LRB Cover

Send letters to:

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London WC1A 2HN

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


When it suits and when it doesn’t

One of the key reasons the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the resolution recognising the Armenian genocide, as reported by Mark Mazower (LRB, 8 April), was that it was vigorously championed by Jewish members of Congress. In the past, they might have had reservations about offending Turkey, Israel’s closest ally in the region. For years, the Israel lobby has argued vehemently against recognition, and prominent members of the lobby, such as Eli Wiesel, have done their best to minimise discussion of the Armenian question. In 1982, for example, Wiesel stepped down as chair of a conference on genocide in Jerusalem under pressure from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which was anxious that the presence of Armenian panellists would damage Israeli-Turkish relations; he then implored Yehuda Bauer, a leading Holocaust historian, to boycott the event. American-Jewish politicians have tended to be more responsive than the lobby to Armenian concerns – particularly those in states with large Armenian populations, like California.

Still, there have always been hesitations. The last time a resolution was passed, in 2007, the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the late Tom Lantos, declined to sponsor the bill, though he ended up voting for it, and a number of the other Jews who voted for it did so ‘with a heavy heart’, in the words of Eliot Engel. Lantos’s successor as chairman, Howard Berman, is no less staunch a Zionist, but he hasn’t agonised at all about the current resolution, which he co-sponsored. The reason is simple: Turkish-Israeli relations have dramatically deteriorated since the Gaza war. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s denunciation of Israel’s war crimes at Davos in the presence of Shimon Peres raised accusations of demagoguery, but he was very much reflecting the sentiments of the people who elected him. More recently he has also dared to make noises about Israel’s (undeclared) nuclear monopoly in the region, leading Netanyahu to pull out of the nuclear security summit in Washington. Once an embarrassment for Israel, the Armenian genocide is now a useful way to prod the authorities in Ankara, and not a single major Jewish group in Washington has lobbied against recognition.

David Weiss
New York

Beauvoir Misrepresented?

As an Anglo-German brought up in Hamburg, where I still live, I was interested in the debate on the quality of the English translation of Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (Letters, 11 March and Letters, 25 March, and Letters, 8 April). When Das andere Geschlecht: Sitte und Sexus der Frau (translated by Grete Osterwald and Uli Aumüller) was first published here we had a similar debate, though not so heated and largely confined to feminist circles. I was asked to read the old English edition and compare. I must admit that I found it more user-friendly than our German one, though not speaking French I couldn’t pronounce on the accuracy or otherwise of the translation. As a result of the debate in your pages I ordered the new English version, which did shock me a bit. It’s much less fluent even than the German translation, which is why I suppose Anne-Solange Noble is really angry. Instead of denouncing the American professors she should try reading the book in English. It’s bad.

Louise Hirsch

An Education

In the early 1980s I was sentenced to six years in jail for smuggling cocaine in a boat. One of Leon Brittan’s first executive actions as home secretary was to deny parole for people serving ‘a long term’ (more than five years) for certain offences, including those involving drugs. Consequently I had the good fortune to spend long enough in prison to acquire something of an education – and not just through the Open University.

Like Andrew O’Hagan, I too recall moments of savagery I indulged in in childhood (LRB, 25 March). I used to dream about my cruelty to a beloved chicken, often waking in tears. (It involved a tricycle and a length of string; I believe I thought she needed the exercise.) Later, experiments with my dog and a garage roof brought some moments of self-loathing. (She was unharmed, but nonetheless …)

Principally O’Hagan’s piece brought to mind the plight of the lifers I met in open prison, where they were undergoing a three-year transition towards freedom (of a sort – Life Licence). And the childhoods they had told me about. I had a childhood that wouldn’t normally have brought me into contact with some of these men. I went to prep and public school and the worst thing I had experienced as a child was being thrashed hard with a stick. (If you don’t count being separated from your family like a Spartan hoplite, aged six.) One of my friends in prison (well, we shared a joint occasionally), Joe, was arrested for killing a man in a pub brawl. The police questioned him about the bloody bruising on his back. He didn’t tell them that his mother had taken a poker out of the fire and beaten him with it. Another, Rob, told me that his mother in Glasgow loved him. A big woman, she disciplined her family with her fists. His drunken father used sterner methods. Rob ran with his mates in the Gorbals. In some circumstances, you might kill in order to avoid being killed.

Of course, right through the prison were people who ‘shouldn’t really have been there’, at least in their own minds. One had paid somebody to kill his wife. Fortunately for his wife, it was a police officer. He told me often that he wasn’t a criminal like the rest of us. The fellow who had been abusing his daughter for years thought drug smugglers were ‘scum’. A violent burglar who, on speed, had slit a man’s throat because his brother spoke his name during the robbery (the man survived) held similar views. Another inmate, a police officer who had taken a man’s eye out with a blow in police custody, assured me that it wouldn’t happen to a chap like me – only to lippy buggers. The prejudices expressed by some newspapers would find an echo in any jail.

