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Letters


Seeing Things

On the question of Joe Slovo’s departure from South Africa in 1963, Gillian Slovo writes (Letters, 18 April) that her father wanted to leave the country to procure weapons and training for Umkhonto we Sizwe. But there were top cadres assigned to this task and already in place. Joe had to convince the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party – which had issued a directive that no member should leave the country – that his own departure was essential. His protégé, Patrick Tembu, had been detained and was talking to the secret police and Joe feared he would be arrested. Some members of the Committee thoroughly disapproved of his intention to leave, but he left in spite of this.

Gillian Slovo is wrong that a meeting of ANC members in London decided on the suspensions of Norma and myself. What happened was that Solly Smith, the chief representative of the ANC in London, later a self-confessed agent of the Boers, sent me a letter in November 1984 – a few months after my release from prison and my arrival in Britain – saying that he had suspended me from the ANC in consultation with the Regional Political Committee. There was no mention of any meeting. My wife, Norma Kitson, also received such a letter. This method of suspension was in violation of the ANC Constitution, for we were given no opportunity to defend ourselves. Indeed, all our attempts to communicate with ANC officials in London were in vain.

But a week or so later M.B. Yengwe, the chairman of the RPC and a former member of the ANC Executive Committee who was living in London, asked to meet us. He spent an evening with us and Steven, our son, in our house. He told us that if Norma and I made statements denouncing the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, our suspensions from the ANC would be ended. He also said to me that if I toed the line, I would be free to take up my post on the staff of Ruskin College, which would then be funded by my union, TASS. This implied joint action between Ken Gill, then General Secretary of TASS, and the SACP/ANC. We rejected this political blackmail. Shortly afterwards, M.B. Yengwe resigned his chairmanship of the RPC and Francis Meli, like Smith a spy for the Boers, took his place.

TASS was obliged to start funding my post in December 1984. It took them 18 months to end the funding at their annual conference, attended by Smith and Meli as fraternal delegates from the ANC. Ruskin College was appalled and issued a press statement saying that this violated academic freedom. They made me their first emeritus fellow. In the face of constant harassment by the Boer agents, a fight-back started, with many sympathisers from Ruskin College, TASS branches, branches of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the labour movement generally, to try and get my funding back. Alfred Nzo, then General Secretary of the ANC, dragged his feet until Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu emerged from jail in 1990 and insisted on our reinstatement. Despite this, we were never reincorporated and have been prevented from playing our part in the new South Africa. In 1993 it was agreed in discussions between the MSF, the successor union to TASS, and the ANC that I had been victimised. The ANC wrote to the MSF that they ‘were determined that action would be taken after [the elections] to deal suitably with those who had suffered in the liberation struggle’. So far I have received no compensation for the loss of my job. The withdrawal of income was a standard technique within the liberation movement for bringing people to heel.

David Kitson
Harare, Zimbabwe


‘Ode to the Nightjar’

Your correspondent John Godfrey (Letters, 9 May) gives pleasure in enlarging my knowledge of obscure nightjar poetry. I wonder if he is aware of a surprising work by (of all people) the even more deeply neglected Sir Henry Newbolt, which shows a sensitive darker side to the imperialist tub-thumper:

We loved our nightjar, but she would not stay with us,
We had found her lying as dead, but soft and warm,
Under the apple tree beside the old thatched wall …

So wonderful she was – her wings the wings of night
But powdered here and there with tiny golden clouds
And wave-line markings like sea-ripples on the sand.

Newbolt’s bird is, of course, silent, a warm tactile and visual other. While nowhere as worked as in Hopkins, there is a hint here of the ‘counter, original, spare, strange’ (a disowned part of Newbolt perhaps – his nightjar dies ‘in the very moment of most confiding hope’) which we see fast disappearing under bulldozers and concrete.

Jane Howard
London N19


‘A Struggle for Power’

Eric Foner’s review of my book, A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution was unconscionably biased (LRB, 18 April). Here are three examples of Foner’s methods.

1. Foner: ‘It is certainly odd to encounter a book on the coming of the Revolution in which the words “liberalism” and “republicanism” do not appear in the index and the Country Party ideology is treated in a single paragraph.’

Draper: ‘Liberalism’ was not an 18th-century term and my index contained ‘republican: meaning of’, p.345. In fact, I discussed the colonists’ reluctance to embrace ‘republicanism’ before 1776 at some length.

2. Foner: ‘Americans’ “quest for power” began, he [Draper] writes, “as soon as settlers arrived in New England” in 1620.’

