In her review of Kathleen E. Smith’s Moscow 1956, Miriam Dobson writes that the image of the ‘thaw’ following Stalin’s death was inspired by Ilya Ehrenburg’s novel of that title (Ottepel in Russian), published in 1954 (LRB, 2 November). This is indeed the case, but it’s worth adding that the same term was widely used almost exactly a century earlier to denote the programme of liberalisation and reform instigated by Tsar Alexander II after the death of his father, Nicolas I; on that occasion too it was a writer – Fyodor Tyutchev – who came up with the metaphor.
Tyutchev is remembered today alongside Pushkin and Lermontov as one of the three great Russian lyric poets of the first half of the 19th century, his verse held in high esteem by Tolstoy (whose favourite poet he was), Turgenev, Dostoevsky and, more recently, Nabokov. Yet, little concerned to promote or publish his poems, he was better known in St Petersburg society as a brilliant causeur and wit, as well as an incisive commentator on politics. Despite espousing extreme nationalist and Panslavist views in articles written for the foreign press, he enthusiastically welcomed Alexander’s internal reforms, in particular the emancipation of the serfs and the relaxation of censorship in the interests of glasnost (as it was known even then). Serving as a senior government censor himself, he was guided by a strongly held belief that the best way to handle opponents of the regime was to allow them freedom of expression and engage with them in open debate. Predictably, this often brought him into conflict with his superiors, even in the more relaxed atmosphere prevailing under Alexander.
In one of his earlier poems Tyutchev had written of the ‘iron winter’ of Nicolas’s long reign. Less than two months after Nicolas’s death, he began to speak of a perceptible ‘thaw’ in conditions under his successor, a term which rapidly caught on. Reporting this in her diary on 10 April, Vera Aksakova highlighted the same inherent ambiguity that Smith detected in the use of the metaphor a hundred years later: ‘F.I. Tyutchev has aptly named the present time a thaw. It is indeed so. But what will come after the thaw? Fine, if spring and bountiful summer, but if the thaw is temporary and everything finds itself once more in the grip of frost, things will seem even worse.’ Despite later reverses, Alexander’s ‘thaw’ was to prove far more enduring than Khrushchev’s.
Giles Tremlett mentions in passing that schooling in Catalonia ‘is now in Catalan’ (LRB, 5 October). That’s true but needs clarification. In preschool and for the first three years of primary school almost all teaching is in Catalan, though from the beginning children will also have classes in Spanish language. Students continue to take Spanish as a subject throughout primary and secondary school, and also invariably receive instruction in other subjects in Spanish, depending to a great extent on the discretion of the teacher. Test results indicate that students in Catalonia have levels of competence in Spanish comparable and in some cases superior to those of students in other parts of Spain.This would hardly be worth mentioning were it not that the issue of language in education in Catalonia has for years been a preoccupation of the campaign, conducted by anti-Catalan forces such as the governing People’s Party and like-minded mass media, to insinuate that Spanish speakers in Catalonia constitute an oppressed minority. To those of us who live in Catalonia this is just silly. Unfortunately that is not always the perception in the rest of Spain.
James Sheehan quotes John Ruskin as having said: ‘A good sewer was a far nobler and a far holier thing … than the most admired Madonna ever painted’ (LRB, 19 October). Ruskin both admired Raphael’s Madonnas and supported public building projects; one story, apocryphal or otherwise, has Ruskin at Oxford taking on road repairs with Oscar Wilde on wheelbarrow duty. So the ‘good sewer’ remark certainly looks to be the sort of thing Ruskin might have said. In fact its author was William Hurrell Mallock, who, in The New Republic; or Culture, Faith and Philosophy in an English Country House (1877), depicts a satirical exchange between a Mr Saunders (thought to represent the mathematician and philosopher of science William Kingdon Clifford) and a Mr Herbert (thought to represent Ruskin) in which Saunders speaks the words of interest. A century later, Anthony Wohl appeared, for reasons unknown, to have switched around these two fictional speakers in his Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain (1983) and thus assisted the haphazard passage of the quotation from satire to supposed matter of historical record. Since then, it has become Ruskin’s ‘play it again, Sam’ moment: attributed often, with a high degree of plausibility, but not once uttered by the man himself.
