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Vol. 31 No. 23 · 3 December 2009

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Quacking Tones

I met Auden about the same time that Alan Bennett first heard ‘those harsh, quacking tones’ (LRB, 5 November). It was an odd circumstance to find myself in. A third-year undergraduate, I had been asked to take part in a debate to mark the forthcoming publication of a translation of Horace’s Odes by J.B. Leishman. The translation, of 30 of the odes, was unusual, because Leishman had worked them into English in the same metric form as the originals. My task was to speak in support of the endeavour (which I saw as a considerable and worthy achievement). My formidable opponent was W.H. Auden. I can remember almost nothing of what I said – I was in a state of dazed panic. And I can remember nothing that Auden said, because he said nothing, nothing remotely to the point. Instead, he used the occasion to speak in verse and demonstrate his superior skill at instantaneous composition in Sapphics, Alcaics and, even less appropriately, iambic pentameters.

Charles Dodd
Limassol, Cyprus


The whole idea of ‘official’ histories of institutions such as MI5 is inherently problematic; in particular one can never tell whether apparent defects in the history are to be blamed on the author, or on the institution, or on some unholy alliance between them. What precisely does ‘authorised’ mean? We are given no indication at all as to what limitations MI5 placed on Christopher Andrew’s ‘authorised history of MI5’, The Defence of the Realm (LRB, 19 November). General information as to what survives in its archives is minimal; all we are told is that 400,000 paper files survive. It is impossible from this history to gain any sense of the scale of snooping on individuals, or the reliability of the information stored in individual files, which, one supects, must have contained much tittle-tattle. How many of these files have been preserved? What has become of the file on Hilda Howsin (detained 1915, something to do with Indian nationalism) or on the notable pioneering airman, Rutland of Jutland (1941, suspected Japanese agent, suicide 1949)? We are not given the least indication as to what policies have been adopted over preservation, nor are we given even a very general account as to what has been preserved, or who decides what is to be junked and what not.

What is apparent is that there are some quite bizarre gaps in coverage. I shall mention only two. One relates to detention without trial, both of citizens and of aliens. This was something in which MI5 was much involved, both in the First and Second World Wars. There exists a considerable literature on the subject – I declare an interest since I have written the only full account in print of the detention of citizens in the Second War, including a brief account of such detention in the First War. Other writers, such as P. and L. Gillman, in ‘Collar the Lot!’ How Britain Interned and Expelled its Wartime Refugees, have addressed the detention of the aliens, particularly during the Second War. The use of detention without trial was always controversial, and a very considerable body of source material is available to historians in the National Archives and elsewhere over and above MI5’s own withheld records. Yet in a book of over a thousand pages the index does not even have an entry for detention without trial. This accurately reflects the importance which is accorded to the subject in this official history. For the First War the subject is dealt with in a single paragraph at pp.80-81, which gives an incorrect account of the scope of regulation 14B of the Defence of the Realm (DORA) regulations. As for the Second War MI5’s principal achievement in its early years was to promote the detention, at huge cost, of somewhere about 30,000 aliens, and 1700 citizens. Only one of the aliens, Klaus Fuchs, later – after release – became a spy. The majority of the detained citizens were no threat to security, and were therefore progressively released, often with opposition from MI5. The citizens were detained under regulation 18B of the Defence regulations; the regulation is never so much as mentioned. The detention of both the aliens and the citizens is very briefly discussed on pp.223-231. Under ten pages in a book of over a thousand! There is no discussion of, or even reference to, the conflicts which arose over the use of detention, for example between the Foreign Office and MI5, and between Birkett’s and Lorraine’s advisory committees, supported by the Home Office and MI5. All this has been documented in the literature so far as it is possible to do so without more than occasional access to documents originating in MI5. This literature is simply ignored. It is quite inconceivable that all MI5’s records on such matters have been destroyed, and one would surely expect a history of MI5 to have recourse to them.

There were also individual cases where the conduct of MI5 was peculiar or even apparently scandalous; one such case involved the detention of Robert Liversidge, and gave rise to a celebrated legal decision in Liversidge v. Anderson. Neither this case nor any other individual case of detention without trial is discussed. So we learn nothing of the conflict between MI5 and Birkett’s committee over the activities of the weird MI5 agent Harold Kurtz, who ended his sad career in Oxford, funding his alcoholism by thefts from libraries. Nor do we get any information about the strange cases in which individuals, such as Major General Fuller, were not detained. In sum the publication of this official history of MI5 makes no contribution at all to the history of detention without trial during the two wars.

