Vol. 13 No. 16 · 29 August 1991

Search by issue:


In his review of The Feminist Companion to Literature in English (LRB, 11 July), John Sutherland describes Merle Collins as ‘a Grenadian whose poetry celebrates the achievement of E.M. Gairy, the dictator whose revolution was unluckily cut short by the US invasion of the island in 1983’. Muddling up recent events in Grenada must be responsible for Professor Sutherland’s bizarre misunderstanding of the Companion’s entry on Collins. Well before Grenada gained her independence from Britain in 1974, Sir Eric Gairy, the veteran prime minister, had become autocratic, corrupt, and a national embarrassment. The heroine of Collins’s novel Angel (1987) is, according to the Companion, ‘disillusioned like many about Gairy’s abuse of power’. In 1979, Gairy was ousted from office in the popular and bloodless revolution led by Maurice Bishop of the socialist New Jewel Movement. Collins worked for the Bishop Government; her poetry, says the Companion, ‘celebrates the revolution as a source of new national pride’. Dissension within the Movement culminated in the murder of Bishop on 19 October 1983. American troops invaded on 25 October. A Gairyesque regime was reinstalled, and Collins moved to Britain.

Robert Allen

Cossacks, Chetniks and Ustasi

I was deeply shocked by Basil Davidson’s lumping together of Cossacks, Ustasi and Serbian Chetniks as ‘soldiers in German service’, and by his description of the Mihailovic Chetniks as ‘Yugoslavs who fought for the Wehrmacht and the SS’ (LRB, 27 June). Like their many enemies, including the Partisans, the Mihailovic Chetniks fought with what used to be called ‘typical Balkan ferocity’. Again like the Partisans, but more frequently, they reached local accommodations with the German and Italian invaders. On occasion, they turned a German or Italian attack on the Partisans to their own advantage, just as the Tito forces repeatedly employed the same tactic against them.

Mr Davidson was a member of SOE Cairo with responsibility for Yugoslav affairs until August 1943, after which he joined the British Military Mission to the Partisans. In 1946, under the influence of a heady mixture of ‘anti-fascism’ and hero-worship, he wrote a sycophantic puff of Tito and hatchet job on Mihailovic aptly titled Partisan Picture. The position adopted in 1946 is indefensible in the light of evidence now available. Ignore the early months of Chetnik resistance, which even Mr Davidson must admit, and instead consider the last few months of 1943 when the British Government was debating whether to drop Mihailovic following charges of ‘inactivity’ and ‘collaboration’ with the Germans. Even at this controversial period it is easy to compile a list of ninety to a hundred engagements between the Mihailovic forces and the German and Italian Armies, witnessed by one or more British or American officers. Most were signalled to Cairo or Bari, and recorded, immediately after they occurred. A few involved hundreds of German and Chetnik deaths; most were smaller operations, such as sabotage. Some operations were defensive, most were offensive. The number of hostile contacts witnessed and signalled by British and American servicemen is totally inconsistent with the charges of ‘inactivity’ and ‘collaboration’. The same operations against the German Army render Davidson’s description of the Chetniks as ‘Yugoslavs who fought for the Wehrmacht and the SS’ quite obscene.

Donat Gallagher
James Cook University, North Queensland

Basil Davidson writes: Experience with Chetnik apologists (usually non-Yugoslav, the native ones have some sense of shame) has long shown that rational discussion with them is fruitless. This correspondent is manifestly unaware of the vast bibliography of the subject, but is in no way dissuaded by this from joining irrelevant claim to squalid insult (as in his remarks on a book of mine of 1945). I will repeat, however, that the crucial charges against the Mihailovic Chetniks of active military collusion with the enemy did not arise from anyone’s opinion or preferences. They arose from the reading of enemy signals, chiefly of SD signals; and the decrypted evidence was without the slightest equivocation. This uncontaminated intelligence from enemy sources – typically, from one SD post signalling to another – was copiously enlarged, afterwards and for many months, by a wide spread of British officers in the field. As to the military record of the Partisans, this was and remained, until the confrontation over frontiers in 1945, overwhelmingly positive from the British standpoint (not least but not only in the obstruction of supplies to the Afrikakorps), and in all cases, from that standpoint, immeasurably preferable to the passivity or betrayal in which the whole Chetnik movement – from Mihailovic through to Nedic – had become deeply involved. As to myself, I went through some sixteen months of intensive warfare in Yugoslavia, and remain of the view that I had very well understood, by late in 1944, who was our friend and who was not.

