Vol. 18 No. 8 · 18 April 1996

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Seeing Things

I do wonder about the ANC activists who fled to Swaziland during the 1960 Emergency and who told R.W. Johnson (LRB, 21 March) that ‘one of their sharpest memories is of Joe and Ruth, anomalous figures among their fellow refugees, riding around in a limousine with a black chauffeur provided by Julius First’. Were they hallucinating? Joe was in Pretoria Central Prison for the full period of the Emergency. In fact he and my husband were the last two white detainees to be released.

Hilda Bernstein
Kidlington, Oxford

In the first paragraph of his review of Slovo: The Unfinished Autobiography, R.W. Johnson makes the mistake of confusing Joe’s funeral with that other well-televised occasion – Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. At the inauguration, Impala jets flew over in salute: not so at Joe’s funeral.

Johnson then describes how, during the 1960 Emergency, Joe and Ruth rode around Swaziland in a chauffeur-driven limousine. He has obviously not bothered to properly read the book he purports to review: Joe devoted a chapter to describing how he was forced to spend the Emergency in prison.

Johnson goes on to write about a secret Party directive which could have sent Joe abroad in 1963, concluding: ‘we don’t know.’ In fact we do know. Joe, as a member of the MK High Command, left the country before the Rivonia arrests in order to procure weapons and training for MK.

Later Johnson digresses into a discussion of the treatment of David Kitson, implying that Joe backed and might even have originated the decision to suspend the Kitsons from the ANC. I have no idea what Joe thought about the matter, but I was present at a packed meeting of ANC members in London which took the suspension decision – I was in fact one of only a handful of members who voted against suspension. Joe was not there: he was not even in the country.

Finally he makes use of innuendo, a confused tale about Solly Smith and about the Kitsons, to imply that Joe might have been co-operating not only with British Intelligence but also with BOSS. ‘Smith,’ he writes, ‘was amazingly allowed to return to South Africa by the Party.’ Does Johnson think that the Party should have prevented Smith, who was a South African citizen, from returning to South Africa? If it had, I’m sure that Johnson would have been the first to accuse the Party of wrong-doing. And besides, Johnson must know more about the South African settlement than his incredulity implies. If Solly Smith had lived he could have applied to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for indemnity – just as others, like the former South African policeman Craig Williamson (who has confessed to his involvement in my mother, Ruth First’s, murder), will do.

Gillian Slovo
London N5

The Party and the Army

Comparison of anything to the Nazis is rarely advisable. Recent descriptions of the Provos as Fascist have elicited the reply that Provo Republicanism lacks a mass movement. But Fascism embraced intimidation of individuals, of isolated rural communities, of commercial firms vulnerable to slander, and racist daubings – and this to the point of fatality. I cannot say, offhand, whether it embraced knee-capping. But there is no need to investigate the flesh and blood of Continental Fascism as it was in the Thirties and Forties: Ronan Bennett has captured the spirit of its latter-day off-shore enterprises with admirable fidelity (LRB, 21 March). He speaks, pianissimo, the genuine Goebbels-degook.

We are told that after local elections, held during the hunger strikes of 1981 which the IRA organised and Sinn Fein rammed home, Sinn Fein ‘found itself with over a hundred councillors. The Party also gained seats in the Irish Dáil.’ Some of this is partly true, though the local elections were notable, too, for the massive increase in support for Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party – which doubled its first preference share of the vote, to gain 26 per cent of popular support. But his comment about the elections to the Dáil deserves closer attention. Sinn Fein nominated no candidates in the Southern general election, so Sinn Fein ‘gained’ no seats. (‘Gained’ is a nice verb, suggesting that 1981 resulted in an augmentation of a representative base already established: in fact no candidates of that stripe have been elected to Dáil Eireann since 1957.)

On 22 May 1981, Kieran Doherty (a Provisional IRA prisoner in the Maze Prison outside Belfast, serving 22 years for arms offences) joined a hunger strike originally instituted the previous October. For the 1981 Southern Irish elections, he and eight other ‘H-Block candidates’ were nominated. Two were elected on 11 June: Doherty in Cavan/Monaghan and Paddy Agnew in Louth (both in border constituencies). Doherty died on hunger strike on 2 August. None of the nine stood as Sinn Fein candidates, and Mr Bennett’s ecumenism in now claiming them as such balances his declared purpose of distinguishing between the IRA and Sinn Fein.

