Vol. 25 No. 23 · 4 December 2003

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Great-Aunt Ruth

I was disappointed, on seeing the heading ‘Peter Campbell looks out of the window at 28 Little Russell Street’, to find that the piece was about St George’s Church (LRB, 20 November). I had hoped the subject would be the house opposite the LRB, No. 5, in which my Great-Aunt Ruth lived for half a century. She was the sort of person the LRB might have appreciated.

In her younger days Ruth Howe met, and was chatted up by, Asquith at a party. She knew the Gollanczes, and was nearly expelled from the US, where she was studying, for working on the New Masses, on which Alger Hiss also worked. Having been a member of the Independent Labour Party, she joined the Labour Party because it supported the war against Hitler, and remained a member until she died, a few months before the 1997 election. Frank Dobson gave the eulogy at her funeral – she had brought him into politics when a Camden councillor, a role in which she narrowly escaped surcharge for opposing higher rents for council tenants. Ken Livingstone once visited her at No. 5, and was, apparently, the only person to whom her cats ever took an instant liking. She worked as a journalist for many years, including a period after the war in which she produced a Polish-language newspaper for expatriates in London, inventing non-existent contributors and giving them the names of her family members. It was at this time, the story goes, that Isaac Deutscher invited her to become his secretary. She turned him down, however, on the grounds that ‘he smelled.’

Her life stretched over almost the entire 20th century, and she always reminded me of the people whose reminiscences are recorded in Warren Beatty’s film Reds: she was of that world, part of a particular labour movement and intellectual socialist tradition which is supposed, in the new century, to be consigned to the past. Of course it is not, and the fact that people of all ages took inspiration from Ruth is evidence enough of that. it’s a sad thing that she wasn’t known to the people across the street.

Justin Horton
London SW2

I should make one important correction to Peter Campbell's article about the restoration of St George's. Although the church building is now closed, services continue throughout the project in the Lower Vestry House Chapel, behind the church at 6 Little Russell Street. We usually muster between thirty and forty.

Rev. Perry Butler
London WC1

What the Settlers Know

The one-state solution returns, riding on the backs of Israelis and Palestinians, who cannot solve their problems. Both Virginia Tilley (LRB, 6 November) and Tony Judt (in the New York Review of Books) acknowledge that it is about time Israelis grew up and accustomed themselves to the notion that the 19th century is over: nationalism is out, and citizenship is not ethnic, nor should it be. The trouble with these insights is not what they see, but rather what they ignore. Even in one state, the settlers would still need to be evicted from the land they have expropriated from the Palestinians. Even in one state, the resources taken from the Palestinians would have to be returned to their legal owners – individuals, communities or nation. The project initiated by Sharon, and executed by successive Israeli Governments, has produced a country in which the Palestinians have been marginalised, geographically and topographically. This would need to be tackled even under a one-state solution.

I hate to be the ‘conservative’ who reminds ‘radicals’ that their solutions forget the issue they address: the conflict and its resolution. Every available solution involves a U-turn. If one does nothing about the settlers, how can one ‘convince’ other Israelis to give up their privileges under a two-state or a one-state solution? Would the civil war that would ensue in a bi-national state be preferable to the current regional war?

José Saramago once said to me: ‘The Israelis have two problems. One is that the settlers need the Army’ (with which most Israelis would agree, including Sharon voters). ‘The other problem,’ he continued, ‘is that the Army needs the settlers in order to be in the Territories.’ This is something that Israelis have not yet understood. The IDF remains sacred here. Recently, however, I had a conversation with my neighbour, a colonel in the IDF, a noble man, who commands an infantry brigade stationed in one of the most troubled parts of the Occupied Territories. He told me: ‘Most settlers know they will have to leave their places when the solution comes.’

Nobody has ever seriously tried a common Palestinian-Israeli campaign against the settlements. It would be a very good starting point even for a one-state solution. It is not my nationalism I am trying to defend here, but the lives of my neighbours, Palestinians and Israelis.

Yitzhak Laor
Tel Aviv

Reinventing policies in Israel and Palestine means laying the groundwork now for a kind of Jewish-Palestinian Zapatismo, a grassroots effort to ‘reclaim the commons’. This would mean moving towards direct democracy, a participatory economy and a genuine autonomy for the people; towards Martin Buber’s vision of ‘an organic commonwealth … that is a community of communities’. We might call it the ‘no-state solution’.

Bill Templer
Vientiane, Laos

A Frog’s Life

Mary Elkins and Mattias Brinkman, so sure that J.M. Coetzee is not ‘confessing’ anything in Elizabeth Costello, sound a little dogmatic about how undogmatic that novel may be (Letters, 6 November). How certain they both are that a novel that is playful, dialogic and subtly evasive cannot simultaneously confess anything; that a novel ‘exploring the pitfalls of confession’ might not also be exploring – with many deferrals – the possibilities of confession.

