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Letters

Vol. 31 No. 20 · 22 October 2009

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The Mysterious Tioli

I was intrigued to read of George Tioli in Jeremy Harding’s review of Spanish Civil War memoirs (LRB, 24 September). I can confirm that he was a Comintern agent, working in Britain before going to Spain. He lodged in Felpham with a great-aunt of mine, Vera Barclay, who among other things helped Baden-Powell start up the Wolf Cub movement. Tioli (he adopted an assumed name during his stay with her) was a problematic lodger who claimed to be a journalist; he used to disappear for long periods and not pay his rent. When he finally decamped to Spain, Vera discovered by going through his correspondence that when lodging with her he had been busy setting up a network of Communist cells in the UK. Letters from Barcelona stated that he disappeared in Spain but after the conflict he got a message to Vera saying that he proposed to return to England, but that since all ports of entry were blocked to him he was planning to land from an open boat at Folkestone Pier in the early hours: could she meet him? Vera had had enough of him by that time and passed the information to my grandfather, who had worked for military intelligence and still had contacts. Tioli turned up at the appointed hour, only to be met by MI5 and sent back to France.

Robin Dibblee
Great Chishill, Cambridgeshire

How Byatt Works

James Wood doesn’t like A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book (LRB, 8 October). But he doesn’t really get it. His main complaint is that Byatt is an interfering author. She tells us what the characters think, Wood says. She will not let them alone to speak for themselves and from their own interiority. True, but in a novel that, as Wood recognises, uses the puppet-master as an image for the control that denies freedom to the characters, writing from the inside is not an option. The hidden narrator, like the hidden puppet-master, exerts control by twitching the strings of his characters. Unseen, he preserves the illusion that they are free. Thus, to remain hidden as narrator is to perpetuate the puppet-master’s illusion of freedom while remaining in control. The invisible narrator assumes the control that the novel is questioning. The author has to be out in the open, writing from the outside. The opposite of the puppet-master is the potter, shaping material self-evidently from the outside. The interiority Wood is so nostalgic for is in fact always an authorial sleight of hand. Byatt is unwilling to perform the move that imperceptibly merges free indirect discourse with a seemingly autonomous speaker. This rejection of inwardness is connected with her refusal to make an exploration of feelings and emotion paramount in the novel. She has been interested for some time in the Grimm brothers as narrators, and their fierce, impersonal, objective presentation of violence. She sets this against the ethical sentimentality and emotionalism of Hans Andersen.

Olive Wellwood’s drama, ‘Tom Underground’, the play that drives Tom to suicide, an episode that Wood admits is one of the high moments of the novel, is written in Hans Andersen mode. Its extravagant manipulation of Tom’s emotions is partly what destroys him. It is a projection of the part of Olive that has never dealt with her own experience of the underground, the tragic coal-mining district where she grew up. Byatt leaves us to figure this history out: at the deepest level she refuses to interfere with her characters. Such failures to confront the underground of the self, failures that culminate in the literal underground trenches of the 1914-18 War, result in the unthinking destruction by parents of their children, of which the war was a terrifying example. Byatt leaves us to figure that out too. Recently she has spoken admiringly of the narrative distance that Thomas Mann’s writing sustains. To find an analogy for the mounting apprehension and horror in the account of Tom’s suicide one goes to Death in Venice. Wood is right without understanding why when he says that Byatt ignores the tradition of Proust and Woolf: her aim is precisely that, to avoid the open nerve of consciousness. This is not a postmodern novel as Wood suggests, but a major experiment in writing from the outside.

Isobel Armstrong
Johns Hopkins University

Cheering the Executioners

In her review of Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor Hilary Mantel writes that ‘despite his careful and no doubt deeply felt disclaimers, it sometimes sounds as if Eamon Duffy is cheering on the executioners’ (LRB, 24 September). Contrary to her imputation, there is no covert approbation of the Marian burnings to be found in Duffy’s book. He makes plain his moral disapproval of the executions for heresy under Queen Mary, writing unambiguously that they constitute ‘a horrifying moral blot on any regime purporting to be Christian’. His main purpose is neither to condemn nor defend the policy of executions but to explain it, assessing its effectiveness in terms of what the Marian regime was trying to achieve. This is a legitimate scholarly approach to the past, not a form of cheerleading. Heresy (however defined) was generally regarded as a threat to social order and stability in this period; it is not surprising therefore that the repression of religious unorthodoxy was so often violent. This emerges not just from Duffy’s work on the reign of Mary but also, for example, from Bruce Gordon’s recently published Calvin, in which similar arguments are advanced concerning the role of the Genevan reformer in the trial of the anti-trinitarian Servetus.

Mantel writes that Cardinal Pole (Mary’s Archbishop of Canterbury) ‘had to displace in the new queen’s confidence her lord chancellor, Stephen Gardiner’. There is no good evidence of the tensions between Pole and Gardiner that she suggests. She also writes that Gardiner ‘had been a leading proponent of the royal supremacy, one of the old king’s most effective propagandists’. To many with only a superficial knowledge of the subject this statement may well appear unarguable. However, there is good reason to believe that the bishop of Winchester was a crypto-papalist who hoped and worked for reconciliation with Rome after the Henrician schism.

