocent.) But even if forgiveness is somehow complicatedly in question, Auden’s authority is particularly suspect here, the more so since by ‘writing well’ he seeks to sidestep the most obvious objections to a quite untenable doctrine. Auden in his epitaph on Yeats resembles nothing so much as an ambitious cardinal, scheming to engineer the canonisation of a predecessor in the hope that a generation of similarly ambitious cardinals will do the same for him. In its religious form, the Great Immortality Scam nowadays attracts fewer subscriptions from intellectuals than it used to, but its secular version is alive and flourishing like the pyramid-selling operation which in more ways than one it really is. It’s not often suggested of top models, for instance, that Time will pardon them for looking beautiful, but then it’s writers and not models who set themselves up to do the pardoning. Pace Auden, it’s not Time that is ‘indifferent in a week To a beautiful physique’, but the community of writers, who naturally think writing skill and not physique should determine the distribution of forgiveness. Like the selling of indulgences, this comes to seem like quackery rather than monstrous injustice as soon as one ceases to subscribe to the metaphysics behind it.
Université des Sciences Sociales,
I must disagree with your correspondent Pat Rogers (Letters, 22 April). Alan Bennett had it spot on. Hull was the back of beyond in the Fifties and with its present timetable and pricing policies British Rail seems bent on making it that way in the Nineties. I was welcomed to Hull in 1958 (never having been more than ten miles from Liverpool in my 18 years) with the words ‘Welcome to Nowhere. Next Stop the Sea.’ This was said by a chap from Goldthorpe, wherever that was. It was also a view shared by the natives I came to know and who became my friends. It wasn’t the slow train to London that was a lifeline, it was the train to Leeds, the nearest city with some life.
What was there in Hull? Well, on Friday nights there was the Windsor Hall Jazz Club with the 2.19 Jazz Band with Lew Lewis (later, novelist Ted Lewis) on piano, and on Saturday nights there was the Students’ Union dance with the 2.19 Jazz Band and er … that was it. Perhaps Pat Rogers remembers the great excitement of 1959 (not the polio epidemic) but the opening of the Hoi Sun, Hull’s first Chinese restaurant, or maybe he was playing football at the time and missed the shock of the new?
I’m glad my old teacher John Saville (Letters, 13 May) has good things to say about Philip Larkin. Not only was he a great librarian, I know for a fact that he did many quiet kindnesses for people. Unfortunately, my contemporaries and I never knew that person. I only knew the old baldy at the issue desk, when I brought in an overdue book, telling me that there was a waiting list for it and staring through me when I pointed out that it had last been taken out seven years before. I remember the miserable bugger sitting next to me on a six-hour bus trip to Leeds organised by the Jazz Society to hear Duke Ellington, and never saying a word. I remember the curt sod’s reply to the Jazz Society’s invitation to speak: ‘Jazz died with Paul Whiteman.’ And his reply to me when I asked if he’d like to read my series of articles called ‘All What Jazz’ in the Hull University Socialist Journal Left – ‘I shouldn’t think so.’
My last encounter with the librarian occurred outside the university at the bus stop waiting for the 24. It began to rain stair-rods. Larkin put up his umbrella. Seeking shelter, and being much smaller. I edged towards him. There were only the two of us there. He looked at me. I smiled and said: ‘I did enjoy The North Ship.’ He stared down at me and said: ‘If you think you’re sharing my umbrella you’ve got another think coming.’ And with that he pressed the catch on his umbrella so that it folded down closer around his head.
At Hull, if asked about our poet, we would have instantly thought of Buddy Holly look-alike Roger McGough and his readings at the Catholic Society. If asked about our famous writer, we would have instantly, and proudly, mentioned Richard Hoggart. Being in Adult Education, he was off-campus and thus rarely seen.
