Vol. 14 No. 14 · 23 July 1992

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The Craig Copetas I knew was a regular visitor to my flat in West Parade, Norwich during the autumn of 1972. He was a loud, friendly American with a tendency to mythologise; overnight, a puff on a joint and a bag of crisps would become a two-day orgy. My flatmate then was John Webb, who now lives in Vancouver. We welcomed Copetas in, as we did many others, but later on we began, rather guiltily, to avoid him; he was perfectly harmless, but he was also too excited, too garrulously amazed by his life to be interesting company. Who would want to hold that against him now? We were all young and excited. But today he pops up in your pages (LRB, 25 June) reminiscing in the Gonzo style, twenty years older and curiously unchanged.

Things have come to a sorry pass in a fellow’s life when there appears to be advantage in posing as a flatmate of mine, and I would have let the matter rest had not Copetas also offered me his advice on writing and ‘reality’. I think I catch his self-loving drift – he wants me to write like a stoned hippy. But I never did that, even, or especially, when I was one. I write like this.

For the record then: I never shared a flat with Craig Copetas. We were never writers ‘together’, and we never picked up girls together. This person Claude, whom I do not recall, did not set out on his journey to oblivion from my flat, I threw no party for him and nor did I accompany him to the airport – and so on. But who cares what happened? Only me, I suppose, and my old friend, John Webb. I am sure Craig Copetas remembers those times well enough to write an honest, amusing piece, but here he has attached himself into my past, or me into his, in a way that is predatory and fraudulent. The whole piece is, as William Burroughs might observe, a tissue of horseshit. Yaaaggghhhh indeed!

Ian McEwan

Craig Copetas writes: Is it not amazing how, as our generation gets older, our perceptions of the past diverge? I am grateful that the Ian McEwan I knew let me live in the back room at West Parade for as long as I did. I am sorry, however, that he has lost his sense of humour.

Without knowing why

Victor Mallet (LRB, 28 May) does a serious disservice to the people of Cambodia, and to the views of David Chandler, in his almost total omission of the role of the US in Cambodia during the ‘decade of genocide’. The people of Cambodia are frequently referred to, or cited as, lacking a ‘sense of reality’; ‘allowing terrible things to be done to them’; ‘fatalism is still discernible’; ‘how could Cambodians do this to each other?’ These characteristics could lead one to the impression of a nation of people simply lacking a priori will/volition etc. The role of the US bombings in all of this is mentioned once, tangentially. If we turn to some other David Chandler contributions to the history of Cambodia, we find the following alternative perspective: ‘What drove the Cambodians to kill? Paying off old scores or imaginary ones played a part, but to a large extent, I think, American actions are to blame. From 1969 to 1973, after all, we dropped more than 500,000 tons of bombs on the Cambodian countryside. Nearly half this tonnage fell in 1973 … In those few months, we may have driven thousands of people out of their minds … We bombed Cambodia without knowing why … it is ironic, to use a colourless word, for us to accuse the Cambodians of being indifferent to life when, for so many years, Cambodian lives made so little difference to us.’ A second illuminating extract from Chandler makes one of the missing historical links that would help Mr Mallet to stop anguishing over the question of ‘how Cambodians could do this to each other’: ‘The bombing destroyed a good deal of the fabric of pre-war Cambodian society and provided the CPK (Khmer Rouge) with the psychological ingredients of a violent, vengeful and unrelenting social revolution.’

I suggest that Mr Mallet consider the likely effects of over 500,000 tons of bombing (‘without knowing why’) before he embarks on further racist insinuations about a Cambodian auto-genocide.

Phil Read
Strasbourg, France

No Such Words

D.J. Enright’s interesting review of J.P. Stern’s The Heart of Europe (LRB, 11 June) states how ‘an anecdote that catches Stern’s fancy has to do with Freud, who when he left Vienna in 1938 was asked to sign a statement declaring that he had not been ill-treated; like a parting guest writing in a hotel visitors’ book, he added the comment: “I can recommend the Gestapo most highly to everyone." ’ This tale has been in print at least since the Fifties, yet it is now established that the story is a myth. Perhaps Freud commented, in conversation or in letters, something to the same effect. But the Gestapo piece of paper contains no such words.