Colin Armstrong
Belfast

Hilary Mantel writes of the cynicism of the 16th-century English and Welsh bishops who changed their religious beliefs with a change of monarch. My putative ancestor Myler Magrath went one better, being at the same time both Catholic bishop of Down and Connor and Protestant archbishop of Cashel. He accumulated a number of other dioceses and about 70 livings. His true religious beliefs remained safely ambiguous: he married (an option not open to Catholic clergy) twice but raised his children as Catholics. The success of his policy of open-mindedness in theological matters is evident in the fact that he lived to be 99 or 100 (his year of birth, 1522, is an estimate), which was good going for an Irish clergyman during the Reformation.

Michael McGrath
Cork

Ballotitis

Tom Nairn’s fanciful notion that the Communist Party of Great Britain opposed the miners’ strike of 1984 is accompanied by the equally fanciful idea that such opposition sprang from the Party’s preferred model of disciplined Leninist vanguardism (LRB, 8 October). None of the contending strands within the Party opposed the industrial action on those or any other grounds. Indeed it was the practical exigencies of campaigning and fund-raising in support of the miners that helped to contain, however temporarily, the rancorous divisions in the Party.

On what Nairn calls the ‘most contentious single issue’ of the dispute: it’s true that some of us in the Communist Party believed that the syndicalist tendency of Scargill’s leadership did provoke its own antithesis in the militant particularism of the Nottinghamshire miners and that this might have been outflanked successfully by an early endorsement of the NUM action through what Nairn calls the ‘head-count democracy’ of a union-wide ballot. All the same, we knew that a ballot in itself carried no guarantee of legitimacy or successful outcome (as the printers were to discover at Wapping). Like Mick McGahey – vice president of the NUM and chair of the Communist Party – who decried the ‘ballotitis’ that aimed to ‘constitutionalise’ the NUM into submission, the CP regarded the strike as properly legitimate within the rules of the NUM and deserving of wider social and labour movement support.

Robert Hunter
Bristol

Was he/Wasn’t he? He was

No South African academic has been more shunned in his own country than R.W. Johnson. Very few have a comparable pedigree. Despite his having taught for a quarter-century at Magdalen College, Oxford, having written a number of substantial and respected books, having been director of the Helen Suzman Foundation in Johannesburg and South Africa correspondent for the Sunday Times, he has not once been invited to speak on any university campus in South Africa. That suggests a climate of animus, which Roger Southall’s review of Johnson’s South Africa’s Brave New World (LRB, 8 October) unfortunately shares.

The problem isn’t that Southall disagrees with Johnson over matters such as the murder of the South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani or the integrity of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Differences of this kind are in the nature of normal debate. The issue is Southall’s impugning of Johnson’s scholarship. A good deal of the review is taken up reciting factual points made by Johnson in his book, none of them flattering to the governing African National Congress, and none of them challenged by the reviewer. Southall nevertheless accuses Johnson of ‘egregious errors’ and ‘gross simplification’. One such imputation is critical to Southall’s argument. He writes that ‘Johnson’s familiar, much disputed view that Mandela was a member of the SACP inevitably resurfaces here.’

Johnson’s well-grounded conjecture was confirmed in print two years ago by the late Hilda Bernstein, a former member of the Central Committee of the SACP. Bernstein, who was married to one of Mandela’s coaccused in the Rivonia trial, was ‘insistent’ on this point when interviewed by Padraig O’Malley. In Shades of Difference (2007), O’Malley quotes Bernstein: ‘Well, Mandela denies that he was ever a member of the Party, but I can tell you that he was a member of the Party for a period.’ As a member of the SACP underground at the time, I worked closely with Bernstein in Johannesburg in 1963-64, producing underground journalism for the military wing of the ANC and the SACP, Umkhonto we Sizwe. Bernstein was at that time an essential link between the Central Committee of the SACP and the high command of Umkhonto. Her confirmation of Mandela’s membership of the SACP is conclusive.

Paul Trewhela
Aylesbury

Disgruntled Authors

I was surprised by Ferdinand Mount’s suggestion that there was little in my biography of Arthur Ransome that had not been covered before (LRB, 24 September). Mount may have read Ransome’s posthumously published autobiography and Hugh Brogan’s biography, which appeared in 1984 to mark Ransome’s centenary. But if so he must have noticed the absence from either of any mention of Ransome’s spying for the British, his collaboration with the Bolshevik secret police, or the background and political careers of Ransome’s in-laws in Russia – the family of his second wife, Trotsky’s private secretary, Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina. As for Ransome’s autobiography, it was scarcely likely to address any of this candidly, while Brogan was much too fond of his childhood hero to ask awkward questions. In any case the material wasn’t available. Brogan wrote a fine book, but he did not have access to the Russian state archives, opened to Western researchers in 1991, or to previously classified documents released to the British National Archives in 2005.

