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


The Goodwin and Giggs Show

Stephen Sedley might have asked himself whether it wasn’t in Parliament that the right calls were made in the Goodwin and Giggs cases, not among the judiciary (LRB, 16 June). We now know that Goodwin told the court he was primarily concerned with damage to his business reputation if it emerged that he had conducted an affair with a senior colleague that he hadn’t disclosed to his board or his chairman. This potential breach of RBS governance rules did not merit the benefits of a privacy injunction, let alone a super-injunction. The present situation – in which the woman’s identity is concealed but not Goodwin’s, and the secrecy relating to the injunction itself has been removed – is the correct outcome, but one only arrived at after the use (or abuse, in Sedley’s view) of parliamentary privilege. If the original decision in the Goodwin case had simply followed the precedent set by Justice Tugendhat when he discontinued John Terry’s privacy injunction once he had concluded that its main purpose was to protect the footballer’s image rights (and the attendant income) rather than his private family life, there would have been no need for parliamentarians to become involved.

David Elstein
London SW15


How is anarchy possible?

As John Hall remarks in his intellectual biography of Ernest Gellner, I was a student of Gellner’s at the LSE in the late 1960s-early 1970s, and came to know him quite well (LRB, 2 June). My PhD thesis in social anthropology was based on fieldwork in north-east Morocco. Lawrence Rosen’s suggestion that Gellner sought out his fieldwork site in the Moroccan High Atlas in order to pursue the issue of ‘how is anarchy possible’ puts the cart before the horse (Letters, 16 June). Long before he developed his ideas about segmentation and tribal politics, Gellner was captivated not only by the mountains but also by ‘the Berber villages of the central Atlas, each building clinging to the next, the style wholly homogeneous, the totality crying out that this was a Gemeinschaft’. He knew at once that he ‘wanted desperately to know, as far as an outsider ever could, what it was like inside’ (his italics). He sought, as a self-avowed ‘urban, cerebral, mobile, rootless and uneasy intellectual’, to enter into a ‘community’. This came first; the notion that the social and political life of these Berber communities was based on a measure of order and trust, which Gellner identified in terms of a combination of segmentation and rule by saints, came later, during the fieldwork itself and as a result, in part, of his reading of Evans-Pritchard’s studies of the Nuer of Sudan and the Sanussi of Cyrenaica.

David Seddon
Brockdish, Norfolk

Although I did not know Ernest Gellner well, I was taken aback by Stefan Collini’s reference to his ‘working hours’. I’m not sure he ever kept such hours. The feelings he had about the ‘Narodniks of North Oxford’ he had in only slightly milder form about many social scientists too. That is, you could watch them go to work, do their sociology or economics or anthropology or comparative history and then come back home; and that, of course, was where the things that mattered were: wife, children, mortgage, car, social status and lifestyle. It is very easy for any academic after a while to feel that his subject is a set of intellectual games, gambits and petty politics that he plays before getting back to the real world. Gellner suspected this was how the comfortable gentlemen of Oxford philosophy lived, but he had the same suspicion about many others. He generated, to a degree unequalled by any other social scientist I have met, a feeling of ‘look, what we are doing is trying to figure out how the modern world works and this is a deadly serious task, in fact it is the most serious thing there is.’ He was never really off duty. Collini sounds a little too English to feel quite comfortable with that Germanic intensity and seriousness.

R.W. Johnson
Cape Town

My father, Ray Pahl, an emeritus professor of sociology at Essex, and a friend of Ernest Gellner’s in the 1960s, told me – this was my last conversation with him: he died at the beginning of this month – that the reason Gellner went to the Atlas Mountains to do his research was not his romantic affinity with mountains, as Collini suggests; instead, it was on the suggestion of his doctoral supervisor, Paul Stirling, whose seminal book, Turkish Village, advocated fieldwork conducted at close quarters with a particular social group.

My father was planning a longer letter to the LRB before he died. In it, he would no doubt have mentioned that he introduced Gellner to George Soros, who funded many intellectuals working in Eastern Europe at the time. Soros subsequently fell out with my father, but not with Gellner. ‘You shafted me not in the back, but in the stomach,’ my father joked to Gellner some time later.

Kate Pahl
University of Sheffield


In Love with a Fairy

John Pemble invites us to find ‘remarkable’ Lytton Strachey’s admiration for W.S. Gilbert, ‘the most eminently Victorian of them all’, after he saw a production of Iolanthe in 1907 (LRB, 16 June). ‘It’s impossible to believe that a lord chancellor in love with a fairy can be anything but ridiculous,’ Strachey wrote that year to Leonard Woolf in a letter quoted by Pemble, ‘but one goes, and when the moment comes, it’s simply great.’ But Strachey was not praising Gilbert or even Sullivan. He was singling out for praise an actor who played the lord chancellor in that production, Charles Herbert Workman – a late Victorian certainly, but not so very eminent.

