Robert Crawford’s piece on MacPherson’s ‘Ossian’ (LRB, 3 October) struck me as a masterpiece of scholarship bent to misleading ends. Almost nothing he said applied directly to the qualities of the work itself. I bought a copy of this strange mid-18th-century antique in a second-hand shop in Aberdeen in 1949 or thereabouts, and tried many times to read it. Finally the papier-mâché poetic diction, the monotony of the rhetoric, all ornamental adjectives and vaguely Hebraic doublets, and the soft-focus narrative, so short on physical detail and well-paced story, frustrated me completely. The book, for all my wish to admire its bardic lineage, slumped down into the dusty layers of the great unread. The only line I remember is ‘Around her from thin clouds bend the awful faces of her fathers,’ which was illustrated suitably by an engraving of mist-wraiths, white-bearded elders hovering in the sky like balloons and a female wafting about in a sort of sheet.
Crawford aggrandises the work while fudging most of its crucial aspects. He starts with a short lecture on the significance of ‘fragments’, which allows him to drop such names as Novalis, Pound and Eliot. By the end ‘fragments’ have dwindled to ‘traces’ – ‘traces of authentic material’ which ‘underlie’ MacPherson’s concoctions. What upsets me is that the strategy of wheeling in the famous names who were influenced by MacPherson’s farrago (for the worse, usually – see how he helped Blake to become diffuse and bombastic) enables him to slide right past the original Gaelic epics and dismiss the question of MacPherson’s authenticity as ‘boring’. If he is concerned about the culture of the Highlands, whether before or after the genocidal events of 1746, he should care about those original, heroic poems – the Homer of their place and time. The versions of them written down (and partly composed) by Irish monks in the 13th century read far better than MacPherson. As you would expect, they have much of the distinctness and narrative drive of, say, the sagas, the Iliad, the Mabinogion, and Aboriginal Australian oral poetry. MacPherson blurred all that in dreary atmospherics – third-rate landscape painting with lay figures posed here and there in the gloom.
This made him easy to recycle, consciously or unconsciously, when people like Byron, Emily Brontë or sundry Gothic novelists required darkly archaic effects. I wish that Crawford had been more concerned with the quality of the poetry, whether MacPherson’s or ‘Ossian’s’, and less with the sort of nationalistic point-making which is really saying something quite primitive like ‘My country’s literature right or wrong – remarkable or indifferent.’
As a student of European rather than German literature I was flabbergasted last year by the harsh reception Ein weites Feld suffered at the hands of critics in Germany. Not only was Grass claimed to be an impotent who had out-written his former genius, but the European stance of this novel was never even acknowledged. It was a pleasure therefore to see Fredric Jameson place Grass in a tradition of European Modernism along with Joyce and Beckett, and, in the context of magic realism, with Faulkner and García Márquez, while pointing out the influence of 19th-century European novel-writing (LRB, 17 October). What is more, Jameson emphasises the dialogic openness of the novel, which was hardly noticed in the controversy last autumn. Grass did not set out to please East German readers: his project was the more ambitious and basically ambiguous one of assigning Germans a place in the New Europe.
Fredric Jameson wonders whether English has an equivalent to the ‘Paternoster’ kind of lift, which proceeds slowly, doorless, from floor to floor, up, over the top and down the other side, and which has to be stepped into and out from pretty precisely. I haven’t found one in the language, but I have found actual lifts in England. I was dramatising Heinrich Böll’s story ‘Doktor Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen’ for Radio 3, and wanted to bring verisimilitude to the moment when Murke takes his terrifying existential trip ‘over the top’ in the Paternoster lift. I phoned some lift companies, who helpfully directed me to specimens in several Northern English universities and the occasional branch of Marks and Spencer (for staff use only). Existentialists, historians, predestinarians and depressives will, like Fonty in Grass’s Ein weites Feld, appreciate the allegorical significance of this chug-chugging piece of early technology.
