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


Those Were the Days

I read with interest Alexander Zevin’s ‘Paris, 18 October’ (LRB, 29 November 2007). In the autumn of 1955 I enrolled as an étudiante étrangère at the University of Paris, and on my first day of classes found myself in the middle of a demonstration. A professor who had been jailed for collaboration with the Nazis during the Occupation was out of prison and coming back to teach. Left-wing students had organised groups to chant ‘Pas de collabos à la Sorbonne,’ while right-wing students matched them with chants of ‘Pas de communistes à la Sorbonne.’ A couple of other foreigners and I joined the shouting and shoving. No flyers were in evidence; paper was far too dear and xerography – even mimeography – was out of our reach. We milled and yelled for a couple of hours and then dispersed. This was before the police dared to enter the central court of the Sorbonne. The professor met his classes.

‘There are many ways to feel out of place as an American in Paris,’ Zevin writes, ‘but few are as jarring as joining in a protest.’ Why did my fellows and I feel ourselves so exquisitely placed? Perhaps that is a function of the vast differences – political, economic, demographic – that fifty-odd years have placed between my student world and Zevin’s. Not only did we know auto workers, some of whom attended our classes, but we were conscious of our privileged place in the class structure, whose existence the United States denied. We felt solidarity with a worldwide stratum (nobody said ‘global’ in 1955) of ‘students and workers’. How charmingly funky the phrase seems now, after the Prague Spring, May 1968, and the hegemony of MBAs.

Martha Roth
Vancouver


Apropos Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett’s dismissal of Auden as a ‘poet of Cumbria’ seems misplaced (LRB, 3 January). In 1950, Auden wrote: ‘My great good place is the part of the Pennines bounded on the S by Swaledale, on the N by the Roman Wall and on the W by the Eden Valley.’ This is where Cumbria, Northumberland and Durham meet. There are well over a hundred place names in this area to be found in Auden’s writings, and another thirty across the Eden Valley in the Lake District. But to be moved, inspired (even obsessed) by a wilderness does not oblige one to live there.

Some forty poems of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the unpublished epic ‘In the year of my youth …’ and two influential plays, Paid on Both Sides and The Dog beneath the Skin, are set in the North Pennines. Rookhope in Weardale, where Auden first became aware of ‘self and not-self/Death and Dread’, is also here. In A Certain World (1970), Auden states clearly that his fascination with these limestone moors and the associated lead-mining industry prompted him to formulate principles which he applied to all artistic fabrication.

Alan Myers
Hitchin, Hertfordshire

Alan Bennett says that ‘all’ of the ‘Writers’ Rooms’ featured in the Saturday Guardian ‘have had awful fireplaces’. I have photos of 11 of them in front of me. Only one, Jacqueline Wilson’s, has a fireplace. Apart from a life, am I missing something?

Charles Turner
Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

Alan Bennett doubts whether a literary masterpiece would ever be set within the frame of a story. But there is no reason in principle why someone capable of writing a masterpiece could not write a distinct or discrete masterpiece within it, given that the frame narrative is a common enough literary device, as in Wuthering Heights, for example. Doctor Zhivago, too, ends with a marvellous sequence of poems purportedly written by the main character. In practice, however, the best examples of a masterpiece within a masterpiece deploy a different art form, thus obviating the necessity to deliver the goods. It is a specialised form of suspending one’s disbelief. Balzac’s story ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’ famously involves a great painting which Balzac is not obliged to paint.

Anthony Rudolf
London N12

Alan Bennett may be right about the dearth of rent boys in Penrith but he’s wrong about libraries: there’s a good public one right by the church.

Glenn Lang
Cumbria Library Services, Carlisle


Resistance is Surrender

My critics make the following claims (Letters, 13 December 2007): 1. that my message to the left is that there is no chance of overcoming capitalism; all we can do is to ‘sit at home and watch the barbarity on television’; 2. that I advocate modest realistic demands rather than the pursuit of big impossible goals; 3. that in dismissing the Western democratic left, I support power-mad dictators like Chávez. That such mutually exclusive positions have been read into the same short text shows that I touched a nerve.

It is truly weird that David Graeber thinks my ‘real message’ is that ‘intellectuals have always been, and always must be, whores to power.’ On the contrary, isn’t it the advocates of resistance from the interstices of power, such as Simon Critchley, who claim that direct engagement with power turns intellectuals into whores? In my view, the withdrawal to such a safe moralising position is the highest form of corruption.

My opinion is that the left is not able to offer a true alternative to global capitalism. Yes, it is true that ‘capitalism will not be around for ever’ (it is the advocates of the new politics of resistance who think that capitalism and the democratic state are here to stay); it will not be able to cope with the antagonisms it produces. But there is a gap between this negative insight and a basic positive vision. I do not think that today’s candidates – the anti-globalisation movement etc – do the job.

So what are we to do? Everything possible (and impossible), just with a proper dose of modesty, avoiding moralising self-satisfaction. I am aware that when the left builds a protest movement, one should not measure its success by the degree to which its specific demands are met: more important than achieving the immediate target is the raising of critical awareness and finding new ways to organise. However, I don’t think this holds for protests against the war in Iraq, which fitted all too smoothly the space allotted to ‘democratic protests’ by the hegemonic state and ideological order. Which is why they did not, even minimally, scare those in power. Afterwards, both government and protesters felt smug, as if each side had succeeded in making its point.

Slavoj Žižek
Birkbeck, University of London


Rudd’s Australia

I agree with much of what Tom Nairn has to say about the Australian elections (LRB, 13 December 2007). However, I do have some reservations about his treatment of the republic. Whether Rudd will raise the question again via a referendum or plebiscite I do not know, but it should be noted that when he took office he reverted to the ‘republican’ oath – i.e. there was no mention of the monarchy or of any loyalty to it. That was certainly a signal which many ignored. I also think Nairn misses the real significance of Howard’s attitude to the monarchy. No doubt there was a sentimental side to it but the Crown was not under him a way to preserve Anglo-Celtic Australia: it was a way to increase the authority of the prime minister and of the federal government. Howard’s behaviour was seemingly paradoxical. He was a supporter of the monarchy, yet no prime minister has treated his governors general (the Crown’s representatives in Australia) so casually as Howard. Certainly no Labour prime minister has. The present system in effect allows the prime minister to appoint (and dismiss) the head of state as s/he wishes. As a result the governors general under Howard (once the last Labour appointee, an outstanding figure, had retired) have been utterly marginalised both politically and ceremonially. Nearly all those functions were appropriated by the prime minister. What Howard did not want was a head of state with a clearly defined constitutional role since that could formally limit the power of the prime minister. Howard’s opposition to the republic must be seen in the context of the conservative parties’ abandonment of federalism in favour of an authoritative and authoritarian government in Canberra.

One last note. The prime minister and the minister for indigenous affairs did indeed both lose their seats, but that had nothing to do with federal intervention in the Northern Territory as Nairn seems to imply.

Ross McKibbin
Oxford

Tom Nairn describes the Australian Defence Force’s intervention in the indigenous communities of the Northern Territory as an ‘invasion’. That is simplistic, shallow and offensive. There are well documented instances of child abuse in the north, including gang rapes, severe alcohol abuse and petrol sniffing; and infant mortality rates are comparable with those in the Third World. Nairn fails to mention that it’s the state and territory governments that are primarily responsible for the management of these issues; and he fails to mention the bipartisan political support for the military intervention.

Stephen Sasse
Killara, New South Wales


The First Plagiarist

In a letter I’ve only just come across (Letters, 16 August 2007) David Whalin claimed that the earliest official recognition of authors’ rights came with a statute enacted in the new United States in May 1790. The first historic mention of copyright, however, which set the universal precedent, can be traced much further back, to sixth-century Celtic Ireland. It is contained in a judgment of Diarmaid, High King of Ireland – the legal equivalent of today’s Supreme Court – in his finding against the Christian missionary Columba, founder of monastic rule, later canonised as Saint Columcille, who had become an incorrigible plagiarist. (The very same St Columba who settled in Iona.) Columcille had taken to visiting monasteries, borrowing books from their libraries and having his own monks copy them for him to distribute. At one stage, a certain abbot, on hearing that Columcille was on his way to visit, buried his complete library in the orchard, provoking the frustrated Columcille to put a curse on the monastery. Finally, St Finian of Clonard objected to Columcille – a former pupil – plagiarising his prized Latin Psalter, and pleaded for a definitive judgment on the problem from the High King.

Ireland was then an agricultural society and one of the native Brehon Laws of the time related to the ownership of animals found wandering. The very reasonable rule of law was that a calf, wherever it might be found, belonged to its mother, wherever that cow was kept. The High King took that well-founded legal precedent and extended it in his judgment against Columcille thus: ‘As to every Cow its Calf, so to every Book its Copy.’

Eamonn Grogan
Naas, Co. Kildare


City Types

The banking system John Lanchester describes most eloquently, in which banks need to hold only a fraction of their liabilities in reserve, is known as ‘fractional reserve banking’ (LRB, 3 January). The modern version dates back to the days when merchants travelled the country weighed down by bags of gold coins. They realised that the safest place to store their gold was with the people who had the strongest safes: the gold merchants. In return for storing the gold there, the merchant would give them a slip of paper – effectively an IOU. As the system gained in popularity, the IOUs became a currency, relieving people of the need constantly to take out or deposit the gold itself.

