Vol. 7 No. 18 · 17 October 1985

Search by issue:

Jesus Christie

SIR: Neither of us was close to J.T. Christie, so we do not write for personal reasons to protest at the review by Richard Wollheim of J.T. Christie: A Great Teacher. But one does expect the London Review of Books to review books. The three pages of artless malice with which your issue of 3 October opens say hardly a word about the volume which it purports to notice. The fact that, nearly fifty years later, Richard Wollheim has not grown out of hating his old headmaster is a matter for his medical advisers. But it is scarcely sufficiently interesting to justify the space you afford him. Those of us who have not read the book can have no idea, having studied Mr Wollheim’s splurge of poison, what the volume contains. It is said to be ‘A Selection of his Own Writings’, but nowhere are these writings quoted or discussed.

That Christie was a great teacher, generations of schoolboys and undergraduates would testify. In later years there were many who enjoyed his charm as a host or his spry and bookish conversation. On the rare occasions when Wollheim’s exercise in self-contemplation deviates into a literary judgment, he shows himself to be crass. We are apparently meant to sneer at Christie for saying that he admired Virginia Woolf’s sense of fun. ‘No one could,’ splutters Wollheim. Has he never read Flush or Orlando? His claim to know what Christie really admired in Virginia Woolf is as impertinent as his implied knowledge of what passed through Christie’s mind when he ‘came in early for the school service for private prayer’.

In order to get his revenge on that learned and delightful man, Wollheim waited until Christie was long dead, and only had family left to feel wounded. The chief interest of Christie, if your periodical is to be believed, was that he did not much like Wollheim. If Wollheim the boy was anything like the tortured creature who penned that ill-constructed article, the explanation is not hard to seek.

A.N. Wilson, Katherine Duncan-Jones

In Piam Memoriam

SIR: A.J. Ayer’s review of my Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and his Work, Vol. 1: 1861-1910 (LRB, 20 June) shows several signs of hasty reading. At the end of his first paragraph he says that in 1910 Whitehead resigned his Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge. A main point in the last section of my last chapter was that Whitehead resigned his Lectureship and moved to London but did not resign his Fellowship, which he kept all his life. I wrote that Whitehead’s paternal grandfather took over Chatham House Academy in 1810 and ‘made it one of the best schools in England. Its enrolment was largely, though not entirely, local. The great public schools that drew pupils from all over England came later.’ Ayer comments: ‘I do not know what led Lowe to believe’ that they came later. When does he suppose Thomas Arnold made Rugby important? Whitehead’s own school, Sherborne, celebrated its 1200th anniversary in 1905, but it did not become ‘a great public school that drew pupils from all over England’ until after 1850.

‘Professor Lowe’s conception of the old-fashioned public school system is exceedingly idyllic.’ Ayer does not notice the qualifications I made; I wrote about prefectorial rule at its effective best. And I was not writing a history of ‘the old-fashioned public school system’: I was writing a part of the story of Whitehead’s life – namely, what he did as Head Boy at Sherborne, and what he learned from that. In describing rugby football in the 1870s I may have erred, but Ayer pays little attention to the differences between rugby then and rugby now.

I allow that for many readers – though not, I hope, for all – my treatment of Whitehead’s mathematical work is ‘too technical for the general reader and not critical enough for the expert’. ‘For instance, he avoids any assessment of Russell’s Theory of Types.’ I did not avoid that assessment: I never thought of trying to make it, for I would have been incompetent to do so. I said more than once that I was not a mathematician. I showed Russell’s purpose in his Theory of Types, and Whitehead’s reactions to the theory. And I noticed ‘the emergence of “modern" type theories in the work of Tarski, Carnap, Church and Gödel’. Assuming that Ayer does not want an assessment of today’s type theory, I suggest that he give us his present assessment of Russell’s theory, since Russell is his pet. I wrote about Whitehead because his quiet way of working and living has led to his comparative neglect.

Victor Lowe
John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore

A.J. Ayer writes: I am sorry to have overlooked the fact that Whitehead retained his Fellowship at Trinity after he had forsaken Cambridge. Such major public schools as Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Westminster and Charterhouse were well-known before the 19th century. I was a personal friend and remain an admirer of Bertrand Russell’s, but I should not have the bad taste to describe him as my pet.

Peter Warlock

SIR: I would be grateful to hear from anyone in possession of letters, photographs, memorabilia or other documents pertaining to the life and work of the English musician Peter Warlock. Careful, verging on reverent treatment, prompt return.

Stanley Poss
4061 N. Wilson Fresno, CA 93704 USA

An exchange on the subject of Zionist history and English anti-semitism between Barbara Tuchman and Ian Gilmour

In the ‘London Review of Books’ (LRB, 7 February) Ian and David Gilmour published a long and detailed review of Joan Peters’s ’From Time Immemorial’, a work much acclaimed in America as offering a definitive history of Zionist settlement in the Middle East. These reviewers, father and son, argued against the book, alleging many errors and distortions, and Ian Gilmour sent a copy of their review to Barbara Tuchman, who had hailed ‘From Time Immemorial’ as an epoch-making event. Since the public importance of the matter in dispute is not inconsiderable, readers of this journal may wish to see the correspondence which has taken place. Barbara Tuchman signalled her willingness to make public her own letter to Ian Gilmour by sending it to the ‘TLS’, perhaps supposing that the review had appeared there.

