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Letters

Vol. 14 No. 16 · 20 August 1992

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Skjymping

If the account of Lawrence Millman’s Last Places given by Chauncey Loomis (LRB, 23 July) is faithful to the book then both author and reviewer appear to be publicising at least one very misleading stereotype. I’m acquainted only with one of the places referred to, Shetland – ‘the Shetlands’ is a solecism – and the portrayal there is a gross caricature. Far from being an isolated community on the continent’s edge, the island’s inhabitants are as cosmopolitan and mobile as any in Europe, and were so long before the oil boom, thanks to the tradition of most of their young men spending time as merchant seamen. Walls is not a village but a township of scattered houses and does not possess any streets. The Norn language died out in Foula in the early 18th century and inhabitants capable of reciting, without understanding, some of its poetry haven’t been around since the beginning of this one. One suspects that the people Mill-man quotes were, when interrogated by him, engaging in the traditional pastime of taking the piss out of verbosely curious strangers. There’s even a specific dialect word for the practice: it’s called ‘skjymping’.

W. Thompson
Glasgow Polytechnic

Scotch Corner

In his cogent review (LRB, 9 July) of Douglas Dunn’s excellent anthology of modern Scottish verse, where (for once) adequate space is accorded to the badly neglected W.S. Graham, Donald Davie underlines and accentuates that poet’s achievement and importance. But as an old and close friend of Sydney’s I’m bound to contradict his description of Graham as ‘not a convivial drunk; but sour and contumacious. And he was a sponger and a skiver.’ My experience of Sydney in the pubs of Soho and Cornwall, not to mention Left Bank cafés, was totally different. Any old friend of his will confirm that if ever there was a convivialist it was Sydney. He got on with people of all kinds and classes, bar the self-important. As for sponging and skiving! Like Dylan Thomas, whose memory suffers from the same canard, he was generous and careless with money when he had it, and in the Soho tradition expected others to be the same. Be it remembered that Sydney, sans private income, remained totally committed to his vocation at a time when there were few hand-outs for poets, or chairs of creative writing. For the record, unasked but knowing he was pretty strapped I once gave, not lent, him £10. (In the Forties, this was money.) A year or two later Sydney won an Atlantic Award. Almost the first thing he did was to pay me back that £10, unasked and unexpected; to my shame, I cashed his cheque.

David Wright
Algarve, Portugal

It was cheering to read Diana Hendry’s character reference for W.S. Graham (Letters, 6 August), and to learn that she admires the poems too. She should be pleased that Faber and Faber will be publishing a new Graham title next January, Aimed at Nobody, a collection of previously unpublished poems assembled by Margaret Blackwood and Robin Skelton. There are no plans yet For a Complete Poems, but the Collected Poems, which have been in print since 1979, are still available.

Christopher Reid
Faber, London WC1

Laureate Verses

John Bayley (LRB, 9 July) tries to support his case for the ‘wholly satisfactory incongruity’ of Ted Hughes’s Laureate verses by saying: ‘It is as if Blake were exulting in the life of George III.’ Insofar as he referred to moneyed, would-be authoritative national leaders, and the ways in which they assumed, exerted and held onto power (hereditary nepotism, sanctimoniously corrupt churchmanship, industrial profiteering, exploitation and suppression of the poor and unprivileged, divide-and-rule empire-building, colonial slavery, warfare), Blake’s was the labour of a hard-headed radical to knock them off their pedestals of clay: ‘Princes appear to me to be fools. Houses of Commons & Houses of Lords appear to me to be fools: they seem to be something else besides human life.’

Hughes has been trying to perch the Queen Mother, the Queen, their descendants and their spouses, onto pedestals in cloud-cuckooland ‘as a manifestation of the Great Goddess’, and to relate their family lives to wish-fulfilment dreams of his own such as the allegedly ‘Shakespearian vision of democratic justice identical with Divine justice’ (surely undreamed in their philosophies). This gilds them with superhuman attributes a lot less observable than the inhuman or un-humane ones ascribed to their ilk by Blake.

Varying degrees of unhumanity are endemic to much regal and political activity, because this tends (across contemporary Britain, at least) to defer to the authoritarian-hierarchical panoply of nation-state power as its sine qua non. All this is called into question by much of Hughes’s non-Laureate poetry, and nowhere that I know of more explicitly than in a recent example, ‘Lobby from under the Carpet’, composed for the Times’s Polling Day issue (9 April). These verses expose toxic chemicals as the direct source of a 50 per cent decline in human reproductive power over the last twenty-five years, with succinctly telling image and cadence:

I dreamed a waste-disposal man
Hires each sperm as a tanker
To lug his poisons off somewhere
While he winks at the Banker.

Hughes adds the specific charge that in Thatcher’s third term

Britain became the pit
Of Europe’s and the whole world’s waste
For us to scavenge it

It is in this outspoken, unofficial mood that Hughes’s poetry becomes comparable with the ‘unfettered’ exhortations of Blake the practical revolutionary and globally democratic prophet.

Michael Horovitz
Bisley, Gloucestershire

Despondent

In her review of Muriel Spark’s Curriculum Vitae (LRB, 6 August) Jenny Turner quotes the autobiography’s last sentence, ‘However, I took great heart from what he said, and went on my way rejoicing,’ and observes that ‘this business about going on one’s way rejoicing, as faithful Spark fans may already have recognised, is one of Muriel Spark’s favourite catch-phrases.’ She stales that in Loitering with Intent (1981), which ends with the words, ‘And so, having entered the fullness of my years, from there by the grace of God I go on my way rejoicing,’ we have already seen Fleur ‘lift the phrase, word for word, from Benvenuto Cellini.’ The phrase occurs twice before the end of the novel: first, when Fleur has obtained copies of Cellini’s Vita and Newman’s Apologia and ‘went on my way rejoicing’, and secondly in direct quotation from Anne Macdonell’s translation of the Vita in the Everyman edition (as acknowledged in a prefatory Note) in which Cellini says that at the age of 58 ‘by God’s grace, I am now going on my way rejoicing.’

However, the words are ill-described as a ‘catch-phrase’, and their description as such raises wider issues. Anne Macdonell, in choosing to translate con la quali tanto felicemente io, mediante la grazia di Dio, cammino innanzi as she does, is echoing the Acts of the Apostles 8.39 in which the Ethiopian eunuch, having been baptised by Philip, ‘went on his way rejoicing’. It is inconceivable that Muriel Spark, unlike Ms Turner, did not recognise the allusion and use the Biblical context of this liminal moment in the Ethiopian’s post-baptismal Christian life to indicate a threshold in Fleur’s life in the novel and in her own in the autobiography which ends with her becoming a novelist of significance.

It is with increasing despondency that one observes how frequently today Biblical allusions pass unnoticed in criticism; with the decline in church attendance and with school assemblies turned into social issues sessions, a whole generation of critics and academics is unaware of Biblical reference. Of course, for literature alter 1611 it is the Authorised Version which must be read, but that is becoming a largely unread and unheard book. In the case of Muriel Spark’s words, a reader of The Good News (alias Riddance) Bible (‘but continued on his way, full of joy’) might, for once, get an allusion, but the hapless user of The Bible for today’s Family (‘but he was very happy as he went on his way’) would be hard-pressed to hear the echo. As another ‘catchphrase’ has it, ‘eyes have they, but they see not: They have ears, but they hear not’ (Psalm 115.5-6)

Edward Wilson
Worcester College, Oxford

Bitter cold

Only this morning did I read your essay (LRB, 26 March) about my work. For this relief much thanks; ‘tis bitter cold etc.

Kurt Vonnegut
Sagaponack, Long Island

Housewives are expendable

Though E.J. Mishan’s male chauvinism is hilarious, his ignorance of English is no laughing matter (Letters, 25 June). He berates G.A. Cohen (LRB, 14 May) for using feminine pronouns, rather than masculine ones, to refer to both sexes, as in ‘A liberal is not a hypocrite merely because she favours her own child.’ Mishan says ‘he’ in such a sentence acts as ‘an alternative to one’. So let’s try substituting ‘one’; unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work. Of Professor Cohen’s use of ‘she’, Mishan says it ‘imparts something of a mental jolt to the reader’. The comparable use of ‘he’ has been imparting mental jolts to readers for six centuries, because no amount of talk about ‘a mere grammatical convention’ alters the fact that ‘he’ summons images of males only.

Latterday feminists are not the first to find the ‘he’ usage offensive: since at least Chaucer, careful writers have thought it foolish. Why, then, didn’t they develop epicene third-person singular pronouns? Because they used instead the plural pronouns: ‘And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,/They wol come up’ (Chaucer); ‘And every one to rest themselves betake’ (Shakespeare); ‘Every fool can do as they’re bid’ (Swift). This happy practice continued until the grammarians Robert Lowth in America (1762) and Lindley Murray in Britain (1795) decreed it ‘incorrect’ and prescribed the masculine pronouns. Four centuries of tradition and common sense were overthrown, and people have been browbeaten into writing sentences like this, by a New York State Assemblyman: ‘Everyone will be able to decide for himself whether or not to have an abortion.’

Of course, speakers of idiomatic English have paid no attention to the Lowth/Murray rules. Nor have the best writers: ‘Who makes you their Confidant?’ (Austen); ‘A person can’t help their birth’ (Thackeray). This is an ancient and standard usage; it even carries the OED’s imprimatur. Some of those who believe ‘he or she’ (which dates from the 18th century) and ‘she or he’ too cumbersome have taken to alternating masculine and feminine pronouns. Since he quotes from Thomas Nagel such sentences as ‘Everyone has his own life to live,’ while himself using feminine pronouns. Professor Cohen is, in effect, employing alternation.

Robert Allen
Philadelphia

After reading the debate in your Letters column on the use of ‘she’ in place of ‘he’ as the standard singular pronoun of expository prose, a usage which has recently become Conspicuous in the writings of contractarian philosophers, I wondered how such substitution would work in a sentence I had just written: ‘Would the value subjectivist regard the loss of his limbs or his eyes as a loss of no objective value?’

