LRB Cover

Send letters to:

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London WC1A 2HN
letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and work and home telephone numbers.

Letters


Securocrats

John Upton draws attention to the ‘atrocious record of human rights abuses’ by British law enforcement agencies during the Irish conflict, and mentions the Stalker inquiry in that context (LRB, 22 January). He might also have drawn attention to the Cory and Stevens Reports, currently sitting in Tony Blair’s in-tray, which document the systematic collusion between British government agencies and Loyalist terrorists over many years (as does the Barron Report into the bombings in Dublin and Monaghan in 1974 recently submitted to the Irish Government).

The problem with many of the British Government’s statements concerning ‘terrorism’ (Islamic or otherwise) is one of credibility. The existence of the three reports suggests that there is a willingness to confront the unpleasant reality of state terrorism. The lack of any concrete action on any of them is less encouraging. Similarly, the current threat from Islamic terrorists should be seen in the context of the links between such groups and Western intelligence agencies and special forces during the 1980s. Is it too much to ask that the securocrats who organised, armed and trained these groups might be held to account?

Martin Summers
Bristol


Like/Unlike Alan Bennett . . .

Over the last year, comment on the Iraq war in the liberal intelligentsia's house journals has been so unreflective and spiteful that the aside in Alan Bennett's recent diary provoked no more than a resigned shrug. How welcome, then, that Bennett's position should be demolished so swiftly and thunderously by John Lloyd (Letters, 22 January). What will puzzle historians a century on is not that opposition to the war was so widespread – after all, postwar US foreign policy had generally been incompetent when not actually brutal, the war's legality was at best dubious, and our Governments did exaggerate the threat Iraq presented and, in cuddling up to other dreadful regimes, had indeed helped make Saddam the monster he became. Instead, it will perplex them that so many people preferred to turn a blind eye to the likelihood that a war to remove Saddam would result in far fewer casualties than even a year or so of his own continuing rule. The logic which says that it's worth killing ten or twenty thousand Iraqis to prevent the deaths of more than a hundred thousand is a brutal one, but one which the anti-war faction prefers nevertheless not to contemplate.

Nick Simpson
Manchester

John Lloyd is wrong. It is shameful that, in 2003, our Government lied to us about a non-existent threat from non-existent weapons of mass destruction; shameful that, as a result, hundreds of British and American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians died in an illegal, unnecessary, unjustified, immoral war; shameful that the President of the United States should now take credit for the capture of a tyrant who was actively supported by members of his current Administration until it no longer suited their interests; shameful that the same Administration continues to support tyrants across the world in the defence of its interests; and, above all, shameful beyond belief that these cynical, evil actions should have been justified in the name of democracy, human rights and morality. The only thing that is not shameful is that millions of people all over the world took to the streets in 2003 because they could see all this, and they knew that it was wrong. That makes me proud.

Julian Bell
Twickenham

John Lloyd’s petulant outburst at Alan Bennett will surprise no one familiar with his petulant outbursts. I recall the time when he took his ball home from the New Statesman, refusing to write further for such pinko subversives and anti-Americans.

There is no reason for the capture of Saddam to register heavily with Alan Bennett or anyone else familiar with the essential history. Saddam’s wickedness was blazingly familiar when Donald Rumsfeld (as Secretary of State for Defense last time round) shook his hand on camera and assured him of America’s continuing goodwill. His crimes were then without weight or notice to the US Government. It took another of the lefties whom Lloyd delights to savage, Dafydd Elis Thomas, then a mildly Marxisant Welsh Nationalist MP, to raise the Halabja gassings in the House of Commons in 1987, only to receive an embarrassed, unhelpful non-acknowledgment from the Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe. British foreign policy, then as now, lacked any capacity for civil dissent from the US view.

The little reported, not at all denounced Halabja gassings had taken place while the Iraq-Iran war was still going on. At that time, the object of hostility for the US was Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini had taken American hostages, denounced the US and given all-round offence. Saddam, as a man fighting the identified enemy, was indeed a criminal and conductor of massacres. But ‘objectively’, as they used to say in Stalin’s day, Saddam was on the side of peace, light and democracy. And he was killing Iranians. During that eight-year war, 800,000 people are thought to have died, something regarded in official American circles as an acceptable price for setting back an enemy of the US. Saddam Hussein was, in the term coined to describe the Dominican gangster dictator Raphael Trujillo, ‘a bastard but our bastard’.

It was only on his invasion of Kuwait that Saddam became a bastard against US interests, and American politicians, four years late, began to talk about Halabja. Alan Bennett recognises cosmic humbug when he sees it. John Lloyd, exemplifying what Orwell called ‘transferred nationalism’ and doing his bit as a pom-pom girl for the invasion, does not.

