Jenny Diski speaks of her experience with mental illness, along with the catastrophe that has enveloped mental health patients since the 1980s (LRB, 6 February). It’s her celebration of the subversive camaraderie of fellow sufferers that I most identify with. I well remember sitting beside a new arrival in our day room, a fellow manic depressive who was beginning to slide out of his garrulous state (dressed as Batman, he had jumped through the front window of a bank), when a nurse placed a pint of haloperidol in front of him before offering a sherry glass full to me. We looked at each other and burst out laughing, though, as it turned out, we were both lambs to the slaughter. Six hours later I was being rushed to emergency, all but comatose, head frozen skyward with my tongue lolling out – a savage reaction to the drug.
I never experienced medication as anything other than a chemical version of the physical restraints of previous regimes. Yet the drugs did have the major effect of acting as a spur to fight the affliction through willpower alone. After eight years and four further hospitalisations, I developed an effective management regime. Still, I count myself lucky that my recovery was sandwiched into that brief spring between the late 1960s and the 1980s. The collusion between laissez-faire economics and laissez-faire psychiatry is well eviscerated by Diski. It was a worldwide affliction. One crazed New Zealand psychiatrist announced that he could cure schizophrenia overnight by closing all the asylums. A wacko in normal times, he published in reputable journals and gained the ear of the minister of health. And so she did close them, and overnight too. It made perfect economic sense.
I was working as a patient advocate through these desolate times and was witness to a long string of health establishment obscenities: long-term, seriously disabled patients bused into apartment blocks en masse without preparation or warning; patients systematically defrauded by their new landlords; patients selling their meds, then being punished by having a further week’s meds withheld; 32 patients listed as having died in the first year (but none under suspicious circumstances); patients deliberately committing crimes to get themselves placed in custody so they would no longer be a burden on their families; patients with ungovernable sexual impulses desperately trying to get themselves admitted to hospital and being turned away by doctors who refused to see them, with the inevitable results; patients killing their own families on being released into their care. This is a stench I can’t get rid of.
Raumati Beach, New Zealand
As a veteran of the momentous 1984 Mansion House Square public inquiry, I must challenge Christopher Turner’s assertion that the skyscraper design commissioned by Peter Palumbo from Mies van der Rohe ‘fell victim to Prince Charles’s anti-modernist campaigning’ (LRB, 6 February). The first intervention by the Prince of Wales was the speech he gave in 1984 at the dinner at Hampton Court to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the RIBA, in which he indeed referred to the Mies project and said: ‘It would be a tragedy if the character and skyline of our capital city were to be further ruined and St Paul’s dwarfed by yet another giant glass stump, better suited to downtown Chicago than the City of London.’ This, however, was on 30 May, a month after the opening of the public inquiry, and it had not needed the royal opinion to make English Heritage, the Victorian Society, SAVE Britain’s Heritage and many other bodies, including the City Corporation, give evidence that the dubious merit of a standard design by a now deceased German-American master wasn’t worth the sacrifice of a remarkable group of listed Victorian commercial buildings. Furthermore, I managed to elicit from Philip Johnson, Mies’s former collaborator and disciple, a letter stating that the project was ‘unimportant’ and that ‘in the casually irregular piece of ground in London the classical rigidity of Miesian language will look strange indeed. Both Mies and London deserve better monuments.’
It is true that an appeal was made by conservationists to the Prince of Wales to intervene, but this was because of a well-founded suspicion that the result of the inquiry, if unfavourable to Palumbo, would be overruled by Mrs Thatcher’s government. In the event, the secretary of state for the environment, Patrick Jenkin, reluctantly accepted his inspector’s finding against the giant glass stump, but – surely improperly – encouraged Palumbo to try again with a different design: hence, eventually (after another public inquiry), the building by James Stirling and Michael Wilford which now stands on the site of No.1 Poultry. It seems to me that the influence of Prince Charles in architectural politics is somewhat exaggerated, particularly by modernist architects unwilling to accept the shortcomings of their own masterpieces.
Neal Ascherson doesn’t describe the overall situation in Malaya leading up to the Emergency (LRB, 20 February). In 1946 the colony’s rubber and tin industries brought the UK Treasury $118 million; the rest of the empire altogether yielded only a further $37 million. Without Malaya, the postwar British welfare state would have been unthinkable. Rubber was also key to the eventual defeat of the Malayan communists, who could not compete given the economic growth brought about by the huge spike in demand from the Korean War.
Ascherson wonders what might have happened if the British had ‘recognised the Malayan Chinese as human beings with rights instead of a featureless migrant workforce’. That’s a little naive. From the start of the Emergency in 1948 until Mao’s victory the following year, the authorities deported tens of thousands of Chinese to China. Immigration control has been a mainstay of imperial counterinsurgency up to the present ‘war on terror’. This deportation policy was one of the main reasons the Communist Party of Malaya never became a mass party.
