Ghosts of the Tsunami
Buddhism and Shinto, Richard Lloyd Parry writes, ‘have been pressed into the service of the true faith of Japan: the cult of the ancestors’ (LRB, 6 February). The situation he describes will be familiar to anyone who has read Carmen Blacker’s The Catalpa Bow (1975), a world where the line between the living and the dead is gossamer thin and where the need to pacify spirits who have been denied the correct rituals is paramount. But to jump from here to ancestor worship is to misunderstand what is going on. Ancestor worship demands a concept of the family that is entirely lacking in Japan, where bloodline counts for so little and where spirits quickly become amorphous. This lack of specificity is one reason deification is so rare. Buddhism may well ‘have little influence on private or national life’, but it remains subtly present everywhere. The Heart Sutra intoned by the Buddhist priest Kaneda tells us that all reality is mind and that the unhappy spirits are ultimately within, but getting the message across seems to have been a gruelling experience.
I met Pauline Boty, whose show in Chichester is reviewed by Eleanor Birne, very briefly but memorably when I applied to the Royal College of Art stained glass department in 1961 (LRB, 6 February). Part of the entrance procedure was to be shown work by a current student, who happened to be Pauline. Being the son of a traditional stained glass artist, and coming from an Arts and Crafts background dominated by Eric Gill, I was amazed to see pop imagery in stained glass, skilfully done using quite traditional methods, and quite unlike anything I had seen before – and created by a stunningly beautiful woman.
She had left by the time I started my course but would visit occasionally. The last time I saw her was at an RCA party. She was sitting next to Ken Russell when a rather strange academic, who taught philosophy to the art students, appeared. When he saw her he got down on his hands and knees and, kissing the floor as he went, crawled towards her.
John Barrell seeks to establish that the alarm of the 1790s was conjured up by Pitt and his allies to justify a war and to fix a ‘French taint’ on the reform movement (LRB, 23 January). He goes on to note the topical ‘equivalences’ between the Pitt ministry in the 1790s and governments of this century as ‘they tiptoe stealthily but steadily towards totalitarianism’.
Yes, some resonances do spring to mind. Faced with a growing sense of alarm at the writings and activities inspired by the French Revolution and Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, the Pitt ministry encouraged enhanced use of the law of seditious libel and began to introduce acts – most of them time-limited – that suspended Habeas Corpus, redefined the law of treason, restricted large meetings without the permission of a magistrate, banned unlawful oaths and suppressed seditious societies.
But the documentary evidence shows that at the outset this wasn’t so much ‘Pitt’s alarm’ as an alarm initiated by the Anglican property-owning classes closest to the centres of unrest. The correspondence that started to flood in from the provinces in the last quarter of 1792 shows how quickly fears were mounting. According to Pitt’s biographer John Ehrman, it might suddenly have seemed to his ministers that ‘nothing like this had been seen in England before.’
The ministry’s main problem was a lack of any means of verifying this alarming information, and in particular reports relating to the acquisition of arms. The Home Office at this time had a staff of less than two dozen, four of whom were under 16. Even when its work was supplemented in the following years by a poorly documented Aliens’ Office and an embryonic secret service, the ministry was still forced to rely on random reports, mail intercepts and an unreliable spy network. But there was no need for it to invent a myth to fix a French taint on those who became known as English Jacobins: they made no secret of their sympathies, some even holding fast after the September massacres and Robespierre’s Terror in spite of what E.P. Thompson called ‘that profound disenchantment, in an intellectual generation which had identified its beliefs in a too ardent and utopian way with the cause of France’.
Even if the Pitt ministry had wanted to tiptoe towards a totalitarian state, there would have been formidable obstacles in its way. It is easy to slip into the assumption that 18th-century governments had at their disposal comprehensive powers of surveillance and law enforcement comparable to those of a 21st-century state. Under the devolved and random system it inherited, law enforcement powers were firmly lodged with the local magistracy, which was a deeply entrenched feature of the 18th-century constitution, jealous of its independence from central government. The inadequacy of the system was particularly evident in the fast-growing English manufacturing towns, where the discontent was greatest, particularly in places like Sheffield, Manchester and Birmingham, which came under county jurisdiction. Typically, county magistrates didn’t live in the towns they were meant to serve. While some were rabid loyalists, others had a background in the reform movement; others were accused of being intimidated by the radical upsurge.
Attempts to construct a system more responsive to central control, particularly in the provinces, were ruled out by hostility to anything savouring of excessive government control or ‘French-style police’. The Proclamation against Seditious Writings of May 1792 was attacked by the opposition in Parliament as an attempt to turn magistrates into government spies and informers. In November 1792 an attempt to bypass local magistrates by sending agents into the provinces to purchase seditious writings with a view to prosecution was described by the foreign secretary, Lord Grenville, in private correspondence as ‘a thing that can be done but once, and could not be continued without an expense equal to that of the old French police. Our laws suppose magistrates and Grand Juries to do this duty, and if they do not do it, I have little faith in its being done by a Government such as the Constitution has made ours.’
