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Vol. 22 No. 23 · 30 November 2000

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Battle of the Bugs

Reading my way loyally through the 16 November LRB, piece by piece, I was excited to light upon a potential linkage between two of them which hadn’t at first promised to cover much common ground. Writing about the sinister British invention the tank, Peter Wollen quotes Patrick Wright’s speculations about a battlefield of the future on which ‘areas will be dominated not by high-tech Behemoths but by hosts of tiny, semi-autonomous insect machines,’ so opening up a ‘microscopic theatre of combat’. I need hardly say that this creepy-crawly prospect at once took my mind back a few pages to some of the unpleasantly memorable pictures conjured up by James Meek, writing about the sperm wars conducted by various of the all too many insect species we’re asked to share the biosphere with. Knowing what vile tricks male insects may play on females when on the job, or, more often it seems, female insects on males, one can hardly help but speculate what the future programmers of ‘tiny, semi-autonomous insect machines’ may come up with in order to ensure that the ‘microscopic theatre of combat’ is a thoroughly disgusting spectacle. War movies of the future will no doubt have a rare old time closing in on male redback spiders as they somersault happily into their relatively gigantic partners’ mouths and get swallowed, or praying mantises continuing very decently to copulate after having had their heads bitten off. Personally, I’ll be playing old videos of Saving Private Ryan.

Arthur Symondson

Atlas’s ‘Bellow’, Holmes’s ‘Coleridge’

The LRB announces ‘the corruption of literary biography’ (LRB, 2 November). Can it be that simple? From the jottings of John Aubrey to Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, from the belligerent dynamism of Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age to the sceptical ‘modernising’ of Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf, all the way to the anguished intimacies of contemporary pathography, literary biography has kept on changing its form in response to the wider culture.

The genre is thriving. There are university courses in life-writing. There are volumes of essays, international conferences and officially funded research centres. Scourged and derided by the exponents of an anti-humanist critical orthodoxy, biography is now an object of academic study. I can think of three reasons why this has happened.

First, 1960s feminist humanism was inescapably biographical; it filled in the gaps, uncovering significant lives. It also chronicled psychological experiences that had always been silenced, or ignored. Alongside this, there arose a new way of doing history. It had its source in romantic historiography, in the half-realised ambitions of Michelet, but it drew more immediate inspiration from the interdisciplinary Annales School. Everyday life came into focus with precision and vividness in histories of smells, childhood, reading.

Richard Holmes’s Shelley (1974) and Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens (1990), with their emphasis on empathy and evocation, showed how much could be achieved within biographical conventions. Consider also Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1993), Timothy Garton Ash’s The File (1997), Simon Schama’s Rembrandt’s Eyes (1999). These books represent an exuberant criss-crossing of genres – including autobiography, reportage and travel-writing – and demonstrate that biography is more than a substitute for the lost certainties of the 19th-century novel, and more than the obliging, overpaid accomplice of bourgeois individualism. it’s nothing less than a compendious sceptical form of moral investigation.

Geoffrey Wall

Richard Poirier is free to attack my biography of Saul Bellow for as many words as he feels it takes, but your readers might want to know the following. On page 330 of my biography, I refer to Bellow’s annoyance over Poirier’s hostile review of Herzog and wonder if there might have been some element of Poirier himself in Herzog’s tireless theorising – some wish to satirise the academic mind. Attempting to explain Poirier’s hostility to the novel, I write: ‘Apparently Herzog’s mimicry of the high-flown intellectual style came a little too close for comfort.’ On page 464, I quote Bellow saying that Poirier is ‘stupid’, and that the experimental writers he endorsed were ‘spiritless, etiolated, and the liveliest of them are third-rate vaudevillians’. In my book, Bellow is quoted asking why anyone would want to be a literary critic: ‘I’d rather inspect gas mains in Chicago.’ In the interest of intellectual honesty, shouldn’t Poirier have disclosed the unflattering portrait of him in the book? Why do I have to be the one to do this?

Bellow won the Nobel Prize in 1976 – not, as Poirier writes, in 1974.

James Atlas
New York

I read John Barrell's appraisal of Richard Holmes's Darker Reflections a few days after finishing the book. I now know what an early 19th-century devotee of The Ancient Mariner must have experienced while filing out of a Hazlitt lecture.

Dan Hamer
Dar es Salaam

Utzon’s Legacy

Murray Sayle (LRB, 5 October) shows that the Sydney Opera House story had more than one hero: besides the architect Jørn Utzon, the New South Wales Labor Premier Joe Cahill, the plywood-making magician Ralph Symonds and the martyred composer-conductor Eugene Goossens made the building possible. The villainy, however, was more widespread than Sayle suggests. The deep-laid plotting of the sometime NSW Government and Davis Hughes, its Minister for Public Works, was carried out in collaboration with leading members of the architectural profession, one with no conspicuous tradition of solidarity. Had Sydney architects determined as a body that none among them would take Utzon’s job, the politicians would have found it much harder to abort the building – no internationally-reputed architect would have thought of taking it on.

