Vol. 4 No. 22 · 2 December 1982

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Bad News at the ‘Observer’

SIR: Some amusement was evoked among his old colleagues by Colin Legum’s review (LRB, 4 November). The main purpose was, of course, to rehearse his familiar arguments about the Lonrho takeover of the Observer, but it also served to show how well the mandarin style has remained intact since he left us. Legum has never, to my knowledge (and I have known him for 20 years), admitted being wrong in anything, so it is perhaps rather late for him to start. That is why he grinds on and on about the Observer battle which he and his cronies lost in the first half of 1981. Much of what he asserts in his review directly concerns me, since I was a main protagonist of Lonrho during the takeover debate before the Monopolies Commission: that debate, like Legum’s review, revolved around the problems of objective coverage in Africa, and I had merely said that when I edited a Lonrho paper in Zambia, the owners never interfered with editorial independence.

It also happens that after Legum had taken early retirement – which he had talked about long before Lonrho’s advent, by the way – I was appointed to succeed him, as the person on the staff who knew most about Africa. I hope, therefore, that you will give me the space to say something personally about his assertions that a disaster has struck the Observer, and that its integrity is in peril. Firstly, in my reporting of Africa, I do not care a straw for Lonrho’s views or interests. Can Legum give just one example of how I have compromised with the dreaded Tiny Rowland in the year since I took over the job? I challenge him. Indeed, the paper has published major sharp-edged pieces by me about Kenya, Zambia and Ghana – in each of which Lonrho has major interests. Too bad if those pieces did not go down well.

In some Utopian world, of course, newspapers would not be owned by tycoons. There would be better ways of sustaining high-minded (but generally loss-making) journals such as the Observer. Certainly, there are potential strains and risks in having Lonrho as the owner. But after all the rodomontade, what was the alternative (and seemingly very hesitant) consortium unveiled by the anti-Lonrho brigade at the last minute? It was headed by the Aga Khan – hardly without interests in Africa. If I have to eat my words, Colin will be to crow. But we are at least in here trying, while he is out there, pontificating.

Richard Hall
Observer, London EC4

Colin Legum writes: Bully for Dick! It is hardly surprising to learn that the only member of the Observer staff who pleaded Lonrho’s cause before the Monopolies Commission is contented in his relationship with the new proprietor. While Dick Hall told the Commission that he had never been interfered with by Tiny Rowland when he edited one of his papers in Zambia, two of his former colleagues submitted sworn affidavits to the Commission stating the opposite. So eager is Dick Hall to leap to his own, and Lonrho’s, defence that he appears to have failed to grasp the main thrust of my argument about the unreliability of the proprietor-editor relationship involved in tycoon ownership. I stressed the point that, so long as Donald Trelford remains editor, there is no immediate risk of direct editorial interference: but I cannot believe that Dick Hall can be unaware of the attempts at influencing certain aspects of the paper which have been made, quite understandably, since Lonrho acquired the Observer. As for the alternative prospective buyer, a consortium involving the Aga Khan and an influential Australian newspaper group, it is true that the Aga Khan has interests in Africa: but his interests and personality are hardly to be compared with those of Tiny Rowland. Finally, Dick Hall is misinformed when he writes that I had contemplated early retirement before the Lonrho deal went through. I was reducing my work-load gradually on approaching normal retirement age: but that was still some years away. My decision to leave when I did was due solely to the sale of the paper to Lonrho.

Larkin and Us

SIR: May I assure Barbara Everett, and also your readers (LRB, 4 November), that Charles Monteith did not, in his article ‘Publishing Larkin’, quote from my letters without first getting my permission in principle and then sending the text for my approval?

Philip Larkin
University of Hull


SIR: I have only recently seen John Sturrock’s generous allusion to my work on Blanchot’s political writings of the 1930s (LRB, 19 August). Unfortunately, and through no fault of his own, his reference is to the regrettably inaccurate translation in Tel Quel (Summer 1982) of an essay originally published in MLN (May 1980). Lest this demurral appear arbitrary, allow me to evoke an exemplary error in the French version. Blanchot, in the late 1930s, was calling in print for acts of terrorism agains the regime. A few years later, however, in what is something of a centrepiece for the volume Faux Pas (1943), ‘terror’ functions as metaphor for a will to implement an originary language, a delusion, claims Blanchot, generated by an exacerbation of the very ill it pretends to militate against. ‘Terror’, that is, has become the target of his (literary) critique. The translation renders ‘target’ as French but (i.e. objective).