Now historically, I know no women who have led the argument for value subjectivism. Men have. So to refer to ‘she’ in such sentences instead of ‘he’ may attribute to ‘she’ what in fact only ‘he’ holds. The feminine pronoun becomes more embarrassing when the sentence refers to the ‘she’ who argues for more money incentives to the already well-off, for the nuclear bombing of another society to fulfil a threat even if it does nothing to deter attack, or for the non-obligation of the rich to give a penny to assist the poor of their societies even if the poor are starving. All of these are positions of well-known contractarian philosophers who favour ‘she’ in place of ‘he’ in their arguments. The question thus arises: is this substitution of ‘she’ for ‘he’ either fair or true for her, or is it just another tactic to soft-sell his nasty positions?

John McMurtry
University of Guelph, Ontario

Professor Cohen (Letters, 9 July) correctly asserts that it is I, Ezra Mishan, who experiences a jolt when coming across ‘she’ in print instead of the traditional usage of ‘he’ to indicate a person of either sex. He does not, of course, go so far as to say that I am the only person so affected, but he does suggest that I do a survey before generalising. Since he himself, however, goes on to inform us that ‘in much US academe “she" is no longer arresting,’ I wonder if he would be so kind as to present us with the details of his own survey that would enable us to put a figure on the ‘much’ of the US university personnel. I also quite agree with his statement that ‘to the extent that jolts occur’ it is ‘because the new use is not sufficiently entrenched’. For inasmuch as the measure of this entrenchment is a failure to be jolted the sentence is clearly a tautology. As for Cohen’s remark that a spreading acceptance of ‘she’ is ‘how it should be’, the ‘should’ is not obvious unless one accepts the PC agenda. Or perhaps such linguistic innovators really believe that more ‘she-ing’ will act over tune to shunt the feminist superstructure ‘liberationwards’ towards sex-symmetric utopia. They may even have evidence for the belief in the form of a survey.

E.J. Mishan
Hove, East Sussex

Down, don, down

John Sutherland writes (LRB, 6 August) that in the UK, if one reckons from the increased price of books over thirty years, ‘starting academic salaries should be £28,000 (which they are in the best American colleges).’ He’s very wrong about American colleges, even the best, where the starting salaries (in the humanities) won’t be more than $35,000 or £17,500. At most American colleges starting salaries are about half what he says, £14,000, and salaries for tenured faculty in the highest professorial rank will be about £28,000 or a little more. Alas! But housing in the US is probably a little cheaper than in the UK, and books are certainly so.

Mark Taylor
Manhattan College,

Yaaaggghhhh

Even if he were right, which intuitively I doubt, I wonder about the necessity of Ian McEwan’s mean-spirited attack on Craig Copetas (Letters, 23 July). His cruelty makes for ugly reading and diminishes him in my mind as both a writer and a man.

J.L. Sievert
Osaka, Japan

Unfair to Forster

Ian Hamilton infers from his reading of John Carey’s book (LRB, 23 July) that E.M. Forster would have better served the likes of Leonard Bast by teaching at night school rather than making play with Bast’s aspirations in Howards End. Forster’s biographer, P.N. Furbank, says on page 110 of the biography: ‘Also, profiling from his Italian tour, he had begun to do some extension lecturing for the Cambridge Local Lectures Board.’ He lists the headings of Forster’s earliest course from ‘The Birth of Florentine Civilisation’ to ‘The Fall of the Republic’, adding that ‘it was a course he continued to give up and down the country for some years.’ In a footnote Furbank states that ‘in 1909 he was giving a series of University of London extension lectures on “The Renaissance at Rome".’ Howards End was published in the following year. Such courses would have attracted Bast. Furthermore, they would have given him access to a role in Forster’s Italian novels, assuming he could have acquired the fare to travel to Florence. His wife, Jacky, had managed to raise the fare presumably for her return from Cyprus – through services rendered to Henry Wilcox?

Incidentally, those closet-Moderns Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence lectured in adult education at one time in their careers. And I am happy to report from extension lecturing experience that Bast is alive and well and still attending courses in élitist literature at such establishments as Morley College and the City Literary Institute.

David Jesson-Dibley
London SW11

My Guy

The name of the ‘hero’ of my novel The Space Trap is Alan, not Colin as Frank Kermode has it (LRB, 6 August); Alan’s son’s name is Colin. And this is not a matter of mere names, since I used my own name for the abandoned son with a certain point in mind. Oddly enough, a review of the novel in Time Out called my guy Alan Smith, not Alan Swift: but, unlike Frank Kermode’s piece, it was inaccurate in other respects too. I expect Alan Swift will soon be known as Colin Smith.

Colin McGinn
New York

Puff

To David Townsend’s list of fictional social workers (Letters, 23 July) I would add one of my own. My forthcoming novel A Rather English Marriage has as its dea ex machina a charming, resourceful social worker called Mandy Hope.

Angela Lambert
London SW5

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