Reading the private correspondence of any writer, as Colm Tóibín did Graham Greene’s (LRB, 9 June), can be an eye-opening experience but the voyeuristic reader needs to keep a sharp look-out for the wool which is hovering just outside the field of vision. That Greene was a fine novelist is doubted by few but that he was an expert wool merchant is not yet fully acknowledged. I should like to offer Colm Tóibín tweezers and an eye-bath.
Graham Greene was approached by Sean Donlon of Guinness Peat Aviation (GPA) in December 1988 to see if he would agree to function as the final adjudicator for the 1989 GPA Book Award. Greene was happy to so do but on terms which were unusual and which GPA did not fully comprehend. Greene insisted that he could go beyond the shortlisted titles in his nomination of the book which would receive the Award. The company was pleased to have secured the services of ‘the greatest living man of letters in the English language’ (Tony Ryan, chairman of GPA) and felt obliged to indulge him.
Early in 1989 GPA approached me and asked me to become the administrator of the Book Award and to recruit the panel of international assessors whose task it would be to draw up the shortlist. By mid-spring the books were flowing in, intensive reading was underway – the show was on the road. It was early June before I finally made it to Antibes to brief Greene on the shape and pattern of the Award. When I entered his living room there was a single volume in the middle of his table: it was Vincent McDonnell’s novel The Broken Commandment. Over drinks Greene told me that this was the book to which he had decided to give the Award. It look a lengthy and convivial evening to convince him to defer a final decision in this matter until after he had seen the shortlist which would be compiled in September, after the qualifying period for books had expired. Of the many small services I have rendered to Irish letters, getting drunk with Graham Greene was not the least pleasurable.
Greene’s patronage of McDonnell’s novel was extensive and the subject of common knowledge in the book trade. He had ‘encouraged’ Max Reinhardt (his own publisher) to publish it in 1988, he had written an endorsement for the jacket and he had tried, unsuccessfully, to have the novel considered for the Sunday Express fiction prize. Greene must have regarded the GPA Book Award as a ‘godsend’.
In September I brought copies of the five titles on the shortlist to Antibes. For the record, these were: Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland, Seamus Heaney’s The Haw Lantern, John Banville’s The Book of Evidence, Aidan Mathew’s Adventures in a Bathyscope and Shane Connaughton’s A Border Station. The four-member panel of assessors had considered McDonnell’s novel but unanimously decided not to shortlist it. After more conviviality Greene agreed to read the books and we arranged another meeting in October. That meeting took place on Sunday 1 October in Antibes while the wavelets lapped the hulls in the marina and the vodka lapped the hulks indoors.
Greene was in a fix: he had (foolishly) intimated in writing to McDonnell (on 4 April 1989, as Tóibín reveals) that he ‘would be getting some good news in the autumn’ but he now realised that McDonnell’s novel was not the best of the total submission for the Book Award. The claims made by Banville’s novel were more than insistent and Greene was susceptible to them, despite his foolishness. The interim solution we jointly worked out that evening was that I would put pressure on GPA to come up with an additional £10,000 and recommend a 40/20 split of the augmented Book Award. I felt that GPA would buy the proposal: the difficulty I anticipated was selling the proposal to the writers. No one bought it, so the fix was now mine.
It was obvious to me that the ideal solution was to give the full Book Award to Banville and install another award for McDonnell to satisfy Greene’s magnanimity or his vanity or both. With Greene’s collusion, therefore, I exerted more pressure on GPA and the company came up with yet another £10,000. Greene was astounded by such largesse: munificence did not feature in his gloomy world. The story has been put about – Greene himself initiated it – that GPA put intolerable pressure on him to come up with the company’s desired solution. This, and the parallel one that the pressure ‘hastened his end’, like many another story chez Greene, is a mischievous nonsense. The only pressure GPA exerted on Greene was the upward pressure on his buttocks from the passenger seats of limousines, a helicopter and an executive jet during his trip to Dublin for the Award.
On his way out of the hotel on the morning following the Award, Greene was ‘door-stepped’ by a journalist who was told that the Award should have gone to McDonnell, not Banville. It would appear that integrity, too, was in short supply in Greene’s world. It is touching to learn from Tóibín that McDonnell’s wife wrote to Greene saying that he was one of the ‘36 good people on this earth’. I fervently hope the glorious powers will prevent her meeting a villain.
