Vol. 8 No. 1 · 23 January 1986

Search by issue:

Literary Theory

SIR: It is disagreeable to have to disagree in public with my colleague Professor Terence Hawkes (Letters, 21 November 1985). But needs must … For while neither Professor Graham Hough nor those ‘posh institutions’ [sic] like Cambridge or Oxford need defending against his outburst, our own Department of English, ironically, appears to. Of course, we may all hanker after, even in weaker moments envy, ampler resources enjoyed elsewhere; and of course the Library at University College Cardiff, like not a few others, has been – given post-Robbins expansion – persistently underfunded. Too often there are, in our subject at least, too many undergraduates chasing too few books. But it is absurd to give the impression that a lack of resources has impelled us or our students into critical theory, or that our Library is terminally deprived of the kind of material that more privileged folk like Professor Hough have at their fingertips, ‘exquisite’ or otherwise.

The truth is that University College Library is, like most libraries in some respects both better than some and worse than others. Unquestionably it has its riches (notably in its Salisbury Collection) – as, incidentally, does the admirable Cardiff City Library, virtually around the corner and about to be rehoused in expensive modern premises. These riches may not all happen to be of interest to all of us all the time: but they are, for all that, real enough and of value to any ‘civilised mind’.

As for critical theory, maybe, in the circumstances, the less said the better. We in Cardiff have had (as who has not?) our fair share of contention and strong feeling over it; and even now we could, at the drop, as it were, of a brick, run the gamut of emotion, opinion, claim and counter-claim. Better far to stick to fact. I will not burden you with all the figures, nor with the details of Cardiff’s curriculum: but the fact is that ‘Modern Critical Theory’ is one of eight, very varied, options ranged alongside a compulsory ‘core’ of traditional literature courses, and is currently the least heavily subscribed of the options, with some ten takers out of nearly a hundred students.

For all Professor Hawkes’s populist language, critical theory (especially if truly comprehensive) can never be anything but a demanding and, for most students, recherché pursuit. The contention that in the absence of enough books it is tailor-made ‘for the likes of us’ simply does not, however you look at it, add up. For ‘one of the few games in town’, moreover, it seems to have acquired a singularly misanthropic air. Happily, our concerns in Cardiff are not ‘quite different’ from those elsewhere. Nor are they, as my colleague seems to feel, below the salt. Ours, like most students of English, persist in coming to university to try to enjoy, among other things, books. They want for the most part to read, learn and inwardly digest. We, like our colleagues elsewhere, still have plenty to offer them.

Peter Thomas
Department of English, Universtiy College, Cardiff

Et in Olympia ego

SIR: Look, I know it’s London over there and everything, and that a certain amount of Olympianism is thus probably de rigueur, but honest to God: to give only two perfunctory sentences to one of three books supposedly under review in a long (and long-winded) critical notice would be an eviscerating offence out here in the Great Pacific Northwest, and the injustice of Michael Neve’s treatment (LRB, 17 October 1985) of R.M. Frye’s estimable The Renaissance Hamlet: Issues and Response in 1600 truly shrieks like a wounded university press (in this case Princeton’s) for revenge.

Leo Daugherty
Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington

Old Friends

SIR: I would welcome the opportunity to correct a misquotation attributed to me in Stevie by Jack Barbera and William McBrien, cited by Susannah Clapp in her review (LRB, 19 December 1985), and by others. Olivia Manning, when told of Stevie Smith’s last illness, did not say anything so banal as: ‘If she’s really dying, send her my love.’ What she said was: ‘If Stevie’s so frightfully ill I suppose we must let bygones be bygones’ – characteristic of the speaker and subtly indicative of the love-hate relationship between these two old friends. Further-more, by omitting the full story the authors lose the significance – or, as they might have termed it, the ‘poignancy’ – of the scene in Torbay Hospital when my husband, as Stevie’s executor, was sent for by her solicitor to determine whether, though speechless, she could understand what was being said. I gave her Olivia’s message, whereupon she put back her head and laughed her familiar croaky laugh, and James got his power of attorney.

