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Letters

Vol. 10 No. 12 · 23 June 1988

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Aids Panic

In his review of recent books about Aids and medical politics (LRB, 19 May), Roy Porter should have declared an interest. The Wellcome Foundation, for which he is a lecturer, has recently republished the British Medical Association’s handbook on Aids. The company’s drug salesmen are currently using this handbook, together with a specially-made video, as promotional aids in peddling their wares around doctors’ surgeries. Is there a conspiracy between Wellcome’s academic historian and its drug reps to savage books which challenge the prevailing consensus about Aids? I doubt it. As Don Milligan and I wrote in The Truth about the Aids Panic – and contrary to the account given in Porter’s review – ‘we do not regard the Aids panic as a conspiracy, but as something much more insidious.’ The British Government has latched onto a real, if relatively small, Aids problem in Britain as a key part of its drive to promote a return to conventional morality. Various interest groups – doctors, priests, newspaper editors, television producers, drugs companies and even medical historians – have quite spontaneously, and for their own reasons, endorsed the Government’s campaign.

Porter accuses us of ‘epidemiological ignorance’, yet fails to substantiate this accusation with a single example. But let’s follow his own advice and ‘look at the date stamp’. Our book was published in February 1987. It challenged the established epidemiological wisdom that Aids was likely to spread rapidly among heterosexuals in Britain. The number of reported cases of Aids acquired by heterosexual transmission in Britain rose from five in February 1987 to nine in February 1988. In other words, our contention that ‘there is no good evidence that Aids is likely to spread rapidly in the West among heterosexuals’ has been vindicated by the epidemiological evidence of the past 12 months.

Porter further accuses me of irresponsibility. He sneers at the disclosure in the book of the fact that I am a GP, as though that is irrelevant to its content. Yet it is as a GP that I have had to cope over the past couple of years with a weekly toll of anxiety and misery generated by the Aids panic. The ‘worried well’ are now recognised to be much more numerous than those suffering from the Aids virus. I consider that it is my responsibility to point out how fear of a disease that is mercifully rare and difficult to contract in Britain is being stirred up and exploited for political ends. It is also important to point out that the intensifying oppression of homosexuals which results from the Aids panic can only encourage the spread of the virus among gay men, who constitute nearly 90 per cent of Aids cases. The fact that your reviewer thinks it is enough to dismiss reasoned opposition to Aids hysteria with low-life jibes, sneers and assertions itself reveals the climate of irrationality that surrounds discussion of the issue in Britain today.

Michael Fitzpatrick
Barton House Health Centre, London NW1

Heroes of Our Time

Categorised as a living legend, Kenneth Tynan replied that he felt more like an exploded myth. Reading Karl Miller’s review of The Passion of John Aspinall (LRB, 19 May), I suspect some unborn Oxonian legends are now becoming inflated myths. When Aspinall was up at Jesus College (1948-50), I shared language tutorials with him in the English course. Maybe this is why Anglo-Saxon and Middle English were never my strong points. Our tutor, Dobson, though a first-rate philogist and quite a good teacher, was also an Australian, and fascinated by any competition upon which money could be wagered. He and Aspinall talked the whole hour mostly about racing, roulette, poker and the rest. Aspinall and I went down in the same year, he with quite a clatter (see below). I don’t remember him ever ‘glittering’. He had no general conversation and was usually gloomy, as much when he had just won as when he had just lost. He did not enjoy being asked to do the slightest amount of academic work. When I asked him why he bothered to occupy a space so keenly sought by others who really wanted to be there, he told me that his stepfather, Sir John Osborne, had promised him a large sum if he got himself any kind of degree. When I pointed out that with the amount he knew about Eng. Lang. and Lit. he would never get any kind, he replied: ‘I have a plan.’ And so he had (see below).

I cannot think of anyone (except Tynan) who really glittered in what we must now call the Aspinall Years. We ex-servicemen, who were in the majority, found ourselves continually being told by visiting OK-names from the Twenties and Thirties how boring, sub-fusc, beery and stolid we were. Even to be beery was not easy, since pumps often ran dry, pubs closed a day or two a week, and you had to scour the city for a decent pint. The press also mounted regular invasions only to return to Fleet Street with stories about how dull we had become. Even those few who were determined to re-live Brideshead could only be described as intermittently gilded. I recall the Hon. Milo Cripps (now Lord Parmoor) issuing invitation cards in gold paint on silver backing: ‘COME TO AN ORGY!’ It shows how likely such an event seemed that I didn’t even bother to attend. You needed ration books for almost anything – Tynan still owes me a page of sweet coupons. His famous purple suit would not have remained in the memory of contemporaries in any earlier (or indeed later) Oxford generation.