Sayle writes that Peter Hall, who took Utzon’s place as design architect, ‘died, forgotten … in 1989’. In fact he died in May 1996, and he wasn’t forgotten at all: in obituaries and published letters, his and the NSW Government’s apologists sprang noisily from the woodwork. They showed again their lack of understanding for that holistic, multi-disciplinary European tradition in which Utzon worked; they claimed (as does Clive James, with fine disregard for archival evidence) that he’d not known how to finish the building, so the practical Australians had had to come to its rescue. One had to feel a smidgen of pity for Hall, who confessed publicly more than once that Utzon should have been allowed to finish the job; and he must have known that in 1966 he had been a stooge.

Utzon’s legacy is larger than Sayle believes; his major losses, as well as the small tally of completed buildings, have been much written about. For Sydney and Australia, the story remains alive and unresolved. Some see the ruptured building, with its outward exhilaration compromised by the dated banalities within, as only too accurate a national symbol.

Sylvia Lawson

Accountable Accountants

I don't see why Paul Foot (LRB, 2 November) finds it surprising or suspicious that the Government should grant Andersen Consulting Intellectual Property Rights in return for a lower bid. In a market economy such rights have a value to the supplier: if you want the IPR, you have to pay for them; if you don't, then don't buy them. So much so obvious – but it is unclear to me what conceivable use Foot believes the IPR residing in a computer system can be put to by the Government.

In the past, Governments have retained IPR to computer systems – owning rather than licensing copies of the software as everyone else does – because they have believed that if the software needed upgrading or changing it would be cheaper to do this in-house or issue a new tender to an alternative contractor. Unfortunately, the best-placed contractor is invariably the original one, who understands the system it developed. In-house efforts in the public sector almost always make things worse. The upshot is that the Government pays for an illusory freedom.

As it is, the public sector very rarely concedes IPR to contractors – to the vast disadvantage of both the public bodies concerned and the contractors. Any contractor which develops new techniques in the course of fulfilling a public contract is placed in an invidious position, because reporting this could remove a source of future income. Technical reports by contractors for government bodies tend therefore to become expensive statements of the obvious, often so bland that technical management of the project becomes almost impossible, resulting in delays and ballooning costs. Contractors – the majority of whom are much smaller than Andersen Consulting – are put off bidding for Government work because of the risks to their income and their reputation.

Nor is it surprising that the Public Accounts Committee was unable to determine from Andersen Consulting how much it would cost to buy the IPR: given that the purchase of the rights was hypothetical and negotiations had not yet taken place, it would have been idiotic of them to compromise their position by proposing a figure. Being a public customer doesn't imply the right to know the outcome of contractual negotiations in advance.

Thomas Davies

Life and Opinions

After visiting the Irish workhouses, Thomas Carlyle wrote in his Reminiscences of My Irish Journey (1849) that ‘human swinery has here reached its acme.’ As for Outdoor Relief, that other lame effort of the British Government to alleviate the Famine, he saw little sign of his own ennobling dedication to work: ‘three or four hundred big hulks of fellows tumbling about with shares, picks and barrows, “levelling" the end of their workhouse hill. At first glance you would think them all working; look nearer, in each shovel there is some ounce or two of mould, and it is all make-believe.’ ‘In the face of all the twaddle of the earth,’ he added, ‘shoot a man rather than train him (with heavy expense to his neighbours) to be a deceptive human swine.’ Can this be what Norman Vance (LRB, 2 November) sees as an attitude ‘sympathetic to Irish sufferings’?

Patrick Leech

Zadie (not Saddie)

Any American veteran of World War Two could have told John Black (Letters, 2 November) that ‘sad sack’ is a curtailment of ‘sad sack of shit’ – describing an inadequate enlistee or the victim of an unfortunate incident.

David Koblick
Steyr, Austria

Yeah Right

In his review of Hey Yeah Right Get a Life by Helen Simpson (LRB, 16 November), Daniel Soar writes very much as one of the fictional husbands in the collection might have done: uncomprehendingly, patronisingly and perhaps with unwitting self-revelation. For instance, he displays his lack of contact with the human situations explored so percipiently by the writer in his use of ‘presumably’ and ‘doubtless’ when alluding to the everyday experience of mothers of small children.

Unless the whole review was intended as a splendid piece of ironic reinforcement of Helen Simpson’s presentation of the inadequacies and lack of maturity of many males, you seem to have sent a boy to do a man’s job – or possibly a woman’s.

Alison Millard
Woking, Surrey

Editor, ‘London Review’ writes: James Meek managed to write on promiscuity among the birds and beasts in the same issue, without having sex with a dunnock.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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