As in war, one goes into political battle with the weapons one has. Jackson Lears is free to lament that the Democratic Party’s chief weapon in 2016 is Hillary Clinton, but his arguments against her are laced with hyperbole (LRB, 5 February). It’s true that she voted for the invasion of Iraq, but hers was only one vote, and does Lears really think that had she been president her major response to 9/11 would have been to take out Saddam? Lears wishes Rand Paul had a better chance to secure the Republican nomination because of his scepticism about American boots on the ground and bombs in the air. This is the same Senator Paul who said he still has trouble telling restaurant owners that they must serve black people. Lears passes over this sort of thing with a vague reference to Paul’s ‘repellent’ domestic views and then goes back to bemoaning Clinton’s alleged hawkishness. Let us hope that in the coming election, faced with a choice between her and another Bush – who, unlike Clinton, hasn’t been willing to concede that he was wrong about Iraq – Lears doesn’t write in Elizabeth Warren’s name and thereby contribute to the second coming of Dubya. His analysis of the progressive and experienced Clinton is a classic example of an idealised best being the enemy of a practical good and leading to a disastrous bad.
Jackson Lears cites Hillary Clinton’s aide Jim Steinberg saying that the point of sanctions against Iran was to make it ‘feel that it had no champions, no place to turn, no out’. A cursory acquaintance with life down on the farm would inform anyone that backing a rat into a corner doesn’t totally eliminate its options, but rather reduces them to a solitary one: to leap for your throat.
Keith Thomas is surely right that one of the most insidious legacies of National Service was its elevation of inactivity to a fine art (LRB, 5 February). I can’t, however, agree that most of us emerged with our views on politics and society unchanged. I entered the services as a lukewarm Anglican with a vague belief in the inherent superiority of British values. The coup de grâce to my religious convictions was applied by an army padre putting a squaddie on a charge for failing to salute him. My confidence in the Dixon of Dock Green bobby was severely shaken by the practices and attitudes of Her Majesty’s Constabulary seconded to Cyprus to assist in security operations. My belief in a free, frank and fearless press foundered as I witnessed Barbara Castle pilloried daily for her exposure of what was going on there. And any illusions I clung to concerning the tommy’s exemplary discipline were dispelled when, following the murder of the wife of a British sergeant in 1958, random Cypriot males were rounded up and brought to our camp for muscular interrogation.
Looking back, I was certainly handicapped by a loss of two years in career progression compared to those who managed to evade the call-up and, unlike in France, that shortfall wasn’t compensated for by taking the time into account in calculating pension entitlement. Moreover, friends of mine in France who, like me, were on active service still receive annually a substantial three-figure gratuity from a grateful nation. But then in France every government still contains a ministre des anciens combattants.
St Georges les Bains, France
I missed service in the forces, though the prospect loomed over my adolescent years. My brother, John, a grammar school boy, was conscripted into the Royal Artillery in 1953, and chose to do his service before he went to Cambridge. He started as a gunner and never progressed. He failed the officer selection test because he had physically helped his team to build a bridge. He was, I think, in the rebellious category of national servicemen. The army took him to Egypt and the Canal Zone, where he ran an office under canvas. He learned to type and earned an extra 6d a week, ‘efficiency money’. One day he was offered a driving test, which he had listed himself for. He wasn’t ready for it but went through the motions; he was told he had failed and to fill in the paperwork necessary. He went away and did the paperwork, certifying himself as having passed. He could drive any vehicle thereafter, and wasn’t troubled by a driving test again.
Returning home on a troopship, he and some others avoided the futile tasks they would have been given to do elsewhere on the ship and instead sat on deckchairs at the stern of the ship, reading. When asked, ‘What are you men doing here?’ he stood up and answered: ‘Man overboard picket, sir.’ They were left to carry on.
I once asked him why he had never smoked, since cigarettes were cheap, or free, in the British army. ‘I would never do anything the army wanted me to do,’ he replied.
The army didn’t require manners. A friend of mine, put forward for the officer selection test, was too polite. As he came up to the first hurdle on the obstacle course he saw a fellow soldier approaching alongside. ‘After you,’ he said. Like Keith Thomas, he was failed.
Tariq Ali’s explanation of the Charlie Hebdo affair will not do (LRB, 5 February). ‘The real problem is not a secret,’ he writes. ‘Western intelligence services regularly tell their leaders that the radicalisation of a tiny sliver of young Muslims … is a result of US foreign policy over the last decade and a half.’ How does US foreign policy over the last decade and a half explain the protracted jihadist violence of Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao (including attacks on Catholic churches); or of the several Pattani fronts in southern Thailand (with attacks on Buddhist priests); or of assorted Islamists against Christians and Ahmadijia in parts of Indonesia; or of Pakistan’s several jihadi conglomerates who attack Christians, Shia and less militant Pakistanis, as well as Indians, both in disputed Kashmir and beyond it; or of the al-Shabaab of Somalia, who spill into Kenya; or of the Maghrebi and West African al-Qaida affiliates and Nigeria’s Boko Haram? And is all this really being done by a ‘tiny sliver of young Muslims’ all by themselves with no support from Muslim opinion, or encouragement from Muslim institutions such as the more than forty thousand Wahhabi/Deobandi schools around the world?
