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Letters

Vol. 2 No. 10 · 22 May 1980

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Sex and the Raj

SIR: In his sympathetic but misleading review of my book Eric Stokes (LRB, 17 April) claims that I should have shown that English attitudes to race derived from English attitudes to class. One of my points was, in fact, that Imperialism caused them to converge, but that the dominating consideration was to preserve structures of power and authority. Stokes prefers to think that the English were moved merely by a pardonable regard for respectability, unsullied by sordid considerations of power or vested interests. He says that I have to acknowledge ‘the incongruousness of the situation in the 1890s, when the authorities were clamping down on the peccadilloes of white officials while putting up a last-ditch fight to preserve the redcoats’ social comforts’. But far from acknowledging an inconvenient incongruity in the 1890s, I argue that there was a continuing contradiction between opposition to intermarriage, on the one hand, and the provision of Indian women as soldiers’ prostitutes, on the other: this contradiction I explain by reference to the determination of the ruling élite to safeguard British power and prestige. Power depended on satisfied soldiers, but prestige depended on the remoteness of the ruling élite: therefore prostitutes were provided for the soldiers, but officials were discouraged from having Indian wives or mistresses.

Then why, asks Professor Stokes, did not the French and Dutch follow the British example, if racial segregation is necessary to authority? The British often find it difficult to understand why other people do not behave as they do. My point was not that the preservation of social distance is necessary to the maintenance of authority but that the British thought it was. Indeed, many still do think so, even today. In the John Lewis empire of retail stores, where all members of staff are termed ‘partners’, there are separate dining rooms for managers, who are termed ‘senior partners’, and for workers, who are termed ‘rank-and-file partners’.

Stokes’s other contribution to the discussion is to suggest that the decline in VD among British troops in the 20th century can be explained in terms of English social class. In his own phrase, a ‘much higher class of man’ enlisted for the Boer War and remained in the Army afterwards. It is intriguing to see that the Establishment view of the unhealthy sexual habits of the lower classes is still cherished by the Smuts Professor of the History of the British Commonwealth in Cambridge, England.

Kenneth Ballhatchet
Rome

Eric Stokes writes: In my review of Kenneth Ballhatchet’s interesting book I suggested that the working of race and sex attitudes was more subtle and complex than he seemed ready to admit, and that he had allowed himself to be governed too rigidly by unexamined stereotypes. He now acknowledges that racial segregation of the sexes was not a sine qua non of the maintenance of alien rule in other European colonial dependencies, but asserts that in India the British thought it was. I remain sceptical of this argument for British exceptionalism. Ballhatchet says: ‘Stokes prefers to think that the English were moved merely by a pardonable regard for respectability, unsullied by sordid considerations of power or vested interests.’ I nowhere say this. What I did write was: ‘The history of European social mores in India is the history at one remove of social mores in Britain and not the product of some special psychological adjustment to the conditions of a conquering élite … It was the closer and more frequent contact with middle-class England through the steamer and furlough that progressively raised the sex barrier, not some mysterious mystique of empire.’ A European community that was oriented towards frequent return to Britain and not towards settling as a colon class felt the need of ready acceptability. A foreign wife or mistress, particularly one who was foreign in skin colour or culture, threatened this acceptability because the achievement of social fit in mobile, urbanised societies like that of later 19th-century Britain required an exacting degree of outward conformity and homogeneity, prompting J.S. Mill to make his celebrated protest that it was in danger of crushing out all individuality and variety. By way of meeting Kenneth Ballhatchet’s viewpoint, I tried to suggest that the heightened sense of racial exclusiveness which marked the end of the 19th century took on a cutting edge in India as a result of the onset of competition with the indigenous modern élite, and that greater sexual exclusiveness was perhaps a natural corollary. But I remain convinced that the palmary influence on European attitudes to sexual mores was the force of opinion in this country. Kenneth Ballhatchet’s parting quip, which implies that my Chair in Commonwealth History connects me somehow with an Establishment view, is, alas, an amusing instance of his dangerous habit of thinking in stereotypes.

John Layard’s Life and Work

SIR: Peter Redgrove is mistaken in his account of John Layard’s attempted suicide. (Letters, 15 May). A few days before this occurred, in response to an unhappy and disturbing letter from John, I sent him a telegram to say that I would be arriving in Berlin next day. Wystan Auden – whom I hadn’t met before – was at the station with a message from John to say that he was too ill to meet me himself. Wystan took me to John’s digs and arranged to have lunch with me next day.

I found John in a wretched state. He told me that he was going to kill himself but had put it off till I came because of the shock that it would have given me to arrive into such a situation. He asked me to go away at once and leave him to it. I was appalled at the squalor of his room and at his leering landlady and I told him that he couldn’t possibly make a clear decision in such surroundings. We argued for a long time: he made me take his revolver out of his trunk; he told me that his life had been a total failure, that his only hope of escaping from his misery had been Etta da Viti, a young Italian woman who had also been a patient of Homer Lane. But Etta refused to have anything to do with him.