Peter Cook’s Good Deed
I was left with a feeling of dissatisfaction at the end of Paul Foot’s sleaze diatribe (LRB, 17 October). The phenomenon which he describes is worldwide. Quangos certainly need to be more open about what they spend our money on, how much they pay their managers and the extent to which they stick to the rules. But I would have liked a bit more about solutions. For there are no obvious ones. More regulation is expensive and we are short of individuals who know how to regulate the regulators. The anti-quango and anti-bureaucrat rhetoric which emanated from Blackpool in October misunderstands the problem. Technology is transforming all organisations, public and private, and more ‘managers’ are probably necessary to cope with the changes it brings. Re-introducing the unmanaged quangos of yesteryear, like the ‘old’ universities, is just nostalgia; as is much talk of the ‘democratic deficit’. Modern Western democracy has been working badly for some time and the sleaze record of democrats is not much better than that of fat cats. As Paul Foot reminds us, Poulson was bribing MPs, senior civil servants and a range of both local councillors and municipal bureaucrats for years before he was found out; since then the difficulties of Parliament and government with self-regulation have grown exponentially. It is because no party has yet properly grappled with the problem of managing the modern state that political leaders are now reduced to preaching sermons. In the longer term, the solution may well lie in less Thatcherite managerial values, a new public-service ethic and a more honest citizenry. For the moment I suspect we shall have to rely on the one shining light Foot offers us: the disinterested, eleemosynary and private patronage of the late Peter Cook, which enabled Private Eye to be founded and still enables our public hypocrisies to be exposed and ridiculed.
Jessica Douglas-Home’s use of sources on wartime Albania is deficient (Letters, 17 October). Nowhere in Thorns of Memory does Peter Kemp state that Britain ‘supplied arms and money to Enver Hoxha’s Communist forces to fight their rivals, the Balli Kombetare’ – a ridiculous charge in any case. This ventriloquism is necessary to substantiate the ensuing picture of betrayal, yet even the selective quotation which follows fails to support it: nowhere does Kemp claim any natural or principled sympathy for Britain among the Balli or Zogist forces. The suggestion that ‘Kosovar “irredentist” resistance to the Germans’ was undermined by SOE manoeuvring is the purest fantasy.
David Smiley has given two accounts of the suppressed message to Eden (not ‘Sir Anthony Eden himself’, an absurd anachronism). In neither does he describe it as ‘his’, but rather ‘a personal signal’ from ‘Billy’ McLean. Irregular Regular (1994) refers to an earlier suppressed signal, but this is unmentioned in the far longer Albanian Assignment (1984). The ‘Fascists’ accusation is ‘overheard’ and refers to ‘our mission’ (Albanian Assignment) but in Irregular Regular: ‘I was even called one to my face.’ Kemp recounts a third version of the incident, in which Smiley’s ‘polite but cool’ reception at SOE HQ in Bari (Irregular Regular) becomes ‘undisguised hostility and contempt’. Smiley affirms Eden’s immediate assent to Abas Kupi’s evacuation; Eden requested in writing that it should happen ‘without it appearing that HMG have been involved in the operation’. As for Kupi’s King Zog, Eden recalled: ‘I argued that it was impossible to regard kings in most of these Balkan lands as other than coming and going like a Labour Government at home.’
The memoirs of Kemp, Smiley, Amery and others deserve to be read carefully, and with critical and human respect for some brave men. They do not provide an adequate or balanced portrait of the complex and many-sided events in Albania in 1943-4, nor of Britain’s role. The serious work of Sir Reginald Hibbert (Albania’s National Liberation Struggle, 1991) is invaluable. The ideology-driven and conspiracy-minded approach of Jessica Douglas-Home and Nicholas Bethell neither serves historical truth nor offers more than a mirror-image of the Stalinist historiography of Enver Hoxha.
Miss Watson predicts
Anthony Howard in 1962 was not the first to tip Alec Douglas-Home in the Downing Street Stakes, as Peter Clarke suggests (LRB, 17 October). In his memoirs, Footsteps in Time, Jock Colville, once Assistant Private Secretary to Chamberlain and Churchill, recalls a conversation he had with a secretary at No 10, Miss Watson, in November 1939. ‘You know, Mr Colville, there is hardly anybody here nowadays who understands the House of Commons. The only one who does is Lord Dunglass.’ (Dun-glass was Douglas-Home’s courtesy title.) ‘He will be prime minister one day.’ Colville demurred. Yet Miss Watson held her ground, having divined beneath the gentility the private reserve of ambition all prime ministers call publicly a sense of duty.
‘Did that man touch our car?’
I was interested to read the letter from Marion Glastonbury, who, like me, has a son with Asperger’s Syndrome (Letters, 31 October). She questions ‘with due tentativeness’ whether my son Nicholas’s intuitive remarks about my mother’s childhood might simply be the result of five years of psychotherapy – he gave this up 18 months ago – and ‘some advanced echolalia’, whereby the Asperger’s child, when asked about feelings, might ‘try to give us what we seem to want’. My reply to this is that there may be as many variations among those who have Asperger’s Syndrome as there are among ‘ordinary’ people. My son does not, for instance, appear to have the advanced mathematical ability or computer skills which many high-achieving Asperger’s children and adults possess. He does have a remarkable memory for specific incidents – remarks, sounds – that occurred years ago, and he often recalls their exact date.
