Vol. 20 No. 3 · 5 February 1998

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The Trouble with Psychological Darwinism

In repeatedly contending that ‘there must be some things that one cares for just for their own sakes,’ Jerry Fodor (LRB, 22 January) sounds rather like a pre-Newtonian responding to the question, ‘Why does an apple fall?’ with the answer: ‘Because it just does.’ Newton may not have had the last word on gravitation, but he got most of the way there. Similarly the neo-Darwinists got most of the way there with the realisation that their studies apply to any system in which information gets copied. It seems possible that not all the contents of our minds are adaptations for the propagation of our genes, but they most assuredly are all information. Many years ago Richard Dawkins himself pointed out that the copying of mental states from one person to another – in other words, the whole of human culture – is a process like the copying of genes that is governed by natural selection: some ideas echo down the generations, others wrap fish and chips. The ideas may or may not benefit the people who hold them; those people may understand the ideas or they may not; the ideas may be right or they may be wrong. But none of this matters to the ideas’ longevity nearly so much as whether or not they get communicated. We love our children because they are the carriers of our genes. It may well be, in contrast, that we wash our clothes in Ariel or laugh at Groucho Marx because in both cases the impulse to do so has been implanted by our culture. Whether Procter and Gamble prosper and we continue to enjoy Duck Soup will then depend on how faithfully those impulses continue to propagate.

Adrian Bowyer
University of Bath

Rereading the Zonnets

I can’t agree with Tom Paulin (LRB, 22 January) that Helen Vendler’s reading of the Sonnets is an ‘epic, innovatory study’, ‘a new beginning for criticism’. You have only to look at the diagram he reproduces with which Vendler illustrates the moral structure of sonnet 33, to find yourself on a synoptic tour of earlier approaches, mostly Continental, of which S/Z is not a bad example. And now that I think of it, there’s a bit of an s/z shuffle in Vendler’s exposition of sonnet 29, where she contrives to hear the z sounds of ‘despising’ (l. 9) and ‘arising’ (l. 11) as s sounds, in order to assimilate them to the bona fide s sounds of ‘sings’ (l. 12). What we then hear, says Paulin, ‘is sing, sing, sing’, and to Vendler’s ears, the poem ‘fairly carols’. This ‘sing’ for ‘zing’ business is stretching a point. Why not zing, zing, zing? Or ding, ding, ding? And how will we be able to read the sonnet again without thinking of Judy Garland and the trolley?

Patsy Waller

Age of Consent

Reviewing Heather James’s book Shakespeare’s Troy, Frank Kermode (LRB, 22 January) refers to the author’s view of the purpose of The Tempest as aligning the ‘theatre with constitutional theory that derives royal authority from the people, who technically have the right to withdraw their consent and leave the prince stranded on a desert island’. No one, in the time of James I, would have known what in theory or in practice was meant by this right to withdraw their consent. No one believed then, or for more than a hundred years, that sovereignty was derived from the people. Charles I did not lose his head at the behest of ‘the people’.

John Griffith
Marlow, Buckinghamshire

Feel-Bad Factor

All elections generate their own myths and R.W. Johnson merely repeats the most recent (LRB, 22 January): that the Tories lost even though the economy was doing well. He ought to ask: whose economy? His confusion is only possible because, despite listing no fewer than seven economic indicators, he omits wages, the most important of them all. For millions in the public sector, for instance, several consecutive pay freezes ensured that there was to be no share in any extra benefits the economy was producing, to compensate for blows such as large increases in indirect taxation – another factor he neglects. Even the advantages of lower mortgage rates were often cancelled out by fears of negative equity, while the fate of those having to pay private sector rent increases seems beyond the ability of Johnson, or any other commentator I have read, to recall. Many people work far harder than they used to, yet have less money to show for it. That reality is what matters, not any ‘feel-good factor’ or lack of it, or any ‘perception’ about whether the Tories got it wrong over the ERM. Johnson does not mention the word that matters most today: ‘inequality’.

Ed Horton

Whoa the fairies!

I first heard ‘Whoa the Fairies’ sung with great gusto in the Players’ Theatre under the arches of Charing Cross Station some forty-five years ago. Unlike Christopher Small (Letters, 22 January), I did not think that it referred to female fairies, but that it was a (politically incorrect) reference to homosexual men. From some of the comments shouted up to the chairman when the song had ended, I gained the impression that many in the audience interpreted the words in the same fashion. I cannot remember the other verses of the song, so I do not know whether that had been the intention of the Victorian composer.

