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Letters

Vol. 16 No. 17 · 8 September 1994

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Entitled to her privacy

Colm Tóibín, in his interesting review of One Art, the selection of Elizabeth Bishop’s letters I edited (LRB, 4 August), is mistaken in his statement that Brett Millier’s biography of the poet ‘names the woman’ (I call her X.Y.) ‘whom Bishop met, and had an affair with, in Seattle’ in 1966. It’s true that Millier refers to her throughout as Suzanne Bowen, but that is not her name. One learns this only if one reaches page 566, where inverted commas are used for the first (and unique) time: ‘“Suzanne Bowen" is a pseudonym.’ Understandably, Mr Tóibín and other reviewers missed this important revelation; even the book’s index lists it as if a real name. They would not have been misled if ‘Suzanne Bowen’ had been identified as a pseudonym whenever used. The person referred to is entitled to her privacy; I believe X.Y. protects it without falsifying it – even inadvertently.

Robert Giroux
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York

The Yale Man

There’s no need for Dennis Wrong (Letters, 4 August) to be so literal. Since Mary McCarthy made fun of Dwight Macdonald explicitly on two occasions, and since good things come in trios. I decided to emphasise the Macdonaldish aspects of her ‘Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man’. That there are such aspects, Wrong does not deny. It also helped me to glide smoothly into the Yale aspect of Macdonald’s early formation. Very few fictional characters are based solely on one live model, and just because I didn’t show off my knowledge of John Chamberlain is no reason for Wrong to go comparing me to Gertrude Himmelfarb for crying out loud.

As for failing to lay enough stress on Macdonald’s anti-Stalinism, I suppose that by placing him with the Trotskyists in the Thirties and the Encounter set in the Fifties I could have given the impression that his whole life was spent as a fellow-traveller of the Popular Front. But I doubt I would have given that impression to many readers of the LRB. Wrong should have addressed his letter to his former comrades at Partisan Review, who would have been thrilled by his clever detective work about Himmelfarb and myself, and who believe that anti-Stalinism is the whole measure of a man’s character.

Finally, Wrong says that Macdonald’s engagement with the anti-war movement of the Sixties ‘produced not a single piece of memorable writing from his pen’. Depends who’s doing the remembering, doesn’t it? I for one remember with pleasure and edification the essay which Macdonald wrote to introduce a paperback transcript of the trial of the Chicago Seven. It combined solidarity with criticism in just the way I tried to praise in my original review. Agonising as he was at the time, about whether to find the war or the anti-war movement the most objectionable, Wrong may have missed it.

Christopher Hitchens
Washington DC

South African Observations

Russell Marshall takes me to task (Letters, 7 July) for alleged bias in my reportage of the massacre of some fifty people during the royalist Zulu march through Johannesburg just before the South African election. Marshall says that my report that there was ‘widespread suspicion’ that ANC activists had been responsible for the massacre on the library steps was quite wrong. Instead, while apparently agreeing that the shooting of Zulu marchers outside ANC headquarters at Shell House was the work of ANC guards, he suggests the shootings earlier in the march were the work of a South African security ‘third force’.

I would agree with Marshall that the behaviour of the police, the Inkatha Freedom Party and the Zulu marchers themselves was open to criticism, but it is a strange thing to object to a suspicion (which undoubtedly exists) while accepting in the same breath the reasons for that suspicion. In the period since Marshall wrote his letter, the matter has been aired in the South African Parliament, thanks to the persistence of the liberal Democratic Party. The ANC Minister for Police, Mr Sidney Mufamadi, has, to his credit, publicly accepted the responsibility of the ANC in the matter and has made no suggestion that any sort of ‘third force’ was involved – and indeed, there is no evidence for such a contention. Mr Mufamadi has also admitted that ANC guards twice prevented the police from searching Shell House for weapons. As a result of the Democratic Party’s questioning, however, a number of weapons held in Shell House have ultimately been handed over to the police. It is worth remarking that these included a number of AK-47s: the use of army assault rifles by ANC security guards itself raises many questions. These rifles have now been matched by ballistics experts with the cartridges found in the street among the massacred marchers and there is no doubt that the bullets were fired by those guns. At the time of writing there seems little chance that those responsible for the massacre will be brought to book.

