Vol. 2 No. 5 · 20 March 1980

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Unmatched Antiquary

SIR: Your reviewer Blair Worden (LRB, 21 February) has a name for flaying historians of eminent reputation to within an inch of their lives. A young scholar escaping lightly with a few strokes might, therefore, be expected to express relief. But a feeling of relief in the author should not override a duty to the reader – and it is the reader of Dr Worden’s review of Sir Robert Cotton who is most abused.

Dr Worden takes most exception to my claims for Cotton’s importance in the history of ideas. He argues – correctly – that it is impossible to prove the direct influence of classical and Italian histories upon his thought. But he neglects to inform the reader that Cotton turned from detailed antiquarian investigations to lighter ‘politic histories’ containing aphorisms and political lessons. To Dr Worden Cotton’s maxims are not ‘impressive’. This is a curious term. A student of the history of ideas should surely seek to understand and analyse ideas, not, as Dr Worden seems to desire, award marks for novelty or progressiveness. Cotton may not have been an original or always incisive thinker, but his attitudes are no less (perhaps they are more) important for that.

Dr Worden misses, too, in my account ‘the pulse of political activity and conflict’. But a study of Cotton reveals a world of less division and conflict than historians have supposed – or than Dr Worden would like. Dr Worden suggests, justifiably, that in parts I might have adopted a different approach. But he also reveals an (unhistorical) wish that Cotton had been otherwise than he was.

Kevin Sharpe
Department of History, Southampton University

‘The Climate of Treason’

SIR: Mr Neal Ascherson’s review of Andrew Boyle’s book (LRB, 7 February) contains some unusual observations and some curious omissions. His assertion that ‘the Russians were carrying almost the whole burden of the war against Germany’ during the years 1941-43 will come as news to those who fought in the Western Desert, who flew with Bomber Command and who were involved in the battle for the Atlantic. Indeed, it will come as a surprise to most of the British population, who failed to understand they were enjoying a siesta and believed they were engaged in a war. Mr Ascherson omits to mention that at a time when Britain was hard pressed it sent Russia £80 million worth of military supplies, and in doing so endured heavy losses on the Russian convoy. He also omits to mention that for the first 18 months of the war, Russia was an ally of Germany.

Mr Ascherson misunderstands the nature of Intelligence. However well-informed an army might be, it still has to fight battles and to suffer losses. The Russian tactics, equipment, terrain and weather, together with the professionalism of the German vanguard and the brutality of the German rearguard, made it inevitable there would be substantial casualties.

The fact that Russia was, or was not, supplied with information from Ultra does not mitigate the treachery of Blunt and his confrerès. The latter dedicated themselves to Russia winning the peace as well as the war. They can comfort themselves that Eastern Europe, and now Afghanistan, enjoy the utopia they wished on their own nation.

Finally, while Mr Ascherson’s suggestion that Blunt, Philby, Maclean and Burgess saw themselves as part of a regime-in-waiting is interesting, it is unfortunate that he deploys the portmanteau terms ‘upper class’ and ‘ruling group’, like a polytechnic militant. Andrew Boyle is similarly idle. Blunt and company were not members of the upper class, nor did they rule. They had no property to protect, and their function in life was to execute commands, not to dictate them. They were clerks. Indeed, it is possible to argue that their dislike of British society in the Thirties, and their wish to undermine it, were due more to resentment than principle.

G.B.H. Wightman
London SW5

Neal Ascherson writes: I wondered how long it would be before the new Cold War glaciation, so welcome to so many political walruses, would revive the theory that the Russians did nothing much against Hitler but left it to poor old Britain to win the war. I remind Mr Wightman that more people died in the siege of Leningrad than in the British and American armed forces during the entire war. I think I see what Mr Wightman means about ‘clerks’. But Maclean and Co were hardly proletarians, and if they had kept their noses clean would certainly have risen to the rank at which they ‘dictated’ commands.