If Doherty and Agnew really were Sinn Fein candidates, but expediency deemed it wiser not to label them so, what is expediency up to these days? Bennett initially deplores the tendency of John Major and others to use the ‘Unionist formulation: Sinn Fein/IRA’. Then he applies the Doherty-Agnew theorem to obscure the fact that those he now terms successful Sinn Fein candidates were in fact IRA men in the H-Blocks. But his own efforts to disentangle the constituent parts of ‘the Unionist formulation’ promptly collapse when he declares that ‘to ask for Sinn Fein to disentangle itself from the IRA is to miss the point about the way Republicanism’s dynamics have operated over the last two decades, driving the movement in a steadily political direction. The link, far from being an obstacle to any settlement, is indispensable to it.’

Evidently the Doherty/Agnew theorem is part of the proof that Sinn Fein/IRA is in an advanced stage of politicisation, a process which had begun even in 1981. Mr Bennett is copywriter-in-chief on this topic, but the task is onerous. Gerry Adams, the product whom Bennett is most eager to sell, was so politicised between 1987 and 1992 that he never took his seat in Westminster despite being elected by that ‘third of the nationalist vote’ claimed by Sinn Fein. Nor are we illuminated by any comment from Bennett on the party affiliation of those who, on 17 January 1992, blew up a minibus carrying civilian construction workers, with the loss of eight lives: at this stage of the politicisation process Gerry Adams was able to classify the incident as ‘a horrific reminder of the failure of British policy in Ireland’.

None of the above should be allowed to obscure the fact that the politicisation of Sinn Fein/IRA is devoutly to be wished – and worked for. Nor does it negate the argument that the British Government was culpably slow in responding to the ceasefire. The problem facing Sinn Fein/IRA is this: if the people who broke the ceasefire were members of the Party then why should anyone trust it; and if the people who broke the ceasefire were not members of the Party (but of the ‘Army’ alone) why should anyone trust it? A valuable first step would be for Republicanism to renounce abstentionism and declare that it will participate in all assemblies to which it is elected. How can negotiations begin if one party, while claiming to have a democratic mandate, consistently refuses to sit in democratically elected assemblies?

W.J. McCormack
Goldsmiths College, London SE14

Ronan Bennett’s article on the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA usefully stresses the fact that in the view of Sinn Fein and the IRA the question of prisoners is central to a peaceful settlement. This is not well understood in this country, but Irish TDs who have visited prisoners at HMP Full Sutton consistently make this point.

In his reference to HMP Full Sutton, Bennett is unfair when he writes that a prisoner here was ‘completely untreated’. The fact is that his condition was reviewed not only by the prison doctors but also by a general surgeon and a consultant dermatologist from the NHS. This may seem a minor point to your readers but such comment, casting doubt on health care in prison, causes understandable but unfounded fear among relatives and friends of all prisoners. In February, writing about the work of the Prison Service, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine praised the improvements in the health and well-being of prisoners. This is especially remarkable at a time when the Prison Service is receiving a record number of prisoners.

J. Staples
Governor, HM Prison, Full Sutton, York

Appalling Snobs

Patricia Beer grumbles throughout her review of my anthology, Hearts Undefeated: Women’s Writing of the Second World War (LRB, 21 March), that I did not produce a different sort of book. ‘A really good novel set in the period would have been more illuminating’: perhaps, but this was not what I was doing. She complains about the ‘absolute Parnassus’ of poetry which I chose to ignore. I am sorry there is no poetry (then I could have included Beer’s own poem ‘The Land Girl at the Boss’s Grave’), but we already have Catherine Reilly’s anthology, Chaos of the Night. Beer also regrets that I shunned the example of books tilling the ‘massive assemblage of what people had actually said in the course of the Second World War’. But ‘what people had actually said’ is difficult to catch fifty years on. Almost all the excellent accounts we are now reading are recent recollections; many of the ‘voices’ in Martin Gilbert’s book The Day the War Ended, which Beer and I both admire, come from letters written in 1994. My anthology set itself a different task: to show how women wrote about the Second World War at the time, how they shaped and presented it to themselves and others in writing. I still think this is a valid project, and Beer’s gripes and misrepresentations have not convinced me otherwise.

