SIR: I doubt if I am alone in finding Mr Paul Foot’s review of Smoke Ring: The Politics of Tobacco (LRB, 5 July) disconcertingly revealing. Mr Foot has tended to stand out among his comrades on the ultra-left on account of a libertarianism which he seemed to have carried over from his days as a Liberal. Or so it seemed. His diatribe against the availability of tobacco shows how much – not very much – this is worth. ‘Should not governments, at least, take active steps to ensure that the cigarette fetish was discouraged, preferably banned. The argument seemed irresistible …’ Irresistible indeed to those who take it for granted that Government should function as a nanny. It has long been clear that many MPs, probably a majority in all major parties, make this assumption but it seems a pity that Mr Foot should rank himself with them.
Does it really have to be said that people should be left alone to take their own decisions in matters of health? Or does Mr Foot think that the workers are so easily swayed by the commercially interested ‘media’, made so comatose by lying propaganda, as to be incapable of choice? It seems clear from his review that this is just what he does think. In the case of countries where the toxic qualities of tobacco are not well publicised there is force in the argument that presents smokers as victims. But this has not been the case in the UK for a long time and Mr Foot’s attitude of essential contempt for the populace – an inevitable component of paternalistic solicitude – could hardly be more patent.
SIR: Allow me to protest, with all the authority of a smoker in the second week of withdrawal, against the hysterical extremism of Paul Foot. To call tobacco ‘the most dangerous drug of all’, and its manufacturers ‘the most dangerous drug-peddlers of modern times’, is crazy nonsense. Irritable as I may be at the moment, am I undergoing the desperate symptoms of junky withdrawal, which in the case of barbiturates can even be fatal? Could a single cigarette, like a single LSD tablet, have landed me in a mental hospital? Would I, even if penniless, have been reduced to haunting Hyde Park at night to mug somebody for tomorrow’s fix of nicotine? Mr Foot no doubt has a muddle-headed idea that legally available drugs do more harm than heroin because they are more widely available. But even among drug addicts within the law, isn’t the chain-smoker better-off than someone sipping gin all day or popping barbiturates?
There is a ring of false rhetoric even in calling tobacco a ‘dangerous drug’. One can use that term of such widely different substances as heroin, LSD and alcohol, because all have psychotropic effects which disrupt the ordinary business of daily life. Tobacco isn’t like that. Cigarette-smoking is dangerous because (like eating sugar, breathing smog, living near a nuclear reactor) it has turned out to do long-term damage to health, damage which has nothing to do with the fact that tobacco (like tea and coffee) is a habit-forming and mildly psychotropic drug. To call something a ‘dangerous drug’ because it happens to be among the causes of cancer is as though, because Colonel Gaddafi is dangerous, and he is a driver, one were to call him a dangerous driver.
School of Oriental and African Studies, London WC1
SIR: In a very kind reference to our editing of H.H. Asquith: Letters to Venetia Stanley (LRB, 5 July) Professor Stephen Koss infers that Mark Bonham Carter allowed us ‘to consult but … not to draw directly on’ Margot Asquith’s diaries and similar family papers. We may have encouraged this inference by the phrasing of our thanks to Mark Bonham Carter, in which we refer to his permission to quote, not only from H.H. Asquith’s letters, but ‘from the other letters in the Bonham Carter MSS’. As the diaries are not mentioned in this phrase, may we now record that we were allowed complete freedom to quote from any part of this collection. One reason why we did not quote more from Margot Asquith’s diaries is that these are not in the collection for the period May 1913 to October 1914: the volume covering the start of the war, on which she drew in the Autobiography, has been lost.
Margot is ‘under embargo’, to quote from Professor Koss, only to the extent that her private papers are so ill-arranged, with letters stuffed between the leaves of the diaries, that it is impossible to grant general access to them. We are hoping to rectify this, and to produce, with Mark Bonham Carter’s help, a volume based chiefly on her diaries.
Michael Brock and Eleanor Brock
Stephen Koss writes: Although Michael and Eleanor Brock go far to clarify matters, they neglect to mention one relevant detail. Before dispatching my review from New York, I invested in a telephone call to Mr Brock, whom I rightly presumed to be well placed to know any recent developments with regard to the Margot Asquith diaries. Of course, transatlantic connections are sometimes unclear, and either of us might have misheard the other. For my part, however, I recall Mr Brock’s cordial assurance that, far from disputing any inference I had drawn, he considered my interpetation to be valid and my motives entirely constructive.
SIR: Donald Davie may well be right to say (LRB, 21 June) that I have no firm footing for distinguishing ‘acceptable from unacceptable depravities (decadent refinements) that British English, at Geoffrey Hill’s hands, indulges in’. But the point I was trying to make – admittedly an obvious one – is that language belongs within and is an expression of history. Matthew Arnold wanted the poet to be able to stand outside history and he therefore asked for what is impossible: a language innocent of its own past. At his best, Hill is marvellously alert to the ways by which words emerge from and so can return us to the past; and his finest work often recovers connections that are buried under the casual accretions of everyday usage. But there are moments when this search for connection can seem strained and – yes – solipsistic, and such moments seem to me to occur with some frequency in Péguy. Linguistic accidents are being asked to carry more weight than is bearable. In pointing that out I do not think I am being a Little Englander; nor does it seem to me that I am guilty of identifying with the view of language that Davie ascribes to J.L. Austin. (Though I love Sense and Sensibilia.)
