The British Library Will Survive
In the LRB of 12 January John Sutherland returns to the attack on the British Library which he began in your pages on 22 July 1993. His new broadside takes the form of a letter reviewing a pamphlet which I recently published about the past and future of the building under construction at St Pancras. There is much in his letter for which I am thankful. He makes several kind remarks about the style of my pamphlet, which he prefers to that of the BL’s strategic plan. May I return the compliment and say that I regard his civility to myself as a great improvement on the intemperate hostility to the Library’s Chief Executive which he showed in his previous article. I am also grateful to such a regular Bloomsbury reader for dissociating himself from the self-styled Regular Readers’ Group. He realises that the tragedy is not that the Library is moving to St Pancras, but that we have all, readers, staff, management and Board, been kept waiting so long before being able to make the move. And he is right to say that during the waiting period readers have to put up with a service at Bloomsbury which is less than they deserve.
However, Sutherland is a hard man to please. He found the predictions in the Library’s strategic plan too confident; he finds the predictions in my pamphlet too cautious. He says first that I am ‘silent on when the new establishment will open’; then he notices that I do in fact say that it will open before the end of 1997. But he complains that my announcement is a ‘muffled fanfare’. But since the date when the building will be handed over by the Department of National Heritage, and the success of the remedial work commissioned by the Department, are both matters outside the Library’s control, it would surely be rash for the Library to blow its trumpet too stridently at this point.
Sutherland’s substantial complaints are that the new library will have insufficient shelves and insufficient seats. He is right that the shelves in St Pancras will be insufficient to hold the entire reference collection of the BL and that low-use books will be stored at Boston Spa. This policy is repugnant to many people, because they imagine that a low-use book is a book which is consulted only once a year or so. But this is far from the truth. The BL’s research collections contain some twelve million volumes. Each year about five million items are consulted in the London reading rooms. Hence the average book is consulted less than once every two years. But it is well known that not all books have an equal chance of being consulted: some are consulted very frequently, which means that many are consulted very much less than the average. A low-use book, accordingly, is one which is consulted only once in many years. In my pamphlet I queried whether it made sense for the taxpayer to pay to keep such books permanently in London when to store them in Boston Spa costs only half as much. Sutherland comments: ‘By this logic, the cheapest option of all would be to take the damn things down to Waterloo Bridge and toss them in the Thames.’ Here his rhetoric has blown his own logic completely out of doors. If I travel from Oxford to London by the bus because it is only half as expensive as the train, does that mean that the most logical course would be for me to stay put in Oxford?
There is more substance to Sutherland’s fear that the new building will have insufficient reader seats to meet demand. The increase in the seating will be adequate, as demonstrated in my pamphlet, to provide for the present readership, with something to spare. But Sutherland and I both believe that the attractive environment of St Pancras will attract new readers. Though the Library is undertaking research to ascertain the best estimate of this increased readership, it will be difficult to make any certain prediction of its size. Among other factors, there appears to be a trend for readers nowadays to prefer remote document delivery to reading room visits. But one reason why the BL would not wish the Government to sell the land to the north of the new building is precisely in order to permit the provision of further reader accommodation if it should be justified by demand.
Sutherland has a special reason for wanting extra seats in the new building: he wants it to be a library of first resort for undergraduates. He appears to believe that they are currently excluded; but in fact they are already admitted to the Library, like everyone else, on condition that they can prove a real need to consult its collections. Noting that I am a member of Oxford University, Sutherland suggests that I would be quite horrified if one day I were to be told that only postgraduates might use the books in the Bodleian, and that many of the books in that library were to be stored on a distant site. This suggestion reveals some misapprehensions about Bodley. The ideal long pursued in Oxford is that undergraduate needs should be met primarily by college libraries, and research needs by the main university library; and it has been proposed more than once by reformers that such a policy should be formalised by reserving Bodleian access for postgraduates. For years, a substantial portion of Bodley’s holdings has been stored out of town, and the average time between ordering a book in Oxford and receiving it from Nuneham Courtenay is roughly the same as that between ordering a book in Bloomsbury and receiving it from Boston Spa.
But even if Sutherland’s comparison had been accurate, it would still have been absurd. The Bodleian Library is the library of Oxford University; the British Library is not the library of the University of London but the national library of the United Kingdom. Sutherland seems in effect to wish to turn the BL into a library of first resort for his students. But if the BL were ever to have to function as London University’s library, it would be a bad day for London University and a bad day for the nation. Sutherland praises the Library of Congress for opening its reading rooms to all over high-school age; but he cannot really believe that the Library of Congress serves as a university library for Georgetown and the half-dozen other universities in Washington DC.
