Vol. 9 No. 4 · 19 February 1987

Search by issue:

The Clearances

SIR: Angus Calder (LRB, 22 January), in accepting T.C. Smout’s view of the Highland Clearances after 1830, joins the growing group who make light of the genocide committed in the Highlands and Islands by falling over backwards to debunk the various ‘myths’ and myths that have wound themselves round that event. I have not yet been able to read Smout’s new book, but for years I have chafed under the seemingly reasonable and judicious half-truths which he propagated in his account of the Clearances before 1830 in A History of the Scottish People. ‘The misery of the Hebrides is primarily the misery of the congested, not of the dispossessed.’ Are you not dispossessed if your rent is trebled and you have to bind yourself to an export agent who then sells you at a North American port? Twenty thousand Highlanders passed through this system in the 1760s and 1770s. Or if you are kidnapped by slave-traders and taken off to America for sale? Seven slave-ships were cruising off the Inner and Outer Hebrides for this purpose in 1774. Or if you are rounded up by police, bailiffs and press-gangs, truncheoned and handcuffed, dropped into ships and landed starving on the coast of Canada some months later? This was done on Barra and South Uist early in the 1850s: every crofter on Barra was evicted, 800 people were driven off that island, 1600 from South Uist. Roofs were burned, people clubbed and hounded down with horses. The lairds got rid of every family they could from Benbecula, North Uist, Tiree, Mull, western Harris, Raasay, many parts of Skye.

To say, as Smout does, that in any case the Highlands ‘had never been … a peasant Arcadia of rosy prosperity, plump girls and happy bakers’ is the merest distraction and a debating trick. You might as well soften your view of Stalin’s farm collectivisation by saying that the Donbas was congested and anyway the Cossacks had not been living in a Paradise of plump milkmaids and happy horse-dealers. To add insult to half-truth, Smout quotes various mandarin witnesses from England and the Lowlands (Pennant, John Sinclair) to suggest that the Highlanders were ‘torpid with idleness’ and preferred ‘temporary bondage in a strange land to starving for life in their native soil’. Of course much emigration was voluntary (if it is a choice to be given no grace to find the rent-money in a famine year because your landlord needs all the cash he can get to send his sons to Eton and buy a mansion in Edinburgh or Surrey). But to think you have said the last word about the sufferers by calling them ‘torpid wretches’ is only possible if you have never heard, or read, the work-songs and love-songs, the celebrations of fishing and rowing, the bitter laments for ill-usage or the playful comedies which the ‘torpid wretches’ made up and passed on, or if you have somehow managed to overlook the pitched battles that were fought with stones and kelping hooks by the women and men against their evictors on North Uist, Harris, Skye.

All this can be found in recent printed books (by John Prebble, W.H. Murray and James Hunter) and by going to the islands and talking to the great-grandchildren of those who did the fighting and the singing, and who still know their names, and where they were on a particular day in 1849, and exactly how the lairds’ agents and the police inflicted the injuries, arrests, intimidations and frauds. In the face of this record, it is unhistorical to say, as Angus Calder does, that ‘pressure on the land … rather than cruel landlordism per se’ was what depopulated the Highlands. Both were decisive. That ‘rather than’ is a verbal sleight which makes the cruelty begin to blur and vanish. Go to Harris and use your eyes. The western meadows from which so many families were cleared by force are beautifully drained grasslands on a basis of white shell-sand, fertile and easy to work. Almost nobody lives there. On the eastern side the land is desperately hard to work, ridges of bare rock with wet, peaty soil in between. There, for six generations, families have perched, eking out a living with subsidies and the sale of knitwear. When they then leave for the Lowlands, Canada or Australia, it is of course not ‘dispossession’ but ‘choice’. The actual cruelty happened long ago – so long ago that Angus Calder can comfort himself with the thought that the Highlanders who flocked abroad ‘commonly did well’. Again the judicious half-truth. Those who survived may have done all right in the end. But not the shrunken women with children on their backs who lived in caves, on shellfish, after eviction, or begged for bread in Ontario, or died of disease and exposure on the wharfs. These are facts, not myths.