Richard Wollheim’s account of his war experiences (LRB, 23 June) is moving and masterly. His initial pacifism, his subsequent cool courage and the closing comment on whether ‘the haphazard killing’ was worthwhile without an eventual ‘change of heart’ says all that needs to be said about the futility of war. There is much else in the article about how war dulls human reaction to brutality. The account of the hooligan prank played on him in the officers’ mess (faking, with the MO’s connivance, his wetting of his trousers) is a small but significant bit of evidence of how war brutality can be personified.
Proustians everywhere will be bucked to learn from Richard Wollheim’s account of his war that he got a job at HQ because he was one. Far better literary chat than flying gliders, I’d say. Did the unusually literate Brigadier ever call on him to talk about Proust, though? I wish Wollheim had said.
R.W. Johnson is too eager by half to question the neutrality of others (LRB, 28 April): why, for instance, does the long-time opposition to apartheid on the part of Neil Kinnock and the Labour Party make them less than neutral observers of the election process? In his attribution of pro-ANC bias to other observers, he exposes the mote in his own eye. In so doing, he falls prey to that particularly British distortion, exemplified by Baroness Thatcher and the Times, which sought so often to denigrate the African National Congress by an uncritical acceptance of the judgments and the domestic standing of other players.
As chairman of the Commonwealth Observer Mission, I was based in Johannesburg from January until the end of May. I was in my Carlton Centre office in downtown Johannesburg on 28 March, the day when over fifty Zulu supporters of King Goodwill Zwelethini were killed in the course of a march and rally. Johnson’s account of this event is both flawed and distorted. 1. There was no ‘widespread suspicion’ that the sharpshooters surrounding the Library Gardens, who were responsible for most of the deaths, were ANC activists. There was, however, a suspicion, which apparently did not reach some parts of Natal, that those responsible were members of the South African security ‘Third Force’. 2. Johnson conveniently ignores the issue of how marchers ended up outside the ANC headquarters in Plein Street, some blocks away from the route to and from the Library Gardens. While the action of ANC guards cannot be defended, the provocative nature of the detour has to be acknowledged as a contributing factor in their behaviour. 3. While IFP marches and rallies had normally been well-organised and disciplined, this was not the case on 28 March. 4. In the aftermath of the tragedy, many questions were asked concerning the wisdom of the march being allowed, and the apparent lack of preparation on the part of the police. These questions were not confined to the Weekly Mail and Guardian. 5. While it is true that police permission was given for the march, the permission was sought by and given, not to ‘Zulu loyalists’ but to the IFP leadership in PWV, though there was some ducking for cover on that issue afterwards.
The Goldstone Commission charges concerning ‘Third Force’ promotion of black/black violence cannot be simply brushed aside in one passing sentence. That there was a long-standing and (at least until recently) continuing practice of intimidation and murder on the part of elements in the South African security forces is now widely believed. What was not yet clear by the time I left was whether the rest of the iceberg will ever be fully revealed, and whether any of Goldstone’s serious charges will ever result in anything more than a series of early retirements.
The description of peace monitors as ‘self-styled’ is gratuitous. The four international observer groups (UN, EU, OAU and Commonwealth) went to South Africa late in 1992, in response to UN Security Council resolution 772. A major factor in the decision to send observers was that they should endeavour to assist in bringing an end to the violence which had escalated since the dramatic developments of early 1990. In the exercise of their role, the four missions worked closely from the outset with the peace structures. These structures had been established after the signing of the National Peace Accord by 26 parties and interested groups in September 1991. Of recent times largely unsung because of the greater newsworthiness of other events, the peace structures often played an outstanding and courageous role in peacemaking and in defusing tension, especially in local communities. Peace monitors, clearly identifiable in their distinctive orange jackets, were a trained, official and respected part of those structures.
The incoming Government of National Unity needs all the help and encouragement it can get, in the enormous tasks of reconstruction and development ahead. Britain’s official attitude in the long years before South African independence too often gave comfort to the oppressors and the troublemakers (a charge which could also be made against my own country until the end of the Muldoon era).
Porirua, New Zealand
Heinz Lettau, Rommel’s chief meteorologist (Letters, 23 June), did not move directly to Madison. I admired, and still admire, his meteorological research and I visited him in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1954. He was at that time a keen player of badminton. He recalled that, after his capture by US forces, he and his fellow prisoners of war habitually drank Aqua Velva aftershave, the only alcohol they could put their hands on. Professor Lettau is still alive and in retirement in Madison.
