Vol. 19 No. 7 · 3 April 1997

Search by issue:

All the Cultural Bases

Ian Sansom writes of Simon Armitage that ‘he has coined a number of memorable phrases,’ among which he cites: ‘I’m so hungry/I could eat a buttered monkey’ (LRB, 20 March). When Doug Murray, a morally dubious motor mechanic, said this on Coronation Street in (I think) 1993, my family seized on it with delight, believing it to be a current Lancashire saying, and we made it our own – it sounds even better with Northern vowels. Now its provenance seems doubtful. There are three possibilities: (a) Simon Armitage wrote the Coronation Street script, or (b) he did not ‘coin’ it, but simply used it, or (c) a Coronation Street character surprisingly quoted a contemporary poet. Would someone kindly resolve this quasi-demotic scholarly problem?

S.W. Dawson

Ian Sansom seems a bit sniffy about the selection of pop Simon Armitage took with him to Iceland (Talking Heads, Scott Walker, Bjork, The Smiths, The Fall, The Pixies, Prefab Sprout, Bob Dylan, REM, Felt and the Lemonheads). ‘What was once modish now seems outdated, a reminder of life before Britpop,’ Sansom says. ‘Fashion has moved on, and Armitage hasn’t.’ In fact, the whole process of forming the pop canon illuminates questions to which theorists of the canon would do well to attend. Far from being outmoded, Armitage’s list carries a pretty impeccable kudos. The Fall and the Pixies are both highly credible, the more so for their lack of commercial success; while it would be difficult to deny the canonical status of Dylan, REM or the Smiths. Replace Felt, Prefab Sprout and the Lemonheads with some black artists (say, Prince, George Clinton and Hendrix) and you’d have a pretty watertight mini-canon, a class list for the 21st century, of a sort unlikely to be infiltrated by Gene, Dodgy, Sleeper or even the commercial bulk of Oasis. The question that then most vigorously asserts itself is: why is the canon coalescing around almost exclusively male artists?

Adam Roberts
Royal Holloway College

The Great British Library Disaster

Contrary to Frederick Barker (Letters, 6 March), not only is there a pencil sharpener available for use in our North Library, but the British Library will offer free access from this summer, via the Internet, to its main reading room catalogues. The only reason for this service not having been made available earlier is lack of resources. The British Library OPAC 97 will allow remote access to our catalogues, free of charge, by anyone with Internet access. The Blaise online service, whose prices Mr Barker quotes, will continue to provide a range of specialist services for professional information providers and other users the world over. The new service will join the British Library’s other well-established free service on the Internet which provides guidance to services, access to a selection of digitised items from the collection, and an extensive referral service to other organisations worldwide. Several million electronic visits to the Library have been made in this way: Mr Barker and your other readers might like to visit our website at www.bl.uk/. As far as storage of books is concerned, no major library – not even the Library of Congress – keeps everything in a central location.

Brian Lang
Chief Executive

Like Frederick Barker, I was astonished to find when I logged on one evening to pursue research in the catalogue for a thesis on Henry James that extraordinary charges were being made by the British Library. Needless to say, if I had continued, research into so complex and much discussed a subject would have brought me a huge bill. It occurred to me that if the British Library needs funds then they could be found by curtailing the activities of the British Council, an organisation rather less necessary in our connected age.

Fernando de Torres
São Paulo

Questions of Malevolence

Neal Ascherson’s generous review of Norman Davies’s Europe: A History (LRB, 20 February) raises a number of troubling questions. The book, as even Ascherson acknowledges, is full of errors, yet these apparently in no way reduce its ‘intellectual achievement’. Really? There are eight errors on one page in Chapter 7. In Chapter 11 we learn that the Nazis supported Papen in 1932 (they didn’t); that General von Schleicher was in the Reichstag (he wasn’t); that the Germans occupied the Vichy Zone in 1943 (it was 1942); that 77,000 Belgians were sentenced for collaboration (the figure is 57,000); that ‘tens of thousands’ were killed in postwar France in ‘an orgy of retribution’ (the figure is 9000). Ascherson has provided examples of his own and so have other reviewers, expert in different periods covered by the book. Details, no doubt – but so many of them that misfortune begins to look like carelessness. In this sense, Davies’s book is indeed, in Ascherson’s words, ‘an epic work of the imagination’.

But it is of course something more than that. Turning the map of Europe through ninety degrees such that Poland always appears in the centre is neither original nor enlightening. It is merely perverse. Being ‘tactless’ (Ascherson) on the subject of Jews, however, would matter less were it not patently obvious that it is the only arena in which Davies’s lack of tact is so relentlessly on show (Russophobia is not lack of tact, just poor history). His discussion of the ‘dissenting voices’ in Holocaust studies may strike non-specialist readers as nicely balanced – unless they turn to the notes and learn that Davies makes no distinction between critics of ‘Zionist’ historiography, critics of ‘Jewish’ influence in US politics and anti-semitic proponents of the ‘Holocaust Hoax’. It is these ‘dissenting voices’ who apparently lead Davies to his conclusion that on the Holocaust ‘the last word has still to be spoken.’