David Craig
Carnforth, Lancashire

A Conservative Disposition

SIR: Mr Cowling (Letters, 8 January) argues that in analysing the record of the Conservative Party since 1979 we should not be deceived by rhetoric. There are, he writes, Conservatives ‘in whom doctrine has eliminated prudence’, or who express their opinions in a naive and aggressive fashion: but all that Conservatives have actually done is to give ‘a touch on the tiller’, deflecting English politics from the course they took between 1940 and 1960.

I appreciate the force of the distinction Mr Cowling draws. In many areas since 1979 the prophets of the radical Right have been thwarted, at least for the time being. Since the spring of last year, Mr Biffen and others have been preparing the ground for a more intelligent, stabilising regime, and if the Conservatives do indeed win the next election, there could be many fates worse than a Biffen premiership.

But while the influence of the rhetoricians has been limited, I believe they have succeeded in debasing the language of politics and poisoning the atmosphere in which the more sensible Conservative politicians have to work. Readers of the Daily Telegraph of 26 January may have noticed a hymn of praise by Paul Johnson to the thrusting young men of the City of London, whose pursuit of money for its own sake he praises as a sign of healthy ambition. Those who criticise the colossal salaries involved are accused by Mr Johnson of indolence and envy. University teachers, he remarks, are particularly envious of the salaries earned by their former pupils. But university teachers only work 24 weeks a year: what do they know of hard work?

Mr Johnson’s statement is, of course, tripe. The many university teachers of my acquaintance work at least 48 weeks of the year. Mr Johnson’s own tutor at Oxford was Mr A.J.P. Taylor, whose lifelong industry and productivity no City whizzkid is likely to surpass. But Mr Johnson’s casual abuse of university teachers is typical of right-wing claptrap on social issues. Over the years, this kind of rhetoric has contributed to a general underestimate by the Conservative Party of the value of higher education and a determination to run universities as though they were business enterprises rather than institutions of learning. Mr Cowling claims that nothing of the kind has taken place, but Mr Enoch Powell has identified the trend and protested against it. I hope that Mr Cowling will do the same, for otherwise there will be few universities in a position to purchase a five-volume work on an antediluvian subject like ‘Religion and Public Doctrine’, and even fewer with an interest in teaching it.

Paul Addison
Department of History, University of Edinburgh

Nuclear Power and its Opponents

SIR: I thank Judith Cook for her kind words about me (Letters, 5 February). My intention was not, however, to bring the ‘inaccuracies and errors’ of her book Red Alert ‘to the attention of the nuclear industry’, some members of which may be surprised to hear Ms Cook call me their ‘advocate’. The nuclear industry will long since have catalogued the inaccuracies in Red Alert, and held them in reserve to discredit any opponent who relies on the book as a source for argument. My warning about the book was directed not to the industry but to its opponents. So that no misunderstanding persists, let me reiterate the warning as unambiguously as I can: do not rely on Red Alert for factual information. Cross-check with other sources – including, of course, those cited by Ms Cook.

As to the ‘more than passing resemblance’ between ‘page after page’ of Red Alert and my own writings, I could not and do not object to another narration of the same historical episode: I object only to a narration whose precise wording so closely mirrors my own. Like Ms Cook, I have of course drawn information from earlier material – albeit not, as she suggests, from The Nugget File; it appeared after, not before, the first edition of my book Nuclear Power, and I made no later use of it. Unlike Ms Cook, however, when drawing on such material I use my own words, not those of the other author.

I cannot accept the implication of Ms Cook’s defence, that she is ‘a journalist, not a scientist, writing for lay people and not specialists’. Specialists can hold their own; they can pick their way through lazy writing without help. Writing for lay people imposes an additional responsibility on the writer: to get it right, and to get it clear. A lay reader relies on the writer for accuracy and for clarity. If you cannot get it right and get it clear, you have no business writing for lay readers. I feel no hostility toward ‘concerned journalists’ – only toward lazy writers.