Shostakovich’s Memoirs

SIR: Critical reaction to the Shostakovich memoirs has been mixed, in a pattern suggesting that scepticism increases in proportion to a reviewer’s interest in maintaining the official Soviet image of the composer. One can understand, if not entirely condone, the equivocation of a specialist in Russian music whose too-open authentication of so damaging a piece of anti-Soviet propaganda might lead to academic reprisals. Hans Keller’s wriggling discomforture, on the other hand (LRB, 21 February), is face-saving of an altogether less delicate kind against the idea that Shostakovich could actually have repudiated the Party antagonism to new musical developments which the BBC’s former principal adviser on new music – in common with the critical establishment – apparently shares.

It is obviously not widely enough realised to what extent a composer’s living, even here in the West, is governed by politics. Composers still have to go hungry while orchestras and opera houses eat up resources to resuscitate the past: the myth of the mass market amounts to as potent a system of censorship as that imposed by any cultural bureaucracy in the Eastern bloc.

It must be pointed out, therefore, that what a composer recognises in the memoirs is a truth of more universal moment: an experience shared and contested by every significant composer of the past 80 years. It is that in order to survive and continue to write, a composer has to compromise with the state, and this can be a painful and spiritually consuming affair. The purgatorial intensity of suffering and scorn visited by Shostakovich on his state oppressors – and by implication on all those in the West whose adulation of his public image could be used to sanction official Soviet persecution of advanced music – speaks for the conscience of the greatest survivors, such as Schoenberg, as well as for the silenced. To challenge the authenticity of the text on the grounds that the composer had it all made is to miss the point. The point is artistic liberty, and the composer’s right to live. If Shostakovich weren’t responsible for the Memoirs, their message would still be true.

Hans Keller abuses the editor and translator without a thought as to how an impoverished refugee with little English could afford a proper translation, or whether a publisher would care to risk paying extra to have the manuscript decently edited. He questions the circumstances of the book’s publication as though it were easy to obtain such material and smuggle it out of the Soviet Union, let alone find it a publisher. Does it count for nothing that Volkov had to choose exile for the book’s sake? Would anyone seriously pretend that he is likely to make a fortune from it? Why, if Keller is to be believed, would anyone want to forge memoirs of such minority interest, so patently improbable, and on top of all that, so badly put together? Could not the reason why Hans Keller seems to align himself with official Soviet denunciations – the latter an impressive gesture of authentication – be that he doesn’t like ‘fashionable new music’ either and when he was at the BBC did little to encourage it? Or does he hope to deflect the memory of his own inept invention of a ‘modern composer’ – the fictitious Pjotr Zak?

Robin Maconie
Department of Music, University of Surrey

Hans Keller writes: My attitude to ‘new musical developments’ (and my disregard of ‘the critical establishment’) I was able to demonstrate practically throughout my 20 years with the BBC, whose ‘principal adviser on new music’ is one of Mr Maconie’s multiple fantasies: I made jolly sure that there would never be any such person, and that antagonism to any new development would never be allowed to influence BBC programmes. As a result, Sir Lennox Berkeley, on behalf of the Composers’ Guild, has now conferred on me a ‘Special Award in gratitude for many years of service to contemporary British music’.

As for Pjotr Zak, he wasn’t my invention: in fact, the greatest care was taken for his music not to be either inventive or, indeed, an individual product. It had to be absolutely meaningless, and would only have been ‘inept’ if it had meant something, and thus failed to prove my case – the acceptability of meaninglessness. As it was, good old Zak brilliantly succeeded – to the extent of his non-creation still being broadcast abroad, almost twenty years after its manufacture, while we even find his name now in some musical encyclopedias. I hope he will always be remembered. For the rest, anybody who fantasises into my review an ‘alignment with official Soviet denunications’, an ‘interest in maintaining the official Soviet image of the composer’, must be so blinded by his hatred of my own work that he is no longer capable of percerving what I have written.

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