Vol. 13 No. 23 · 5 December 1991

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War in Yugoslavia

Branka Magas wrote in your last issue about the anti-war opposition in Serbia, mentioning among others Nenad Canak of the Social Democratic League of Vojvodina and the Anti-War Centre in Belgrade. Both have since become victims of Serbian state terror. On the night of 7-8 November, at the behest of the military authorities, Nenad Canak was arrested and taken to the local military barracks. There he was told that he had been drafted into the Army. Nobody knows where he is today. Janos Szabo, president of the Crisis Centre for Anti-War Activities in Senta, a town in northern Vojvodina, had been arrested two days before. Both Canak and Szabo had supported the town’s decision to hold a referendum on the war and on the Army’s illegal mobilisation of reservists in Serbia. The Social Democratic League of Vojvodina, the Democratic Union of Vojvodina Hungarians and the Democratic Union of Croats in Vojvodina have all protested against these arrests. The official press has been waging a systematic campaign against anti-war activists, describing them as ‘direct supporters of the fascist hordes in Croatia’ and thus effectively calling for their lynching. Two days after Canak’s arrest, thugs demolished the premises of the Anti-War Centre in Belgrade. Anti-war activists are frequently attacked. Pavlusko lmsirovic, another activist mentioned in the article, was badly beaten up last October.

The anti-war campaigners need all the support they can get. They represent the possibility of a democratic future for Serbia. We appeal to the readers of the LRB to add their voice to the protests against the harassment of the anti-war movement in Serbia.

Jasmine Killen
Croatian Peace Forum,

Not even a member

Who, I ask, is really behaving in a ‘gerontocratic’ fashion? For in the middle of R.W. Johnson’s bilious attack on the South African Communist Party (LRB, 24 October), in which he writes of the party’s ‘extraordinary continuity … enhanced by … powerful kinship networks which knit the Party together’, I find my name. The implication is obvious: I am one of the SACP’s leading cadres. Very flattering – especially since I am not even a member. I do have tremendous respect for the SACP and the role it has played in the South African liberation struggle, but because of political differences have never chosen to join it. In R.W. Johnson’s world, that doesn’t seem to matter, for what a woman’s father and grandfather do must obviously determine who she is. In R.W.’s world innuendo, gossip and the ‘imaginative’ fusion of disparate events are all meshed together to convince us that his McCarthyite view of the South African liberation struggle is real.

Gillian Slovo
London N5

Browning and Modernism

Concerning half-rhymes and eye-rhymes, John Woolford and Daniel Karlin (Letters, 7 November) say I go wrong ‘in associating Browning’s use of such problematic rhymes solely with formal closure’. But I never denied that Browning and many other poets (including myself, as they gratifyingly notice) use such rhymes in medias res. My point was that when such rhymes occur in circumstances of ‘formal closure’, they draw that much more attention to themselves, are that much more challenging. And how can that be disputed? ‘Closure’ is something different from merely ‘ending’ or ‘breaking off’; though Woolford and Karlin still refuse to acknowledge this. Thus, their defence of Sordello rests on the assumption that closures are fraudulent anyway; that ‘a rag-bag’ (Pound’s word) is as much of ‘form’ as a 20th-century poet can hope to aspire to. Pound’s subsequent Cantos show him struggling, not altogether successfully, to show that this isn’t necessarily so. Henry James wrote admiringly that Browning’s poetry ‘showed extraordinary life’. So it does: but the noblest office of poetry is not just showing but also shaping.

It is delightful to know that Percy of Pimlico is alive and well and living in Malta (Letters, 21 November). He is closely akin to the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, and may be first cousin to Burlington Bertie (who rose at 10.30, and went for a stroll down the Strand – alas poor Bertie, my father knew him well). Freddy Hurdis-Jones rightly reveals that Percy is a lineal descendant of the grand old trouper, Amiens of Arden, whose half-rhymes have rocked them in the aisles for three hundred years. The impeccability of that line of descent was acknowledged in my review.

Donald Davie
Exeter, Devon

Sonia Brownell

In his letter (Letters, 7 November) Francis Wyndham accuses me of being unfair to Sonia Brownell in my biography of her first husband, George Orwell. He says that she was an exceedingly generous woman who gave little thought to Orwell’s ‘modest fortune’ when she married the dying novelist in October 1949. I leave the question of her generosity to others, but I think it is dishonest to pretend that money did not influence her action. She was in no position to ignore Orwell’s wealth. In the autumn of 1949 she was on the verge of losing her job at Horizon – it closed at the end of the year – and she had no money of her own in reserve.

It is absurd to claim that Orwell’s fortune was ‘modest’. During the last four years of his life, Animal Farm sold over 600,000 copies in Britain and America, and in early 1949 the Book of the Month Club paid a large sum for the rights to Nineteen Eighty-Four (his British publisher Frederic Warburg estimated the sale to be worth at least £40,000).

Wyndham calls Frank Kermode’s review of my book (LRB, 24 October) ‘finely judged’. I am afraid that I do not know what to call it. When Kermode begins rambling on about the Mafia, the Vatican and Sicilian peasants, I have trouble keeping up with his argument. I must say, however, that I am intrigued by his obsessive interest in my prose style, especially in regard to its phallic qualities, or lack thereof. He finds it ‘soft and enervated’, ‘flaccid’, ‘limp’ and ‘feeble’, and he imagines that Orwell would be ‘roused’ to anger by its ‘sheer floppiness’. I am grateful for this criticism and in future will heed Iron Frank’s call ‘to stiffen a few sinews and summon up some blood’.

