I much enjoyed Robert Irwin’s essay about Albert Hourani (LRB, 25 January). I didn’t know him well but he was a gentle presence in Oxford for many years and, more specifically, at Magdalen, which has had a strange and continuous connection with the Middle East via Wilfred Thesiger, Thomas Hodgkin, Hourani himself, Roger Owen, Michael Gilsenan and, occasionally, princes and princesses from the Lebanon, the Emirates and elsewhere.
I remember mentioning to Hourani the embarrassment of teaching a young Saudi prince. The Prince himself, dressed as Elvis in gold lamé suit (and chauffeured in a golden Rolls Silver Shadow), the vizier (and bagman) never far away, the grasping college fellows waiting on the stairs to relieve the House of Saud of a million or two for this or that project. Hourani fixed me with a firm but gentle eye: ‘How did it end?’ he asked. ‘He died of a drug overdose,’ I replied, ‘the family were furious with us, asked how we could have failed to prevent it.’ ‘It usually ends like that,’ he said. ‘Never trust royalty. And those who fawn on royalty – trust them even less.’
Similarly, I remember how Thomas Hodgkin, when in his most warmly pro-Islamic moods, which is to say most of the time, would come back from talking to Hourani and say: ‘Albert agrees with me about Ibn Khaldun. You can’t be a great historian without being a great philosopher. But he had some very upsetting things to say about Muslim fanatics too, which I enjoyed, er, much less.’
A law of irony decrees that characters like Hourani end up at Oxford and become its passionate devotees. Hourani, though he spent most of his career there, was not like that. He once asked me how we had come to make so-and-so a professor. ‘He seemed to be the best candidate,’ I replied. ‘But that’s incredible,’ he said, ‘that never happens in Oxford. There were other applicants who were far better known, more published, more aggressive, had more famous referees. How on earth could you appoint so-and-so?’ Feeling by now a little worried, I repeated that he had seemed to be the best of the bunch. ‘Of course he is,’ Hourani sighed. ‘By miles. But that’s my point, what happened, what went wrong? I can’t remember when Oxford last appointed the best man for the job.’
I am sure Alan Tyson told the following joke to a lot of people but his being recalled as ‘good value’ by Alan Bennett (LRB, 25 January) prompts me to record it here. Booming, sweating and joking away at an All Souls dinner, Tyson was being quizzed in a pretty dull way by a fellow guest as to what it was ‘really like’ to have translated Freud, be a practising psychoanalyst, and whether he thought analysis, especially Freud’s, did more harm than good to patients. Tyson answered politely enough but with a gathering cheekiness in his face and manner – a kind of incubating phlebitic guffaw. Turning away from his enquirer he leant over to me and the guffaw surfaced: ‘What I didn’t tell that boring fellow is my great secret. My name is an anagram of NO ANALYST.’ Part of me seems to remember that later in the evening he also said that this anagram news had come to him in a dream. Which would be even better and (a rare thing) perfectly Freudian. But an ocean of wines and digestifs had been well at work by then and I have probably made that part up, being by that stage – as was my host – at least three finches short of a species.
More on Tyson the lapsed psychoanalyst: he used to say he’d have liked to pin a note to the wall of his consulting room, legible from the couch, that read: ‘Least said soonest mended.’
I am of an age with Alan Bennett and must have visited the Diaghilev exhibition at more or less the same time (LRB, 25 January). I do remember the innovative use of music, but above all I recall the unsparing, almost profligate use of Guerlain's Mitsouko, said to be Diaghilev's favourite perfume. Several of the exhibition's rooms were doused with it every day – which could only have been Richard Buckle's idea. Happily Mitsouko, with its envoûtant presence, lives on.
Alan Bennett is right to describe the BBC’s mismanagement of its archive as a ‘scandal’. When I asked the BBC shop for videos of Jonathan Miller and others’ Shakespeare productions, intending them for Christmas presents, I was told the BBC had sold off the series to W.H. Smith, which had promptly disposed of them as unlikely to sell.
My memory is that in the sketch Alan Bennett describes, the crucifix doubling as a pipe-rack is incidental to a telephone consultancy which has been set up by the vicar to provide potential suicides with instant access to God's advice, and about which he is being interviewed. The vicar was preoccupied with his own ingenuity with the pipe-rack and the interview is conducted over the persistent ringing of a never answered telephone. Would it not have been this, rather than the pipe-rack, that raised a question in Parliament?
