R.W. Johnson wonderingly cites magic realism as a force in South African politics (LRB, 22 June). However, in ‘Enrichissez-Vous!’ (LRB, 20 October 1994) he found the ‘determining force’ to be ‘the grab for power and jobs on the part of a small black élite’. In this earlier piece he was seriously exercised about incompetence and corruption in the new ANC Government: ‘Quite visibly, the Cabinet doesn’t work … The sense of drift is quite palpable.’ Now, however, a new romantic glow suffuses his perception of the situation, for presumably he must include himself as one of the ‘white cynics’ who were ‘wrong’: ‘corruption is far less typical of ANC-ruled South Africa than it was of the country under Afrikaner Nationalist rule.’ Is it too much to expect that, rather man attributing the fact that ‘something much closer to normal politics has at last begun’ to ‘a sort of magic realism’, he might now question the motives and reasoning which led him to condemn the new government so hastily in the first place?
Ross McKibbin plays Santa Claus to Tony Blair (LRB, 25 May), but he fills Blair’s stocking with nothing more than a few airy balloons ‘repoliticisation’, ‘modernisation’, citizen ‘empowerment’) plus a rather grey parcel at the bottom, vaguely labelled ‘electoral reform’. There is of course a strong case for some sort of proportional representation in choosing representatives for the European Parliament and for local authorities because in both cases the elections are not oriented towards an adversarial legislature that produces a government. But McKibbin apparently favours electoral reform for elections to the House of Commons, and holds it up as a sort of modernising talisman, an indiscriminate wonder-cure for all the ills that earlier Labour Governments were prone to.
His grounds for doing so are very strange. He says that ‘were the country able to start again, as the Germans did after 1945, it is inconceivable that we would put in place such a ruined system’ – as though we should regret the fact that our political system has been evolving continuously for hundreds of years, and that we can’t rewrite the whole thing from scratch. And he complains that our electoral system ‘is grossly unrepresentative’, as though the exact representation of opinion in some aggregated and fictitious national constituency is the only purpose of parliamentary elections.
But his main argument is positively sleazy: that electoral reform would keep Labour in power for longer. With this, we’re back to the seedy politics of the French Fourth Republic, where each political party when in government rigged the electoral system against its rivals. Nor does McKibbin say anything about how this change in the rules is going to be sold to the electors. Opinion polls which display enthusiasm for a shiny new constitution suffer from the fallacy of the cost-free benefit. Such opinions are never reached in the knowledge of what the change is likely to cost – probably not in the light of much knowledge at all. When roasted in the heat of a general election campaign, they are likely to frizzle up. To sleaze McKibbin adds political improbability: for he envisages Blair getting power through the simple-majority system and then embracing an electoral reform that would prevent his party from ever holding office on its own again. He nowhere explains why a multi-party system would benefit Labour more than the Conservatives, or how a Labour government would get its legislative proposals on other matters past its coalition partners. As Harold Laskilong ago pointed out, government of this sort involves ‘the substitution of manoeuvre for policy’.
There is a better way. Labour has now lost four elections in a row. In 1979 Mrs Thatcher’s party had lost four out of the preceding five. Yet in her final pre-election press conference in that year she followed her predecessors of the Twenties in claiming that electoral reform was ‘the easy way of fighting socialism’: ‘the only way to fight state socialism … is to fight it head on and beat it head on.’ Neil Kinnock echoed this honesty and conviction. ‘What I don’t want,’ he told the Times in September 1990, ‘is people coming to a conclusion to change the nature of politics in Britain simply because they’re fed up with Maggie Thatcher … If they’re going to have proportional representation it must be for the right reasons.’ Even if the politically improbable occurred and electoral reform arrived by McKibbin’s route, it would not stave off ultimate failure for the Labour government which embraced it. For if your programme can get implemented only by juggling with the electoral system, it won’t have much effect. In a democratic society, there is no alternative to winning electors’ consent for the policies you favour.
So McKibbin should leave Blair to carry on with what he’s already doing: clearing out old lumber from his party’s attics, building up its mass membership, and pinching Liberal policies where they’re any good. In other words, doing to the Liberals what the Liberals did to Labour between 1906 and 1914. This is the way to build up an integrated reforming coalition among electors, if not among politicians, that will fully exploit the simple-majority electoral system and marshal all non-Conservative forces in the country with maximum effect against the enemy. For the success of the Right in British politics since 1914 has stemmed not from an undemocratic electoral system, but from knowing better than the Left how to operate a democratic one. Blair offers Labour some hope that the British Left will recover the strategy that made it so much more effective before 1914 than afterwards.
