In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Bob and BettyJenny Diski

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
A Mind of My Own: My Life with Robert Maxwell 
by Elizabeth Maxwell.
Sidgwick, 536 pp., £16.99, November 1994, 0 283 06251 7
Show More
Show More

Those given to hasty judgments might find the title of Betty Maxwell’s autobiography something of a logical contradiction. Even leaving aside the strangeness, to feminist eyes, of the title’s construction, just a passing knowledge of the dynamics of Robert Maxwell’s ego would seem to preclude the possibility of having the one while being with the other for 47 years. Yet, when one has read the book, it becomes clear that the colon is, after all, perfectly placed between the two propositions, and that the initial judgment turned on a very narrow and possibly rather transitory definition of having a mind of one’s own. If living with Robert Maxwell provides satisfaction, however specialised, then to do so is perfectly in keeping with having a mind of one’s own.

Betty Maxwell got her heart’s desire from the start of her relationship with Robert Maxwell, and, what is more, she kept on getting it, in her fashion, for the duration of the marriage. Some desires over-ride the independence modern women assume to be the sine qua non of a free spirit. Indeed, some are inimical to a strict definition of independence, and who is to say that such desires are not to be satisfied?

There was a curious novel published a few years ago by Robert Coover called Spanking the Maid. It was a slim volume, because essentially it dealt with only a single scene in the life of a master/narrator and his maid. He calls her in to clean his room and make the bed. She does so, but some careless or clumsy detail – a wrinkle in the sheets, a drop of water spilled on the floor – spoils her efforts. The master is obliged to punish her before ordering her to begin again. Each plays their part with consummate awareness of the requirements of their role. The effort to make immaculate, the inexorable failure, the ritualised punishment are repeated, word for word, sentence for sentence, unvarying except for the nature of the maid’s error. The tone of the narrator and the demeanour of the maid are dull and despairing since they understand the necessity for error and punishment and the terrible circle of banality and repetition in which they are both caught up. Not that I’m suggesting for a moment that spanking had any place in the relationship between the adults in the Maxwell family, but there is something about their married life, as it is described by Mrs Maxwell, that brings to mind Coover’s book on the structure of domesticity and desire.

Robert Maxwell had very firm ideas on how a wife ought to behave.

He would constantly revert to the same old theme – that I did not look after his material needs to a standard he considered acceptable and was therefore incapable of ensuring his happiness. Sometimes there would be a button missing on a shirt, or I would forget his evening shirt studs or black tie when I packed his bag. He would complain that his cupboards were not impeccably tidy or that I hadn’t got his summer clothes out early enough ... What he wanted me to do was ‘assist, bolster and serve him and the children’.

This was not just a man demanding that all his physical needs be attended to. Right from the beginning of their marriage, domestic detail is inextricably linked to love and loyalty. Letters stating their intent and reiterating the themes of their passion fly back and forth between them throughout their long marriage.

Betuska my love.

You most certainly have made big strides towards becoming the perfect partner through the things you have done like washing my clothes, or darning my socks ... Although by themselves they may seem trivial and matter-of-fact, do not be deceived by that because they constitute the demonstration of the love which we have for each other, and to me they are of the highest value, for without them our love could not live.

Betty, like Coover’s maid, clearly understands that his wishes are not trivial, that her domestic attentions are central to their mutual desire.

I want to live for you, I want to drown my soul in your desires. This requires all my attention and all my strength, there is no time to do anything else. You will only need to say what you want and it will be done, or to express a desire and I will satisfy it. Perhaps you will discover that the half-flayed creature you have stripped naked still deserves to be loved.

For all the berating on his part and the grovelling on hers, Betty Maxwell comes across, not as a domestic doormat, but as a fully collusive partner in a very complicated relationship, which, right from the start, is powerfully sexual. But the power is not, as it appears or as it is portrayed, entirely one-sided.