Although the Emergency created a ‘steely, authoritarian’ state with ‘totalitarian features’, the man who drafted the legislation (which is still in place in Singapore and was only recently repealed in Malaysia) was a genial civil servant called Hugh Humphrey. When the communist leader Chin Peng came to London in 1998 for a BBC2 film we made together, The Undeclared War, both men attended a BBC cocktail reception. Humphrey said to Chin Peng with genuine admiration: ‘I must say, you fought a very good Emergency.’ Chin Peng smiled phlegmatically: ‘Yes, but you fought a better one.’
Immigration controls continued to keep Chin Peng at bay even after his death last September. Throughout the final decade of his life, he fought a legal battle for the right to return to Malaysia. Such was his potency as a symbol of Chinese political assertiveness that this request was repeatedly turned down. The Malaysian government then refused the burial of his ashes at his birthplace in Ipoh on the grounds that he was a ‘traitor’.
Malcolm Bull’s review of Picasso and Truth is generous (to me, not Picasso) and cantankerous – the kind of response I would have hoped for from the author of Anti-Nietzsche (LRB, 20 February). Here’s where I think he gets things wrong. ‘There can be little doubt that the overarching context for the reception of Picasso’s work in the first four decades of the century was the Mediterranean one – in varying degrees, neoclassical, Nietzschean and reactionary.’ Really? How do any of the four key adjectives here help us with the first critical response to cubism, weird as it often was? How Mediterranean was Kahnweiler? (I dare say he thought the Forest of Barbizon was too far south.) Bull’s picture of Picasso’s reception in the 1920s and 1930s will come as a shock to readers of the surrealist magazines, which took Picasso as their revolutionary hero (‘Proudly we claim him as one of us’), and to those of us who thought till now that Carl Einstein’s essays, or Michel Leiris’s, or Breton’s, or Tzara’s, or Reverdy’s – the list of leftists on Picasso is hard to stop – were hugely better, and much more influential, than the forgotten picture book of Eugeni D’Ors. (‘Who they?’ in the case of D’Ors and Evola is a genuine question. Evola, as Bull says, had nil known interest in Picasso; and, as Bull does not quite say, was a virulent lunatic way off in right field. Pound is a different kind of madman, and he loathed Picasso instinctively. One of his bons mots was: ‘Picabia is the man who ties the knots in Picasso’s tail.’) Carl Einstein, the main author of articles on the artist in Bataille’s journal, is as pure an example of ‘left Nietzscheanism’ as one could come up with, and entirely free from fascist sympathies. Certainly there were people seriously engaged with Picasso’s work – in contrast to Evola, I mean – who might have been expected to try the Mediterranean gambit on him if they thought they could get away with it. Tériade and Zervos, for instance. Neither ever dared.
You’d hardly guess from Bull’s account of interwar culture that the lure of fascism for Paris intellectuals was more than countered by the siren-call of Stalinism; or that it is entirely unsurprising – the end of a long, ordinary, all too representative story – that in 1944 when Picasso finally decided to ‘take a position’ it was alongside Paul Eluard and the French Communist Party.
Not that this seems to me the key to the mystery either. Bull’s whole apparatus of guilt by association – it would not be fair to the real thing to call it ‘contextualism’ – ends up leaving Picasso untouched. I’m with Breton in believing that Picasso was ‘a man whose decisions seem in certain respects to have set everything in motion, for only apparently have they decided the destiny of painting; they concern, to the highest degree, thought and life at large’; but also – Breton again – that one doesn’t get to first base with Picasso unless one concedes, a little ruefully, that he was ‘bien au-delà de tous ceux qui l’entourent’. Picasso belonged to his times, not to his (or anyone else’s) miserable art-world. And the more complete an artist’s exposure to the movement of history – the deeper his negative capability, we used to say – the truer it is that our only hope as critics is to focus on the work itself. The risk, I recognise, is to move too close to Picasso’s heightened rhetoric: the risk Bull calls ‘complicity’. But I prefer that to dragging him down among the fascist non-entities.
Steven Shapin doesn’t mention what was perhaps the closest we have yet come to all-out nuclear war (LRB, 23 January). On 27 October 1962, at the tensest moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vasili Arkhipov, second-in-command of the Soviet nuclear submarine B-59, blocked an order to fire nuclear-powered missiles in retaliation for an attack by US destroyers. Even though B-59 was in international waters, and hence outside the exclusion zone the US had decreed around Cuba, the US destroyers were dropping depth charges to force the submarine to the surface. B-59 was so deep that it was receiving no radio signals from either Moscow or Washington and its captain believed that war might already have broken out. Fortunately, Soviet rules of engagement required the unanimity of the three most senior officers in a submarine before a nuclear missile could be launched. Arkhipov may literally have saved the world.
