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Letters

Vol. 23 No. 10 · 24 May 2001

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Dizzy

In his comments on the paperback version of my book The Hidden Wordsworth, John Mullan (LRB, 5 April) reopens the matter of Wordsworth’s possible connections – as target or as agent – to British security operations in the late 1790s.

First, Mullan wonders why I have not toned down my allegations that Wordsworth was a spy more than I have, in light of Michael Durey’s report that the ‘Mr Wordsworth’ in the Home Secretary’s paybook was Robinson Wordsworth, the poet’s cousin, not the poet himself. I dropped the melodramatic word ‘spy’ from the title of the paperback, but Mullan seems to have forgotten that the paybook reference is not the only connection between Wordsworth and the Home Office. In July 1797, the Home Office’s top field agent, James Walsh, reported from Somerset to John King, his superior in Whitehall, that among the suspicious persons he had observed in Nether Stowey there was one ‘Wordsworth, a name I think known to Mr Ford’. King and Richard Ford were the liaison officers linking the Home Office and the Foreign Office, and Wordsworth was already ‘known’ to them, as was his house guest, John Thelwall, the leading radical orator and journalist of the day.

I retained the phrase ‘our man in Somerset’ as a description of Wordsworth to offset the hoary rhetorical currency of Coleridge’s joking cover-up, in Biographia Literaria (1817), that Walsh overheard them talking about Spinoza and reported it back to Whitehall as ‘Spy Nozy’. Walsh did no such thing; his trip to Somerset was neither a joke nor a mistake. His report on what he found – ‘a mischievous gang of disaffected Englishmen’ – was basically accurate, but the Government took no further action because they were more concerned about French spies preparing the ground for another invasion, and because they already knew all they needed to know about Wordsworth and Thelwall.

Second, Michael Durey did not ‘show’, as Mullan maintains, that the Frenchman called De Leutre with whom Wordsworth and Coleridge travelled to Germany in September 1798 was an English agent rather than a French spy. Instead, Durey simply confirmed what I had already claimed: that De Leutre was an agent, though for which government is hard to say. And the fact remains that Wordsworth was closeted with De Leutre for the trip from Yarmouth to Cuxhaven, and that he and Dorothy shared lodgings with him (apart from Coleridge) their whole time in Hamburg. All innocent coincidences? Maybe; maybe not.

The point of all the indications in my book of a ‘hidden’ Wordsworth is not to engage in a sensationalistic exposé of his ‘juvenile errors’, as he mildly called them. Rather, it is to indicate the costs of the creation of the poet we admire today, costs both to himself and, frequently, to his closest friends and members of his extended family. For example, the fact that Wordsworth’s cousin rather than Wordsworth himself was in the employ of the Home Office does not necessarily warrant Mullan’s (and Durey’s) assumption that the paybook entry therefore had ‘nothing to do with the poet’. A significant chapter in Wordsworth family history could be written on how Robinson found himself doing the Government’s dirty work rather than enjoying the emoluments of a cushy Church of England curacy. The reasons for this include William’s spending (and not repaying) advances from his entailed inheritance at Cambridge and abroad. These reasons were strong enough to induce Robinson’s mother finally to sue the estate, which was managed by her brothers-in-law (Wordsworth’s uncles), to recover the funds due to her son, but by then it was too late for him to attend university. Had he been able to, he might have been able to take up the curacy which another uncle, John Robinson, the leading Government fixer of the day, twice offered William, but which he refused, a gesture at once so lofty and desperate it can properly be called ‘romantic’. When he later changed his mind because he needed money to marry Annette Vallon and provide for their daughter, his reasons were unacceptable to his uncles. In the meantime, John Robinson had found Robinson Wordsworth a job in Customs. It was in this position that he helped arrest two individuals accused of treason, resulting in the expenses for which he was reimbursed by the Home Secretary. All of this means that it is possible to speak of a ‘Wordsworthian connection’ with the Home Office, even though its full extent remains unclear.

