SIR: W.R. Mead’s cautiously sympathetic review of Marion Shoard’s The Theft of the Countryside (LRB, 5 March) makes one small but important error in referring to farmers as fellow taxpayers. In practice, farmers pay little or no tax. Regulations vary, but, on the whole, nearly all of the farmer’s life-style is tax-deductible: heating, lighting and maintenance of all buildings (including the house); purchase, maintenance and running of all vehicles; telephones; some clothing; and, of course, all purchases and expenditures connected with the farm itself. In addition, he is given money outright, in the form of grants and subsidies, with no obligation to produce goods in return. Apart from the drain on the taxpayer, this creates a psychological reversal which is at the root of the destruction so deplored by Shoard: the farmer has become the master of the taxpayer/consumer, extracting tithes from a new serfdom and having no responsibilities toward it in return.
While some farmers continue to work the land responsibly, there is no longer a financial need to do so, and a new breed of farmer is emerging, one which farms subsidies rather than land. The most extreme example of this is the cyclic dairy farmer, who takes advantage of one set of subsidies to set up dairying, a second set of subsidies to withdraw from it, and then back to the first subsidies again. Hedges are subject to similar cycles, the farmer being paid from one source to grub out hedges and replace them with fences, from a second source to plant new hedges, and so on.
The effect of this new cynicism is as devastating to local morale as it is to the land itself; rural neighbourhoods are being destroyed in every sense of the word while the public receives its daily dose of The Archers. I’ve chronicled the demise of one such hamlet in an unpublished novel; Marion Shoard has supplied the details which explain how it happens. Perhaps some day we will stop tinkering with countryside cosmetics and understand that radical changes are needed.
SIR: One question about Michael Korda’s charming book, Charmed Lives, which was played down in the reviews of the original edition and is left out of David Thomson’s review of the paperback edition (LRB, 19 March), really ought to be asked. This is the reliability of what purports to be a work of fact rather than fantasy about the Korda family. I can’t check any of the central narrative, with all its elaborate descriptions and conversations from more than a quarter of a century ago, but my confidence has been shaken by one peripheral episode – the author’s National Service in the RAF from 1952 to 1954. I happened to follow him through some of the same units, catching up with him in the last one in Germany, and I must say that his brief account gets more details wrong than right. How seriously can we take the rather more important details which are based on Mr Korda’s memory?
SIR: The intensity of your correspondents’ excitement (Letters, 2 April) is proportionate to the degree to which they leave my case untouched; hard feelings are no substitute for hard fact. So long as the reader is able to discern my original piece in the dark of the reactions against it, I am content. It may help him, however, to be reminded of what I didn’t say. I did not 1. ‘confuse Winckelmann’s two most famous works’, 2. quote William Vaughan out of context, 3. deny Wagner’s anti-semitism, and 4. suggest ‘that there was never any connection between German romanticism and German anti-semitism.’
1. Anxious to apply lex talionis, William Vaughan is in frantic search of my ignorance: I am said to be ‘talking of The History of Ancient Art (1974) when Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Art (1755) is clearly intended’. Where and how Dr Vaughan found this clear intention is not my problem; for my part, I meant what I said. I may add that I have no first-hand knowledge of English translations of Winckelmann, whom I read in the original. Dr Vaughan seems to imply that Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke was translated into English by the 1760s; if so, I didn’t know. I only knew about the early translations, into French and English, of Winckelmann’s history of ancient art.
2. Dr Vaughan submits that I did not mention his reference ‘to the “line" that runs from the nationalism of the romantics to Hitler’ in the context of his concluding remark about the Nazis’ ‘distortion of a tradition’. I am baffled, for it almost looks as if he had missed a paragraph: ‘In other words, while Dr Vaughan does add that “the Nazis based their claims upon the distortion of a tradition," he himself reinterprets that tradition in the Nazi manner, for otherwise he wouldn’t find any line that runs between it and National Socialism, except for the line that Hitler drew, backwards.’
3. As for Richard Webster, we don’t need Wagner’s letters to the King of Bavaria for the purpose of describing his anti-semitism; Wagner’s published essay, Das Judentum in der Musik, contains Mr Webster’s evidence. But in order to gain a clear picture of Wagner’s deeply ambivalent attitude towards the Jews, we have to know what his friend, the Jewish conductor Hermann Levi, the son of a rabbi, had to say about it, and why he forgave Wagner. It’s the old story: we shouldn’t judge people in public before we know everything there is to be known about them. If Richard Webster had read Cosima’s Diaries, he wouldn’t talk about the ‘myth’ of her anti-semitic influence on Wagner; it was, incidentally, Israel’s leading composer, Josef Tal, who first drew my attention to this evidence. For the rest, if Mr Webster is cross about my ‘exculpating’ Wagner (which I don’t), what would he say to Hermann Levi (who does)? Are we to assume that Mr Webster knows more about Wagner than Levi did?