The key to this kind of partnership is not actually the dominant member’s demands, but the submissive one’s power to elicit those demands while seeming to remain docile. ‘I never felt belittled by deferring to his authority ... He was forever searching for that indefinable “something” which he sensed I was holding back. For my own part, I was convinced it was precisely that very chasse au bonheur – the chase for love so clearly depicted in Stendhal – that would keep him interested in me.’ Holding back is exactly what Coover’s maid does in failing every time to perform perfectly. Every slip-up she makes is essential to the fulfilment of the narrator’s happiness, and a gift she freely brings to the relationship. She is the only one who can break the contract by performing her duties in such a way that no punishment is called for. Betty Maxwell, not tied to Maxwell for want of alternatives or money, is perfectly correct in attributing to herself a mind of her own.

She was a virgin when they first made love. ‘Although he was ablaze with desire, he did not rush me. I was ready for love, eager to be at one with him ... But despite my readiness, it was a painful first experience. He was in tears at the thought of having hurt me. Nothing was ever to move me more than my husband’s tears.’ If you are disturbed by the mental image of Robert Maxwell in the throes of love, it might (or might not) help to bear in mind Betty’s description of him as a young man. ‘There was an overwhelming impression of dominance and masculinity, reinforced by the resonant speaking voice from deep down in the diaphragm, confident and self-assured. When he spoke, his swift-moving lips, thick and red like two ripe fruits, evoked luxury and youthfulness; yet sometimes, thin as filaments of blood, they depicted death and carnage.’

In addition to the nature of the hankerings, the prose style holds an important clue to Betty Maxwell’s character. There is a marvellous mixing of respectability and libido. She is the perfect suburban lady honeycombed with dark subterranean desires. She loves to remember the sparkling, bourgeois social life and travel opportunities afforded to the wife of a tycoon (‘people tell me that my dining room was rather like one of those celebrated Parisian salons’) and shares them with us in prose similar to her description of Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes: ‘of a deep, rich velvety purple’. Istanbul is encased in its geographical surroundings like ‘a jewel in lapis lazuli’; the Taj Mahal, ‘one of the Seven Wonders of the World’, she saw ‘at dawn, when the main dome was iridescent in the pink rays of the sun, then at midday in golden sunshine and beneath the most glorious blue sky and finally at midnight ... when the full moon was at its brightest and picked out the marble of the dome and four minarets in a translucent pearly white’. On the other hand, the land and people of Australia were found to be ‘too vast, too rough, too brash, too uncouth, too wild’ for her refined taste. She is vaguely conscious that there are some who are unaccustomed to her way of life. ‘All but the uninitiated will be well aware that in foreign waters, most yachting transactions take place in cash.’

It looks to me as if we can expect Betty Maxwell to climb out of her financial difficulties with one of those monosyllabically titled best-sellers filled with fashion tips (‘The Queen would not agree to extravagant expenditure on her clothes and neither did I’) wine-dark prose and exotic settings, as others on their uppers have done before her. She writes to Bob in 1981 after their final flare-up: ‘You have always refused to recognise my deeply creative instincts, the poet, dreamer, writer, storyteller within me ... when by preference I would have liked to write, draw and make music under the warm Mediterranean sun, breathing in the scented fragrances of the garrigue and pinewoods.’