In this regard, I must confess my puzzlement over Mullan’s ‘consternation’ at my ‘dizzy’ claim that the study of Wordsworth today requires more speculation as well as more facts. Is there something wrong with speculation? Speculation is simply a kind of thinking. Facts without thought are nothing; indeed, without some prior speculation, there are no facts, properly speaking. For example, Mullan finds it strange that Dorothy wore the wedding ring the night before her brother William married Mary Hutchinson. So do I: strange enough to require some speculation, without pretending to provide the definitive answer.

Kenneth Johnston
Indiana University
Bloomington, Indiana

Breakdown in the Bush

What a brilliant pastiche by R.W. Johnson (LRB, 10 May) of a Daily Telegraph journalist visiting post-independence Africa in the 1960s. The unfortunate breakdown of the Volkswagen, the roads decaying ‘along with everything else’, the country ‘gripped’ in a fuel crisis, and a maize field burnt dry, a clear indication ‘of approaching famine’. When the intrepid reporter meets African women they inevitably ‘grin’ – everyone knows that the natives never smile. If only Van der Merwe had been around with ‘serious help’. Instead our man is obliged to negotiate territory occupied by ‘potentially homicidal war vets’ and ‘torture squads’. When some young natives eventually turn up to help, he immediately thinks ‘how easy it would be for them to rob me’. Later he is surprised to meet a Seventh Day Adventist who talks to him about Einstein, seeming not to realise that these sects have been expanding all over the Third World in recent years. Finally Africa reasserts itself, and our fearless correspondent arrives at the ‘only hotel’ in town to find that it is a whorehouse.

Richard Gott
London W11

Kelley of Imamyi

Early one morning I was reading An Leabhar Muimhneach, one of those voluminous compilations which once helped the Irish trace their nobility back to Adam. Then the post came and with it the LRB. At lunchtime I read Charles Nicholl’s account (LRB, 19 April) of Edward Kelley’s Bohemian knighthood: ‘he is henceforth Sir Edward Kelley of Imamyi … a mysterious and probably fictitious Irish name.’ The genealogies, which I had just been reading, make the Uí Cheallaigh (O’Kelly, Kelly) descendants of Maine. The Uí Mhaine (Hy-Many, Imany) held territory in Connaught, more precisely in east Galway and south Roscommon. It would have been quite normal and proper, therefore – orthography and phrasing aside – for someone called Kelly to say that he was of the noble ‘house of Imamyi in the county of Conneghaku’, and only a little exhibitionistic.

Liam Mac Cóil
Ráth Cairn, Co. na Mí

The Baader-Meinhof Gang

In his piece about Gerhard Richter’s series of paintings October 18, 1977 (LRB, 5 April), Peter Wollen claims that in Moby-Dick ‘the whale is finally killed.’ Apparently the Baader-Meinhof Gang were more astute readers than Wollen: realising the futility of their cause their leaders committed suicide. Not only does Moby-Dick survive Ahab’s mad pursuit but, like Elvis, continues to be sighted. Joschka Fischer must recognise the ghostly form when he stares into the media’s blinding lights.

Dorsey Kleitz
Tokyo

Take your nose out

Michael Wood has missed the point of Manil Suri’s novel The Death of Vishnu (LRB, 19 April). Far from having ‘vanished’ into purple prose, alienation is celebrated by means of it. This is a novel which is written with an eye firmly on Bollywood – the scene-setting, the elaborate metaphors, the mythical/religious context are profoundly rooted in the juxtaposition of Street India and Movie India. Bollywood videos run constantly in the homes of the Indian families of London, and are the common reference point for millions worldwide. Please take your nose out of ‘literature’ for a moment, Mr Wood, and revisit the novel as a celebration of popular culture and its place in the lives of ordinary people.

