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Vol. 27 No. 18 · 22 September 2005

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A Man Called Diplock

R.W. Johnson’s review of Nigel West’s edition of the first volume of Guy Liddell’s diaries fails to point out how defective this edition is (LRB, 1 September). The least that can be expected of an editor is for an attempt to be made to identify and provide information as to persons mentioned in the diaries and references to material about them. Thus the engaging rogue, historian and manuscript thief Harald Kurtz pops up on several occasions: we are told nothing about him or what became of him. In fact quite a lot is known, and, having died of drink, he at least had obituary notices in the Times. The weird George Pitt-Rivers, we are told, was a Nazi. Well he wasn’t, though he did hold bizarre and unpleasant views on some subjects. There is much material on his detention in the National Archives. Frederick Rutland makes a number of appearances: there is no indication that he was Rutland of Jutland, a pioneer of naval aviation, with a special display in the Fleet Air Arm Museum, or that there is a life by Desmond Young, or material in the National Archives. And who was Prince Henry of Pless? What became of him? What was his background? We are not told, though there is no mystery about him. On page 128 we meet ‘a man called Diplock’. Nothing to explain that he is the later Lord Diplock of the Diplock courts in Northern Ireland, at the time working with the Security Executive. A list of names of ‘personalities’ misses most individuals mentioned, and provides only the briefest information, some of it wrong, as when Lord Halifax is listed as foreign secretary without mentioning that he became ambassador in Washington, his departure to the USA indeed featuring in the diaries. ‘One Parmentier, a KLM pilot’ appears on page 208: readers are told nothing about this well-known pilot, who was eventually killed in an accident in Scotland; I am pretty sure there is a biography. It would be tedious to produce a complete list, which would be very long. The editing of the second volume is just as defective. All we get is some snippets of information from ‘Nigel West’, with no indication of their source and no way of checking their reliability. Perhaps worse still is the failure of the editor to provide any references, or even a brief guide, to other relevant published literature. This explains, for example, the fact that R.W. Johnson lambasts the ghost of Sir John Anderson for his scepticism as to the scare stories produced by Liddell and his colleagues: Anderson was right, and they were wrong.

The Liddell diaries are an important historical source, and they deserve competent editing.

A.W.B. Simpson

R.W. Johnson’s review of Guy Liddell’s diaries makes much of the pro-Nazi activities of Mosleyites during this period, but the far more dangerous activities of Harry Pollitt’s lot are passed over in silence. Readers are even encouraged to think that it was OK for crypto-Communists to send secrets to Moscow, because the Soviets were on our side. One of the most scandalous cases – cited by Johnson a few sentences earlier – was that of John Cairncross, who provided Stalin with the results of a comprehensive government inquiry into its security services in March 1940. The fact that, for Johnson, Cairncross ‘hardly counted’ as a traitor speaks volumes about the survival of Popular Front loyalties among the intelligentsia.

Rob Stradling
Penarth, Glamorgan

Like an Admiral

Helen Vendler (LRB, 1 September) does not like the way I write; I can’t blame her, there are days I don’t like it myself. But there it is, we can’t all have her style. I in my turn deplore the way she reads. As an instance of my ‘dismissal of medieval spirituality’, she quotes a remark I make when describing how differently the Bible was read after Dante’s time. She recognises that I am referring to scriptural interpretation ‘after the invention of printing’ yet still accuses me of ‘patronising Dante’s world’ (the late 13th and early 14th centuries). She is way ahead of his time, as she is way ahead of his poem when she calls on her readers’ ‘recollection of the Paradiso’ to show how inaccurate my comments on one scene are, though the scene concerned happens in Purgatorio 30.

Vendler prefers rhetorical questions to reasoned argument (at one point, there are 11 of them in hectoring succession). Usually she leaves out the evidence and reasoning I give for what I say, as, for example, the complaint of a Renaissance commentator about a word, scotto, which he thought dreadfully ‘low’ for Beatrice to use. He objected because scotto was tavern-slang, like ‘cleared his slate’ and ‘My shout!’, which I offer as equivalents and which Vendler attributes to my lexical slumming. Sometimes she puts evidence in, as when she adds the words ‘like a shrew’ to my description of Beatrice ‘snapping’ at Dante. I don’t know why she supposes only shrews can snap. I was thinking of the first simile which Dante applies to Beatrice’s conduct in the relevant passage – ‘quasi ammiraglio’, ‘like an admiral’. Her hapless foray into the history of the concept ‘self’ ends with the assurance that ‘by definition, frauds are not known to be such from their “outer selves"’ and so can’t be detected till they’re in Hell. This will be a comfortable doctrine to some, but is both absurd and counter to Dante’s treatment of lost and blessed alike, for he constantly refers to what he regards as this-worldly, ‘outer’ evidence when putting them in their places.

