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Letters

Vol. 15 No. 23 · 2 December 1993

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Walk on by

By going into print with his moving account of his stint among London’s beggars, Andrew O’Hagan (LRB, 18 November) has opened our minds as never before to what the beggar’s eye-view of street lite is really like. He has also, I have to say, succeeded in adding a new layer of anxiety on top of all that we already feel when faced by beggars in London, as we run through the reasons why we aren’t going to give them anything. Those reasons usually come down in the end to our telling ourselves that what’s the point, they’ll only spend it badly, on booze or whatever and not a bed. But Mr O’Hagan has perhaps without realising it provided us with a new reason: how do we know that that grimy, depressed-looking character huddled passively up at the way in to the tube station isn’t a journalist, doing his brave best to be one of them for a few days so that he can tell us later what it was like? I’m now worried that I may have seen Mr O’Hagan when he was doing his fieldwork and sidled past him with my loose change firmly clamped into my trouser pocket and my customary guilt feelings chasing through my head. If so, I wish I’d known; it would have saved me a few bad moments. That there is something like a hierarchy among London’s beggars I’ve known ever since the day a year or two back when I was bearded by one of them at a mainline station and, after I’d made some stumbling excuse for not coughing up, was told: ‘I’m the real McCoy, not like those other cunts.’

Dermot Lewis
Horsham

After Waco

Both Fire and Blood and Preacher of Death, the books about the Waco siege reviewed by Malise Ruthven (LRB, 9 September), contain inaccurate data. I live in the countryside some eighty miles south of Waco and the local views of the affair are quite different to those of the two books you reviewed. You must bear in mind that we are all scared to death of the agents of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and most of us will not openly contradict whatever they say or do, especially ordinary Waco citizens. My husband and I watched on our local TV station as the FBI et al bulldozed over the hot coals. We watched as the agents searched for the supposed hidden guns, which were never found. We wonder what happened to that local film footage, which has disappeared from view. The scenes haunt me still, as I suspect they do all locals, but we do not speak to each other about it. It is a shameful secret.

This evening Waco TV station news showed Federal officers removing the few captured Davidians from the Waco jail. The captured wore orange-red nylon coveralls, leg irons and handcuffs and were being photographed by dozens of media men. Even our most hardened murderers aren’t made to wear leg irons. Little children were burned alive in the Waco tragedy. Some locals believe that what we actually saw on TV was the FBI putting bullets into the heads of the dead Davidians. I for one will never forget the horrors perpetrated by my own government.

Louise Horton
Stranger, Texas

Dr Who

Perry Anderson’s Diary (LRB, 21 October) was moving and perceptive on E.P. Thompson. On one small point of difference with Thompson, he seems to me to be half-right. He suggests a Blake/Muggletonian connection, less in ‘New Jerusalem’ common aspirations, than in a provident keep-your-head-below-the-parapet stance in the age of Jacobinism. This is a good corrective to over-romanticising Blake or the sect: I have found Muggletonians in America glorying in their non-involvement in the War of Independence! But Thompson was also half-right. There was a contrary strand within the small sect, which looked back to a radical tradition associated with Muggleton’s co-founder John Reeve, and which had its rival prophets in James Birch and Martha Collier. And even Birch’s ‘orthodox’ opponents conceded his point that 1787 was a good time for men to expect the winding up of the age of the Third Commission, precisely because ‘never was the Naturall Rights of Mankind so well asserted and granted as [it] is now.’

One small personal footnote. I hardly knew Thompson, but he was enormously generous in making available to me his Muggletonian knowledge. His own lack of condescension towards the Last Muggletonian and his family probably was instrumental in their decision to transfer their personal archive to the British Library (now open to all scholars). The family remembers with affection a tall, gangling, be-scarfed figure who descended on them, and whom they called among themselves ‘Dr Who’: an unusual tribute which one suspects he would have enjoyed.

William Lamont
University of Sussex

Turning the other cheek

In a response to my review of his biography of Georges Clemenceau, Gregor Dallas (Letters, 18 November) writes: ‘Nowhere can I find any documentation supporting the other old chestnut that Clemenceau “jokingly referred to himself as ‘le premier flic de France’ ". Somehow,’ he goes on, ‘this just doesn’t sound like Clemenceau. He was not actually a man of hatreds – many of his opponents were.’ The text Mr Dallas needs is in Le Temps for 3 December 1906. As reported in this newspaper, basic reading for all researchers in the field, here is what Clemenceau said in a speech to the Paris polite: ‘Ici, nous sommes tous de la police, et j’en suis le premier agent. [Rires.] Si j’osais employer un mot d’argot, j’ajoulerais que nous sommes une réunion de flics [hilarité générale].’

