C.H. Sisson (LRB, 9 November), following Charles Hobday, may well be right in saying that, broadly speaking, Edgell Rickword’s poetry ‘virtually ceased in 1931’, but what this broad speaking leaves out is the powerful and substantial satire on the occasion of the Spanish Civil War, ‘To the Wife of a Non-Interventionist Statesman’. This was published in the Left Review for March 1938 and saw the light of day again in Lucie-Smith’s Penguin book of Satirical Verse twenty years ago. Couplet after couplet shows faultless touch in its controlled vehemence and its lucid definition of atrocity. Like all classic satires, the poem argues cogently and deploys information in the mode of trenchant imagery. The first blitzes (or carpet-bombing of working-class housing) are unsparingly evoked:
Five hundred dead at ten a second
is the world record so far reckoned;
a hundred children in one street,
their little hands and guts and feet
like offal round a butcher’s stall,
scattered where they’d been playing ball.
The exact facts are used to forecast (accurately) what history had in store for our own country, in a passage both precise and nightmarish:
Euzkadi’s mines supply the ore
to feed the Nazi dogs of war:
Guernika’s thermite rain transpires
in doom on Oxford’s dreaming spires:
in Hitler’s frantic metal haze
already Hull and Cardiff blaze,
and Paul’s grey dome rocks to the blast
of air-torpedoes screaming past.
This is very public poetry, but it presses it home to the core of personal involvement when the poet rounds on the imagined wife and asks her how she can justify, or tolerate, ‘co-habitation with a beast’.
The whole piece is an unforgettable example of what Rickword had called, in a key essay in the Calendar of Modern Letters, ‘the use of negative emotions’. This was written at a time when gush, uplift and soft positives in general were still felt to be poetry’s true domain and worldly mockery, whether focused on personal relationships as in Donne or on public issues as in Pope, was regarded by teachers and critics as a decidedly lowly quality. That Rickword could be so fertile in the vein of satire shows us that his creativity lasted well into the most political phase of his life.
Burton in Kendal, Lancashire
It has been drawn to my attention that Humphrey Carpenter in The Brideshead Generation (reviewed in the LRB of 28 September) gives me a blanket credit of ‘Principal Source’ for extensive use of material – much of it original – from my biography Brian Howard: Portrait of a Failure (Blond, 1968). I would like to know how other author/editors feel about what amounts to casual lifting of original material from their correspondence or conversations with contacts. Mr Carpenter admits that ‘quotations from these sources have not been included in the [chapter] notes themselves, it being assumed that the reader will have no difficulty in tracing them when consulting these sources.’ Why on earth should his readers wish to reread the same quotes in my book, and who is to know which are original ones from the hundred or so of my contacts and which from any of the other such ‘Principal Sources’?
In his Acknowledgments Mr Carpenter gives proper thanks to Sir Harold Acton, as well he should. Without Harold’s generous help my own book would never have got off the ground. But it seems odd that Mr Carpenter never had the grace to ask me for permission to use so much of my painstakingly researched material. I might even have been able to give him some new quotes! What irritates me, for instance, is how on page 57 he credits Tom Driberg both in the text and as a chapter note reference for just five words. Why this distinction between dear, departed Tom and poor live me? (I do rate three specific chapter note references later on.) Of course I am flattered when people use my material for background information and happy when they credit my original material in the accepted way. I was for many years a publisher’s editor and know all about the problems of copyright, acceptable amounts to quote without payment, paraphrasing and proper credits where due. I only wish that Mr Carpenter and his editors had played fair.
When he equates Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent and the Sun newspaper (Letters, 23 November), it is hard to avoid the thought that the person with the tabloid mentality is Tom Paulin. I think I hear between the lines of his letter the familiar, raucous cry of ‘Gotcha!’ But I shall elude him. Let me quote again the passage he finds so self-evidently a racist libel on the Irish, Africans and the Chinese: ‘Comrade Ossipon, ex-medical student, the principal writer of the FP leaflets, stretched out his robust legs, keeping the soles of his boots turned up to the glow of the grate. A bush of crinkly yellow hair topped his red, freckled face, with a flattened nose and prominent mouth cast in the rough mould of the Negro type. His almond-shaped eyes leered languidly over the high cheek-bones.’ Paulin’s analysis is briefly plausible. Yet one can’t help wondering what, in this alleged triple libel, the Irish are doing here. Are those freckles a slur impossible to overlook? Or has Paulin misread Ossipon as O’Ssipon? Actually, if one clears one’s mind, of prejudice, it is obvious that Ossipon isn’t of ‘mixed race’, as Paulin maintains. Conrad is describing – quite recognisably – a Slav or Tartar face, as Ossipon’s name suggests. Clearly, Tom Paulin is so innocent of racial prejudice, of racial stereotyping, that he couldn’t tell an Italian from an Eskimo. I think we should commend him.