Poetry, refinement and good manners are essential qualities for the French-born Mrs Maxwell and in some way they seem to help her when the old animal threatens to break out. It was only by her side and under her tutelage that Maxwell managed to pass himself off socially: ‘Sadly, in the last few years of his life, when I was no longer at his side to remind him constantly that “manners maketh man,” he tended to overlook this aspect of social intercourse.’ Discovering that her husband and his personal assistant were having an affair, she comforts herself with the knowledge of her own impeccable propriety. ‘Nor could I understand how a girl would allow herself to fall in love with the father of six children under the age of eight, whatever the circumstances. It was not the kind of moral code I had been brought up on, and I can say in all honesty that I have never allowed myself to fall in love with a married man.’ In 1969, 20 years into their marriage, a solitary safari provokes the two strands of Betty’s sensual and straitlaced character into expressing themselves. In a tented hotel at the foot of Mount Kenya, with guards around them for protection, she sat ‘beneath the starry African sky’ and explained to the curious hotel manager and guests why ‘a white woman like me’, finding herself alone in ‘darkest Africa’, wasn’t afraid. She told them she could ‘call on God who could see me, as he now saw them talking to me. My words seemed to impress them and gave me confidence to go back to my tent, reasonably sure I would not be raped, but I must confess that the Ashantis [sic] guarding that camp frightened me much more than those herds of elephants poised to charge the car a few days before.’ She was alone because Bob, anxious to be back in the world of commerce, had upped and offed, leaving her to complete their holiday alone.

The next day she wrote a long letter to Bob. ‘For some years now, I have realised, at first with bellicose sadness, then with hurt pride and at last with victorious serenity, that my usefulness to you has come to an end ... As a supreme act of my love for you, I will make no more demands on your physical and mental love and I relieve you as of now of any sense of guilt that might creep in.’ Luckily, Maxwell still wanted his buttons sewn on, so their final separation was to be postponed for another 20 years.

Throughout the Eighties they grew further apart, with Maxwell spending more time in his London flat and behaving outrageously when he was in Oxford – increasingly it looked as if he had had enough of family life. Even then, Betty found something positive about their relationship. ‘Yet the separations also helped our relationship to survive: as soon as we were apart, we would both forget reality and recreate in our minds the love we had first known.’ Until 1990 there were regular reconciliations with Maxwell writing: ‘I love you, only you, I adore you for ever my untamed, wild but fascinating creature.’ It wasn’t until July 1990 that he announced that he wanted a legal separation and that it had to be advertised in the Times. (It wasn’t.) ‘I don’t want to see you again, I don’t want you to phone me, I don’t want to talk to you any more. I no longer love you,’ he told her, which was, that time, four decades into the marriage, as definite as it sounds. By then the financial panic had started, and press baron status had inflated his ego to gigantic proportions.

A passionate dyad is perhaps not the best basis for a happy family life. The relationship between the two of them was all-consuming and it seems odd that they chose to have so many children (there were nine in all, of whom seven survived) to clutter their self-absorption. Perhaps hostages are necessary in such a relationship, so that notable sacrifices can be made as test and proof of sincerity of intent. When a choice was to be made between her husband’s overweening needs and her children, there was never any contest. When Maxwell wanted her to campaign with him in his Parliamentary period, the children were packed off to the grandparents in France for six months so that Betty could devote her time and energy to canvassing for her husband. She feels now that he might have gone too far when he persecuted his children, as he did every Sunday, reducing them to tears, each in turn, week by week. But although ‘my own heart was torn to shreds ... I felt it was important to maintain a united front before the children.’ Still, she was not above a little disciplining herself. After he had misbehaved, she offered Ian, at 15, the choice of taking ‘three of the best’ from herself or waiting till his father came home. ‘After momentary reflection, he decided to take the beating from me ... I hated doing it and needed all the courage I could muster to perform such a hated punishment with the twins’ riding crop.’ However, ‘from that day on ... Ian always showed me the utmost respect, never once ventured a word of insolence and we have remained the best of friends.’ Betty could play the dominance/submission game from either end of the pitch.

Betty Maxwell’s account of her life with Robert Maxwell is not the best place to look for a description of Maxwell the businessman or Maxwell the crook. For a detailed account of the wheeling and dealing and finagling (or is it finessing?), you are better off going to Tom Bower’s biography of her husband.* As she sees it, Maxwell made mistakes because he was ‘rash’, a word she uses repeatedly about his trickier business dealings. His faults are essentially over-enthusiasm and naivety. Whether she really believes this or is merely distancing herself from the taint of his dishonesty is unclear. In her book she has it both ways: Maxwell carries on his business outside the house, but when the chickens come home to roost, Betty stands by her man.

