Stuart Hood (Letters, 4 February) misunderstands me in thinking that when I wrote that what Anna Akhmatova and Isaiah Berlin lacked was a touch of Kafka I meant that Akhmatova’s experience of life was insufficiently Kafkaesque. I would not say that, nor presume to say it, and ‘Kafkaesque’ is not a word I particularly like, as nowadays it is often just a synonym for the modish ‘weird’ or a hackneyed way of saying ‘bureaucratic’.
What I meant was that they could both have done with a touch of Kafka’s diffidence. I’m not sure if Kafka was as convinced of his own abilities (not to say, genius) as Akhmatova was but he certainly didn’t let it seem so. And though Michael Ignatieff makes out a case for Berlin’s inner uncertainties, a man who could turn up on Freud’s Maresfield Gardens door step in 1938 just because he thought Freud would be interesting to meet could hardly be described as ‘diffident’.
On a lighter (or at any rate more English) note, one does not have to wait 17 months outside prison gates to be asked, as Akhmatova was: ‘Is this something you can write about?’ It happens to me if there’s a delay at the check-out or I’m caught by an eccentric on a bus. Pity Pinter: it must happen to him if ever the lift stops between floors. And was it Tennyson whom well-wishers would manoeuvre in front of some enchanting prospect in the hope that this would set the poetic juices flowing?
Akhmatova and Berlin met in St Petersburg – not in Moscow, as Alan Bennett has it (LRB, 21 January).
I notice that the latest TLS (29 January) carries an article about the TLS Centenary Archive, a project funded by the Leverhulme Foundation (because the proprietor of the TLS could not afford to finance it himself, I suppose). It aims, say Jeremy Treglown and Deborah McVea, to put on-line the text of that organ between 1902 and 1988. No mention is made of copyright law which, as John Sutherland observed (LRB, 7 January), has already been decisively rubbished by the existing TLS archive.
One is bound to ask whether it is proper for academic foundations to finance projects which openly flout copyright law and the rights of those on whom such publications as your own are dependent – namely, those of academics themselves. The more academics kow-tow to the likes of Murdoch, the less likely they are to be able to reclaim the rights they have surrendered. Some consciousness-raising would seem to be in order.
On 12 December 1994, on my way home from Leicester, I bought the Guardian to read on the train. To my amazement I found myself reading a reprint of an article I had published in the Guardian thirty years earlier to the day. It was in a feature called ‘Past Notes’, and was an eyewitness account with commentary of the Berkeley student demonstrations of 1964. I wrote to the editor asking if old-age pensioners whose articles were resurrected in this way would receive a fee. He replied firmly that they would pay me nothing.
Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire
John Sutherland's essay on the changing nature of rights ownership in an electronic environment clearly reflects the frustration of newspaper and magazine contributors. However, Sutherland mis-states the situation in the academic world. Many of the journal publishers, including Elsevier Science, who belong to the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (STM), do not charge authors for re-use of their own work. They share with authors a wide range of rights, including the right to re-use their own work, to distribute copies to colleagues, to reproduce and use it in their own teaching and in teaching by colleagues at their institution, and to post it on secure internal servers.
At a time when consumer publishers are seeking more rights, science authors are the beneficiaries of fewer restrictions. Yes, copyright transfer is still normally requested for the logistical reasons Sutherland suggests, but allowance is increasingly made for both the specific needs of the author and the changing nature of electronic science communication. The posting of papers prior to publication on public web-sites is common and formal publication in a journal does not usually affect the web version. Our members are steadily reducing the requirements placed on their academic authors, and at the same time widening access to their work through new on-line systems. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here – and shared with other kinds of publisher.
Secretary General, STM
The report in the Observer (31 January) that Rupert Murdoch's minions had cancelled an advertisement in the LRB after the mild slight to his reputation finally prompted me to do something I've been meaning to do for years: subscribe!
University of Southampton
Reading August Kleinzahler on Basil Bunting (LRB, 21 January) took me back to the first Monday I reported for work as a sub-editor at the Newcastle Evening Chronicle in August 1967. The deputy editor steered me to the huge subs’ table, around which clustered a dozen journalists, and pointed to the vacant seat that I was to occupy for the next seven months. ‘You’re filling the chair of an officer and a gentleman,’ a neighbouring colleague announced, ‘a poet and a scholar who translates from the ancient Persian.’ I had inherited not only the chair but also the workplace effects (though not the job) of Basil Bunting, who had retired only a few days before. These included a foot rule, a copy of the house style book and thick wads of copy paper, all kept in a locker in the hallway to the printing plant.