R.W. Johnson
Durban

I was so totally engrossed in Mary-Kay Wilmers’s account of her NKVD forebear (LRB, 4 August) that I almost missed the far-too-casual reference to the outrageous mugging of R.W. Johnson by a gang of ten-year-olds in Gorky Street, Moscow. At first sight this might appear to be a case of random violence against foreigners, but I doubt that this was so. R.W. Johnson is a distinguished intellectual with impeccable anti-Stalinist credentials. A relative of Leonid Eitingon should have realised instinctively what was going on here. This was not an instance of freemarket violence. The whole affair smacks of an old-style KGB operation. How could it have escaped Mary-Kay Wilmers that R.W. Johnson was attacked by hoodlums acting under the instructions of ANC veteran Joe Slovo? The ANC High Command wanted to punish Johnson for his courageous articles defending Chief Buthelezi and Inkatha. It would have been too obvious to attack him in South Africa. Hence the attack in Moscow.

Terry Kelly
Trinity College, Dublin

Mary-Kay Wilmers writes: Has Terry Kelly got a summer job at Bandung Productions (prop: Tariq Ali)? The provenance of his fax suggests so.

Straight Shooter

Nicholas Denyer (Letters, 4 August) is right to be sceptical of my claim that ‘the Thirty-Nine Articles required all Englishmen to practise archery on Sundays.’ Article 38 states: ‘It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars,’ but it was the state, not the Church, which specifically required archery practice on Sundays. A conscientious objector would, however, have been guilty of heresy, as would an opponent of capital punishment (‘The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death’).

David Wootton
Brunel University

Der Tag

I am intrigued by Lawrence Hogben’s statement that he has examined the forecasts issued by the German Zentralevetterdienstgruppe (ZWG) for the period of the D-Day landings (Letters, 18 August). The late Werner Schwerdtfeger, at that time head of ZWG, has stated quite categorically that no ZWG documentation survived the end of the war. According to Schwerdtfeger, ZWG headquarters moved from Potsdam to Neubiberg in Upper Bavaria during February and March 1945, and later to the vicinity of Berchtesgaden, where it was disbanded. All ZWG records were left under the care of another eminent meteorologist, Hermann Flohn, at Neubiberg, where they were captured by advancing US forces. Flohn was taken prisoner but was unable to persuade the local American commander of the value of the records under his charge. Schwerdtfeger gave a poignant account of how he later found out that these valuable documents were being used as wrapping paper. I would be grateful to Mr Hogben if he could say where the ZWG documents he studied are located since I, and doubtless others, would very much like to see them.

That being said, I feel his account is rather less than fair to the German meteorologists. Schwerdtfeger recorded from a diary note that the forecast issued at noon on 4 June 1944 for 5-6 June ‘specified prevailing winds of Beaufort Force 5, varying between 4 and 6, equivalent to 15-23 knots’. This was similar to advice provided by the Allied forecasters at 0415 on 4 June, which was modified at 1745 that day. The Supreme Commander’s briefing at 2100 indicated winds of Force 3-4 for Monday evening (5 June) along the French coast. In fact, actual winds over the Channel and Normandy beaches were recorded as Westerly Force 4-5 at the start of Monday 5 June, decreasing 3-4 overnight but increasing 4-5 again by the evening of 6 June, D-Day itself.

Schwerdtfeger also gave an account of the forecast he was pressurised into making the following December, prior to the launching of the German counter-offensive in the Ardennes. He was ordered to provide a forecast of five continuous days with weather below operational limits for the Allied air forces. Such a sequence had never been recorded there at that time of year but, and quite unexpectedly to Schwerdtfeger himself, his forecast succeeded in satisfying its unrealistic specification. The result of this admitted fluke was instant promotion.

