Walking towards Death
Terry Castle and her readers (LRB, 4 April) may be interested to hear of my experience as a Japanese boy visiting war memorials in England. In 1977 the headmaster of my school in Yamagata Prefecture announced that he would take a dozen boys from the intermediate school (between the ages of 10 and 14) to accompany him on a sponsored trip to England that summer. Every boy would be expected to walk 12 miles each day. The total length of the trip would be ten days. The money raised would go to charity. Only those at the top of each class would qualify for the opportunity, although we understood this to mean Dr Koshiro’s favourites, of whom I was one. The headmaster’s youngest son would be in the group.
This was the year Dr Koshiro was due to retire.
All of us at the school knew that our headmaster, who was in his early sixties, had been in service in the war. Not unusually for a man of his age, he did not talk about his experiences. The only pupil who expressed any curiosity was female and not one of Dr Koshiro’s favourites.
So we prepared ourselves for two weeks in the beautiful county of Berkshire. We were told before we left, without any of our parents in attendance, that we would be visiting many war memorials. Those of our parents who had been abroad would have done this, Dr Koshiro said; not to visit would be inconsiderate. We had not seen photographs of them only because taking pictures of war memorials was considered inappropriate. We must believe, he assured us, that our parents would have behaved correctly. And so must we. Our visit would be our way of showing our nation’s sorrow for what had happened in the 1940s. I don’t remember that any of us regarded this as particularly onerous; it was like taking time out of a holiday to visit elderly relatives.
Our first night on British soil was spent in a campsite near Henley-on-Thames. We woke to rain denting the tent canvas. As we gathered for morning roll-call Dr Koshiro emerged from his one-man tent in the uniform of a Japanese officer of the Imperial Army. He then read the list of names as if nothing was unusual. For me, the experience was strangely exciting. It was as if we had suddenly become part of a fancy-dress party. In Japan, this would have been almost unimaginable. My enjoyment was somewhat moderated when, as we began our walk, our headmaster unfurled the old prewar Japanese flag. He proceeded with the flag on a short pole resting on his shoulder. He later informed us that this was in imitation of the British Forces surrendering in Malaya. Our little group walked unmolested into Henley and up to the war memorial in the centre of the town. Here we read the names of the fallen and Dr Koshiro led us in a short prayer. It was early in the morning on a Sunday and there were few people about. Standing there in our shorts, we didn’t connect the dead with the war against Japan. Dr Koshiro told us he knew some of these men, that they had died in his camp. The Berkshire Regiment had played a prominent role in the war in Asia. They were all, he told us, brave men. By being here, we were honouring them. That night he told us how despicable some Japanese had been during that dark time. He knew because he had been in charge of a prisoner of war camp in Burma. He promised us that he had done his best to treat the captives humanely. Becoming very agitated, he told us that the Army had sent him drunkards, mental defectives and common criminals as guards; it was they who behaved so cruelly and gave our country such a bad name. As schoolchildren, we were not aware that our country had a particularly odious reputation. We thought of ourselves as rather obscure, though this was perhaps more a reflection of our provincial status.
Along the way I remember two small children, rather poorly dressed and not under apparent parental supervision, asking if the man leading us was the Emperor. Dr Koshiro laughed and gave the children some sweets from home. This seemed to confirm them in their belief. This is perhaps not so strange when we remember it was the year of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, when many Heads of State visited, though none perhaps in this manner.
In a village, whose name I forget, we were met in the square by a policeman who told Dr Koshiro that he should, for his own safety, exchange his uniform for ordinary clothes. Patiently, our headmaster explained that he had come to pay his respects to the men who had been so badly treated. I remember him using the words ‘apology’ and ‘sorry’. The policeman took him to one side. Later, a sombre Dr Koshiro told us that veterans of the war who lived in the town might be upset by the sight of his uniform. It did not matter, he told us, because he could still pray for their souls however he was dressed. I now understand that the sight of a Japanese officer would be the last thing a former prisoner of war would want to see. The only death threats Dr Koshiro received, however, were when we arrived home, from far-right activists who thought that what he had done was a humiliation for Japan.
As for our own safety, we were only once in danger. One night a group of young men, probably drunk, caused a disturbance at our campsite. They were chanting ‘We want the Japs.’ Suddenly we felt that Dr Koshiro might have to save us. He was clearly terrified. Tents were being hit and a considerable commotion was in progress. The oldest among us said that, if necessary, he would fight. Dr Koshiro got out of his tent alone, with his sword, and confronted the youths. By this time others who had been disturbed were standing around in the dark. He said that he had been a camp governor, that he had treated Englishmen badly, and that he was very sorry. He then offered his sword to the leader of the youths, saying that if he felt that a wrong should be avenged, he should do so now. After a brief silent interval the youths turned away laughing, carrying the sword in its lacquer sheath. They did not return. I shall always admire Dr Koshiro for this. We were none of us more than 13 years old. Some of these youths seemed to be in their twenties, perhaps even older.