Alfred Baker
Tunbridge Wells

Memories of Barra

Readers who enjoyed David Craig’s Diary from Barra (LRB, 30 October 1997), and subsequent letters, might enjoy another diary, written from Harris in 1817-18 by the naturalist William MacGillivray (a version edited by Robert Ralph is published by Acair). MacGillivray visited the island of Pabbay in December 1817 and made a number of notes and lists of things observed, many of them comparable to David Craig’s. Unlike Craig, however, MacGillivray was able to smoke tobacco and drink mash and whisky in the island’s brewhouse. Pabbay, then regarded as ‘the granary of Harris’, was divided into two parts, one tenanted by Mr MacNiel, the other by a ‘great number of small farmers’. The MacNiels were to become the competitors of the MacGillivrays, and by the end of the diary William is detained in Harris awaiting the settlement of his uncle’s affairs. The diary falls in the middle of the Clearances, which were to destroy the communities about which MacGillivray writes so engagingly. He was not simply the budding ornithologist who later published a History of British Birds, but also a spirited commentator who enjoyed all the opportunities he was afforded by the social life of the island to drink, dance and ‘take Miss Marion up to the sheep-fold’. Within twenty years of his writing the journal, every village in West Harris would be cleared: according to the book’s glossary (and in answer to the problem David Craig set himself), Pabbay was cleared in 1842.

Penelope Curtis
London W12

Fascism in the Archives

A few of Nicholas Hiley’s points (LRB, 11 December 1997) about MI5’s interwar history are debatable. Hiley says that MI5 ‘recruited Maxwell Knight, later Director of Intelligence of the British Fascists’. John Hope, the historian who has done most to investigate Knight’s role in the British Fascists, has claimed that he was already the Fascists’ Director of Intelligence when he joined MI5 in the mid-Twenties. In fact, while there is solid evidence that for several years Knight was both a senior Fascist and an employee of MI5, beyond this the picture is less clear than Hope has suggested. On the other hand, the evidence that has so far emerged is not incompatible with Knight’s having become the Fascists’ Director of Intelligence at the same time as, or shortly after, he joined MI5. Hiley also says that Knight was recruited by MI5 ‘to head its counter-subversion unit’. However, Knight’s biographer, Anthony Masters, believes that Knight did not become MI5’s head of counter-subversion until the late Thirties, when he was appointed to run a newly-created unit which came to be called B5(b).

Hiley further writes that in 1927 MI5 sent ‘Joseph Ball, who had been conducting black propaganda against the Labour Party, to become Director of Publicity at Conservative Central Office’. What has been firmly established is that after Ball resigned from MI5 at the beginning of 1927 he became the first Tory spin doctor, deploying various dirty tricks against the Labour Party. The historians John Ferris and Uri Bar-Joseph have speculated that Ball may in fact have been working simultaneously for the Tory Party and MI5 since as far back as 1924. In any case he is a prime suspect in the leaking of the Zinoviev Letter, the attempt to damage the Labour Party’s chances in the 1924 election. As regards the statement that MI5 actually sent Ball to work at Tory Central Office, this sounds plausible, but to my knowledge nobody has ever claimed that it was the case.

It is clear that much remains unknown about the cases of Knight and Ball, which, as Hiley indicates, belong to a distinct pattern of right-wing bias in the organs of the secret state. Doubtless the archives of MI5 could fill in a lot of the blank spaces that remain in this story, but they are to be exempted from the proposed Freedom of Information law and MI5’s records policy is determined by considerations other than openness. As part of its continuing public relations offensive, MI5 recently released the first ever batch of material from its archives, covering the period 1909-19; this turned out to consist chiefly of censored versions of anodyne in-house histories. It is said that MI5 will be releasing material relating to the interwar period in late 1998 or in 1999. I have little expectation of finding the full truth about Max Knight and Joe Ball in these files.

David Turner
Borden, Kent


Scott Herrick
Madison, Wisconsin

First Filipino

V.K. Mina is wrong in stating that Rabindranath Tagore ‘won the Nobel Prize for his English-language writings’ (Letters, 11 December 1997). He was awarded the prize for work written in Bengali.

Miguel Orio
Nederland, Colorado

Marriage Proposal

Sue Rickard
Australian National University, Canberra

Virtual Mangos

I have found your website on the Net and this is an easy opportunity for a subscriber to write and thank you for the Review. If you were closer I would send you some mangos – glorious this year having been ripened on the tree in my garden.

Paul Bland
Canterbury College, Beenleigh, Australia

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