SIR: In his review of J. R. Ackerley’s My Sister and Myself (LRB, 20 May), Christopher Ricks makes much of Nancy West (Ackerley) remarking on her death-bed that she has been reduced to ‘a rag and a bone and hank of air [sic]’. Unfortunately, misprints are common these days and what, in fact, she said, quoting correctly from Kipling, was ‘a rag and a bone and a hank of hair’. A pity, I agree. Like Tennyson’s ‘the iron grates of life’ for Marvell’s ‘the iron gates of life’, the emendation has, as Professor Ricks has demonstrated, its subtle resonances.
Professor Ricks has described my Introduction as ‘accommodating’. I have recently been doing some work on Strindberg, whose misogyny is weirdly akin to Ackerley’s. The world has learned to ‘accommodate’ Strindberg; and I am convinced that it will learn to ‘accommodate’ Ackerley as well, even if Professor Ricks has been unable to do so.
Christopher Ricks writes: Mr King has his own way of admitting that his sentence was in error and was ignorant. I had suspected as much. In my own words: ‘if Mr King is to be exactly believed … If Mr King has got it right (odd of him to say “in her own words")’.
SIR: Paul Johnson’s reply to my thoughts on the new economic history (Letters, 20 May) is a fine example of grudging and unintended agreement masquerading unconvincingly as belligerent and wayward disapproval. En passant, he admits that ‘the language of the new economic history is often needlessly dense and jargon-ridden, sometimes downright ungrammatical’; that I have ‘some sensible things to say’ about ‘the futility of the sophisticated statistical manipulation of primitive and unreliable data’; that ‘statistical rigour cannot always provide concrete answers’ to a variety of important questions; that ‘neoclassical theory assumes much which for 18th and 19th-century Britain is demonstrably untrue’; and that the subject needs ‘a fuller appreciation of historical detail, a greater feeling for subject and period, than most of the new economic history shown to date’. I am, of course, delighted that my punches should have encountered so judicious a target – although this does leave me wondering what is left of the subject’s supposed ‘bold new designs’ which I have, apparently, ignored or misunderstood.
Having conceded so much of my case, it is hardly surprising that Johnson makes heavy weather of defending the remnants of his scuppered citadel. ‘The mysteries of entrepreneurship,’ he writes, ‘are turned into theories of constrained profit-maximisation or cost-minimisation.’ But no such treatment is to be found in the first of Floud and McCloskey’s volumes. He seems to think that I ‘like’ stories of fish and chips, when I was merely trying to convey the flavour of the book in question and to compare it favourably with another work. He claims that I dislike ‘the analysis of consumption propensities, price differentials and demand elasticities’, when I expressed no opinion on these concepts one way or the other – except to suggest that Supple’s quantitative and Fraser’s impressionistic approaches to the study of late 19th-century consumer demand were complementary rather than mutually exclusive. ‘When a bad workman,’ Johnson continues, presumably with me in mind, ‘is lacking in skill, he should not rush to blame the skills of his trade.’ Agreed. But the real cause of Johnson’s anger emerges later in his letter, when he concedes, with understandable coyness, that there is also ‘a growing awareness among new economic historians that many of the analytical tools they borrow from the economist’s workbox are crude and blunt’ (my italics). How curious it is to be attacked for holding a view which one’s critics seem to share!
The remainder of Johnson’s remarks shows a regrettable ignorance of the historiography of economic history, which leads him to understate the accomplishments of the old-fashioned economic historians he so cavalierly derides, and so to overstate the originality of the new economic historians he so unconvincingly defends. ‘One achievement,’ he writes, ‘of the new economic history has been to question ideas of take-off and leading sector, of discontinuity and climacteric’ But this claim to novelty (and monopoly) is untenable: these ideas were being questioned by old-fashioned economic historians from the time they were first formulated. Likewise, he argues that the counterfactual has been ‘essential’ to the ‘demythologising’ of ‘heroic’ economic history. But this shows equal disregard for much pioneer work by old-fashioned economic historians, and displays a naive belief that overturning one mythology will not lead to the enthronement of another. (In any case, since his colleagues are so anxious to insist that nothing is indispensable, how can the counterfactual be ‘essential’ for anything?) Finally, he suggest that events such as the Jarrow hunger march should not be allowed to ‘dominate the study of consumption and saving, of tax and exchange rates, of investment and the building cycle’. But when have they ever done so: where are these unnamed studies of ‘consumption and saving, of tax and exchange rates, of investment and the building cycle’, dominated by the Jarrow hunger march?
As described and defended by Johnson, the new economic history emerges as a subject regrettably ignorant of the scholarly tradition to which it belongs, over-ambitious in the novelty and substance of its claims, better able to tilt at defunct windmills than to make constructive arguments – and therefore unsurprisingly vulnerable when over-extended into a two-volume textbook. Less time in the microchip factory and more in the fish shop might well prove salutary.
Christ’s College, Cambridge
SIR: In response to Julian Barnes’s story about Rumanians (LRB, 18 February) may I nominate the one Rumanian aphorist (and exile’s exile), E. M. Cioran. Actually, he is everyone’s nearly invisible guide through the last decades of the 20th century: ‘Deep in his heart, man aspires to rejoin the condition he had before consciousness. History is merely the detour he takes to get there.’ ‘What makes destruction suspect is its facility: anyone who comes along can excel in it.’ ‘All great events have been set in motion by madmen, by mediocre madmen. Which will be true, we may be sure, of the “end of the world" itself.’ ‘Terror of the future is always grafted onto the desire to experience that terror.’ So it seems.
Buffalo, New York
SIR: I am in total sympathy with your reviewer’s irritation at the father of the counsel for Mrs Harris (LRB, 6 May), who ‘for some reason changed his name from the decent and recognisable Aronowitz’ to the unrecognisable Aurnou. It would be a relatively simple matter to require those citizens with unrecognisable ‘hybrid’ names to wear a pin or badge which would make them immediately identifiable. I am surprised that no one has ever thought of this before. Or perhaps someone did think of such an idea in the past. I myself have never had a problem of non-recognition.
My own irritation with Mr Aurnou concerns the fact that he could not leave well enough alone, and had to improve on the facts of the case. It is axiomatic in American law offices that anyone can win a good case, but that the smart lawyer is the one who can make up lies to constitute a case, when the facts are against his client. No one in his right mind would believe that Mrs Harris intended to have the good doctor shoot her, but Mr Aurnou convinced himself of this version, and destroyed the excellent case which already existed for a temporary insanity defence. The jury would have let her off on this, even if they didn’t believe it.
Summit, New Jersey
SIR: I was surprised to read the following remark in Mr Sillitoe’s article ‘Writing and Publishing’ (LRB, 1 April): ‘The only good writing emerging from that country [i.e. Russia] appears from the prison camps.’ It follows that all Soviet writers not in camps are not good writers. He must also have a low opinion of writers such as Pasternak or Bulgakov, who did not serve terms in camps. Maybe it is impossible to get away with good writing in Russia now: but it seems contrary to the liberal spirit of your paper to identify good writing with writing that expresses a particular ideology. There are likely to be as many bad writers in Soviet camps, or outside them, as good ones.
SIR: Many books of autobiography, fiction, drama, poetry, belles-lettres and biography have been published in English by black and other ethnic-minority authors in Britain over the years. Some of this material is little-known and difficult to obtain. I should appreciate any assistance that your readers may be able to offer. For example: a. review copies of available publications, especially those which have been self-published, or those which have come from small publishing houses; b. publication details of books that are out of print; and c. copies of any articles or reviews.
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