In his poignant lament for the now invisible values of Old Labour (LRB, 3 April), Ross McKibbin wonders whether the attitudes of the electorate might not be more ‘complicated’ than the tabloid papers, and now, along with the tabloids, our brave New, let’s-keep-our-principles-to-ourselves, Labour suppose. I’m sure they are. The attitudes of the amoeba are probably more complicated than those daily conceived of in the columns of the Sun. However, McKibbin goes to a rather suspect source in search of an example of attitudinal complexity. He finds the present devotion of Manchester United supporters to Eric Cantona, and of Chelsea’s tifosi (as we surely ought now to call them post-Vialli, Zola and Co) to Ruud Gullit ‘astonishing’. But is it so astonishing? The fans are devoted to success, to seeing the lads win, and if the star player or the manager happens to be a foreigner, so be it. What McKibbin’s example actually shows is that your average Frog-baiter down the popular end at Old Trafford is prepared to put his xenophobia on hold, for just as long as Cantona or Gullit deliver the results. But the moment they start failing to do that, the xenophobia will be back, to add, I suspect, a nasty edge to the resentment supporters always seem able to drum up for a team that is suddenly fading. McKibbin writes as if Cantona or Gullit-worship were a sign of some permanent improvement in our social health, ‘an aspect of our national culture whose significance we have not fully absorbed’. But the truth is that this ‘aspect’ could vanish as easily as it came. The obvious precedent is that of black footballers, whose enormous success on the pitch is often complacently quoted as having done a great deal to help race relations in Britain, though the evidence for this is scant. By a coincidence, the baseball season in the United States that is just starting has been ‘dedicated’ to Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in the major leagues, who made his début fifty years ago, in the 1947 season. Robinson made it in baseball, in a big way, and many other African Americans have done so since. What they did not do was fundamentally to disturb what Roger Angell, in a recent New Yorker, calls ‘the lumpish, Jabba-the-Hutt immobility of racial prejudice’ in the USA. Ross McKibbin reads the Cantona-Gullit phenomenon too cheerfully.
John Lanchester (LRB, 20 March) suggests that doctors believe we drink twice as much as we let on. The evidence supports the doctors: according to an article published in the journal Addiction in 1995, no counterfeit production or illegal importation of alcohol exists on the island of Spitzbergen, so a comparison of figures for the sale of alcohol with the islanders’ self-reported consumption allows an assessment of the accuracy of their reports. The authors found that the admitted drinking accounted for only 40 per cent of sales. Of course any general conclusion about alcohol consumption based entirely on a study of a remote Norwegian island is open to challenge.
Since your correspondents affirm the importance of browsing library catalogues in what might be mistaken for idleness, here are some other findings I came across while dawdling on the superhighway. Research has shown that alcohol consumption is inversely correlated to breakfast eating in both males and females; there is a slightly higher frequency of left-handedness among children exposed to alcohol in foetal life, but the findings are not statistically significant; alcohol does not seem to be a major aetiological factor in skiing-related injuries; and Norwegian adolescents who said of their most recent experience of intercourse, ‘it just turned out that way,’ were more likely than others to have had sex under the influence of alcohol.
It is not an accident that Americans (except for the rich) are not only the fattest but also the most drug-addicted. Both conditions are engendered by despair. The rest of the world thinks of America as the only superpower. Americans think of themselves as losers.
John Marshall Law School
It is no doubt the duty of the Professor of Modern British History at Cambridge, and a founder member of the Social Democratic Party, to pay his respects to politicians on both sides. All the same it is slightly too nice of Peter Clarke (LRB, 20 March) to be so eulogistic of David Willetts’s effrontery in his new Penguin Why Vote Conservative? Indeed, Clarke is not without his own brazenness in praising Willetts for his allegedly majestic intelligence, when anybody who has, let us say, lived through the devastation of their lives and livelihoods on the estuaries of Tyne, Tees, Mersey or Clyde, to say nothing of the ruination of every steel or coal town in the country, might genuinely wish ‘to go back in a political time-machine to 1979’. After all, the then Labour Party lost the 1979 election on unemployment figures of barely over one million. The high-speed trains were still clean and new, the heads of water boards were paid a modest wage to keep the water drinkable, and nobody got stabbed on the M25.
In acknowledging that mine is an old-fashioned way in which to speak, I had better add that Tony Wright’s answer to the question Why Vote Labour? seems to be absolutely the right one in a country the political culture of which has been poisoned and disfigured by greed, cruelty and callousness in the way this one has for 18 years.
Institute of Education
Out of Africa
Edward Luttwak’s cool handling of a potentially nasty encounter with the Bolivian drug mafia (LRB, 3 April) is impressive. But he doesn’t have to be quite so nonchalant about his brush with a green mamba, especially since the object of his trip was to see animals; very probably, his was the first sighting of this reptile outside its native Africa. Surely something to get a little excited about?
