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Vol. 9 No. 17 · 1 October 1987

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Unfair to sport

SIR: Normally the remark that the love of sport is an ‘adolescent enthusiasm’ would be worthy of no attention. The opinion, stupid though it is, is a commonplace among the literati. But that it should appear in so attentive a piece as Donald Mitchell’s (LRB, 3 September) and be made in rebuke of so healthy a man as Hans Keller was invites reply.

Of sport three defences (that it should need defence!) may briefly be made. 1. It asks of the species, purely and with no ulterior end, that it should test its limits. Anyone can kick a ball. Rules ask whether he can kick it for a defined purpose within defined limitations better than his opponent. It is a supreme mark of the questing intelligence of the species that men thought of imposing, and take delight in honouring, limitations on the kicking of a ball. 2. It reminds us, with grace and passion, that life itself is a game, glorious for the sole reason that it is a game, and, because it is a game, to be played gloriously (as Hans Keller played it) according to rules down to the final whistle. 3. It reveals to us that one of life’s chief pleasures, perhaps the chief pleasure of all, is to draw out the best in others. Anyone who plays a sport knows – despite the horrors of modern professional sport (to which Keller was hardly blind) – that the greatest pleasure which sport confers is to finish a game knowing that you have drawn from your opponent the best play of which he was capable and that he has done the same for you. Of what other activity in our society is this so unreservedly true?

Does Mr Mitchell think that Neville Cardus’s love of cricket was adolescent? Might he not pause to ask himself why it is that football drew from Keller and cricket from Cardus such excellent prose? He could begin, in the knowledge of A.J. Ayer’s love of football and G.H. Hardy’s love of cricket, by considering what music, philosophy, mathematics and sport have in common: namely, that each is a useless, exhilarating abstraction.

Robert Stewart
London N5

On the rant

SIR: My review of Fear, Myth and History (LRB, 9 July) was not a political polemic but a defence of history against ideology. Ninety-five per cent of the review – which neither Davis nor Scott (Letters, 17 September) address – concerned substantive questions of the Ranters and of the antinomian tradition; 5 per cent of rhetorical political ornaments provoked by J.C. Davis’s own leaden polemics against the Communist Party Historians Group of forty years ago. I described Davis’s book as ‘a work of anti-history’ because it ‘discovers no new sources, throws no new light on obscure places, but [its] object is to destroy the findings of scholarship and leave in their place nothing but a knowing tebbit-like sneer’. I found his treatment of antinomianism to be lacking precisely in the exercise of the historical imagination to which Scott appeals. But the elevation of ideological premises above the procedures of empirical enquiry or of imaginative recovery is not an offence peculiar to the ‘Right’ or the ‘Left’. Nine years ago, when I wrote The Poverty of Theory, it was especially flagrant amongst some of those who supposed themselves to be Marxists. Nowadays the ideological heavies mostly belong to the political Right, whose bad intellectual manners are becoming spectacular. Davis, as a scholar in New Zealand, is not responsible for this: but what is that word ‘Gulag’ doing in his letter?

E.P. Thompson
Upper Wick, Worcester

Starving the Ukraine

SIR: I have only just seen the issue in which J.A. Getty replied to me (Letters, 21 May), and by now I might let it go had he merely further maligned and misrepresented myself. But since he extends this to an entire scholarly body, I have a certain duty to rebut him. Getty complains that my attacks on him are personal. They are not: I criticise the sort of thing he imagines to be scholarship, but not his motives (which, indeed, I find quite mysterious). He is confusing content with tone: and there I admit to a certain robustness commoner in British than in American controversy. He, on the other hand, while employing the pseudo-objective tone so often used to conceal opinion, continues to imply more or less discreditable political prejudices, and not only mine. He now denies that this is his practice. Skimming the last ten to fifteen pages of his book, I find several references to ‘cold war’ or ‘cold war attitudes’ dictating both evidence and opinion; Khrushchev’s Secret Speech described as ‘almost entirely self-serving’ and Roy Medvedev’s work as ‘a pro-Bukharin polemic’. And now he asserts that my book was ‘sponsored’ by the Hoover Institution, which has, he adds, ‘sponsored practically all the terror-famine research’. (By ‘terror-famine research’ he presumably means research leading to the conclusion that the 1932-33 famine was purposely inflicted on the peasantry.) He thus represents the Hoover as a pariah organisation sponsoring crackpot work of a type shunned by other scholarly bodies.

