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Letters

Vol. 19 No. 6 · 20 March 1997

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Our Little Predecessors

Hilary Mantel (LRB, 6 March) is tough on Blake Morrison and tough on the causes of Blake Morrison – one of the ‘aristocrats of sensitivity’ who ride, uninvited, to the rescue of a nation in distress. But her wish to defend children from the likes of Morrison and Gita Sereny, who want to attribute diminished responsibility to the juvenile offender, is peculiar. ‘It is strange,’ she writes, ‘that people think that the way to protect children is to deprive them of status, to reduce them to something less than adults.’ I wonder whether the enormous differences between adults and children can’t be acknowledged without reaching for the language of disempowerment and jeopardy, as Mantel does. It is ‘other’ not ‘less’ that we should have in mind when setting children beside adults, and a ‘difference’ in status, not a ‘deprivation’. In many ways, adults conceive children as other than themselves, which is just how children conceive adults – and both have very different accounts of the others’ actions. I know more than I did when I was a child and I know differently, and for some reason that has nothing to do with ‘good’ and ‘evil’, I am less capable of cruelty now. I would be more of a monster than I am, I suppose, if I couldn’t forgive my little predecessor his worst misdeeds, and so, unlike Mantel, I reach for the language of extenuation, as I do when trying to think about Thompson and Venables. I don’t ‘reduce’ their status so much as equivocate about it, because I believe this makes for fewer monsters. Which leads me to sympathise with Blake Morrison – a pretty pass.

Terence Chapman
Bristol

Questions of Malevolence

Theodore Rabb’s review of Norman Davies’s Europe: A History in the New York Times last December is decidedly not – as Neal Ascherson (LRB, 20 February) would have it – ‘malevolent’. Even Davies doesn’t use this term, confining himself instead to asking people to ‘calm down’ his critics.

Seeking to dispel any notion of ‘anti-semitism’ in Davies’s writing, Ascherson chooses an example that is bound to backfire: the sanctimonious and condescending tribute to Torah-abiding rabbis in the ghettos and camps is a stereotype only too familiar from the more recent debates about Polish anti-semitism. Ascherson quite rightly identifies the connection between Davies’s attitude to Russia and his ‘long and passionate empathy with the Polish experience’. Why then does he fail to see a similar link with Davies’s very peculiar obsession with questions of Jewishness and the relativisation of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust? Davies’s notorious sympathy for Poland is paired with a rabid anti-Communism. This may have persuaded him to share a typical postwar resentment which thrived on the fertile soil of traditional Catholic anti-semitism: incorporated into the Soviet bloc, many Poles felt deprived of international recognition of their wartime sufferings under the Germans and tended to accuse the Jews of monopolising victimhood. His anti-Communism, in turn, prompts him to present Stalin and Stalinism as the ‘top evils’ of the century. His argument for the ‘humanitarian’ aspect of the gas chambers as opposed to death ‘in protracted agony or from cold and starvation’ implies that the millions who died the latter death in Soviet camps had a more dreadful fate than those who were gassed.

Esther Kinsky
London NW5

The Great British Library Disaster

All honour to Frederick Barker (Letters, 6 March) for his brisk denunciation of the British Library’s extorting of outlandish online fees from those who have already funded it as taxpayers. He might have added that its new premises at St Pancras will surely irritate those who believe that a library should be a repository for books. To get to the new reading rooms one will have to traverse a vast, pointless lobby, precious space which would have been better given over to those books exiled to Yorkshire.

Mark Bitton
Brighton

How can the British Library, once a bastion of scholarship, have fallen prey to the dictates of time and motion studies? Anybody who looks at a catalogue, in any form, knows that a high proportion of the time is spent in apparent idling as one thing suggests another. It is preposterous that the Library should now expect one to work with the meter running.

Barbara Preston
Glastonbury, Somerset

Frederick Barker shows that the British Library is rooted in another era. To impose these disgraceful on-line fees for its catalogue, the Library can only be assuming that users are merrily able to dun academic institutions in their turn. Sometime in the next century, there will surely be a thesis on the Nineties rise of a new (or resurgent) phenomenon, the independent scholar. Such people will have had to work in defiance of the Library’s appalling attitude.

Montagu Bream
Chinnor, Oxfordshire

A Boost for Slavery

The addition of a single word to my review of Original Meanings by Jack Rakove (LRB, 20 February) reversed the meaning of one of my sentences. This concerns the famous clause of the US Constitution providing that, along with free inhabitants, three-fifths of the slave population were to be counted when apportioning Congressmen among the states. As printed, the sentence stated that ‘only’ three-fifths were counted, suggesting that the South was being short-changed. In fact, by counting so many of the South’s disenfranchised slaves, the clause gave the region’s white citizens an enormous political advantage over the rest of the country. It was one of several ways in which the Constitution strengthened the South and the institution of slavery.