Editors, ‘London Review’

13 February 1985

Dear Mrs Tuchman,

As my son and I criticised your advertised opinion of From Time Immemorial, I thought it right, and I hope you will not think it an impertinence, to send you our article. It seems to me that on any view of the Arab/Israeli conflict the book is inexcusably inaccurate and misleading. Perhaps I may add that I am an admirer of your work, especially The Guns of August.

Ian Gilmour

22 May 1985

Dear Mrs Tuchman,

I wrote to you three months ago enclosing a review of Joan Peters’s book From Time Immemorial which my son and I published in the London Review of Books. I was sorry not to receive a reply. It would be interesting to know whether, after reading how Ms Peters manipulated her evidence, you had decided to modify your view of her book. If I do not hear from you, I shall assume that regrettably you are unwilling to make any kind of retraction of the extravagant praise you gave it. I am sure you appreciate that you gravely misled a large number of people.

Ian Gilmour

2 August 1985

Dear Sir Ian,

I am glad you wrote to me because it gives me an opportunity to comment on the concerted campaign in England of vilification of Mrs Peters’s book. I think it is clear from your statement and from other reviews I have read that the attitude towards her work is discomfort in England at being reminded, and having the public reminded, of the English betrayal of the Balfour Declaration by the deliberate promotion of Arab settlement in what was supposed to have been, according to the British promise, ‘a national home’ for the Jews, followed by the shameful role played by Britain in Palestine from the White Paper in 1939 through the ramming of the Exodus and the encouragement of the Arabs’ attack on Israel in 1948: the whole of this sorry history representing the least admirable, not to say the most deplorable episode of British history in modern times. Mrs Peters, having unkindly exposed this story to historical light, has earned the vicious scorn and scolding of British critics.

The element that I miss in all these reviews is any specific charge with citation and reference giving us examples of how Mrs Peters ‘manipulated her evidence’, as you put it. Because you and fellow reviewers simply state that she did so without citing any examples fails to convince me and certainly fails to persuade me to ‘modify’, as you suggest, my view of her book. As a historian I have long known better than to accept empty declarations of a case without documentary evidence.

Further, I would suggest that some of the animus apparent in your and other reviews reflects the growing anti-semitism that for the past few years has been visibly developing in Britain.

You are quite right in assuming that I am ‘unwilling to make any kind of retraction’ of my praise of Mrs Peters’s book, and I do not believe I have ‘misled’ anyone who recognises the factors that have entered into this controversy.

Barbara Tuchman

18 September 1985

Dear Mrs Tuchman,

Thank you for your letter. It does something to clear up the mystery of how a distinguished historian could have lavished praise upon Joan Peters’s preposterous book From Time Immemorial. On the Arab-Israeli issue your standards are evidently much the same as hers. You repeat Mrs Peters’s ridiculous allegations about ‘English betrayal of the Balfour Declaration and the deliberate promotion of Arab settlement … ’ There was in fact no English betrayal of the Balfour Declaration and no promotion, deliberate or otherwise, of Arab settlement. Have you read the Balfour Declaration recently or merely relied upon Mrs Peters’s misreading of it?

Your suggestion that the British reception of From Time Immemorial was influenced by a desire to defend British policy in Palestine from 1917 to 1948 shows, to say the least, a curious idea of the attitude of British reviewers. Your allegation of growing anti-semitism in England is even less well founded. Leaving aside the fact that such an allegation is the stock response of Zionist propagandists who are unable to counter their opponents’ arguments, do you as a historian seriously think that opposition to the Zionist movement’s dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs is so perverse and unreasonable that it must stem from anti-semitism? That would surely be a failure of historical imagination (and humanity) on a truly heroic scale. Moreover there has always been less anti-semitism in England than in America.

In any case, it is futile to look for complicated explanations of the unfavourable reception in Britain of From Time Immemorial, when the true reason is glaringly simple. The book is stiff with errors and nonsense, and as it was mostly reviewed over here by people with knowledge of the subject they noticed them.

Your statement that none of the British reviews gave examples of how Mrs Peters ‘manipulated her evidence’ is, quite simply, false. Some of the reviews consisted of little else. And if after you have read the Balfour Declaration you read our review you will see that your remark is as untrue as most of those in Mrs Peters’s book. Like a number of other reviewers, my son and I gave detailed examples of manipulation. To repeat four of them briefly, we showed (1) how she misrepresented the Hope Simpson Report and changed its sense by leaving out words and altering punctuation, (2) how she used the Ottoman census figures when they suited her purposes and discarded them when they contradicted her thesis, (3) how she relied on a Medieval Arab historian for information on the 19th century, and (4) how she used a survey of a hundred Palestinian refugees from the 1967 war to ‘prove’ a completely different point about the entire Palestinian refugee population of 1948. These of course are far from the only examples, but they are enough to prove our charge. Mrs Peters could, I suppose, say that she had not manipulated the evidence, that she was not experienced in these matters and that it had all happened by mistake. But that is not a defence open to you, since you made high claims for the book and even talked about ‘Joan Peters’s unrelenting research’.

It is still puzzling that you, Mr Bellow – I wrote to him, too, but he, perhaps prudently, has chosen not to defend himself – and many others gave such extravagant puffs to From Time Immemorial, which, as one American professor wrote to us, is a book that should have been ‘disavowed by Zionists and non-Zionists alike’. Your claim of ‘a concerted campaign in England of vilification of Mrs Peters’s book’ is worthy of Mrs Peters in both its tone and its inaccuracy. There does seem, however, to have been a fairly successful effort to stop the truth being told about the book in the United States. But now that the truth is known, your continued refusal to admit to the American reading public how gravely you misled them would be inexcusable.

Ian Gilmour

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences