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Letters

Vol. 21 No. 18 · 16 September 1999

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Unreliable Friend

R.W. Johnson’s attack on my authorised biography of Mandela (LRB, 19 August) is largely based on his own conviction that Mandela was a secret member of the Communist Party. But he provides no documentary evidence, and consistently misrepresents both me and Mandela. He says I was determined ‘to find no Communist influence in the ANC’ and that I didn’t realise that its Congress of the People in 1955 was a CP front: in fact, I specifically say that the Central Committee of the CP ‘threw itself into organising the Congress of the People’. He even claims I ‘quote approvingly’ Mandela’s attack on the British Government for burning children alive in Kenya. In fact, I quote it as an example of how Mandela was ‘becoming more attached to the rhetoric of Marxist anti-colonialism’. He says I ‘ludicrously’ quote Mandela’s denial at the Rivonia trial that he was a member of the CPSA, and that I didn’t ‘realise the trick’ – that the Party had been renamed the SACP. But Mandela didn’t say that at the trial: he simply stated that, while influenced by Marxism, ‘I have denied that I am a Communist.’ And no South African Government was able to show that he belonged to the Party: the official liquidator of the Party stated in 1970 that he was not a member or even active supporter of the CP.

Johnson says that Mandela made handwritten copies of Stalin’s writings, which helped to convict him at the Rivonia trial. But I could find no such transcriptions from Stalin in the official records. Can Johnson produce them? As a South African ex-Communist, he is convinced that he and his former comrades successfully dominated the ANC, which was a ‘shambles’, and used Mandela and others for their own ends. But as Mandela writes, ‘who is to say that we were not using them?’

Johnson’s other facts are equally unreliable: he even gets the date of the banning of his own former party wrong – it was 1950, not 1952.

Anthony Sampson
Tisbury, Wiltshire

Thorpe and Amnesty

Anthony Howard, in his review of Jeremy Thorpe’s reminiscences (LRB, 19 August), awakens memories best left sleeping. I was a member of both Amnesty’s executive committee (EC) and the selection committee (SC) involved in the appointment of Thorpe as its director. For the record, he was not merely nominated. He was put forward by the SC to the EC as their candidate for the post. He was interviewed by the EC, who voted overwhelmingly to offer him the job, which he accepted. Then came the backlash. One by one, the committee members were persuaded by assorted outside forces, including David Astor, to try to change their decision. Only two or three of us held out, believing that decisions can't be negated because you don’t like the outcome. Eventually, Thorpe rescinded his acceptance. He would have made a good director of Amnesty’s British Section. He had the required persona for national media coverage (‘a born showman of the hustings’), the contacts necessary to get the job done, managerial experience and a solid human rights pedigree – a member, like Astor, of Amnesty from its infancy. He was badly served by many, some of whom let their outrage overcome their democratic sense (oops, my bias is showing). My unforgivable part in the debacle was to have been too naive to have foreseen the vitriolic reaction to the appointment and therefore to have contributed to his public humiliation.

Margaret Kennedy
New York

Belgitude

‘I can hardly imagine anyone,’ Lady Georgia observed, ‘setting out deliberately for Brussels’ (Ronald Firbank, Vainglory).

P.S. Joll
Freshwater, Isle of Wight

As an Englishman who has lived in or near Brussels for some twenty-five years, I was touched by Eric de Kuyper's modesty (Letters, 19 August). In talking about Brussels and Belgian writers he never once alluded to the fact that he is, at least in Flemish-speaking Belgium, held in high regard as a writer himself. His books about his childhood in Brussels, Antwerp and on the Belgian coast are wonderful evocations of times past and, in my view, are required reading for those who want to understand the evolution of Belgium as a country and Brussels as a city.

A.J. Caston
Tervuren, Belgium

It’s the Plunge that Counts

Andrew Harrison (Letters, 2 September) attempts a quite unwarranted ducking of Heathcote Williams for a supposed misreading of history in his review of my book Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain. But it is Harrison who misread the review. As Williams rightly mentions, my swimming journey took me to Cambridge, where the author Jack Overhill, founder of the Granta Swimming Club, was the first person to promote the previously unknown style known as the ‘crawl’, having seen someone doing it in the Granta. This was in 1920. Overhill was on the iron footbridge by the bathing sheds at Sheep’s Green on Coe Fen when a man in a red bathing costume came downstream and passed under the bridge, swimming a stroke he had never seen. The crawl swimmer was Jack Lavender, a Cambridge man who had learned the new stroke in London, where he swam for the Civil Service, and later came up one Sunday to hold a masterclass on the banks of the Granta, demonstrating the strokes to a rapt audience of swimmers as he lay across a chair.

The South Sea Islanders and American Indians may well have been crawl swimming for centuries before, but not the breaststrokers of Cambridge.

Roger Deakin
Eye, Suffolk

Heathcote Williams’s reading of Dante’s Divine Comedy must have been superb preparation for his review of Roger Deakin’s Waterlogged. For only one possessed, as Neddy Merrill was in John Cheever’s short story ‘The Swimmer’, would attempt to swim his way through Britain. At least Neddy had several bar stops along the way.