Beer’s main gripe has to do with class: what ‘appalling snobs’ these women were fifty years ago. Perhaps, but Beer has done them a disservice in neglecting the fact that many of them were well aware of this. Marghanita Laski, cited by Beer as one of the worst offenders, accuses herself of precisely this when guessing which of two landgirls would make it through training, Dorothy or Brenda. Laski admits that she snobbishly chose the poetry-loving Brenda – ‘Brenda, Breeding and Blake’ – only to be let down when Brenda left the next day. Vita Sackville-West earns Beer’s scorn for her ‘unreliable’ view of the landgirl, but had Beer read five pages further on in the anthology she would have found an ex-landgirl being refreshingly rude about the Vita Sackville-Wests of the Land Army organisation. It is good to see that women at the time got the measure of how they were being treated, and wrote to say so, whether or not they had ‘reason to suppose that they had any literary talent’.

Yes, some of these women may sound like ‘appalling snobs’ to us now. Is that a reason for policing them off the page? The more interesting point is that the consciousness of class was something that the war brought home to many women. Hilary Wayne, for example (whom Beer finds ‘preposterous’), attacks the ATS for not seizing this moment for a ‘fresh outlook’ on social divisions. It had, she writes in a passage quoted in the anthology, ‘a rare opportunity to try to make new standards’ and ‘destroy artificial barriers’, but instead chose ‘slavish imitation of the men’s Army’.

Jenny Hartley
Roehampton Institute, London SW15


Perry Anderson (Letters, 21 March) obviously doesn’t want to let this one rest. I think the time has come to do just that. However, I must briefly respond to what remain – however genially expressed – misrepresentations of my position. Taking his numbered points: 1. I certainly never argued the ludicrous proposition that ‘EC aid be reserved’ for Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. 2. I have never argued that the EU ‘jettison a single currency and abandon the acquis communautaire’. 3. I have never argued that what I call ‘qualified minority acting’ in foreign and security policy be ‘reserved for Britain, Germany and France’. On the contrary, other interested and capable European countries should participate in such ‘coalitions of action’ wherever possible.

While feeling honoured by the comparison with R.W. Seton-Watson, I don’t accept the implicit disqualification that I’m only seeing this from an East European point of view. Anderson himself argues that I’m also seeing it from a British point of view. Add the German one, and that makes, I think, a pretty good stab at a European view. After all, we all come from somewhere.

His final paragraph about the cancellation of debt raises an important point, but what post-Communist Europe needs above all is more access to our markets. Not aid but trade.

Perhaps Professor Anderson and I could now continue this discussion personally, in Oxford or Florence, over a plate of lightly braised amphibologies.

Timothy Garton Ash
St Antony’s College, Oxford


Correlli Barnett is eager to reassure David Edgerton that The Lost Victory is ‘tightly anchored’ to the records of cabinet committees (Letters, 21 March). Nonetheless, Barnett’s prescriptive approach is disturbing. As Edgerton noted, Barnett’s express purpose in writing the book was ‘to illuminate Britain’s present and future’; Barnett himself makes clear his ambition ‘to have an impact on the real world’. While it would, of course, be naive to assume that historical writing could ever be free from present concerns, I fail to see how an explicitly presentist (and judgmental) attitude could produce an explanation of events fully sensitive to the aspirations of, and constraints operating on, historical actors (for example, those responsible for establishing the welfare state after the Second World War). Why doesn’t Barnett write a book telling us directly what future policies in Britain should be? He could then be even more appreciatively read ‘in Whitehall, Westminster and industry’.

Philip Smout
London SW1

Que sera sera

As James Wood has used my review of the movie Leaving Las Vegas to attack film critics in general (Letters, 4 April), I feel obliged to return the compliment and accuse him of a typically literary reading of the movie. His letter is mostly about the faults of John O’Brien’s novel, which I barely remarked on, and is otherwise casually riddled with unlikely expectations of Mike Figgis’s movie, something that one has come to expect from those whose usual study is the work of single authors. The movie ‘recycles old clichés’, he says, as if he doesn’t know that nearly all widely-seen movies, whether by Scorsese or Kieslowski, do that. It is a ‘fantasy of the truth, not the truth’, which sounds like a pretty good definition of all art (for me Godard is wrong: film is not the truth, not even at 24 frames per second). He complains that ‘Cage dies of alcoholism with only some stubble and eye shadow to show for it.’ This is a classic trope of those who want to dismiss cinema, to point up its artifice, as if cinema-goers were somehow unaware that there are movie stars on the screen wearing makeup.

Wood persists in trying to view Leaving Las Vegas as if it were shot in a style that connotes realist intentions – which clearly it does not. It is, instead, a work of genre, a melodrama in which clichés are there to be used and abused. Wood pays the movie a disservice by yoking it to the book, and arguing that ‘no decent film could ever be made of it.’ Cinema has a long and successful tradition of cannibalising pulp fiction. Figgis has made a questioning and evocative work out of O’Brien’s book. It may, like all film noir and much of French cinema, ‘glamorise unhappiness’, yet it conveys an intimate tragedy in a direct and accessible way. I am happy to be accused of being kind to it.