Questions of Malevolence
Norman Davies has attempted a total history of Europe (LRB, 20 February) yet seems unable to mention Romania without making either factual errors or snide remarks. He ascribes interwar Fascism in Romania to the nature of folk belief there (a quaint solecism); calls the place the ‘North Korea of Eastern Europe’, with ‘nowhere to go’, and ignores or misrepresents the major facts of its modern history and culture. It is sad that Davies, who is so eloquently aware of the ideological dangers of Great Power history, from the Greek to the Allied version, has succeeded, not in reshaping Europe’s story, but in retelling it so as to add Poland to the pantheon of civilisation while doing down smaller countries further away. Neal Ascherson – whom Davies calls a ‘fellow spirit’, but who at least had the grace to apologise when he wrote a book about the Black Sea that ignored the Romanian and Bulgarian parts of its coast – does nothing to alert your readers to this state of affairs, but instead valiantly attempts to defend a book that he confesses is error-bound.
Also, why does Patrick Parrinder (LRB, 20 March) think that The Doll by Boleslaw Prus is the ‘least-known major 19th-century novel’, when scholarship (well, Hugh Seton-Watson et ego) is unanimous in according this wreath to O Faclie de Paste by Ion Luca Caragiale, a Romanian? Does the fact that the former is slyly inserted into the canon by Davies have anything to do with it?
Esther Kinsky rightly observes (Letters, 20 March) that Poles are resentful of the fact that the death of some five million of their non-Jewish compatriots during World War Two has not been properly acknowledged. My own non-Jewish family was lucky: only one member perished in Auschwitz, only one killed in the Warsaw Uprising. But to feel resentful a Pole need not be either a Catholic or an anti-semite. The resentment and anger are provoked by certain elements in the Jewish community, particularly in the US, which even try to make Poles co-responsible for the Holocaust. Adam Michnik, the eminent Polish Jew, warned an audience of New York Jewry against turning those Poles who are sensitive to the Jewish tragedy into anti-semites.
Hawthornden Castle, Lasswade
The Great British Library Disaster
Fernando de Torres (Letters, 3 April) proposed that the British Library be funded by curtailing the activities of the British Council. The two institutions have very little to do with each other, apart from sharing the problematic epithet ‘British’. Here in Athens such curtailment of activities as de Torres mentions meant the closure of the British Council lending library. Thanks to a hard fought campaign, which received massive support locally and in the UK, the Council’s ‘irreversible’ decision was reversed, and the library will be reopened in the near future. On the one hand, this is a useful lesson to workers and campaigners everywhere on the precise meaning and substance of the word ‘irreversible’ when it comes from the mouths of managers. On the other, it provides us with a case-study of what happens to curtailed British Council funds: they are not transferred to the British Library or to any other cultural entity. Rather, they improve the cash-flow account of an organisation whose charter is to promote British culture and achievement.
How big is Ontario?
I have often wondered about the criteria behind what Ron Haggart (Letters, 3 April) calls your ‘rather charming vagueness’ on the matter of locating your letter-writers. I presume that the location depends on the address at the top of the letter. This must mean that academics always write from their college or university. Does that mean that business people, for example, do not write to you or, if they do, they write from home, without revealing where they work?
When it comes to non-university locations, the choice seems much more arbitrary. In the issue of 20 February, picked at random, Norman Finkelstein is identified as coming from Brooklyn, New York, whereas Mack Schlefer’s home is given as New York and nothing more. How would I be located? If I wrote from work, which is Cricklade College, Andover, Hampshire and not a university, would my college be identified? As I am writing from home, will it be Kingsclere or Newbury or Berkshire? On the Ontario principle identified by Mr Haggart perhaps it should be England. I wait nervously to find out.
Elk Lake, Ontario
Under the Loincloth
Leo Steinberg, so Frank Kermode tells us in his review of The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (LRB, 3 April), eschews literary support for his exposition. But Kermode is under no such limitation, and it is odd that he doesn’t mention the most striking 20th-century example, in D.H. Lawrence’s late novella The Escaped Cock, posthumously published under the bowdlerised title of The Man Who Died. This version of the Resurrection is constructed on the presumption of the complete, individual, mortal humanity of Jesus: it assumes that he did not die on the Cross but escaped alive, though badly injured, from the tomb, and after a time of partial recovery, which includes the symbolic episode of a captive gamecock that also escapes, journeys to Lebanon and a temple of Isis with whose priestess he eventually makes full physical love. The approach to this demythologised consummation is a piece of characteristic Lawrentian lyricism. The climax, however, appears directly to echo some of the iconographic examples cited by Steinberg, when the man identified with Jesus
felt the blaze of his manhood and his power rise up in his loins, magnificent.
‘I am risen.’
