Angus Calder’s review (LRB, 12 March) of Frank McLynn’s books about Richard Burton says little about the books, but a good deal about his prejudices against Burton. Calder presents Burton as a posturing charlatan and finds it remarkable that he continues to attract biographers. What is more remarkable is that Burton continues to attract malice as much as he did in his lifetime, when men half his size slandered him and, more important for Burton, saw to it he did not get the posts he was a hundred times better-equipped to fill than they were. Burton was not ‘a bigoted racist’. He travelled and lived with Arabs and ‘other breeds without the law’ and this shocked his contemporaries, described by Calder as being enlightened. Burton despised Africans, and for this he has to be criticised. But possibly his attitude was because of his travels through kingdoms in East Africa whose cruelty and squalor make Saddam Hussein’s Iraq seem a liberal democracy. ‘Positive discrimination’, that ultimate in trahison des clercs, has drawn a veil over those nasty despotisms.
How do we know Burton would be ‘disgusted by present-day Mashonaland’? He would be a man of this time with the attitudes and prejudices of this time. What evidence is there that Burton was ‘under-sexed, even impotent’, or that he was a sadist – ‘this halt-Irish, part-Scottish sadist’. As for his marriage, Isobel Burton seemed happy with it, and with him. There are other ways one can interpret that extraordinary marriage, and they do not have to be to the discredit of Burton.
Calder describes Karen Blixen’s books as ‘seductive witterings’. She is currently ‘politically unacceptable’. It is forgotten her friendships with black people, who clearly regarded her as a friend, were criticised by white associates. She was in advance of her time.
Where was Ian Hamilton in 1967/70 (LRB, 12 March)? What did he say and do about one of the worst horrors of the century, when the people of Biafra suffered more casualties than Britain did in World Wars One and Two combined? And if he was too young to be around politically at the time, why has he not taken the trouble to catch up? What mandate does he have to be snide about Auberon Waugh’s perfectly straightforward opposition to a genocidal war? May I fill him in?
Wilson’s Government had the support of the Conservative Front Bench, which silenced the argument for a year or more; the BBC, ‘encouraged’ by the Government, banned all radio and TV broadcasting from Biafra; Oxfam and the International Red Cross gave in to political pressure and cut off all aid; every bullet fired by the Lagos army came from British Army stocks; Shell and the City behaved disgracefully; London had a de facto unholy alliance with a Moscow that provided the Nigerian Air Force; the Left, playing the Moscow game, switched off the protest movement; public opinion, baffled, ignorant, insular and cowardly, moved not an inch.
Tiny sections of people behaved intelligently and honourably. Expatriate civil servants, missionaries and other professionals who knew the truth told what they knew; a handful of direct actionists from the dissolving Committee of 100 (I was one) took up the cause from the Committee’s office at 13 Goodwin Street and created the Save Biafra Campaign; and an amazingly mixed collection of distinguished people entered the lists without any label save that of Biafra and common humanity.
The Save Biafra Campaign took over demonstrations from the all-Biafran Biafra Union. The turn-out never exceeded five hundred. We took desperate measures to break the conspiracy of silence. We occupied the Banqueting House in Whitehall, declared it Biafran territory and held it until the Police came through the roof; we interrupted two succeeding Cenotaph ceremonies (after the two minutes’ silence); we took down the Nigerian flag from the front of the Commonwealth Institute, hoisted the Biafra colours and kept them flying until the Police dragged us away; we burnt an effigy of Mr Wilson on the steps of No 10 (the barriers and the present iron gates are a Biafran monument) and we seriously considered kidnapping Mr Wilson’s dog. We backed an international exercise designed to supply Biafra with an air force and advertised in the Times (too late) for volunteers to fight in Biafra.
The FCO stuck to its horrific brief, to maintain the status quo regardless. And what quo was that? In African terms, there is no such place as Nigeria, never has been and never will be. Its politics will always remain impossible. Sooner or later it will go the Yugoslav way. The Biafrans, persecuted and massacred throughout the rest of Nigeria, had no option but to make a start.