Walter Patterson
Amersham, Buckinghamshire

The Strange Death of Mehmet Shehu

SIR: I hesitate to inflict another letter on the tormenting question of Mehmet Shehu’s untimely end: but Jon Halliday’s zeal (Letters, 8 January) does outrun scholarship in expressing disbelief that a Balkan leader would sit on compromising evidence against a rival for as long as nine years. In this case, though, the interval may have been as long as forty years. As a youth, Shehu attended the American Technical School in Tirana. This had begun to develop the liberal-minded and technologically literate professional generation that Albania so needed, and which could have made a Communist takeover both irrelevant and highly improbable. Shehu entered into the spirit of this institution, as witness by the lengthy poem he wrote – in English – in the school magazine Laboremus of January 1931. Its title was ‘What matter?’ and it began:

What matter
What sect you be
What matter if only
Your heart is free
Of hate and boast,

and so forth. It mentioned Mohammed and Christ as mentors but not Karl Marx, of whom the poet had then probably never heard. The head of the school was the late Harry Fultz, who later worked on Albanian operations with the US Office of Strategic Services.

Inevitably, Hoxha’s propaganda came to present the Technical School as having been a catchment area for ‘espionage’ for capitalism: and thereby any former student could be vilified at need as a public enemy to be disposed of. It is probably true to say that all former scholars are now either in exile or in the next world.

Shehu later served in the Spanish Civil War, and as a result was the only Albanian with a substantial grasp of, and experience of, modern warfare. It was he who led the final battles of liberation against the retreating German troops; and he had therefore the opportunity and the prestige to build for himself a seemingly secure power-base in post-war Albania. By the end of the Seventies, given Hoxha’s age and the nature of his illness, the question of the succession came sharply on the agenda; and with it the rivalry of the groups of lieutenants around the two men, and above all that of their politically ambitious wives – Nexhumÿe Hoxha, who has lately been pronouncing on ideological issues, and Fiqrÿe Shehu, who is now serving a 25-year prison sentence. One side or the other decided that the time had come for a pre-emptive strike. The real mystery, though, is not why Shehu was disposed of in 1981, but how he managed to survive from 1944.

Harry Hodgkinson
London NW1

Like a row of books by Faber

SIR: It is gratifying to be taken so seriously by Peter Porter (LRB, 22 January), even when he takes me to task. On points of fact: a. There is a misprinted line in my verse letter to Pete Atkin, but the line Mr Porter puzzles over is not it. I wonder why that line sounds wrong to him, although not as hard as I wonder how the other line sounds right. b. In the stanza he quotes from my verse letter to Michael Frayn, the political cynicism was supposed to belong to the super-powers, not to James the Cold Warrior. But if so sensitive a reader reads it that way, it must be because I wrote it that way. c. A Lamborghini Miura did indeed show up, crouching and snarling, in my early critical prose, but it was never a drop-head. The Miura was a mid-engined coupé whose roof was a load-bearing part of the structure. There is a Lancia drop-head in my latest volume of autobiography, Falling towards England. If I have been around long enough for a distinguished colleague to misremember what I wrote earlier because of what I wrote later, then my ambition has been achieved. All I ever wanted was a long career as a character actor. My hero is Herbert Lom.

Clive James
London EC2

Mrs Shakespeare

SIR: ‘You can’t get much lower than a woman.’ Miss Everett’s words (Letters, 5 February), not mine. It is silly to suggest that I was hinting at any such opinion. I was asking why, in a series of poems which appear to be addressing first a young man, and then a Dark Lady, we should suppose that Shakespeare was writing about his wife. It is not simply ‘the occasional Victorian scholar’ who has formed the impression that he whom Shakespeare addressed as ‘Lord of my love’ etc was a young aristocrat. The sonnets are full of suggestions that the young man was in a position to condescend to Shakespeare and that he was Shakespeare’s social superior. This is just a matter of historical fact. I was not suggesting any sort of sexist or class-conscious approval of Elizabethan values: merely trying to read the poems on the page, and compare them with the fascinating poems in Miss Everett’s over-inventive brain.

I asked why, for instance, Shakespeare addressed his wife in terms of regret that she possessed male sexual organs. Miss Everett huffs and puffs for two columns and then quotes Fats Waller: ‘Lady, if you don’t know, I can’t tell you.’ But that is not really an answer. What ‘metaphor’ is intended by ‘pricked thee out for women’s pleasure’? Please tell us, Miss Everett. You cannot just dismiss these questions as ‘gossip’ and ‘literalism’. Miss Everett tells us that the Fair Young Man and the Dark Lady are a ‘Victorian myth’. But read Sonnet 144. There they are, as large as life. I am not suggesting that these infinitely rereadable and inexhaustible poems are simply historical tittle-tattle. But why confuse the issue by dismissing all the surface meanings of the poems? If he says that he loves a ‘man right fair’ and a ‘woman coloured ill’ why should we not suppose that he means two people, a fair man and a dark lady?

