Unfair to Ulster
I was interested by Conor Gearty’s dynastic response to Neil Jordan’s film, Michael Collins (LRB, 28 November), but troubled by his remark: ‘Jordan has been excoriated for using the wrong kind of gun in one incident and the wrong kind of bomb in another, as though the exposure of such minor details destroyed the movie’s central truth, which is that Michael Collins was the revolutionary leader of a popular movement which defeated the British forces in most of Ireland.’ This is to miss the point that the car bomb episode involves blowing up a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary who speaks with a strong Ulster accent – the clear intention is to be topical and to treat with comic disdain the loss of life which the RUC has suffered at the hands of the IRA during the last quarter of a century (car bombs were not used during the Irish war of independence). Jordan has said that he regarded this episode in the film as a joke – this is an insulting remark which Gearty might have commented on. In Michael Collins those characters who speak with an Ulster accent are demonised, British violence is portrayed as sadistic, while Irish Republican violence is stylised and palliated. The film also ignores the fact that the war of independence began with the cold-blooded murder of two RIC men by six Republican Volunteers at Soloheadbeg on 21 January 1919. Though there is much that is coarse and crude in Jordan’s direction of Michael Collins, it is a powerful film which deserves to be argued about. It makes the case for proper peace talks and for compromise in the North of Ireland now.
In complaining that my article on central bankism ignored the influence of the money-markets, Victor Smart argues that they ‘punish mercilessly’ any country which opts for a soft money policy (Letters, 28 November). Very true – but how is that punishment inflicted? By marking down a country’s currency of course. And what consequences ensue in these deflationary times of chronic excess capacity? Cheapened exports rise, dearer imports fall, increasing employment at both ends, in import-substitution as well as export trades. That is exactly what happened in Italy in 1993-5, after the lira was forced down by the money-markets, alarmed that the country’s political turmoil would accentuate its fiscal and monetary laxity. As the lira fell the Italian economy enjoyed an export-led boom, while Germany and other EU countries of exemplary monetary discipline were suffering from increasing unemployment. With the lira then being much in demand to pay for all those Ferragamo shoes and everything else, it started a slow climb that still continues – even though only the more courageous fraction of investors and currency traders bought liras and lira-denominated bonds and stocks, adding their own capital demand to the trade-generated demand for liras. At the time, grave warnings were issued that Italy’s inflation would soon accelerate because of the rising cost of imports. That is what is written in textbooks – but then textbook-writers do not know much about Ferragamo shoes: when the cost of dollar-denominated ostrich skin increased, the import content of 300,000 lira shoes went up from 1000 liras to 1500 liras, i.e. to 0.005 per cent of their total value – and that was just about the extent of Italy’s import-induced inflation. Advanced economies are like that.
To be sure, in inflationary times with productive capacity already fully utilised, the down-valuation of the currency by money markets cannot result in increased exports, while rising import prices further accelerate inflation. My ‘central bankism’ critique is meant to apply to the present situation of chronic deflation and excess capacity. Everyone knows that inflation results from too much money chasing too few goods. Everyone knows that there is now an abundance of capacity, the equivalent of too many goods, so that much money can be printed without causing much inflation.
Chevy Chase, Maryland
Old enough to be his mother
John Rees (Letters, 28 November) is irritated by my less than flattering portrait of his hero Lenin in A People’s Tragedy. But this does not justify his underhand attempt to portray my book as full of factual errors and distortions. There is nothing wrong with my book’s dating of Shostakovich’s Second Symphony (1927) or the publication of Zamyatin’s We (1924), four years after it was written. What is wrong (even dishonest) is Rees’s claim that I discussed the first as part of the music of the civil war, and the second in the context of the New Economic Policy. As for my use of the quotations by Lenin (on the need to beat people without mercy) and Shliapnikov (on the disappearance of the working class), neither merits the charge of distortion, although in the first I did miss out some dots. But then, even in the space of his short letter Rees has shown how easily one can misquote.