Those who were famous in the university needed to do something – act or direct in OUDS/ETC, speak at the Union, write or edit Isis, Cherwell, or some mag they invented themselves. Tynan worked hard in all three worlds. It may be that there was another world of ‘gamblers, ravers, spendthrifts and eccentrics’ which I never entered. But since I spent much of my three years chasing up scandal and controversy for the Isis (also stringing for Time and the Express), I ought at least to have heard rumours of it. Two old friends, both of whom wrote gossip columns in the undergraduate press, agree that Aspinall was not one of their regular cast. He certainly did not compel my attention much – and even our tutor seemed interested in his information rather than his personality.

His final exams did cause a bit of a stir. I think it was the Anglo-Saxon paper. A to B, we were assigned near desks. As we went in, he whispered to me, rather generously in the circumstances: ‘Don’t be distracted by what happens later on.’ Sure enough, half-way through the paper, he rose to his feet like a man fighting in his sleep, staggered a row or two, and collapsed. All round, people got up to help, imagining it was some form of heart attack. I was able to carry on scribbling, not even turning my head, delighted with my much-needed start over the rest. I was told later that his plan had been to begin the exam, be taken ill with an apparent seizure, and thus qualify for an Aegrotat and his stepfather’s reward. If so, he failed to fail according to the rules. It was said that the Professor of Forensic Medicine was summoned, sniffed his breath, and instantly identified the self-administered cause. I believe Sir John stumped up nevertheless, perhaps out of admiration for his chutzpah.

Of course, this is just one man’s impression of time and place, but I think my view would be borne out by what was written, both by and about us, while it was happening. I do not believe that any observer would recognise what we experienced at the end of the Forties as what in the hindsight sagas of the Eighties they now call ‘the gilded Oxford of the Fifties’. Perhaps I should add that I met Ned Sherrin the other day, just after he had interviewed Aspinall about the book. He was happy to tell me that when he questioned Aspinall about his Oxford days Aspinall vividly recalled Tynan but had no memory at all of me.

Alan Brien
London NW5

In his otherwise fair-minded article about John Aspinall your contributor Karl Miller refers to the Observer as ‘the country’s most snobbish newspaper’. Does he mean that it deluges us with trivia about the Royal Family, like the popular papers? That it employs as regular pontificator Sir William Rees-Mogg, as does the Independent? That it has Lord Dacre on its books pages, like the Sunday Times? What can he mean? In an effort to understand, I looked up your Mr Miller in the contributors’ column, but there were no details about him. Perhaps he is secretly a baronet or something, and therefore understands these matters better than the rest of us.

Bruno Nightingale
London SE22

Karl Miller writes: If he can manage a letter like this, Bruno Nightingale should surely be writing for the Observer. It was once a great newspaper, and is still a good one. I don’t suggest that Neal Ascherson is snobbish, or that John Naughton is, or that the news pages are. But it has too much of its own kind of snobbery. It is far too interested in top persons, eminent politicians, media stars and media magnates, and, yes, in toffs and royals. It is far too interested in Herbert von Karajan, and his cars, and his like. Has Mr Nightingale missed the recent ‘where are they now?’ feature on former ‘eligible’ – i.e. upper-class – bachelors? He can’t have missed the subsequent in-depth account of Viscount Lindley’s salmon mousse. Has he not noticed that the paper takes rather more pleasure in referring to the Brigade of Guards than it does in referring to the Royal Corps of Signals? Snobbery looks down as well as up, and there is plenty of that, too, in this liberal newspaper. There is a case now before the courts which relates to an occasion in 1984 when, as the paper has explained, its columnist Alan Watkins ‘made passing reference to somebody he then considered “a minor character" ’. This somebody, or nobody, was the Labour politician Michael Meacher, who was charged with telling people that he was the son of a farm worker (which the father was for a while, and after a fashion). The sneer was directed, not at farm workers, but at the minor character who had claimed conversance with them, and at whom the paper is still sneering with the arrival of Meacher’s foolish libel action. Does Mr Nightingale think the sneer uncharacteristic of the Observer? Has he forgotten the writings of Peter Hillmore? A word in Alan Brien’s ear: all that glitters is not gold, and smart sets aren’t always all that smart. The references to this particular Oxford group were not meant to be starry-eyed