Surely it is the task of the reviewer to face up to such embarrassing warts on the face of Davies’s book, however seductive his polemical energy and iconoclastic verve? If the reiterated juxtapositions of the Holocaust with other past crimes – the drownings in the Loire in 1794, the abuses of (Jewish) secret policemen in postwar Poland – are ‘painful and unnecessary’ to Ascherson, he might at least wonder aloud why Davies feels constrained to make them. The art of comparison, especially in extreme instances, lies in the appropriateness and pertinence of the things compared. There is no justification, in scale, motive or consequence, for the comparisons Davies proposes. And they are, in any case, juxtapositions, not true comparisons; does Neal Ascherson really think that they are being offered for the enlightenment of the reader?

Finally, why is Ascherson so sure that objections voiced to Davies’s version of European history are part of a ‘campaign’ against him? I am not aware of any such campaign – Davies’s bizarre obsession with Stanford University (see pages 29-30 of Europe: A History) is not reciprocated, and the review by Theodore Rabb in the New York Times was highly critical but showed no ‘malevolence’, personal or professional. Nor was Rabb among the critics of Davies’s earlier work on Poland – he is a historian of Early Modern Europe who was previously unacquainted with Davies’s writings and unaware of Stanford University’s decision not to offer him a job. No one is out to ‘get’ Davies; but whereas foreign historians have been distinctly unforgiving of Norman Davies’s curious interpretations and his cavalier unconcern with facts and dates, British commentators are happy to reflect back to the author his own uncritical self-evaluation, even as he vilifies the few who dare to dissent.

Tony Judt
New York University

Gospel Truth

I was gratified to learn that Hyam Maccoby (Letters, 6 March), though offering different reasons, agrees with part of what I said in my notice of William Klassen’s book: the Judas story is a fiction; but he thinks both Klassen and I are wrong about paradidomi. Yet we all say it means ‘to hand over’. Maccoby argues that the handing over was by the High Priest to the Romans, which in no way affects my argument, or the interpretation of the verb. In certain circumstances to hand over is to betray. Handing over an associate to an enemy or to the police is betrayal: Jesus was shopped, if you like. Somebody handed him over (betrayed him) and Judas was appointed to take the blame.

Klassen (Letters, 20 February) is confident that since he began his search with no notion that it would end as it did, in a certainty that Judas was just obeying orders, he can reject any imputation of prejudice in favour of such a conclusion. But honest researchers, and Klassen is one, should be aware that such convictions are liable to be formed not at the outset but some way into the work. (This is, on his own account, exactly what happened to him.) Thereafter the whole investigation is prejudiced.

Frank Kermode
Houston, Texas

Our Little Predecessors

I was stimulated by Hilary Mantel’s thoughtful discussion of the Bulger case (LRB, 6 March). First, the good news. Serious, as opposed to persistent, young offenders do rather well after release from secure units and prison, not least because of the attention they receive in the confines of a small unit from highly skilled teachers and therapists who work through issues of guilt and give them the confidence to restore their broken lives. Provided on release they are spared the intrusions of predatory journalists, they have the opportunity with a changed identity to merge relatively successfully back into society. However, I do find myself in disagreement with Mantel’s observation that it might be better if the background of Venables and Thompson was left behind closed doors. I am reminded of Barbara Wootton’s telling comment, as a juvenile court magistrate in London, that she was always dealing with ‘other people’s children’: in other words, children whose background and life experience were not the same as those of her magisterial colleagues. Part of the strength of Blake Morrison’s book is to get behind the stereotype we all have of juvenile offenders, to show their faces, to reveal the uncomfortable meaning of their lives. Statements such as ‘We must condemn a little more and understand a little less’ don’t help in this context. We need to remember, along with Burckhardt, that the worst form of tyranny is the denial of complexity.

John Harding
Chief Probation Officer

Was he or wasn’t he?

Graham McCann ‘sets the record straight’, Gaby Wood writes, on Cary Grant’s ‘alleged homosexuality’ (LRB, 6 March): ‘he wasn’t gay, and McCann is very funny about the proposed evidence.’ I would like to offer this (inconclusive) evidence to the contrary. In 1977, researching a story out of Hollywood, I spent a bracingly informative hour or so with Gary Grant’s former agent of many years. Alas, I have forgotten his name, but he seemed to have forgotten nothing: indeed, he was a fund of good-humoured observation and real-life information rare in the world’s spin capital, no doubt encouraged by the fact that he was well retired and outside the fray. I wasn’t there to talk about Grant specifically, but later rather than sooner the subject came up. My friend of the hour spoke warmly of the actor as a man of genuine style and wit on a personal level: but there was one thing, he said, that had blighted Grant’s life, which was that he was homosexual and had never been able to come to terms with it. ‘It hasn’t been for want of trying,’ said the agent. ‘Cary has tried everything – yoga, psychoanalysis, LSD. And marriage, often. But none of it’s worked, and it’s made him a fundamentally very unhappy man.’ He was speaking nine years before Grant died. The actor was certainly touchy on the subject. A couple of years later, Chevy Chase, a guest on a late-night talk show, mentioned, in a flippant aside, the story that Cary Grant was gay. One never knows what, if anything, to take seriously with Chase, the man who has single-handedly given irony a bad name, but Grant and his lawyers were on the case before the next commercial, and Chase retracted fulsomely the next morning.