Defending the indefensible

How silly of me not to realise that association with a law school disqualified me from commenting on ethical issues and rendered my ideas worthless! In my boundless arrogance, I had actually forgotten that the misdeeds of lawyers excuse those of journalists. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Michael Pye (Letters, 27 June) for his gentlemanly instruction on these fine points of argumentation. (He should be forgiven for incorrectly presuming that I am a lawyer and that my income is ‘admirable’ for its magnitude.)

I do have a quibble or two, however. Pye thinks ‘Beyerites’ too eager to insulate journalists’ interviewees from harm: ‘sometimes the car you buy is a lemon,’ he reminds us. Agreed – and usually no blame is called for. But when the seller knows it’s a lemon, and that the buyer is depending upon him to divulge any major problems (due to the nature of their personal relationship, the unavailability of a mechanic, or mere innocence), then we have conduct that is unethically fraudulent and exploitative, if not also illegal.

Journalists, that is, ought to acknowledge that interviewees come in more than one morally-relevant variety, that not all can reasonably be expected to be as cagey as Pye conveniently assumes (like Lynn Barber before him). How many times have we heard journalists, when put on the defensive, inflate the canniness or intelligence of the public (thereby in one shrewd move explaining away their ethical nonchalance toward the common folk while promoting themselves as their comrades and champions?) The reality is that many people are naively trusting of journalists, due to unfamiliarity with their methods and to the heroic public-servant image that they skilfully cultivate. If one of these people is interviewed, in an atmosphere of informal geniality and without being warned that he is engaged in a partly adversarial activity, he may well – despite knowing the encounter to be an interview – be seduced into behaving as incautiously as if it were an ordinary conversation between friends. Pace Pye, it is simply not very clear to most people what the stakes are in an interview. By contrast, a visit to the dentist (Pye’s example) is not nearly as likely to be misconstrued. Nor does a dentist try to extract from people more than they would have him take: he subordinates his interests to theirs. And when he does hope to override their wishes, it is out of concern for their welfare, and he proceeds by advising them and asking their consent. This is a far cry from the interviewing relationship defended by Pye.

Even the law, Pye’s bugaboo, puts journalism to shame on this score. The rules of legal ‘interviewing’ take great pains to prevent deceit and coercion in the eliciting of information. Witnesses in court are apprised of the gravity and adversarialness of the situation explicitly, and also indirectly (by the robes, oaths, bifurcated courtrooms, lawyers’ objections, and other legal trappings), while those in police custody are given express warnings to put them on their guard. Far from these precautions being arcane devices serving only specialised legal ends – indeed, legal process might be more efficient were interrogation conducted without them – they spring from an elementary moral concern for individual autonomy, the right to speak freely or not at all.

Pye’s notion of freedom is, by contrast, an impoverished one. He says of interviewees that ‘anything they do or say is being offered freely, specifically so that the journalist can use it.’ But if they have been misled by the journalist about how he will use the results, and their ‘free’ co-operation has thus been obtained under false pretences, then surely their participation (or the fact that it may be motivated by self-interest) does not exempt the journalist from moral condemnation for his deception or betrayal of trust.

Pye tries to rationalise such conduct by suggesting that journalists could honour their understandings with interviewees only if they were willing to ‘lie’, or in effect cede control of reporting to them. This is a red herring. It overlooks the option of scrapping an interview (or its contested portions) altogether, thereby not having to betray either the interviewee or one’s own journalistic integrity. Worse, it neglects the option of eschewing irresponsible, ill-considered arrangements with interviewees in the first place. When a person is made genuinely aware that his responses will be used however the journalist sees fit, then neither journalistic independence nor the interviewee’s rightful expectations are compromised. Now, are there situations in which tough, probing reporting cannot be done by these rules, and where the unusual importance of the stories – and I don’t mean celebrity exposés, or ‘true crime’ tales like the Jeffrey MacDonald case – justifies some ethical corner-cutting? Very likely. But extraordinary cases do not a general warrant for ethical insensitivity make.