Viva Ocampo

SIR: I am sorry that Ketaki Dyson (Letters, 5 May) thinks that I have used my review of John King’s study of Sur for an extended bout of Ocampo-bashing. She may, however, find after reading this reply that we are much more in agreement than she thought. She suggests, for example, that although I am aware that Victoria Ocampo’s many enemies in Argentina ‘have tended’, as I put it, ‘to confuse the personal and the journalistic issues’, I have been unable to avoid that confusion myself. But this is not so: my thesis was that despite her many obvious personal shortcomings, her magazine was, on the whole, a good one, better perhaps than King makes it out to be, but also less important than he thinks. The same can be said of Ocampo’s publishing-house. To the extent, and it was a large extent, that Ocampo put her wealth to the service of this cause she deserves our admiration and gratitude. Yet this is no reason for the kind of hagiography she has elicited, not always entirely disinterestedly. My review, which I wrote before Dyson’s book on Tagore and Ocampo, In your Blossoming Flower Garden, had appeared, was, in part, an attempt to redress the imbalance created by the hagiographers, though King isn’t one of them.

Dr Dyson puzzles me: she objects to my calling Ocampo a virago, and to my saying that there was ‘something peculiarly sham’ about ‘her character and her pursuit of the ready-made’: yet in passage after passage of her own book she presents evidence to corroborate this view. Without using the word ‘virago’, she acknowledges the lady’s turbulence, imperiousness, impetuosity, arrogance and selfishness, as pointed out by those who knew her. ‘That Ocampo had a domineering streak in her, that she was a demanding person, in the habit of issuing peremptory commands, and very much used to getting her own way, not tolerating opposition, has been said by so many people who knew her that it cannot but contain a grain of truth’ (In your Blossoming Flower Garden). It also emerges from Dyson’s book that as early as 1924, when she was still little-known as a femme de lettres, Ocampo already expected to be recognised, as Leonard Elmhirst wrote, for her ‘inner qualities of mind and feeling and scholarship’. It must be plain even to Dyson that these were not outstanding. Ocampo’s vanity left space for little else. This is what I meant when I wrote that ‘she paraded as a writer and critic,’ something which, according to Dyson, ‘never happened’. Many were taken in, of course, but not all. Tagore himself commented on Ocampo’s ‘absolute dependence on ready-made European thoughts’: an opinion of which I was not aware when I wrote my review, but which I found quoted approvingly by Dyson and with which, of course, I concur. Dyson reproaches me for having said the same thing as she said.

Dyson also objects to all the other negative judgments that I make in my piece. She does not think, for instance, that Ocampo’s memoirs deserve the epithets that I used, and finds her work ‘evocative and stylish’ instead. I was puzzled by these adjectives until I read Dyson’s own prose. I see now what she means, and in particular why she says that Ocampo’s memoirs do not seem repetitive to her: by comparison with the way Dyson writes, they are not. As for Virginia Woolf’s comments on Ocampo, I understand that Dyson may not find them funny, since they are certainly cruel, but they are essentially true, and uncannily revealing in their concision. It is worth noting that Woolf tells us more about Ocampo in those two lines than the latter managed to say about the former in a whole book: Virginia Woolf en su Diario (1914). But there is a further ironic twist: in her book, Ocampo discusses and excuses Virginia Woolf’s habit of making cruel if illuminating comments on the grounds that ‘it would be difficult of course to write a diary or memoirs without throwing some darts, especially when one is fit pour les lancer d’une main sûre.’ As an example she gives us a passage in which Woolf calls the Colefaxes ‘vulgar and common and boring’. Little did Ocampo know that Woolf had called her in a letter ‘the Sybil [Colefax] of Buenos Aires’.

She says that I ‘wisely abstained from making any comment on Ocampo’s relationship with Tagore’ in my review of King’s book. She further explains that having read an article of mine on Borges, she suspects I may share Borges’s irreverent opinion of Tagore. What would be more appropriate would be my making, or not, a comment on Ocampo’s opinion of Tagore. But the unfortunate fact is that I have made such comments and Dyson must remember them, since I find that in the concluding pages of her book she quotes them. She approves there of the contrast I made between Borges’s caustic comments on the Indian poet and Ocampo’s idolatry. Has Dr Dyson changed her mind on the subject, or is she simply trying to score points, at whatever cost, in order to publicise her own book – which, she tells your readers, presents ‘an alternative image of Victoria Ocampo’?