Miss Everett thinks that she has offered a ‘textual argument’ about the Sonnets’ Dedication. Readers will perhaps remember that in her original article, it was suggested that the three figures in the Dedication – Begetter, Mr W.H. and T.T. – represented a sort of parody of the Trinity. Shakespeare, we were asked to believe, was the Father, William Hathaway the Son, and Thorpe the Holy Ghost. I had thought it more polite not to allude to this bit of Miss Everett’s article, which, whatever else it was, certainly was not an argument. She has not ‘shown’ that ‘Shakespeare didn’t himself authorise the poems.’ Recent scholarly work on Thorpe and his clients has shown that it is highly unlikely that he would have acted in a hole-in-corner manner or produced the kind of pirate edition of Miss Everett’s fancy. We shall probably never know whether or not Shakespeare himself authorised the Sonnets. They were published in a year when the theatres were frequently closed because of plague, when Shakespeare would have had time on his hands. The burden of proof rests with those who imagine that he did not himself offer the poems to Thorpe.

A.N. Wilson

Old Spellings

SIR: I am not convinced by Barbara Everett’s reply to my letter (Letters, 22 January). She says that ‘it is desirable to have good modern – i.e. modernised – texts of all the older writers,’ but that ‘scholars and critics’ need ‘the earliest printed texts’ or manuscripts. No doubt: but surely any readers who are able to appreciate the older writers are able to understand and are likely to prefer the original spelling, punctuation and capitalisation.

Thus this used to be the policy of the Oxford Standard Authors series, in which editions of the older writers designed for ordinary non-professional readers give the original styles of Chaucer, Spenser, Marlowe, Donne, Herrick, Herbert, Milton, Vaughan, Traherne, and so on. The recent change to modernised texts for such writers as Wyatt and Jonson, and the adoption of the same modernising policy by the new Oxford Authors series, seem very unwelcome developments. The Nonesuch and Reynard series managed well enough with the old style, too. The Penguin Classics policy is, of course, to use modern style – though this is not in fact followed consistently, as may be seen in the cases of Skelton, Spenser and Donne.

My original point remains. If Barbara Everett can quote Shakespeare in the original style without anyone being bothered, can’t reputable publishers print him and other older writers in that style? And if readers of John Kerrigan’s edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets can get through his introduction, will they have any difficulty with the text of the 1609 Quarto?

Nicolas Walter
London N1

Stalker and Co

SIR: I have read Damian Grant’s article on the Stalker affair (LRB, 20 November 1986) and would like to show you the letter which, together with a colleague, I sent to Mrs Thatcher on 30 December. So far we have had no reply.

Dear Prime Minister Thatcher: Thousands of Americans join you in hopes that the recent Anglo-Irish agreement will eventually strengthen the chances for peace in Northern Ireland. I realise that this is a vital and proper political goal, and salute your initiative. However, I am shocked to realise that you appear to tolerate, or perhaps even encourage, the frame-up of Mr John Stalker, the Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester. It seems quite clear that Mr Stalker is the kind of conscientious public servant of whom you ought to be proud. Instead, we learn that his thorough and proper investigation of RUC police misconduct was quashed because it was inconvenient in relation to your government’s campaign for acceptance of the Anglo-Irish agreement. The great British political philosopher John Stuart Mill pointed out long ago that falsehoods abound, but cannot persist with the endurance of the truth. The truth, he said (and I paraphrase him), will for ever and always come again to the surface. In the matter of the dishonourable treatment of John Stalker, justice will be served, if not now, then in years to come. I have faith that British men and women who love justice will secure a just resolution. Will you, Prime Minister Thatcher, take a lead in correcting this travesty of justice while the stain on the record of your government can still be removed, or will you leave the matter to fester? Mr Stalker ought to be restored to his former position, or to a position of similar rank and responsibility in another major city of Britain. Second, the investigation into police misconduct in the killing of six unarmed men in Northern Ireland, which Mr Stalker headed, ought to be resumed with the full vigour required to learn the truth and take appropriate criminal action, as necessary. News of the Stalker case has spread beyond the shores of Great Britain, as news of prominent injustice in any country is apt to do. Everywhere the conspiracy to sidetrack and discredit Mr Stalker is discussed, the honour and reputation of the Police in Britain, so long held in high repute, is called into question.

