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Letters

Vol. 25 No. 1 · 2 January 2003

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Is deference still with us?

I read with astonishment a sentence in Frank Kermode’s piece on the Angry Young Men (LRB, 28 November 2002): ‘Other Oxford notables who crossed the path of those aspirants included … Wallace Robson, a young don with a fearsome reputation for learning and judgment, a man whose attacks on the entire literary canon he was employed to teach were of a ferocity even Amis, by his own admission, could not aspire to.’ Can this possibly refer to the Wallace Robson who became my graduate supervisor in 1964?

Some told me I was lucky to get him as a supervisor, but no fortunate surprises emerged from our intermittent meetings over three years. These were rare, as Robson was notoriously difficult to pin down. ‘Ring me,’ he said at our first meeting. ‘I don’t answer letters.’ At the other end of the telephone he was prone to become silent, presumably in the hope that his interlocutor would believe the line had gone dead. I managed to intercept him as he was scuttling to his college. He whipped a tiny diary from under his jacket and began chanting in his widely imitated sing-song voice: ‘Yes, I’m awfully busy this week. Yes, awfully busy next week. Yes, and the week after. Yes, and the week after that.’ I could see, around the edges of the diary, that its pages were perfectly blank. An appointment many weeks ahead was made, but Robson had nothing to write with so his diary remained intact. When I turned up, he was in the middle of a tutorial.

Eventually, inside the dingy room cluttered with signs of fearsome learning, I tried to explain an argument by invoking a comparison with a novel by Patrick White. There was a slight quiver from the chair where he sat. ‘I’ve never read anything by him,’ he said with finality, using the tone in which he announced that he did not answer letters. I mentioned White because I had heard Robson had actually been to Australia, where he spent most of the time confined to lodgings with a mounting pile of dirty washing, until someone took pity on him and told him what to do with it.

His reading certainly did not include my work in progress, though he did glance through a few pages once. About six weeks after I had sent them to him, I managed to get into his room, and waited while he searched among the piles of books, open and face down on every surface, and found the letter, still unopened. He flopped into a kind of throne, tore open the envelope, and began flicking through the pages. ‘Yes. That’s all right.’ He flicked over another page. ‘Yes, that seems to be all right.’ Another flick. ‘Yes, I think that’s all right.’ And so he went on, through about twenty pages in as many seconds. ‘Yes. Well that’s all right,’ he said finally, and then silence. I waited. Was there anything else?

‘Well yes. I’m concerned about whether my argument comes across clearly.’

He looked into space. ‘Yes, I think it’s all right. I don’t understand it myself, but my mind doesn’t work in those regions.’

Bruce Clunies Ross
Jystrup, Denmark

A Girl Too Many

There may be a girl too many in Joseph Frank's review of Orlando Figes's Natasha's Dance (LRB, 28 November 2002). In describing the Decembrist uprising, Frank writes that the peasant soldiers thought that konstitutsia was a girl's name. More likely, they thought that the word stood for the man who, on the death of Tsar Alexander in November 1825, held the title of Tsarevich: Prince Konstantin, Grand Duke of Warsaw. The trouble was that, having married a commoner in 1820, Konstantin had forfeited the succession. He had also formally renounced his claim in 1822, though this was kept a secret even from the heir not-so-apparent, the future Nicholas I. The three thousand men of the Petersburg garrison whom the Decembrists recruited were led to believe that they were being loyal to Konstantin's succession. The toll from the use of grapeshot against the soldiers on Senate Square on 14 December 1825 remains unknown.

Richard Davies
Bergamo, Italy

Where have all the books gone?

After reading Jeffrey Frankland’s letter (Letters, 28 November 2002) complaining about how hard it is to buy books nowadays, I turned over a few pages and found an advertisement from Hesperus books offering a 20 per cent discount on online sales. Wanting to order one of the books advertised, I accessed the publisher’s web page (very slow to come up), registered myself (even slower), and then attempted to go back to the catalogue. The page froze. I then went out of Netscape, re-entered the page, signed in, and again attempted to access the catalogue. After five minutes I was ‘timed out’. Repeated this several times. Gave up and tried to find the book on Amazon’s web page. couldn’t find it. Gave up. Please open your bookshop soon.

Jeremy Hawthorn
Trondheim, Norway

I am sorry that Jeffrey Frankland had problems tracking down a copy of James Methuen-Campbell's biography of Denton Welch. It sold out after six months of being widely available, but a paperback reprint is being prepared for the spring by I.B. Tauris.

R.B. Russell
Tartarus Press

Mr Michael

I was an industrial reporter on the Daily Telegraph under Ronald Stevens (LRB, 12 December 2002). Lord Hartwell (or ‘Mr Michael’ as he was known) insisted that we publish the monthly coal stock figures, long after any possibility of a national coal crisis had passed. One day the phone rang and the news editor told me I was required on the sixth floor. There I found a special reception desk (to ward off visitors rather than welcome them) and was shown into an anteroom. Double doors opened and the smallest man I had ever seen, immaculate in frock coat and stiff collar, appeared. He was Mr Michael’s butler. ‘Mr Michael wants to know whether the coal stock figures include imports.’ I started towards the double doors, thinking that I should explain in person. But the small man barred my way. ‘I shall convey your response.’ ‘No,’ I said. He vanished back through the double doors, then reappeared. ‘That is all.’ So I left, and never did meet (or even see) Lord Hartwell. But not long afterwards, Ronald Stevens, mercifully and rightly, fired me.