Dyson’s ultimate card is the feminist one. The reason Ocampo has not received in Argentina the recognition she deserves, and that she would have got in Britain or India, is that she was a woman. But Dyson has not made clear what precisely Ocampo deserves recognition for; whether it has truly not been given; whether my own negative opinion is as representative of Argentine opinion as she implies; whether Argentine machismo is to be blamed for a situation that she finds disturbing; whether I am as machista as she implies; and whether my own machismo, assuming that it exists, is representative of that of Argentine males in general.

Daniel Waissbein
Oxford

What Waldheim knew

In discussing Kurt Waldheim’s past, Gitta Sereny (LRB, 21 April) argues that as an officer in the Wehrmacht, he ‘would not have known about the “Final Solution" ’: ‘the fact is that, except for civilians and soldiers in close proximity to the Einsatzgruppen in Russia, the gas-van murders of women and children in Serbia or the death camps in Poland, ordinary Germans and Austrians, including Army staff, did not know about the extermination of the Jews.’ On recently re-reading Alexander Foote’s Handbook for Spies, however, I came across the following: ‘I remember during the course of my political instructions in Moscow hearing Nazis being described as sentimentalists and thus totally unfitted to carry out their desire for world domination. As an example of this sentimentality I was told that in order to liquidate a few thousand Jews in Salonika they had to be transported half-way across Europe to Auschwitz, as the Wehrmacht refused to carry out executions on the spot.’ The book, published in 1949, is an account of Foote’s ten years with Red Army Intelligence, his work as a spy in Switzerland during the war, experiences in Russia afterwards (where he was told this story) and ultimate disenchantment. Memoirs of spies are notoriously unreliable – Gitta Sereny quotes the figure of fifty thousand Jews being deported from Salonika – but I do nonetheless wonder whether this is an entirely manufactured anecdote.

Maurice Hatton
London NW1

Loser

Recently, I read a book published by a major Canadian publisher that referred repeatedly to the contemporary and traditional culinary habits of the inhabitants of ‘North Vietnam’, wherever that is. Today I find in the LRB, of all places, that Richard Nixon is difficult for liberals to figure because, among other noble acts, he ‘eventually ended US involvement in the Vietnam War’ (LRB, 19 May). Richard Nixon’s vertical anti-personnel devices stopped falling on Vietnam because he lost the war.

Tim Barnard
Toronto

Misled

In Putnam’s review of Quine (LRB, 21 April), was it the Owl of Minerva that transformed ‘Hookway’ into ‘Hootway’? Also, the title of the book should be ‘Quadities’, or ‘Quinities’, since ‘Quiddities’ have no place in Quine’s ontology. The book is very interesting, but only because it is written by Quine.

D.L. Ouren
Sedan, Minnesota

It was not the Owl of Minerva but the processes of mechanical reproduction.

Editors, ‘London Review’

Little by Little

A niggling little point I know, but could I offer Angela Carter (LRB, 19 May) a little remedial help with O-Level Biology? Blind chance dictated the sex of wee Eric, but it all happened well upstream of his life as a foetus. This randomness manifested itself in the roughly 50/50 chance that the sperm cell contributed to his conception contained the ‘male’ x-chromosome. Mr Rhodes was indubitably male from that point onward and any idea that that was still undecided at the foetal stage is wrong. Perhaps Ms Carter had in mind to direct our attentions to consideration of the divisions of the germcells within the testes of Mr Rhodes Sr; in any case, fair dibs to level the charge of ‘semantic sloppiness’ against her.

Fraser Mitchell
London SW7

Shouldn’t sneer

Paul Barker was right to conclude his Diary discussion of Edward Bellamy’s Looking backward with the observation that ‘we shouldn’t sneer too much at an old vision till we’ve found a new one’ (LRB, 19 May). It seems all the more regrettable that he should have dismissed William Morris’s vision of a future society in News from Nowhere as ‘stained-glass revivalism’. Morris’s suggestion of a human world marked by equal social relationships, creative fulfilment and concern for the enviroment can surely be seen as a powerful criticism of the dangerous possibilities inherent in Bellamy’s statism. Incidentally, I don’t think Raymond Williams – any more than Morris – saw ecological concerns as seperable from his hopes for socialism.