If Professor Sutherland’s real allegation is that the libraries of his university are inadequately funded, then he should address his complaints to those responsible for funding them, and not to the Board of the British Library. If your readers wish to make their own judgment on the matters at issue between Professor Sutherland and myself, may I urge them to follow his invitation to apply to the BL Press Office at 96 Euston Road, London NW1 for a free copy of my pamphlet The British Library and the St Pancras Building.
Chairman, British Library Board
In the course of his extended comment on the exposure of Richard Gott’s links to the KGB (LRB, 12 January) Christopher Hitchens writes that MI5 and MI6 were behind the revelation. Unfortunately, he fails to provide the slightest evidence for that allegation. In attempting to argue for his thesis, he manages to get just about everything wrong, including who wrote the original piece for the Spectator. The author of the piece was not Anne Applebaum, but me, as would be quite obvious to anyone who actually read it. Applebaum provided some additional research. She was not responsible for how that research was used, or for any of the opinions expressed in the article, many of which she does not agree with. The distinction between author and researcher is one which Christopher Hitchens will be familiar with, since when people help him with his research, he does not credit them as joint authors of the articles or books in which he makes use of their work. This is the second time Hitchens has gone into print making the same mistake. For some reason, he seems to have a difficulty in recognising the truth on the topic.
Here are some more examples of the same problem: 1. Hitchens alleges that I am a ‘right-winger’ and a ‘Young Conservative’. I have never voted Conservative in my life, as Hitchens very well knows, since he reads the Guardian, and the Guardian has published that fact on two separate occasions. 2. Hitchens also says that he knows I have ‘extensive connections to the conservative “security” milieu’. I do? It’s news to me. Perhaps he could provide some evidence for this intriguing claim. The last time I knowingly came into contact with anything recognisable as the conservative ‘security’ milieu was when I received an early morning visit from Special Branch. I was working for Duncan Campbell, then chief correspondent for the New Statesman. The men from Special Branch thought I had been given inside information about how Campbell had managed to write so accurately about the Zircon spy satellite. The quality of their reasoning – their unshakeable conviction that everything was part of a plot to undermine ‘their’ side, together with their total indifference to evidence – was weirdly similar to Hitchens’s. It occurs to me that he would make an excellent officer with Special Branch. They all think in exactly the same way as he does.
3. Hitchens archly asks: ‘Why deny, before anyone has asked, that “our own security services are involved”?’ Since his article attacks me because he thinks the security services were involved in my article, the answer to that question is obvious. But my reasons were not primarily strategic. I denied that Gott’s name had come from the security services because it had not come from the security services – something which Hitchens seems to find as difficult to accept as the fact that I wrote the article on my own. Incidentally, what would Hitchens have written had I not stressed that I had arrived at Gott’s name without any help from the security services? On the basis of his article, you can be sure that he would have taken the absence of a denial as ‘proof’ that the security services were the real source.
4. ‘If the Spectator have been steering so clear of “our” side,’ Hitchens asks rhetorically, ‘how can they know that MI5 and MI6 possess names of compromised people “in public office”?’ But you do not need MI5 and MI6 to work this out. Oleg Gordievsky knows it, as do several retired KGB officers who still take an interest in British affairs. Even Hitchens cannot think KGB officers in Moscow in receipt of KGB pensions are part of an MI5 and MI6 conspiracy. Furthermore, despite Hitchens’s view to the contrary, it does not follow, from the fact that Gordievsky is in receipt of an MI6 pension, that he and MI6 are ‘two sides of the same coin’ – any more than it follows, from the fact that the London Review is kept afloat by government money, that its editor is following a secret agenda set by the Government. Hitchens may think you are a government agent. But be assured – I do not.
5. ‘The Spectator quite obviously doesn’t think our own side is protecting traitors.’ But that is quite obviously what I do think, since that is what I said. What, after all, did our security services do in the case of Anthony Blunt? They knew he was a traitor more than twenty years before he was exposed. And if the security services had had their way, his name would never have come to light. He was identified not because MI5 and MI6 decided to expose him, but through the determination of a journalist, Andrew Boyle, to break the conspiracy of silence through which MI5 and MI6 protected Blunt.
Home Affairs Editor
Christopher Hitchens’s comments on the imbroglio surrounding Richard Gott and the timing of the revelations about his relationship with the KGB are troubling to all those concerned for freedom of expression. Hitchens writes: ‘One can’t escape the question of whether the Gott revelation has anything at all to do with the Guardian’s role as a challenger … of state corruption.’ The suggestion has certainly been widely repeated, and widely believed; nor has anyone, so far, refuted it. More important, if it is true, no remedy has been advanced against potential repetition of such a flagrant government effort to punish a respected newspaper for performing its watchdog function. The general lack of government transparency may be measured by the absence of any mechanism whereby the general public could receive reassurance about the truth of these serious allegations.