A second such gap concerns MI5’s role as a promoter of policies, on numerous occasions implemented by changes in the law, which were presented as necessary for protection against espionage and subversion. For MI5 was not simply an undercover intelligence service; it operated as a governmental department, with a say in government. Take, for example, trials in camera, in 1900 inconceivable, today part of the regular legal landscape. It is known that back in the First War MI5 succeeded in establishing such trials, which gave rise to considerable controversy in the 1930s. There is not a mention in this official history. Again in the 1920s it is known that MI5 pressed for a hugely extended power of detention to be included in the War Book, and that this provoked opposition within the governmental machine. Again there is no mention. Is this because no records have been preserved? Or is it because the role of MI5 in relation to law-making is simply not thought to be of any importance? What was the part played by MI5 in relation to the Treachery Act of 1940, which made it possible to coerce spies under the Double-Cross System? Or take the Maxwell-Fyfe Directive of 1952, which MI5, we are told, came to view as its charter, though it was neither embodied in legislation nor based on any legislative authorisation. It seems to me to be quite inconceivable that Maxwell-Fyfe simply ran this up one morning, when business in the office was slack. Yet there are no quotations from documents emanating from MI5 on this matter, or even summaries. Nothing. The role of MI5 in both law-making and, to a lesser extent, the formulation of policy in relation to the balance between civil liberty and security, is largely passed over in this history. Underlying Andrew’s account is a negative attitude to the rule of law which may or may not come from him, or from the institution. Occasionally issues of legality are briefly mentioned, as over the institution of the Home Office Warrants authorising the interception of mail and later of telephone calls. But that is about as far as it goes. Since MI5 was invented there is no doubt that there has been a steady erosion of civil liberties in Britain, much of it in the name of security. This may or may not have been A Good Thing. But it is difficult to know if MI5’s input into the evolving policy remains concealed.

A.W. Brian Simpson
Sandwich, Kent

Miles away from the Sorting Office

Pat Stamp writes that because of the Royal Mail’s ‘modernisation programme’, some postmen’s walks now take ‘up to four and a half hours’ (Letters, 5 November). As an ex-bicycle courier, I sympathise with him, but would still suggest that postmen have a relatively easy life compared to many in the logistics industry.

Riding a bicycle round London for ten hours a day is grindingly difficult. Paid £2-£3 per job (with a 10 per cent bonus for working a full week if you’re lucky), income can be fickle, and a slow week spent standing in the rain is no fun at all. Though it varies dramatically, couriers cover distances averaging around 300 miles a week. Couriers are obliged to deliver whatever a client wants delivered as quickly as the client requires; if you can’t get from pick-up to destination within 40 minutes, you don’t get paid. Covering London from (roughly) Wapping to Knightsbridge and Camden to Elephant and Castle, you see a lot of the city, a lot of weather, and a great many post-rooms.

Bicycle couriers are generally taxed as self-employed subcontractors. Theoretically, couriers work for themselves, on a job by job basis, and are subsequently afforded no contractual protection. If you fall ill or get knocked off (a depressingly regular occurrence; studies have shown that cycle couriering is significantly more dangerous than most other trades), then you’re on your own. No job security, no sick pay, maybe a sympathetic word from your controllers but that’s about it. Though there have been attempts at unionisation, they seem doomed to fail in an industry that relies so much on a transient labour force.

The most a courier can hope for when injured is the assistance of the London Courier Emergency Fund, a grassroots organisation which pays out small amounts to riders injured on the job. The LCEF is funded entirely by couriers and their friends. Like whaling, the job generates a strong communal network, but this network is completely informal, structured around races, drinking and comradeship rather than institutional legal protection. Because of this, any attempt to overturn the state of the industry through direct action is doomed to failure: striking is met with swift dismissal, whole fleets are sacked and replaced overnight. Average rates of pay have remained much the same for the last ten years, and it is difficult to see how they could be increased, even merely in line with inflation.

I’m not unsympathetic to Roy Mayall et al, but can’t help rejoicing in postal strikes as sending more work the way of the courier. A guaranteed income (at least for the time being), sick pay (albeit restricted) and, most important, the right to strike are privileges denied to the thousands of London bicycle couriers who ensure that while postmen strike, letters still get delivered.

Jon Day
St John’s College, Oxford

The Mysterious Tioli

The first two of George Tioli’s ‘conquests’ presumed by Rob Stradling are Valentine Ackland and Sylvia Townsend Warner, who had a same-sex partnership together throughout the period when either might have met Tioli (Letters, 5 November). I checked with Frances Bingham, Ackland’s biographer and foremost authority on the couple, who says for certain, given the openness which with each described their private lives and the papers to which Frances has had access, that neither ‘happened’ with George.

As for my great-aunt, she lived in a same-sex relationship for 16 years, during the time Tioli was a lodger at Felpham. Although less public about her private life than Ackland and Warner, the relationship with her illustrator was referred to obliquely in her last children’s book, They Found an Elephant. So no ‘happening’ there either.

Tioli’s Communist activities in England in 1936 were, however, recently confirmed in the Journal of the Oxford University History Society. Before that, it is said, he courageously ran an underground scout troop in Italy after the movement was banned by Mussolini. This might explain both his meeting my great-aunt and his eccentric uniform in the British Brigade photograph.