Michael Holroyd
London W10


Poor with Words

Tim Parks criticises Graham Swift for letting characters in his new novel, Wish You Were Here, use words such as ‘inducement’, even though they are meant to be ‘poor with words’ (LRB, 2 June). Parks goes on to wonder whether Swift ‘can only write about his own mindset if he imagines it in these “ordinary” folk, people as different from himself as possible, even at the risk of the story’s not seeming entirely authentic?’ This could be a useful guess about Swift’s personal pathology, but I’m not sure it supplies us with a good rule for how novelists should treat their ‘ordinary’ characters. Swift would hardly be alone in giving his characters inner monologues they would find difficult to express in reality. Reading Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency recently, I’ve been struck by the highly sophisticated thoughts of its children, housewives and suburban adulterers, many of these thoughts couched in language that the narrator himself might use. The same could be said of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a saga of provincial family angst that has plenty in common with The Northern Clemency.

To allow yourself a wider vocabulary than your characters, even as you grant the reader access to their interior lives, is not to disrespect their authenticity; it is simply to acknowledge a complexity of thought that outstrips the character’s eloquence. We all have notions and feelings that we can’t express. Part of what a good novelist does is to bring these to the surface and give form to what remains outside consciousness for the vast majority of people.

Dai George
Harrow, Middlesex


God and Human Behaviour

‘We find that people who have religious convictions are on the whole morally worse than people who lack them,’ Galen Strawson writes in the LRB of 2 June. I thought this was fairly startling and looked forward to seeing letters in the next issue challenging Strawson and asking for some evidence. But no: for readers of the LRB, Professor Strawson’s view must be fairly uncontroversial, because there were no letters on the subject in the following issue. By a happy coincidence, I have been sent a complimentary copy of the New Statesman in which Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi, quotes some American research which seems to show that religious people – defined as those who regularly attend a place of worship – are more likely to behave in virtuous ways than non-religious people. What, I wonder, would constitute evidence one way or the other? Some parts of Galen Strawson’s review seem to suggest that religious belief on the part of educated people is in itself evidence of moral deficiency. That looks suspiciously like rigging the scales.

Anthony Buckley
City College Coventry


Diehards

Jackson Lears asserts that 50,000 civilians were killed during the American Civil War, and that these casualties were deliberately inflicted (LRB, 19 May). The figure originated with James McPherson, who in a footnote in his Battle Cry of Freedom suggested that ‘a fair estimate of war-related civilian deaths might total 50,000.’ Non-combatant casualties were not inflicted as a result of policy; rather, civilians died from malnutrition, disease and exposure. Two-thirds of the soldiers who died in the Civil War also died from these causes rather than on the battlefield; that some indeterminate number of civilians perished in the same way is not surprising. The US issued emergency rations to hundreds of thousands of Southern civilians, black and white, not only during the war but after it.

Lincoln required ‘unconditional surrender’ only in the sense of demanding the restoration of the Union. Both sides recognised that compromise on this issue was impossible. Lincoln insisted on emancipation only when it became a military necessity, and even at the very end of the war advocated compensating slaveholders.

Despite what Lears and many others claim, the North did not valorise wage labour as an ideal, or even consider it a form of freedom. Lincoln spoke for everyone when he equated freedom with the ownership of productive property. People who remained hired labourers for life did so ‘because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly or singular misfortune’. African Americans were denied land not on the basis of any idealisation of wage labour but because of racism.

Nor was Union policy vengeful or vindictive. The defeated Confederates were treated with unprecedented leniency: they were quickly restored to their full civil and political rights, and admitted to both Houses of Congress. Lincoln’s pledge of ‘malice toward none, with charity for all’ was meant exclusively for the white Southerners, not for their human chattels; one cannot easily compromise between a group of people willing to kill in defence of slavery, and slaves pining for freedom.

When Lears asserts that only a few diehard neo-Confederates claim that the war was over states’ rights rather than slavery, he should mention that tens of millions of white Americans are today proud Confederate loyalists. The Republican Party is dominated by these zealots. The Republican governor of Texas, Rick Perry, has claimed that his state retains the right of secession. And Alabama has just enacted a law requiring that all immigrants carry papers documenting their legal status at all times, thus re-establishing the pass system formerly imposed on slaves and free blacks, which today’s Confederate states would reinstate if they could.

Clifton Hawkins
Berkeley, California


XX/XY

To give further credence to Hilary and Steven Rose’s discussion of the arbitrariness of gender construction, the idea that ‘young boys should be able to urinate standing up’ is only appropriate in certain parts of the world (LRB, 28 April). When the Bedu with Thesiger in Oman had seen a British soldier urinating, the next day the men asked Thesiger ‘what physical deformity he suffered from which prevented him from squatting’.

Marielle Risse
Dhofar University, Oman