Vol. 21 No. 5 · 4 March 1999

Search by issue:

Moderation or Death

it’s not possible to please everyone, and it can be unwise even to try, but I found on reading Mark Lilly’s letter (Letters, 18 February) that I felt a sort of commitment to cheering him up. Anyone who has so resentfully treasured one of my frivolous notes from the dear dead days of twenty years ago, and who keeps it by him in a gazelle-infested exile at the University of Tunis, is entitled to such consolation as I can afford.

His case against me is one of latent and blatant homophobia, of the sort that if directed at another target might be ‘denounced with vigour and might well have led to criminal proceedings or civil litigation’. By happy chance, I can refer him to a recent ‘outing’, conducted by Alexander Cockburn in the tabloid New York Press of the first week of February: ‘Many’s the time male friends have had to push Hitchens’s mouth, fragrant with martinis, away, as, amid the welcomes and goodbyes, he seeks their cheek or lips.’ Some good critics regard this as one of Cockburn’s more polished pieces, especially dealing as it does with the absolute and inflexible requirement never to rat on an old pal. I offer it, though, as an example of a badge of supposed shame that one may wear with pride.

I was at first puzzled by Lilly’s other faded but faithfully-preserved clipping, wherein he quotes Julian Barnes, then in his TV critic period, from October 1984. Apparently ‘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 my appearance on the tiny screen. A quick call to Julian and the fount of memory was unsealed. I had done a chat-show with Norman Mailer, after the incautious publication of his book Tough Guys Don’t Dance. And I had ragged him a bit about his literary obsession with the occasions of sodomy, to say nothing of his then-interest in the karmic. ‘I was,’ recalled Barnes, ‘sort of handing the baseball bat to Mailer.’ This same notion had in fact occurred to Mailer himself. After the show, he berated me, and inscribed his copy of Tough Guys with an admonition to ‘see what I say about you’. Nor had I long to wait. In a lengthy interview with the Face he attributed his bad notices to the fact that the London literary racket was run by a daisy-chain of queens, led by Martin Amis, Ian Hamilton and myself. (Amis and I composed, but did not eventually send, a letter to the Face protesting that this was very unfair to Ian Hamilton.)

Mailer and I have since made it up. So could one leave it like this? I would never persecute or deride Lilly, and he in return should drop his lugubrious demand that gay-teasers should be prosecuted. Also, he might bear in mind our relative advantages. He lives in Tunis. I live in sodding Washington DC. Was it so kind of him to rub this in? Need he have reminded me of the time when I could dash off a mocking letter to the likes of himself, and had not reached the state of decrepitude when only women would even consider going to bed with me?

Christopher Hitchens
Washington DC

Does London exist?

Andrew Saint’s assertion (LRB, 4 February) that a hundred years ago few ‘had much good to say about Britain’s capital’ is an over-simplification. The general approach in belles-lettres of the time (and not much has changed since) was to match London’s essentially muddled or aporic nature with the intimate muddle of the human heart; the London one loves is the London one knows. This explains the classic schizophrenia in most writings about the city, summed up by Sam Weller when he described his knowledge of London as ‘extensive and peculiar’: the ‘extensive’ is seething, chaotic and unframable, the ‘peculiar’ is quiet, exclusive, authentic – a small place consisting of the streets one treads familiarly, the rooms one frequents.

Twenties London may have been ‘far drabber than it is today’ (one person’s drab is another’s draw, of course), but show me a text in which present-day London is not generally seen as thinner than the thickly-detailed memory of its past. I’m surprised Saint didn’t emphasise the role demolition has to play in our nostalgia for a less dingy or frantic time (either antique or recent), and the stuttering attempts to retrieve its resonance in places like Covent Garden. Given the furiously unreliable nature of its hammer-drilling present and the city’s unaccommodating monstrousness, no wonder writers have had problems delimiting it without at the same time warping its essential nature. Henry James solved the problem in Portrait of a Lady by apparently emptying the place of its inhabitants: ‘the stale September days, in the huge half-empty town, had a charm.’ His parallel assertions of vacancy and multitudinousness are bolder than most because he makes no attempt to show the multitude, apart from a couple of slum kids locked out of the silent square.

As for Paris, Wilfred Whitten in A Londoner’s London (1913) gives one of the best definitions of the difference between the two rivals: ‘The Londoner of today, without the least deflection of his London love, is enamoured of Paris; simply because he finds there a certain relief from the immensity, the inexistence, so to speak, of London. The picture of Paris “comes together" in a way that the picture of London never can. It frames itself.’ That lack of frame is what gives London its menacing, joyous indeterminacy – and leads us to erect our own edges to peer over, however reductive or inadequate.