Eric Foner
Columbia University

At Warp Speed

J. Hoberman completely missed the point in his piece about Westerns (LRB, 6 February). A morality play expressing the founding values of the United States, the classic American Western was popular during the era of unbounded American nationalism – from the turn of the century until the Seventies. It fell into disuse during the debate over the Vietnam War, but has roared back in the form of outer space adventures where valiant heroes time-warp about the universe upholding truth, democracy and apple pie. Star Trek (1966-8), like Shane (1953), exemplifies America’s self-image as a virtuous people who correct the problems of the world and then disappear without interfering in an alien culture. It’s little wonder the original Star Trek was created during the Vietnam War, or that it disappeared so quickly as the war worsened for the US – another victim of the Tet Offensive. Once the war was no longer a day-to-day threat, a squadron of space Westerns came back at warp speed.

What was the American Revolution? As described in myth, 13 tiny colonies challenged the world’s mightiest empire, its Darth Vader evil leader and its hired guns in a shoot-out at the OK Corral (Lexington – the shot heard round the world). Eventually they overthrew King George Three Sticks, even though the basic concept of English liberty is the ‘father’ of all the American ideals of freedom and democracy. Hoberman overlooked the truths of mythology. The American Government still seizes arms caches, as at Waco, Texas; the English weren’t doing anything unusual when they marched to disarm a mob of armed farmers at Concord. The Continental Army lost 19 of its 21 major engagements; even at Yorktown, American forces were outnumbered by the French, while the original English plan to evacuate their troops was blocked by a French fleet. Yet a myth was created about a few stalwart patriots who won the Continental Army’s victory against the overwhelming power of England. Likewise, Star Wars gunfighters outshoot any number of bad guys, often with barely a scratch themselves. During the American Revolution, England was also at war with France, Spain, Holland and Denmark. This was a rare occasion when the English did not have a strong Continental ally. A key battle of the American Revolution was an otherwise obscure English-French naval engagement off India; the French victory prevented the English from countering massive French naval aid to the rebellious colonists. When the Revolutionary War ended, the Continental Army was largely disbanded as soldiers returned to their homes and ploughs. Strong and silent, the Western hero likewise leaves when the shooting stops.

When you live in the West for a while, you understand the local definition of a rancher as ‘a person who would steal a hot stove, then come back for the smoke’.

Ted Rushton
Phoenix, Arizona

Whose Greece?

In a recent letter (Letters, 20 February) Martin Bernal states that 90 per cent of my book Not Out of Africa is ‘recycled from previously published material’. This claim offers yet another illustration (as if more were needed) of Professor Bernal’s scholarly objectivity and balance. The ‘recycled’ material I know about amounts to some 10 per cent of the total.

Mary Lefkowitz
Wellesley College, Massachusetts

Corncob Caesar

In his perceptive analysis of the career of General Douglas MacArthur (LRB, 6 February) Murray Sayle seems to have overlooked one important point. It is true that the dispersal of the ‘bonus army’ in brutal fashion in July 1932, while MacArthur was in very obvious and characteristically dramatic charge of events, ‘doomed his own hopes of ever being elected President’. However, as a recent television programme on the life of FDR pointed out, MacArthur’s second in command during this tawdry affair was none other than Dwight D. Eisenhower. His subsequent progress to the White House did not seem to suffer any harm or hindrance from this incident. This may well have been, as Sayle shrewdly remarks, because the future President ‘retreated to Washington after a few years’, at a goodly distance from the General’s not always benevolent influence.

Wylie Horn
Ayr

Art v. Heritage

As William Scammell argued (Letters, 20 February), while all kinds of cunning marketing ploys are supported by the Arts Council, there is little financial help for small independent publishers such as ourselves. We specialise in first collections of poetry and offer encouragement to the ‘yet to be recognised’ through our magazine Outposts. Ventures like ours are the essential first step in a writer’s career, yet the Arts Council ignores us and we are barred from applying for Lottery money because we are technically sole traders. It is the small presses and magazines that find the new and we are pleased when authors we published first are taken up by major houses. Additional funding to the small presses and magazines would serve literature better than any number of surveys, reports, marketing initiatives and National Poetry Days.

Roland John, Anna Martin
Hippopotamus Press, Frome, Somerset

Cruel Hoax

Reading Basil Davidson’s review of Paul Richards’s Fighting for the Rainforest (LRB, 6 March) gave me the overwhelming impression of an older and wiser man settling accounts after a lifetime spent fruitlessly trying to change things for the better. Until The Black Man’s Burden (1992), Davidson’s books were full of fight and aspiration for Africa and Africans. In 1992, however, he served notice that independent Africa’s problems derived from its misguided attempt to modernise. Indeed, in this review, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that we have all been a bit too ambitious, and that the priority from now on should simply be ‘a people’s sense of safety and self-value’.

