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Letters

Vol. 17 No. 24 · 14 December 1995

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Mischief in Melbourne

Peter Craven, in his mischievous Melbourne Diary piece (LRB, 16 November), about the months-long furore over the 1995 Miles Franklin Award-winner, reveals that he was not paying attention at the Victorian Premier’s awards shortlist announcement in September. What I said was:

I only hope that this year’s uproar does not have the effect of intimidating future literary judges into making only safe, non-controversial decisions – into denying literary recognition to the sort of writer Amos Oz describes as ‘the witchdoctor of the tribe, who conjures the fears and phantoms and terror … and so brings relief either to the whole tribe or some of its members, even if the tribe is ungrateful, even if it howls with pain and fury, even if it shouts “what will the neighbouring tribes say about us?" ’

Several facts, not in Peter Craven’s account of the affair, merit attention. First, The Hand that Signed the Paper, having won the 1993 Vogel Award, was widely and on the whole favourably reviewed on publication in October 1994. Secondly, as well as Dame Leonie Kramer and myself, Professor Harry Heseltine and Associate Professor Adrian Mitchell were members of the panel of judges that gave it the Miles Franklin Award in June. Thirdly, in July, another panel of judges awarded Helen Demidenko the annual Australian Society of Literature Gold Medal. All the judges of both awards have stood by their separate judgments.

What I find most disquieting are the grounds on which Peter Craven judges The Hand that Signed the Paper unworthy of its literary awards. He himself, it seems, belongs to that group of readers of the book who, he says,‘schooled by the fraud, were able to see The Hand that Signed the Paper as exhibiting a disturbing tone of moral disengagement’ (my italics). Surely, in a word, irony. The emotionless prose in which the narrator sets down the oral testimony of her relatives, violently anti-semitic Ukrainian peasants who survived Stalin and the famine to collaborate with the SS during the war, is the language of those who are, in Gitta Sereny’s phrase, ‘morally extinguished’. The irony is that in the terrible factual simplicity of the prose the horrified reader discovers the common humanity we share with those who behave like savages. ‘Irony irritates,’ says Kundera in The Art of the Novel, ‘not because it mocks or attacks but because it denies us our certainties by unmasking the world as an ambiguity.’

Jill Kitson
Radio National

Peter Craven’s Diary about the Demidenko imbroglio was fair comment except in one respect. He had no business portraying Jill Kitson as some sort of cultural commissar. I wouldn’t need to have known her and respected her most of my life to know that she is a good servant of literature in Australia – meaning that she is a good servant of world literature as a whole, and does her energetic best, through her position at the ABC, to make sure that the intelligent Australian reading public gets to hear visiting writers in person. The mere testimony of those writers, all gratified to be interviewed so intelligently, would be enough to convince me, or anybody else, that she is a valuable go-between for the by now intimate and flourishing involvement of the wider world and its most enviably productive outpost. The dimmer Australian cultural journalisis construe the position she has attained as one of power rather than influence, but Mr Craven should be slower to join them. Witch-finding is a lingering vestige of provincialism, like the long relishing of the merest embarrassment. So much was made of the Ern Malley hoax that Max Harris, an honest and worthy man guilty of no greater crime than young enthusiasm, went to his grave still famous for having been taken in. But it was a storm in a teacup, and to pretend that the storm raged on only emphasised that Australia was still a teacup. Hoaxes usually work. The world runs on good faith, not self-preserving suspicion. To be successfully targeted by a fraud is punishment enough, without having to hear those who were spared prate on about it, stoked in their ardour by the dubious assumption that they would not have been taken in themselves. The Demidenko case already has a sufficient victim: Helen Darville. As the text of her book can still reveal to the attentive reader, even through the harsh light of knowledge that now makes objective assessment so difficult, she is, or at any rate was, a natural writer. The place for her personality disorders was on the page, where they might have been resolved into art through a long creative maturity. Instead she acted them out in her life, and doomed a promising career at the start. The only witch in this case is already burning. For her sake, for literature’s sake, and above all for the sake of our country’s painfully slow emergence from its parochial ecstasy of misplaced and unnecessary self-importance, we should avoid making a landmark of her pyre.

Clive James
Cambridge

Down with the Constitution

Conor Gearty is right to caution against giving judges political power (LRB, 16 November). Politicians, not judges, should make policy. It would therefore be useful to see a similar analysis of the judicial activism of the European Court of Justice. At present, most of the Court’s decisions suit the Labour Party, but this will change with Labour in government. We should start to question the extent to which the Court is making political rather than simply legal judgments.

