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Letters

Vol. 15 No. 1 · 7 January 1993

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On record

We at the British Library are well used to uninformed press criticism of our new building at St Pancras (LRB, ). We are also familiar with misleading reporting of facts about our new headquarters (which, I can assure you, will open). Your suggestion, though, at times like these, that bombing the building might be appropriate is deeply offensive and, quite frankly, irresponsible.

Michael Smethurst
Director General, London Services, British Library

Tiananmen Revisited

Like A.C. Grayling (Letters, 17 December 1992), I was distressed at the uninformed nature of Ms Tristram’s impressions of the events in Tiananmen Square and their consequences, as also at her easy identification with the excuses offered by China’s ruling clique. Now the rest of the world watches in dismay as China shows its anger at the Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, and the Legislative Assembly: military violence is not an option, luckily for Hong Kong, but it seems that wrecking the prosperity of Hong Kong is (despite its own heavy investment in the colony). Patten is not proposing to introduce Westminster-style parliamentary democracy to Hong Kong: strong executive control will continue into the next century. But even very modest attempts to increase consultation in Hong Kong beyond a small handful of top businessmen and administrators are apparently intolerable to the gerontocracy in Peking.

Bonnie McDougall
Professor of Chinese,

We have read with concern Philippa Tristram’s article (LRB, 19 November 1992). Although it makes some valid points and stresses some facts generally ignored by the media, it contrived to paint a very distorted picture of the events at Tiananmen Square. Tristram’s main argument seems to be that the students at Tiananmen, being ill-prepared and unable to control events, had in some sense brought the violent response upon themselves; and that the authorities had no other option but to react as they did. True many people, though sympathising with their ultimate aim and admiring their courage, were critical of the Tiananmen students for their handling of the situation. Yet with few of their leaders beyond their early twenties and with little help from intellectuals or experienced campaigners, they were surely the side which deserved our indulgence for any shortcomings in keeping control.

Tristram, echoing the disclaimers of the Chinese Government, argued that there was no other way for the authorities to act. The unarmed troops sent in were humiliated; there was a lack of tear-gas, fire hydrants and other standard instruments for crowd control; and the first casualties were accidents. But why would such conditions develop if not because of the incompetence of the authorities? That the students were supported by more than a million citizens of Beijing alone showed that there were reasons for discontent. When discontent is rife, demonstrations are to be expected, and contingency plans and crowd-control tools are obviously needed to avoid loss of life. In the explosive situation which developed in Tiananmen Square flashpoints should have been carefully avoided, and if they occurred, defused. If crowd control is not considered the responsibility of the government, whose responsibility is it?

The Chinese authorities have one immutable belief: that they should hold power and exercise it in whatever way they see fit. The people are not allowed to question this. Given this, there was perhaps no other way the Government could react. But this is not an excuse. Nor is it an excuse to say, as Tristram did, that the Chinese economy is much healthier than it might have been had the Government succumbed in 1989. We, the people, want both a thriving economy and a humane government, and if we do not get both we want to know the reason why, not just be told to shut up or be murdered. And it can’t be said that Western leaders would probably react similarly when trapped in the same situation. No one claims that all Western leaders are naturally better (why should they be?) or that the Chinese or Chinese leaders are somehow an inferior breed. We just say that what the Chinese Government did was atrocious, and that it would be atrocious whether it occurred in China or in the West.

Ultimately, of course, what is of interest is not who is right and who is wrong but what is right and what is wrong. We do not seek revenge for the victims at Tiananmen. What is really important is that nothing like this should happen again, in China or elsewhere. Thus, we would ask Ms Tristram and those who agree with her to refrain from making further excuses for the Chinese authorities.

Chan Hong-Mo, Shen Ning, Lau Bing Sum, Phillip Baker, Stephen Ng, Bobby Chan
Alliance for a Better China, Didcot, Oxfordshire

Homage to Tyndale

The old bias lives on, even while those who hold it profess objectivity. I refer to Professor Trapp’s review of David Daniell’s editions of Tyndale (LRB, 17 December 1992), where he tells us that ‘More was murdered’ and ‘Tyndale was executed.’ If anything, I would have thought that it was the other way round: but then I would not have said that More ‘sternly interrogated’ booksellers and heretics. He tortured them.

Gerald Hammond
Manchester

Leaving Reuters

Michael Davie’s implied commiseration (‘the unfortunate Gerald Long’) over my absence from the Reuters flotation bonanza is kind, but undeserved (LRB, 3 December 1992). I had no part in the operation, which was undertaken after I left Reuters, and so obviously had no shares. It seems odd to describe me as ‘the loser’ because I did not gain what I had never sought. Mr Davie loftily judges that I might well have felt unease about some aspects of Reuters finances in the earlier part of my 18 years as chief executive. No doubt he has never had any occasion to feel unease about the financing of the newspapers for which he has worked, in which case he is fortunate. It was my first duty to keep Reuters free from outside influence of any sort on its reporting, and then to ensure the company’s survival, which was not at that time a certainty, a fact that Reuters’s present position tends to obscure. The state in which I left Reuters shows, I think, that I did something to remove the source of any unease. I would not have described my successor as shadowy, but Mr Davie found him so in the book, which is no doubt why he could not get his name right.

Gerald Long
Paris

Blood on his hands

Soon after my most recent work – Hell’s Foundations: A Town, its Myths and Gallipoli – appeared last April, it was noticed with unqualified approval by, among others, Robert Rhodes James, Thomas Keneally, Dirk Bogarde, Ronald Blythe, Martin Gilbert, John Keegan, Terry Eagleton, Paul West and Jan Morris. All of these have substantial literary credentials. Two of them occupy chairs of Eng. Lit. Another is the greatest living authority on Gallipoli. Seven months later, along comes one Graham Coster to rubbish the book from end to end in your columns (LRB, 22 October 1992).