William Harshaw
Toronto

Cheerleader

John Lloyd dislikes the smug, in-your-face style of Thomas Friedman’s celebration of US-led globalisation in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, but in the end does no more than shrug his shoulders in a helpless, ‘it’s inevitable’ kind of way (LRB, 2 September). Those of us who have travelled as consultant economists on the same route as Lloyd from Prague and Warsaw to Beijing, with detours to Kampala and Delhi, will recognise Friedman’s anecdotes as just a racier version of the blundering and factually ill-founded advice given by IMF/World Bank/ USAID advisers and consultants. This advice, as Lloyd hints, simply boils down to supporting US financial interests wherever they choose to go by giving up all control on matters as diverse as capital movement, tariffs, taxes, public expenditure and labour law. Those who have no controls lose control.

The issue is not one of denying globalisation but of ignoring the fact that each of the various globalising forces derives from a separate source and, in its own way, is subject to national control. Globalisation of culture (primarily by television), of information (primarily now by the Internet), of production, of political organisation and ethics, and of finance are all different. Lloyd makes the mistake (as Friedman does) of assuming that globalisation of finance is the most important and the least controllable. But take the Chinese and Indian economies, by far the largest in Asia: they avoided the financial cataclysm South-East Asia suffered (and probably saved the world economy) by relatively crude controls over capital movements and exchange rates. Despite these controls, China still sells into world markets and multinationals still build factories there.

In refusing to square up to the central hollowness and partiality of Friedman, Lloyd adopts one of the loneliest positions in the world: that of the integrationist safety-netter. I have sat in on meetings in a dozen capitals and heard the US and British acolytes of the IMF integrationist school pour scorn on just about every conceivable version of a national safety net.

Michael Prior
Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire

Grotesquerie

Simon Darragh’s rebuke of myself and the editors for omitting the translators’ names in my review of Schulz’s Collected Works is well merited (Letters, 2 September). My own oversight in the matter is made all the more grotesque by the fact that at the time of writing the review I was busy translating a book from the Dutch. I shall be very put out if its English-language reviewers eventually do as I did to Celina Wieniewska, Walter Arndt, Victoria Nelson, Alexander Fiut and Wiesieck Powaga.

Dan Jacobson
London N6

Marvell’s Raw Edges

Derek Hirst, in his review of my Writing the English Republic (LRB, 19 August), finds that the book falls short when it comes to Andrew Marvell. Since I’ve profited greatly by his own historical readings of Marvell, I’m a little disappointed that he falls back on received and by now not very helpful literary-critical terms. Historians in the past have sometimes worked by tearing a few phrases out of their contexts, and Hirst’s desire to proceed in a more complex way can be applauded. But the chivalrous desire to protect poetry from an encroaching philistinism can end up by leaving it stranded on a pedestal. Marvell has often been seen as a figure of Olympian transcendence, retreating behind ironies so profound that all but the most exquisitely refined readers will stand condemned for their insensitivity to his ambiguities.

As Hirst presents my argument, my own blunder is to misrepresent him as a republican with a single, simple ‘ideological motivation’. But I am concerned, not with the man behind the poems, about whom I hesitate to pronounce, but with the poems as they attempted to engage with successive, shifting contexts. Far from portraying him as an unwavering republican, I’ve tried to show just how contradictory his poetic utterances could be, highlighting, for example, the remarkable disparity between the celebrated, royalist ‘Tom May’s Death’ and the neglected, roughly contemporaneous poem to Oliver St John. Though Hirst implies that my political bias sweeps aside contemporary evidence, he doesn’t acknowledge the basis of many of the claims he contests in a new exploration of the poetry’s neo-Latin context – not the most trendily topical of subjects. My readings move Marvell closer to trimmers like Marchamont Nedham, who has never been seen as an Olympian figure; but I don’t think they make him any less brilliant – or indeed ironic – a writer, though they do leave more raw edges in his work than Hirst seems to like.

Hirst insists that we must read Marvell as a “secretive poet of interior fantasies’: the implication is that the most profound reading will go behind the texts to find some private, inscrutable core of mystery. He may indeed have been secretive, and Paul Hammond’s recent essay on Marvell’s sexuality suggests the reason at which Hirst is apparently hinting. But that reading only strengthens my belief that Marvell’s poetry gains its force not from serene transcendence but from the exceptional challenges posed by the period’s extreme volatility. In all kinds of ways, the boundaries of the public and the private were unusually unstable at this period. I make it clear enough in the book that Early Modern republicans weren’t modern democrats, that something less than a fully-fledged public sphere existed. But I would stand by the claim that in a period when horizons were unexpectedly open, a truly historical reading doesn’t have to work by narrowing them down. To that extent, I do find a kind of transcendence – or sublimity – in Marvell; but one that works through an intense engagement with the times.

David Norbrook
University of Maryland

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