The gold merchants, over time, realised that they were storing far more gold than was ever taken out. So, rather than issue IOUs on a like-for-like basis with the gold deposited, they began to issue (sell) far more IOUs with a far greater total value than the gold they held, profiting handsomely from the proceeds.

Rob Best
Morpeth, Northumberland

John Lanchester classifies himself as a Clapham aborigine, but Clapham was colonised a hundred or more years ago by City types with rolled umbrellas and brief-cases living in built-to-let houses. The reason they chose Clapham was that it was no more than a brisk hour’s walk away from their place of work.

John Gretton
Lafage, France


A Silva

Despite what Soledad Fox says in her piece about Luis de Góngora (LRB, 13 December 2007), the Soledades are written in hendecasyllables and heptasyllables: that’s to say, the poem is a silva. The form allowed Góngora greater freedom in versification and syntax than would be possible with strict adherence to 11-syllable lines, especially as he changes between shorter and longer lines pretty much at will.

Ben Bollig
Leeds


Not Flying but Falling

The compound ghost in Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ warned of the unpleasantness of old age ‘as body and soul begin to fall asunder’, not ‘fly asunder’ as Frank Kermode energetically had it (LRB, 13 December 2007).

Robert Berold
Grahamstown, South Africa


Fateful Decisions

R.W. Johnson points out, correctly I believe, that Ian Kershaw should have included the battle of Khalkhin-Gol in August 1939 in his list of turning points in the Second World War (LRB, 29 November 2007). However, he incorrectly credits ‘the future Marshal Zhukov’ as solely responsible for ‘crushing’ the Japanese, calling him ‘the Soviet equivalent of the young Napoleon’. Before Stalin executed them, in 1941, two other generals, Grigory Shtern and Y.V. Smushkevich, shared the honour with Zhukov. Moreover, Shtern was in command of the entire military during the battle while Zhukov commanded only the army. Johnson surely knows that under Stalin all traces of those purged, regardless of their rank and merit, were expunged from the public record.

Valentin Lyubarsky
Brooklyn

I wonder what led R.W. Johnson to lump Eamon de Valera, neutral Ireland’s wartime political leader, in with a clutch of Fascist leaders. De Valera had many faults, but he was not a Fascist, or crypto-Fascist, and joining forces with Hitler was never seriously considered even for purely strategic reasons. Ireland’s wartime policy was de facto pro-Allied, despite formal neutrality. Openly joining forces with the recently dislodged colonial master was not an option for domestic political reasons. The motley crew of Nazi sympathisers was carefully monitored and never posed a threat. The IRA’s foolhardy and myopic flirtation with the Reich, based on the logic that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, led to its virtual annihilation by de Valera’s ‘Emergency’ regime. Secret Irish co-operation with the Allies was a more effective contribution to the war against Nazism, according to British Intelligence, than open belligerence, especially given Irish military weakness. MI5 was unambiguous: ‘Eire neutral was of more value to the British war effort than Eire belligerent would have been.’ De Valera’s unforgivable visit to the German representative in Ireland to offer condolences on the death of Hitler, a wrongheaded demonstration of formal, public neutrality, should not be misread in such a lazy way.

Donal Ó Drisceoil
Cork

R.W. Johnson claims that ‘some in Berlin suggested’ that Hitler ‘should wait’ before entering the war against America; ‘after all, FDR had immediately declared war on Japan but three days later had said nothing about Germany.’ Roosevelt’s problem was how to manipulate Congress into declaring a war that he had long wanted, but that the American people opposed. To this end, he said plenty about Germany in the days immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. In fact, he blamed the Japanese attack on Hitler, claimed that Germany and Italy were already at war with the United States, and ordered the incarceration of German nationals as enemy aliens.

‘The course that Japan has followed for the past ten years in Asia has parallelled the course of Hitler and of Mussolini in Europe and Africa,’ Roosevelt declared on 9 December, in a speech broadcast internationally. ‘Today, it has become far more than a parallel. It is collaboration, actual collaboration, so well calculated that all the continents of the world, and all the oceans, are now considered by the Axis strategists as one vast battlefield.’ He warned Americans: ‘Remember always that Germany and Italy, regardless of any formal declaration of war, consider themselves at war with the United States at this moment just as much as they consider themselves at war with Britain and Russia.’ To this he added that Germany had incited Japan to attack the United States and had offered it territories in North, Central and South America if it did.

On the same day Roosevelt ordered the arrest of German and Italian nationals, including German journalists, as enemy aliens. The New York Times of 10 December quoted him as proclaiming that ‘an invasion or predatory incursion is threatened upon the territory of the United States’ by Germany and Italy. ‘No distinction was made between the Axis citizens and Japanese,’ it reported, ‘although the United States has not declared war on either Germany or Italy, and in the capital it was believed that this was an advance indication of an important extension of the war.’

Cliff Hawkins
Berkeley, California