Vol. 11 No. 3 · 2 February 1989

Search by issue:


Boris Kagarlitsky’s identification of the Soviet ‘bureaucracy-statocracy’ (why not, simply, ‘ruling class’?) as the obstacle to significant reform in the Soviet Union sounds convincing to someone who these days travels around East Europe (Letters, 19 January). The Communist establishments know there must be change but are not reconciled to giving up power. The new prime minister of Poland, asked the other day by a West German interviewer how Poland’s Communists would fare in free elections (not, in fact, on the cards), replied that the regime had ‘numerous supporters: in the state and economic apparatus, in the party and in the army’. Perhaps it is refreshing that the Polish premier did not bother to mention those once venerated, if often imaginary, pillars of the party – the workers, the peasants and progressive intellectuals. It certainly concentrates the mind on the nature of the struggles to come in the Soviet bloc.

Mark Frankland
Observer, London SW8

Child Abuse

I read with a good deal of interest the article by Michael Mason in your issue of 10 November 1988 concerning the incidence of physical and sexual abuse in Britain. What came out very strongly in the article was the seeming reluctance of the British public, and of British institutions in general including the judicial institutions, to recognise, not only the devastating effects on the individual of a history of physical and sexual abuse in childhood, but also the extent of its occurrence.

This is not really surprising. While I was in training in psychiatry both in England and the United States in the Sixties, we were taught that incest was a very rare occurrence indeed, and it is only with the freeing-up of women in general, with the advent of the Women’s Liberation Movement, that women have been encouraged and empowered to talk about the extent of their childhood abuse experiences. Men, however, have not been so empowered, and although there is strong evidence to believe that boys and men have a history of an equal amount of abuse, nevertheless there are many constraints on their talking about it publicly. I work in a suburb of Boston in a not very extensive private practice and I can assure you that the extent of the reported childhood abuse by my patients is quite remarkable if not overwhelming. I have no reason to believe that this would be any different in any similar practice in Britain.

It is not that sexual abuse is a new issue: it is just that it is an old issue that has now begun to come out of the closet. The presence of sexual and physical abuse in childhood, and its extent, have made my work as a clinician much more comprehensible. Much of the symptomatology that I see has now a more comprehensible basis and, in consequence, I am not only able to recognise it better, but, hopefully, to treat it better as well. The manifestations which adults show in their adult behaviour and adaptation to the events of extensive physical childhood abuse are protean: they include not only a sense of profound self-hatred, but a whole series of clinical syndromes, including drug and alcohol abuse, episodic psychotic symptoms, sadism, masochisim, pedophilia, sexual assaultiveness and some forms of male and female homosexuality, suicidal behaviour and long-term depression.

Michael Nelson
Psychiatric Medicine Associated Inc.

Outside Australia

Like a number of other Australian readers, I enjoy the London Review greatly. Like a fair few, I suspect, my pleasure that the journal has found space for Australian publications and Australian writers is tempered by concern at the rather narrow range of those writers and especially the heavy reliance on some of the expats. I admire Peter Porter, Clive James, et al: but somehow they sustain the impression that intellectual life in this country has to be seen through issues that burned brightly on their departure but have since dwindled to near-irrelevance. While I disagree strongly with a fair proportion of what Les Murray has to say, I am an unabashed admirer of his verse and his prose: but he, too, manages to perpetuate alternatives that mean much to him and Clive James but are simply tangential to what concerns writers and readers here.

Let me give a personal example. Clive James wrote a generous review of my volume of the Oxford History of Australia (all the more generous given the treatment meted out to others) when it was published in Britain: but a reader of his comments would imagine that the book was a war history, since he concentrated overwhelmingly on the imperial issue as it affected the two world wars. At the same time, to make the personal example a little larger, he and Peter Porter both wrote extraordinarily hostile reviews of The Road to Botany Bay (which is the work of an English expatriate, though that fact bothers him as little as it bothered his Australian readers). Now Paul Carter’s writing is no more immune from criticism than any other ambitious and adventurous piece of writing, but I can’t help feeling that its reception in the LRB and TLS tells us more about the fixed preconceptions of the two reviewers about the land they left than it does about the book. One of the most widely read pieces over the past couple of years was the Sylvia Lawson appraisal of the Bicentennial history project in the London Review. It was the best sort of conjuncture of an Australian subject and a wider audience. Could we have more like it?

