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Letters

Vol. 20 No. 9 · 7 May 1998

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Is Life the Thing?

In his review of Jonathan Dollimore’s Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture (LRB, 16 April) Terry Eagleton makes the startling claim that ‘literary theory is an aesthetics of the underdog.’ We are all, naturally, on the side of the underdog – it would be incorrect to be anything else – but is there no end to what the once excitingly arcane doctrine of literary theory will do to stay with it? Will it soon reach the Lawrentian and Leavisian verdict that Life is the thing to be on the side of? Or join Dryden and Bradley in praise of Shakespeare’s verbal magic and comprehensive mind? New-model Blairite criticism may come up with many such novel and thrilling perceptions. Now it seems literary theory is ‘championing the humble particular’ too. Canny students used to be advised to do this for exams, many years ago, and to supply appropriate quotes from Chaucer or Defoe or Jane Austen.

John Bayley
Oxford

I think Terry Eagleton is mistaken when he suggests that Yeats’s epitaph -

Cast a cold eye On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

- disdains ‘death as a vulgarity fit only for clerks and shopkeepers’. Yeats is buried in Drumcliff churchyard, at the foot of Ben Bulben, and spent much of his childhood climbing and walking and fishing on the mountain. He loved it and knew its mythological history; he brought it into his work and one of his last great poems, ‘Under Ben Bulben’, dealt, in part, with him and it. So what was Ben Bulben to him, that he should have desired so much to be buried in its shadow? It was the home of Queen Maeve and her followers and, by extens-ion, a centre of Irish myth. The epitaph is addressed not to the reader but to Queen Maeve’s horsemen, who are invited to observe us, to cast a cold eye on us and pass by. Of course, we read it, but even as we do so Yeats passes us by and speaks over our heads to the ghosts riding the top of Ben Bulben. His thoughts are with them and with the continuity of Irish cultural imagination they exemplify.

Charles Mayo
Polperro, Cornwall

Paint your wagon

How nice that when Messrs Sainsbury asked Alan Bennett to choose four images for display in local schools (LRB, 2 April) he should wish to include Eric Ravilious’s Train Landscape. Bennett ascribes his love for British painting of the Forties and Fifties to Shell’s patronage of contemporary work. Didn’t Joe Lyons open even one teashop in Leeds? Contemplating the block-mounted modern British paintings which Lyons, too, had commissioned helped me pass many teenage Saturdays when I should have been clearing tables in Joe’s Luton teashop. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can conjure up a Piper and a Nicholson.

Ravilious gets much too fashionable today, at least for those of us who collect fugitive Wedgwood ceramics made in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties and adorned with his whimsical designs. These are charming, but Train Landscape is an important painting, one of a series treating Neolithic white horses. Here the Westbury horse stands framed by a Great Western Railway carriage window. This effect refracts Augustus Egg’s Travelling Companions (1862), in the Birmingham gallery. Egg shows us two richly clad young women in the mould of Ingres, luxuriously (and, surely, erotically) ignoring the view of the Bay of Naples through the window of their first-class railway carriage. Ravilious’s compartment is empty. Patterns on moquette seats, graining on mahogany door and window frames, evoke the woodcut skills in which Ravilious challenged Thomas Bewick. Numbers on the compartment door play to his typographical interests (as in his ‘Alphabet’ design for Wedgwood). The big ‘3’ on the door tells us that this is a third-class carriage, far removed from Egg’s sybaritism. Above his number lies the framed landscape, with downland nature yielding imperceptibly to cultivated ploughland.

This picture is an intervention in a long debate. The rude intrusion of the railways into 19th-century landscapes evoked very different responses from painters. In Rain, Steam and Speed (1844), Turner counterposed threat with promise in a perennially unsettling image. Later painters used Claudian conventions to neuter this threat by settling the train in the landscape. Ravilious inverts this procedure, settling the landscape in the train. It’s astonishing how well the inversion works. But we also should recognise other conventions with which he plays. Like Turner and W. Heath Robinson, he shows us a Great Western train. This company was notoriously disdainful of less monied passengers: yet Ravilious depicts a third-class compartment. Celebrating a democratic version of English cultural continuity (that downland/ploughland vista), Train Landscape summarises much of what he and Edward Bawden sought to achieve in their artists’ commune at Great Bardfield in Essex.

This genteel landscape poses a problem for Alan Bennett, for whom it is ‘redolent of all the journeys by train I remember, particularly in my teens and during my National Service, when it was still possible to explore the English countryside by rail’. But Ravilious shows us a very particular landscape, loaded with very particular cultural freight. This is Edward Thomas’s South Country: that ultra-southern strip of land from Kent to Wiltshire which Victorian and Edwardian writers and artists, recoiling from Northern industrial blight, constructed as an unchanging dream world embodying real, unchanging England. Alan Bennett should recognise that Ravilious’s skill seduces as it beguiles. What know they of England who only Wiltshire know?