As the editor of the prison newspaper I had an office and some solitude and sometimes had unsolicited calls from people at a loose end. A man I had known for a couple of years came in and we got talking. He told me stories of the violence inflicted both on him and by him as a soldier in Northern Ireland. One thing that really hurt him was that in the course of defending a Green Finch (an Ulster woman police officer) from assault in a crowd – buckets of urine, blows from pieces of two by four – he drove the butt of his rifle into the face of an assailant and found to his horror that she was a woman. Eventually we got on to his crime: he had raped and murdered a young woman in a Scottish ski resort. I said nothing. But it added to my impression that many ‘murderers’ were damaged public servants trained – which is to say, desensitised or damaged – in the armed forces, often doing our dirty work.

I received an email today from a friend in the UK for whom I bought a gift subscription to the LRB. ‘Did you read the O’Hagan piece?’ he wanted to know. He was my co-accused some 30 years ago.

Rob Mansell-Ward
Dunwich, Queensland, Australia

Contrary to what Andrew O’Hagan says, there is no evidence at all that Venables or Thompson saw Child’s Play 3. It was never mentioned at their trial. ‘Splattered with paint’: you have to watch the film frame by frame before you can find a speck of paint on Chucky. And the doll is decapitated in a carnival ride by the accidental stroke of a scythe, not ‘cut to ribbons’. At the time, I was head of programming at Murdoch’s BSkyB. The Chucky story was being run hard by the Sun, which called for the film to be banned. As it was in my film inventory, I checked it out. The film – a routine, but quite well made, horror – stayed in the schedule. It had no connection with the death of James Bulger.

David Elstein
London SW15

Don’t overlook Socotra

The map of Yemen shown in Tariq Ali’s article should have indicated that the archipelago of Socotra (off the Horn of Africa) is also part of the Republic (LRB, 25 March). It might not be of great political importance today, but the main island was a major trading post as far back as the Ptolemies. Socotra is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet; at least a third of its endemic flora – which includes the famous umbrella-shaped dragon’s blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari), the sap of which is still used as a medicine and a dye, and was described by many classical writers – is found nowhere else.

Iain Bamforth

Not since …

Eric Hobsbawm suggests that there has been nothing to compare with the spread of Communist states after 1917 ‘since the triumphal expansion of Islam in the seventh century’ (LRB, 8 April). Is this quite true? Starting in 1438, the Incas radiated out from Cusco – on foot, as they had no horses – conveying a distinctive language, religion and tributary system. By the early 1490s they controlled an empire spanning 32 degrees of latitude, a territory larger than the Ottoman Empire at its height. The Incan Empire of Tawantinsuyu, along the Pacific coast of South America, seems to have been, among other things, the most extensive centrally planned economy before the Soviets.

Benjamin Kunkel
Buenos Aires

Character v. Culture

I was struck by the thematic continuity between Robert Darnton’s The Literary Underground of the Old Regime and Lynn Hunt’s description of Darnton’s current work, The Devil in the Holy Water, both of which seem to imply a great deal about the Revolution’s origins and its degeneration into fratricidal violence (LRB, 11 March). I tell my students two things about The Literary Underground: first, that according to Darnton the delegitimisation of institutions and elites carried out by hack writers was motivated as much by their frustrated careerism, tinctured by the pain of social snobbery, as by any feeling of betrayed idealism; and second, that the hack writers themselves seem to have been pretty tawdry, dishonest characters.

Darnton blames the conditions of Ancien Régime society for creating these figures and not some intrinsic defect of character from which they may have suffered. As Hunt acknowledges, they gained positions of power in the Revolution (Brissot was Darnton’s archetypal example), but were unprepared for their new roles, remaining corrupted individuals incapable of acting decently towards political opponents. The argument remains a cultural one; you can’t account for the Revolution in terms of the characters of the people involved. That would be like explaining the triumph of Stalinism in the Soviet Union by evoking Stalin’s pre-revolutionary activities as a bank robber and general thug. Still, as general secretary of the ruling party, he used his patronage to recruit similar types into the apparatus of state and party. They became the new Soviet elite much as ‘the libellers went on to illustrious revolutionary careers’ in the French Revolution.

Albion Urdank
University of California, Los Angeles


Until I read Frank Kermode’s piece in the LRB of 25 March I had assumed that the words ‘daily bread’ in the Lord’s Prayer bore their common meaning. If, as it appears, the early Christians were expecting apocalypse to come ‘like a thief in the night’ and catch them off guard without food, then it’s likely that the special bread needed in an emergency would be the humble rusk, or paximathi in modern Greek. This ancient method of using up freshly baked bread (which in a hot climate will go stale and mouldy in a day) by twice baking it may well provide the answer to feeding people in a disaster situation. Rusks in one form or another are still in common use in many countries of the world; and bread ovens would almost certainly not have been lit every day in the villages of the Levant, since fuel would have been scarce and the ovens themselves would have taken a long time to become hot enough. Most of us know how to bake rusk: it is best done in a cooling slow oven over a long period. Ideal for using up heat which would otherwise be wasted.