4. As my self-quotation under 2. shows, I didn’t deny Hitler’s identification with Wagner, but Wagner’s (and other romantics’) prophetic identification with Hitler.
I know it is an easy thing to say, but since it is, in my opinion, fact, it has to be said: I don’t think you can understand Hitler and his history without having experienced the growth and explosion of National Socialism; the understanding of collective evil is, to that extent, esoteric. As I pointed out in a recent book, much of what I experienced I wouldn’t – couldn’t – have believed if my best and most truthful friend had told me about it. Conversely, with the experience behind me, the theories flung at my case give me the feeling of remote unreality. I am still waiting for a single mind that has shared my experience to disagree with me.
SIR: In his review of Anne Smith’s novel The Magic Glass (LRB, 19 March) John Sutherland’s reference to ‘the manuscript’s progress through the hands of less enthusiastic publishers’ is nothing short of libellous in view of the fact that the book was submitted to three publishers all of whom accepted within a very short time. More interesting, perhaps, are the implications of Mr Sutherland’s snide remark: that those books which (unlike Anne Smith’s) do the rounds at the publishers, so to speak, are necessarily bad. Perhaps Mr Sutherland will feel able to argue this thesis more closely in future columns? By way of criticism of the book itself, as opposed to the author herself (the two are not easily distinguished in this review), Mr Sutherland states, rather than establishes, that The Magic Glass is ‘transparently a version of the author’s childhood’. He then takes two columns to compare Anne Smith as an autobiographer with such disparate compatriots as David Daiches, Bill Douglas and Jimmy Boyle (Jimmy Boyle!) who share what Mr Sutherland sees as a determination ‘to rake over and publicly display their childhoods’.
All this before he stumbles unwittingly on the undisputed truth (offered here as a condemnation) that ‘The Magic Glass is not concerned with putting the whole self together.’ Undaunted, however, he bemoans the lack of ‘logical connections between the original street Arab … and the Editor of the Literary Review’. He cannot find the connections because he cannot find any evidence to suggest that the heroine of the novel, Stella, will ‘become anything more than a clerkess in Edinburgh’. What exactly is Mr Sutherland’s problem? Is he suffering merely from an attack of the Green-Eyed Monster; is he paranoid about class distinctions or the commoners overstepping themselves; or has he been afflicted by that terminal handicap in the Literary World – the need to display cut-throat animus for a successful writer (in this case additionally the editor of a rival review journal)? ‘Smith’s novel can only be called slight,’ concludes Mr Sutherland. Those of us who have read the novel – yes, even the Edinburgh clerkesses – will be able to label his review ‘slight’ of a different (baser) kind. In this case, Mr Sutherland has trusted neither the artist nor, it would seem, the tale: instead he has trusted his own preconceived notions about ‘the Scot’, the relation between an author and his/her characters, and the proper demarcation lines for the novel dealing with childhood. In so doing, he has manifestly isolated himself from the integrity required of a serious book-reviewer.
SIR: It seems a pity that Rosemary Ashton, in recommending Goethe translations (LRB, 19 March), omitted to mention the work of David Luke. His out-of-print Penguin anthology of Goethe’s poetry (1964), with English prose translations, has the merit of including works hitherto excluded from standard German anthologies because of their eroticism; and his more recent fine translation of Goethe’s Roman Elegies (dual text, Chatto, 1977) has been little noticed. Next year is the 150th anniversary of Goethe’s death. Is it too much to hope that Penguin will use the opportunity to reprint the Luke anthology, and also the Auden/Mayer Italian Journey mentioned in Dr Ashton’s article?
SIR: An inconsistency which seems important caught my eye in Michael Szkolny’s article ‘Revolution in Poland’ (LRB, 5 March). He makes a distinction between ideology and propaganda, arguing that ‘propaganda does not have to be believed in order to be effective.’ Two paragraphs later, he takes Kolakowski to task for his argument that Marxism-Leninism is an inconvenience to the Party in Poland, but cannot be removed because it is the basis of legitimacy of the regime! ‘What is the value of a doctrine “as a basis for legitimacy",’ asks Szkolny, ‘if no one believes in it?’ He has already answered that question himself: doctrine does not have to be believed to be politically effective. This is an insight which Kolakowski has already put more subtly: belief in Soviet and Eastern bloc propaganda, he points out, often amounts to belief in the political power it expresses, not in the independent truth of the information.
SIR: In his obsession with ‘Iran’ rather than ‘Persia’ (LRB, 19 March), Edward Said is in the distinguished if perhaps unwelcome company of Reza Shah Pahlavi. Yet I have not noticed that the people of Deutschland object to being called Germans – a remarkably close parallel, if you think about it: ‘Persis’ from the Greeks – I beg your pardon, the Hellenes – ‘Germania’ from the Romans. Nor do I think the Persians have a strong case for as long as they consider us to be living in ‘Englestan’. And at least ‘Persia’ avoids confusion between Iran and Iraq.