Ruth Ramanan
London EC1

Shocking News about the CIA

In his article on Kashmir (LRB, 19 April) Tariq Ali claims that ‘according to the lowest estimates’, Partition cost nearly a million lives. Most scholarly accounts put the figure at between 120,000 and 500,000. I think Penderel Moon’s December 1947 estimate of no more than 200,000 is likely to be closest to the mark.

Ali also suggests that the Muslim rulers of the Hindu-majority states of Hyderabad and Junagadh, after some wobbling, voluntarily opted for India at the time Kashmir was deciding whether to accede to India or Pakistan. In fact, the Nawab of Junagadh opted for Pakistan in August 1947 against the wishes of his subjects, who voted solidly for India in a plebiscite held a few months after India sent troops into Junagadh in October 1947. The Nizam of Hyderabad tried to remain independent, until his state, too, was occupied by India in September 1948. A promised plebiscite in Hyderabad would most likely have led to a solid majority for accession to India, but it was not held, presumably because holding it in Hyderabad but not in Kashmir in late 1948 or early 1949 would have embarrassed the Indian Government.

Steven Wilkinson
Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Tariq Ali revives the myth that T.E. Lawrence was an agent for British Intelligence in Afghanistan. At that time, in 1928, he was serving in the RAF under the name of T.E. Shaw and was stationed first at Karachi and then at Miranshah, an outpost on the North-West Frontier. He never left the perimeter, spending his spare time translating the Odyssey. On account of the publicity aroused by a sensational report in the British press, which was then copied by Indian newspapers, Lawrence was compelled to return to England to complete his term of service in the RAF.

Guy Hartcup
London SW14

Biographies of T.E. Lawrence tend to dismiss stories of his Afghan involvement as ill-founded rumour, and make no mention of his marriage to Akbar Jehan, later the wife of the Kashmiri independence leader Sheikh Abdullah. The commonly accepted chronology has Lawrence flying from his posting at Miranshah to Lahore on 8 January 1929, to Karachi the next day, then sailing for Britain on the 12th, disembarking in Plymouth on 2 February. Ali maintains that Lawrence was told to return to Britain ‘several weeks’ after 12 January.

J.F. Darycott
Staines, Middlesex

Tariq Ali writes: Steven Wilkinson is correct to reprimand me for my short-hand formula on events in Junagadh and Hyderabad. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, encouraged the Nawab of Junagadh to disregard the views of his subjects, much to the annoyance of the Indian leaders. On Partition casualties, I remain unconvinced. Most of those who died in the Punjab and Bengal were from the poorer strata. Their deaths tend to go unrecorded even in good times, especially if the dead are women. We will never know how many died, simply because everyone – politicians, survivors and witnesses – wanted to forget the trauma.

As for Lawrence of Afghanistan, I can’t understand why Guy Hartcup regards it as a ‘myth’ that T.E. was acting on behalf of British Military Intelligence. Surely he didn’t go all the way to the Afghan frontier just to translate the Odyssey. His skills in fomenting tribal conflict were highly regarded and the British were desperate to topple Amanullah. They needed Lawrence, with his knowledge of Islam and facility in Arabic to exhort the tribesmen against their radical, modernising ruler. As for his short-lived marriage to Akbar Jehan, my source is a Kashmiri family which was very close to Sheikh Abdullah and his wife. Their source was Benji Nedous, Akbar Jehan’s brother.

Edward Luttwak (LRB, 19 April) is unconvinced that the United States played a part in despatching Mujibur Rehman, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Mrs Gandhi in 1975, 1979 and 1984. Even if they wanted to bump off a leader, he claims, their ‘unbelievable incompetence’ would automatically lead to failure. It may be true that the CIA is no longer as effective a killing machine as Mossad, but the period I was discussing was at the height of the Cold War.

In 1973, Nixon and Kissinger had carefully organised and orchestrated the overthrow of Salvador Allende. The CIA took part in this operation, as did the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), which usually deals directly with foreign military personnel. The death of Allende and Chilean democracy haunted all three leaders in South Asia. Mrs Gandhi saw in it an image of her own future.