Trinity College, Cambridge
Paul Tvrtkovic (Letters, 9 June) is wrong to say that I wrote my book Bosnia: A Short History to support currently fashionable theories. I wrote it in order to dispel a large number of fashionable myths and fallacies, among which, I am afraid, Mr Tvrtkovic’s all-Croat theory is one.
He accuses me of inventing a Bosnian identity and concealing the fact that the people of Bosnia were always ‘really’ Croats. All I have done is to state the historical facts, which are that Bosnia has been a distinct geographical and political entity with an almost continuous history as such during the last eight hundred years. I use the term ‘Bosnian’ as it has been used by writers for most of that period, to refer to the people who lived in that Bosnian entity. From the Middle Ages to the 19th century, the term ‘Croat’ or ‘Croatian’ was similarly used to refer to the people who lived in the Croatian geographical and political entity. There was some overlap, of course, as the boundaries between those two entities fluctuated over time. But in general the people of Bosnia did not call themselves ‘Croats’ – not even the Catholic Bosnians, who called themselves ‘Christians’ or ‘Latins’ instead. In his own published work on the history of Bosnia, Mr Tvrtkovic goes to great efforts to show that the Bosnians were identified as Croats; but for the entire Ottoman period he can come up with only a tiny smattering of evidence, some of it indirect and some of it false.
It was only in the 19th century that modern concepts of national identity, based on criteria of religion, language, history and self-identification, began to be applied in that part of Europe. It then became possible for Catholic Bosnians to be identified as ‘Croats’ and Orthodox Bosnians as ‘Serbs’; the crucial factor determining this identification had to be religion, since these ‘Serbs’ and ‘Croats’spoke the same form of the Serbo-Croat language and had a history which set them apart from the people of Serbia and Croatia.
Of course, attempts were then made to show that the Serb or Croat identity of the Bosnians could be anchored in ancient racial history. As I state in my book, it is probably true that most of Bosnia was settled by Slavs under Croat rule in the seventh century. But ‘Croat’ at that stage was a tribal label. It makes no sense to apply it to the people of Bosnia a thousand years later, any more than it would be sensible to call the inhabitants of some parts of 17th-century England ‘Angles’ or ‘Jutes’.
Mr Tvrtkovic accuses me of two particular ‘contradictions’. In each case, he is just adding a confusion of his own to an otherwise simple matter. I state that the Croats were a Slav tribe, and I also state that the word ‘Croat’ (Hrvat) was not originally a Slav word. This is not a contradiction, just a statement of two commonly recognised truths. The Croats had originally acquired their name from an Iranian language, and may at some point in their early history have been under an Iranian ruling caste; but they were by the seventh century clearly a Slav tribe. I have explained these matters quite fully in my book, and can only suggest that Mr Tvrtkovic read it again a little more carefully.
He also accuses me of self-contradiction when I explain that the Catholic administrative area of ‘Bosnia Croatiae’ was not in Ottoman Bosnia. Again, this is just obfuscation on his part. Catholic administrative areas often bore little relation to the facts of political geography at the time. The Franciscan Vicariate of Bosnia, for example, at one time covered a huge expanse of Eastern Europe, including most of what is now Romania. Would it be a ‘contradiction’ to point out that much of this Franciscan ‘Bosnia’ was outside Bosnia? Of course not. It is Mr Tvrtkovic’s logic which is faulty: on the basis of that Franciscan administrative area, he might as well argue that the Bosnians were therefore ‘really’ Romanian.
Mr Tvrtkovic’s statement that my book ‘depends wholly on Fine’s earlier writings’ must come as a surprise to readers of John Fine’s review (LRB, 28 April), which showed that Fine’s views on Bosnia differ quite strongly from my own. It also comes as a surprise to me, since until I read Fine’s review I had not seen anything by him on the history of post-medieval Bosnia, which is the subject of most of my book. This claim by Mr Tvrtkovic, and his dismissal of my book as ‘hastily compiled’, can only seem rather comical to anyone who knows Mr Tvrtkovic’s published work on Bosnian history, in which the detailed references to sources are taken wholesale (as he admits in his acknowledgments) from two books by one other historian.