I described the scene to the authors over the tea-table (and would have confirmed it had they cared to check). Slight though the reference is, I think it exemplifies and may partly account for the contrast between the ‘generous and indiscriminate zeal’ of their researches (one can almost hear the tinkle of teaspoons) and the curious, light-fingered gossipy effect that detracts from much of their writing.

Jean MacGibbon
Manningtree, Essex

Zionist History

SIR: The emergence onto your pages of Sir Ian and David Gilmour in the guise of objective analysts of ‘Zionist’ history (LRB, 7 February 1985) reveals a wicked sense of humour. Perhaps more of my fellow subscribers may wish to share the joke.

Omitted from the biographical note accompanying the Gilmours’ gleeful destruction of Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial was any mention of their close connection with the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), established in 1967 to lobby on behalf of various Arab governments and Middle East oil interests. Sir Ian was the first Chairman of this august body, while Gilmour fils has served as both its Information Officer and Assistant Director. CAABU’s own propaganda, whose expense is borne easily on an annual budget reported to exceed £100,000 a year, is at best tendentious and at times downright offensive. Perhaps the Gilmour family’s concern for historical accuracy could be profitably invested in the material produced under their own auspices.

Sir Ian, in the correspondence with Barbara Tuchman published (for no apparent reason) on 17 October, contends that there has been no ‘concerted campaign’ against Joan Peters’s book. I would like to challenge that statement. The appearance of a prominent review article under the imprint of two of Britain’s most notorious anti-Zionist propagandists a mere three days after publication can hardly be dismissed as a happy coincidence. As a history student, I am highly impressed that such busy public personalities as Sir Ian and David Gilmour found the time necessary to embark on the detailed research in primary sources upon which their argument is constructed. If, as would normally be the case with two such hard-pressed authors, use was made of the bibliographical and archival talents of research assistants, their number, their employer, and, indeed, the origin of the suggestion that the Gilmours take on the job, would inform us more completely as to the ‘concerted’ nature of the effort.

There is also some interesting double-think at work here. The Gilmours do not hesitate to condemn as ‘Zionist’ the motivation of those historians and other academics who have praised Peters. But the professional and organisational anti-Zionist interests of the Gilmours themselves are unrevealed.

In justifying the publication of the correspondence between Sir Ian and Barbara Tuchman, you suggest that ‘the public importance of the matter in dispute is not inconsiderable.’ It is unclear which ‘matter’ is being discussed. If it is the problem of propaganda posing as history, then the Gilmours and their associates are hardly in a position to cast the first stone. The large and carefully-constructed piece of masonry chucked here (the article was the longest of the last year, I believe) requires a fresh look at the notion of balance, a valuable phenomenon questionably served by inviting Edward Said to review David Gilmour’s own work. However, if the ‘matter’ is that of the land question in Palestine, then any genuine interest in that issue would seem to demand a review of the book of that name published recently by Kenneth Stein and widely considered the authoritative work on the subject.

I don’t know if Stein is a ‘Zionist’ or not (the Gilmours’ use of that term is not uncomplicated), or whether his book favours Arab or Jewish claims. These issues ought to be irrelevant and the reliance upon them of Sir Ian and David Gilmour in such a deceptive guise represents a regrettable lowering of standards.

Matthew Kalman

Ian and David Gilmour write: Mr Kalman does not challenge a single fact or argument in our article; nor does he advance a single relevant fact or argument of his own. His tactic (also favoured by Barbara Tuchman) seems to be to seek to discredit writers by reference to their background, associations or careers, while ignoring what they actually write. He is short on facts. CAABU was not set up ‘to lobby on behalf of various Arab governments and Middle East oil interests’. It was set up because at the time, with a few exceptions, only the Zionist side of the Arab-Israeli conflict was heard in this country. Mr Kalman cites as evidence of a ‘concerted campaign’ against Joan Peters’s book that our review appeared in your paper three days after its publication. Evidently he is unaware that books are sent out for review well in advance of publication. It is flattering that he thinks our article could not have been produced without the aid of research assistants: but we have to admit that we did all our own work. Mr Kalman’s allegations of lack of balance, double-think, etc, are similarly baseless. Hence his interesting suggestion that there should be balance between blatant, untruthful propaganda and its ‘destruction’. We are reminded of Adlai Stevenson’s well-known remark that he would stop telling the truth about his opponents if they would stop telling lies about him. Hence, too, Mr Kalman’s remarks about Zionist historians and propaganda. We admire and appreciate Zionist historians when they produce, or are associated with, works of scholarship. As we were at pains to point out, however, From Time Immemorial is not such a book, and that is why we thought the Zionist academics mentioned in it had some explaining to do. (We still think that.) Innuendo and assertion are not argument, even when they are accurate, which Mr Kalman’s are not, and we shall await with interest his rebuttal of what we wrote. Incidentally, Mr Kalman appears not to have noticed that Mrs Peters’s book was received with a striking lack of enthusiasm in Israel. Has CAABU been active there, too?