Geraldine Lindley

The Great Collingwood

What are we to make of the relationship between the two sides of R.G. Collingwood’s academic career, Mary Beard asks (LRB, 25 March). She writes that Collingwood’s ‘most famous book’ is The Idea of History, and wonders how that work relates to the posthumously published Roman Inscriptions of Britain. Yet I should have thought that the most read (or consulted) of all Collingwood’s books is one that goes quite unmentioned in the review: Roman Britain, the opening volume in the Oxford History of England. This was first published in 1936 and was revised and reprinted regularly until supplanted by Peter Salway’s like-titled volume in 1981. Salway’s is thorough (it has more than double the number of pages), but Collingwood’s remains an outstanding essay, with a comparative perspective and breadth not to be matched. It is known as ‘Collingwood & Myres’ and it’s often assumed that Myres was the collaborator, providing the scholarly weight. In fact Collingwood was solely responsible for the 320 pages on Roman Britain; Myres was solely responsible for the other 140 pages, on ‘The English Settlements’. These are two monographs bound as one, not in any respect a work of joint authorship. Collingwood is attentive to the latest discoveries, not least those revealed by the aerial photography of O.G.S. Crawford, the subject of Kitty Hauser’s Bloody Old Britain (2008); and he is speculative in a way befitting a professor of metaphysics. On the one hand, we are told about the inevitable anachronism in thinking about the past: ‘But we have to think as best we can, and unless we thought in the conceptual vocabulary of our own times we should not be able to think at all.’ On the other hand, this: ‘We think of the Romans as a great civilising power … But that assumption only seems natural because we unconsciously liken the Roman settlement of Britain to, for example, the English exploration and development of central Africa.’ This sort of observation shows Collingwood sharing at least something with his Oxford colleague Ronald Syme, whose Roman Revolution of 1939 is mentioned by Beard. Though outdated, as any work of scholarship must become, Collingwood’s Roman Britain remains intensely readable, elegant and provocative.

According to Beard, Collingwood in his autobiography is ‘vitriolic about those antiquarians, following in the tradition of Pitt-Rivers, who excavated sites out of mere curiosity’. Collingwood had, of course, the highest regard for Pitt-Rivers as one of the founders of modern archaeology. Voicing a long-standing consensus among professional archaeologists, Collingwood recommends Excavations in Cranborne Chase as ‘a classical example of archaeological method’.

Charles Lock

Opportunities to Orate

Nicholas Faith suggests that Michael Foot was interested mainly in the sound of his own voice and had no political achievements to his name. In fact he played a major part in establishing the Health and Safety Executive and secured many important employment rights as a minister in the 1974-79 Labour government (Letters, 8 April).

On top of that, it is ludicrous of Faith to characterise Beaverbrook as an appeaser. In the 1930s it was the Times and the Daily Mail which favoured appeasement, not the Daily Express, which was (and is) patriotic and dislikes acquiescence to foreigners and doctrines (like Fascism) alien to the ‘British way of life’. As minister for Aircraft Production, Beaverbrook, unlike any other newspaper proprietor, played a major role in the British war effort in the 1940s. Foot was right to defend his anti-Fascism while being critical of his deeply conservative approach to domestic policy-making in the postwar period.

Chris Purnell
Orpington, Kent

Who’s not read what?

Richard Evans suspects that I haven’t read Lutz Raphael’s Die Erben von Bloch und Febvre, though it is cited in the bibliography of my book, The Annales School: An Intellectual History (LRB, 3 December 2009). I can only say that such a practice is perhaps admitted in Cambridge, but not in Paris. I would like to reassure him: I do read and speak German, and I did read Raphael’s book. Nevertheless, his approach to the Annales School’s evolution since the 1950s, by focusing on its institutional task and development, did not fit the analysis I was making in my book.

I am not sure, however, that Professor Evans read my book properly. Leaving aside the memory of his own encounter with the works of the Annales School when he was a young scholar, his piece is a not uninteresting survey of the academic expansion of the Annales School since the foundation of the Sixth Section of the Ecole Pratique, drawn largely from Raphael’s book. But he does not refer to the main topic of my book: the historiographical destiny of the concept of mentalités.

André Burguière

Not Our Concern

Pamela Blevins wonders ‘what relevance the Amy Bishop criminal case has to readers of a British literary and political publication’ (Letters, 25 March). Since American policing no longer stops at American borders, many readers of this British literary and political publication take a lively interest in how America deals with alleged criminals.

Craig Griffin