Daily Telegraph, London E14
It is a pity E.S. Turner did not take a few minutes to read up on Irish events in 1848, ‘the Year of Revolutions’, before framing his rash and rather offensive sentence, ‘Erin did not rise’ (LRB, 9 June). At the very least, his imagination and intellectual curiosity might have been kindled by the sad little fracas that shipped several notable Protestants to Van Diemens Land, exiled a future Canadian prime minister, sent a man to (eventually) drown in the Missouri on his way to assume the governorship of Montana, and established the still vibrant Irish colony in New Orleans (Kate Chopin was born Kate O’Flaherty). Turner might have wondered, was John Mitchel a significant Early Victorian proto-Fascist? Or he might have enjoyed speculating on the classic ideological conflict of revolutionary action v. parliamentary method (the late Daniel O’Connell) as exemplified in the wee Irish rebellion of 1848. Is Turner by any chance attracted to Yeatsian byways? Then the names Thomas Davis (dead in 1845, but a major force in the memory of 1848) and Charles Gavan Duffy might have gained clarity. But most important of all, Turner might have begun to understand why Lady Wilde, in spite of all her faults, was so movingly mourned by her heartbroken son in De Profundis.
Melrose, New York
I believe that both Elaine Showalter and P. Nelson-Saginor (Letters, 9 June) have misplaced the park where Sylvia Plath picked her roses in June 1958. The journal passage begins: ‘An incident today to start a train of remembering our wearying and also rejuvenating week in New York which cleared out Smith cobwebs:’ (11 June 1958).
Plath usually uses colons as connectives: it is probable that her snipped roses and the armfuls of stolen rhododendrons grew originally in New York. I don’t know where she stayed, but the poem ‘Child’s Park Stones’ (which she had just written, according to the journal entry) suggests Central Park, as does the sudden blossoming of azaleas, rhododendrons, roses in the journal and in the ‘Fable of the Rhododendron Stealers’ (the poetic version of the journal incident – poem 85 in the Collected Poems). By the following (printed) journal entry, 20 June, the flowers are gone; Plath has returned to the tunnel of everyday life. It is true that Plath’s journal entries vary as quickly as her lightning-fast mind; but she was highly responsive to landscape. Perhaps because of her skill as a visual artist, she could catch a scene quickly in her words without having to spend weeks or months growing into it.
Wherever the flowers grew, they are now immortal, in the tradition of poetic flowers. Both in the journal entry and in the ‘Fable of the Rhododendron Stealers’ Plath raises a question central to our much later age: is going beyond the bounds wrong in itself, or is it the degree of going beyond the bounds that creates outrage and chaos? In this, as in so much of her writing, she predicted the period that followed.
Queen’s University, Ontario
In her review of Donald Davie’s The 18th-Century Hymn in England (LRB, 9 June) Margaret Doody notes ‘some puzzling weaknesses’ in Davie’s discussion of the hymn-writers’ presentation of the Crucifixion, and in particular of Isaac Watts’s lines: ‘His dying crimson, like a robe, / Spreads o’er his body on the tree’ (from ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’). However, neither Davie nor Doody appears to realise that Biblical references lie behind the lines. Doody objects to Davie’s calling the image of the Cross as a tree an antique, conceptualising trope, and would see rather a contemporary allusion to Tyburn tree or gallows: so some in the 18th century might have done, but they would more certainly have had a familiarity with Scriptural descriptions of the Cross as a tree: ‘Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree’ (Acts 5.30; cf. Acts 10.39, 13.29; Galatians 3.13; I Peter 2.24).
More significantly, Doody does not challenge Davie’s mistaken view that speaking of Christ’s blood as a crimson robe derives from ‘the idealising and yet sensuously saturated art of the Counter-Reformation’. The image is actually from Isaiah 63.1-3 in which, as the Authorised Version’s headnote says, ‘Christ sheweth who he is’, and Verse Two in particular: ‘Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat?’ Christ replies that he will tread the people in his anger ‘and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.’ The notion is frequent in Christian verse – Fortunatus’ ‘Vexilla Regis’ speaks of a tree adorned with regal purple (‘Arbor … Ornata regis purpura’), and in English poetry it is found before Watts from the waedum (‘garments’) of blood and gold in the Anglo-Saxon Dream of the Rood to George Herbert’s ‘The Sacrifice’ (‘Then with a scarlet robe they me aray;/Which shews my bloud to be the onely way’).
The failure by both Davie and Doody to grasp the significance of an image found in English poetry from Anglo-Saxon times to the 18th century suggests that, culturally, the distance between those two periods is as nothing compared to that between the 18th century and the present.
Worcester College, Oxford
Mark Hannam completely fails to understand the dialectics of letter-writing (Letters, 23 June). While attempting to pour the enormous condescension of posterity on letter-writing, and my own efforts in particular, Hannam highlights the impact which a well-placed intervention by letter can have. And what better place for such a historical, political and literary intervention than the London Review of Books?