By the way, it seems to have gone unnoticed that Richard Gott’s phrase about taking ‘red gold’ should be credited to Sir Walter Scott, who wrote ‘From the red gold keep thy finger,’ a warning Gott would have been wise to heed.
Executive Director, Article 19
Christopher Hitchens suggests that Forster’s remark about choosing to betray one’s country rather than one’s friends was an exercise in false antithesis, and cites as an example Robert Graves’s dealing with Siegfried Sassoon ‘in 1917 or thereabouts’, which he declares was ‘certainly a betrayal of a friend and, I would argue, also a betrayal of the country’. But Sassoon did not, as Hitchens asserts, confide ‘to his friend Robert Graves that he was planning to “go public”, as a decorated frontline officer, with what he knew about real conditions on the Western Front’. On the contrary, he sent Graves a copy of a statement which he had already circulated to leading journalists and politicians, and in which he declared that ‘this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.’
Hitchens’s statement that ‘Graves had him put away for “shell-shock”, for his own good’ is not only simplistic in the extreme, but might suggest, through its use of inverted commas around ‘shell-shock’, that Sassoon was in fact in a sound state of mind. The previous November, when Sassoon and Graves had both been in a more balanced state, the two soldier-poets had agreed that although the war was profoundly immoral, and they hoped that the politicians would bring it to an end as soon as possible, their first duty (and indeed their only honourable course of action) was to return to the Front, there ‘to make things easier for the men under our command’. In 1917, however, Sassoon was severely wounded while leading an attack; and by June, when he was back in London, he was so badly shell-shocked that he was suffering from terrifying hallucinations and ‘saw corpses lying about on the pavement’. It was while he was in this terrible state that Bertrand Russell and other pacifists persuaded him to ‘an act of wilful defiance of military authority’. Realising that Sassoon’s defiance would do nothing to shorten the war, but would certainly lead to a court-martial – an ordeal which might permanently unbalance him – and could even lead to a firing-squad, and knowing that it was in direct opposition to the views which Sassoon had previously expressed (and would express again after his time at Craiglockhart), Graves persuaded his friend to go before a Medical Board, which soon realised that Sassoon was in a state of mental collapse. Was this betrayal? Or was it rather salvation?
Richard Perceval Graves
The Great Copyright Disaster
Professor John Sutherland’s scholarly review of copyright issues (LRB, 12 January)makes one want to go further. The right place to start is with the objective that copyright law is meant to achieve. The answer to that can only be that it is there to encourage creative work. Giving aid and comfort to publishers, inheritors, lawyers and others is surely secondary, and it is doubtful how badly it is wanted by authors. What authors want above all is an audience, and their wish for an audience coincides with the public’s right of access. This author would strongly prefer to have copyright expire when he died, in that that would make for better dissemination of his work. He would prefer not to assign some unidentified individual the right to suppress his work or to suppress improvements in his work for 50 or 70 years after his death.
The tone of Kader Asmal’s letter (Letters, 26 January) is eerily similar to a missive I once received from one of his predecessors under the old apartheid regime when it banned one of my books. The oddity is that I suspect that I am in agreement on many points with Mr Asmal, a man for whom I have a deal of liking and respect.
1. My praise of Mr Mandela was not patronising. I greatly admire him and believe that the work he has done towards national reconciliation is so valuable that nothing else matters too much. It is, though, a pity that he has been asked to learn how to run a government at the age of 76. I am sure it wouldn’t be a good idea to ask me to learn such a thing when I reach that age. I just wish Mr Mandela could have become President long before he did. I take it Mr Asmal agrees with that.
2. My reference to 12 members of the Cabinet being in or close to the SACP relied on research done by Transact. There is nothing Cold War about this: I would defend the right of anyone to belong to any party, including the Communist Party. The problem is that the ANC’s ban on its members revealing whether or not they are members of the SACP means that no one can be entirely sure who’s in the Party and who’s not, just as one was never sure under the old regime who was in the Broederbond and who wasn’t. Surely Kader Asmal agrees that it would be better if the whole matter was put on a more truthful and open basis?