SIR: It has belatedly come to my attention that in the course of his attempt to disprove the verdict in the Hauptmann trial of 1935, Ludovic Kennedy (whose book on the Lindbergh kidnapping was reviewed by Michael Davie in LRB, 6 June 1985) described me as writing ‘ten thousand words a day’ as a reporter at the trial. This is perfect nonsense. I have reached five thousand words a day, partly by incorporating chunks of documents: but this was a year or so later, when I was covering a Senate hearing of the utmost interest to New York City. I doubt that anyone on earth can turn out ten thousand literate words daily.

At the Hauptmann trial, I was not writing the running story. I was in fact solely responsible for what used to be called the side-bar or feature story, which averaged about a thousand words a day, or one newspaper column of that era. How Mr Kennedy arrived at his figure of ten thousand I cannot imagine – certainly not by reading my old newspaper, the New York Herald Tribune. I have not read Mr Kennedy’s book, but I feel compelled to add that I was in the courtroom for every day of the Hauptmann trial (always sitting on a window-radiator). Our crowd from the Tribune, the Daily News crowd under Grace Robinson and Robert Conway, and the Times crowd led by ‘Deacon’ Lyman, also lunched and dined together regularly, and all became my friends. All were as assiduous in the courtroom as I was. And at the end, not a single one of us doubted for an instant that Hauptmann was guilty. That weighed with me a lot, simply because I was, so to say, a member of an informal but unanimous jury of high average competence; and it still weighs with me more than any reinterpretation of the evidence half a century after the event

Joseph Alsop
Washington, DC

Literary Magazines

SIR: Many of your readers will have smiled at Mr Clive James’s honeyed tribute to the London Review of Books, and also to the late New Review (LRB, 7 November 1985). It was brave of him to write it and brave of you to publish it. The smile was wiped off my own face, however, by the sentence: ‘Grub Street journeymen who could point to no artistic achievement beyond a noseful of burst veins were able plausibly to complain about a waste of the taxpayer’s money’ at the New Review. As one of the rather few people who regularly and in print criticised the New Review’s subsidy, I wonder if you would allow me, pausing only for a hard look in the mirror, to return to the subject.

The objection to state subsidy to publishers and literary magazines is not merely that the money is likely to be wasted (though it often is), and the objection is not essentially cultural but political. Most of the Arts Council’s donations raise trickier questions than is usually realised, especially on the bienpensant liberal-left, with its unreflective sentimentality about ‘the arts’. Mr Michael Foot, for example, is always good for a tear-jerking phrase or two on the subject. But as tougher-minded critics than he on the Left have correctly pointed out, arts subsidies almost always mean in practice a net transfer of wealth from poorer to richer. Even those of us who love the opera will admit that taxing the poor and perhaps tone-deaf citizens living far from London so that an exotic soprano can receive £5000 for an evening’s singing is hard to defend in terms of social justice. The same objections apply to literary subsidy, with other objections besides. It isn’t so much, as some complain, that state subsidy encourages esoteric or coterie writing, though I suspect, and almost detect the same suspicion between Mr James’s lines, that the New Review would have been a better magazine without subsidy. Worse, this involuntary support by the taxpayer distorts the market.

To compare it with the subsidy which the rich have sometimes provided for literary and political magazines which would otherwise run at a loss is to miss the point. For example, if any of the Spectator’s recent owners have chosen to spend x score thousand a year on keeping it running rather than on yearlings, they are making a choice no different in kind (though of course in degree) from the choice a man in the street makes when he spends 95p on a copy of the LRB rather than on a pint. In any case, magazines can survive on their own resources. Your own begetter the New York Review of Books has not only been privately and successfully run for twenty years but not long ago was sold at enviable profit to its founder-editors.

No one can look at the grants made by the Literature Panel of the Arts Council over the last ten or fifteen years and confidently say that these were the best and most deserving writers of the age, only that some of them were good and deserving, which still meant that the grants they received were unfair to other good and deserving writers who got no money. No one unless blinded by Mr James’s love can look back at the New Review and say that it was a great magazine rather than a frequently good and entertaining one.

All this applies to yourself, sir, as well as a fortiori to the New Review. No disinterested reader of the LRB can honestly say that it rather than the Times Literary Supplement (or even necessarily than the object of Mr James’s oblique scorn, the Literary Review) deserves public subsidy. I wish your paper well, but I also wish that you could manage without my money as a taxpayer rather than as a subscriber.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft
London N5

SIR: I am disappointed that the discussion in your columns about the business efficiency of the New Review appears to have died out. Ian Hamilton (Letters, 21 November 1985) promised to get back to us after dinner with his chum Clive James and report if the latter’s new-found financial acumen had impressed him. But silence … My own memories of the New Review’s commercial methods are both simple and warm. As far as I could see, the system went like this: contributors who had little or no money (like me) were escorted by one of Mr Hamilton’s assistants to the ‘bank’ where they received ‘cash’; contributors who had, or were deemed to have, money (like Mr James) received ‘nothing’. Either that, or they were taken to the Pillars of Hercules where they received ‘drinks’. By the time they had recovered from the effect of these ‘drinks’ they had usually promised to write, if not actually sent in, their next piece. This admirable system of Robin Hoodery is commemorated in the following exchange between Lord George-Brown’s secretary and the then books editor of the New Review, Craig Raine. L G-B’s secretary (who had made the mistake of actually sending his piece in): ‘Lord George-Brown’s fee for his piece will be 150 guineas.’ Books editor: ‘Well, our fee for his piece is nothing, love.’

By the way, was it ever decided which way Harrods faces? Perhaps you could persuade Geoffrey Hill to write in and settle the matter.

Julian Barnes
London NW5

Intimations of Immortality

SIR: I wondered, before I started it, how far I would be able to read into John Bayley’s review of the Tolstoys’ Diaries (LRB, 5 December 1985) before his argument would become too refined for me to understand. It happened even earlier than usual: in the second paragraph, when I reached the sentence ‘Solipsism is an index of immortality.’ I tried the sentence the other way round – ‘Immortality is an index of solipsism’ – and it made no more, but no less, sense. My second try (cheating slightly) – ‘An index is the immortality of solipsism’ – at least came close to meaning something unnecessary. Returning to Bayley’s own arrangement of the impressive words, I decided they must refer to Bayley’s own strategy for achieving immortality: writing sentences that only he can understand.

Paul Edwards

Spanish Fig

SIR: May I suggest that what you call the ‘full Victorian fig’ of Margaret Darwin’s costume in the photograph of her you reproduce on the cover of the issue of 5 December is in fact meant for Spanish 17th-century costume? It and Margaret Darwin’s hairstyle are positively based on Velazquez’s portrait of the Infanta Margarita in the Louvre. The photograph may record some fancy-dress occasion, and the whole concept was perhaps stimulated by Millais’s rather comparable painted homage to Velazquez.

Michael Levey
London SW5

Kith, Kin and Cuckoo

SIR: In her temperate review of Lost Children (LRB, 5 December 1985) Susan Fromberg Schaeffer rightly points up Polly Toynbee’s bizarre respect for the ‘blood ties’ of adopted children with their natural parents: these are supposedly so strong that ‘open adoption’ should become law, a state in which the lost parent becomes a regular presence in the life of the adopting family. The idea is, of course, nonsense, but also magic, a spell to bestow mystique on the conception of family life which Polly Toynbee regards as normal, if painful. Her norm in this case is the family afflicted by divorce, that ‘complicated life’, she calls it, which she cruelly wishes upon adoptive parents and adopted children. She is campaigning for membership, enforced by law, of the Guardian ethical constituency.