Shaun Spiers
MEP for London South-East

Conor Gearty’s article on the killing of the three IRA members in Gibraltar is a very useful summary of the circumstances leading up to the decision of the European Court of Human Rights. Unfortunately he has also taken the opportunity to set out his views on why we should neither incorporate the European Convention of Human Rights into domestic law nor implement a domestic Bill of Rights.

The Convention is of course getting old and should have been incorporated by the United Kingdom thirty years ago, but that does not mean that it is not an important document setting out at least some minimum rights and one that remains a ‘living instrument’. In 1950 when it was adopted no one would have predicted that its right-to-privacy article would protect gay men from criminal prosecution for their sexuality in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. Equally, no one would have predicted that it would ensure the right to information on contraception and abortion for women in the Republic.

Even the rash of successful decisions by the courts in this country on behalf of prisoners and against the Home Secretary can be traced back to a series of important judgments in Strasbourg. Had judges been able to take the Convention properly into account prisoners’ rights would indubitably have been further improved. This should be enough to convince Conor Gearty but he believes that the incorporation of the Convention would make it impossible to have ‘any radical egalitarian change of our society’. The jurisprudence of the Court in Strasbourg does not bear out this pessimistic thesis and I think that those who will benefit from having their rights set out clearly in writing will not wish to wait until Conor Gearty’s utopia arrives.

Of course the incorporation of the Convention will not usher in a new golden age either, and there are many cases (many of them taken there by Liberty) that have been turned down by the institutions in Strasbourg. That is why the incorporation of the Convention is only the first step and we need to begin the process of consultation on a domestic Bill of Rights to improve on the rights set out in the Convention. Conor Gearty is apparently not willing to countenance any possibilities that do not give him all he wants at once.

The belief that anything which restricts the sovereignty of a democratically elected government is wrong is a belief that surely cannot be justified in such unsophisticated terms. Enshrining principles of human rights is important precisely because it limits the power of the majority. There are many minorities which can never attract the support of the majority and it is necessary to protect them. Who most needs protection will of course vary from society to society but those who have a different sexuality from the majority or a differently coloured skin or who are disabled are likely to need rights in most societies.

John Wadham
Acting General Secretary,

Anthony Barnett for Charter 88 (Letters, 30 November) as usual runs away from the fatal defects in the proposal to incorporate the European Convention of Human Rights. He advocates a constitutional court but does not say whether it would be empowered to declare Acts of Parliament invalid. And he weakly falls back on the need for ‘a fully democratic settlement sustained by popular support’. But he is right to say that the arguments against incorporation lead to ‘the belief that a Bill of Rights can only shift the balance of advantage towards big money’.

J.A.G. Griffith
Marlow, Bucks

Old Roman

Edward Luttwak (LRB, 2 November) argues that the Boeing Corporation is increasing productivity, reducing labour costs and discharging workers thanks to computer-aided design and the computerisation of clerical work etc. But who is making the computers, and the work stations, and the micro-processors and the software? US corporations. Even the Japanese are now slipping before the recovery of the semi-conductor industry in the United States. No one in Japan matches Intel and the processing chip. No one in Japan, or anywhere else in the world, matches American software. So what is the point of Luttwak’s complaint? He wrote a ludicrous book a few years ago predicting the decline of the American economy, and he was wrong. But as an old Roman strategist, Mr Luttwak knows that you never retreat: you attack again. But with what weapons?

Adam Kadmon
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Sister-Sister

I find it amazing that nobody who heard Edward Copeland’s paper at the annual Jane Austen Society of North America Conference at Lake Louise, Canada in 1993 has brought to Terry Castle’s attention that Jane and Cassandra Austen each had her own bed. There is no concrete evidence that the sisters shared a bed. Copeland clearly establishes from the records of Ring Brothers of Basingstoke, a home furnishings store, that when Jane was 19 and Cassandra 22, in 1794, ‘Austen’s father … bought two special made-to-order matching beds’ for the Austen sisters. Castle’s claim that ‘Cassandra was indeed the person’ Jane slept with is not so clearly evident as she would have your readers believe. I would think that Jane Austen’s explicit description of Martha Lloyd sharing her bed in 1799 would have been more useful to Castle’s argument.

Bonnie Herron
University of Alberta, Edmonton

Julia Gasper’s version of the importance of female bonding in Pride and Prejudice (Letters, 16 November) doesn’t quite convince – or is meant for irony. 1. ‘Elizabeth Bennet never finds Darcy attractive until she has met his sister (a female version of him perhaps?).’ Rather she is all the more attracted to Darcy for having met Georgiana. The two of them are exemplary: explicitly, of how an elder brother should care for his younger sister; implicitly, of how a husband should care for his wife and – remembering that Darcy père is dead – of how a father should care for his daughter. They embody, albeit rather solemnly, an ideal of family life that Elizabeth from her own unsatisfactory experience knows only too well deserves to be cherished, and will cherish herself with the aerating intelligence of her laughter.