Edward Pearce
Thormanby, North Yorkshire

If, as Colin Armstrong puts it, Alan Bennett displays the political outlook of a hysterical schoolgirl (Letters, 22 January), the sooner one is lined up to replace Tony Blair the better. Would Armstrong, I wonder, hold the political outlook of a priapic schoolboy in higher regard? Possibly so, since another implication of his letter is that he finds Alan Bennett insufficiently manly for his taste. If Mr Armstrong would let us know his age and occupation (we know his gender), we might have the formula for a brand-new insult. Wouldn't that be nice?

Vanessa Coode
London N16

It’s a tough call, but if it comes to choosing between the ‘likes’ and ‘unlikes’, put me in a gymslip and I’ll scream at the sight of Virginia Wade.

Martin Ward
Northampton


HiEdBiz

I read Stefan Collini’s piece on the higher education White Paper (LRB, 6 November 2003) just as it becomes clear that although Labour rebels are in many cases unwaveringly against them, and although most students oppose them, top-up fees may well become law – in part because our universities support them.

What is a university? Gilbert Ryle famously observed that if a visitor to Oxford should see the colleges, the Bodleian, the lecture theatres, the Vice-Chancellor, the Bulldogs and the undergraduates, but still ask where the university is, we should take the visitor to be making a category mistake. The university is not another thing in addition to all those mentioned. But that was a long time ago. Nowadays, administrators routinely get away with identifying themselves synecdochally with ‘the university’. My own anecdotal survey indicates that most academic staff oppose top-up fees, even though we are desperate for adequate funding for our institutions. Only the top administrators overwhelmingly support them. It is important that they not be allowed to represent themselves as the whole of which they are only one small part.

Rupert Read
University of East Anglia, Norwich


Wrong about Raymond Williams

I doubt if Linda Colley’s attribution to Raymond Williams of a description of Cobbett as ‘a good brave old chap’ (LRB, 20 November 2003) could have sounded right to anyone at all acquainted with Williams’s work and style. Even a casual reading of the phrase ‘a good brave old chap’ in context – it occurs in Cobbett (1983) – reveals that Williams is deploying the description ironically, as he voices and takes to task a trend in critical opinion in which Cobbett is ‘patted on the head. A good radical, a good democrat, but he did not understand what was happening, in the new industrial England … A good brave old chap, who lived just before modernity.’

It’s equally difficult to see just how the author of The Country and the City – a magisterial deconstruction of the myth of pastoral idyll from Hesiod to Ngugi – could have ‘wonderfully’ (not critically) ‘evoked certain pastoral particulars of Cobbett’s vision’. Colley’s implication here is that Williams joined in the celebration of what she calls Cobbett’s ‘Little Englishness’. But Williams writes: ‘Cobbett can be preserved in amber as the figure of what is called Olde England.’ ‘In one way, not unjustly,’ he adds, because Cobbett ‘offered himself … as its spokesman’. ‘To this specific claim,’ he continues, ‘can be added all the particulars.’ What follows – presented by Colley as Williams’s own view of Cobbett – is largely a paraphrase of a section of Rural Rides. Colley does not appear to grasp the point of this paraphrase: Williams is parodying Cobbett’s own self-presentation, the better to question it. ‘It is only by falsifying selection that he can be enrolled for that now common nostalgia,’ Williams writes, very directly. Similarly, it is only by a falsifying selection that Williams can be enrolled in the ‘succession of socialist expositors’ whose nostalgia Colley takes to task in her review.

John Higgins
Cape Town


Had the Jacobites Won

John Mullan discusses Charles Edward Stuart’s sobriquets, but we should remember that most of his followers in 1745 were Gaelic-speakers (LRB, 22 January). Their nickname for him was Am Buachaille Buidhe, the ‘yellow-haired shepherd’, or ‘the blond drover’. As I understand it, buachaille means ‘shepherd’ or ‘cowherd’, whereas another word for ‘shepherd’ is cibeir, close to the English ‘keeper’. The rank-and-file nickname could therefore connote ‘one who drove his herd’, i.e. for sale and slaughter. So either they thought of their leader as one who minded his people almost paternally – as in the 23rd Psalm, ‘Is e Dia fein is buachaill dhamh’ – or else they thought he sold them down the river. Or a bit of both. In 1989 I had a conversation with the oldest man on Eriskay, Donald MacInnes, a few yards from where the Stuart landed at the start of his adventure. Standing at his house end to shelter from the gale hissing across his croft, he said: ‘Charlie – I won’t call him that – the Prince, whatever he was: he was what I call a young fool. And supposing he had got all the way, he would have been away off to London. And wherever he lived, it would have done us no good at all.’

David Craig
Burton-in-Kendal

That the Jacobites might have won in 1745 is an intriguing speculation on John Mullan’s part. But it would not have meant ‘that the coronation of Charles III was imminent’. That would not have occurred until 1766, on the death of James Edward Stuart (James VIII and III), in whose name his son Charles Edward raised the standard at Moidart.

Gavin Bell
Aberdeen

If Christopher Duffy doesn't inquire into the strength of popular support for Charles Stuart, this must surely be for lack of evidence. Did anyone inquire into it at the time? So long as the horse was all-important in war, the upper classes were all-important, because they could ride. The lower orders might make their views known, as they did when they joined the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685, but they could not stand against professional cavalry. Charles Stuart was not counting votes; he was hoping for some great landowner to ride out at the head of his tenants. Without that sort of support, he had no hope of reaching London.

Alison Macleod
London N10


1948

What would be the reaction of LRB readers if a senior lecturer at a British university were to start a discussion of World War Two with the bombing of Dresden by the RAF, without first mentioning the invasion of Poland and the V2 rocket attack on London? This is what Ilan Pappe (LRB, 8 January) is doing when he says that the cause of the Middle East conflict is the alleged ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948. He does not mention the war waged by the Palestinians on pre-independence Israel, or the invasion of the newborn state by five Arab armies with the purpose of destroying it. Pappe argues that ‘neither the Palestinians nor the Arab world at large will feel able to accept a Jewish state’ unless Israel acknowledges the right of return of Palestinian refugees. He does not tell the reader that after this happens there will be no need for such acceptance because the Jewish state will cease to exist.

Tuvia Blumenthal
Omer, Israel


Unloved Tomes

John Sutherland’s suggestion of paying academics in book tokens in order to support the academic monograph is intriguing (LRB, 22 January). But is the academic monograph an endangered species? To a researcher in medicine or engineering, material presented in the form of a book, given the lead-time for book publication, is already outdated. But let’s assume that the monograph is still worth supporting. Sutherland argues that the major issue is one of supply. He’s quite right. Currently, via the Arts and Humanities Research Board, the UK taxpayer supports the supply of scholarship in the arts and humanities to the tune of around £70 million annually. The AHRB’s efforts, understandably, are focused on production, but in supporting supply (through research grants, fellowships, centres, study-leave etc), the AHRB is compounding the problem: more research is being produced, but nobody can afford to read it. Effectively, the AHRB is neglecting an important strand in its own mission statement: ‘to promote and support the dissemination of research in the arts and humanities, both to the research community and the public at large’.

There is a solution to hand. Set aside a small fraction (say, 2 per cent) of the money that is currently spent on arts and humanities research by the AHRB, and use it for the establishment of a peer-reviewed AHRB imprint, dedicated to disseminating, at paperback prices, the work of younger scholars, or any scholarship that is not judged to be commercially viable. This would mean less money overall for arts and humanities research from the AHRB, but at least the public would be able to buy and read products of the research. It would also probably mean that commercial publication of most arts and humanities research would collapse (if it hasn’t already), since a necessary quid pro quo would have to be that any academic in receipt of public funds to support their research would have to offer their work for publication by the AHRB, on the presumption that if it’s reasonable to ask the taxpayer to fund the work, then the taxpayer should be enabled to read it. To the objection that this curtails academics’ freedom to publish wherever they like, it may be argued that academics are perfectly at liberty to decline public funding and take their chance, alongside David Starkey, in the marketplace.

Jonathan Sawday
University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

John Sutherland addresses the problem of an endless supply of monographs which no one wants to publish, no one wants to buy and hardly anyone wants to read. His cunning plan, that taxpayers’ money be hypothecated to ensure that academics stockpile huge quantities of these unloved tomes, is obviously a non-starter. Instead, I would propose that a little more attention is given to the Internet. it’s said to be almost impossible to apply a suitable degree of quality control to web publishing, but hardly anyone has tried. Universities should publish the work of their academic staff and brightest students on their own tightly controlled sites, thus making all their worthwhile research available to the widest possible audience. Financial constraints would be overcome, academic work would be more accessible, universities could advertise the strength (or otherwise) of their various departments, and a free, internationally available, searchable library of modern criticism would be created. Furthermore, the needs of promotion and appointment boards would be met: they could review candidates’ work and make judgments without having to move from their desks. It occurs to me that they should also be making their decisions based on perceptions of teaching ability, but let’s not take things too far.

John Price
University College Worcester


My baby done left me

The breadth of Terry Castle’s musical taste is admirable, but ‘Cretan rembétika’ (LRB, 18 December 2003)? There is Cretan music and there is rembétika. Both are modal and improvised but they are quite different. Cretan music has a long tradition and is played on a fixed-instrumentation lyra and two lutes. It sounds like an Irish/Asian fusion. Rembétika is much younger. It seems to have developed early in the last century and is associated especially with the uncertain 1920s and 1930s in Athens and Piraeus following the exchange of populations. The bouzouki featured prominently but the instrumentation was not rigidly fixed. It was associated with the criminal world and its lyrics extolled the virtues of hashish and the miseries of lost love; the music you hear in tourist tavernas is its emasculated descendant. Rembétika is ‘My baby done left me’; Cretan music ‘My love is like a red, red rose.’

John Heath
Spili, Crete