The next day, we were going to London.
When we arrived for a few days’ sightseeing (no memorials mentioned) the Jubilee celebrations for the Queen were in full swing. Accommodation was impossible to find. We were reduced to camping out in the public parks. We did meet some individuals who were passionately concerned with Japan’s conduct towards Europeans in the war, and yet showed no resentment towards ourselves, or Dr Koshiro. Many Japanese tourists have had similar experiences. I was told that a veteran of the war in Asia had spoken for some time to Dr Koshiro, who had handed him the officer’s uniform. This peace offering was not appreciated, and the clothing was dropped on the ground. After this, the uniform was stowed away and none of us saw it again. I remember joining in the singing and general festivities of the Jubilee holiday.
This is not simply the story of a gentle, deluded old man whose attempts to expiate his guilt were poorly judged. Certainly, he took us with him on false pretences and exposed us to possible harm. If he was trying to impress on us the need to evaluate aspects of our country’s past which have perhaps not received the attention they should in the Japanese curriculum, I can attest that this was a failure. When we returned home our parents were appalled to hear what had happened, and they were all relieved when Dr Koshiro retired. The sponsorship money was not collected, and the very idea of pupils going on trips further afield than the southern islands was dismissed.
In Tokyo some years later, I heard from the elder Koshiro son that his father’s claims about his role in the war had been exposed. It transpired that although he had joined the Army he had been allowed to continue his literary studies. Throughout the period 1942-44 he was preparing his doctoral thesis on Balzac. He had never been a camp commander; he had never left Japan. Unless he felt guilt that he should have been fighting, he had no reason to reproach himself. My interlocutor informed me that his brother, who had been on the trip, was so ashamed of this deception that he had not attended his father’s funeral.
While standing before the memorials I experienced sorrow for so many dead, and this is not an emotion which can be countermanded. I do feel that one does not need to make so public an apology, and that such gestures can often be just that. Dr Koshiro appears to have been under the illusion that he could somehow carry the guilt of the nation on his shoulders. This is a fallacy. The sense of watching a high-risk fancy-dress performance at such a vulnerable age has left me with an ineradicable distrust of compulsory displays of sentiment. Yet I have found it necessary to question Japanese war behaviour, and how the country projects itself: sometimes it seems as if we think we were the principal victim. Perhaps Dr Koshiro is an example of what can happen if a culture internalises its guilt.
In her search for historical and literary exemplars of heroic women, Terry Castle may find some reward in looking back to the ancient Greeks. Sophocles’ Antigone is the first character who springs to mind. But Vera Brittain’s idealisation of the death of her fiancé, and the heroism that she draws from it, made me think of Euripides’ Iphigenia, who, while the soldiers gather at Aulis, impatient for war, is required to submit to her own sacrifice to the goddess Artemis, in order to produce a favourable wind for the ships. At first overcome with fear and weakness and desperately afraid of death, she suddenly changes her mind, caught up in a heady mix of noble patriotism, youthful idealism and romantic intoxication with the cult of male heroism, of which the dashing but quixotic Achilles stands, much like Brittain’s fiancé, as an equivocal representative.
Again, in The Trojan Women, Euripides traces the complex effects of military devastation on a series of female characters. The uncanny mania of his Cassandra resembles Brittain’s traumatic hallucinations, while the black, nihilistic anguish of Andromache resonates with Castle’s ‘ghoulish’ fascination with the sickening realities of death. But it is the emerging heroism of Hecuba that Castle may find most inspiring. At the close of the play, the former Queen, faced with the humiliating prospect of being designated the concubine of the wily Odysseus, lifts her broken body up from the rubble and ashes of Troy and begins the long walk towards the Greek ships.
As a sometime visitor to a great-uncle’s Somme battlefield grave, I’m more confident than Terry Castle that these plots contain what the headstones advertise. Philip Longworth’s The Unending Vigil, which she cites, describes the extraordinary pains taken by the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission and its predecessors to identify and where necessary reinter every body which could be found. it’s true that headstones lined up on front-line burial trenches are less orderly than those that result from cemetery concentration and battlefield clearance, but nowhere are bodies ‘piled willy-nilly’. Nor is there anything like the German mass graves at Langemarck or the French ossuary at Verdun. There’s an obvious irony here, but the principle was thought important.
University of Liverpool
The occasional soldier in puttees seen at Shorncliffe by Terry Castle must certainly have been ‘ghostly’ because puttees were replaced by anklets when battledress was introduced c.1939.