This incident was first revealed publicly in 2002 at a conference in Havana to mark the fortieth anniversary of the crisis, attended by surviving political leaders and military commanders from Cuba, the US and the former Soviet Union. Robert McNamara, US secretary of defense during the crisis, stated at the conference that ‘we came very close’ to nuclear war, ‘closer than we knew at the time’.
In discussing the effect on his career of Shakespeare’s role as principal dramatist and ‘money man’ for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Michael Neill comments that Webster, Middleton and Rowley, while learning from him, ‘didn’t have his privileged relationship with a company of players’ (LRB, 6 February). But William Rowley had a triple role in the London companies from 1607 until his death in 1626. Like Shakespeare he was a dramatist and businessman, but he was also an experienced and successful comic actor, with the unusual asset of being able to write roles for himself. He was a fat man and his roles exploited that.
Ian Smith takes exception to my treatment of Pitt’s alarm in my review of Kenneth Johnston’s Unusual Suspects (Letters, 20 February). I suggested that Pitt had attempted to fix a French taint on the reform societies in Britain in the 1790s. But the members of those societies, Smith points out, ‘made no secret of their sympathies’ with the Revolution in France. Quite so: a good number of liberals, and even a few Members of Parliament, persisted in believing that the Revolution was a good thing, or supported the Revolution because they supported the right of the French to choose their own form of government. But there is very little evidence that members of the reform societies wanted a violent revolution in Britain, or were committed to more than universal manhood suffrage and frequent elections; often their main reason for demanding both was to put an end to the corruption that had infected Parliament and kept men like Pitt in power. A few may have been republicans, even on the Jacobin model, but they were not dumb enough to attempt to win support for reform by arguing for the king to be deposed. And they were scarcely ‘Jacobin revolutionaries’, as Pitt chose to represent them.
To this Smith replies that if there was indeed very little evidence, this was because Pitt’s sources of information, far from being formidable as I had claimed, were too few and too feeble to uncover it. Like some of the alarmists in Pitt’s cabinet, he must believe that the lack of evidence of a violent revolutionary movement proves only that the movement was well concealed. Much of his letter is concerned with the inefficiency of the provincial magistracy in uncovering local instances of what he calls the ‘radical upsurge’, with the implication that a more efficient law-enforcement system would have revealed something truly sinister and dangerous. If there was no smoke, Smith implies, there was probably a fire.
It came as a shock to learn, after twenty years and more researching the reform movement in the 1790s and the government of William Pitt, that I seriously believed that Pitt’s government had at its disposal ‘comprehensive powers of surveillance and law enforcement comparable to those of a 21st-century state’. I thought I believed something rather different, simply that Pitt’s sources of information were quite formidable enough to uncover any serious radical threat to the state. However impoverished the government’s intelligence may have been, Pitt must have known certain things. He must have known that the reform societies had succeeded in attracting very few members. Even at the height of Smith’s ‘radical upsurge’, the London Corresponding Society could muster only three thousand members, and it was many times larger than any other such organisation. To persuade themselves that there was a danger of revolution in Britain, the government would have had to believe that the societies had huge numbers of secret, armed supporters, strategically kept in the shadows, with the potential to overwhelm the military who were stationed all over the country.
The main problem for the government, Smith says, was that it had no means of verifying reports relating, in particular, to the acquisition of arms by the reform societies. Frustratingly for the government, evidence that the societies were arming for a revolution, wherever it was discovered, turned out to amount to almost nothing. There was the coup planned in Edinburgh by a government spy or former spy, who may have been an agent provocateur, and who had caused to be manufactured forty or so pikeheads. There was evidence of a few pikes being made in Sheffield, and of a handful in London made by attaching knives to broom-handles. Pikes were defensive weapons; the interest radicals had in acquiring them, such as it was, was as a means of resisting the attempts of loyalists to disrupt their meetings, and to claim what they regarded as their civic right to bear defensive arms. A credible revolutionary alarm would have to depend on the discovery of firearms in large numbers.
Quite how the reformers could be supposed to have acquired them in secret was a puzzle to some of Pitt’s opponents in Parliament, but the government seemed to strike gold when spies reported the formation in London of an armed revolutionary society, the Loyal Lambeth Association, which at its height had 18 muskets – rather more than it ever had members. It was heavily infiltrated by spies, whose reports suggest that the maximum attendance at any meeting of the association was eight. Once it was as few as three, two of whom, unknown to each other, were spies. Undaunted, the government announced that the association was one of several similar groups in London of whose existence it apparently had no evidence. The complete inventory of arms discovered in the possession of members of the LCS is listed in a helpful government paper, ‘General State of the Evidence as to Arming’, which suggested that the leaders of the society were planning the violent overthrow of the government with fewer arms than could have been found in a small country house.