I am afraid Vendler has not understood my account of sinalefe, which she calls ‘elision’, a misleading term that I did not use. To put it briefly: sinalefe may occur when a vowel at the end of one word is followed by an initial vowel in the next word. In Paradiso 33, the phrase ‘umile e alta’ (‘humble and exalted’) would have six syllables if each vowel were separately enounced, but the phrase needs to be pronounced with a glide between vowels, ‘umil-ay-alta’, and has five. Inferno 14.13 does not lose in my scansion the accents she thinks essential; this would be the case only if both the vowels involved in each case disappeared, which would make the line two syllables short of the hendecasyllabic norm. The line as she hears it under guidance from her ‘native speaker of Italian’ has 13 syllables, one more than Dante ever permits himself in the Commedia.

All but one of her specific criticisms seem to me the result of similar incomprehension. She is, though, more or less right in the charge that ‘the editors err in saying irritably that Heaney “foists" a “melon" into the starved count’s mouth.’ Her quaint verb ‘err’ and her ascription of bad temper are misapplied to my co-editor, Matthew Reynolds, because these words come from my introduction, not from editorial matter for which he is also responsible. I should have written ‘Heaney’s foisting of a “melon" into Dante’s mouth’. It is Dante who is speaking when Heaney adds a ‘melon’ to the simile; Heaney also adorns the original with a hint of anal rape. What Heaney foists into Ugolino’s speech is horseracing (‘act the jockey to his mount’) and out-of-character lyricism such as ‘Moon after moon, bright and somnambulant’. Vendler fears that I will think her ‘humourless and pedantic’. Let me assure her that nobody could accuse her of pedantry.

Eric Griffiths
Trinity College, Cambridge

No Apartheid in Israel?

Edward Luttwak claims not to be able to understand why so much fuss is made about the plight of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories by people who don’t make a fuss about the rights of ‘some two billion Chinese, North Koreans and Saudis’ (Letters, 1 September). The difference is that the oppression of Palestinians by Israel is directly condoned, endorsed and funded by the government of the United States of America. If the amount of attention given to the Israel/Palestine conflict in the West is indeed disproportionate, the likes of Luttwak are at least as responsible for the imbalance as supporters of the Palestinians.

Alistair Dixon
London N7

If the perspective of the UN committee on human rights is not good enough for Edward Luttwak, then how about the experiences of Archbishop Desmond Tutu? He not only knows a great deal about apartheid, but has travelled throughout Israel and the Occupied Territories and has on several occasions drawn an explicit analogy between apartheid as practised in South Africa and Israeli policies, citing the Israeli Lands Law that prohibits not only the purchase of land by non-Jews but the leasing of most agricultural land to non-Jews. So, too, has Nelson Mandela and a group of prominent South African Jews in a letter entitled ‘Not in My Name’ (2002). To those who have hesitated in condemning Israel because of the way Arab-speaking countries treat their own citizens, Tutu has responded that black Africans were treated in at least as brutal a manner by the black regimes of many African countries, such as Mobutu’s Zaire, as by the white apartheid regime in South Africa, but that that did not mean South Africa should have been excused from condemnation.

Michael Debbané

Obstacles to Seeking Asylum

Natasha Carver of the Immigration Advisory Service in Britain writes that ‘as soon as it becomes clear that large numbers will require protection (as in the cases of Colombia, Zimbabwe and Jamaica)’, United Kingdom officials impose visa requirements (Letters, 21 April). There is simply no basis for the suggestion that large numbers of Jamaican nationals are in need of refugee protection. Nor is there any basis for her uninformed speculation that Jamaican nationals ‘will require’ such protection in the future.

To be sure, Jamaica’s human rights record could be improved, and there are continuing efforts to achieve this. But, as far as the criteria for refugee protection are concerned, there is little scope for the view that individuals face persecution on grounds of their political or other opinions, membership of particular social groups, race, or other factors mentioned in the Refugees Convention and Protocol (to which Jamaica is a party). The number of Jamaican nationals who have sought refugee protection since the country’s independence over forty years ago does not, to my knowledge, enter double figures.

A.J. Nicholson
Attorney General and Minister of Justice Kingston, Jamaica

Greeks and Their Gifts

I don’t know why Mary Beard (LRB, 18 August) and Humphrey Cooper (Letters, 1 September) bother to write for, or read, the LRB if all they can say about the story of Patrick Leigh Fermor exchanging lines from Horace with a German general whom he had kidnapped in wartime Crete is that it is objectionably ‘blokeish’ or ‘distasteful’ for implying that ‘if we go high enough up the social or educational scale good manners will always out.’ Surely the story holds out not merely a tentative promise of the redemptive power of literature, but gives a concrete example of two men pitched against one another in violent and chauvinist times achieving some moments of empathy through a common knowledge of great art. This is what a humane education – with its emphasis on attentive good manners, self-discipline and emotional restraint – is meant to make possible. To scoff at this ideal for fear of being thought a snob seems to me pitiful.

Richard Davenport-Hines
London W14

In a Kidney Dish

Sophie Harrison (LRB, 21 July) should be grateful for progress in plastics technology. Forty years ago, syringes were made of glass: if we held one the wrong way, the plunger would race out, delivering the bloody contents over learner, patient, bed and floor. And our needles were never sheafed, or even sheathed, arriving by the dozen, autoclaved but naked, in a kidney dish.

Simon Barley
Wortley, South Yorkshire

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