Terry Castle describes her great-uncle as looking ‘pale, spindly … rather stupid … and over-fond of self-abuse’. At my Catholic boarding school, it was the thinner, more sensitive and brainier boys who resisted, or persuaded us lesser mortals that they resisted, the temptation of that shameful, secretive act carried out in the inescapable presence of the Almighty and in full view of the Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of God Herself. The more robust, sportier ones, however, often in small, select groups, would find some remote spot in the school grounds, or a local haybarn, and get down to it with some zest – on the principle that if they were going to sin then they should at least get some fun out of it.
What MPs Read
About forty years ago I met Robert Tressell’s daughter, Kathleen Lynne (she died in 1988 at the age of 96). The picture she gave of her father, Robert Noonan, was a complex one. He was a signwriter and housepainter by trade, admiring William Morris and Walter Crane and specialising in mural decoration. His family had apparently been well off. He had dropped out of formal education, but he insisted on French being spoken at table. All his close associations were with radical workmen like himself.
The one thing that is certain is that The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists was not written, as Robert FitzGerald (Letters, 7 March) unaccountably suggests it was, for the coffee tables of the middle classes. Both its language and its message are addressed to Noonan’s fellow workers, whose inability to see how they were being exploited was both the theme of the story and the source of its sardonic title. The Great Money Trick which Owen gets his workmates to act out with halfpennies and bits of bread has since made fine theatre.
When Noonan died of TB in Liverpool in 1911, leaving the manuscript with a handful of rejection slips complaining that it was not typed, Kathleen took a job as a governess. One evening the publisher Grant Richards came to dinner with the family, and the wife said: ‘Kathleen has a novel in a tin trunk under her bed.’ Richards asked to see it, bought it for £25 and in 1914 published the very heavily abridged edition which nevertheless made the book famous.
A story almost as interesting as Noonan’s is that of his biographer, Fred Ball, a Hastings gasfitter who read the book in the 1930s and realised that many of Tressell’s characters were alive and many others traceable. His assiduously assembled biography of Noonan, Tressell of Mugsborough, was written at a time when Kathleen was believed to have died in a car crash in Canada. (When she left her drunken husband and he asked her what he was to tell the family, she had said, ‘Tell them I’m dead’; so he did.) When in the 1960s Kathleen reappeared and settled in England, Ball was able to rewrite the book (One of the Damned). Meanwhile he had bought the manuscript back from Grant Richards for 60 guineas by pooling his and some friends’ demobilisation gratuities, and in 1955 the book was published in its full original form.
I believe the Panther paperback version went on to sell well over a million copies; but Pat Harvey’s account of how it was passed from hand to hand in South-East London (Letters, 4 April), which is replicated in similar accounts I have heard, explains why the readership of the book must have been many times its sales figures.
David Rose is excited over nothing: Robert FitzGerald's point is perfectly valid (Letters, 4 April). The London Review of Books is a respected journal because of the quality of the authors it publishes, not because of its staff. If the LRB chooses to publish the opinions of its staff (and not editorial staff at that) then what is the point of the magazine? I'm not suggesting that Rose keep his opinions to himself, but that maybe you shouldn't publish them. There are far more qualified people out there better positioned to comment, and the same is probably true of all the staff (editorial or not) that you publish. Most workplaces have a newsletter for staff to mouth off in – please don't let the LRB letters page become one.
Avenel, New Jersey
Robert FitzGerald questions the right of someone who works in the ‘world of advertising’ to express an opinion contrary to his own which, as he informs us, is based on ‘45 years’ teaching English literature in seven different countries’. As a mere stripling with seven years’ teaching experience in only two countries, I had always thought that intellectual debate was conducted by means of evidence and reasoned argument rather than the invocation of personal authority.
Fred Ball, in Tressell of Mugsborough (1951) and One of the Damned (1973), notes the role of the London Workers Committee in securing the republication in 1918 of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in a shilling edition (i.e. aimed specifically at a working-class readership) which sold out within six months. The Daily Herald brought out a two-shilling edition in 1927 as part of a circulation drive. The unabridged version of the novel was first published in 1955 with the assistance of the trade union movement.
In which medieval fortress is Robert FitzGerald holed up? More to the point, where are you getting all these hysterical right-wingers from? Are they reading the same paper as me?
Could you give me directions to the British Museum?
Paul Pritchard (Letters, 21 March) turns Eratosthenes and Aristarchos into wholehogging Platonists determined, as was the Master, to abhor vulgar specifics. Like so many Platonic generalisations, this one won't wash. Of course the ideal of sphericity (as I made clear in my review) affected research. Certainly Eratosthenes was influenced by Platonism (as his poem Hermes and his training under Arcesilas make clear). But he was also a practical mathematician in pursuit of real, not dummy, answers – inter alia for the length of the Mediterranean. As for Aristarchos, he was, if anything, a Peripatetic, having been trained by Strato of Lampsakos. And Ptolemy still backed the wrong horse.