It will be agreed that a few strategic errors of this type would seriously jeopardise an understanding of my analysis. Mr Sturrock ends his discussion by rejecting my alleged interpretation of Blanchot in terms of ‘guilt’ and ‘expiation’. But those terms are his, not mine – although I am prepared to admit that they do salvage, on rather conventional terms, the confusions of the French text. I do not pretend that Mr Sturrock, given the limits of his sympathies for Blanchot’s criticism, would agree with my argument, but he and your readers should be aware that they will find it in MLN and not in Tel Quel.

Jeffrey Mehlman
Boston University

SIR: I was very happy to see John Sturrock’s interesting comments on Jeffrey Mehlman’s essay on Blanchot in his recent review of the Harvester Blanchot miscellany. The University of Minnesota Press will publish next year Jeffrey Mehlman’s Legacies: Of Anti-Semitism in France, a book that includes the essay on Blanchot as well as discussions of Lacan, Giraudoux and Gide. Your readers should know, however, that Mr Sturrock is wrong in saying that the Josipovici selection is the first Blanchot miscellany in English. Station Hill Press in Barry-town, NY brought out in 1981 the well-received selection The Gaze of Orpheus, translated by Lydia Davis and with a preface by Geoffrey Hartman.

Lindsay Waters
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis

New Arden ‘Hamlet’

SIR: In complaining about my ‘manners’ Professor Jenkins displays his own (Letters, 18 November), while offering indirect evidence of the authoritarian and repressive tendencies which surprised me in his New Arden edition of Hamlet. I detailed what I took to be deficiencies in that long-awaited edition, while taking pains to quote at length from, Professor Jenkins’s commentary and notes so that the reader could arrive at his own decision. Professor Jenkins describes me as ‘ill-informed’, ‘venomous’, ‘malevolent’, ridden with ‘hatred’, but does not discuss a single point made in the review.

Graham Bradshaw
University of St Andrews

Pasternak and the Russians

SIR: I would like to know John Bayley’s evidence for claiming (LRB, 4 November) that Olga Pasternak’s Poetics of Plot and Genre reached many more readers than it would have done in a ‘free’ (Professor Bayley’s inverted commas) society as a result of having been banned. And do those inverted commas mean that he believes that we do not enjoy freedom of expression here in a way denied to the Soviet citizen? He goes on: ‘Few among us would read the Russian dissidents if they were not so well touted by the Western propaganda machine.’ More correct, surely, if he had said ‘none among us’, since dissident work is forbidden publication in its country of origin: if it were not published in the West, it would not be published at all. The sneer at the ‘colour-supplement press’ (pretty élitist) is incomprehensible in the context of describing how letters of Jamesian ‘discreet indirection’ have thereby been pressed into the service of ‘the usual mechanical interests of anti-Soviet mythology’. If he means that the letters were serialised, surely he doesn’t need the late Dr Leavis as sponsor for calling a Sunday newspaper a Sunday newspaper. If he doesn’t mean serialisation but some other form of publication, perhaps he would care to elucidate? Finally, there’s that ‘anti-Soviet mythology’ business. If he means (as surely he must) that books are somehow not banned in Russia, that the non-appearance of Dr Zhivago in the USSR was some kind of paradoxical publicity stunt, then it is he who is being perverse.

Elizabeth Roberts
London SW3

‘Yeats Annual’

SIR: I have recently accepted the editorship of this annual volume, published by the Macmillan Press. Typescripts should now be sent to the address given below. Articles from a wide range of relevant studies are welcome, and submissions for Number III should reach me by early summer, 1983.

Warwick Gould
English Department, Royal Holloway College, Egham Hill, Egham, Surrey TW20 0EX

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