No doubt it is only to the uninformed (Getty’s presumed audience) that defence is needed for the scholarship of the Hoover Institution, with its five Nobel Prize-winners and others as distinguished, such as our newest fellow, Sir Karl Popper. But in fact the Hoover has not sponsored such work, and did not sponsor my book. At the time I also had an appointment at Harvard, and the book was sponsored by the Harvard University Ukrainian Research Institute. This is stated half-way down page one of my book. (Such research is, in fact, being done by a variety of institutions, including a Joint Administration-Congressional Commission.)

This alleged, and allegedly disqualificatory, Hoover sponsorship leads Getty on to asserting that no scholars agree with me about the ‘terror-famine’ – that is, that it was inflicted on purpose. Perhaps some don’t agree, but I see that both Peter Wiles, Professor of Russian Social and Economic Studies in London University (in the New York Review of Books) and Geoffrey Hosking, Director of the School of Slavonic Studies (in the TLS), write that though they had previously been uncertain, they now accept that I have proved the case conclusively (than which no better compliment could be paid a historian). These, and comparable Americans, are men of vastly higher erudition than those Getty cites.

On the other points he raises, it is good to note that current writing in the USSR itself is at this very moment massively and continuously refuting all the ‘revisionist’ estimates and assertions.

Getty asks if I think his training in social studies has had a bad effect. Yes. It (or something) has incapacitated him for the study of history, at any rate of Soviet history. As his letter shows, he still does not understand the nature of historical evidence. And he doesn’t understand that terror on the Stalin scale is a social and political event more determinative than administrative changes or disinformatory official speeches. Better sociologists than he, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, have made fools of themselves by applying such methods to Stalin’s Russia. They too were incapable of understanding the nature of evidence, historical or otherwise.

The establishment of historical fact is not a simple and mechanical matter. All evidence is in one way or another imperfect, but truth may yet be derived from it by the exercise of judgment based on experience (and in the Soviet case by a background of knowledge of the nature of alien cultures). The skills of a historian are no doubt difficult to master. Yet one should not try to write or criticise history until one has them.

Robert Conquest
Stanford, California

Andrea Dworkin’s ‘Intercourse’

SIR: I find myself compelled as a woman and as a feminist (at least I used to think of myself as one) to put in a good word for Roy Porter’s review of Andrea Dworkin’s book (LRB, 25 June). I find it utterly disheartening that after the brilliant writing and thinking of the Seventies (hallmarks of which were Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch) prominent feminist writing (the thinking presumably has left us) should have degenerated into the narrow-minded, bigoted sterility represented by this kind of work: work permeated by hate, enmity and vengefulness – an attitude, to my mind, worse even than the one it is purportedly condemning. When the act of the rapist is so facilely equated with the lover’s or husband’s embrace, what is happening other than a thorough exoneration of the violent maniac? And what is all this rubbish about insertion of the penis being an invasion? To equate rape with the act of making love is to distort utterly the very essence of life, which culminates in the coming together of man and woman. To think of this merely as the penis violating the body is to disregard the supreme pleasure and ecstasy, the rushing of blood, the warm embrace, the rippling of skin and so on, fully enjoyed by the female of the species (and often to a greater height than the male) during the act of love.

The propagation of these warped notions, expressing violent hate and hostility for our natural counterparts and partners in life, is not only sterile and perverted, but also makes painfully clear the degeneration of the philosophical movement that could have led to repairing the damage already caused between the sexes, instead of making it all so much worse by producing an ugly and distorted mirror image of what it was you were initially against.