2. She ‘never wants to marry at all until both her closest women friends, Charlotte Lucas and her sister Jane, are married or engaged and so taken away from her’. Oh yes she does. Exploring the grounds and then the house at Pemberley – before meeting Darcy there, let alone Georgiana – she finds herself having to fight off regret for the chance of marriage she thinks she’s aborted. In walking around Pemberley, she’s walked deep inside Darcy’s mind (an elegant borrowing of one of Gothic fiction’s most familiar tropes) and found there a man worthy of rather more than just the respect she already knows she cannot rightly grudge him. Esteem, gratitude and affection will soon be in train. This entire episode takes place after Charlotte Lucas’s ‘loss’ to Mr Collins, but during Jane Bennet’s lengthening harsh exile from any hope of marriage to Mr Bingley.

3. For that matter, it may be that, despite Elizabeth’s loudly-bruited dislike of him, she is attracted to Mr Darcy from almost the novel’s beginning. She is a young woman with a very keen sense of propriety and yet, on only the slightest acquaintance with Mr Wickham, allows herself to become intimate with him in joint vilification of Darcy. She cannot keep away from the subject. Perhaps talking about Darcy like this, almost obsessively, is her way of expressing her attraction to him – so much at odds with her dislike – while leaving it unadmitted. If so, then the question must be what the nature of the attraction is, and why it should have to be expressed so very indirectly.

4. ‘The conclusion of the book spends longer telling us about the “love" which grew up between Elizabeth and Georgiana than it does describing Elizabeth’s happiness with Darcy.’ After two marriage proposals from him and the shift of feeling in her that has led from violent rejection of the first proposal to wholehearted acceptance of the second, I should think their love for each other sufficiently attested. However, what the aghast Georgiana observes in her sister-in-law and brother is a wife confident enough to tease her husband, and a husband trusting enough of his wife to let himself be teased; here is their happiness in action, as Austen herself makes pretty clear. I am entranced by the notion of a sister/brother/sister-in-law ménage à trois, with Elizabeth at the apex of its triangle, swinging (I presume unconsciously, à la Terry Castle) both ways – but damned if I believe it.

J. Woolley
North Yorkshire

Where are they now?

As R.W. Johnson notes, activists aside, most of those who were drawn to the SDP have now drifted back to Tony Blair’s Labour Party (LRB, 30 November). Does this mean, as Johnson suggests, that Blair is the ultimate result of the SDP and one they would not be unhappy about? Perhaps. But many of those professionals who have moved leftwards back to Labour have great concerns not only about their jobs and status but about education, hospitals, the environment and so on. It seems unlikely that, left to himself, Blair will address these concerns, although clearly campaigning pressure could change his mind. The irony is that at least some of the old SDP supporters, having exited Labour to the right of Tony Blair, are now re-entering the political stage to his left.

Keith Flett
London N17

Bugger the reader

James Davidson (LRB, 19 October) claims that aggressive sexual slang is ‘conspicuous in ancient Greece by its absence’, overlooking the strong sexual and scatological invective of Aristophanes and the other poets of Old Comedy. Vase paintings even break their usual muteness on this issue to speak directly on a vase portraying a Persian archer bending over as a Greek approaches from behind holding his erect penis in hand, penetration clearly in mind; its inscription ‘Eyrymedon eimi’ (‘I am Eurymedon’) makes a coarse play of the name of the river Eurymedon, site of a contemporary Greek naval victory, as well as the words ‘Euryproktos’ (‘wide-arsed’) and ‘Medos’ (‘Mede’, a synonym for ‘Persian’, which also has a homonym meaning ‘genitals’). It is fully analogous to the modern sexual ‘to scud’, which Davidson mentions.

Robert Sutton
Indiana University-Purdue University,

I must correct the implication behind the question posed by J.R. Evenhuis: ‘Why is it that such phallocentric expletives can never be traced back to the ancient Greeks?’ (Letters, 30 November). It is simply not the case that such expressions are uttered only by Romanised Greeks or Graecised Romans. Laikazo is at home in Aristophanes and one of the epigraphic examples of buggering the reader I adduced in my previous letter dates from the early fifth century.

D.M. Bain
Manchester University

Reborn

As a Glasgow-born Canadian, resident for four years in Switzerland, and a new subscriber to the LRB, I was concerned that there might be too much of a ‘London literary’ tone to your journal, somewhat alien to my rootless sensibility. Until, that is, I read the piece on Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus in my very first issue (LRB, 16 November).