Coster gives the game away in his opening paragraph – ‘Those, like me, whose awareness of the disaster is limited to Peter Weir’s Gallipoli … ’ In short, he knows next to nothing of the event that haunts my narrative. He remarks on ‘the public pageantry and nostalgia for past heroism, of which Moorhouse is a cravenly enthusiastic supporter’. I challenge him to justify the use of that adverbial clause, not by waffle, but by quotation. He refers to my ‘reverence for, and satisfaction with, official public sources at their face value’. What official sources does he have in mind? They are infrequently used in my book, and where they appear they need no heavy put-down from me: they invariably condemn themselves. He sneers at my research, which ‘smacks of many days’ assiduous trawling through the local newspaper archives’, when it is plain from my source notes that those archives alone must have taken months to examine thoroughly, that my tape-recorded conversations with Gallipoli survivors date back to 1984, when I began work on the book, that my trawling also included the Public Record Office, the Liverpool Record Office, the Imperial War Museum, the Lancashire Fusiliers Archives and rather a lot of books: where would he have looked? He claims ‘we are not … given any clues to the personalities and prejudices of some of the town’s central opinion formers.’ Yet Chapter Seven is substantially about two Rectors of Bury and their powerful influence on the town; and throughout the book, MPs, mayors, grammar-school headteachers and other worthies speak and are characterised. He asserts that ‘we get to know none of the protagonists in this story.’ How about George Horridge, whose life is followed quite closely from his schooldays to his death at the age of 93, or Alice Mitchell, who was a child when her father was killed in the Dardanelles and whose life is similarly logged, or Bob Spencer, who is the last surviving Gallipoli Fusilier, or Lord Derby, who gets a chapter to himself, not to mention the two prelates mentioned above? Coster declares that I am ‘content with dewy-eyed homage’ at the passing of Lord Derby. You would have to be very obtuse not to gather from Chapter Eight that I think Derby was an old humbug with a lot of blood on his hands. I have acknowledged, however, that Bury regarded him with some justice as a benevolent landlord, even if he was a feudal one; and his last appearances in the town were sheer pathos, which I have recorded from my boyhood memories, corroborated by documentary evidence.

Geoffrey Moorhouse
Gayle, North Yorkshire

Adjusting the world

Amartya Sen says (LRB, 5 November 1992) that the Darwinian view of progress ‘draws our attention away from the need to adjust the world in which we live’ because it prompts us to rely on natural or self-imposed selection to adapt us to the world’s discomforts. He goes on to suggest that this inattention is a bad thing, or at least a bad thing for us here and now, and he’s quite right. ‘We do need Darwin,’ he concludes, ‘but only in moderation’ – as if this were an option available to free choice.

All that is needed for Darwinian selection to function is for information to be copied, for the chances of that copying to depend on what happens to the minds or DNA or pieces of paper upon which the information is written because they possess it, and for the occasional (and, because of the killjoy second law, inevitable) typo$=*xC#[ to creep in. Evolution has given us the ability to analyse its game, but it is not within its power to grant the ability to leave the field and to sit upon the benches as disinterested spectators.

Adrian Bowyer
School of Mechanical Engineering,

Who first?

In response to Joanne Lafler (Letters, 5 November 1992) and J.L. Sievert (Letters, 3 December 1992), let me be the first to eat crow: so much for my prediction of a narrow Bush victory. And I so longed to ascend into the punditocracy. I do not wish to appear to be making excuses, but since J.L. wants to know … being a straight-ticket Democrat doesn’t preclude one from calling the shots as one sees them. I incorporated three erroneous assumptions into my forecasting model: 1. No Perot – I didn’t think he would be so vain as to return; 2. Republicans wage superior campaigns – they have to, because their ideas are usually inferior or pernicious; and 3. economic recovery – I believed the economy would begin to turn in October (as opposed to right now), just in time to save Bush’s aimless Presidency.

Blair Ewing
United States Institute of Peace,

Barrelliana

Some months ago (LRB, 9 April 1992) we had the dying words of John Barrell’s mother – ‘Fuck off’ – used to deflate what Barrell saw as John Berger’s aestheticising wordiness. Now (LRB, 19 November 1992) we have his grandmother wheeled on to do more or less the same job – ‘Bugger the ’igh Street’ – on A.S. Byatt. Suggestion: Barrell’s whole apocryphal family should be shoved back on the already overcrowded Clapham omnibus, with the rest of the sentimentalising, patronising and un-argued-for representatives of the Common Man or in this case Woman.

Tim Longville
Maryport, Cumbria

Let down

Let me, a Swedish reader, remind you of the fact that the middle part of Miss Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s name (Letters, 17 December 1992) means (in my vernacular and a bit vulgar) – ‘penis’.

Per Runesson
Umeå, Sweden

Humble Pie

Having taken the authors of London: World City to task for getting a date wrong it was particularly unfortunate that I promptly did the same myself (LRB, 17 December 1992). The Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire in 1834 not 1835 – apologies and humble pie all round.

Rosemary Hill
London SE5

On Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre, I wrote (LRB, 3 December 1992): ‘There’s an argument that her use of the Hegelian-Sartrean framework can be seen as something much more than the often-alleged discipleship; she took it up vigorously and inventively for her own polemic.’ ‘Argument’ was printed as ‘agreement’. There’s no agreement on the point at all. Some feminists think Beauvoir would have done more for the cause without the Sartrean baggage; others can see that she made it surprisingly useful, and eventually left it behind.

Sylvia Lawson
Sydney

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