On the other hand, he might have noticed that one of the things the racist Conrad holds against Ossipon is Ossipon’s belief in Lombroso’s theory – that degeneracy can be deduced from facial characteristics. He might have noticed, too, that, for Conrad, the flattened nose and prominent mouth can be physically attractive features. Ossipon is a successful womaniser. ‘And Comrade Ossipon raised his bowed head, beloved of various humble women of these isles, Apollo-like in the sunniness of its bush of hair.’ There is irony here, of course – directed at the discrepancy between Ossipon’s attractive exterior and the repulsive personality within. This ‘Apollo’ lives off women. Conrad’s distaste, however, is reserved for Ossipon’s character, not his physical appearance, about which only Tom Paulin now seems uneasy.
David Leverenz (Letters, 23 November) wastes most of his annoyance at my long and damaging review of his Manhood and the American Renaissance on a couple of small and inessential errors of quotation and spelling, none of any demonstrable importance to my criticisms of his book, which he meanwhile fails to answer. He in fact voices agreement with most of what I say against his interpretations, his methods and the new historicist practices he finds so alluring. I appreciate, as much as he does, how slow he is to anger, but just where is the beef?
The common reader – no matter how bravely he subscribes to the London Review of Books – all too frequently (alas) finds himself in intimidating company. Of the 18 contributors to your 9 November issue, six are described as professors, three as fellows and there is one each of lecturer, teacher and university provost. They know more than we know – and they know we know it. But it really is too bad when one of the 18, whom you describe as ‘the author of naval tales’ – and whom we have enjoyed as a latterday C.S. Forester – seems more determined to join the professors than the ordinary mortals who buy his books.
The Nagle Journal, which Patrick O’Brian reviewed in your pages (LRB, 9 November), is a remarkable discovery. It is the journal of a very ordinary seaman who served in the American Army and the British Navy during the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. He met Washington and Nelson. He served with the East India Company and sailed with the First Fleet to Australia. He was in the boat crew that rowed Phillip ashore. The journal he compiled in his old age is one of the very few accounts of naval life on the lower deck in Nelson’s navy and I do not believe any naval historian could point out another as detailed or as fascinating.
It was my good fortune to see this manuscript when it was discovered (in America in 1982). The man who made the discovery – Dr John Dann, Director of the University of Michigan’s Clements Library and no mean egghead, if I may say so – was faced with a formidable task in making a journal lacking punctuation, and using largely phonetic spelling, intelligible to common readers. A scholarly, even facsimile edition would have denied the pleasures of Nagle to the sort of innocents who buy O’Brian: so Dr Dann chose to give the text in full with a minimum of bracketed asides to assist in the understanding of recondite terms – and to interpose commentaries in which he could provide a broader background to the rumbustious history of the period.
Scholars might be presumed to have enough sense to skip the commentary if it intrudes upon their own greater understanding, and enough gratitude to welcome having the complete text. But no. Mr O’Brian gets out the cat to chastise the editor for intrusive editing, square brackets and interruptions in the narrative that (Lord save us) ‘give the historical content’. Nowhere does he indicate the pleasure of discovering Nagle and his comrades in the stench and glory of their dangerous lives or recognise that many of us could not have enjoyed Nagle as we have without Dann’s helping hand and his wise and kindly voice in our ear.
Among all the goings-on about World War Two scant attention seems to have been paid to John Lehmann, New Writing and Penguin New Writing. The influence on my generation was incalculable, from the Spanish Civil War on into the Forties. We looked forward to every new number, sure of finding most of the best writers of the time. And until 1940, until we were cut off, a beleaguered island, it included European writers. For the first time there was an outlet for working-class writers; and a new kind of imaginative reportage, rather than invented short stories. I don’t know how justice could be done – how a conspectus could be made of what now looks like a vanished world of culture, embracing all the arts and the impetus and abundance of talent that buoyed us up through two wars and the aftermath.