Ian Carter
Auckland, New Zealand

(T)hink again

I was interested in S.E. Yousoufian’s assertion (Letters, 5 March) that the word hink, meaning ‘to falter, misgive, hesitate’, is now obsolete in Scotland. In fact, an apparent homonym is still in widespread use in the West of Scotland, where hink serves as a Glaswegian version of ‘think’. Michael Munro, in his guide to current Glasgow usage, The Patter (1985), cites the example: ‘Ah hink you’re smashin, so Ah dae.’ Curiously, in the same reference work, Munro gives the Glaswegian meaning of thought (not hought) as ‘something involving great effort or something approached with reluctance’, as in ‘Aye, it’s a thought gettin up these dark mornins.’ Perhaps Mr Yousoufian’s obsolete Scots word has a closer link with the contemporary Glaswegian hink after all.

Annalena McAfee
London NW1

A Bottle of Bad Slivovic

Misha Glenny (LRB, 2 April) is by no means alone in wondering whether a military coup is the only way to rid Serbia of the Milosevic regime. It is to his credit that he suggests that, were such an event ever to occur, ‘Milosevic and his seedy entourage would, of course, be granted protective custody.’ The brutality with which Serbia’s royal couple was murdered by a group of army officers on 11 June 1903 led to Serbia’s first spell of international isolation this century. Britain (and the Netherlands) refused to recognise the new Serbian regime for three years.

Glenny, however, is mistaken in several important details. The whole Serbian Army was not involved in and did not support the anti-Obrenovic conspiracy, nor was the conspiracy a purely military affair. True, it was initiated by a group of young officers from the Belgrade garrison, one of whom was Lt Dragutin Dimitrijevic-Apis, but he did not orchestrate the coup, as Glenny suggests. The conspiracy was masterminded by several more senior officers and a group of politicians, including former cabinet ministers such as Djordje Gencic and Jovan Avakumovic, both members of the Liberal Party. It was these politicians who formed a provisional (coalition) government and they, not the Army, ‘restored a liberal constitution’. The Army did, however, give its consent. The officers involved in the ‘Belgrade palace revolution’ (as it was soon dubbed by the British) exercised a strong influence on Serbian politics. This situation changed three years after the regicide, on Britain’s insistence and after two unsuccessful counter-conspiracies organised by army officers opposed to the growing power of the conspirators.

Misha Glenny correctly notes the similarities between the Obrenovic-Masin and the Milosevic-Markovic ruling couples, yet fails to recognise obvious differences between the two periods. Present-day Yugoslav army officers are products of the same system which made Slobodan Milosevic; an equivalent of the democratically-minded Prince Petar of the rival Karadjordjevic dynasty is lacking; and, anyway, Serbia is no longer a monarchy. The opposition politicians are either bigger nationalists than Milosevic or are hopelessly divided – the figure most likely to emerge victorious after a military coup is Vojislav Seselj, leader of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, who is believed to enjoy the largest support among the junior officer corps. Finally, and perhaps most important, Milosevic, unlike Aleksander, as Glenny points out, controls a large police force, which is in fact his private army.

Dejan Djokic
University of London

Double-Dealing

Reviewing Lawrence Wright’s book Twins, Wendy Doniger (LRB, 19 March) referred to my work and states that ‘twins put up for adoption were separated and used for psychological studies.’ This ambiguous phrase easily leads to the conclusion that the twins were separated so that a study could be undertaken. Wright’s account makes it perfectly clear that it was the adoption agency that decided to separate them, following the belief at that time that twinship is a burden. The agency treatethe twins no differently from other siblings, who were also separated into different adoptive homes. It was only after I was informed about this policy that I organised a unique prospective study of these twins. Our focus was to explore the effect of environment on development. Doniger quotes one of the twins who remarks that ‘this is nightmarish Nazi shit.’ He, too, mistakenly assumed that he was separated in order to be studied, an assumption fashioned by the press to dramatise the issue. Doniger states that neither the twins nor the parents were told that they were being studied. This is not true. It would not have been possible to visit them at regular intervals, to observe and test them, to interview parents without their knowledge. I have also never expressed the opinion that we were ‘playing God’. This again was a statement made by members of the media.

Doniger writes: ‘Why not just demonstrate that some factors owe more to nature, others to nurture, and leave it at that?’ But this would impose an unacceptable restriction on research. It is the obligation of researchers to figure out the specific area of influence of both heredity and environment.

Peter Neubauer
New York University

Fatties

I would like to add a belated factual clarification to John Lanchester’s Diary (LRB, 20 March 1997). He referred to Chancellor Kohl as having been spotted eating ‘steak and chips’ at Le Pont de la Tour after an ‘insufficiently nourishing state banquet’ in 1995. However, further newspaper reports have revealed that on the relevant occasion the Chancellor in fact consumed an entire three-course meal at the Conran-owned eatery. This was in the aftermath of a five-course feast celebrating the anniversary of VE Day. The Chancellor’s spin-doctors rebuff all enquiries about his weight on the grounds that it is a ‘state secret’.

Brian Middleton
Munich

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