It’s quite true, as Mount indicates, that Ransome headed David Caute’s list of ‘useful idiots’ in The Fellow Travellers (1973), but Caute’s view of Ransome’s character and motivation, based entirely on his journalism, offers little of value to a biographer. Ransome, keen to keep a foot in every door, revealed only the most acceptable portion of his affairs in his published writing. He cannot be understood by leafing through his articles, or by expanding on the eyewash he passed off as a memoir.

Roland Chambers
London E8

Brent Hayes Edwards’s review of my book The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade may leave readers confused (LRB, 10 September). He recognises my ‘insistence that the Atlantic was above all a space of translation’, and that ‘many of [my] examples involve encounters between empires, and patterns of influence that cross the language barrier.’ But at the same time, he says that I ‘mostly avoid … writing about the Atlantic as a site of cultural contact and confrontation between the European powers’. Which is it? I do not know what vision of the French Atlantic slave trade Edwards would propose, but his suggestion that ‘if there is a French Atlantic’ – does he want to argue that no such thing existed? – ‘it is defined only by its contacts and confrontations with the British Atlantic’ is, at best, a strange exaggeration. Edwards puzzles over the word ‘French’ in my title, wondering if there really is ‘something identifiably “French" – aside from the language of composition – about the literature and culture of this part of the slave trade’. The ships, the investors, the money, the islands to which the captives were taken, the profits from their labours – all were French. More important, the literary culture that I analyse during the period of the trade was surely French in more than just language.

Christopher Miller
Yale

I am not, as Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen seems to think, interested in diagnosing Freud’s many nervous difficulties of the 1890s as hysteria in my book Hysterical Men, but rather in Freud’s own extensive descriptions of his condition, which he repeatedly diagnoses as hysterical (LRB, 27 August). Far from presenting Freud as the ‘hero’ of the story and the ‘sole source of our knowledge about male hysteria’, my chapter on Freud is intended to show that his decade-long encounter with male neurosis – his own, his patients’ and that of figures in Western literature – was fraught with inhibitions and ambiguities which reflected the wider reservations of male physicians in late Victorian Europe. It took the wars of the 20th century, the rise of military psychiatry, modernist literature and intellectual feminism to advance our knowledge.

Borch-Jacobsen came of age in the ‘Freud wars’ of the 1980s, when every piece of writing about psychoanalysis was expected to be either radically pro or radically anti. His response to my book is to assimilate it to the old pro-Freud camp, and thus require its demolition.

Mark Micale
Urbana-Champaign, Illinois

The Framing of al-Megrahi

Gareth Peirce tells us of mysterious, unidentified Americans sifting through the site of the Lockerbie crash in 1988 (LRB, 24 September). Something similar seems to have happened in the immediate aftermath of the crash of the RAF Chinook on the Mull of Kintyre in 1994: on the BBC news that evening, their man on the scene reported meeting American military personnel who said that they were ‘looking for something which is ours’. As far as I know, this was never mentioned again by the BBC or any other news medium.

Daniel Caola
London E10

How shall we think about Churchill?

Bernard Porter, in his appraisal of Churchill’s views on warfare, observes that ‘he notoriously supported the saturation bombing of German cities (though he later had qualms), and the use, in theory, of poison gas’ (LRB, 27 August). But Churchill had even fewer moral reservations about weapons of mass destruction in colonial wars, notably in Mesopotamia, which Porter doesn’t mention. When tribes in southern Iraq rose in revolt against British occupation in 1920, Churchill, then secretary of state for war, presided over the bombing of whole villages, and very nearly ordered the use of mustard gas to subdue the insurgents. In his words, ‘I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.’

Fawaz Ghitani
London NW6

South American pedants’ corner: Stephen Sedley is surely wrong to attribute ‘the Mexican sobriquet “gringo"’ to the Confederate marching song ‘Green Grows the Laurel’ (Letters, 24 September). The term, used to describe any foreigner, was current in the River Plate much earlier than the US Civil War, and was also used in Spain. Some authorities consider it a corruption of griego, ‘greek’. One also wonders how many Confederates ever went marching in Mexico.

Malcolm Deas
Oxford

Dyslexic, Autistic and Bipolar

‘Once you hear the science’ of hermaphroditism, ‘you do start to wonder’, John Lanchester writes (LRB, 8 October). ‘Two historical figures I’ve heard mentioned in this context are Wallis Simpson and Marlene Dietrich.’ He need wonder no longer: Dietrich had a daughter, a tricky feat without a uterus. On a more general note, I’d like to protest against this drafting of random dead people into campaigns on behalf of unusual medical conditions. A quick web search shows that Leonardo was dyslexic, autistic and bipolar, and while these casual diagnoses are a matter of indifference to the eminent dead, they do tend to mess with living people’s heads.

Nicolas Buchele
Phnom Penh

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