The interest lies not so much in the (unlikely) possibility that Lawrence actually knew of earlier Christian use of such an emblem, but rather in the recognition of a persistent archetypal imagery; and in tracing what happens in the course of history when ‘humanation’ is replaced by the humanisation of our ideas of Jesus; or in taking to logical conclusions the appropriate clauses of the Nicene Creed. It may be asserted that in this story Resurrection is reduced to narrowly personal terms: an individual dying man’s fantasy of restoration to health and sexual potency. But it can also be seen more widely as part of Lawrence’s whole work, ‘an assertion of life in death’.
Certain ideas about death referred to by Ruth Bernard Yeazell in her review of Pat Jalland’s book Death in the Victorian Family (LRB, 6 March) did not, in fact, originate with the Victorians. Beliefs in the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ (sudden) death can be traced back to the Middle Ages, and even antiquity. In The Hour of Our Death Philippe Ariès writes about the ‘tame death’ in which people received presentiments or warnings of their impending deaths; by contrast, the mors repentina, or sudden death, in which no warning was given, was considered not only shameful but degrading: the unfortunates who died in this manner were often not buried in consecrated ground, or they were dismembered and their limbs buried in different places. Ariès explains that mors repentina ‘destroyed the order of the world in which everyone believed; it became the absurd instrument of chance, which was sometimes disguised as the wrath of God. This is why the mors repentina was regarded as ignominious and shameful.’
Courtney Ann Cooper
Art v. Heritage
It is ironic that the letter by Roland John and Anna Martin (Letters, 20 March) appeared just a few pages before the latest ‘Magazine Rack’, an Arts Council of England initiative to advertise the excellence of the magazines we fund. Perhaps Mr John and Ms Martin consider this merely another promotional stunt by the Arts Council, but the reluctance on the part of a very few poetry editors to see the point of marketing initiatives, as though somehow seeking to sell their magazines is a betrayal of their cause, partly accounts for why they don’t get public money: that, and, in a highly competitive scene where budgets are small, the quality of what some of them publish and the editorial flair with which they do so. I have some sympathy with the view that reports and surveys are not always the answer, but they do strengthen the arguments for more money from those who control the purse-strings. The Arts Council does not, as your correspondents assert, ‘ignore’ Outposts. It has had several applications for funding from Mr John and they have been anything but ignored. Assessment committees have spent much time on them. They simply haven’t been successful, which is not the same.
Director of Literature
At Warp Speed
Although Ted Rushton (Letters, 20 March) follows logic in identifying ‘the shot heard round the world’ with the Battle of Lexington, where the first shot of the American Revolution was indeed fired, the quotation is from Emerson’s ‘Concord Hymn’, which begins: ‘By the rude bridge which arched the flood’. Lexington Common boasts neither bridge nor river, whereas the bridge (or a restoration of it) remains in Concord as a tourist attraction. The same error occurs in Roy Jenkins’s biography of Gladstone, which unaccountably refers to it as the ‘rood bridge’.
All the Cultural Bases
I was surprised to read Adam Roberts’s complaint (Letters, 3 April) about Ian Sansom’s supposedly snobby attitude to the music Simon Armitage took with him to Iceland. Being relatively young and aware of (almost) all the bands mentioned, I felt depressed at Roberts’s pretentious attempt to turn the ephemeral into a canon. He would do well to remember the immortal line of Morrissey, the singer of The Smiths: ‘So what difference does it make?’
Nene College, Northampton
Which is the hero?
While I cannot deny that I admire Ibsen’s early masterpieces Brand and Peer Gynt more than the later prose plays, I believe a misquotation in David Edgar’s review of my biography (LRB, 20 March) creates a wrong impression of why I do so. In the Foreword I describe Peer Gynt as a ‘cosmic circus’, not a ‘comic circus’. I used the word to convey the idea that in Peer Gynt Ibsen was trying to write a play about ‘everything’, whereas in The Pillars of Society and A Doll’s House the aims are much more circumscribed.
Challenging my description of When We Dead Awaken as Ibsen’s moving last attempt to understand himself as a man and an artist, and presumably thinking of the reference to a ‘comic circus’, David Edgar writes that there is no evidence that Ibsen had greater respect for his early ‘funny plays’ than for the later, more famous plays with modern settings. But the plays that I suggest Ibsen was thinking of when he has Rubek talk about the dramatic changes that took place in his sculpture – the popularisation and vulgarisation of his work – are The Pretenders, Love’s Comedy, Brand, Peer Gynt and Emperor and Galilean, the plays of the 1860s and early 1870s that pre-date The Pillars of Society. With the exception of Love’s Comedy, none of these can be described as ‘funny’ plays.