Yes, this is just a hunch of mine, and was presented as such; I spoke of Elizabeth Costello’s irrationality leading back not to ‘the author’ but to ‘the recessed author’ precisely because I wanted to suggest an aura of confession rather than the ‘single message’ that Brinkman ascribes to me. But anyway, there is some evidence to support my hunch. First, Elizabeth Costello is not a conventionally written fiction. Most of its chapters were delivered in lecture halls and published separately over several years. It is less a novel than a collection of linked sketches. It is ‘fitfully fictional’. Costello is obviously not Coetzee, but it may be going too far to grant her the fullness of fictional autonomy. Brinkman makes much of the book’s ‘fictive proceedings’, the fact that Costello worries about her poor lecture delivery, talks about past and present lovers, and so on, as if these proceedings are so richly complicating that they just rule out the possibility that the book can argue anything at all. But these proceedings are pretty rudimentary as fiction; they have little weight, and more often than not they read as the necessary fabular wrapping around the ‘lectures’ themselves. Second, the book is a good deal more ‘religious’ – in tone, shape, language – than either of your correspondents wants to admit. Costello argues: ‘a sparrow knocked off a branch by a slingshot, a city annihilated from the air: who dares say which is the worse?’ Elkins writes that she certainly knows, and is pretty sure that Coetzee might have an idea which is worse, too, ‘but he wouldn’t say, because it isn’t the job of fiction to give straight answers.’ But whoever said it was? Clearly Costello is not making rational sense here, but she is making a kind of religious sense, and the allusion to The Brothers Karamazov is unmistakeable. Dostoevsky, in that book, offers us an example of a novel that is violently dialogic but also confessional; Coetzee’s own Dostoevsky novel, The Master of Petersburg, was an intensely personal, grief-laden book. I don’t claim to know what Coetzee thinks of Costello’s ideas – though his real-world position on animal rights may not be so very far from Costello’s – but I think it plausible that he wants to credit the ‘spiritual’ sense they make, even when they affront reason. Third, neither correspondent mentions the passionate last chapter of the book, ‘Letter of Elizabeth, Lady Chandos, to Francis Bacon’, which detaches itself from Costello’s voice. It refers to ‘this time of affliction’, and ends with the cry: ‘Drowning, we write out of our separate fates. Save us.’ It is dated ‘11 September, ad 1603’, and I doubt that ‘11 September’ was innocently chosen. It is a kind of prayer, a breathing chorus, that reframes the entire book.

Your correspondents bring attention, rightly enough, to my own strain of romanticism; but I don’t apologise for finding a strain of it in Elizabeth Costello, too.

James Wood
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Whose Funeral?

While it may have been the sad duty of Martha Bridegam to ‘cover the funeral’ of anti-tax activist Paul Gann in 1989, I did not mean to suggest that the deceased Mr Gann actively collected petition signatures for the recent California ballot recall (Letters, 20 November). He, in collusion with Ted Costa, had originated the People’s Advocate, the group which foisted Proposition 13 on California in 1978 and which launched the recent recall movement, without much success until a Congressman from San Diego chipped in $1.3 million to keep the ball rolling. Gann is indeed dead, though it would not surprise me if he returned from the grave to inflict further misery on the struggling poor and working classes of America.

Gary Indiana
New York

Threats to the US Polity

In comparing the attitudes of Abraham Lincoln to civil liberties during wartime with those of the Bush Administration, Eric Foner overlooks the fact that the United States is not currently at war in the sense that it was during the 1860s (LRB, 23 October). Lincoln led a US that was fighting for its own survival. In contrast, current Islamist terrorism does not itself represent a serious threat to the US polity; there is no prospect of an Islamist regime in Washington. The current threat to the Constitutional order of the US comes from the Administration’s own actions.

Overseas adventures such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq do not usually, and need not, lead to widespread suspension of civil liberties at home. By declaring an open-ended ‘war on terror’, Bush pulled off the semantic trick of making it possible to justify permanent repressive administrative measures and legislation by disguising these as the requirements of a ‘wartime’ emergency. At the same time he endorsed the perpetrators’ own crazy perceptions that they were leading a religious ‘war’. There is no reason for the rest of us to accept either al-Qaida’s or the US Administration’s self-serving and inflammatory misdefinitions of what is going on.

By the standards of other countries in the mid-19th century, Lincoln’s regime appears to have been quite liberal, despite the serious threat that it faced. In contrast, the Bush Administration is a striking example of how repressive policies can be justified by exaggerating threats. Many other regimes, facing violent insurgencies, more dangerous to them than al-Qaida is to the US, are encouraged to persist with their human rights violations when they see the US casually erasing the values that it so frequently trumpets.

Thomas Smith

What should matter most is that Lincoln, born among racist Jacksonian Democrats on the Kentucky frontier, nonetheless became an opponent of slavery; that he was elected President on an anti-slavery platform which inspired the secession of seven Southern states; that he refused to compromise with those states or the four states that subsequently joined them; that he waged implacable war on what was then called the Slave Power; that he issued the Emancipation Proclamation and refused to retreat from it even when it appeared the war might be lost and he would not be re-elected in 1864; that he enlisted black soldiers, pushed through Congress the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865, and towards the end of his life was moving towards supporting black suffrage.