Edward Hogan
Somerville, Massachusetts

While there’s still time

SIR: John Lanchester (Letters, 22 January) asserts that the use of a quartet of fast bowlers by the West Indies makes their games against anyone else ‘extremely boring’. For supporters of the losing side (i.e., most spectacularly, us), perhaps. But would you find any West Indian supporters yawning at the dominance of their team’s quartet? And would neutral (Australian, Indian, Pakistani) spectators of an England v. West Indies Test series find Marshall, Holding, Garner and Patterson – backed by the spin of Harper – more ‘boring’ than a set of tubby trundlers from the English shires? I doubt it. As the nation which perfected ‘leg theory’, and which in post-war years chortled when Fred Trueman sent the ball whistling round the ears of the Indian batsmen, we have small grounds for whingeing now. As for having ‘to wait until a batsman has been killed’ before the rules are changed, isn’t it the case that the most serious Test injury in recent years occurred when the New Zealand tail-ender Chatfield was struck by a ball from an English fast-medium pacer?

Bruno Nightingale
London SE22

Not like that at all

SIR: It was particularly interesting to read D.A.N. Jones’s review (LRB, 8 January) of Trevor Royle’s The Best Years of their Lives, in that he paraded, without necessarily agreeing with, many of the received opinions about National Service. One can only speak from personal experience, but mine of the conscript army of 1948/49 is in many respects in direct contradiction to the popular view. For example, it seems to be thought that commissions were reserved for public school twits, who were quickly separated from the lowly mass of conscripts, and that the long-suffering Army had then to put up with these callow young fools, who were ‘carried’ by experienced and dependable regular sergeants and warrant officers. Even after nearly forty years, one has to laugh. Or, at least, I do. Neither I nor any of my four contemporary fellow second-lieutenants had been to a public school, not even a ‘minor’ one. Perhaps it doesn’t become me to say so, but we were conscientious, keen and hard-working – and a good deal more intelligent than most of the regular NCOs we were set among. The Army of 1948 was not a very efficient body: many of the best officers and NCOs had been demobbed, and quite a few of the remaining ones were, to put it bluntly, deadbeats, who would never have been acceptable to the Army of today in the rank they held. Of course there were good ones, but I know that much of the work that they were supposed to have done was, in fact, done by 19-year-old us. No doubt this area of National Service is just another skirmish in the interminable British class war, with a scenario of worthy working-class NCOs propping up, and clearing up after, feckless privileged upper-class subalterns. Believe me, it wasn’t like that at all.

If Mr Brien (Letters, 18 September 1986) wants to find out whether or not the idea of a Lost Generation is a myth, it would be more useful to analyse the percentage of deaths in action recorded among the alumni of the leading public schools and Oxbridge colleges, in relation to the total numbers turned out by those institutions, of relevant military age. I think this would give him a better guide than a crude division of officers and men. As the war progressed, many officers were commissioned from the ranks, and in any case, by no means all the officers of Kitchener’s Army were jeunesse dorée. It would probably serve his purpose well enough to confine the analysis to Oxbridge alone, for which records must be readily available. As he says, statistics are funny things, but are they really as funny, or rather ghastly, as the ones he quotes for RAF aircrew losses in the Second World War? 55 per cent killed? There seems to be something wrong somewhere in that statistic.

C.A. Latimer


SIR: Following my BBC 2 film Secrets of Suez, I am now writing a book about the Suez conflict for Collins. If anybody who participated in that affair at any level would like to make records or personal reminiscences available I would be extremely grateful and would, of course, acknowledge any such material used. I am also anxious to get people’s reflections and anecdotes about the deep social divisions which the Suez issue in Britain provoked at the time.

Keith Kyle
25 Oppidans Road, London NW3

J.B. Pinker

SIR: I shall be fascinated to learn what response, if any, Barbara Belford receives to her request for information on ‘James Brand Tinker’ (Letters, 22 January). Perhaps you, sir, should direct her to the voluminous published correspondence of J.B. Pinker (for it is he), where she will find enough information on the great man for a full-length biography.

Bruce Coward
Dartmouth, Devon

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