Rex Winsbury
London WC1

Free Norway

Robert Lipton (Letters, 12 December 2002) has misunderstood me. I certainly don’t have ‘issues’ with Tromsø – the landscape is staggeringly beautiful, as I said in my first paragraph. As for my ‘error-filled’ descriptions, I suggest that Lipton make sure he understands what subjective writing is, and why an LRB Diary is unlikely to push the same buttons as the Rough Guide to Scandinavia. On the matter of Tromsø as the Paris of the North, there are a host of reasons why this label might have been applied to the town in the late 19th century, including Francophonia (which survives in words such as trottoir and jetée) and the general snazzy cosmopolitanism of the place. My point was that it is now and was then an old travellers’ cliché.

Goran Nilsson (Letters, 28 November 2002) levelled a charge of myth-making at my article, but his own account presents a Swedo-centric myth about the significance of the events of 1814. He argues that ‘Norway’s centuries of colonisation essentially ended in 1814, when Norway became a free country with the most democratic Constitution in Europe,’ though the final severance from Sweden took place in 1905. A briefing published by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, entitled ‘1814: A Year of Challenge’, suggests that the events of 1814 began a period of suspense-laden optimism for the Norwegians. After the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, Sweden was granted Norway, which had been united with Denmark. Norway, the Swedish King Carl XIII proclaimed, would remain its own country, free to manage its own affairs, with its own National Assembly and taxation rights. But, on 17 May 1814, while Sweden was busy fighting Napoleon, a Constitution was passed in Norway and a nephew of the Danish King, Prince Christian Frederik, was elected king: 17 May is still celebrated as Norway’s national day.

Shortly after the passing of this Constitution, Sweden undemocratically decided to bring Norway into line by attacking it. The briefing continues: ‘At the end of July, the Swedes attacked. They immediately advanced on all fronts. The Norwegian forces were also poorly commanded, and King Christian Frederik showed little of the vigour he had shown earlier.’ In the ensuing peace negotiations, Christian Frederik promised to leave Norway and Sweden promised to acknowledge the 1814 Constitution. Carl XIII became the new King of Norway. The briefing concludes: ‘Even though Norwegian independence was to hang in the air for some time, what happened in 1814 was that the Norwegian state’s rights had taken an enormous leap forward … The Constitution had institutionalised national rights, which were to pave the way for the later dissolution of Norway’s union with Sweden and the establishment of a modern parliamentary democracy.’ In other words, it was only at the point of the dissolution of Norway’s union with Sweden in 1905 that a ‘modern parliamentary democracy’ could be established.

Joanna Griffiths
St Antony’s College, Oxford

Fossilised Underwear

Elizabeth Danson (Letters, 12 December 2002) says that, at her school, girls were ‘required to bring four vests and “two liberty bodices"’. These articles of clothing were not intended only for girls. I had to suffer the indignity of wearing them to school and well remember, fifty years on, my attempt – at the age of eight – in a mixed changing room to conceal the ghastly garment before anybody saw it. It was necessary, apparently, because of my ‘ailing chest’.

Alex Smith
Saffron Walden

We are all Scots here

In The Scottish Empire I wrote, of the British Empire in general: ‘One reason for its eclipse was that it had anyway never been … a monolith. It existed in many forms which looked different according to the origin, status and activity of the individual or collective spectators.’ I stand by this as a good place, though not the only one, for Imperial historians to start their work in the first post-Imperial generation. I would be surprised if Linda Colley, who reviewed the book (LRB, 12 December 2002), did not agree.

I made the point by way of contrast with earlier Imperial histories, which often did take a monolithic view – that of the Empire’s ruling cadre in London. In revising that view, which even now colours the popular British view of the outside world, we often have to devise new discourses, a number of which Colley mentions: of women, of the working class, of the colonised and subject peoples. But I do not understand why what she regards as a nationalist discourse should be illegitimate. If I had written a book on the women’s Empire or the proletarian Empire, would she have said, ‘Oh, but this is all just feminism’ or: ‘Oh, but this all just socialism’?

Devising a Scottish discourse, one which begins with native rather than metropolitan assumptions, is a demanding task; for my money, only George Davie, Tom Nairn and Colin Kidd have done it consistently and well. The rest of the best-known Scottish historians tend to write Scottish history as a variant on English history. But it seems to me that if Scots can explain their history better, then all British historians should be able to explain our common history better. The index to the third volume of Simon Schama’s History of Britain, to take one recent example of the problem, contains precisely 11 references to Scotland.

Michael Fry
Edinburgh

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