Her considered opinion about the Leasco scandal is that Saul Steinberg and his wife (guilty of working on a tapestry during lunch with ‘Nicole de Bedford’ at Woburn Abbey) were ‘self-opinionated and ill-mannered’. The failure of Simkin Marshall, the book wholesaling business that crashed under Maxwell’s ownership, was due to publishers ‘stabbing the new enterprise in the back’. The report of the DTI into the Pergamon mess which concluded, ‘he is not in our opinion a person who can be relied on to exercise a proper stewardship of a publicly-quoted company,’ is dismissed as ‘merely an opinion’.

You have the feeling that Betty was always out, or having her hair done, when the most scandalous and illegal events took place. When she expresses pity for the Maxwell Group pensioners whose retirement income was stolen by her husband (‘the loss of financial security in old age is cruel indeed’) you suspect she is reminding you of her own newly-straitened circumstances. They are not the only ones who suffered, she seems to be suggesting; she, a pensioner too, is reduced to living ‘temporarily’ in a two-bedroomed house in London, although her interior decorator, loyal to the last, has loaned her ‘some of his own furniture to add a touch of the elegance to which he knew I was accustomed’. Actually, although she mentions the losses the pensioners have suffered there is no precise reference to the fact that her husband embezzled the money during the last months of his life to keep his tycoon dream afloat. A Martian might conclude the pensioners had been careless with their funds and left them on an omnibus.

Curiously, while Maxwell tried to sue the socks off Tom Bower, it is his book that provides the more sympathetic picture. If Mrs Maxwell’s longings and evasions preclude much sympathy, her husband is another case altogether. Maxwell seems to me to be the businessman capitalism deserves, and I have to confess to a certain pleasure at his vulgarity in the clubbable world of bankers. As an innocent in the world of high finance, I have trouble seeing why the financial games he played were any worse than the games played by those he was dealing with. Almost everything he did (with the exception of the overtly illegal appropriation of the pension funds) was within the incredibly elastic rules of making money out of money. Even the pension fund fraud was financed by the banks, who were falling over themselves to make a packet out of a man they despised. In fact, he lost most of his takeover battles because he was too emotional a player when pitched against the cool-headed likes of Rupert Murdoch. And, of course, he wasn’t English. You might say that Rupert Murdoch isn’t English either, but for all Betty Maxwell’s distaste for things and people Antipodean, the English understand that an Australian is more nearly one of them than an upstart Jew from somewhere unpronounceable in Mittel Europe can ever hope to be. In a world of commerce where ambition and greed for more than is necessary are essential and admired qualities, he just wanted to shine. But he didn’t understand the underlying rules that require ambition and greed to be overlaid with acceptable evidence of breeding. When he was out-manoeuvred by Murdoch and the money-men in the News of the World takeover, he complained of the Norwich Union boss who switched sides: ‘Mr Watson threw a googly at me.’ Mr Watson replied: ‘Every Englishman knows you “bowl” a googly.’

There seems to have been enough of that sort of thing to have driven Maxwell’s, ambitions to manic extremes. Doubtless the boy from the shtetl had a burning desire to belong. He loved shaking hands with the rich and famous and cavorting ludicrously on the pages of his own newspaper, bought, very likely, because he knew he’d never get a respectful press from anyone else. He was a monster, of course, consumed with avarice and the desire to be in control, but he had help in the burgeoning of his monstrousness. He was, by any account, extraordinary, and perhaps, in another place, might have been something quite different.

Betty Maxwell believes he was driven by a need to atone for his survival. ‘He was convinced that had he stayed at home, he could have saved the lives of his parents and younger siblings’ – who died in concentration camps. ‘Nothing he achieved in life would ever compensate for what he had not been able to accomplish – the rescue of his family.’