There is no way that Paul Pritchard can get around the fact that Eratosthenes did indeed identify a valid method to determine the circumference of the Earth based on simple measurements of angles and distances on Earth and, what is more, carried out the procedure with a remarkable degree of accuracy. Pritchard makes much of the prevailing Platonism (‘circles and spheres’; ‘heavens should be left alone’) and the absence of algebraic symbols. He does not seem to realise that the method of Eratosthenes involves simple ratios, not the use of ‘dummy’ values in an algebraic equation. And in no way does it follow, as Pritchard maintains in his defence of Ptolemy the astronomer, that ‘Ptolemy would have had to be a dummy himself to take Eratosthenes’ dummy results seriously.’ Whether Eratosthenes was ‘trying to measure’ or not hardly seems relevant. The fact is that he did – regardless of Platonist ideas, regardless of not being in possession of symbolic algebra – and that his method is valid, and can give accurate results when based on accurate measurements. It seems strange that someone would go out of his way, based on nothing more than claims about Platonism, to question a great man’s unique achievements.
Wringing Out the Fault
Stephen Sedley (LRB, 7 March) says the privilege against self-incrimination ‘is found as a judicial maxim as early as 1568, stated plainly by Chief Justice Dyer on behalf of the Court of Common Pleas’. Justice Ken Marks, of the Victoria Supreme Court, noted in 1984 what happened. A prisoner did not want to give evidence; Dyer found a rule of canon law: ‘Licet nemo tenetur seipsum prodere, tamen proditus per famam tenetur seipsum ostendere utrum possit suam innocentiam ostendere et seipsum purgare.’ One translation is: ‘Although no one is compelled to accuse himself, yet one accused by rumour is compelled to present himself to show his innocence if he can and to clear himself.’ Dyer isolated the words ‘nemo tenetur seipsum prodere’ (‘no one is compelled to accuse himself’), and freed the prisoner. Justice Geoffrey Davies, of the Queensland Court of Appeal, stated no more than common sense and justice demands when he said: ‘The law should permit an adverse inference to be drawn from silence either at police interview or in court when it would be reasonable to expect a denial, explanation or answer from an innocent defendant.’
Jerry Fodor’s discussion of the philosophy of Donald Davidson (LRB, 7 March) has provided your readers with a very misleading account of pragmatism. Fodor stands pragmatism on its head when he writes: ‘The basic idea is to opt for an epistemic account of truth: hence for an a priori connection between what’s true and what’s believed to be.’ What everyone believes, including I suppose Professor Fodor, is that if one has a handful of examples of good and bad reasonings, one can define ‘if, then’, and that if one has an exemplary false proposition, one can use it and ‘if, then’ to define negation; and with negation one can define falsity. What pragmatists believe is that the key to defining falsity (not truth) is a practical syllogism whose conclusion is an action that cannot be performed. It is the ‘baulking of a purpose’ that is supposed to acquaint us with a concept of reality. The position Professor Fodor is attacking, which associates reality with true belief, sounds like idealism, not pragmatism.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
More from the Angel Raphael (Letters, 4 April), this time operating in Norfolk. Several years ago, I was escalating upwards in Norwich Woolworth's with my ten-year-old daughter. In front and on my right was a well-built teenager, Saturday-afternoon attired, including white stiletto heels. As we approached the levelling-out stage she prepared to move forward, tripped and fell full length. In a flash I watched her outstretched fingers heading for the dangerous edge and simultaneously seized her under both arms and threw her clear, staggering after her myself. As she quickly rose, her only evident emotion was acute and red-faced embarrassment. She fled the scene. My daughter's reaction was almost identical without the advantage of being able to escape.
Frank Kermode finds my English translation of Alain Cabantous’s Blasphemy ‘tortured’ and ‘a good deal’ of its methodology ‘redundant’ (LRB, 14 January). The original abounds in archival data, lexical arcana and extensive annotation and was not easily put into English that flowed. I stand by my attempt to do it justice. Cabantous practises social history in the mode of the Annales school which allows for finer-grained detail, greater totality of treatment, a more painstaking exposition than readers in English may be accustomed to. Yet in a work of history, which is the graver sin: infelicities of expression and the longueurs of qualification or errors of fact and hasty interpretation?
Greensboro, North Carolina
Ian Gilmour's review of Blair Worden's account of Cromwell's reputation (LRB, 21 March) contains its own small wart. David Hume did not publish a History of England in the 1750s: he published a History of Great Britain.
Peter Wollen (LRB, 4 April) describes Siqueiros as ‘a died-in-the-wool Stalinist who led a murderous attack on Trotsky’. Should that be ‘dyed-in-the-wool’? A Freudian slip?
University College London