Adam Thorpe
Monoblet, France

Who owns John Sutherland?

Duncan Wu is attacking a fiction of his own (Letters, 18 February). He has missed the distinction we made in our TLS piece (29 January) between the forthcoming on-line facsimile publication of back numbers of the TLS by Primary Source Media and our own Leverhulme-funded project, which involves identifying previously anonymous contributors in the years 1902-74. The copyright principles powerfully outlined by John Sutherland in the LRB and invoked by Wu in relation to the TLS aren’t relevant to those years, when contributors explicitly assigned their copyrights to the Times and its Supplements. But in any case the on-line edition isn’t what the Leverhulme Trust is funding. Leverhulme’s very welcome and, as will become clear, fruitful support is confined to our TLS Contributor Index, 1902-74.

Duncan Wu calls for ‘consciousness-raising’. We’ll try to raise his for him. First, it’s obvious that by naming previously unknown contributors, our Index in an important sense gives authors back their work, rather than depriving them of it. Second, the process has already (we’re now in the mid-Twenties) resulted in some literary and historical discoveries which were outlined in our TLS article and which Wu might have been expected to welcome. Third, Leverhulme’s support has produced various unanticipated benefits to scholars. It prompted Times Newspapers to provide extra resources for its unique archive so that thousands of ‘marked copies’ of the TLS and scores of editorial ledgers dating back to 1902 could be restored and microfilmed. Primary Source Media, in turn, invested time and money in developing new retrieval software which enables the facsimile text of old newspapers to be searched electronically: something which cultural historians have long wanted and which has encouraged the Times Supplements and PSM to make the old issues of the TLS available on-line with fully searchable text, as well as with our Contributor Index. It is this whole enterprise – most of it unforeseen when the grant was made by Leverhulme – which will appear under the title of the TLS Centenary Archive.

Deborah McVea and Jeremy Treglown
University of Warwick

All Antennae

At the end of his review of David Cesarani’s Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (LRB, 18 February) John Banville describes Cesarani as ‘diligent’ and says ‘he has read everything Koestler ever wrote … no detail is too trivial for him to hunt down.’ This is not, however, wholly accurate. One of the important questions about Koestler, raised by Cesarani, is whether he tried to dissuade his wife from committing suicide with him. According to Cesarani, Koestler and his wife both left wills. The dates of those wills, what if any provisions were made in his will in favour of her, the bequests in her own, whether they had the same solicitors, and what instructions and advice on these matters each gave to and received from their solicitors might be of great importance in answering that question. For example, if Koestler made no provision for his wife it would be strong evidence that he expected and was content that she should die when he did, especially as his solicitors would have queried his instructions in view of her right in that event to apply to the court after his death for financial provision from the estate.

Yet despite the fact that wills are public documents it seems that Cesarani made no attempt to inspect them and that he did not ask to inspect the Koestlers’ correspondence with their solicitors in connection with their wills. He confined himself to looking at such references to the Koestlers’ wills and correspondence with their solicitor (about bequeathing their estates to a trust to set up a chair of parapsychology) as he found among the documentation in Edinburgh University Library, where he was working.

Conrad Dehn
London SW1


Terence Ranger (LRB, 4 February) has succumbed to the temptation to criticise me for not writing the book he himself would have written. I would have thought that the very title, Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism, makes it clear that I am not writing about indigenous African, American or Asian medical systems. He criticises me for saying little about the transformation of African disease environments before and after extensive contact with whites, overlooking a controversial section in the book on this very subject. Ranger has also fallen prey to two fallacies. One is that any historian living in Africa is necessarily an Africanist; not so, I am a European/British/Northumbrian historian who happens to find inspiration in living in Cairo while writing about cultural misunderstandings and conflict. The second fallacy is to accept the old colonialist idea that ‘epidemics seem to arise from causes that are independent of human agency.’ It is true enough that disease types may evolve without human agency; but I think it is clear by now that epidemics are spread by human agency. The current issue of Nature strongly suggests that Aids is an ancient disease, but that it was human agency in the last few decades that led to an epidemic. This last point (applied to malaria) might encourage Ranger to temper his romanticising about indigenous cures. It is my understanding that before the onset of the slave trade and extensive contact with Europeans along the coast, most Africans would not have been exposed to the deadliest forms of malaria; they could not, therefore, have effective ‘traditional’ cures against what would be essentially a new disease.

Sheldon Watts

Looking for Dr Jekyll

A printer's devil, no doubt, interpreted the American zip code abbreviation for Arkansas, AR, as the designation for Arizona (Letters, 4 February). I am, probably, persona non grata in both states, but still would like to let people know that liberal sentiment percolates, however feebly, south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Stuart Silverman
Hot Springs, AR

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