He quotes me as writing that ‘the October Revolution was a coup, actively supported by a small minority of the population,’ and claims that this contradicts my earlier argument about the swing to the left in several major city Soviets. But in fact I called October an ‘insurrection’ (not a revolution) and made it clear (in a clause Rees hides with dots) that the swing to the left was in response to the Kornilov Affair. It was a rejection of the coalition with the ‘bourgeoisie’, a call for a socialist government by the most militant sections of the Soviet movement, but this hardly made it, as Rees claims, a mass base of support for the Bolshevik seizure of power.
Trinity College, Cambridge
David Craig (Letters, 14 November) is trying to provoke a knee-jerk reaction when he writes of my Ossian piece (LRB, 3 October) in terms of ‘nationalistic point-making’. My commitment to a Scotland whose people have democratic control over their own affairs does not mean that I have undergone a complete critical and aesthetic by-pass operation. Some of the most interesting recent work on Ossian has come from Adam Potkay in Virginia and Fiona Stafford in Oxford; I doubt if either is a Scottish nationalist. What they and I are trying to do is to look at the Ossianic poems from fresh angles, rather than, as Craig tends to do, replaying old insults. Though, like Craig, I find Macpherson’s work hard to read at long stretches, I am aware that Macpherson’s use of the fragment, his tone and his work’s impact are of signal importance in Romantic literature and art; more than that, the Ossianic corpus is a focus of concerns about language, cultural imperialism and, as Potkay points out, gender. To dismiss the work as a mere ‘farrago’ is to ignore all this, and to repeat one side of an exhausted argument.
University of St Andrews
One aspect of the context of the recent exchanges between our two colleagues, Edward Said and Ira Katznelson, stands out. The Oslo Accords have thus far led to a far more fragmented society for the Palestinians than existed before. The undermining of civil society to which the Israelis have contributed – some no doubt unwittingly but others more deliberately – with the collusion of Arafat, is graphically, eloquently and movingly described in Said’s report of his visit to the area, which Katznelson attacks. ‘Bantustan’ seemed to both of us, when we read it, to be an accurate and appropriate word for some of the features of the situation that Said was describing.
We don’t have a good and workable idea of how to improve the social, political and economic conditions of the Palestinians under the present circumstances. It is true that Said had not suggested anything positive in that particular report, and in a personal account of his visit had not presented analytically the qualms he has about the peace Accords, as he has done elsewhere in considerable detail. But Katznelson does not do any better in his responses. He does ‘castigate’ Said (not so much with ‘invective’ but in a snide and complacent tone) for being no happier with the situation after the peace Accords than before. He says this negativity is unjustified when the results are not yet fixed. But he must surely understand that the idea that the future ‘is not yet fixed’ is going to seem a bit academic to someone who thinks that the Accords that Arafat has signed are actually going to bind his people into fixes that are crippling to their future welfare as well as their dignity, and that therefore it would have been better to have held out for something more. Although we agree that it is a good idea to keep a cool head even under duress, sometimes a cool head calls for frustration and outrage to be expressed in strong terms. We are writing partly to say that we wish our colleague Katznelson had been sensitive to this and not seen it as mere ‘castigation and invective’ on Said’s part.
A number of misleading statements have appeared recently in your columns concerning the influence of Communist sympathisers at the headquarters of the Special Operations Executive in Bari and their suppression of information that may have influenced events in the Balkans towards the end of the Second World War. In particular, doubt has been cast over what happened to an important despatch sent by my late colleague in SOE, Billy McLean, then head of all the British Military Missions in Albania, to Anthony Eden. The despatch was drafted by McLean and Julian Amery. By previous arrangement it was headed ‘personal for Eden’. I was aware of the contents, having helped put the despatch into code. I can assure you that the message never reached Eden. He confirmed this personally to me shortly after the war ended. Furthermore, the secretary of the officer who received the despatch told me that she had herself witnessed the despatch being torn up on receipt by the officer concerned, a Communist then serving in the Albanian Section of SOE. Alongside him in SOE headquarters was James Klugmann, who played a leading role in the British Communist Party for many years before and after the war. Given their worldview, it was only natural that such people – and there were others – would do all they could to ensure that Britain should back Communist Partisans in the Balkans at the expense of non-Communist ones. Whether their actions actually affected the outcome of the struggle between Communists and non-Communists must remain open to debate. At the least, it must be assumed that they intended that they would.
