Vol. 18 No. 1 · 4 January 1996

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Devil take the hindmost

It is monstrous that John Sutherland should have concluded his diatribe against H.G. Wells with the speculation that ‘if he had lived to witness it … he might have disbelieved the evidence of what the Nazis did’ (LRB, 14 December 1995). He did witness a good deal of what the Nazis did, and he condemned it more consistently, more comprehensively and at least as soon as any other English writer of the age. Aneurin Bevan used to ask in similar circumstances: why read the crystal-ball when you can read the book?

Just before he makes this baseless suggestion, Professor Sutherland offers a feeble pretence that he understands the opposite case. Wells’s defenders, he notes, ‘are at pains to point out that he was an early critic of Mussolini’. Indeed, we have every right to do so, since his full-blooded attack on Mussolini and his methods dates from the Twenties, and never faltered thereafter. When another, kindred breed of Fascism made its appearance in Spain, Wells was among the most prominent to denounce the craven appeasement on the part of the Western powers which condemned Spanish democracy to defeat.

But it was the Nazi religion, as he called it, which offered ‘the most urgent challenge the human mind will have had to face. Nazi Germany may well bring down our species.’ He wrote of ‘the spectacle of evil in the world during the past half-dozen years – the wanton destruction of homes, the ruthless hounding of decent folk into exile, the bombing of open cities, the cold-blooded massacre and mutilations and, above all, the return of deliberate and organised torture, mental torment and fear to a world from which such things had been well-nigh abolished’. This is what he wrote in his Fate of Homo Sapiens, published just before the outbreak of the Nazi war; and just after the outbreak, he led the protest against the British Government’s previous suppression of the evidence about the Nazi persecution of the Jews. All this proof of Wells’s longstanding, unrelenting fight against Fascism is reported, no doubt tediously, in my book. It should have been enough to forbid for ever any repetition of the libels.

Instead, Professor Sutherland seems to prefer to receive instruction from strange quarters. He takes seriously the conversation between Malcolm Muggeridge and Michael Coren, when Coren, according to Sutherland, ‘enterprisingly interviewed’ him, and when Muggeridge ‘muses’ whether Wells had read some of the works of ‘the Anglo-German race-theorist, proto-Nazi and anti-semite, Houston Stewart Chamberlain’. Indeed, if Professor Sutherland had read my book carefully he would have discovered that Wells himself had denounced that particular proto-Nazi anti-semite in his own book, Boon, published sixty years before the Muggeridge outburst. Future readers beware. The nearer Muggeridge reached the Pearly Gates, the less his musings should be trusted by serious readers or writers. He reserved a special venom for famous writers – like Hazlitt, Swift or Wells himself – whose sexual activities were not belatedly suppressed as were his own.

More seriously, some part of Professor Sutherland’s hostility to Wells seems to derive from a distaste for the whole genre of science fiction. Once Wells had stooped so low, he should not be allowed to conquer elsewhere. Real prophets who want to be taken seriously, Sutherland insists, should stick to stone tablets or bill-boards or Sky Television; an austere doctrine, which, however, would seem to exclude not only the whole inferior breed of science fiction writers but some of the greatest novelists and poets, ancient or modernist, who found in the end that they could not disentangle one great theme from another. The prophet Job was one, and Jonathan Swift was another, and Wells learnt from them both. But, according to the Sutherland decree, all such overlapping and rough edges must be forbidden. A special pity in Wells’s case, since it would mean that we could not take seriously a book such as The War of the Worlds, since it weaves into the general tapestry the theme of his horror of British Imperialism.

No race was fit to rule another race; no nation was fit to rule another nation. Wells preached that doctrine in many of his earliest writings, and he went on preaching it until his dying day. One of his first such excursions or prophecies was made in The War of the Worlds. He compared the way the Martians behaved with the way the British behaved in Tasmania or South Africa or Ireland or India. This was the true Wellsian doctrine, much more significant than any deduction to be drawn from his youthful excursions into the debates about eugenics so prevalent in the intellectual world of that age. Even on Sutherland’s grudging estimate, he had abandoned these ideas by the turn of the century, and so the rambling accusations from Muggeridge eighty years later can hardly be allowed to weigh in the scales.

