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Letters

Vol. 16 No. 23 · 8 December 1994

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Continentalism

Michael Ignatieff writes of Soviet Communism that it was a ‘violent but passing form of Oriental despotism, as relentless as Fascism, as single-minded in its appropriation of modernity’s tools to oppress and control, yet fatally compromised, both by its organised contempt for those in whose name it ruled, and by the central conceit that there could be a systematic, total alternative to capitalism’ (LRB, 6 October). Now modernity’s tools of terror, as well as the philosophy which presents a systematic alternative to capitalism, were elaborated in the West, yet their combination in Soviet Russia is characterised as ‘Oriental’. It is perhaps useless to speculate on the psychological processes that lie behind such acts of geographical displacement: suffice it only to say that between Karl Wittfogel and Michael Ignatieff stretches a long line of Western commentators who have given currency to this particular (mis)attribution. Can this Oriental restate the obvious historical truth that Stalinism, like Fascism, was ‘a violent but passing form’ of European despotism?

Ramachandra Guha
Wissenschaftskolleg, Berlin

Australia’s Fascists

Frank Kermode quotes (with some approval) the statement of Bruce Steele, Australian editor of the Cambridge edition of Lawrence’s Kangaroo, that the Australian ‘ex-servicemen’s organisations, though anti-socialist, philistine and chauvinist, were not remotely likely to support a right-wing revolution’ (LRB, 10 November). This is a little overconfident. The Right’s paranoia grew alarmingly, the Russian Revolution, recent and frightening, haunted its nightmares.

Keith Amos in his excellent study The New Guard Movement 1931-1935 treats his sources with the most scrupulous objectivity but quotes surviving ex-New Guardsmen: ‘Of course they were prepared to fight … to take over the whole business … they had worked up to the point where they were all prepared to use the bayonet.’ ‘It got to the stage where we were prepared to revolt … prepared, literally, for civil war. I can assure you honestly it was touch and go at that moment of stress.’ The Guardsmen felt both aggrieved and isolated. Empire patriots, they saw trade unions as traitors and any Labour government, state or federal, as Communist and were appalled and perplexed that the police force could support such a government by, as one policeman frankly put it, ‘kicking in a few heads’ of New Guard members who turned a demonstration into a riot. Unlikely to have initiated revolution (their politics being reactive rather than based on any positive political vision), they believed themselves – with militarily organised and armed cells scattered among the suburbs – ready to respond should any right-wing leader, such as Stanley Bruce, call on ‘patriots’ to rise up and kill enemies of the Empire, in the name, of course, of law and order.

Whether any such revolt actually would have happened or just fizzled out is not the point. The point is that this underground force did exist – as the police of the time acknowledged. The New Guard was part-joke, part-myth to my later generation but my long-held scepticism as to their numbers (in the early Thirties some twenty thousand in one city), their organisation and their significance was seriously challenged by Amos’s measured treatment and marshalling of facts. His view that Australian Fascism (he quotes Sir Oswald Mosley’s approval of it) was more influenced by British Fascist movements than by Mussolini is another challenge to Steele’s airy indifference to the mood of the times.

But in 1923 when Lawrence lived on the NSW coast and wrote Kangaroo? In that year a forerunner of the New Guard, the White Guard, a much smaller and more fragmented movement, was formed. As Kermode has Steele suggesting, Lawrence could have read of these manifestations in the press and/or heard them locally discussed (maybe at one of those beach picnics that occur in Kangaroo) as others voiced their opinions on the politics of the day. As any good writer will, he imaginatively developed these hints and intuited much – demonstrations, riots, press controversy and figures such as Eric Campbell, the New Guard’s leader who was openly, even exultantly, Fascist – that was to appear later. Steele’s avowal that Lawrence’s street troops ‘owed more to Italian Fascists than anything he encountered in Australia’ seems an odd gloss on Australian politics and the fear and intensity of political feeling in a turbulent period when (before the Second World War officially made it the enemy) Fascism was regarded by millions as a respectable and desirable political option, indeed as the inevitable next step if democracy were to be saved from Communism. Lawrence’s creative imagination produced – in two months – a book that, whatever its faults, pinned down the feelings in the air and even, in some of the minor characters, caught the specifically Australian way in which those feelings expressed themselves. Exasperating he may have been but D.H. Lawrence was also, sometimes, uncannily accurate in his perceptions.