Unlike Tariq Ali I do not know what ‘Western intelligence services regularly tell their leaders’, but as a taxpayer I certainly hope that their explanations reach further back than fifteen years, and extend beyond the evils of US foreign policy to consider the possibility that modernity is secularising many Muslims and driving the hold-outs into ever more exasperated and violent asseverations.
Chevy Chase, Maryland
As James Fox points out, my access to the evidence for or against Lord Lucan comes second-hand at best (Letters, 19 February). Partly for that reason and partly because as a historian and biographer I am more interested in the way that Lucan and his world appear forty years on, I avoided any detailed discussion of his guilt in my review. Indeed I left the whole business of the murder until the last two paragraphs. There I did not give my own opinion about what happened – I don’t have one or any reasonable basis to form one – but summarised Laura Thompson’s and the opinions of the authors from whom she had drawn most of her information.
I was struck, however, in Thompson’s reprinting of the press coverage, by its bigotry and slackness, and it did remind me of the recent case of Christopher Jefferies. I agree with Fox that Lady Lucan suffered as much from it and that in her case it was misogynistic as well. Fox’s own articles were of quite a different order. Yet when he says that Lucan’s last letters were ‘Etonian letters par excellence’ and that ‘the first skill you acquired … at Eton was lying,’ I sense something of the same. I don’t know any more about Eton at first hand than I do about Lord Lucan but I think the impulse in a difficult situation to try and lie one’s way out of it and blame other people is common in human nature. The idea that one school should uniquely and exclusively produce self-interested liars is far-fetched.
As for the accuracy of Jeff Pope’s drama documentary for ITV, it was in response to that that Lucan’s daughter, Camilla Bloch QC, made the remarks I quoted in my piece. Hers is I believe the only reasonable view, that as there was no trial, no presumption of innocence and no judicial testing of evidence, for her father to be referred to ‘in almost factual terms’ as a murderer is unjust.
Rosemary Hill, retelling the sad story of Lord Lucan, runs through the earls in his family tree but does not mention one of his most remarkable forebears, Margaret Bingham (née Smith), Lady Lucan (1740-1814), wife of the first earl. She was a notable illustrator and miniature painter, but her most remarkable work was the long poem ‘Verses on the Present State of Ireland’, which probably dates from 1778. Writing as a ‘wrong’d Hibernian’, she argues that the political concessions being made to America offer an opportunity to reconsider the case of Ireland – whose misery, she says, ‘lies squarely at the door of England’.
Her painting gets her an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Her poem is unmentioned there, though it is equally remarkable for political thinking and for literary skill. (My account of the poem draws on commentary from the Cambridge University Press project Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present.) For those with faith in bloodlines, progressive politics were as natural to the Bingham family as less salubrious qualities.
‘Winters in New York, summers in Florida’ is how Rosemary Hill describes Lord Lucan’s American childhood. In this she follows an error in the book under review, Laura Thompson’s A Different Class of Murder, in which Lucan’s American hosts, the Brady Tuckers, ‘lived like Astors, spending the winter in their home on New York’s Park Avenue. In summer they used their beach property in Florida or, in the main, enjoyed their estate at Mount Kisco in Westchester.’ The reverse is the case. An Astor would winter to the south of New York City (Florida) and summer to the north (Newport).
In his persuasive rebuttal of Peter Stollery’s claim that Algeria was not a French colony, Jeremy Harding mentions the names of three Europeans who ‘lost their lives’ in their fight for an independent Algeria (Letters, 22 January). This might suggest ‘killed in action’ but in the case of Fernand Iveton, this was not the case. He was guillotined, the only European militant on the side of the FLN to suffer this fate.
No one was killed or injured as a result of Iveton’s activities; neither of the two bombs he was due to plant went off. One he planted close to gas pipes in the gas factory where he worked, timed to explode in the evening when everybody had left the site and placed in a location where safety devices would have cut in before the blast could reach the main storage tanks. As it was, he was seen and the bomb disarmed. The other bomb, which his accomplice had not been able to give him (it was too bulky to fit in his backpack), was subsequently dumped. Fortunately, it failed to go off. After days of torture (waterboarding, electric shock) he did reveal names but by that time the others involved had made their getaway.
He was sentenced to death by a military tribunal on 24 November 1956, and had his plea for clemency rejected by René Coty, the then president of France. Iveton was executed on 11 February 1957, along with Mohamed Lakhneche and Mohamed Ouenouri. In the 16 months up to May 1957, 45 Algerians were guillotined, their death warrants signed by the then minister of justice, François Mitterrand.