David Hayes (Letters, 14 November) implies that I have given ‘two different versions’ in two of my books, even ‘quoting’ a statement that is not in either book. There is no conflict whatsoever in what I have written, one account simply being fuller than another. And I did not, as he states, affirm Eden’s immediate assent to the evacuation from Albania of Abas Kupi, the Albanian guerrilla leader whom the Communists were keen to see Britain abandon. What I wrote was that, on arriving in Bari from Albania, McLean and Amery flew immediately to Caserta. There they saw, not Eden, but Harold Macmillan, the resident Minister of State, and General ‘Jumbo’ Wilson, the Supreme Commander in Italy, who both agreed on the spot that Kupi be evacuated and a destroyer sent at once. Eden was later told of this and belatedly ratified Macmillan’s action – too late, anyway, as Kupi and his companions had already escaped.
Pinter and Prawns
Michael Wood suggests that, thanks to the influence of Harold Pinter, Shakespeare is now often played as ‘an absurdist hampered by the flowery language of his time’ (LRB, 14 November). If, however, we look more closely we can find that Shakespeare actually set precedents for Pinter’s form of self-absorbed, detailed but inconsequential recollections – as with Mistress Quickly (in Henry IV Part 2) who could well be, as it were, a distant forebear of The Caretaker:
Thou didst swear to me upon a parcel-gilt goblet, sitting in my Dolphin chamber, at the round table, by a sea-coal fire, upon Wednesday in Wheeson week, when the Prince broke thy head for liking his father to a singing-man of Windsor – thou didst swear to me then, as I was washing thy wound, to marry me, and make me my lady thy wife. Canst thou deny it? Did not good wife Keech the butcher’s wife come in then, and call me ‘Gossip Quickly’, coming in to borrow a mess of vinegar, telling us she had a good dish of prawns, whereby thou didst desire to eat some, whereby I told thee they were ill for a green wound? And didst thou not, when she had gone downstairs, desire me to be no more so familiarity with such poor people, saying that ere long they should call me ‘madam’? And didst thou not kiss me, and bid me fetch thee thirty shillings?
This speech from Act II scene i shows that Pinter did not need to invent everyday speech ‘in the way that Dickens invented London fog’, as Michael Wood contends.
One English university where Alison Leonard might have found a Paternoster lift (Letters, 14 November) is David Lodge’s University of Rummidge. At least, there was one in the mid-Seventies when Rummidge first appeared in the novel Changing Places. I think the allegorical cycle it is associated with is ‘Northrop Frye’s theory of literary modes’. This particular lift’s finest moment comes in the course of a chase through the English Department involving a crazed academic armed with a shotgun.
Since Brian Brivati is on record as pointing out that his biography of Hugh Gaitskell is not an attempt to situate Tony Blair within some kind of Labour Movement tradition, it is perhaps a little harsh of R.W. Johnson to dismiss the book on this basis (LRB, 14 November). There seem to me three key differences between Gaitskell and Blair. First, while Gaitskell was a right-wing politician, he was right-wing within the terms of debate of the Labour Movement. Second, as Johnson notes, Gaitskell did have a few principles, which he was prepared to stick to even if they were not always electorally popular. Third, Gaitskell actually enjoyed himself and did not, on the whole, seem to want to ban things or moralise about what others should be doing.