Parina Stiakaki

Edward Thomas and his Wife

SIR: In the recent dispute between Jonathan Barker (Letters, 4 June) and his irate contributor (Letters, 23 July) my sympathies are with the editor. John Pikoulis’s essay on ‘Edward Thomas as a War Poet’ is poor stuff. His thesis – that Thomas, lacking the moral courage to cut himself adrift from his wife and children, decided to die in France, and that it was this decision which produced ‘the release of his genius in poetry’ – is not substantiated by him. Nor is it substantiable. It is based on hearsay evidence (from Robert Frost, a hostile witness where Helen Thomas is concerned), and a fanciful interpretation of carefully selected poems. Mr Pikoulis huffs and puffs about his scholarship having been impugned. What sort of scholarship is involved in omitting relevant evidence? He refers, dismissively to Thomas’s words, in a letter to Frost – ‘I want to come back more or less complete’ – without quoting the previous sentence: ‘I should like to be a poet, just as I should like to live.’ He fails to mention Thomas’s letter to Eleanor Farjeon (also from France) when Edward tells her he would regard the forthcoming British offensive with more enthusiasm ‘if I knew I would survive it.’

What Edward Thomas did decide, after considerable heart-searching, was to get involved actively in the Great War. He was like the hundreds of thousands of volunteers of all ages who took the same decision – despite the appalling casualty lists that filled the newspapers. Very few, I suggest, did not hope for personal survival.

Peter Hill
Welwyn Garden City

SIR: I beg Jonathan Barker not to believe that the issue of Edward Thomas’s desire to divorce his wife is ‘a wholly and specifically biographical assertion’. It is also one that affects our reading of his poems, related as it is to his desire for death. To talk of ‘marital difficulties which might be resolved’ or a ‘renewed attempt at marital harmony’ is almost laughably beside the point because it refuses to accept the evidence derived not only from Frost but also from Thomas’s own plain (and sometimes not so plain) statements in his poems. Mr Barker also quotes Professor George Thomas’s remarks to the effect that there is ‘no surviving evidence’ to support Professor Lawrance Thompson’s statement that Thomas wanted to divorce his wife and that Professor Thompson ‘does not name his informant’. I have only these questions to put to Professor Thomas: why should Thompson have made the categorical assertion that Thomas was obsessively concerned to divorce Helen if he wasn’t satisfied that the evidence he had collected did not justify his statement? And who does Professor Thomas think might have satisfied Thompson’s natural scholarly caution beyond all cavil of doubt?

John Pikoulis
University College, Cardiff

Veni, vidi, scripsi

SIR: Born to whinge, handcuffed to failure
in Tyneside, Frisco and Australia,
striking one of several poses
with straw depending from our noses,
desperate to achieve bon ton
(see James, see metropolitan
lounge-liz whizz-kids sprawl in the sun,
see – passim – Ian Hamilton,
see the London-Oxford Axis
practising its polished praxis.
watch the poems deliquesce
in LRB and TLS,
hear the Kermode-Bayley throng
find fifty ways to sing along),
but sure to falter, strong to fail,
irrevocably beyond the pale,
talentless and solipsist,
inept, inane, outsiderist,
often slapped, but never kissed
by reader or reviewerist …
Permission, sir, to … er … exist?

Is it okay if Scripsi scribes
and other even lesser tribes
in colonies of stray dominions
cling to their frightful old opinions?
Strut their little wooden O
and talk to Ezra, and Rimbaud?
Is it a capital offence
to find more sustenance and sense
in sitting by Walt Whitman’s ocean
than practising perpetual Motion
(ludic though the thought may be
of going back past ’63)?

We know, at least, where Kenner stands.
We know the axe, and how it grinds
away at all the Sons of Pound’s
queer legacy of ampersands.
But where, I wonder – given the stuff
poured out solemnly in the trough
that he’s a Deputy Editor of –
does I.H. stand, and what’s his game
in lending his once critical name
to armpit lyrics, in-house malarkey
more boring than the old Squirearchy?

O whirligigs! O Robert Lowell!
(beggin yor parden, zur, vor speakin)
has that chap there thrown in the towel
or is it that ‘e’s sort of … squeakin’?

William Scammell
Cockermouth, Cumbria

In his willingness to wound, Mr Scammell appears to be blaming on Ian Hamilton the poetry printed in this journal, of which Mr Hamilton is not the deputy editor.

Editor, ‘London Review’


Robert Lowell: Essays on the Poetry, reviewed by John Bayley in the last issue, is published by Cambridge, Lowell’s Collected Prose is published by Faber, and not, as we had it, the other way round.

Editors, ‘London Review’

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