Mr Dallas is wrong to conclude from the sparsity of my references to his book that I did not read it. It’s because I read this conceptually naive work carefully that I tolerantly chose not to refer to it more often than I did. What was to be said of a six-hundred-page life of a man whose bust was made by Rodin and which mentions this fact in passing and in but a single line; which never mentions Maynard Keynes, the author of perhaps the most famous and insightful essay ever written on Clemenceau; where the narrative account of Clemenceau’s politics proceeds from 1909 to 1914 in a single paragraph? (In these years, Clemenceau met Edward VII, travelled to Argentina, underwent a prostate operation, founded a newspaper and overthrew not just Caillaux’s but Briand’s fourth cabinet as well.) As his letter reminds us, Mr Dallas’s favoured method of research is to go to places where Clemenceau also went (the trenches, the Orangerie, the bocage) in order to free associate: ‘I think you have it; you begin to see and hear it all now. Yes.’ Or: ‘Darkness, colour,’ he writes of Monet’s Nymphéas. ‘That’s Clemenceau’s idea of peace … Sit there, for an hour, alone in silence, on an early Monday morning … The air-conditioning quietly hums.’ ‘Few historians,’ he warns us, ‘have understood this.’ His book, like his letter, is a poor and silly thing.

Unable sensibly to defend his work, Mr Dallas chooses instead to attack the reviewer and the institution where he teaches. Despite Harvard’s many and often oppressive defects, I prefer to think of this privileged university as an extraordinary community of gifted students and serious, able, conscientious scholars, ordinarily conversant with the customs of the republic of letters, invariably well informed in their field of research, and generally endowed with a modicum of manners and good sense.

Patrice Higonnet
Harvard University

Lady Maude

In his Diary (LRB, 4 November) Christopher Hitchens has attributed to Constant Lambert a questionable limerick about Lady Maude Hoare. If his text were imperfect, might he also be wrong about authorship? I remember hearing a better version in 1955, while hanging about the Stag, a pub behind Broadcasting House then favoured by luminaries from BBC Radio Features. The text ran:

‘That will do!’ said the Lady Maude Hoare.
‘I just can’t concentrate any more.
You’re perspiring like hell,
There’s that terrible smell –
And look at the time – half-past four!

Being struck by the power of the piece, I committed it to memory straightaway. Alas, paradoxically, I can’t for the life of me recall who did the reciting. Could it have been Louis MacNeice? Or perhaps C. Gordon Glover? Anyhow, the same voice declaimed several poems, all on the English nobility, and every one of them credited to a ghostly, long-gone creative figure with a name something like ‘Cheatle’. May I hope some scholar will clarify?

Warren Wallace
New York

Privatising the Atmosphere

For every proposition connecting ecocide with central planning advanced by John Gray, I could advance one connecting substantial damage to the environment with free enterprise. If we survey the economic and environmental history of the USA over the last hundred and fifty years we cannot but draw the moral that individual and corporate ownership has not left the ecosystems in much better shape than Kazakhstan is now in. It is true that east of the Mississippi is in better shape but that is because the ecosystems had greater powers of recuperation than in Central Asia, not because Carnegie, Morgan and Rockfeller put conservation before money-making. As for the Midwest, if Gray and Jeremy Waldron (LRB, 4 November) are going to argue that the dust bowls were the result of public ownership I will laugh so loud that you, down under, will hear me.

The appalling truth is that ecocide has accompanied every form of economy. The only valid generalisation to be made from a study of forty centuries of history is that man’s progress has been accompanied, with exceptions, by the massive, sustained and totally self-centred destruction of other species which the wanton killing of herbivores by carnivores falls a long way short of. These exceptions are temperate forests in North-West Europe and eastern North America and tropical forests in Central and South America and South-East Asia; only they are resilient enough to recover from the ravages wreaked on them.

Alan Milne
Sandy Bay, Australia

In print

The hardback edition of Power and Persuasion by Peter Brown, reviewed by Christopher Kelly (LRB, 4 November), is now out of print. A paperback, also from the University of Wisconsin Press, is available at £12.95.

Kate Symonds
Eurospan, London WC2

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