It was his internationalist doctrine which Wells preached from the housetops when he had the chance, according to the best Sutherland prescription, but otherwise also in the novel, the new novel of the 20th century, which, whatever else it was, should never be bound by such barren confinements. Often Wells failed by his own tests, but sometimes he succeeded. At the height or depths of the 1914-18 War, Mr Britling flaunted the anti-imperialist, pro-international community banner in the face of the world. No one who had read that book could call him a racist in any sense whatever. It was a proclamation for all humanity, hailed as such not only by such observers as Thomas Hardy or Maxim Gorky, but by the great mass of common readers across the planet. Precious few of them could have recognised the élitist Wells of John Carey, another of his modern critics, or the science fiction vulgarian of Professor Sutherland. Anyhow, he could hardly have been both at the same time.

However, on one matter at least, I must not question Professor Sutherland’s jocular sincerity. He puts the point thus: if Michael Foot, with his terrible Wellsian ideas, had become prime minister, he and others ‘would be walking round without testicles’. I would not wish to make light of such a prodigious hazard. But if the aforesaid Wellsian-Foot regime had been in existence, he and his friends, male and female, would have the compensation that they could choose their lovers without fear or favour. Moreover, they would have escaped one world war and possibly two, and the nuclear explosion which might still blow us all into Muggeridge’s kingdom come.

Michael Foot
London NW3

Has anyone here read ‘The Wealth of Nations’?

As one of the Glasgow economists not involved in editing the Glasgow collection of Adam Smith’s works, perhaps I may be allowed to point out the absurdity of James Buchan’s comment that ‘to an extent all the editors of the Glasgow edition regard The Wealth of Nations as scripture’ (LRB, 14 December 1995). One of those most closely involved in the meticulous editing of Smith’s writings was Ronald Meek, a Marxist economist who did not regard any economist’s writings, including his own, as scripture. I suspect I am now one of the few living persons, including recent prime ministers, who have actually read The Wealth of Nations. It is especially valuable to those interested in economic history, even more to those, like myself, interested in the history of Scottish agriculture. A large part of its economic analysis is rubbish and much less relevant to today than the works of Karl Marx, which certainly should not be regarded as scripture, even by Marxists.

George Houston
University of Glasgow

Dive Dive Dive

Fiona Pitt-Kethley (Letters, 14 December 1995) is truly unlucky to get her poem rejected after waiting three years from acceptance by the LRB. I’ve this week got a poem in London Magazine three and a half years after Alan Ross took it. I was sure that he, or more likely I, would die before it appeared. Some people are even worse off than Fiona. Giles Gordon told me that he has been waiting twenty years for London Magazine to print a short story of his. Mind you, unlike Ms Pitt-Kethley, I’ve in the meantime rather gone off that poem. I’ve had far better ones rejected by Alan Ross (and the LRB, of course). I say to her: take a good unbiased look at it. Maybe you’ll be gratified that it hasn’t hit the public in its (here’s a guess) privates.

Ted Burford
London W5


My heartiest congratulations to you for thinking up the clever ruse of accepting Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s work for publication in order to bin it (Letters, 14 December 1995). I presume that you were motivated by a desire to protect the reading public from the output of this improbably named egotist. Such altruistic behaviour is an example to others who are liable to be solicited by her. May I suggest that you consider employing similarly effective measures to suppress the tedious efforts of another of your more persistent correspondents? I have in mind someone who has become, unaffectionately, known to many of your loyal readers as ‘the F person’. I refer, of course, to Mr Flett. Mr Flett’s all-too-frequently published letters are self-serving, numbingly inconsequential and totally worthless. I commend him to you as your next victim.

Tony Heal
London SE23

When Margaret Anne Doody (LRB, 14 December 1995) complains of Germaine Greer’s latest book that she doesn’t know which side of the ‘fence to jump down on’, well why should she? Eclecticism and idiosyncrasy, not putting things in boxes, are two of the most valuable things that the upheavals of 1968 taught us. Germaine Greer is at least sometimes, if only by accident, on the right side.