It was a terrifying honour. First, the unduly auspicious nature of the circumstances – it was my 24th birthday and my first ‘proper’ job after four years as a freelance (including Buntingesque escapades in war zones). Even more worrying was my recent pathetic attempt to write something intelligent about Briggflatts for International Times, London’s first countercultural publication. The review was cryptic and hurried, silly but enthusiastic. I can just imagine his ‘violently alarming’ laugh as he read it (if he did). By then Allen Ginsberg had alerted ‘the poetic public in Albion’ to Bunting. Also writing in International Times, Ginsberg described Bunting as ‘one of the masters of the age of poetic invention that starred Pound and Williams’, and added: ‘He remains for me the most alert prosodist in England. I mean the best poet alive, of the old folks.’
Seeking some trace of this glory, I searched for Bunting the poet in his workaday world, for some clue to the ‘remote blood and ancestry’ that preoccupied him. Nothing but a few squiggles on scraps of paper which I took for shorthand notes and discarded, though they may indeed have been immortal lines from some Persian epic he was translating between copy-editing and headline-writing for the eve ning financial page.
Coincidences apart, the only real contact I had with Bunting was through his language, the one authentic medium for bonding with a poet. For me it started with the foreword to Briggflatts: ‘The spuggies are fledged.’ To an expatriate Yorkshireman any poet who calls a sparrow by its real name has already achieved immortality.
West Linn, Oregon
Francis Wheen challenges Roger Scruton to ‘cite a single political crime’ with which Christopher Hitchens has sided (Letters, 21 January). Well, ‘crime’ is rather strong, but Hitchens is a self-confessed homophobe. When I was on the national executive of Liberty, then called NCCL, in the Eighties, I wrote to Hitchens about his homophobic sneerings in the New Statesman. His reply makes it clear that gay oppression is not to be seriously compared to other (then more fashionable) types of injustice. Specifically alluding to my complaint that he used terms of abuse in order to underline his contempt for gay people, he wrote: ‘I think that people’s sexual preferences are a legitimate subject for humour, dirty humour if at all possible. Obviously, one of the comic things about the Cambridge spy ring is that all or most of its members were/are queer … Faggotry, in my judgment, is as good a metaphor for that little world as any other.’ When he appeared on Channel 4’s Face the Press in October 1984, Hitchens’s homophobic outbursts led Julian Barnes to say that ‘you’d certainly need a lot of karma not to reach for your baseball bat’ after hearing Hitchens’s remarks.
What interests me is left homophobia. It is one manifestation of ‘gay exceptionalism’, whereby people who are progressive in relation to other social issues, draw a line at homosexuality. Many of the canonical texts of feminism are blemished in this way. Homosexuality ‘is spreading like a murky smog over the American scene’, according to Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. The hostility of Channel 4 producers to the gay community is well documented. Quite recently, a review in the Guardian of a collection of academic literary essays I edited appeared under the heading ‘Fairy Stories’. Throughout Peter Preston’s editorship of that paper, there was no coverage at all of lesbian issues, a ban on equal access for personal ads and a continuation of the paper’s traditional support for supernaturalism. Alexander Chancellor is ‘not sure’, on 19 July 1997, whether equality for gay people is a good idea. As late as 1996, in his review of Kids, Derek Malcolm is dividing Aids sufferers into the ‘innocent’ (infection by non-sexual means) and ‘guilty’. Throughout the Eighties, the Times Educational Supplement refused to cover the subject of homophobic bullying in schools, on the grounds that it was ‘not on the agenda’, though it is probably the main type of playground humiliation. The Observer carries a column by Richard Ingrams, who came third in a poll some years ago in Gay Times (after Norman Tebbit and Rabbi Jacobovits) as Homophobe of the Year. Had the same level of prejudice been directed against a racial minority, or the disabled, it would have been denounced with vigour and might well have led to criminal proceedings or civil litigation.
University of Tunis
Colm Tóibín (LRB, 21 January) highlights the tendency towards tragedy, mourning and elegy in the history of gay writing. Mark Doty’s poetry, however, revises this ‘tradition’, rather than sitting neatly within it. The artful transcendence of traditional elegy is rejected, and the poems’ conclusions are far more open-ended, even playful. Doty, a man living with HIV, often emphasises bodily transformation rather than transcendence, and there is a hopefulness in his shape-shifting images. Metaphor is so important to Doty because it twists, turns and refuses to be static.
But Tóibín is correct to note the difficulty readers continue to have with the idea of a gay happy ending. Even the 1993 hit play Beautiful Thing, Jonathan Harvey’s poignant vision of two working-class teenagers who find love on a South London council estate, is a fairy-tale of wish-fulfilment, the sort of thing that only happens somewhere over the rainbow. What Doty manages to do is present contemporary gay life in a way that doesn’t make it seem deterministically tragic or the stuff of saccharine fantasy.