Nick James
London E2

Mental Health Warning

This is not the first letter Mr Brearley has sent to editors concerning his supposition that the British Psycho-Analytical Society possesses a veto governing the use of the term ‘psychoanalysis’ (Letters, 4 April). As was pointed out to him recently in a reply to his letter to the Evening Standard, his society has no legal, moral or intellectual claim to the use of this term. Psychoanalysts trained by ‘component societies of the International Psychoanalytical Association’ make up no more than half of the world’s psychoanalysts.

In July this year, a congress of psychoanalysts organised by a Lacanian international organisation will have the participation of between two and three thousand psychoanalysts, none of whom has any affiliation to the International Psychoanalytical Association; a few weeks before this, the European Association of Psychiatry will meet in London – there will be many Lacanian psychoanalysts there who are not in any way part of the IPA. Does Mr Brearley wish these clinicians to stop calling themselves psychoanalysts while they are in this country, in the interest of avoiding what he calls ‘confusion’?

Bernard Burgoyne
Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research, London SE15

The weary dogmatism that informs the letter from the British Psycho-Analytical Society curiously only ‘adds to the confusion’, which is the manifest content of its complaint. The insistent infantilisation of the ‘general public’ and its assumed ignorance with regard to psychoanalysis, inevitably propped up by pernicious and spurious claims regarding training standards, only contributes to the anaesthetisation of the latencies still lurking within the Freudian project

Chris Oakley
Philadelphia Association, London NW3

It really isn’t cricket to imply that membership of the British Psycho-Analytical Society is the only assurance of standards, particularly in light of the fact that the British Institute for Psycho-Analysis and the Lincoln Centre are the only training organisations in this country who prefer to opt out of ethical, academic and clinical scrutiny by the rest of the profession.

Haya Oakley
UK Council for Psychotherapy, London W1

Jobs Wanted

If W.S. Milne (Letters, 7 March) thinks that in reviewing Roderick Watson’s fine anthology The Poetry of Scotland I was writing an open letter to Oxford University Press setting out the case for a new Oxford Book of Scottish Verse which I would like to edit, he is absolutely correct. Sadly, Oxford feel that a new Scottish Oxford anthology would be uneconomic. It’s lucky that Edinburgh University Press and Penguin are more optimistic about publishing Scottish anthologies. I was surprised to see W.S. Milne praising an anthology of modern Scots poetry which does not include work by Edwin Morgan, Tom Leonard or Kathleen Jamie.

Robert Crawford
University of St Andrews, Fife

After many years at Princeton, Elaine Showalter understandably wants to move to Harvard, but must you let her conduct her campaign in your columns (LRB, 7 March)? A few months ago she was flattering Professor Marjorie Garber (whom she called ‘Marge’, as I recall), and now, in her review of Primary Colors, she not only flattered Henry Louis Gates but went to the trouble of telling him she was flattering him. I wouldn’t mind at all having Ms Showalter around here – feminists at Harvard still aren’t exactly thick on the ground – but could you tell her from me that flattering the fashionable members of the English Department is not the most effective way of getting the rest of them to offer her a job?

Elizabeth Spencer
Cambridge, Massachusetts


In my article on ageing you print me as claiming that ‘most middle-aged citizens in developed countries have more living parents than children’ (LRB, 4 April). What I in fact said was that ‘most middle-aged citizens in some developed countries have more living grandparents than children.’ The latter may at first seem more difficult to believe – though the number of natural parents is capped at two – but it is nevertheless true. The reversal of the grandparent:child ratio is one of the most poignant and dramatic aspects of the demographic changes within developed countries but, as so often, social consciousness lags behind social fact.

Raymond Tallis
Bramhall, Cheshire


Stuart Kerr (Letters, 7 March) should turn in his Halliwell and be condemned to spend a day with Michael Winner. Gene Wilder and Gene Hackman were in Young Frankenstein. Hackman played the blind hermit, Mr Kerr played the blind film buff.

Hugh Leonard
Dalkey, Co. Dublin


A footnote to Graham Coster’s review of the latest Paul Theroux (LRB, 8 February): Norman Lewis hung out in a Spanish fishing village, not a Portuguese one. He called it Farol, in north-east, Catalan-speaking Spain (i.e. on the Costa Brava).

Jason Wilson
University College, London WC1

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