Brandeis University, Massachusetts
Edward Pechter in his criticism of Gary Taylor’s essay concedes that ‘there’s lots of great writing in the Middleton canon, even in its pre-expansionist dimensions.’ In the context of Pechter’s hostile argument, this seems to imply that Taylor is artificially expanding the dimensions of the Middleton canon, in order to make Middleton look like a more important author than he is. This is nonsense. Whatever one may think of Taylor’s critical argument, his views about Middleton’s authorship are neither original nor a reflection of the prevailing consensus of specialists. The only two works of disputed authorship mentioned in Taylor’s essay – The Puritan and The Nice Valour – have been treated as Middleton’s by such orthodox scholars as the late Fredson Bowers (general editor of the Cambridge edition of The Dramatic Works in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon) and G.R. Proudfoot (general editor of the New Arden Shakespeare, and of a projected edition of the Shakespeare Apocrypha). Moreover, the more sophisticated authorship studies of the last thirty years have not simply added works to the Middleton canon established by Alexander Dyce in 1840: they have also subtracted works (like The Spanish Gypsy and Blurt Master Constable). The result is not a speciously expanded Middleton canon, but a more accurately defined Middleton canon.
University of Manchester
Rosalind Mitchison (Letters, 12 March) shoots each of her feet. I wrote the book she scorns in order to show the risk in the attitude she so nicely reveals: to try to know too much is to risk understanding less. How does a historian know when she knows enough? By considering the counterfactual implications of what she thinks she does know. What’s involved in doing that? Testing her explanations against the alternatives they suggest, for some of which there’ll be evidential support from elsewhere. And if Professor Mitchison had looked at the chapter in question, she’d have seen that most of the relevant evidence which she mentions is – as it happens – discussed.
Tiers-mondiste romantics (and I suppose I should count myself among them) undoubtedly deserve many of the criticisms levelled at us by R.W. Johnson (LRB, 12 March). But it remains irrefutably the case that less developed countries can only expand their economic horizons within an increasingly interwoven global economy that profoundly disadvantages them, and profoundly favours the former colonial powers; and this is simply unfair.
It is also a motor force of environmental degradation. Johnson cites environmental damage due to ‘simple peasant abuse of the land under pressure of irresponsible population growth’. But peasants pushed onto marginal land (because the best soils are planted out to export crops) have very little choice: either they abuse the soil, and procreate to broaden the family’s labour base, or they give up eating altogether and get top marks for ecological prudence. The important point is that a distributional analysis is essential to understanding not just the unfairness of life as we know it, but also the way in which that structural unfairness is propelling us towards the total, Mad Max breakdown Johnson describes. (And there’s no reason to suppose the shit will only hit poor and geopolitically unimportant, off-the-chessboard Africans.)
I’m exceptionally grateful to George Hyde for his letter (Letters, 12 March), and am the more anxious to clear up a couple of misunderstandings.
1. When I described Swirszczynska as ‘honorary graduand of the careerists’ academy’, I meant that she has been used by them as a totem-figure, a sort of mascot, therefore one of their exploited victims. 2. Still less did I accuse translators of a ‘career-ploy’; that, and the title ‘careerist’, I reserved for the anthologists and other promoters who in many cases have exploited the translator along with the poet translated. This should have been clear from my enthusiasm for Czeslaw Milosz, another of the ‘honorary graduands’, whose assiduous, accomplished and self-denying translations figure largely in Weissbort’s anthology. I’m surprised George Hyde didn’t notice the prominence I gave to Milosz’s protest against the careerists’ poetics of ‘witness’.
But I’m not surprised that Daniel Weissbort (Letters, 12 March) similarly ignored what I said about Milosz. For, as I said in my review, whereas Weissbort can’t afford to deny himself the fruits of Milosz’s scrupulous labours, he has to keep silent about Milosz’s damning observations on the whole enterprise which The Poetry of Survival represents. His silence shows that he has no way to rebut Milosz’s objections. Otherwise, the most revealing thing in his letter is his squeamishness about ‘master’ and ‘mastery’, in talk about poetry. This anthologist is insubordinate on principle, a Leveller. And that, along with the supposition that emotional ‘closeness’ makes up for technical incompetence, defines the fool-proof poetics that he and his fellow careerists have imposed on English poets at their most gullible – in the classroom and in ‘workshops’. Small wonder that Weissbort cannot measure up to a master like Czeslaw Milosz.