One of the chief points of distinction between these and the well-known later plays is the presence of a range of complex and fascinating male characters – Falk, Skule, Brand and Peer Gynt, Julian the Apostate – while female characters play only minor roles. The situation in the plays from The Pillars of Society in 1877 to Hedda Gabler in 1890 is, generally speaking, the reverse, and it seems to me that Ibsen’s deepening interest in the psychology of his female characters led him to create alongside them male characters who cannot compare in complexity and interest with the earlier creations. The situation persists until Ibsen’s interest again returns to a study of male psychology in The Master Builder and in John Gabriel Borkmann. Our Ibsen critics persist, with Shaw, in wanting to find in him a dedicated social reformer and a consistently liberal thinker, and edit away what does not fit in with this picture.
David Edgar thinks my way of describing Nora’s behaviour in deserting her family at the end of the play displays a ‘glum, accusatory morality’. I would submit that the glum, accusatory morality is Nora’s. Thorvald is, by the end of A Doll’s House, utterly humbled. His attitudes have changed as dramatically as have Nora’s, and it is inconceivable that the relationship between them could ever return to its former dishonesty. So why does she leave? Because Thorvald must be punished. The absence of a sense of forgiveness is typical of Ibsen. That her leaving might be a dramatic necessity is another argument altogether.
Hyam Maccoby (Letters, 6 March) does not mention a use of the phrase ‘handed over’, or at any rate in translation its close equivalent, in II Chronicles, 36, much earlier than the occurrence in I Corinthians, 11:23. In II Chronicles, one finds the following account of God’s displeasure with the repeated infidelities of the princes, priests and people of Judah. ‘He brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who slew their young men in their own sanctuary building, sparing neither young man nor maiden, neither the aged nor the decrepit; he delivered all of them over into his grip.’ This passage is found in the first reading in the Catholic liturgy for the fourth Sunday of Lent, the New American Bible translation. It is unknown to me if ‘delivered all of them over into his grip’ uses the disputed paradidomi in the original tongue.
Was he or wasn’t he?
David Cobb, if I understand him correctly, suggests that Cary Grant was a homosexual who continued, right up to his death in 1986, to have relationships with women (and marry five of them, and have a daughter with one of them) because he could not come to terms with the truth about himself (Letters, 3 April). Although this sounds like the theory – and, believe me, it exists – that Rock Hudson spent so much time with men because he could not face the fact that, deep down, he was really attracted to women, I think I see Cobb’s point.
The ‘evidence’ he cites is, he acknowledges, ‘inconclusive’: I would say it is rather less impressive than that. His source – he cannot recall his name – is referred to as ‘Grant’s former agent of many years’: this is odd – Grant’s agent, Frank Vincent, died in 1946, and Grant acted as his own agent from that point on, so who Mr Cobb spoke to in 1977 remains something of a mystery. Lew Wasserman and Stanley Fox assisted Grant in certain contractual negotiations, but neither man was ‘well retired and outside the fray’ by the late Seventies, and neither would have made such allegations about his close friend.
Cobb goes on to claim that Grant ‘was certainly touchy on the subject’ of these rumours, but I would contest this. He told one interviewer: ‘If someone wants to say I’m gay, what can I do? I think it’s probably said about every man who’s been known to do well with women. I don’t let that sort of thing bother me. What matters to me is that I know who I am.’ All of his ex-wives rejected the rumours – even Dyan Cannon, years after their acrimonious divorce, told an inquisitive friend that he was ‘definitely not gay’ – and I know that Barbara Harris, his widow, is similarly dismissive.
Why did the gossip persist? Perhaps because Hollywood was – and, in spite of the obligatory red ribbons now on display, continues to be – one of the most homophobic and hypocritical institutions in the Western world, and because Grant, who despised gossip as much as he hated homophobes, refused to apologise for the fact that some of his dearest friends and colleagues happened to be homosexual. Such an attitude, in a place where tittle-tattle passes for scholarship and the possibility of decency and integrity is taken far less seriously than astrology or the likelihood of imminent alien invasion, was really just asking for it.
James MacGibbon’s inference (Letters, 3 April) that I am a Conservative is correct. The Conservative Party is like the LRB: not perfect, but much better than its rivals.
Downham Market, Norfolk
I read with interest the continuing debate in your pages about whether the LRB is ‘left-wing’. It may be argued with much truth that the LRB has simply stood still while many other journals have rushed to the right past it. When New Labour wins a landslide in the early hours of 2 May, will the LRB editor and staff be dancing in the streets with the rest of us, or not?
There was a mistake in Tony Judt’s letter as published in the last issue. The sentence in question should have read: ‘In Chapter II we learn that the Nazis supported Papen in 1932 (they didn’t); that General von Schleicher was in the Reichstag (he wasn’t); that the Germans occupied the Vichy Zone in 1943 (it was 1942) … ’ Our version inexplicably sent von Schleicher to Vichy, without any mention of his being, or not being, in the Reichstag.
Editors, ‘London Review’