Michael Shelden
Indiana State University

Homage to Wilson and Callaghan

Is Ross McKibbin (LRB, 24 October) correct when he says that the Tory Party does not apologise for its own past? I would have thought that the massive re-orientation of Tory thinking undertaken by Butler, Maudling, McLeod and others after 1945 represented a clear repudiation of a recent Tory past. And nothing Kinnock has said about Wilson or Callaghan corresponds to Churchill’s denunciation of Baldwin and Chamberlain. Churchill’s two successors, ‘Munich’ Eden and ‘Middle Way’ Macmillan, were both living embodiments of how the Tory Party can reject its past when it is a political burden. The problem for Major, Patten et al is that none had the moral or political bravery of a Macmillan or an Eden to stand up to the follies of Thatcherism, and have only discovered the courage of their centrist convictions once she was gone.

I also think there is a clear difference between the rehabilitation of Wilson and that of Callaghan. I was at school when Wilson won in 1964 but by the time Callaghan took office I was a union official and Labour Party activist in the West Midlands. All I can remember, long before the Winter of Discontent, were dog days in which we lost the safest of safe seats in by-elections, alienated most of the intelligentsia (not just the effortless condescenders in the posh media circles of London), drove people mad with illiberalism in areas of freedom of information and harassment of journalists, and gave rise to syndicalist militancy because of an incoherent industrial and social policy.

Perhaps future historians will find greatness in the Callaghan government, and certainly if comparison with the Eighties is the only criterion the economic and social achievements of Labour in the Seventies appear stupendous. But if the comparison is with what other European countries achieved the story looks worse, much worse. The main difference is that neither Wilson nor Callaghan took the political process seriously, other than in an élite Westminster sense, and let the Labour Party rot and become infected by the élite arrogances of SDPers or Militants. Nor did they bother to try to build a broader political coalition in the country. Kinnock is more modern and European, in the sense of ruthlessly making the Labour Party fit to govern in the style of a Mitterrand, Gonzalez or Brandt, and gingerly opening the way to challenging the ‘present institutional and constitutional arrangements’ which McKibbin rightly identifies as being the main block to Labour ever enjoying more than a half decade in office at a time. In that sense, Kinnock and his team, rather like the Tories who reshaped Conservatism in the late Forties, do represent a break with the past of quite a fundamental nature. And just as it would have been a bold Tory who invoked Baldwin in the Fifties, I expect we shall wait a good while before Callaghan’s administration evokes much excitement in Labour’s heart.

Denis MacShane
Divonne, France

A Letter from Stevie Smith

A hybrid described as ‘a Browning revolver’ has recently appeared in the LRBLetters, 29 August, ‘A Letter from Stevie Smith’, quoting Peter Coats, Lord Wavell’s Military Assistant in India), and the TLS (13 September, ‘The Draughtsman’s Youth’, where Alfred Jarry waves a rusty one). In common usage, ‘a Browning’, named after its inventor, is the flat automatic pistol with the magazine in the grip, while a revolver is the one with chambers in a revolving cylinder. The revolver came first, and the early automatic pistols often malfunctioned. The Chicago gangsters even had a saying, ‘Never trust a woman or an automatic pistol,’ but automatic pistols have improved greatly since then, and today, with their higher rate of fire and faster reloading, outnumber the revolvers, which are still considered more rugged and reliable, and, of course, remain indispensable for Russian roulette.

Zygmunt Frankel
Ramat-Gan, Israel

No ban on Marxists

Andrew Brighton writes in his Diary (LRB, 7 November): ‘The staff of the BBC are vetted by MI5 and Radio 3 has long operated a ban on Marxists.’ The second part of this statement is rubbish. Even a casual listener like me can pick up Christopher Hill, Terry Eagleton and others on that wavelength without difficulty.

Brian Stone
London W8

Sod off, readers

In reviewing the history of the London Library (LRB, 26 September), John Sutherland refers to the ‘librarian’s dream’ of a library without books, and this after having described the efforts of the librarians of the London Library to preserve the book side of the ‘information’ system. Is this not like referring to all those people connected with universities as ‘academics’, and failing to make the distinction between (system-)administrators and teachers? The tension between the professionals and the administrators is as strong in libraries as in universities. It is curious that Professor Sutherland does not follow up his further observations on the British Library: the net minor increase in readers’ seats at an extravagant price, the seemingly uncontrollable costs of operating the new systems (as against the comparatively modest cost of buying them), and their technological inadequacies. The old book catalogues of the library allow access to as many readers as there are volumes. The new technology is attempting to be an ideal everything to a utopian everyman, and ends up constrained by external factors: primarily cost and space. And as usual with systems (consider bureaucracies), the resources of money and space are more and more devoted to the system. The ‘Luddites’ are not yearning for volumes covered in dust, but rather protesting that a highly effective piece of technology – the book – is being sacrificed to the imperatives of system-builders who fail, for example, to see the distinction between a library and an archive.

Some decades ago, Gilbert Highet noted the resemblance between the latest technology (microfilms) and the ancient roll form of books. He opined that the difficulty of unravelling the rolls was not unlike the problem of dealing with microfilms. So will the new technology become so expensive and cumbersome in trying to contain an Atlantic Ocean of uninformed information that a selective technology will develop? For the moment the best bet seems to be that it will take the form of books.

Gabriel Austin
New York

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