I wish I had known John Saville’s Larkin and I wish the poet’s diaries had not been shredded. I have heard, from one who caught a glimpse of them, that there was a very shameful reference in them. Apparently Larkin used to sneak into Boothferry Park, his black-and-yellow hiding his face, and records this in a draft of a poem called ‘Long Tigers Days’ which begins ‘They fuck you up this football team …’
Talking of football, your reviewer Ian Hamilton (LRB, 22 April) clearly belongs in the Southern Softie Supporters’ Club. ‘Indignations in soccer,’ he writes, ‘are short-lived: they have to be.’ What is this? Part of being a fan is about long-held indignations. My longest-held indignation is about an Everton v. Bolton game in 1953 and I’m still pretty unhappy about the result of Bill Nicholson’s first game in charge of Spurs. Hamilton, being a Spurs fan, has no need to remind me of the score. Secondly, ‘to love Gascoigne, you have to love football.’ Well, to love Gascoigne, you have to love tricky alehouse footballers.
Your issue of 13 May contains a poem by Tom Paulin called ‘Newland Park’ which is clearly about Philip Larkin in old age. In it Paulin calls the safely dead Larkin a ‘randy louse’; speculates pruriently about his sexual relations with a woman who, I believe, is still alive; alleges on grossly insufficient grounds that Larkin hated his next-door neighbour; and takes the opportunity to show off his own knowledge of French. All this is despicable. One could dismiss the poem as childish, except that it displays a calculated, concentrated malignity far nastier than anything in Larkin’s Selected Letters.
St John’s College, Oxford
Richard Rorty’s review of Charles Taylor’s The Ethics of Authenticity (LRB, 8 April) is a heartening example of the virtues of his own ethic – of dialogue, of being open to persuasion by the argumentation of others with whom one only partially agrees. But it still leaves some anomalies in the ‘anti-metaphysical’ position which should worry those who have no wish to rejoin the metaphysicians. First, what is to be the content of the dialogue? Are we not to use so-called ‘universalising’ terms such as ‘better’, ‘fairer’? Rorty uses them: he uses ‘vicious’, ‘stupid’, ‘no damn good’. But all that his system should really allow, if no appeal is to be made to human nature, only to history, is the equivalent of ‘try it this way because it seems to me this is where we are at, historically speaking.’ The reason Rorty condemns some cultures and people is that they cause too much pain. Surely this is to ground ethics in reason and human nature, or, at least, to ground certain minimal standards (no torture and so on). Admittedly it will not take one much further: for differentiating good and bad societies beyond that, something like the retrospective validation he advocates in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity will be needed.
Secondly, only if ‘too much pain’ is not something relative to the particular culture of the sufferers, but derives from a common human biology, and, perhaps, from functionally bad ways of organising these humans in groups (so that many are powerless and oppressed), is it a workable ethical concept. Otherwise, why could it not be alleviated by manipulating the dialogue rather than by altering the brute facts? It has happened before: miserable people can believe that their condition is justified.
Third, the dialogue, even if not grounded in reason, must surely use reason along the way. ‘Lots of conversation’ is not enough. Imagination and sympathy are probably more important, and we could possibly use the poetic mode alone – ‘see it this way’ (without argumentation). But clearly it is important to us not only that we get inter-subjective agreement on what is better for people in general, but also that there is some consensus on why we are getting it. Otherwise this debate would not be going on with quite the intensity it is. To say that one is trying to move the arena of debate away from metaphysical projects has – historically – usually meant that one is appealing to a different and entirely unacknowledged metaphysic. Why is ‘grounded in reason and human nature’ a more metaphysical formulation than ‘grounded in history and dialogue’?
We can agree that there don’t have to be absolutes for us to be able to use comparatives (‘better’, ‘fairer’) but still suspect some fudging when philosophers too easily use evaluative terms (‘vicious’ etc) to construct a philosophy which implicitly denies the authenticity of such terms. One doesn’t have to be a believer in a static ‘given’ human nature in order to entertain such suspicions.
As to Jenny Diski’s query (LRB, 22 April): there is a verse in Catullus that begins something like ‘pedicabo vos et irrumabo.’ This still leaves us rather in the dark. Except that it is something a poet will do to his critics.
Al Ain, Abu Dhabi
Is it possible that the two young boys who admitted to the murder of James Bulger were driven to this confession by others? Andrew O’Hagan’s Diary (LRB, 11 March) and Elisa Segrave’s letter (Letters, 8 April) say nothing of this possibility and seem rather to confirm the ‘normality’ of children murdering one another. I can only hope that there are more David Townsends (Letters, 8 April) than O’Hagans and Segraves in present-day Britain.