Peter Faulkner
University of Exeter

Points to be made about Paul Barker’s Diary. GUM in Moscow is not ‘grim’. It is an exciting place, composed of tiny booths all selling something different – like Aladdin’s caves; many different floors with bridges across a central hall – mirrored ceilings reflecting brilliant colours and bright lights – where one can buy easily by pointing, being given a piece of paper on which is written the payment, going to the cashier (where one admires her dexterity on an abacus) and returning with the receipt to be handed one’s goods already wrapped. GUM is a relic of Tsarist days. It is a bazaar, with myriads of different types of people milling around – a fascinating spectacle; sitting-out places in which to sit and eat the delicious Russian ice-cream, or where one may lunch on a sticky bun and real fruit juices. A place, also, where we were able to talk to many Russian people – surprising how many (especially children) spoke a little English. When I was buying some peasant pottery, one woman pointed out a snip in one of the cups and instructed the assistant to find me another one. I also bought some exquisite hand embroidery and some of the characteristic raspberry glass – treasured souvenirs. Admittedly, this was many years ago, before the advent of packaged tours, but GUM will certainly not have changed, except possibly for the better. More goods, perhaps. Paul Barker’s conclusion, ‘we should not sneer,’ is something of a shock, rather than the logical conclusion of of his article, where everything said about Bellamy’s ‘vision’ is tinged with a faint sneer. In 1988 we are back with 1888 – due to an abandonment of any utopion vision? In 1988 a visit from Mother Theresa can shame us in front of the whole world. Maybe we don’t need a new vision, only the old one really tried. Like Christianity, it may never have been tried.

Hilda Snowden
Bradford

Once free

In my recent book Armed Truce, published by Atheneum (New York) and Hamish Hamilton (London), I inadvertently gave the impression on page 319 that I considered Mr Valentine Lawford, an official in the Foreign Office in London, to have approved the Soviet Union’s absorption in 1944-46 of the once-free nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Mr Lawford has assured me that he never entertained such views and I recognise that my judgment was based on a misreading of the Foreign Office papers concerned. I wish to apologise to Mr Lawford for the irritation that I caused him.

Hugh Thomas
House of Lords

Ron’s War

Your reviewer Tom Shippey wades into Russell Miller’s book on L. Ron Hubbard, rightly describing it as a hatchet job (LRB, 5 May). This is a promising start. Unfortunately, he then rambles off into a string of false reports that are as bad as Miller’s own. Shippey mentions Mr Hubbard’s war record. Yet he does so in a way that shows that his information is third-hand and inaccurate. Mr Hubbard’s Naval records have been studied by intelligence expert Col L. Fletcher Prouty. Between 1955 and 1963, Col Prouty served as Chief of Special Operations for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and in a similar capacity with the Office of Special Operations of the Office of the Secretary of Defence. He also headed the Special Operations Office for the US Air Force. Speaking of Miller’s book, Col Prouty writes: ‘In his endeavour to paint this man Hubbard in as bad a light as he could this hack almost totally ignored the fact that L. Ron Hubbard had served with the US Navy on active duty from a period beginning from before America’s entry into World War Two on 7 December 1941 and throughout the war … in that silent service, Naval Intelligence.’ He goes on: ‘Something most important that Miller chose to overlook was the fact that Hubbard was awarded a “Unit Citation".’ This award is most important and special. Unit Citations are made only by the President of the United States to those combat units performing particularly meritorious services.

Shippey also claims that Mr Hubbard did not present Scientology as a religion. In fact, he wrote repeatedly of the religious nature of Scientology, as in his book The Phoenix Lectures: ‘Scientology carries forward a tradition of wisdom which concerns itself about the soul and the solution of the mysteries of life … Scientology is a religion in the oldest and fullest sense.’ As for the question of whether Scientology counselling procedures work, they have been subjected to more stringent tests than Mr Shippey could conceive of.

Andrew Milne
Church of Scientology

First Edition

Marilyn Butler says in her review of Chris Baldick’s book In Frankenstein’s Shadow (LRB, 5 May) that ‘the text now available’ of Frankenstein ‘is that of the third edition’ of 1831, ‘unless you are lucky enough to pick up a copy or rare reprint’ of the first edition of 1818. The British reprint of 1823 and the American reprint of 1833 may indeed be rare, but James Rieger’s edition of 1974, which was published by Bobbs-Merrill in both hardback and paperback, was widely available on both sides of the Atlantic. It gives the text of the first edition, with the variants of the third edition, and makes it easy for modern readers to see Mary Shelley’s original intentions.

Nicolas Walter
London N1

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