I realise that there is a risk in over-emphasising ‘intuition’ and in assuming too readily that an Asperger’s child can put himself in another person’s shoes and interpret sophisticated human behaviour. The risk is that we then ignore the very real difficulties that they have each day, in areas the rest of us take for granted. (To give a random sample of incidents that troubled my son last week: was a bus conductor hostile, was a child smiling or grimacing, was the man who told him not to hit his sofa ‘disturbed’ or ‘aggressive’?) On the other hand, and at the risk of sounding like a doting mother, here are a few remarks that my son made last September, during one week abroad. I wrote them down. ‘You’re tough with some people and weak with other people. It’s your personality. You use your toughness up on the wrong people, my father, for instance.’ ‘You had a mad crush on your own father. He wasn’t that nice to you. He didn’t give you any moral support either.’ On a possible suitor: ‘He would not entertain your imagination at all.’
Messrs Teimourian and Katznelson persist in their illusions (Letters, 31 October). Connie Bruck’s recent New Yorker article about the negotiations affirms what I have been saying and, unlike my critics, seeing. For one thing, she says that it was Peres who forced Arafat to make most of the nasty concessions as part of a scheme, according to Peres, to remake Arafat into his partner. According to his aides, Arafat never read the agreement, nor, unlike the Israelis, did he ever have a real negotiating team. The Palestinians did not understand what was being done to them and their territories. The Israelis deliberately cheated them about how much West Bank land they would be giving up (only 3 per cent as it turned out). For a detailed account of the corruptions and practices of the Palestinian Authority under Arafat see Ehud Ya’ ari’s ‘What a State’ in the 20 September issue of Maariv.
‘Said is irresponsible,’ says Katznelson, who cites a lot of bad things done by Palestinians. Why is it irresponsible for Palestinians to demand and, yes, fight for independence and equality? And why is he simply unable to respond to the point I raised, that Palestinians still bear the memories and scars of what Zionism did to them, from the destruction of their society, to their dispossession, occupation and oppression for fifty years? Dastardly as the crimes he mentions are, they must be seen in the context of Zionist policies directed against an entire people, the denial of that people’s history, and the refusal of any proper compensation. The moral idiocy of Katznelson’s position is staggering, but – given his peculiar ideological deformations – not unexpected.
I responded to a letter by him (Letters, 3 October) in which he took me to task for ‘elisions’ in a sober first-person account of what it was like to return to my country of origin and place of birth, seized and occupied by a movement about which Katznelson has absolutely nothing critical to say. I raised a series of questions about the past as these directly relate to the present, questions which Katznelson again obdurately refuses even to acknowledge, much less answer. Instead he speaks about my castigation and invective. There was none of either: I spoke only about his silence, which it is now perfectly obvious he refuses to break. Remember also that he was accusing Palestinian intellectuals of ‘muzzling’ their critical intelligence. And yet, from the ‘precincts of Morning-side Heights’ – his phrase – he is unable to say one word about what Zionism has done and continues to do to the Palestinians. I said about Peres that both in engineering the Oslo Accords and in implementing (or not implementing) some of their clauses, he made a mockery of peace, giving the Palestinians little except immediate authority over municipal affairs, without any mention of sovereignty at the end of the process. Peres spent four times more money expropriating land for, and adding to, settlements than Shamir’s Government, to say nothing of closures that have cost the Palestinians literally billions of dollars, plus the invasion of Lebanon in April, plus the assassination of Yahya Ayash, plus the continuing curfew against the Palestinian inhabitants of Hebron, who were victims of a settler’s massacre in the mosque in February 1994. Is it wrong to assume that Katznelson prefers to snipe against me than to face the truth, which is that, appalling as Netanyahu is, Peres was no better, only packaged differently?
Ira Katznelson closes his original response to Edward Said’s article referring him to an ‘announcement on 9 September by Yossi Beilin, Peres’s most important aide in the post-Oslo negotiations, of the formation of the Mashov Circle inside the Labour Party – a group committed to a Palestinian state covering most of the West Bank and Gaza’ (Letters, 3 October). It must be either a bitter joke or sheer propaganda: Yossi Beilin was the first person in the Labour Party to promise the West Bank settlers that most of them would stay where they are, under Israeli rule. There is an American Jewish urge to defend Israel at any cost. For a very long time it was the real obstacle to peace. The technique has always been the same: picking an Israeli leader, or writer, whose ideas abroad are taken as being ‘moderate’ without any questions being asked and then citing that ‘fiction’ – Beilin’s programme in this case – as an argument against the ‘extremist’ Palestinian or any Gentile. Beilin is an Israeli politician. For years he could have advocated a Palestinian state. Now, when it may be too late anyway, he comes up with the idea of a bantustan.