Lawrence Beyer
Yale Law School

Old Literature and its Enemies

Mr Banerjee (Letters, 11 July) has a point. I said British universities were only relatively resistant. Polytechnics have been the main proponents in Britain of the anti-literary phenomena I described, and I think it possible that the abolition of the binary divide, in most ways desirable and long overdue, may turn out to be bad for English studies, which are characteristically immune to sensible developments in the real world.

Of course Mr Sinfield thinks his version is better than mine (but my daddy has an even bigger one, so there). For the record, I don’t think he is much of a menace, though his belief that I do, because I said the real menace didn’t nowadays come from the Right, is on a par with his earlier contention that I said literature was both dead and not dead. I find it hard to regard such reductive point-scoring as a contribution to the ‘serious debate’ he professes to desire. His latest reflections appear in a ‘Bardbiz’ letter (I try not to read these, but, in the immortal words of the late Dr Leavis, someone told me about it), just as his previous reply to me did more than a little Bardbizness on the side. I look forward to the day when a single letter from Mr Sinfield will cover all the topics on your Letter page, past, present and future. You could then reprint it in every issue.

I wish Ms Glass (Letters, 11 July) would write more often.

Claude Rawson
Yale University


Christopher Hitchens in a sour, mean-spirited review (LRB, 25 July) rails against Janet Morgan’s biography of Edwina Mountbatten for being cliché-ridden from start to finish. It turns out his gripe, though, is more against the book’s subject-matter than its style. What he can’t stand are all those ‘powerful’ well-connected types, with ‘wealthy debs’ in tow, frolicking from party to party, whose contribution to public life consists only of ‘gruesome … fiascos’, ‘vile betrayals’, ‘shame-making interludes’, and being ‘scabs’ in the General Strike. His repeated references to the author as ‘Dame Janet’, with the snide tag that she ‘used rather to dominate in that fast set that revolved between Nuffield and Whitehall’, manage to suggest that she too is somehow part of the whole rotten set-up. What a distorted view of things! How dreary and dog-eared the thinking behind it! Dr Morgan, thank heavens, gives us none of this po-faced moralising; she just has a story to tell, which she does with notable wit, humanity and objectivity.

Peter Lamarque

Some years ago I had lunch with the distinguished writer Norman Lewis. As we left the restaurant and I steered the elderly Lewis across the road, I asked him where he was heading. ‘I am going back to my flat,’ he said. ‘I didn’t know you had a flat in London. Where is it?’ I said. ‘I live, my dear, in what is grotesquely known as Little Venice,’ he answered. Later that afternoon, I returned home to my flat where Christopher Hitchens was staying for some weeks. He asked how lunch with Norman had gone and I told him all about it. He was very amused. I am glad to see that he still is, for he has adapted the phrase – somewhat inelegantly – to ‘the grotesquely-named Little Venice’ and used it in his review of Janet Morgan’s biography.

Lucretia Stewart

A Letter from Stevie Smith

Perhaps I can throw light on the Wavell/Browning allusion in Stevie Smith’s letter (Letters, 15 August). I recently came across the following anecdote (now stuck into the front of my copy of Lord Wavell’s excellent anthology Other Men’s Flowers (which he knew by heart from cover to cover!). The following is recorded by Peter Coats, who was Wavell’s Military Assistant:

When the Japanese menace to India was at its height, an order had gone forth from Delhi (GHQ) that all officers should have revolver practice, so everyone, myself included, suddenly became revolver-minded, and I remember Wavell’s ADC in India, Sandy Reid-Scott, who was adept, coaching me in small arms practice, in the garden of the C-in-C’s house, and pretty bad I was at it.

One evening Wavell sent for me to his office. His desk was littered with books, and all the drawers were open as if he had been looking for something. ‘Peter,’ he said, ‘I can’t find my Browning. You did not borrow it, I suppose?’

I spent the next hour frantically searching for a Browning revolver, though it was the Collected Works the C-in-C had in mind.

G.M. Underwood

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