Paul Roazen

The Game of Death

In reply to Hyam Maccoby (Letters, 25 June): 1. I did not say – and do not think – that the myths which provided the plots of Greek tragedy had lost all religious force. 2. I do indeed reject the view that the tragedies we possess were ritual re-enactments of the death of Dionysus. As E.R. Dodds used to say, the essence of ritual is repeatability. The Mass, variously performed in various places, remains one thing (compare ‘When you’ve seen one ritual murder, you’ve seen the lot’). The Dionysia were clearly not a ritual of this kind: year after year, different structures were presented, often to the amazement of the spectators (yes, ‘spectators’, not ‘participants’; the Greek word which gives ‘theatre’ is a place where people watch). Indeed, the fact that both the festival and the theatre bear the name of Dionysus makes it the more striking, in my view, that the tragedies range freely over the available myths. This is odd, if you like, but not mind-numbingly odd. If I may offer an admittedly frail analogy, it is as if we had in London a St George’s Theatre and a St George’s Day Festival at which all sorts of plays were performed. Of course it is possible, by metaphor, to interpret all Greek tragedies as accounts of the death and resurrection of Dionysus, but it would be equally possible to show, by like means, that all Greek tragedies are about Heracles (or Apollo, or Orestes, or Athene …). My thought was doggedly elementary: which is the more appropriate term to apply to these texts, ‘ritual’ or ‘play’? I go for ‘play’. That said, Maccoby is right to say that Greek religious feeling is powerfully present. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral is brimful of Christianity. But it isn’t a ritual.

A.D. Nuttall
New College, Oxford

Fair Coppe

In his review of A.D. Nuttall’s Openings (LRB, 11 June), Sir Frank Kermode mentions Nuttall’s reference to one Ebenezer Coppe (in fact, Nuttall simply has ‘Ranter Coppe’). As the discerning will know, the correct name is Abiezer Coppe.

Nigel Smith
Keble College, Oxford

Frank Kermode’s review of A.D. Nuttall’s Openings refers to ‘the Red King’s advice to Alice’. The advice to ‘begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end; then stop’ is given not by the Red King to Alice (in Through the Looking Glass) but by the King of Hearts to the White Rabbit (in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).

Nicolas Walter
London N1

Social work – what went wrong?

Sir William Utting’s article (LRB, 14 May) got it right, though he was describing less a question than an inevitability. His thesis that a weight and demand of public policy – child protection, for example – has collided with the claim to personal privacy in family life is depressingly true; and there have been a lot of casualties. However, my concern in writing is to suggest that one reinforcement of the apparent lack of public support, and of public affection, for social workers is that no one writes literature about them. Policemen, teachers, doctors, nurses and firemen all have regular slots on TV, in films, radio, plays, novels and children’s comics. Inspector Morse, Dr Finlay and Mr Chips, for example. And they appear in ways which present them as three-dimensional. Occasionally they are bad or nasty, but more often kind, sometimes eccentric, humorous, and from time to time heroic. They have recognisable human weaknesses, as well as strengths. Of course they have been around, identifiably, for longer than social workers. But social workers do some of the things that they do.

To no avail. On the box, with the exception of the old Probation Officer series long ago (and probation officers in dirty raincoats are a different species), I can recall clearly only sporadic appearances by social workers. A Seventies play about child abuse When the bough breaks; Griff Rhys Jones three years ago in A View of Harry Clark; and this year a female social worker appearing in a police serial and playing second fiddle to a shabby, collapsing but loveable detective. In most appearances, with the exception of the very attractive black social worker in EastEnders, they were portrayed as neurotic, down-at-heel, hopeless and humourless. Viewers would not want them as friends or next-door neighbours. And I am afraid the bookcase is pretty empty too. If we disregard Oliver Twist, with the corpulent Beadle and lengthy shadow of the workhouse, only Hilary Mantel makes an appearance, with Mother’s Day, which is at least funny, though at the social workers’ expense.

So the non-fiction side has a clear run. TV news bulletins featuring some harassed, shifty-looking Director of Social Services explaining what went wrong; the huge and turgid reports on public enquiries into scandals; and scruffy bands of social work pickets ‘defending’ what went wrong, blot out everything else in the public mind.

David Townsend
Director of Social Services, London Borough of Croydon

Bad Fax

Due to the scrambling of faxed proofs and the consequent need to dictate copy down the line, there were two errors in my article ‘Cheered in the street, much as Charles or Di’ (LRB, 9 July). 1. A sentence got garbled: ‘The growth rate, which averaged only 1.4 per cent p.a. over the whole decade of the Eighties, has been negative for three years now.’ 2. It would be quite untrue to say that ‘there are few white middle-class families left’ in South Africa. That sentence should have read: ‘There are few white middle-class families left, especially Jewish ones, in which some, most or all the kids are not in the UK, US, Australia or Canada, while the parents agonise about whether to join them.’

R.W. Johnson
University of Natal

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