J.M.C. Burton
Ilkley, West Yorkshire

Easy

The lines which Frank Kermode cannot identify (LRB, 21 July), ‘Earth that grew with joyful ease/Hemlock for Socrates,’ are by the young war poet, Charles Sorley (1895-1915). They come from an untitled poem of which the first line is ‘All the hills and vales along’. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s easy familiarity with the lines did not stop her from misquoting them; the first words should be ‘Earth that bore with joyful ease’.

Bernard Bergonzi
Leamington Spa

Doggerel

Clearly, Wendy Doniger’s ‘jeune homme de Dijon’ is no limerick. Yet Gerald Long (Letters, 18 August) pushes too far: ‘There are no limericks in French, old or otherwise.’ What about James Joyce – a writer surely fully alive to ‘the fugitive nature of tonic stress’ in both English and French? He had a go in 1937. His subject, Ellmann tells us, was a certain Pinard de la Boulaye, a Lenten preacher in the Cathedral of Notre Dame that year. Joyce found it funny in the circumstances that this priest’s first name was also French slang for what some English people now call ‘plonk’. So he produced several limericks on the subject, in ‘a mixture of argot and old French’.

But Long grows more puffingly insular: ‘It has to be accepted that the limerick … is indissolubly tied to the English language.’ How about Thomas Aquinas? Didn’t Joyce’s own preferred philosopher also have a go at the form in a foreign language, years ago? Daily, before Vatican II changed everything, priests in all parts of the world could be found muttering, as they disrobed, the Angelic Doctor’s special post-Mass prayer – a prayer that includes this powerful limerick:

Sit vitiorum meorum evacuatio,
Concupiscentiae et libidinis exterminatio,
Caritatis et patientiae,
Humilitatis et obedientiae,
Omniumque virtutem augmentatio.

This prayer, with its lolloping rhythms, has fallen into disuse. Yet may I recommend its recitation to Gerald Long, over there in Paris, as a calming spell against the sultry urgings of old Gautier’s doggy badinage?

Bernard McCabe
Ludlow, Shropshire

Gerald Long says: ‘the rhyme scheme aabba is, I suppose, possible, though I have never encountered it.’ I have:

C’est la Mère Michel qui a perdu son chat
Elle crie par la fenêtre ‘qui me le rendra?’
C’est le Père Lustucru
Qui lui a répondu:
‘Allez, la Mère Michel, ton chat n’est pas perdu.’

Long also says that George du Maurier ‘had a go, but it did not and cannot work. I do not believe any French writer has been tempted.’ Well, du Maurier was French, being born in Paris. He had several goes, three of which were awful and one passable if only for its splendid tongue-twister of a last line: ‘Ton thé t’a-t-il ôté ta toux?’

Freddy Hurdis-Jones
Malta

Second Sight

If, as Graham Robb claims (LRB, 4 August), the abbé Migne offered as an incentive to buyers of his series of patriotic texts a free life of ‘St Theresa of Lisieux’, he was a more remarkably far-sighted man than has previously been realised, for Thérèse was born only two years before Migne died blind in 1875.

Christopher Howse
Sunday Telegraph, London E14

1963

I would like to contest Penelope Fitzgerald’s point (LRB, 21 July) about bottle lamps. I was born in 1963 and quite clearly remember when people made lamps out of Chianti bottles.

C.J. Burrow
Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Is Keith Flett a Boer?

Mike Marqusee does an excellent job of illustrating how ball-tampering rows are rooted in the history and politics of cricket (LRB, 18 August). But he misses a key point. The ball-tampering row when England played Pakistan, as with the latest instalment at Lords, came just as England were about to sink to yet another inglorious defeat. It was a handy diversion from having to dwell on this reality, a diversion which Marqusee has swallowed. By focusing on the ball-tampering situation, Marqusee avoids the key question faced by all Marxist cricket lovers this summer: since we believe that the main enemy is always at home – a sentiment reflected in the title of Marqusee’s book, Anyone But England – should we have been supporting South Africa? Myself, I went for the draw.

Keith Flett
London N17

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