David Cobb
Toronto, Ontario

Arafat’s Palestine

In his reply to my letter (Letters, 6 February), Ian Gilmour mocks my assertion that Israel has acted with Gandhian restraint in the face of unending Arab violence. He points to the Israeli shelling of Qana in southern Lebanon last April, killing a hundred refugees, which Israel insisted was a terrible accident. A tragedy during the Algerian War of 1954-62 bears striking parallels to Qana. In 1958, the French bombarded Sakiet-Sidi-Youssef, a Tunisian village near the Algerian border, also killing a hundred civilians. Like Qana, it evoked world outrage. Like Peres, Félix Gaillard deplored the loss of lives but said his army did not deliberately target civilians, only guerrillas. In 1961, in resisting the Tunisian blockade of the naval base of Bizerte, France slaughtered 1300 Tunisians, mostly civilians.

Not one Palestinian in Israel or the territories was harmed as a result of the recent wave of Palestinian bombings which killed scores of Israeli civilians, despite the explosive rage. In 1955, in revenge for the murder of 71 Europeans at Philippeville, the French Army and vigilantes slaughtered from 1300 to 12,000 Algerians, many of them women and children. This is how France fought to hold onto Algeria. Yet, unlike tiny Israel confronting so many enemies on her borders and elsewhere vowing to eradicate her, France was and is a large and non-beleaguered country.

Compare the behaviour of Israelis to that of the Arabs, provoked by no terrorism whatever from the Jews living then in Arab countries, hundreds of miles from the conflict in Israel. Their barbarisms included the pogroms in Baghdad in 1941 and in Libya in 1945, which killed hundreds of Jews, and the deadly riots against them during and after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. Gilmour points to the violence of the Intifada; one thousand Palestinians, unarmed and lightly armed, were killed by Israeli soldiers. But if two hundred Israelis were also killed, doesn’t the ratio of casualties, 5:1, indicate the restraint of the Israeli Army, one of the most powerful in the world?

Jacob Mendlovic
Toronto, Ontario

How big is Ontario?

On the letters page of 6 March you print a submission from Janette Turner Hospital and once again display rather charming vagueness about distant places by giving her location as no more than ‘Ontario’. Other letter-writers are identified either with a London postcode or, in the main, by a town and county. Identifying someone as resident in Ontario is really not very helpful. This Canadian province is more than three and a half times the area of the entire United Kingdom. You could put Spain, Italy and the Republic of Ireland into the Province of Ontario and still have room left over for Rhode Island three times. Or perhaps Ms Hospital lives in the delightful city of Ontario, California?

Ron Haggart
Toronto, Ontario

Lost Horizons

Paul Driver (LRB, 6 February) quotes Peter Maxwell Davies’s recollection that the Third Programme was the ‘best education’ he could ever have got. I used to be able to recommend the World Service in similar terms as a supplement to Americans – not necessarily young – whose minds hadn’t completely closed to the possibility of horizons beyond those dictated by the television and locally owned educational systems. One of my greatest resentments concerning the World Service’s regionalisation and the conversion of peak listening hours into little more than a Birt News Network is that such a recommendation is no longer possible.

William Reid
Pierre, South Dakota


Alan Bennett and Joan Anholt (Letters, 6 March) might be interested to know that The Englishman’s Flora by Geoffrey Grigson is indeed in print. It can be obtained from Helicon Publishing Limited, 42 Hythe Bridge Street, Oxford. I bought a copy from my bookseller last autumn.

Betty Spice

Socialist Claptrap

P.R. Bonnett (Letters, 20 March) does not give any examples of Tobias Jones’s ‘socialist claptrap’ in his letter but I infer that he is a Conservative and disapproves of political articles being published in a literary journal. But it is these occasional articles that would make it impossible for me to give up the LRB. Conrad Russell’s brilliant piece in the same issue is a good example. I trust their advisers will ensure Messrs Blair and Blunkett read it, and revise their plans for salving our educational system.

James MacGibbon
London NW3

Quite frankly, I am a left-winger who subscribes to the LRB because, in the past, it has not seemed to cave in to the dictates of some imaginary middle of the road on a highway that continually curves to the right. I hope it is not becoming your policy to take your core subscribers for granted. It was with some dismay that I found Hilary Mantel’s apologia – for John Major in particular and for condemnation in general – in your issue of 6 March. Mantel asserts that ‘not even his worst enemies would believe John Major is a brute.’ Well, as one of Major’s enemies I am here to tell you that he is most assuredly a brute (it being quite possible to be a wimp and a brute at the same time). I also fail to understand why I must see in the same issue the gratuitous Soviet-bashing by John Lloyd, praising yet another pandering, poorly researched ‘exposure’ of supposed Soviet misinformation.

Richard Nielson
Bellingham, Washington State

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences