Vol. 19 No. 5 · 6 March 1997

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The Great British Library Disaster

Visitors to the British Library have long been accustomed to such shortcomings as much of the stock being scattered among warehouses as far-flung as Yorkshire, items unavailable while en route to St Pancras and to such economising measures as there now being no pencil-sharpener in the North Library. What it means is that any visitor has to reckon on wasting half his time there. One might have thought, then, that an on-line service would enable those of us out in the sticks to do some planning. But no! The annual subscription fee is £95; connection time is £12 per hour, with a charge of 45p per ‘record’ of bibliographical information and a minimum of £1.50 for downloading and printing off-line – all this, plus VAT. Should one opt for a fixed-price service, five hours comes at £195 with a maximum of 500 records; 20 hours and 3000 records is £725.

Contrast this with the remarkable Library of Congress home page. The Library not only allows one to search the catalogue free of charge: it provides links to many other libraries and is digitising its books. It also offers American Memory, which includes early movies and such graphics as Whitman’s notebooks, and has brought the Library millions of new users.

Frederick Barker
Newbold Heath, Leicestershire

Smashing the Teapots

Jacqueline Rose’s otherwise searching review of Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (LRB, 23 January) seems to take a rather upbeat view of the privileges of madness: Woolf herself apparently did not feel it had much to recommend it, or she would not have killed herself to prevent a recurrence. And it is wearisome to read yet another baiting of Leonard Woolf. What exactly is the charge against him, aside from devotion, hard work – and one fatal misjudgment which surely haunted him the rest of his long and productive life?

In the same issue Ruth Padel’s trenchant survey of persecution and power in opera’s characters neglects to ask which sex the audience comes to admire, and which we decide to blame. Isn’t it time women composed operas enabling men to suffer in kind? Distress, madness, abandonment: I hope I live long enough to see the day.

Warren Keith Wright
Arbyrd, Missouri

Club Rules – OK

The David Willetts/Andrew Mitchell coverup of the Neil Hamilton affair occurred in the Select Committee on Members’ Interests, not the Select Committee on Privileges, as Paul Foot claimed (LRB, 20 February). The Members’ Interests Committee is a recent phenomenon, still only in its teens. It was set up to soothe the public after the Seventies Poulson case and, until Mitchell Jr was appointed, had been comparatively free from formal government interference. The Privileges Committee was approaching its half-millennium last year when Lord Nolan enforced a merger of the two bodies into the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. The main task of the Privileges Committee through the centuries had been to protect the Commons club from outside scrutiny and to blackball miscreant members – a fate I narrowly escaped nearly twenty years ago when I found myself in the dock for mentioning the real name of a certain (GCHQ-sensitive) Colonel ‘B’ on the floor of the House.

Thanks to one courageous Conservative MP, Quentin Davies, the new committee secured Willetts’s resignation after convicting him of ‘dissembling’; its next task is more daunting – to allocate blame for the Hamilton financial sleaze. Any criticism of Hamilton, I suspect, will be ‘balanced’ by scarcely veiled racist venom towards Mohamed Al Fayed, on whom Foot was a little hard. Directors of Lonrho and its predecessor mining companies in Southern Africa have spent the last hundred years seeking, and often successfully purchasing, favours from Conservative ministries. In winning his propaganda battle against Lonrho, Al Fayed was simply playing by English club rules.

Christopher Price
London SB21

Terra Nullius

As anyone who has even a passing familiarity with my novels, short stories and articles knows very well, I am indeed aware of what Gordon Kerry (Letters, 23 January) describes as ‘the old legal fiction of “terra nullius" ’ and of the long overdue changes to that Eurocentric doctrine that were signalled by the 1992 High Court ruling on Mabo v. Queensland. In Queensland, home to both Eddie Mabo and Pauline Hanson, we don’t have time for the armchair political correctness of Sydney.

As for language policing, the first sentence of my review of David Malouf’s Conversations at Curlow Creek makes my position clear to the informed reader. I do not speak of the ‘First Settlement’ but of the ‘first European settlers’. I rather thought the irony in my reference to the population figures for New South Wales would be obvious, ‘New South Wales’ being an arbitrary European construct imposed on an ‘unknown land’. It was Governor Darling (and, indeed, the characters in the novel, officers or felons) who did not think to include the indigenous peoples in their assessment of the colony’s population. In clumsily confusing the belief systems of characters in a novel with those of the reviewer, Mr Kerry is barking up quite the wrong tree – though I’m all for his drawing public attention to the issue whenever possible, and for displaying the changing of the colours from whatever treetops present themselves.

Janette Turner Hospital

Arnie in Powder-Blue

In his examination of the decline of the Western, J. Hoberman (LRB, 6 February) argues that one cause was the impossibility of Arnold Schwarzenegger appearing in this form of film. Alas, in 1979 he graced The Villain alongside a scowling Kirk Douglas. It did little business, despite being re-titled for release here as Cactus Jack. Arnold, in an early role, plays a character called Handsome Stranger and looks retching in powder-blue buckskin.

James Owen
London SW1

Gospel Truth

William Klassen (Letters, 20 February) complains justly of Professor Kermode’s incomprehension of the important point that the term usually translated as ‘betrayed’ actually means ‘handed over’. I myself pointed out in Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil (1992) that the Greek term paradidomi means not ‘betray’ but ‘hand over’. I also pointed out that the first occurrence of the verb is not in the Gospels but in I Corinthians, 11:23, where Paul does not even mention Judas, but simply ‘the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over’. If we did not read this passage in the light of the Gospels, we would undoubtedly think that Paul was referring to the handing-over of Jesus to the Romans by the High Priest. This would fit admirably the associations of the term ‘handing over’, since the High Priest, as the Roman-appointed gauleiter of Judaea, had possession of Jesus, whom he then transferred to Roman custody.

Unfortunately, Klassen constructs a very implausible scenario on the basis of his insight into the meaning of paradidomi, asserting that, since Judas Iscariot was not a traitor, he was obeying Jesus’s explicit instructions when he ‘handed him over’ to his death. Actually, the term ‘handed over’ is unsuitable in this context, since the term implies that someone has possession of a captive whom he transfers to someone else’s possession. I believe that the awkward language of betrayal hints at the fictitious nature of the whole Judas story. Jesus was handed over as a troublemaker to the Romans by the High Priest, not by Judas. The Gospel writers, intent on increasing Jewish guilt in the matter, invented the character of Judas Iscariot to play the role of ‘traitor’. The verb paradidomi, however, had become embedded in the oral tradition, and was thus inappropriately transferred to a context of private betrayal. The end result was to transform the story into one of internal betrayal: the Romans were now no longer the evil oppressors and invaders, demanding the death of troublemakers, but a remote external link in a process of intra-Jewish betrayal. All the dramatis personae of betrayal were now Jewish, with the Romans as shadowy, exculpated figures, viewing with concern the malevolence of the Jews towards Jesus.

Hyam Maccoby
Kew, Surrey


May I add a footnote to Alan Bennett and Maggie Smith’s remarks (LRB, 2 January) on the ribwort plantain and its association with Cymbeline? I, too, regret the unavailability in print of Geoffrey Grigson’s The Englishman’s Flora. But I possess an equally informative, if less academic, source-book for the origins of flower-names: Gareth Browning’s The Children’s Book of Wild Flowers and the Story of Their Names. Browning devotes four and a half pages to the various nicknames of this plant and the games associated with it. In the Scilly Isles, he writes, children call it ‘black-men’ and ‘chimneysweep’, because its ‘dark-coloured spikes remind them of negroes and the sweeps who get almost as black as negroes when they sweep our chimneys.’ He goes on to describe ‘the game of Cocks, or Kemps, as it is called in Scotland, in which each child plucks one of the tough stems, with its hard head’ – they then take turns to slash at each other’s stems and try to knock the heads off. The child whose stem remains unbroken is the champion. ‘That is why the game is called Kemps, for Kemp is a very old word which meant a warrior, or champion.’ In many parts of Scotland, he continues, the game is also called ‘Carl-Doddie’, which he derives from Bonnie Prince Charlie and George II. Finally, he mentions another name for this game: ‘Cocks’ or ‘Fighting-Cocks’ – ‘which reminds us of a very wicked sport which men used to enjoy a long time ago’.

Joan Anholt
Lyme Regis

Thee and Thuh

I’ve spent most of my life saying thee and thuh – never thi – like my almost-neighbour John Burchell (Letters, 20 February). However, during my National Service (some of which I spent making do with der, die and das), I found myself in the West Riding of Yorkshire, where I came to doubt the existence of the. Even the stand-in t, as in ‘On Ilkley Moor bar t’at’, became dubious when pronounced by folk in and around Pontefract and Doncaster. And in the exemplary ‘Dahn in t’cellar coil-oil wheer t’muck clahts on t’winders’, the has become little more than a glottal stop.

Gordon Wharton
Wallington, Surrey

Uh and Ay

In my (East Anglian) pronunciation the indefinite article is invariably pronounced uh before a consonant. I believe this accords with standard usage, except that the latter may allow ay for emphasis. In the US, particularly among orators, the pronunciation ay is much favoured. Now the habit is spreading to the more ponderous politicians in this country, and seems, incidentally, to be a fair index of conservatism. Thus, the Home Secretary is an egregious ay man. Perhaps it is significant that Mr Blair is moving in that direction.

Peter Regent
Newport-on-Tay, Fife


I have read with some concern in Tribune that Tony Blair wrote in the LRB in October 1987. Can we have an assurance now, for reasons of the continuing intellectual credibility of the journal, that every effort has been made to track down any copies still in circulation and have the offending pages removed? In the meantime I have entered a period of self-criticism for having bought the offending issue, and, very possibly, even read the article itself. I must have been on holiday at the time.

Keith Flett
London N17

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