His Jewishness was not just a problem for the English establishment, but for Maxwell himself. Betty Maxwell suspects that in marrying out of the faith he felt he betrayed his family. In consequence, she devoted herself to working ‘towards Jewish-Christian reconciliation’ and bringing the knowledge of the Holocaust to the attention of the world. ‘In some ways,’ she writes, this ‘brought us together, in others, it widened the gulf between us as I gradually became more recognised in my own right.’ The Maxwell tensions remained taut right to the end.

Ever one to make the best of a bad business, in her time of trouble after her husband’s death when people were riffling through her bank accounts, she found comfort in what she learned of Maxwell’s family history. ‘Through all of this I was sustained by my respect and love for the memory of Bob’s mother, this woman I had never known but to whom I felt so close ... She and her family had gone through far worse, along with all their fellow Jews, who had been humiliated, vilified, degraded and finally murdered. How did I dare complain, even to myself? I felt supported by sharing vicariously, even in a small way, an appalling fate and being punished for alleged deeds I had neither committed nor been aware of.’ Thank God, it wasn’t all in vain.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 17 No. 4 · 23 February 1995

The English-speaking world has long been afflicted by what has been termed, in Britain, ‘greengrocers’ apostrophe’ (as in ‘potato’s’, ‘tomato’s’ etc), but the use of double inverted commas, or quotation marks, as an indication of intonational and, thereby, semantic stress is a more recent development, limited, in my experience, to advertisements of the cruder kind, especially those hand-written on the windows of greengrocers’ and other shops, and those published in the provincial press by estate agents. I did not look to see its use infecting the pages of the LRB.

Jenny Diski, in her review of Elizabeth Maxwell’s A Mind of My Own: My Life with Robert Maxwell (LRB, 26 January) – which I otherwise enjoyed – quotes Robert Maxwell as saying or writing, ‘Mr Watson threw a googly at me,’ and as being rather discourteously corrected by Mr Watson: ‘Every Englishman knows you “bowl" [sic] a googly’ (presumably the double inverted commas are Ms Diski’s – or, perhaps, Ms Sue Barrett’s?), the punctuation implying that the word ‘bowl’ is of doubtful authenticity, if not downright wrong. However, following the sense of the passage, ‘bowl’ is, in fact, being offered by the speaker or writer as the correct word, and the normal typesetting interpretation of his intonational intent would be to print the word in italics. The usage displayed in Ms Diski’s review causes the argument to point in opposite directions at the same time. People familiar with the operational characteristics of earlier word processors tell me that this curious use of inverted commas may well stem from difficulties in underlining when using these machines: usage ex machina? I am saddened to see the LRB lending its support to such imprecise practices.

Kenneth Hoyle

Vol. 17 No. 5 · 9 March 1995

Kenneth Hoyle (Letters, 23 February) suggests I have the punctuating ability of a greengrocer. In a general sort of way, I would agree with him, though I suspect that many greengrocers have powers of punctuation far in excess of mine. However, the particular error he cites – the use of double quotations for the word bowl to correct Robert Maxwell’s phrase ‘throw a googly’ – was reproduced exactly as it appeared in Tom Bower’s biography, Maxwell: The Outsider, published by Mandarin Books. Perhaps the line editor at Mandarin Books is the person to whom Mr Hoyle should address himself in the first instance.

In the second instance, he might be able to tell me whether it is preferable to use quotes from source books as they stand, or to clean them up for the meticulous eyes of LRB readers. Personally, if I were to be quoted, I think I would rather the original version were used. Who knows, I may have been feeling deliberately greengrocerish at the time.

Jenny Diski
London NW3

Kenneth Hoyle’s reference to ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’ gives me an excuse to share with your readers my joy at coming across a notice saying GOLDEN DELICIOU’S.

Anthony Buckley

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.