3. Mr Asmal upbraids me for mentioning the blocking of motorways, littering campaigns, hostage-taking and the like. These are all, as I’m sure we agree, a matter of public record. Similarly, he doesn’t like my mention of the ‘mess’ in education which, as I pointed out, is largely due to the old regime’s crazy establishment of 17 different education departments. Surely Mr Asmal agrees with that?
4. Mr Asmal talks of my ‘ritual denunciation’ of Winnie Mandela. Actually, I just reported her activities – though at the time of writing I didn’t know of her involvement with crooked diamond dealers or her seizure of the furniture and equipment of the Congress of Traditional Leaders. No one needs to denounce Mrs Mandela: it’s damning enough that the newspapers keep reporting the facts. Mr Asmal like me, wouldn’t want to stop them doing that.
5. Mr Asmal says I’m wrong to imagine that de Klerk fought ‘tooth and nail’ against the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but we have, since then, had a major cabinet crisis over de Klerk’s indemnity of thousands of agents of the old regime who might have gone before that Commission. On an earlier occasion Mr Asmal generously wrote to congratulate me on an article I had written on this matter when I argued that there could be no equivalence between those who committed crimes for the state and those who had taken up arms against it. I think it disgraceful that de Klerk should have given secret indemnities to the former and that such indemnities must be revoked. I am sure Mr Asmal agrees with that.
Mr Asmal is right, however, to say that things so far have in some respect worked out better than I had at one time feared. I was agreeably surprised both that the IFP did, in the end, participate in the election and also that the ANC jettisoned nationalisation for privatisation. Undeniably the public mood is better – far better – and violence less. Surely we are all pleased by that?
The main point of my article was to discuss the speed with which members of the new élite had joined the gravy train. Given that Mr Asmal has been charged with investigating the case of one of his colleagues (Allan Boesak) accused of doing just that, a little too energetically, I take it he would not disagree that the phenomenon exists. But this phenomenon is only part of a larger process, the political and social consolidation of a new bourgeoisie in power. This process is quite inevitable and in many ways desirable: South Africa’s best hope clearly lies in a Brazilian future and it desperately needs a strong, non-racial middle class to provide the stability, the dynamism and the drive towards that future. However, the primary accumulation – Marxists have the right term here – necessary to transform a populist élite into fat cats is not a pretty sight in South Africa any more than it was in Brazil, and righteous self-justification doesn’t make it any better. The tone of my article derived largely from my revulsion at the Orwellian aspects of this process but I would, sadly, agree that even this development is probably positive.
Magdalen College, Oxford
I enjoyed reading Tom Lubbock on Giacometti (LRB, 12 January) on my way home from looking at Giacometti, so marvellously exhibited in Malmö. ‘What this art does is to convey precisely why our sensations of reality cannot be conveyed precisely.’ David Sylvester’s phrase seems spot on. However, what no one seems to remark on is the blackness. Far from the chicness of silhouette, this is tangible mystery. I was gripped by how the pieces seem to absorb light, as we approach, and with it all life-affirming emotions. What’s more, we seem to take on their bodily manner as we return the black gaze. Such observations, I suspect, are widespread rather than the special insight of Sylvester the interpreter, medium, priest.
But I left the exhibition deeply unsettled. First, by the show: it is introduced with a great wall of photographs, many taken by the famous or showing the sculptor with the famous, as if to validate the work itself. And these images are given much more attention by visitors than are the works themselves. Second, I was unsettled by the work: this man seems to have none of the power to touch us as a modern artist, the way – to take another for whom Sylvester acts as medium – Francis Bacon surely does. How is he among the greats? For, despite obsessive repetition which (beyond fascination in his biography) is just boring, despite the variable quality (especially in drawings and paintings), despite anything, Giacometti’s images haunt and continue to haunt. Does this say more about us, end-of-20th-century gallery walkers, than about art? Rather than overrated, is he wrongly judged?
I think of the ancient cult image of Athena which ruled on the Athenian Akropolis from time immemorial, before being challenged by Pheidias’ modernist/realist ‘Parthenos’. An archaic, olive-wood shape, far from a realist representation, it may have become almost unrecognisable as human form: but it was equally far from vague in its representation. This powerful object, its clothing ritually renewed, its life and order (kosmos) made manifest in its being wrapped (‘cosmetic’ comes from the same root meaning), retained its archaic power for the Athenian populus; though Pheidias, of course, is the great sculptor.
Perhaps we only need to ‘see’ a Giacometti unclothed very rarely; even once. It speaks no more to us from prolonged observation. But this rare experience burns its image in our souls. The photographs of Giacometti’s figures swathed in cloth are not just ‘effective’, as Lubbock notes: they suggest a rather different, mysterious, archaic potency in his work suited to our disintegrating time, as the millennium turns and 2500 years of modernism collapse.