Richard Evans is right to dismiss efforts by Alon Confino and Dan McMillan to paint a largely undifferentiated picture of German racism in the first decades of the 20th century (LRB, 22 January). Yet by drawing attention to two groups in German-speaking society in which an anti-racist opposition to Nazism was widespread – practising Protestants, and Social Democrats – Evans in turn misrepresents both groups. ‘The biblical fundamentalists of the Confessing Church, the opposition within German Protestantism, won many adherents,’ he writes. Which leads us down two false trails: first, Protestant oppositionalists, both without and within the Confessing Church, were mostly not ‘biblical fundamentalists’; second, referring to ‘the opposition’ sidelines groups of Protestants outside this church, whose opposition and resistance was more effective.
Evans may be describing these people as ‘fundamentalists’ to contrast them with the German Christian movement, who, in their Nazi-Christian blend, rejected the Old Testament. Certainly the Confessing Church was traditionalist, viewing both Old and New Testaments as sacred texts. But ‘fundamentalist’ in today’s world has all the wrong connotations. Take the six core members of the resistance group the White Rose, who distributed thousands of copies of six different pamphlets throughout the German-speaking world in 1942-43. Sophie and Hans Scholl, Christoph Probst, Willi Graf, Alexander Schmorell, Kurt Huber: no one in this cell was a member of the Confessing Church. They were young people who had lived the good life, and were committed Christians. The Scholls’ background was Protestant; and Catholic thought also heavily influenced the group. The labels ‘Christian existentialist’ or ‘Christian mystic’ would be more apt than ‘fundamentalist’. Yes they did propose, in their pamphlets, that Hitler and the Nazi leadership were the antichrist, but this can be read as a need for analogy and rhetoric in desperate times.
Evans misses the spectrum too when dealing with the German Social Democrats, whom he describes, focusing on their strength prior to the First World War, as ‘neither anti-Semitic, nor rabidly nationalist’. Of course the Social Democrats were more progressive, and less anti-Semitic, than German society as a whole. But Rosa Luxemburg wasn’t the only Social Democrat of Jewish origin who had to overcome anti-Jewish prejudice inside the SPD as part of her rise to a position of influence.
Richard Henry Holland
Eliot Weinberger writes about Charles Reznikoff (LRB, 22 January). I wonder why none of the considerations of Reznikoff’s work as a poet who incorporated and transformed legal and historical data in poems of sweeping scale ever mentions the work of Muriel Rukeyser, in particular her forty-odd page poem ‘The Book of the Dead’, written in 1936 and published in her collection US1 in 1938. Rukeyser was 22 in 1936. She travelled to Spain as a journalist to cover the Catalonian government’s People’s Olympiad, its anti-fascist alternative to the Munich Olympics; the Civil War broke out while she was there. On returning to the US, she went to West Virginia to investigate the fatal outbreak of silicosis among miners digging the Gauley Bridge tunnel. She created (like Reznikoff) a documentary poem in many parts, incorporating trial questioning, medical testimony, dramatic monologues created from the words of the miners and their wives, widows, sons and mothers, interspersed with lyrics on the landscape, road travel – the lyric ‘I’ as the eye of a camera.
Rukeyser, like Reznikoff and Zukofsky, was a New York Jew involved in leftist/progressive politics, and a poet whose work had been noted since the publication of her first book in the Yale Younger Poets series when she was 21. It is odd to me that none of the critics who write about the Objectivists, and about Reznikoff in particular, ever mentions her work, and ‘The Book of the Dead’ in particular, as a possible influence on Reznikoff, or an important poem influenced by Reznikoff. Rukeyser did not disappear: she kept writing until her death in 1980, and published many books. But she was a member of no school, and it took the literary critics of the women’s movement to bring her work the attention it deserves.
It isn’t the case, as John Lahr writes, that Eugene O’Neill attempted suicide in a bar known as the Hell Hole (LRB, 5 February). Djuna Barnes wrote about this wonderful bar (on West 4th Street and Sixth Avenue, where there is now a park) in November 1916: ‘In the end, when everything else closes up and the chairs are lifted to the laps of the tables and the lights go out – all together – there is always the Hell Hole.’ Its real name was the Golden Swan. It was owned and run by an ex-prizefighter, Thomas Wallace, who was said to have died from a broken heart when Prohibition struck. The bar’s regulars included the mostly Irish-American gang the Hudson Dusters, who took up one side of the establishment while on the other side there were artists, writers and actors. O’Neill was in the privileged position of being accepted by both groups. But the place where he made his suicide attempt was Jimmy-the-Priests, the bar and boarding house located further downtown on Fulton Street (torn down, reportedly, to make way for the World Trade Center).