Ian MacKillop
Department of English Literature, University of Sheffield


SIR: Why is Karl Stead so narked by The Bone People? His letter (Letters, 5 December 1985) reads strangely from this side of the world, where many, perhaps most, reviews of Keri Hulme’s novel have been unenthusiastic. The story of its publishing history has, of course, raised interest, and several reviewers have hinted that the book’s reputation rests on extra-literary factors. Private Eye offered the most reductive account of this kind. Stead’s letter is a subtler, sometimes contradictory version of this response. He seems to imply that some of the book’s success lies in its ‘fashionable’ association with feminism and ‘Maori-ism’. Feminism, he then concedes, is hardly an issue. The only obvious sense in which The Bone People is feminist is that it has a strong, active heroine. This, however, would also make Pride and Prejudice a feminist novel. In fact, The Bone People is conspicuously empty of women. Its ‘Maoriness’, however, is central. Stead describes one distinctively Maori section late in the novel as ‘spurious’, and more generally seems to imply there is something opportunist in its use of Maori elements. This is neither fair nor accurate. New Zealand is a mixed society, Maori and European. Keri Hulme has written a novel in which one of the central characters is mainly Maori but part-European, a second is mainly European but part-Maori, and the third, the child Simon, is a strange kind of European immigrant. This configuration is used to explore tensions in New Zealand’s mixed, and mixed-up culture. There can obviously be disagreement as to whether or not Joe’s rescue and redemption by the Kaumatua works. But the Maori-European theme is neither spurious nor opportunist. It is very serious, and toughly presented. There is no idealisation of the central Maori character. Joe Gillayley is responsible for repeated violence and the eventual maiming of the European child. One could imagine a hostile Maori reaction to this depiction.

Stead’s long account of the Pegasus award is puzzling. Most readers in this country will never have heard of this award let alone know that Keri Hulme has won it. I can only assume, given the timing of Stead’s letter, that it is offered as an analogy: for Pegasus, read Booker. Perhaps ‘affirmative action’ has been at work again – such hints have been made in this country. Literary prizes are aunt sallies. They are barely respectable, and the wrong work is always selected. Many regard the Booker Prize as a confirmation of mediocrity. Anthony Burgess remarked recently that John Fowles’s latest novel, A Maggot, was too good to be on the Booker shortlist, and Fowles had already asked his publisher not to enter it. Prizes do, however, bring contemporary writing to public notice. The success of The Bone People has contributed to the growing awareness of contemporary New Zealand writing in Britain. Janet Frame is belatedly being discovered. New Zealand poetry is regularly, if uninformedly, reviewed in the TLS. Karl Stead’s last novel was reviewed in the Guardian. This ‘affirmative action’ should be welcomed by all New Zealand writers.

I described Stead’s letter as contradictory because, having suggested there is something meretricious about the novel’s success, he then offers an interesting, often sympathetic reading, pointing, for example, to its careful patterning, something most reviews I’ve seen have missed. But then, in his final paragraph, he buries the novel. There is ‘something black and negative deeply ingrained in its imaginative fabric’, and this is because it ‘presents extreme violence against a child, yet demands sympathy and understanding for the man who commits it’. Understanding is one thing and sympathy another. I learnt something about the intertwining of love and violence from this novel, but it certainly did not make me come to love violence. For all its violence, I find something hopeful, even pacific, ingrained in its imaginative fabric, and this seems to me a measure of its extraordinary power. There is a lot ‘wrong’ with The Bone People, as analysis of the kind Stead performs in the middle sections of his letter can show, but in the end this hardly seems to matter. I’m fascinated by the way that, for me, its flaws make no difference to its overall effect. I can think of very few novels of which this is true. Perhaps it is here, rather than with paranoia about its feminist and Maori credentials, that serious discussion of The Bone People should continue.

Rod Edmond
University of Kent, Canterbury

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