Keith Flett
London N17

Bugger the reader

I am relieved that an authority on ancient sexual images like Robert Sutton and an expert on sexual graffiti like David Bain have between them been able to come up with only such meagre and familiar evidence for the connection between power and penetration in classical Athens (Letters, 14 December 1995). The well-known vase that is supposed to commemorate the victory at the river Eurymedon in southern Turkey crops up so repetitively in accounts of sex and power at Athens that I am becoming convinced it is the only evidence there is. It is nevertheless not very good evidence. It does not in fact depict penetration at all, but someone, ‘Eurymedon’ (?), bent over, waiting to be serviced by a strange running figure on the other side of the vase. It seems, therefore, to indicate sexual incontinence rather than domination, like the Sicilian tyrant, Agathocles, who behaved like a common prostitute ‘putting his rear parts in front of anyone who wanted’. The gap between them cannot simply be ignored. The most that could confidently be adduced is not therefore Dover’s ‘We’ve buggered the Persians,’ but ‘Any minute now we will be buggering the Persians’ – an unaccountable postponement of the moment of triumph. But even this is wrong. Eurymedon is the site of the battle. What’s the point of buggering the battlefield? Especially when the site in question is a river and a god? All these objections, I should point out, and others on a more technical level were well made by Gloria Ferrari Pinney in 1984. She concluded that ‘the case for the patriotic interpretation’ was ‘weak’. I suppose ‘wide-ruling’ (eurumedon) might allude to ‘wide-arsed’ (euruproktos), but it must be one of the most obscure jokes in ancient literature, like expecting readers to discover in Biggles a reference to Big Fairy, for instance. Eurymedon is a normal Greek name borne by a number of people in literature and life. The vase could refer to any of them.

I was aware also of the evidence from graffiti. I make three points: 1. As J.R. Levenhuis notes, few examples are classical or from Greece. 2. The Greeks certainly considered touching the genitals with the mouth revolting, but it seems extraordinary to see this as a problem of penetration rather than of dirt and pollution – the most execrable act, after all, was cunnilingus. 3. If the buggered reader is insulted it is because he is used casually and anonymously for sex, like a prostitute; the reader of David Bain’s cup is threatened with buggery only as a substitute if the writer is frustrated in his lust for lovely Phryna.

Dover declared a long time ago that there was ‘abundant evidence’ for a distinction between dominant and subordinate sexual roles in classical Athens. As far as I can tell this evidence has never been produced, Norse sagas notwithstanding. Nevertheless the claims about these links continue to grow. Since then it has been suggested that in the ancient world the emphasis on power in penetration was so overwhelming that it eclipsed all other possibilities for ancient sexuality. If this is remotely true it should not be so hard to find a few unequivocal examples. On the other hand, no one disputes evidence that points in the opposite direction, the very strong indications, for instance, that the Greeks, unlike us, considered womanisers (who are on the positive end of the penetrating penis) womanish, that notches on the bed-post had a negative effect on an Athenian’s sense of masculine prowess. There is a real problem here for the phallocratic theory that Foucault’s notion of ‘passivity with regard to pleasures’ does nothing to resolve. I am prepared to accept that among the many classical views of sex there were some that pictured penetration as power, but I would like to see some more convincing evidence first, and I would need a great deal of persuading that this could be described as the dominant perspective, let alone an alternative to sexuality.

This debate needs, I think, to be put in perspective. Let us remind ourselves what the classicists’ doubtful allusions are up against. Apart from the banal use of swear-words, ‘up yours’, ‘get screwed’ etc which distinguish modern society most noticeably, I quote at random some of the more striking examples of our nasty view of sex for which I cannot recall any classical Greek analogy. There is, for instance, Oliver Reed, who remarked on television some years ago that ‘the thing women will never forgive is that men fuck them.’ There is also the man who assisted in Lorca’s fusillation and later boasted in the local café that he had put ‘two bullets into his arse for being a queer’. Then, courtesy of the local video shop, there is Bruce Willis in Die Hard, describing a conspicuous set-back for the authorities as being ‘buttfucked on national TV’. Of course sex meshed with power at many points in classical Greece, but the relationship between them is rather more complex than this ‘zero-sum game’ of who fucks who over.

James Davidson
London NW3

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