In the end, I persuaded him to leave those lodgings: I found him a room in a pleasant hotel, and next day I packed his belongings and helped him to move. He suspected that I might try to leave his revolver behind and insisted that I should pack it too. Which I did, with him watching. At the hotel he cheered up – he liked the room and enjoyed the luxury of a long bath. But next day he had relapsed and repeated his suicide threat.

He had already spoken to me at length about Etta when he was in England and I had met her and knew her address in Paris, where she was sharing a flat with her sister. Now, in a desperate rescue attempt, I said that I would go to Paris and try to persuade her to see John. At this, he became hopeful again and he and Wystan saw me off on the night train to Paris. Throughout this Berlin episode they were on very friendly terms.

Arrived in Paris, I found that Etta and her sister were away and the concierge had no idea when they would return. I sent a telegram to John – as I had promised to do – saying that I would wait on in Paris as long as my job allowed me to. It was when he got my telegram that John made his suicide attempt. He told me later that when he came to and found that he was still alive, he was horrified that he had failed even in this, but he hadn’t the courage to fire a second shot. So he put his revolver into his pocket, crammed his hat low over his face to conceal the wound, and struggled down to the hall, where the porter called a taxi for him. He was driven to Wystan’s flat, rang the bell and when Wystan opened the door, he held out the revolver and asked him to finish him off. Wystan quite rightly refused and John collapsed. Wystan may well have said, ‘Don’t be a bloody ass, John,’ but he didn’t shut the door on him. Instead, he took John to hospital and sent me a telegram with the news. Both John and Wystan later confirmed this account – and, indeed, it makes no sense to imagine that John, so determined to die, would – or could – have taken himself to hospital.

A few days later Wystan wrote to me that John was out of danger but that his eyes were in jeopardy. And for the next few weeks Wystan sent me frequent bulletins about the progress of John’s recovery. Many years afterwards, when Wystan and John were both living in Oxford, Wystan drove me out to have lunch with John. We had a long talk about that time in Berlin and I asked John whether he would mind if I were to write an account of his suicide attempt. ‘Of course not,’ he said. ‘Write anything you like about me.’ Some time later – and after Wystan’s death – I had a letter dated 13 October 1973, about our conversation that day. ‘I’d no idea I was still babbling about Etta,’ he wrote. ‘Even if you’d caught up with them [Etta and her sister], what would have happened? Possibly nothing at all … I had forgotten, too, that I had been responsible for your knowing Wystan. He did us a last service by bringing you here that Thursday at lunchtime. I am grateful for that. But what a mess I was …’ In a postscript to that letter he wrote: ‘I’m glad that Wystan had what seems to have been a peaceful death. Thank you for telling me.’

Margaret Gardiner
London NW3

SIR: John Layard’s written-down account of his own ‘suicide’ is at variance with both Charles Osborne’s and Peter Redgrove’s. Any reader still burning with curiosity in about two years’ time will be able to judge for themselves which version they prefer, since I am piecing together Layard’s autobiographical relics: narratives (written and taped), letters and dreams, etc – part of which he himself called History of a Failure. In the meantime, it should be said that the version in my possession does not substantiate Peter Redgrove’s allegation of unscrupulousness and callousness in Auden. I am reminded of the (anthropological) story of the man who walks along the path between two friends’ fields, wearing a hat half black, half white; as intended, the two friends quarrel, and possibly kill each other, over the colour of the hat. Whatever else he was, Layard had in him something of that un-English, ungentlemanly phenomenon, the ‘trickster’ – ‘dangerous’, as Peter Redgrove says; he would have been delighted by the present controversy.

James Greene
London NW3

Blunt’s Professorship

SIR: My original letter to you said I was depressed by Michael Mason’s defence of Anthony Blunt. He now writes (Letters, 1 May) that I should be ashamed of having written it. Since he has upped the ante, and your letters are running four to one in support of Blunt, may I have one more word? The clause that made Mr Mason cross was ‘anyone who actively wished Stalinism on his fellows, knowing full well what that meant, acted out of hatred for them …’ I did not make the claim that Blunt was motivated by hatred for his fellows, as Mr Mason misquotes me back. He reminds me that I am a university teacher. Fair enough, and so is he, and that requires reading sentences right through, word by boring word.

As to the clause above, I cannot see how any civilised person could dissent from it. It is like condemnations of cannibalism or the elimination of the unfit: one does not have to count heads to know the status of such claims in our society. At least, I assume that is obvious, though Mr Mason’s fluster disturbs me a little.

Yorick Wilks
Department of Language and Linguistics, University of Essex

Christopher Killip’s Isle of Man

SIR: I was surprised and really delighted when I picked up the new issue of the magazine and saw the Chris Killip photograph and the note on his book, together with the second photograph inside. I agree: it is the most important book of photographs to come out of England since McCullin’s The Destruction Business (almost ten years ago). I do hope that your magazine will treat us to a long and literate review of the book – which is unlikely to receive such attention in the photographic press. This museum has, in fact, acquired the original photographs from which the book was so superbly printed.

Mark Haworth-Booth
Assistant Keeper of Photographs, Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7

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