I should add that those poets Davie has in mind who ‘believe that in writing like Edward Thomas, on the one hand, or William Carlos Williams, on the other, they can recover or reconstitute innocence in their medium’ are patently innocent of the true resources of Thomas’s own language, which is loaded with historical awareness. (A point I think Davie might want to dispute.) William Carlos Williams is perhaps a different matter: but if there are still American poets who dream of being young Adam it has surely to be said that theirs is a drugged sleep of unreason? Which is perhaps what Davie means.
SIR: Poor, timorous Tom Paulin (Letters, 5 July)! Sheltering in Virginia from the ‘brutal populism’ that resents being told what it should like (Virgil) and what it shouldn’t (Ovid)!
Silverton, near Exeter
SIR: In his review of Fred Caplan’s biography of Carlyle (LRB, 19 July) Richard Altick endorses Caplan’s opinion that the six-volume life of the Sage of Cheyne Walk by D.A. Wilson published in the 1920s amounts to an ‘historical grotesquerie, a mass of undigested and unevaluated documentation whose main purpose was to prove that Carlyle was a saint and Froude a liar’. This seems to me to be, at best, misleading, for if Wilson was a hagiographer, he was also a zealous researcher and he blended primary material and narrative dexterously enough – at least as dexterously as Caplan, to judge from Altick’s account of his book. Admittedly nobody in his right mind would want to read all six volumes, but anyone interested in Carlyle’s development, especially his early development, is likely to find Wilson both informative and readable.
Wilson’s life is particularly valuable for its full presentation of Carlyle’s encounters with Francis Jeffrey. Carlyle began by defining his outlook against the rationalist, Enlightenment ethos of the Edinburgh Review, an ethos which, as editor of the journal, Jeffrey strenuously promoted, but which Carlyle came to find sterile and impoverishing. Recalling Carlyle’s involvement with the Edinburgh Review, John Sterling was to express surprise that he had ever written in its pages. The fact is that when Jeffrey first met him and Jane Welsh Carlyle, he was captivated by them, and they were no less captivated by him. Their relationship is of great interest, its inexorable decline from initial fascination into querulous mutual incomprehension and eventual estrangement representing a literary drama on its own account and also an instructive episode in the cultural history of the early 19th century. Strange that books, and for that matter, reviews of books, about Carlyle do not make more of it.
SIR: John Kerrigan (LRB, 21 June) is misleading when he implies that Hawthorne believed someone other than Shakespeare to have written Shakespeare’s plays. It’s true that in one sense Hawthorne ‘supported the speculations of Delia Bacon’ – he facilitated and paid for the publication of The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded. It’s also true that he found the development of Delia Bacon’s obsession, her monomania, fascinating. It’s even true that he spoke highly of her intelligence and ability. But he still called her main contention ‘a miserable error’.
Gakushin University, Tokyo
SIR: For God’s sake! What is so terrible about invoking the Russian Formalists’ distinction between fabula and sjuzet that it should provoke the usually articulate Denis Donoghue to such an ejaculation (LRB, 19 July)? Since he prefers an alternative spelling of sjuzet, I presume that the terms are familiar to him, and indeed it would be surprising if they were not, since they have been current in Anglo-American criticism of narrative for more than a decade. Is he denying that the distinction has any explanatory power, or relevance to the novels of Milan Kundera? Or is he founding a new school of exclamatory criticism? In which case, my response to his remarks about my essay must be [expletive deleted]. If he had informed your readers that the essay is entitled ‘Milan Kundera and the Idea of the Author in Modern Criticism’, the number of theoretical concepts and issues it touches on, and the conclusion it reaches, might not have appeared as redundant as he suggests.
Incidentally, it is kind of D.A.N. Jones to prefer (in the same issue of LRB) the name of the Ronald Reagan character in my Changing Places to the name of the equivalent character in D.M. Thomas’s Swallow, but I am bound to point out that the name of my character is Ronald Duck, not Ruck.
The alternative spelling of sjuzet was the work of one of our editors – and she was only trying to demonstrate her familiarity with the Russian language.
Editor, ‘London Review’
SIR: In spite of the absence of inverted commas, I owe Mr Rushdie (Letters, 5 July) an apology for quoting, or seeming to quote, his review of Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (LRB, 7 June). The extract from his review printed on the cover of Kundera’s new novel suggested the ghostly presence of all the praise words favoured by current critics of the novel, from ‘wickedly funny’ to ‘wonderfully wise’ to ‘tenderly obscene’. But his complete review probably did not give this impression at all, and I am sorry I was not able to refer back to it.
Steeple Aston, Oxford