Alan Seymour
London SE22

An Inspector Calls

In his article on the Higher Education Funding Council for England (LRB, 10 November) John Sutherland says the assessors should ‘revalue the refereed article in a learned journal (publications which are more difficult to place than book proposals) as the hard currency of assessment’.

I have had five scholarly monographs published, plus 15 articles in refereed journals edited on British campuses and eight articles in refereed journals abroad. I have found it much easier to get articles accepted than books: and the more boring and unoriginal the article the easier it is. One of my published books took six years to find a publisher, and another more than two: and I am still looking for a publisher for what is probably the best thing I have written, which was completed in 1982. On the other hand, a chapter of one of my books published in 1978 was accepted by History apparently without any difficulty and printed by someone else as an original essay in 1988. Whatever the situation in the past, most journals exist simply to provide their editors with patronage, and to provide university hacks with a dumping ground for work that wouldn’t interest a commercial publisher. In fact one of the worrying features of the last few years has been the increase in the number of scholarly journals and the falling off in the quality of the articles in the older established ones. No doubt John Sutherland regards this as a trend to be encouraged as a means of further confusing our already dazed government.

A.D. Harvey
London N16

John Sutherland’s principal objection to the Research Assessment Exercise is its affront to common sense. Oxbridge, he suggests, could conceivably be graded lower than the University of Neasden. This possibility is only a symptom of the underlying tactic in higher education reform. For relatively small sums of money the meaning of certain words has been radically altered. ‘University’ now means something that includes both Oxbridge and Neasden (to use his examples). ‘Professor’, ‘reader’, ‘lecturer’ and ‘student’ each have plural meanings depending on the university culture which designates the title. We have quickly become skilled at interrogating such titles using a basic historical and geographical knowledge to distinguish between the possible meanings, and consequently little is lost. However, under the RAE two separate professional practices have been condensed into a single word as ‘Research’ becomes synonymous with ‘Publication’. By 1996 there is a distinct possibility that, outside amateur circles, the idea of research not linked to production will be forgotten.

Michael Punt
University of Amsterdam

Daughters

In her intriguing review of Radon Daughters (LRB, 6 October) Jenny Turner mentions the title 11 times, by my count, and even writes, ‘You can feel this weirdness seep out of the novel’s title,’ which led me to expect an explanation and discussion. Neither was forthcoming, alas. Radon is a naturally-occurring radioactive gas. Its breakdown particles, called ‘daughters’, are a serious cause of lung cancer and, possibly, other tumours, a matter of some relevance to the novel, I think. I await further discussion.

Stuart Silverman
Chicago

Dental Breakdown

Jenny Diski’s review of Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me and Greta & Cecil (LRB, 20 October) opens with a paragraph that does nothing for her credibility. A photograph of a male film-star was not a ‘pin-up’; pin-ups were always girls. Judy Garland did not sing ‘If You Were the Only Boy in the World’ to the photograph of Clark Gable; she sang ‘You Made Me Love You’. I do not recall the name of the film, but it was made in the middle-to-late Thirties. There were no ifs about Miss Garland’s feelings for Mr Gable.

As for Gable’s ‘gummily’ mocking his status as ‘America’s sweetheart’ [sic] I heard a somewhat different account in the USA in the late Forties, setting the incident in the Thirties, on what the Americans call a hunting trip – an exclusively male province, at least in those days – during which, one early morning, Clark Gable stuck his totally toothless head out between the flaps of his tent and addressed his friends: ‘How’s this, fellers? America’s Sweetheart!’ Note the capital S: this was a title ‘awarded’ to Miss Mary Pickford in the Twenties, and ironically borrowed by Gable for the occasion.