From this, it is easy to see what Davidson admires in Richards’s text, since it presents survival as the only feasible objective nowadays. But what a limited horizon this is compared to the inspirational vision Davidson used to encourage Africans to aim for. That said, it is a mistake to portray survivalism, as Davidson does, as an indigenous African custom. Richards himself is more careful. He sees a creolised amalgam of Western and African influences. Davidson ignores the fulsome praise in Fighting for the Rain Forest for the role model of Rambo, the archetypal survivalist film hero. As Richards sees it, survivalism is ‘thoughtful, streetwise, Post-Modern’.

Richards presents all the actors of the Sierra Leone conflict as either victims or survivors. For example, he asserts that the rebel movement in Sierra Leone is mainly run by some ‘disregarded’ intellectuals who are ‘victims’ of social exclusion. At the same time he views Sierra Leoneans as a whole as victims of those frustrated people who staff the rebel leadership. Nevertheless, they are basically decent and non-violent and morally responsible, which is what enables them to be survivors. It does not occur to him that, by peopling his account with victims or survivors, he is belittling African people. In my experience of Africa, most people – especially the young – want everything that modern society can provide, fast cars, access to the Internet etc. They know that as survivors merely concerned with safety they will never get the opportunity to live a decent life.

Aidan Campbell
London N17

Did anything happen at Yalta?

Donald Rayfield’s article on Chekhov’s women acquaintances (LRB, 20 February) is full of unsubstantiated assertion, innuendo and plain inaccuracy. In February 1902, Rayfield writes, Chekhov’s wife ‘arrived in Yalta, not having seen Chekhov since the end of their honeymoon six months previously’. Actually, it is well documented that Chekhov stayed with her for five weeks in Moscow within those six months. It is clear from his wife’s letter of 13 November 1901 that they had ‘tried for a baby’ during that five-week stay. It is clear from her letter of 1 March 1902 that they had again ‘tried for a baby’ during her stay in Yalta. Five weeks after arriving in Yalta, she had an ectopic miscarriage in Petersburg. According to my medical dictionary, this is inevitable ‘between the fourth and twelfth week’ of an ectopic pregnancy. The natural assumption (also made by Chekhov’s wife and Chekhov) is that the child was Chekhov’s, and Professor Rayfield has not produced a shred of evidence to prove otherwise.

Patrick Miles
Cambridge

Donald Rayfield writes: Patrick Miles is right to point up one slip in my text: I meant to say that Anton had not seen Olga since the autumn after their honeymoon (not that this invalidates my point). The documentary evidence for Olga having conceived extramaritally does, however, add up to more than innuendo.

20 August 1901: Olga Knipper leaves Anton in Yalta and goes to Moscow.

17 September 1901: Anton arrives in Moscow to stay with Olga.

26 October 1901: Anton leaves Olga in Moscow to stay in Yalta.

22 February 1902: Olga arrives in Yalta to stay with Anton.

26 February 1902: Olga has bleeding, believes she is not pregnant.

28 February 1902: Olga leaves Anton in Yalta to go to Moscow and St Petersburg, nearly collapses in pain on train at Simferopol.

31 March 1902: Olga collapses off-stage; is operated on; embryo removed from Fallopian rube.

Patrick Miles is quite right (and I never implied otherwise) that Olga and Anton repeatedly tried to conceive a child in the summer and autumn of 1901 and in February 1902. My point, however, is that Olga’s pregnancy was not the result of these efforts. If Olga had conceived when they were together in September-October 1901, then on 31 March 1902 she would have miscarried a foetus of at least 19 weeks. This is contradicted by Professor Jakobson’s telegram and by the passage Olga later excised from her letter to Anton in early April 1902: ‘On 26 [February] I had some bleeding and that was it, I was convinced I was not pregnant … Ott and the other [doctor] decided to do a scrape and confirmed that it had been an embryo of about a month and a half.’ The bleeding on 26 February 1902 makes it equally unlikely Olga had conceived between 22 and 28 February in Yalta.

I am no more a gynaecologist than Patrick Miles: I put all his evidence, as well as Olga’s descriptions of her illness in summer 1902, to a well-qualified obstetrician and a midwife. They reported that neither September-October 1901 nor late February 1902 was a possible time for the conception and that an ectopic pregnancy was by far the most likely cause of her collapse and operation. The usual time for such an eruption would be between eight and ten weeks from conception, and the bleeding on 26 February and pain on 28 February would be typical warning signs. All this indicates conception some time at the end of January, a time when Olga was in the close company of Nemirovich-Danchenko, not Chekhov.

A full biography of Olga Knipper has yet to be written, but all the evidence points to her as a woman who throughout her adult life maintained a number of attachments. This is not the point I took issue with: if Olga Knipper was reprehensible it was in her management of the evidence.

Socialist Claptrap

I wonder what criteria govern the appointments to your editorial staff. If the diary of Tobias Jones (LRB, 6 March) is anything to go by, the possession of common sense is not one of them. I pray that this sort of socialist claptrap is not a portent of things to come between now and the general election. Please remember that every subscriber to the London Review of Books is not as gullible as pop musicians and their hangers-on. Some of us have actually got New Labour weighed up.

P.R. Bonnett
Downham Market, Norfolk

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