In common with Edward Said, Ian Gilmour (LRB, 31 October) overlooks the fact that extreme fecundity (the average family on the West Bank has over eight children) is a major reason for wretched poverty in the Occupied Territories – and much of the Middle East.
Reading Miller’s Nuffield on Cohen’s All Souls view of the world (LRB, 31 October) reminds me of Gellner’s famous comment on the debate between two anthropologists about the significance of ‘cattle’ among different peoples – ‘there were no cattle!’ Like most of Marx’s predictions about the condition of labour, that regarding increasing immiseration and differentiation still holds – globally as much as within nation-states. For comparisons between the Seventies (and earlier) and the Nineties we have official data regarding the UK (Family Spending, 1996; the Department of Health’s Low Income, 1996) and the US (see Washington post, 14 October 1996 for a comparison of 1974 and 1994). The Oxford dons should also glance at a book published by their own university press: the UN Human Development Report 1996. Data on perhaps the most rapid (Russia) and most massive (China) differentiations of the last 20 years are also widely known. As the Times reported on 16 July 1996, the ‘richest 358 people “own as much as half the world” ’. I shall conclude by reminding the reviewer and the author reviewed – an ontic against their antics – that the condition of labour is an, perhaps the, ecological problem. Selfish cerebration, like hugging the self, butters no parsnips.
Philippa Foot (Letters, 3 October) says that I ‘was wrong to suggest that Gavin Lawrence’s work is derived from [Warren] Quinn’s’. But I suggested no such thing: I said it was odd that Lawrence didn’t mention Quinn’s work in view of the similarity between them and their professional proximity. I had no information on the question of influence. After all, people do often cite each other because they hold similar positions independently arrived at. So I still think it is odd (though not perhaps of the highest moment).
Incidentally, that was the last review I shall be writing for this journal for the foreseeable future; so, readers, adieu.
No sooner had I written about a curious echo of Edward FitzGerald in Virginia Woolf (Letters, 17 October) than along comes evidence of a collaboration which has gone unremarked in such books as Hermione Lee’s. Although Nigel Nicolson included, in his 1975 volume of Letters, a 1902 letter from Virginia Stephen to Henry Newbolt, he did not point out that it had been first published 43 years earlier, in Newbolt’s memoirs, My World as in My Time. This explains why she should have expressed ‘great pleasure – and pride’ when thanking him for sending her a poem. Newbolt recalls walking with her and Sir Leslie Stephen in Kensington Gardens during the Boer War: ‘I remember too that when the time came for making peace, one of his daughters made a comment which stirred me with a sympathetic emotion. I made haste to write it down in verse, and sent it back to her.’ Here it is,‘Peace’:
No more to watch by Night’s eternal shore,
With England’s chivalry at dawn to ride;
No more defeat, faith, victory – O! no more
A cause on earth for which we might have died.
No masterpiece, but fodder for the continuing discussion of her views on empire, war, masculinity and suchlike.
The Buttocks Problem
Boris Ford’s welcome recollections of F. McEachran (Letters, 17 October) omit to mention his Spells and More Spells. I only met him once but I immediately recognised in him an unusual character. It was in a crowded pub opposite Shrewsbury station in 1943. He was with a young soldier of the Free French Forces whom he was evidently seeing off after the soldier had addressed his pupils. He had a copy of Du côté de chez Swann under his arm. I also was a soldier and had once written a thesis on Proust.
Boris Ford’s reminiscences show him to have been of the lineage of Elam, the eccentric, indocile master of St Paul’s School described in Ernest Raymond’s Through Literature to Life (1928) and portrayed in Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street, who would be similarly unlikely to find a place at the present day, even in an independent school. I was reminded in turn of a master in Dynevor School, Swansea in the Thirties, one D.H. Morgan, whose ‘lessons’ were a tissue of mesmerising elaboration, a fantastic tapestry woven of English literature, theology, economics, astrology, local history, politics, anything except the Welsh language he was hired to teach us.
Forty years on I found among the books left to me by my colleague M.F.M. Meiklejohn, ornithologist and professor of Italian (himself one of the same breed), who had been at Gresham’s, the two volumes named above, presentation copies signed ‘Kek’, which continue to occupy an honoured place on my shelves.
University of Glasgow