‘Jews … initially integrated successfully,’ Peter Pulzer writes in his review of Robert Wistrich’s The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph (LRB, 9 November), ‘or so it seemed in the 1860s and 1870s … Later it turned out that things were less simple.’ The Spectator of 23 March 1889 reported itself perplexed by ‘the strength of the feeling against Jews in Vienna’. ‘The fact of hatred is clear but what is its cause?’ they asked. ‘Offensive’ wealth might, they thought, be the answer. In the next issue of the paper a correspondent offered a (slightly) different solution. ‘The following sentence, which I have read in a guide-book to Vienna, may throw some light on this point: “There are in Vienna 402 bureaux de change, of which two are in the hands of Christians." ’
Thanks for the incredibly good essay by Christopher Hitchens (LRB, 26 October). The book was not banned in Japan, but timidity here is a national principle and after the ukase the bookstores refused to stock it. Perhaps the most disgusting non-Muslim attacks were by P. Johnson and A. Waugh in the Spectator. Some of the critics did not even read the book and all ignored simple form-criticism. The Satanic Verses is imaginative fiction, not a text in history or theology.
In the note accompanying Stephen Spender’s article (LRB, 26 October) you mention that he has been remembering a book called What I believe which included pieces by Einstein and Freud. It seems to me likely that the book he has in mind is one I have had on my shelves, and looked back at frequently, since 1952, called I believe, with the subtitle ‘The Personal Philosophies of 23 Eminent Men and Women of our Time’, first published by Allen and Unwin in 1940, and reprinted several times. There is, as Spender recalls, a piece by Einstein, but none by Freud. Other notable contributors include W.H. Auden, Pearl Buck, Havelock Ellis, E.M. Forster, J.B.S. Haldane, Julian Huxley, Harold Laski, Lin Yutang, Thomas Mann, Jaques Maritain, Bertrand Russell, John Strachey, James Thurber, Beatrice Webb, H.G. Wells and Rebecca West. There is no indication of who edited it or made the selection.
Auckland, New Zealand
Charles Monteith’s letter (Letters, 23 November) mildly castigating your testy footnote to Richard Murphy’s protest (Letters, 26 October) came as a relief and made the essential point: writers should be at liberty to use whatever words they like and readers can make it their business to use the dictionary to find out their meanings. Your rather more craven comment on Monteith’s ‘interesting’ letter is still wrong, though: Murphy’s obscure words are much better attested in the OED than the Eliot usages which he – entirely convincingly – cites. But there is a more important point of principle that Monteith’s creditable mildness obscures, though I have no doubt that he accepts it. We all know that the LRB reserves to itself the right to have the last word. But surely what was needed was an apology to Murphy (and to Neil Corcoran, whose considered review was wrecked by your typographical errors). You simply proved yourselves a. to be bad losers, and b. to be dangerously close to the blimpish editorial policy of the Literary Review type: ‘if I can’t understand it as I snooze over my claret, then it isn’t poetry, dammit.’ The spread of this philistine creed has been widely attested in more respectable journals over the past year. Don’t fall into it. Just admit you were in the wrong.
Magdalen College, Oxford
It was Neil Corcoran’s objection to these words that brought up the matter of inkhorn terms or specialist terms in the first place. Having said that, we are content to leave the last word to the fierce O’Donoghue. No doubt he is familiar with the expression ‘over the top’.
Editors, ‘London Review’
I found Mary Beard’s review of Paul Hirst, Bernard Crick et al (LRB, 26 October) frustrating. It hedged about the subject, made some interesting points but missed some significant connections. Start with the early Sixties New Left. A revolt against Stalinism and the stultifying Fabianism of the Fifties Labour Party, it was a movement which went much further than Labour but failed to organise itself and was in the end subsumed by Harold Wilson and the promise of 1964. Paul Hirst descends from the successor to that New Left, a New Left led by Perry Anderson which saw the old New Left as hopelessly untheoretical and imported large chunks of European Marxist theory to solve the problem. The key is the failure to organise independently of both Stalinism and Fabianism. So, twenty years on much of both Old and New Lefts would probably agree with Mary Beard’s support for a philosophy based on ‘New Times’ and Charter 88.
In the abstract, there is nothing too terrible about the premises of Charter 88. Except that there is all-pervading pessimism about the possibilities of real change in society. Of course since ‘New Times’ and the Charter were conceived we have had Hungary, East Germany, another Stock Exchange crash, Labour’s victories in the European Elections, the release of the Guildford Four and victories for rail and local government workers. Quite a list. As Marx said, and as our potential Chartists might have noted, ‘all that is solid melts into air.’ The world is still there to be changed even if some sections of the erstwhile Left have other ideas.
In the meantime history is busy repeating itself as farce. The New Left which started as anti-Stalinist has recently signed a publishing deal with the Moscow State Publishing House.