It is hardly a secret that the military takeovers in Pakistan in 1958 and 1977 were approved by the United States. DIA involvement in the latter was much talked about at the time. General Alam, a senior Corps Commander who was against toppling Bhutto, was shocked to receive a reprimand from the US Military Attaché. Soon after General Zia gained power it became obvious that he wanted to get rid of Bhutto, but if Washington had seriously objected to the hanging, it would not have taken place.

Luttwak claims that ‘only a handful of specialists’ in the CIA would have heard of Mujibur Rehman, but I doubt this. Before he was assassinated the Bangladeshi leader had just merged his party with the local pro-Moscow Communists, declared Bangladesh to be a one-party state and agreed to sign a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Moscow. The US already regarded him as an enemy in any case, and had done so ever since Nixon and Kissinger (who had definitely heard of him) decided to ‘tilt’ in Pakistan’s favour during the civil war of 1971-72.

The US often asserts its power through local relays, finding this more effective than direct CIA involvement. Sometimes a combination of the two strategies becomes necessary. The real question is whether or not the US facilitated the assassinations of Mujib, Bhutto and Mrs Gandhi. Neither Luttwak nor I can prove a case, though he is in a much better position to dig for the truth and I hope he will.

It is foolish of Premen Addy in his letter in the same issue to deny that Mahatma Gandhi supported the First World War. Gandhi criticised those who spoke against it and believed that ‘the Home-Rule League will suffer a serious setback if it does nothing to help recruitment.’ In the summer of 1918 he actually wrote leaflets appealing for volunteers to enlist.

In the meantime, the killing in Kashmir continues at well over double the level of deaths in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the world hardly notices.

Scruples

In his review of The War against Cliché by Martin Amis (LRB, 10 May) Frank Kermode questions my existence. I want to assure him that I am not an Amisian nom de guerre. Nor a doppelgänger. Like the italicised John Self in the closing pages of Money, I enjoy an existence free from the designs of Martin Amis. As the author of Understanding Martin Amis, however, I have been urging publication of Amis's uncollected book reviews and literary essays for some time, and was happy to play a role in shepherding them into print.

James Diedrick
Albion College, Albion, Michigan

Frank Kermode asks why Kurt Vonnegut called the central figure of his novel Galapagos ‘James Wait’. It may be a reference to James Watt, US Secretary of the Interior until he was forced to resign in 1983 just before the publication of Galapagos for having fewer scruples than Vonnegut’s character.

David Pierotti
Everett, Massachusetts

Absolute Arse

In a reference in Short Cuts (LRB, 10 May) to Neonlit: Time Out Book of New Writing, Volume 2, Thomas Jones asserts that the original title of Tom Bromley’s story, ‘Shelf Life’, was ‘The Curse of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’. The latter was a description of the story dashed off by myself, as editor, for the book’s blurb. I have checked with Bromley, who describes Jones’s allegation as ‘absolute arse’. Having helped to launch Bromley’s glittering career, I am delighted by the news that he will soon see his first novel published. The title? Crazy Little Thing Called Love. Unless, of course, Jones knows different.

Nicholas Royle
London W1

Thomas Jones writes: I said of ‘Shelf Life’ that its ‘working title’ was ‘The Curse of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ because that’s what the story was called in the proof copy of Neonlit sent to the LRB. On the strength of his story, I look forward to reading Bromley’s novel; let’s just hope it doesn’t turn into ‘Another One Bites the Dust’.

Sink the ‘Bismarck’!

Lawrence Hogben’s Diary (LRB, 19 April) acknowledges that his map, showing the Bismarck’s movements up to the final battle, was based on the one in the first edition of my book Pursuit. This book has just been republished by Cassell Military to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the battle. Incidentally, there were only three survivors from the Hood, not, as Hogben states, four.

Ludovic Kennedy
Avebury, Wiltshire

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