Corpus Christi College,
Soon after my review of Madeleine Bunting’s The Model Occupation appeared I was mystified to receive a personal letter from its author. It contained a ‘complete copy’ of her letter to the LRB (Letters, 22 June), uncut and unchanged, a vituperative covering note and no return address. This appears to be Bunting’s practice with critical reviewers; John Keegan also received a personal letter complaining about his review for the Daily Telegraph. Referring in her note to her LRB letter, Bunting wrote: ‘I chose to take up the substantive issues in your review which are of more interest to LRB readers rather than to get caught up in the petty detail of whether Bob Le Sueur did or did not give me a telephone number, or yourown factual errors.’ What more ‘substantive’ issue can there be for the historian than the evidence?
In my article I showed in detail how inadequacies in Bunting’s evidence impaired, or even invalidated, her arguments about forced labourers, resistance, Jersey’s Jews and Channel Island memory. Her response ignores my criticisms. Instead she goes to great lengths to assure her readers of her good intentions, her hard work and ‘her genuine sympathy for the islanders’. This gets us nowhere. The subject of my review was not Bunting’s personal motives but the picture her book presents of the Channel Island Occupation.
Her paragraph on Jersey’s Jews might appear to address my criticisms of her evidence:
The defensivenees of Jersey over the treatment of its Jews has been particularly evident. To my considerable regret, I made an error. It was an extremely difficult subject to research; asking a question about the Jews was tantamount to bringing the interview to an abrupt halt with some islanders. Frustrated by the paucity of information, I relied on the word of one islander as to the fate of one Jewish woman; he understood she had died in a concentration camp.
This is personal defensiveness on Bunting’s part, rather than a desire to put the record straight. We learn nothing of the fate of the Jewish woman in question, not even her name, and there is no mention of the other Jews whose fates her book misconstrues. Instead Bunting pretends there is only one error, pertaining to Mrs Still, for which she blames islanders in general and Bob Le Sueur in particular. This is predictable: Mrs Still’s step-daughter publicly objected to the way the book wrongs her family, took legal advice and, following correspondence with Bunting, received a private letter of apology from her.
Bunting is well aware that her book contains numerous other errors, because Channel Island historians have pointed them out to her. Michael Ginns, Secretary of the Channel Island Occupation Society (Jersey), has compiled a list of corrections running to nine and a half closely typed pages; more than fifty other errors concerning Guernsey and Alderney have been identified by William Bell, author of I Beg to Report, a four-hundred page study of policing in Guernsey during the Occupation.
Even if Bunting were prepared to correct such purely factual errors in any future edition, her book’s methodological defects severely limit its value. It is very difficult, and often impossible, to sort out fact from hearsay and argument from innuendo in her work. While her sources may look impressive, they are so imprecise and incomplete that anyone wishing to check her use of them has to plough through all the books, newspapers and documents on the Occupation. This is beyond the call of duty for a newspaper reviewer, which is partly why Bunting has not been rumbled before. Even more problematic is what Bunting calls ‘oral history’. She quotes her interviewees’ words as if their historical truth were beyond question – even when they contradict all the known facts or are controversial opinions.
Since Bunting nowhere refers to tape recordings or transcripts of the interviews she conducted, the only way to verify her quotations is to contact her interviewees. On speaking to some of her Jersey witnesses I was disturbed to find that she had reported their words in accurately, selectively and out of context. I was also astonished to learn that she had not checked her witnesses’ testimonies with them before publication. The differences of ‘petty detail’ between Bunting’s and Le Sueur’s reports of their conversation do not merely undermine her claims about what happened to Jersey’s Jews. More generally, they threaten her credibility as a historian.
Much of Bunting’s ‘evidence’consists of her personal experience and her interpretation of it. While this may provide rich fodder for a certain kind of journalism, it is hardly a sound basis for history. When I spoke to islanders about the Occupation, my experience was quite different from hers. Because many Jersey people could not tell her much about Jews who did not leave the island before the Germans came, she assumes their ‘defensiveness … has been particularly evident’. It never occurs to her that Jersey people might be telling the truth, that they might not know of anything awful happening to the few Jewish people who remained because nothing did. When I produce factual evidence supporting this, Bunting promptly tars me with the same brush: ‘The tone of Ms Holt’s review is similar to the aggressively defensive attitude adopted by some Channel Islanders towards my book – she has lived in Jersey since 1968 when her parents moved there as tax exiles.’ Both the Contributors section and my review indicate that I have not ‘lived in Jersey since 1968’; Bunting must know this as the personal letter she sent me was addressed in her own hand to my home in East Sussex.
Bunting’s ‘clear affirmative’ to the question whether victims of Nazism have been over-looked on the island is absurd. The only formal execution to take place in Jersey during the Occupation merits no mention in her book: a memorial stone and annual remembrance services at St Ouen’s Manor ensure François-Marie Scornet is remembered nonetheless. Bunting also overlooks the monument in St Helier recognising the assistance provided by the people of Jersey to members of the French Resistance (erected in 1961) and the general memorial in Howard Davis Park to all those who died in concentration and internment camps (erected in 1985). The former Strangers’ Cemetery and the Underground Hospital are major sites of commemoration, with detailed plaques from the various national groups of OT workers who suffered and died in Jersey. Recent events marking the 50th anniversary of the Liberation included high-profile services at both these places, with former slave workers prominent among the special guests. One of these was Feodor ‘Bill’ Burriy, an escaped Russian prisoner sheltered by islanders during the Occupation. In her book Bunting makes much of Bill’s story, castigating islanders for ‘forgetting’ Louisa Gould, a Jerseywoman who died at Ravensbrück after being deported for sheltering Bill. Bunting will, doubtless, be amazed to learn that on 6 May a long-planned memorial stone outside St Ouen’s Parish Hall and a plaque at Mrs Gould’s former home were unveiled. Further revelations may be found in the Jersey Evening Post– such as Senator Reg Jeune’s speech during the VE Day sitting of the States of Jersey, acknowledging the Occupation’s informers and black marketeers as well as ‘the acts of courage like those of Canon Cohu and Harold Le Druillenec’. A fortnight earlier, the Bailiff of Jersey had paid more fulsome tribute when he unveiled a plaque commemorating the bravery of 2600 political prisoners incarcerated in the old Gloucester Street prison during the Occupation. No one who ventures past the entrance of the current exhibition at the Imperial War Museum will find Bunting’s ‘jolly holiday camp’ but much awful detail on these and other unhappy aspects of Occupation.
Lewes, East Sussex
I’m certain I won’t be the only one to write in to express admiration for Iain Sinclair’s Diary (LRB, 8 June). Never having lived in the UK, I’m sadly ignorant of many of the local references, but this doesn’t matter; Sinclair serves up the scene on a giant silver dish, removes its lid, and voilà! The aperçus, the clothing, the quotes, the appointments, and above all the flowers: this is Mallarmé Goes to the Movies, the finest underworld prose poem I’ve read since the transcript of Dutch Schultz’s deathbed speech.
Bloomsville, New York
C.K. Stead’s review of Hazel Rowley’s biography of Christina Stead was moving and ample (LRB, 8 June). Given that hers was a narrative of literary neglect or of tardy acclaim – one of those ‘exemplary stories from which the lessons have always to be relearned’, as C.K. Stead nicely puts it – it may be worth correcting the impression he gives that Randall Jarrell ‘discovered’ The Man Who Loved Children in the mid-Sixties when he wrote an introduction for its republication. On the contrary, one sees from Jarrell’s letters that he discovered the book when it first came out in 1940, immediately recognised its genius, and spent 25 years trying to interest others. The lesson to be relearnt here, and what a hard one, is something that Jarrell himself wrote – that the great critic is even rarer than the great writer. Jarrell and Stead were surely both, respectively.
Frank Kermode, presumably following Margaret Drabble’s account, surely misjudges Rose Macaulay’s response to Dwight Macdonald (LRB, 8 June). If one thinks of the Macaulay who wrote Letters to a Friend, it seems likely to have been a quiet and honest expression of pleasure and surprise, and far from any exhibition – let alone one of shockingly bad manners.
Moss Side, Manchester
Michael Dobson’s review of my biography of Edmond Malone is much more about Malone, whom he dislikes, than about my book (LRB, 8 June). ‘It is very hard actually to like the prissy, intolerant-looking man whose glinting eyes, in Reynolds’s portrait, stare fixedly past us from the dustjacket,’ Dobson writes. Sentences such as this make one suspect that critical intolerance here may be in the eye of the beholder.
Dobson would like to see in Malone’s Irishness fertile soil for his impatience with criticism and his hostility towards forgeries. Is it not more productive to try to see Malone’s vigorous exposures of forgeries, at a time when authentic literary manuscripts were more than ever highly prized as sources for literary history, as part of the profound commitment to historical veracity for which generations of scholars and students of literature have thanked him? One does, indeed, wish he had spent less time on the forgeries and saved himself for his major Shakespeare edition which he never completed, but Malone, with some justification, saw the times as especially vulnerable to such quackery.
Is it fair to Malone to cite his unsuccessful efforts to marry as some sort of evidence of a character flaw that raises ‘misgivings about [his] enduring legacy’ as a scholar, as if an alleged scholarly spitefulness made him unattractive to women? Dobson suggests that Malone’s failure to marry and other ‘personal foibles’ comprise ‘a certain model of Shakespearean scholarship … [and] have been dangerously prone to accompany and drive it ever since’. Malone becomes Malvolio, denying cakes and ale to anyone he opposes. He is also Hamlet, ‘sacrificing his own life in solitary, martyred loyalty to the posthumous interests of his literary fathers’. As I make clear, Malone the scholar was neither solitary – no more than most scholars are, that is – nor self-sacrificing in a morbid, funerary, Hamletesque vein. He thrived happily in the intellectual world of Johnson, Boswell, Burke, Reynolds, Windham, Siddons, Kemble, the Burneys and so on. Unlike Malvolio, he was a frequent dinner guest and quick to join in with the fun and frolics of The Gang, the festive four consisting of himself, Boswell, Courtenay and Reynolds. As for marriage, his first choice was strongly rejected by his family, his second decided not to marry anyone and died an invalid, and the third married far above Malone socially.
Dobson conveys the sense that anyone, past and present, who does sound scholarly work, using primary sources and archives to get at the evidence, has something for which to apologise, He asserts that Malone was ‘remarkable for what he didn’t do’: he is ‘scarcely a Shakespearean critic at all’, not at any rate in the Johnsonian sense, for his thorough documentary scholarship blocked him from interpretation. But Malone never pretended he was a critic, though as a commentator he is frequently interpretative and evaluative and provides a host of insights on the plays. Dobson faults Malone for treating the Elizabethans ‘as exemplars primarily of their own long-departed time rather than of humanity in general’; but what does this mean? Does it mean that Malone’s commentary lacks relevance to human nature? If so, it clearly is wrong, as any cursory perusal of his 1790 Shakespeare edition will reveal. Does it mean that Malone should have been aware of future parameters of Shakespearean criticism? The shift in historical consciousness over which Malone presided was a shift away from impressionism, myths and legends, not away from criticism about ‘humanity in general’.
A last point is that Malone’s achievements as a scholar cannot be fully and roundly measured without reference to his non-Shakespearean work, from Dryden and Pope to Reynolds, Boswell and Johnson.
Bury, West Sussex
Mr Kleinzahler (Letters, 8 June) cites Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius as something I ‘would have to know’ in order to understand ‘good old High Modernism’. It so happens that I read and admired Pound’s version when I was a schoolboy in London in the early Thirties. Pound, however, unlike Logue, did not mangle the structure of his original, introduce a host of new characters with outlandish names, and lay on faecal and sexual obscenities with a lavish hand. There are phrases in Pound’s poem that send the reader back to Propertius’ text with new insight and sometimes to find an unnoticed felicity – something that will not happen to the reader of Logue, who does not know the original and who is for at least 50 per cent of the time drawing freely on his own lurid imagination.
Contrary to the correspondent from Dusseldorf (Letters, 25 May), I believe that one of the services expected from the LRB Letters section is a periodic update on the fortunes of Fiona Pitt-Kethley. I have long contended that a regular column about her adventures, poetic and otherwise, would prove a popular feature for any publication willing to sponsor it. Her self-evident talents are matched by a pluck and tenacity worth encouraging. Why begrudge a hearing now and then to one who speaks so forthrightly of what must be a common experience for writers, worldwide? May the LRB at least continue to furnish her this forum, probono publico.
Warren Keith Wright
The year 1900 seems to leave Janette Turner Hospital (LRB, 25 May) lost for words: 26 January 1900 was not ‘the centenary of the First Fleet’s arrival’, but its 112th anniversary; and 1900 was not a ‘millennial year’ (even figuratively). It was a centurial year.
In his review of The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (LRB, 25 May), it was appropriate for Alan Ryan to direct attention in Britain to other works by the late Christopher Lasch. Ryan’s reference to The Agony of the American Left (1969) as Lasch’s second book was misleading, however, as it was his third, following not only The New Radicalism in America (1965) but also The American Liberals and the Russian Revolution, which was published in 1962 and set the tone for much of his subsequent historical analyses of liberalism in the United States