I also think that there is a difficulty in writing about certain sorts of Australian book for non-Australian audiences. While our fiction is more or less accessible, some of the more interesting work is non-fictional and is less in touch with comparable genres outside this country. Our current political climate, for example, is regarded far more critically within Australia than it is by visitors or outside observers, who use the predicaments of British Labour as a point of comparison, and an explication of that difference involves explaining a number of local peculiarities that make up the Australian context: but these peculiarities, in turn, strike the outside observer as fairly unsurprising products of settler colonialism. A book like The Road to Botany Bay can strike a reviewer outside Australia as derivative, whereas someone working inside appreciates its substance and originality.

Stuart Macintyre
University of Melbourne

Goodbye to Mahfouz

Philip Stewart is a decent enough translator, but he is an incredibly bad reader (Letters, 19 January). I didn’t say that Awlad Haritna ended in 1952; I did say that it was banned before it was published, meaning ‘in book form’. Mahfouz’s work as a whole is ‘stately’ despite Stewart’s petulant little outburst.

Edward Said
Columbia University, New York


The London Review has, of course, yet to deal with the death of Emperor Hirohito, but when you do I hope that you commission someone who knows their stuff. Last night (12 January) on BBC 2 we were treated to a clip from Edward Behr’s forthcoming ‘documentary’. I suppose Mr Behr has to make a living somehow, but one wishes he would not try to make it at the expense of international relations, common sense and, dare one say it, truth.

The clip included a grotesque piece of play-acting in which Japanese were made to speak the kind of mock-English one expects in cartoons. Why? Having read the script, I shudder to think what lies in store: a mixture of distortion, fancy, quotation of mistranslated material, and loads of lovely wartime propaganda. And to what end?

If this were a revisionist historian with proper credentials (a knowledge of Japanese perhaps) and new information, one might listen to a reasoned argument, and indeed the process of revision has already started in Japan. The problem really lies with the quality of Mr Behr’s research. He ends up by producing something that could well grace the pages of the Sun. Not a shred of new evidence does he have that would point to active and malicious planning on the part of the Emperor. The problem is, of course, that we obviously still want to believe desperately that the Emperor was a Japanese Hitler who got off scot-free, and so this kind of nonsense will be eagerly accepted as truth.

The brutal treatment meted out to prisoners of war in South-East Asia is not in question, and it is entirely understandable that those who suffered in the war at the hands of the Japanese should long for a scapegoat. What is problematic is to jump to the assumption that the Emperor had much control over what was going on. To assume that he had real power is to assume that the rest of the world works and thinks like Europe: a pardonable error in the Thirties perhaps, but not in the Eighties. Anyone who has taken the trouble to study Japanese history will know that the Emperor has always been treated as a political cipher and has at times even been subjected to extremes of hardship. All the available evidence in this case does in fact point in the direction of an unhappy man aware only that much was being hidden from him. This latest effort from the BBC will only serve to keep alive old prejudices and as such is to be deplored.

Richard Bowring
Professor of Japanese,

Edward Behr’s view of Hirohito is also expressed in a book: Hirohito: Behind the Myth, to be published by Hamish Hamilton in April.

Editors, ‘London Review’

Facts and Folk

David Craig has taken time off in reviewing (LRB, 5 January) John Prebble’s The King’s Jaunt on the visit of George IV to Scotland in 1822 to register indignation that I should have written of the Napier Report of 1884 that it needs to be handled with care and detachment. What I wrote was that two Royal Commission Reports need such an approach, the 1835 Municipal Corporations Report and the Napier Report. Of course all documentation calls for care and detachment, but these two reports particularly do so, that on the Corporations because it is so obviously slanted and the Napier Report because it gives a warning to that effect. The Commission’s words in its introduction were: ‘Many of the allegations of oppression and suffering with which these pages are loaded would not bear a searching analysis. Under such scrutiny they would be found erroneous as to time and place, to persons, to extent, and misconstrued as to intention. It does not follow, however, that because these narratives are incorrect in detail, they are incorrect in colour or in kind.’ In other words, the facts as reported were often wrong, but the stories truly represented the type of thing that had happened. It seemed a pity that David Craig should feel he has to go much further and make a stand for the absolute reliability of personal reminiscence and folk memory.