Caroline Moorehead (or Alex de Waal) is mistaken (LRB, 21 January). Whatever the Nigerian Federal Government had to say in June 1969, the relief airlift organised by the ICRC and Oxfam came to an end nearly a year earlier, as did the BBC’s on-the-spot coverage of the war in Biafra. In the summer of 1968 I was organising a pro-Biafra rally in Trafalgar Square and the director of Oxfam had promised to speak at it. On the eve of the rally, he withdrew. There’s no doubt that the FCO and the MOD were behind his decision. Every bullet fired at Biafra was British. The ICRC gave a hypocritical undertaking that when the war was 0ver, i.e. Biafra defeated, they would ‘pour aid in’. They even broke their word on that.
I flew into Biafra via Lisbon and São Tome in August 1968 in a vintage Constellation provided by a freelance American operator. The only freight lashed to the floor of the cargo bay was ammunition and a crate of whisky. The ICRC and Oxfam had vanished. There was a crisis in São Tome when we landed. The plane that had gone in the previous day had turned back in face of fierce fire from Gowon’s British anti-aircraft guns. The whole airlift was in jeopardy. Happily an answer was found: to detour via the Cameroons and avoid the guns south of Uli, the Biafran airport improvised from an unfinished motorway. We landed under cover of darkness. All flying was done at night because the Nigerian fighter pilots, in their MiGs and trained by Moscow, would only fly by day. So it was that at the height of the Cold War, London and Moscow were conjoined in an unholy alliance. The main FCO dogma had it that the unity of Nigeria was immaculate. Thirty years on, it is the most divided, impossible and corrupt country in the world.
While I was in Biafra the Nigerian Army launched a major attack north of Port Harcourt and took Aba. I was one of the 100,000 refugees who quit the town in the middle of the night. It was the beginning of the end. A few days later when I flew out in a plane piloted by the Swedish Count von Rosen there was a last-minute addition to the passenger list – Mrs Ojukwu. Shortly afterwards I was invited by Panorama to speak to the ICRC in Geneva by telephone and on camera, and this I did. They had quit and had nothing to say.
Save Biafra Campaign, 1968/70
Peter Briggs (Letters, 7 January) is right to say that certain characteristics of Rebecca Horn’s machines were already developed in earlier artists’ works, such as Tinguely’s. My own machines, which have been shown in various galleries, also use rotational means to develop lateral movement. One of my works, called Tret, a motorised and all steel open-structured sculpture, approximately four feet high, made in early 1966, and now in the Arts Council of Great Britain’s collection, uses exactly the methods Mr Briggs describes. It was exhibited on three occasions in the late Sixties – one of these being the international kinetic show at the Hayward Gallery. Like Horn’s work, it has associations with The Penal Colony, as I’ve indicated on more than one occasion. This work and others in private and national collections were well documented in three 16mm films and a book entitled Light and Movement published in 1985. So why hasn’t Carl Haenlein, the editor of Rebecca Horn: The Glance of Infinity, made a more thorough job of his research? The autobiographical traces in a work – on which Horn is so keen – only partially account for its existence. And they’re present in every artist’s output. I remember a V2 rocket landing on a neighbouring block and killing 16 people in South-East London. An enormous bang woke me in the light of the afternoon and I can still see the ceiling plaster breaking into small parts and descending as a fragmented surface to engulf me.
Artist in Residence
Chiswick House London W4
It has come to my notice that a serious error has crept into my recently published book about Arthur Koestler, Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind, reviewed in this issue of the LRB. Due to confusion at the editorial stage, on pages 379, 382, 386, 389 and 391 the names of Celia Kirwan and Cynthia Jeffries are transposed or muddled. I would like to put on record that the actions imputed to ‘Kirwan’ or ‘Cynthia Kir wan’ on these pages in fact refer to Cynthia Jeffries (later Cynthia Koestler) and not to Celia Kirwan (née Paget, later Goodman). I greatly regret the distress which this slip-up has caused to Celia Goodman. Along with the publishers, William Heinemann, I have taken the necessary steps to ensure that it is corrected in all future editions.
University of Southampton
I stand corrected by Keith Kyle (Letters, 4 February). My lapse of memory in relation to Bertrand Russell's views on the Soviet Union was all the more inappropriate for having been submitted to a journal published in Little Russell Street.
I have been a subscriber to the London Review of Books for many years now and harbour an ambition to have a letter published. I have absolutely nothing to say. Lack of content, however, has not so far inhibited Keith Flett from writing letters or the editor from publishing them.