Draper: This is what I wrote: ‘The first premonitions of an American “quest for power” came almost as soon as settlers arrived in New England.’ I then gave examples of ‘gloomy prophets’ – Sir Fernando Gorges in the 1730s and Major John Child in 1647. In effect, Foner transformed the ‘premonitions’ by British authors into a flat statement by me.

3. Foner: ‘As early as 1764, Draper speaks of “the incipient Revolution”, even though no one resisting the Sugar Act in that year had the remotest thought of independence.’

Draper: I made the point that both sides had reasons in 1764 to persuade themselves that they were right. ‘In each case, right coincided with self-interest; the clash of rights was also a clash of interests. Seen this way, the incipient Revolution could be decided only by the capitulation of one side or the other, by some sort of compromise between them, or by a final conflict that would separate them for ever. It took ten years to resolve which one of these choices it was going to be.’ In no sense did I say or suggest that ‘the incipient Revolution’ started as early as 1765 or that those resisting the Sugar Act ‘had the remotest sense of independence’.

I have chosen only three flagrant examples of Foner’s consistent distortion.

I cannot understand why it was necessary to go to New York for a review of my book when there are several fine historians of the American colonial period in Great Britain.

Theodore Draper
Princeton, New Jersey

Eric Foner writes: I have read and reread Theodore Draper’s letter and cannot discover what he is complaining about. In none of the three cases does his rebuttal invalidate my point. In fact, the passages he quotes from the book demonstrate the accuracy of my comments rather than refuting them.

It hardly seems fair for Mr Draper, a frequent contributor to that outpost of Oxbridge in the Big Apple, the New York Review, to object when the London Review engages an American.


Undesirable

Tom Paulin (LRB, 9 May) remarks, of After Strange Gods: ‘the fact that Eliot never allowed it to be republished has been taken as a repudiation of his views,’ and previous critics, with apparent support from bibliographers, also write as though the book appeared in England only once, in 3000 copies in February 1934. Indeed, one might suppose that it would then have immediately caused embarrassment. In fact, there was a second impression in November 1934; a library accession stamp indicates that the copy before me was still for sale as late as August 1936. Any ‘repudiation’ was therefore by no means immediate.

Tony Inglis
University of Sussex

In discussing T.S. Eliot and anti-semitism, Tom Paulin appears detached from reality. It is surely no wonder that this book has been given ‘desultory attention’ when £30 are demanded for its 300 pages. Such outlandish prices are compelling many of us to seek out information on-line – or, in the case of Eliot, to buy the American edition of Christopher Ricks’s T.S. Eliot and Prejudice, widely remaindered in England for £5 or less.

Montagu Bream
Chinnor, Oxfordshire


Down with the Rising

In his review of Inventing Ireland (LRB, 18 April) Colm Tóibín mentions ‘the paradoxes, oppositions and juxtapositions’ that characterise Declan Kiberd’s style. If Kiberd’s flamboyance almost invites controversy, Tóibín’s generally understated prose sometimes conceals surprising confusions and contradictions. Buying into Kiberd’s literary-critical vocabulary, he presents Irish nationalism as the creation of writers and artists in the decades before 1916, and the state as ‘a place created by imagination and rhetoric and eccentric dreams’. Elsewhere, the country is ‘dreamed into existence by a mixture of poetry and violence’. In fact, looking at the genesis of the 1916 Rising, Tóibín himself commits the fault for which, in one sentence, he first criticises Kiberd – ‘Literary critics writing about history and politics often mistake them for texts, and this is the real problem with Kiberd’s book’; and then praises him: ‘and, indeed, with the Ireland that was invented – this both gives the book its importance and explains a great deal about Ireland.’ In other words, Kiberd is wrong; Ireland is wrong; but two wrongs make a right, and so Kiberd’s book becomes important and insightful.

Soon, without modifying his dream-theory of Irish nationalism, Tóibín is informing us that ‘cultural nationalism did not lead to the Rising, though it may have been in part responsible for it.’ Bored perhaps with such a prosaic idea, he quickly reverts to his dream-theory: ‘The idea that we all inhabit both an invented and a non-invented Ireland may help explain why people emigrate from here whenever there is an economic crisis.’ The desire for a fuller belly, more money and better prospects may also be relevant.

The fastidious Tóibín must rejoice not to have been born in France or the USA: the legacy of bloody revolution and military adventure and conquest would be too much to contemplate. Oddly enough, his fastidiousness is selective. Like the Irish Republicans whom he abominates, he pays no real attention to Britain. Isn’t it just possible that the origins of Irish nationalist violence may lie not so much in dream-haunted minds as in Ireland’s historical geography: flanking a dynamic, nationalist/imperialist, expansionist world power, set – sometimes distractedly, sometime systematically – on controlling an unruly neighbour which could provide a foothold for rival powers or for internal dissent? And is it surprising that resistance to such control followed various channels over the centuries, swelling and subsiding as circumstances changed?

The curious convergence between Tóibín and the enemy he loves to hate can also be seen in his dismissal of the Irish Parliamentary tradition. From O’Connell to Parnell to Redmond, and on to the Free State, Irish nationalism has shown a remarkable attachment to Parliamentary democracy. With the exception of the Fenian movement in the 1860s, political – non-agrarian – violence was very rare in the century preceding 1916. Tóibín will not have reflected on the message sent to nationalist Ireland by the proscription of O’Connell’s extraordinary (and extraordinarily peaceful) mass meetings in favour of Repeal of the Union, a message reinforced in 1912-14 when the British Army, the Lords and the Conservative Party under Bonar Law bent to the threat of violence from their friends in the Ulster Volunteers, inspiring Pearse and his friends to emulate their methods. But the reaction was rather different on this occasion. Picking up on the fact that H.G. Wells, John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett wrote to counter the nationalist view of the 1916 Rising in the American press, Tóibín says: ‘I realise when I read this passage that if I had a choice between the ambiguous heritage left by Pearse and Yeats and the unambiguous legacy of Wells, Galsworthy and Bennett, I am happier on this side – the Irish side – of the Irish Sea; it is hard to see how you could get through the day with the dryness of the other heritage.’ Here we go again – the irrational, poetic, unreliable Irish v. the prosaic, decent, dull British. We need not waste our tears on Tóibín as he impales himself on the horns of an imaginary dilemma. The fact is that the modern British prose tradition is both richer and more ambiguous than he chooses to think. And why not compare poet with poet, ambiguity with ambiguity? What of Kipling, Sir Henry Newbolt, Lawrence? It was very easy for an English writer to be unambiguous about Irish violence against the British Army. The real test lies in the attitude of the writer to violence carried out in the name of Britain, or the Empire.

Barra O’Seághdha
Dublin


Judges and Ministers

John Griffith (Letters, 9 May) emphasises that a Bill of Rights or written constitution is not itself a guarantee of freedom – one only has to look at Poland or the United States to see that. But it is unhelpful to trot out a list of legal decisions which might support his argument against the judges, without also giving us the judgments and his criticism of them. After all, some of the decisions may have been justified on the facts or because they upheld a basic principle of law, a change in which should only be in the hands of the people through Parliament.

Anthony Bilmes
Teddington, Middlesex


Declinism

I am delighted to find Correlli Barnett stating in print (Letters, 9 May) that it is an ‘absurdity’ to believe that in ‘the late Forties Britain was poorer than Germany and other major Continental nations, innovated less, spent more on welfare, or exported fewer manufactures.’ Nor does he deny that such a claim would be equally absurd for the Fifties. He suggests that it was merely my ‘cunning’ use of the ‘weasel word “implicitly” ’ which would make anyone think he believed in any such thing. There was nothing weasely about my argument. These absurdities (and others) are implicit – in the strong and obvious sense – in his book; without them it collapses. Since Barnett does not think so, perhaps he would be so kind as to add the relevant comparative data, or even make his position clear, in future printings of The Lost Victory. It would then be, if not the first, then one of the most spectacular self-deconstructing books in history.

David Edgerton
Imperial College


The Party and the Army

In his article on the stalled peace process in Ireland, Ronan Bennett (LRB, 21 March) made the point that the medical condition of Patrick Kelly, an Irish Republican prisoner who is suffering from cancer, went ‘completely untreated’ while he was being held in HMP Full Sutton. In a reply Mr Staples, the Governor of HMP Full Sutton, claims that this statement ‘is unfair’ and assures us that there is no need to worry about health care in British prisons (Letters, 18 April).

Patrick Kelly is serving a 25-year sentence for conspiracy to cause explosions. He was arrested in London in November 1992. Shortly before his arrest, in June 1992, he had undergone a drastic skin cancer operation on his back, in a hospital in Ireland. After his arrest and while on remand in prison in London, he felt pain again. No consultant or outside doctor was asked by the prison to see him. Instead his solicitors instructed a consultant dermatologist who, after performing a scan, reassured him that no recurrence had taken place.

After his conviction, Kelly was first moved to Parkhurst Prison and then to Full Sutton Prison. The prison authorities were aware of Kelly’s history of cancer: full details were provided to them by his solicitors and were contained in his medical records. Despite this, he was not monitored, no tests were performed by the prison and no cancer specialist consulted by them. During the following year, he repeatedly complained of pain and of inflammation of the scar on his back. Other than prescribing painkillers, no relevant action was taken. A doctor instructed by Kelly’s solicitors was reassured by Full Sutton Prison that a scan had been performed and had been shown to be clear. What was not said to Kelly’s doctor was that the scan had been of Kelly’s abdomen, not his back. Kelly’s medical records show that the prison authorities had been aware of the possibility that his cancer had recurred as early as July 1994. There was an entry on his medical notes reading ‘possible recurrence?’ entered at that date. This information was not passed on to Kelly or to any other person.

On transfer from Full Sutton to Whitemoor Prison, doctors immediately called in a consultant surgeon from the nearby Peterborough General Hospital. A major operation on Kelly’s back was performed almost immediately. During his time at Peterborough Hospital he was chained to a prison warder at all times. He was then moved back to the medical wing at Whitemoor Prison, and after a short period of time back again to the Special Secure Unit. Here he was placed on punishment in a cell that had only a mattress and no heating, sanitation or water. He was locked up for 23 hours a day and refused reading material or a radio.

In October 1995 a cancer specialist from Vancouver, Dr Shah, was brought in on Kelly’s behalf. Shah immediately observed what had not been pointed out by the prison doctors: namely, that there appeared to be relevant and worrying lumps under Kelly’s arms. In December he was finally transferred from England to Maghaberry Prison in Northern Ireland and in the middle of January he was operated on again at the City Hospital in Belfast. It is not clear how long he has to live.

Reports published by the Irish Labour Party and Fine Gael highlight the ill-treatment of Irish Republican prisoners in English jails; the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas and British Irish Rights Watch have made a joint submission to the UN Committee against Torture. All three reports point out that conditions for Irish Republican prisoners in England deteriorated significantly after the IRA ceasefire in August 1994. The Fine Gael report says: ‘It is with regret that we report that since our last visit we have noted a marked deterioration in the condition of those held in Special Secure Units. We noticed a loss of weight, extreme tiredness and all of those still held in these units complain of sleep deprivation, barely adequate food and erratic heating. Their treatment is both cruel and inhumane. Furthermore, there is a general problem with access to proper medical attention affecting a number of prisoners with serious medical conditions. Following the life-threatening neglect of Paddy Kelly’s medical condition, who is only now receiving the second essential operation in Northern Ireland, it is not surprising that the men themselves believe that there is a wanton disregard for their health.’

Petra Schürenhöfer
Dublin


What a Gene Wants

Raymond Tallis (LRB, 4 April) says: ‘From the evolutionary point of view, there is little point in an organism surviving beyond its reproductive years.’ Yes, of course, but why isn’t evolution smart enough to give me more reproductive years? As I accumulate wisdom, power and wealth, am I not very much better fitted to help my genes survive and multiply? If I were a gene, shouldn’t I prefer to emerge from Methuselah rather than an inner-city teenager? One possible answer: evolution has an even higher value – diversity. After 900 years, perhaps my same old genes could become incredibly boring.

Jim Haun
Pacific Palisades


Moving House

Mary Beard (LRB, 4 April) asks ‘what is the extra something’ of ‘the full-blown British Move’? The stronger answer is given on the following page by Raymond Tallis: ‘the accumulation of experience, connections and possessions may seem an inner obesity rather than an increase of spiritual substance’. Or simply too many things?

Franz Potyka
Johannesburg


Hairpiece

I would like to invite Zoë Heller (LRB, 7 March) or any other reader to comment on the cultural, political and erotic implications of negative hirsuteness as an expression of masculine identity, in the light of my own experience. I recently and for the first time underwent total cranial depilation. My mother spontaneously embraced me, thinking she saw a re-emergence of my neonate self. The politically correct felt they had to shun me, for fear of being thought ideologically unsound. My wife thought it was the New Man she had been waiting for for the last ten years. But by far the most overwhelming response came from the remaining females of my acquaintance, at least 50 per cent of whom expressed an immediate and pressing desire to ‘stroke it’. ‘Eroticisation of the male head’? ‘Lower-to-upper body displacement’? (The cruel simply said I looked a dick.) Alas, if only I had opted for this hairstyle in those formative playground years that Ms Heller recollects, my maleness might have been very differently constructed. Would anyone like to help me untangle this mess?

John Cochrane
Frankfurt