Historians, in my view rightly, regard all memoir type of evidence, whether produced in oral or written form, with considerable suspicion. So do lawyers. Time distorts our memories of past events, particularly if the events were ones engendering strong feelings. Subsequent interpreting and reorganising leads to inaccuracy. Strong emotion not only may distort events but can also cast an unjustified glow of ease and contentment over the period before the events. The contradictions in the evidence produced for the Napier Commission are typical of the distortion that can occur. Memories that are transferred from one generation to another, becoming thus folk memory, are even more likely to be bent in the process than are the first-hand ones. Yet memoirs and recollections can have a vividness and immediacy which cannot be found elsewhere, as well as, sometimes, a distinguished literary form. They must not be ignored: where possible corroboration should be found. In any case, care is needed, as part of the normal caution of historians. David Craig does not seem to like this, but he will find, when he works on his book on the Clearances, that some degree of care has to be exercised on all material of this type. As an example, where does he get the idea that the use of Gaelic was banned after the Forty-Five? Would this be an example of folk memory?

Rosalind Mitchison
Ormiston, East Lothian

David Craig writes: I notice that in reply to my criticism of her view of the Highland Clearances Rosalind Mitchison doesn’t defend the phrases of hers that I disputed: namely, that the 19th-century burnings of crofters’ houses were a ‘cliché’, ‘in some instances untrue’, and ‘heavy with myth’. What else can these words mean but that the crofters’ stories about the burnings tend to be untrue? To make her case she has to attribute to me a view I don’t hold: namely, that oral evidence is ‘absolutely reliable’. What I wrote was: ‘Perhaps we should trust eye-witnesses at least until they have been proved wrong.’ I based this on, for example, a major case in Eric Richards’s History of the Highland Clearances where oral atrocity stories about the South Uist and Barra clearances in the summer of 1851 were shown to agree with official and newspaper evidence; on James Hunter’s conclusion in The Making of the Crofting Community on ‘the general accuracy of oral tradition about the clearances of the 1840s and 1850s as recorded in the four volumes of evidence to the Napier Commission’; on the oral testimony I have been gathering in the Highlands and the Canadian Maritimes, verified against other kinds of record; and on my growing sense of how seriously ‘folk memory’ is misrepresented by its detractors. To take another sort of example: stories about eviction often say that the youngest member of the family carried the tongs, or the sieve. Yet a professional historian living in the Highlands recently opined to me that this was merely a ‘folk-tale motif’ and, as such, poor evidence. It is evidence I have gathered myself, mostly recently in respect of evictions from Aith, Shetland Mainland, and Aberscross, Sutherland, and I can find no grounds for doubting it. First, the tongs was indispensable for managing the peats in the fire, which had to be kept burning permanently (until the landlord’s thugs put it out for ever at the eviction, often by pouring basins of milk onto it). Second, it was obviously small and light enough for a very young person to carry. Thirdly, ‘it had its ritual significance for when the bride was brought home, her husband handed her the tongs as a symbol that he made her the mistress of his house’ (I.F. Grant, Highland Folkways, 1961). Fourthly, we have striking contemporary newspaper evidence of how valuable the sieve was: when cleared people from Strathnaver, Sutherland, revisited their home townships 65 years later, in 1884, the oldest member carried a sieve whose rim she specially valued because it had been made from Strathnaver wood. From all this I infer, first, that this ‘folk-tale motif’ is worth trusting until it is proved wrong; and secondly, that tongs and sieve were so centrally important to those families, both practically and as emblems, that they would certainly have been cherished during the clearances and were unlikely to be talked loosely about (or ‘bent’, as Rosalind Mitchison puts it) when the families retold their crucial experiences in later years. But she is right to pick up my slip about the banning of Gaelic. What I should have written, of course, was not ‘its language [was] banned, its orchards rooted out,’ etc, but ‘its dress and music were banned,’ etc. The attempt to ban Gaelic was made, not by legislators, but by estate managers like the Duchess of Sutherland’s James Loch, and by teachers in hundreds of Highland schools until quite recently.

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