Peter Connolly
Washington DC

Is it you?

The other week I went to the first London Review Bookshop evening for LRB subscribers, curious but not expecting anything very convivial. It turned out to be one of the best parties I’ve been to for a long time. (I recommend standing outside even if you don’t want a cigarette: conversation was freer as we lurked by the door clutching our new books.) We all wanted to talk about the personal ads: everybody hoped to meet one of the perpetrators; nobody owned up to being one. So, now I’d like to invite anyone who’s ever put a personal ad in the LRB to get in touch. Did you get many – or any – replies? Did you meet your match? Strict anonymity will be preserved (replies to skingshill@lineone.net).

Sophia Kingshill
London N1

Small Questions about Prams etc

Three years ago, I asked readers of the LRB for help with a passage from Kingsley Amis’s correspondence (Letters, 6 July 2000). On 24 April 1978, Amis wrote to Larkin about the Betjeman poem ‘Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden’, the first line of which reads: ‘Miles of pram in the wind and Pam in the gorse track’. ‘What the hell is that pram doing in the Pam poem?’ Amis asked. ‘I always assumed it was some odoriferous plant you could smell for miles (in the wind), but it can only be a flat-bottomed boat or a perambulator says OED. Neither quite fits.’ Larkin couldn’t help, advising Amis to ‘write to the old boy himself’. If he did, I wrote at the time, the letter itself doesn’t survive. My appeal for help elicited several ingenious responses, none of them especially plausible. All I had come up with in my letter was a reference to the ‘smell of prams’ in another Betjeman poem, ‘NW5 & NW6’.

While going through Amis’s papers last month at the Huntington Library in California, I came across a passage which settles this momentous matter definitively, though rather disappointingly. On page 42 of a script for a radio broadcast entitled ‘The Comic Muse’, in which Amis quotes ‘Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden’, he writes: ‘As regards “pram", I thought it must be some aromatic shrub, but the author says it’s just a perambulator or baby-carriage. Oh well.’

Zachary Leader
University of Surrey Roehampton

Working-Class Hero

In his review of Fiona MacCarthy’s Byron, John Mullan expresses surprise at the crowds of ordinary mourners who turned out either to watch the poet’s cortège on its way north or at his funeral (LRB, 6 November). Referring to MacCarthy’s description of this as regret for ‘the loss of a fearless and sympathetic voice’, he suggests that the voice in question is that of his poetry, ‘the appeal of which remains uninvestigated’. I don’t think this is what is meant at all. These many hundreds of people turned out because Byron, almost alone of his class, took a very public stance on the rights of working people. His maiden speech in the House of Lords, for instance, on 12 February 1812, was a strong, lone defence of striking weavers in the industrialising North (the Luddites), and a savagely ironic attack on the mill owners who had put them out of work.

Tony Simpson
Wellington, New Zealand


One dispiriting element of the Government’s White Paper, The Future of Higher Education, which goes unmentioned by Stefan Collini, is the restriction of its definition of ‘fair access’ to learners aged 18 to 30 (LRB, 6 November). The support for lifelong learning embedded in the 1997 Dearing Report has vanished in the face of New Labour’s determination to equip the under-thirties for lifelong work. If this bias affects future policies older students aspiring to higher education will be seriously disadvantaged. Collini’s silence on this subject is typical of universities’ responses to the White Paper.

Ella Westland
Gorran, Cornwall

His Own Prophet

As a footnote to Michael Hofmann’s essay on Lowell (LRB, 11 September), I’d offer that ‘The stiff spokes of this wheel’, in ‘July in Washington’, refers, probably, to L'Enfant’s design for the federal city, the spokes being the avenues, named for various states, that radiate from the centre across the grid of numbered and lettered streets, and that touch the domestic ‘sore spots’ of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s as well as indicating places elsewhere on the earth touched by the decisions of the carnivorous otters and raccoons of the national capital.

Tom Lewis
Colebrook, Connecticut

You like it?

Sheila Fitzpatrick may have to modify her view that going through Russian customs is reminiscent of ‘Soviet times past’ (LRB, 9 October). When I passed through Sheremetevo airport in August the customs were just like any other country’s. My first clash with Soviet customs was in 1973. After a careful search the female officer asked: ‘Do you have any pornography?’ Trembling, I answered: ‘No.’ She proceeded: ‘But you like it, I hope?’

Lars Falk
Uppsala, Sweden


I was intrigued by John Clayton’s use of ‘furphy’ (Letters, 6 November). According to the OED, the word is derived from ‘Furphy carts, water and sanitary carts manufactured by the Furphy family at Shepparton, Victoria during the 1914-18 war’, and means ‘a false report or rumour; an absurd story’. Can anyone explain how, in Australian folklore, the Furphy family’s carts came to connote absurdity and falsehood?

Jud Heywood
Goat Island, South Carolina

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