Blaming European imperialism, as Adam Thorpe does (Letters, 25 January), for the wretched condition of so much of Africa today is absurd. I spent four years in the Sudan, as a university lecturer, in the early 1960s. Travelling widely in the Northern Sudan, and speaking Arabic fluently, I almost everywhere met with happy memories of British rule and those who had administered it. Yet it appears that the country has reverted to a condition of barbarous and fanatical tyranny, with the slave trade again active in the South and the infrastructure neglected or in ruins. Does Thorpe seriously blame the British for this state of affairs, forty-five years after the end of the Condominium?
Jeremy Noel-Tod (LRB, 8 February) cites as his one explicit example of R.F. Langley’s ‘more precious vacillations between high lyricism and private surrealism’ the lines ‘Is it a comma’s wings/make such a silky noise?’ The comma Langley has in mind is not the punctuation mark but the comma butterfly, so called on account of the comma-shaped marks on its hind wings – the reference thus in fact being notably devoid of surrealism.
Peter Wilson (Letters, 25 January) says I ‘shouldn’t use the term “mistress" to refer to Olga Rudge’, because the word has ‘negative connotations’. For me it implies only one negative: the fact that Pound and Rudge were not married. If there is moral disapproval, it is contributed by the reader. It was certainly not implied in my use of it. In the same issue as Wilson’s letter David Trotter refers to Ida Vendel as Wyndham Lewis’s ‘mistress’ and Lorna Sage, perhaps trying to avoid the word, refers to the women with whom Henry Green had affairs during his marriage as ‘girlfriends’. To my ear there is something solid, historical and neutral about ‘mistress’, and I feel sure all three persons in that remarkable and uneasy Rapallo triangle would have thought of Dorothy Pound as the wife and Olga Rudge as the mistress.
Glen Newey (LRB, 25 January) is right to be sceptical when reviewing the attempts that have occasionally been made to dream up a common source, aside from the simple fact that they’re both his, for Chomsky’s politics and his linguistics. That such attempts have been made is no doubt a tribute to the striking disparity between the heartening libertarianism of the one and the formidable rule-boundness of the second, as though someone like Chomsky, who has postulated that strict grammatical structures must underlie whatever meaningful sentences are uttered by whoever wherever, ought, by rights, to come out when switching his attention to political behaviour and principles, as some sort of extreme disciplinarian. it’s this disparity that explains Newey’s weird quotation from Geoffrey Sampson, about Chomsky’s having claimed that ‘syntax refutes liberalism.’ ‘How?’ Newey very properly asks, if only in a bracket. Presumably by narrowing down the possibilities of utterance and thought in some unspecified way. Except that, far from being a restriction, syntax is in fact the great enabler, and observation of its corpus of rules our guarantee that what we’ve said or written makes sense, whether it’s true or untrue, right or wrong, libertarian or fascistic.
David Walker (Letters, 8 February), rather puzzlingly, felt the need to deny that the Guardian was the newspaper which refused to publish Glen Newey’s ‘sensitive and proportionate bracketing of Jack Straw with Heinrich Himmler’, although he approved the mystery paper’s ‘judicious’ use of the ‘blue pencil’. A few days later the Guardian carried a piece by Henry Porter in which ‘entrusting our freedoms’ to Jack Straw was sensitively and proportionately compared with ‘committing an elderly relative into the care of Harold Shipman’.
James Hall (LRB, 25 January) takes issue with contemporary art from the point of view of someone who would rather it didn’t exist. He chooses therefore to trivialise the contributions of distinguished artists such as Vito Acconci, Bob Flanagan and Sherrie Rose, whom he fails to mention by name, referring to her dismissively as ‘the wife’ of Bob Flanagan.
Readers of Anne Barton’s article about Mary Shelley (LRB, 8 February) may be interested to know that Shelley’s literary biographies of Italian, Spanish and French writers are currently being edited for Pickering and Chatto, as a follow-up to the 1996 Pickering edition of the novels (now reprinting). The four-volume edition will appear next year and will also include almost all of her still uncollected work, including her lyric verse, unfinished MSS such as her ‘Life of Godwin’, translations, and recent attributions.
Anglia Polytechnic University, Cambridge
I was not only displeased to find a poorly edited version of my objections to John Sutherland's article on AA in your paper (Letters, 8 February), but to also find my full name attached to the truncated version. I had signed with my initials in the hope that someone at the LRB would understand what the Anonymous part of AA meant. Please go buy yourselves a clue.
Mount Vernon, New York