Gable’s only film with Marilyn Monroe was The Misfits, made in 1960, the year he died, and long after I heard the story. The well-known difficulties experienced by everyone involved in the film – both stars’ last – with the seriously unbalanced Miss Monroe and with the dying Clark Gable do not add to the likelihood of the truth of Ms Diski’s version of the story.

But, whenever the incident took place, it could hardly ‘play havoc for ever after with the moment when he’s frank with Vivian [sic] Leigh’, since one of the best established facts about Clark Gable is, and has been since the Thirties, that he started his film career with a full set of false teeth.

Kenneth Hoyle
Halifax

One of Many

I was surprised to read the following sentences in Carolyne Wright’s Diary about Taslima Nasreen (LRB, 8 September): ‘One of my collaborators, Farida Sarkar, another young feminist poet, urged me to include Nasreen in the anthology of Bengali women’s poetry I was assembling. Sarkar even located an office phone number for a journalist friend of Nasreen’s – like many young professionals in Bangladesh, she had no phone of her own.’

It is true that, as a co-translator, I had suggested Taslima Nasreen’s name as a feminist poet of the new generation whose poetry should be included in any comprehensive anthology of women poets from Bangladesh. It is also true that I helped Dr Wright get in touch with her. But it must be mentioned at the same time that Taslima Nasreen was only one of the many women writers whose writings, I had suggested, deserved to be included in that kind of anthology.

I am sure Dr Wright did not intend to imply that Nasreen had any special fascination for me above the other writers, although readers may have got that kind of impression from the article.

Farida Sarkar
Washington DC

Doggerel

I do not know what Bernard McCabe means by ‘chauvinism’ (Letters, 10 November), but if he thinks that I believe the limerick is a boon of which the English language should have the monopoly, he is sadly mistaken. His tone of heavy archness weighs down an essentially light-hearted subject. The limerick is an English word game that does not export; in English it is often flat: it is most successful when succinctly philosophical or grossly obscene. An example of the first is provided by P.G. Wodehouse. I quote from memory:

There was a young fellow named Stover
Who bowled 35 wides in one over
Which had never been done
By a clergyman’s son
On a Thursday, in August, at Dover.

This shows us how rare is justified use of the superlative: ‘never’ is for once not ‘well, hardly ever’. Another, which is noteworthy for not being in the second category, is:

There was a young lady named Tuck
Who had the most terrible luck
She went out in a punt
And fell over the front
And was bit in the leg by a duck.

Another favourite of mine which I have never seen recorded plays on a familiar name:

There was a young girl of Pretoria
Who was raped by Sir Gerald du Maurier,
Jack Hylton, Jack Payne,
Then Sir Gerald again.
And the band of the Waldorf Astoria.

People should be content with such amusements; I do not see why they wish to play English games with the French language. The doggerels, in part macaronic, quoted by your correspondents may be limericks but they are in no case French. Versifiers may flout the rules of prosody and produce splendid results; what they may not and, if they are poets, cannot do is to destroy the music of the language; the limerick does not march to the music of French. Having said that, I must confess that I found George du Maurier’s gendarme poetic and charming, the exception that proves the rule.

Du Maurier achieved few such effects. He can be forgiven: bilingualism sometimes leads to confusion of vocabulary. One must suppose that it is whimsy rather than ignorance that causes him to spell ‘knickerbocker’ ‘nicrebocqueurs’. The transfer of the term, in the spelling ‘knicker-bocker’, is attested by Prosper Mérimée in a letter dated 21 March 1863. The Robert Diçtionnaire des Anglicismes notes that the abbreviated spelling ‘knickers’ mostly denotes nowadays an article of female underwear, adding: ‘et dans I’exclamation “knickers!" “merde!"’

Gerald Long
Paris

Limericks will have to be unusually good to get into any future issue.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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