I was bewildered by Donald Davie’s vituperative review of Danny Weissbort’s anthology of East European poetry in translation. Certainly he was entitled to bewail the eccentricities of selection, but none of the quotations from the poems themselves or the editor’s remarks accounted for the intense loathing the reviewer expressed for the book, the editor and all the latter’s associates. It was never apparent why the selection of poets or the English of the translations should deserve such venom.
I hold no brief for Danny Weissbort; I have contributed only three items to his publications over twenty years. But how can he be blamed for being younger than Donald Davie or Philip Larkin, for not being shot at or imprisoned, or for believing that Anglo-American verse in the Sixties could have done with an injection of East European poetry? I see nothing patronising or insulting in Weissbort’s treatment of the poets he publishes: even if Czeslaw Milosz was irritated to be called a ‘witness’, few great poets would object to the use of this most respectful of Christian terms to sum up their relationship to their times.
The thrust of Donald Davie’s argument is that Weissbort and his contemporaries are careerists. Given the shoestring that Modern Poetry in Translation has always hung by, and given Weissbort’s uncomfortable life commuting between Iowa and the UK, his careerism cannot have amounted to much: in pensionable terms, it doesn’t hold a candle to the career of Donald Davie. Davie is entitled, like the rest of us, to blow his top and abuse those he dislikes. But the job of an editor is not to perpetuate such regrettable outbursts: my protest is not so much against one hot-headed senior poet as against you, the editors, for cold-bloodedly having this nasty aberration set in print.
Queen Mary and Westfield College,
How could Douglas Johnson be so beastly about that nice Peter Mayle (LRB, 13 February)? Could it be jealousy at only having written boring old tomes like France and the Dreyfus Affair rather than little jewels like Man’s Best Friend (the constant companion in his trousers, as the blurb puts it)? Mayle’s booklets read like storyboards for television commercials, his characters about as believable as those one sees advertising cheese or washing powder. Considering that one can hardly stir in the Lubéron (the part of Provence Mayle infests and miles from here, thank God) without tripping over painters, writers, musicians and politicians weekending from Paris, the Lubéron being to Paris rather what the New Forest is to London, it is odd that only the folksy paysans appear in his scribbling. Going by the endless apocryphal stories he tells, most of which I’d heard by the end of my first summer here, they must have seen him coming and dug out their smocks and designer straws and sat waiting for the pastis to flow.
The saddest consequence of Maylemania is the number of English in their blue-rinsed Volvos who trawl Provence looking for his Noddyland. Once they have got past parlay vous anglay they are bound to be as sadly disappointed as anyone going to the Lake District and hoping to find Arthur Ransome’s Wild Cat Island. Never mind. Writers are peddlers of dreams, are they not? Pity Mayle did not dress up his adman’s vision as a novel, or short stories. Except that if one is conditioned to a maximum concentration span of 30 seconds that would have been the most awful strain for him. And anyway, then he would have to compete with real writers like Jean Giono and Marcel Pagnol. That his patronising, vulgar and irritating books sell is a fairly dismal reflection on the reading habits of the British and on the Post-Modern desert. On his publishers, too, for that matter.
St Julien le Montagnier, France
The editor of a review receives many complaints about reviews. Can you also endure praise? Issue after issue has had reviews arranged so that there is a very pleasurable sequence of reading. That ordering differs from an issue on anthropology and fiction, mere categories. It also differs from a selection of reviews on French literature ordered by the chronology of the books’ subjects. Instead, it is an independent, sequential aesthetic creation. Of all the issues I have noticed, that of 27 February is the most thoroughgoing in sequential pleasure. There is also a practical side: the reader is led to read the whole issue.
It’s National No Smoking Day and I’m closet-smoking. Reading Kafka for comfort, I’m a guilty outcast. And then, oh wonders, I turn to Christopher Hitchens on ‘Booze and Fags’ (LRB, 12 March). Suddenly I feel loved again. I exhale deliciously. If this particular sheet of the London Review of Books were larger, I’d wrap it round myself and sleep in it.