The prosecutions for seditious libel that followed in the next two years were unevenly spread across the country, and were noticeably sparse in the most disaffected towns, like Norwich or Sheffield, which lacked an effective local loyalist organisation to compensate for lack of action by local magistrates. For nearly two and a half years from late 1791 until June 1794 the Sheffield Register and its editor, Joseph Gales, continued, unmolested by the law, to act as the mouthpiece of radical societies throughout the country and to publish the first cheap edition of Rights of Man. Later on, when emergency laws were enacted, they were rarely used. As the historian Frank McLynn put it, ‘Pitt’s England lacked the technology, bureaucracy and enforcement procedure to make truly repressive legislation bite.’
Forget about Paris
Perry Anderson places Peter Brook’s Moderato cantabile in Bordeaux (LRB, 23 January). In fact the location is Blaye, a much more modest city, fifty kilometres to the north on the Gironde (Bordeaux is on the Garonne). Blaye is the place where the Duchess of Berry, after being arrested in Nantes, was detained in a citadel designed by Vauban, which is one of its few claims to fame, together with pralines and the shooting of Moderato cantabile. Nothing in the film would make sense or even really take place in a larger town like Bordeaux.
Perry Anderson draws elegant attention to the strengths of French geography, but his own analysis of London versus Paris is wide of the mark. ‘Greater London,’ he writes, ‘is now in absolute terms nearly four times the size of Paris: 8.2 to 2.2 million’; ‘Paris, as a meaningful city,’ he says later, ‘is of modest proportions beside London.’ He is right, of course, to say that it depends on where the administrative boundaries are drawn. But a more meaningful comparison would be between the populations of Inner London (3.2 million in 2011) and the city of Paris (the twenty central arrondissements, at 2.3 million in 2010); or between the population of a Greater London (8.2 million) and the Paris urban area (10.5 million). While the popular perception of the banlieues is as he describes it, wider suburban Paris is just as diverse as its London counterpart.
Perry Anderson deplores ‘the imperial pretensions of its adjective’ in the term ‘Great Britain’. The ‘great’ may sound immodest to our post-imperial ears, but it is simply a translation of the ‘grande’ in ‘Grande Bretagne’, so named by medieval Normans to distinguish it from Bretagne or Brittany, which had been settled by Celtic emigrants from the British Isles. The terms seem to have been first recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in Historia Regum Britanniae (c.1136), which distinguishes Britannia Major from Britannia Minor on the same geographical principle that we apply to the Greater and Lesser Antilles. The adjective might sound as if it was coined by Palmerston, who did relish it, but it denoted quantity rather than quality.
What Lubitsch Knew
Michael Wood says of Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be that while the phrase ‘Concentration Camp Erhardt’ is a running gag, the camps themselves ‘just flicker there in the dialogue’ (LRB, 5 December 2013). That is true, though in 1942 it is hard to see how it could have been otherwise. The scale and depth of what was going on in the camps at the time was not widely known. A book did appear that year in Polish entitled Auschwitz: Camp of Death, which is striking because at the time not a single Jew had been sent there. Since its opening in June 1940, and before the building of Birkenau, it had been a camp for Polish political prisoners and other undesirables. We should, though, perhaps be grateful for Lubitsch’s ignorance, if that is what it is, because without it we would have been deprived of the film’s best line, as Jack Benny, disguised as Erhardt, tells Dr Skiletsky that they are called concentration camps because ‘we do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping.’
Bunting and Biography
Michael Hofmann writes about Basil Bunting and the problem of biography (LRB, 9 January). Bunting made plain repeatedly to his closest literary associates and friends that he wanted no biography. In a letter to me in 1967, he said that his work ‘stood for that’ and that he ‘wanted the last laugh’ and was entitled to it. But he did expect me to finish my memoir (‘to put some things right’), which would portray something of the life of his later times.
I have prepared some 1100 pages of typescript from boxfuls of tapes and notebooks, my articles and his, the memories of friends and neighbours. Anecdotes were quite important to him, and he wanted ‘unabashed children’ of all ages to be able to sift the event, the ‘fact’, from the inevitable ‘legends’ in such a colourful life.
Contrary to Christopher Turner’s report, the magpie architect Philip Johnson didn’t renounce his mentor. ‘I’m still a Mies man,’ he told me in 1985, when his own AT&T building was quite new (LRB, 6 February).