A propos the Chelsea Hotel (LRB, 6 February): on Labour Day 1974 I returned from a wedding in Michigan to model for Moses Soyer, who had a studio on the tenth floor. A few minutes into the pose I heard a noise and, looking over, saw Moses falling back. I lowered him to the floor, and, not knowing how to use the house phone, called 911. The ambulance staff had to take the stairs because the elevator was too slow. By then Moses was already dead.
Reggio Emilia, Italy
J. Hoberman writes about Nazi pressure on Hollywood film-makers (LRB, 19 December 2013). In the early 1930s the Austrian novelist Franz Werfel wrote The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, an epic about a small community of Armenians who, during the First World War, resisted rather than succumb to a genocidal Turkey. The book was a bestseller in Germany and Austria, and was translated into many languages, including English.
In the mid-1930s MGM bought the movie rights, did its own translation of the novel, and even went into pre-production, with Clark Gable as the lead. But the studio shut it down soon afterwards when Turkey’s ambassador to the US, Mehmed Ertegun, said that if the film was made Turkey would launch a global boycott against MGM. Since then several Hollywood personalities – Sylvester Stallone, for one – have expressed interest in filming the novel, only to withdraw from the project later.
Adam Mars-Jones argues persuasively that Roth, in The Ghost Writer, is setting up straw men (LRB, 23 January). Judge Wapter, for example, who tasks the young Zuckerman with a list of silly questions: ‘If you had been living in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, would you have written such a story?’ Mars-Jones quotes an earlier line from Roth that suggests some sympathy for Jewish critics who reacted with anger and fear to his early stories, published ‘only five thousand days after Buchenwald and Auschwitz’. But Roth’s sympathy here seems emotional, not intellectual; I don’t know what an intellectually serious ‘Jewish’ criticism of Roth would look like. Wapter isn’t supposed to be a serious intellectual opponent for young Zuckerman, but that doesn’t mean their argument doesn’t matter.
The drama of this subplot, and much of the emotional weight of the book, comes from the fact that Zuckerman’s Jewish father has pushed his son up the cultural class ladder far enough for father and son no longer to be able to argue these questions on the same level. If you raise your child to be more sophisticated than you, you are also teaching him not to be able to talk to you. Zuckerman has to choose between father figures not because he doesn’t love his real father, but because he can’t have the kind of conversation with him that matters most. So he visits Lonoff. And Lonoff turns out to be just as troubling an object-lesson in how to negotiate the conflicting demands of life and work as Judge Wapter.
Mars-Jones’s overview of Roth’s career put me in mind of what Heine wrote to the girl who tried to break up with him: you say you don’t want to love me, but your letter is 12 pages long.
According to the OED, Great Britain (Grande Bretagne) is not, as Gerald Mangan supposes, the French way of distinguishing Britons from Bretons, nor does it denote imperial pretensions deplored by Perry Anderson (Letters, 20 February). ‘Britain was used only as a historical term until about the time of Henry VII and Edward VI, when it came again into practical politics in connection with the efforts made to unite England and Scotland; in 1604 James I was proclaimed “King of Great Britain" and this name was adopted for the United Kingdom at the Act of Union in 1707. After that event, South Britain and North Britain were frequent in Acts of Parliament for England and Scotland respectively.’
If the Scots opt out of the Union, the country the rest of us live in should properly be called the Kingdom of South Britain and Northern Ireland.
My experience of growing up in Durham was very similar to James Wood’s: the same era, in the house next door to his prep school (LRB, 20 February). The pompous priest with the fish hands is undoubtedly my dad, also affectionately known – owing to his ability to glide – as the ‘caster canon’.
I grew up in a similar linguistic melting pot, and was well versed in the mimicry-to-fit-in that Wood describes. At least my hybrid accent had flat vowels: nothing was more likely to get you beaten up in Durham than rhyming ‘grass’ with ‘arse’. But I found it got worse when I left home. I remember hamming it up even more, when I grew fed up of the constant ‘Really? You don’t sound like you come from Durham.’ I wonder if being a ‘posh northerner’ gives rise to a particular breed of homelooseness – my parents still get called incomers, more than forty years on.
In my review of Geoffrey Hill’s Broken Hierarchies I failed to acknowledge the work of the volume’s editor, Kenneth Haynes (LRB, 20 February). I would like to apologise to Professor Haynes, and hope that posterity is more appreciative of his great labours in fashioning such a monumental volume.
All Souls College, Oxford
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