Robin Dibblee
Great Chishill, Cambridgeshire

Green Go Home

I am still far from being convinced about those singing soldiers in Mexico, though the ones put forward by Ernesto Priego are at least not Confederates (Letters, 19 November). Priego cites Artemio de Valle-Arzipe, Historia, tradiciones y leyendas de calles de México, Volume III, but does not give the author’s authorities; perhaps Volume III is the one concerned with legends. The song ‘Green grows the laurel’ is usually given as traditional Scottish, which then becomes traditional Irish on the vague supposition that there were more Irish in the US ranks in the Mexican war, and one should flatter the larger contingent.

The Diccionario Castellano con las voces de ciencias y artes (1786-93) defines gringo as a word used for foreigners who have difficulty speaking Spanish. If Priego had been born in Argentina in the century before last, he would have heard the word used for ‘Foreigner, especially Italian. By extension, bad horseman’ – my translation from the glossary of Jorge Luis Borges and Bioy Casares’s Poesía Gauchesca. The use of the term in the River Plate certainly antedates the US-Mexican War of 1846. It has been used throughout Latin America with varied nuances and degrees of hostility, and for a wide range of foreigners or even physical types. It is rarely entirely polite. Of course, in Mexico it is used for people from the United States, but to insist on deriving its origins from a ballad sung by North American invaders is I suspect more an aesthetic preference than a scholarly one. It also sounds a little note of secondary chauvinism: Mexican etymologies are to prevail over others – and the more so because they are historically anti-American? There may well be more than one origin of this word – the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española still says the origin is disputed – but the Spanish one looks the best so far.

Malcolm Deas

Economic Illusions

John Gray writes that in the 1990s, ‘economists came to believe that complex mathematical formulae could tame uncertainty in the murky world of derivatives. Steeped in history as they were, this was a delusion that none of the classical economists entertained’ (LRB, 19 November). On the contrary, David Ricardo entertained and defended precisely the illusion that economics could be reduced to mathematical formulae. ‘Political Economy you think is an inquiry into the nature and causes of wealth,’ he wrote to Malthus:

I think it should rather be called an inquiry into the laws which determine the division of the produce of industry amongst the classes who concur in its formation. No law can be laid down respecting quantity, but a tolerably correct one can be laid down respecting proportions. Every day I am more satisfied that the former inquiry is vain and delusive, and the latter only the true objects of the science.

Keynes saw Ricardo’s influence as malign and in a wonderful passage in The General Theory he speculated how it became so pervasive:

The completeness of the Ricardian victory is something of a curiosity and a mystery. It must have been due to a complex of suitabilities in the doctrine to the environment into which it was projected. That it reached conclusions quite different from what the ordinary uninstructed person would expect, added, I suppose, to its intellectual prestige. That its teaching, translated into practice, was austere and often unpalatable, lent it virtue. That it was adapted to carry a vast and consistent logical superstructure, gave it beauty. That it could explain much social injustice and apparent cruelty as an inevitable incident in the scheme of progress, and the attempt to change such things as likely on the whole to do more harm than good, commended it to authority. That it afforded a measure of justification to the free activities of the individual capitalist, attracted to it the support of the dominant social force behind authority.

In an earlier sentence, Keynes notes that Robert Malthus, Ricardo’s great friend, ‘had vehemently opposed Ricardo’s doctrine that it was impossible for effective demand to be deficient: but vainly’. Ricardo’s disciples, especially James Mill and James Buchanan, made sure after Ricardo’s death in 1823 that Malthus’s ideas on the failure of overall demand in an economy were never taken seriously. A fascinating, as yet unwritten, chapter in the history of economic thought would explore how Malthus’s Principles of Economics lay dormant for a century until Keynes rediscovered them in the 1920s.

Jonathan Steinberg
University of Pennsylvania

His work is his

The answer to Julian Barnes’s question as to whether ‘the late and distinguished Parmée’ made the ‘tucks and trims and interpolations’ in his translation of Maupassant’s Afloat ‘of his own volition’ is that he did (LRB, 5 November). Barnes could have asked, and I would have told him. Parmée was an excellent translator and a very clear-headed man, and his work is his.

Edwin Frank
NYRB Classics, New York

At ...

In a nice joke, you describe Peter Campbell’s book At … as ‘copiously illustrated’. Innocent readers should be told that the book has just two black and white diagrams in its 400 pages. Otherwise the book’s many illustrations are those created by its author’s mind and his verbal art.

Robin Kinross
Hyphen Press, London NW5


A foolish error was introduced into Diarmaid MacCulloch’s piece about the Tudors’ ‘rebranding’ of England in the 16th century (LRB, 19 November). The sentence, ‘This was a small change of the “public sphere" in English politics a century and more before Jürgen Habermas detected it in Central Europe’ should have read: ‘This was the small change of a “public sphere" in English politics a century and more before Jürgen Habermas detected it in Central Europe.’ Small change: big difference.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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