School of Architecture
Peter Clarke and Maria Tippett (LRB, 22 December 1994) reflected accurately what may be the dominant strain of discussion about separation in Montreal and, in so doing, made glaringly obvious the deficiencies of that debate. The provincial government of Quebec has incrementally acquired control, courtesy first of the Imperial then of the Federal powers, over land belonging to the Inuit, Micmaq, Malecite, Montagnais, Huron, Abenaki, Atikamekw, Algonquin, Cree, Naskapi and Mohawk peoples, which makes nonsense of any claims to territorial integrity for a Francophone province. There are many parts of Quebec – for example, the vast territory south of Hudson’s Bay – where First Nations are in a majority. For these individuals the Anglo/Franco debate is meaningless, and the idea of ‘two founding nations’ an insult, which their own generic name for themselves is designed to correct.
These people are not optional extras in the drama of separation. They are part of the real-politik of Quebec. As proof of this the successful opposition to the Great Whale hydroelectric project may be cited. Spearheaded by the Grand Council of the Crees and their ambassador at the UN, Ted Moses, international opinion was stirred to the point where powerful environmental groups in the United States persuaded State governments to boycott power from this source. At this point the immense social and environmental dislocation which would have ensued was no longer economically, let alone ethically, tolerable for the provincial government. Similarly, national and international concern was raised by the shaming spectacle of the Canadian Army ranged against Canadian citizens during the Oka crisis in 1991, which was itself largely prompted by the high-handed and racist attitudes of the Sûreté de Québec.
Small wonder, then, that first Nations in Quebec view the prospect of separation with grave misgivings. Speaking recently in Washington, at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come said: ‘Quebec may well have legitimate claims [to independence], but it may make no valid claims to the Cree people or the Cree territory that would deny the Cree peoples’ rights to choose how we would be governed.’ It is evident that the Cree have a fully articulated position based on the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975, the first comprehensive land claim to have been settled in Canada. It is worth noting that the separatist Quebec premier, Jacques Parizeau, has reserved the First Nations portfolio for himself. Lise Bisonnette, the editor of Le Devoir, ‘the influential Montreal daily’, is mistaken in supposing Quebec separatism to be a problem only for the rest of Canada. It is a problem for Quebec itself.
Charlotte and Ian Townsend-Gault
Bowen Island, British Columbia
Sting of a Wasp
It was not a spirited young lady who ‘sighed for a canter after cattle’, as John Bayley asserts in his review of Peter Taylor’s novel (LRB, 12 January), but a young man who had lost his lady love in a cattle stampede. I cannot recall who wrote the monologue but it was usually recited by a young man in white tie and tails appearing in a revue (I performed it myself at army camps during the war). The opening lines are:
It’s all very well to write revues
To carry umbrellas and keep dry shoes
To say what everyone’s saying here
And wear what everyone else must wear.
But tonight I’m sick of the whole affair
I want free life and I want fresh air …
The young man goes on to relate how much he loved Lasca, though it turns out that she was damn jealous too!
Once when I made her jealous for fun
At something I’d whispered or looked or done
One Sunday in San Antonio
To a glorious girl from the Alamo
She drew from her garter a dear little dagger
And, sting of a wasp, it made me stagger.
However, Lasca is very contrite, binds the wound with her neckerchief and throws herself on top of the reciter to save his life when they are hiding behind the corpse of his horse during a cattle stampede. The monologue ends:
And half of my heart lies buried there
In Texas down by the Rio Grande.
Frank Kermode’s defence of Harold Bloom’s ‘Western canon’ against those who regard it merely as ‘an instrument of cultural, hence political, hegemony’ is characteristically winsome (LRB, 22 December 1994). I’m less sure about his recommendation of Coriolanus as a transparently appropriate text for 15-year-olds. Over the years, this play has persistently attracted the peddlers of a variety of cultural, hence political hegemonies. Sir Frank’s rather chilling conclusion that, confronted by it, ‘the infants will discover at once that Nietzsche was quite right,’ hardly indicates a move to higher ground.
Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory
Here’s one more recounting of the Clark-Gable-false-teeth-America’s-sweetheart saga (Letters, 12 January). Ned Sherrin, in his introduction to the Folio edition of 1066 and All That has Clark Gable staying with Robert Yeatman (co-author of 1066) while filming in England. Sherrin writes: ‘Yeatman’s son, Bill, remembers Gable looking into a mirror, taking his dentures out, and saying softly and sadly: “America’s sweetheart.” ’
St Paul, Minnesota