In August 1982 I drove from Boulder, Colorado, through the Bad Lands of Nebraska, Wounded Knee and South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and on up to Sault Saint-Marie, and down across Manitoulin Island to Toronto. I took those endlessly long, straight rural roads, the ones you truck on at exactly 50 miles an hour, for ever. As I came through Minnesota on my way to Minneapolis-St Paul I noticed a huge mushroom cloud, from fields being burnt – ‘Señor, Señor, can you tell me where we’re headin’, / Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?’ At the next intersection I noticed the road sign: I was on Lincoln County Road Number 2; sure enough, I was in Bob Zimmerman land.

I was also one of the lucky ones who heard Bob Dylan doing ‘There’s a slow train coming, coming round the bend’, and ‘Man gave names to all the animals – in the beginning, in the beginning’ among many other greats, just after he went and got himself ‘born again’, and everyone was so pissed off and there were only two thousand of us in Toronto’s Massey Hall that night.

Tony Woolfson
Zurich

In Praise of Ulster-Scots

Wae a’ the room ye hae gien tae oor owl tongue – an we’re saerious gled o it – A wunther if a boady micht luck tae gie it a wee airin an at the sametim mak adae at strechtin oot twarthy metthers?

In thon ither scrape A writ ye – for the geg, maistly – A wuz chakkin Tam Palyin (as iz yins wud ca him) for gan wrang wae burd names (Letthers, 5 Uptober). Noo Tam’s harly the soart tae tak snool, but oanyway. Whut happent wuz this: bak at ooris, afore leein for Shillinavogy Moss (tae tak aboot peats – aboot breeshtin, stankin an braidfittin; aboot cassles, fittins an rickles) we gaen through a hale trevalley o burds, baith for Antrim (lake felt, stanechakker an wee blakheid – the yins A went ower agane in the moss) an frae a’ ower, an Tam jaist didnae sinther them richt. (Mine ye, it wuz a quare day for makkin mistaks: baith cowl an drachy – mair rid nebs nor midges – an iz plowterin lake fegogged dreechles in grun that wuz sapplin an nixt tae a gullion eftther the plump. A mine Tam – weerin licht claes, forbye – stannin stairvin at the binkheid an aply ettlin tae get bak tae the Poors, A jalooze. An nae wunther! – sure wuzn’t he jaist eftther stravaigin an crakkin frae the clouds o the moarnin?)

The McDonal boady frae Bristol (or neardher name) wuz aksin wha should richtly be at the Ulster-Scots. Weel, ye sa whut Philip Roabysin wuz allooin aboot yins ‘failin tae penytrate’ Orr’s lenguage – an that’s the hale thing, ye see. It’s nae guid ava jaist cloddin a gopin o the owl words inty a pome, lake pittin currans in fadge – whather it’s Tam’s fremd evenin or clabbery market, or Michel Langley’s weefla lettin a guldher at his da. A boady micht think the lake o them could aiblins gie iz a hale pome or twa in the day’s Ulster-Scots; but A wunther. It’s a wile peety nether o them had it for their furst wie o takkin (an a peety, tae, Mossbawn wuznae a weethin neardher Buckna). For it haes enuch wee cleeks an thras tae sen even the brichtest ootsider heelsmegairy; nae metther hoo able, he micht weel mak a sore han o it.

Jim Fenton
Newtownabbey, Co. Antrim

Lifelong

Shame that Adam Mars-Jones (LRB, 30 November), so coruscating in his critique of Colin Spencer’s Homosexuality: A History, at one point claiming that ‘it begins with a lie,’ falls into a similar trap. ‘Throughout your life?’ thunders dear Adam, only to repeat the error when referring to Foucault as having been ‘opposed all his life’ to procedures of surveillance and control. All his life? Please, Adam!

Chris Oakley
London NW3

Dive Dive Dive

Over three years ago this magazine accepted a poem of mine called ‘Intro Dive’ for publication. I wrote recently to ask when it would appear, only to be told that ‘Intro Dive’ and another item had not been published ‘because we don’t feel that they are up to the standard of your best work and believe that by publishing them we would be doing you a disservice.’ Any magazine that accepts poems then keeps them from publication is actually doing a poet a great disservice, not to mention wasting money. I was surprised also to find this particular poem belittled. ‘Intro Dive’ is reckoned to be one of my best poems by audiences who have heard it. May I suggest that any reader who would like to make up their own mind, rather than have the staff of the LRB do it for them, send me a large s.a.e. I will then send them a poem sheet of ‘Intro Dive’ by return.

Fiona Pitt-Kethley
7 Ebenezer Road, Hastings

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