Deborah Friedell’s review of Damion Searls’s The Inkblots is very cogent, but it errs insofar as it focuses on the Rorschach as a test rather than as a method of personality assessment (LRB, 2 November). A test presupposes ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers that can readily be scored or graded by an examiner. Assessing someone’s personality is a more ambiguous procedure and the validity of its results depends largely on the skill of the assessor. Those skills are essentially interpretive – perhaps somewhat like those of an art critic, who is rarely either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but usually more or less perceptive. Many years ago I had the privilege of working with Florence Miale on the analysis of Rorschachs of the major Nazi war criminals, which is the basis of our book, The Nuremberg Mind (1977). The essence of Miale’s method was to explicate the metaphorical meaning of the subject’s verbal and sometimes non-verbal responses to each card.
In her review of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children and Letty Fox: Her Luck, Madeleine Schwartz gives the impression that Christina Stead is a largely neglected writer with not many champions (LRB, 2 November). She names a few: Randall Jarrell and Jonathan Franzen are credited with trying to revive interest in her, Elizabeth Hardwick, Lorna Sage and Angela Carter with championing her and Patrick White with giving secret financial support. There were others, Christopher Ricks and Jane Smiley among them, but the one person who should have been mentioned and who surely did more than anyone to revive interest in Stead, is Carmen Callil.Five years before Stead’s death Callil started to reissue her novels and stories, from Letty Fox: Her Luck and For Love Alone in 1978 to The Salzburg Tales in 1986, as Virago Modern Classics. The Man Who Loved Children was already in print with Penguin, and remained so for many years.
Thomas Meaney writes that far-right parties are represented ‘in every Scandinavian parliament save Denmark’ (LRB, 21 September). There is room for discussion of the definition of ‘far-right’ but most observers are agreed that the Dansk Folkeparti (the Danish People’s Party) is a far-right party, and it has been represented in the Danish parliament since 1998. It has never been in government but has exerted its influence by pulling conservative parties and political debate to the right, especially on immigration and ‘cultural’ issues. Its founding principles were to protect the freedom and cultural heritage of the Danish people, and to do so by, among other ways, upholding the role of the Lutheran Church. Some of the more outspoken and xenophobic members of DF have been Lutheran pastors. In 2008 the party’s leader declared himself to be anti-Muslim. In 2010 the party adopted a policy opposing any immigration from non-Western countries. It rejects multiculturalism. DF has been less outspoken than other far-right parties and movements in Europe and the US, but its influence on other parties’ policies and approach to elections has been significant.
Malcolm Gaskill’s otherwise comprehensive review of Ronald Hutton’s The Witch omits any reference to one of the most persistent superstitions associated with witchcraft, ancient and modern: the deep-rooted dread of becoming a victim of penis-snatching (LRB, 2 November). Examining this phenomenon in his delightful book On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, the American academic Stephen Asma cited cases in which men claimed to have been deprived of the precious organ following encounters with Satan’s sexually voracious handmaidens. More likely an instance of hallucination, he concluded, wondering if this might have had more to do with covering up the shame of erectile dysfunction. Over the past two decades, anthropologists working in West and Central Africa have recorded a growing number of instances of ‘genital theft’, seemingly linked to a resurgence of belief in witchcraft. As Gaskill observed, this has resulted in innocent women being savagely murdered as suspected witches.
My great-grandfather, Major (later, Major-General) Mohammed Akbar Khan, commanded the Indian units at Dunkirk and it is interesting to compare his experience with the experience of Jonathan Raban’s father (LRB, 5 October). Nana Abu, as we called him, had previously served in the First World War, and would go on to serve with the British in Burma. He joined the Indian Army as a private at the age of 17 and rose to become one of the first ‘native’ officers and then one of the first ‘native’ generals of the British Indian Army, despite the manifold prejudice that he described in his memoirs. A portrait of him hangs in the Imperial War Museum.
The force that was initially sent to France from British India was called Force K 6. It was composed almost entirely of Punjabi Muslims from what is now Pakistan, mainly from the Pothohar plateau, an area between the Jhelum and the Indus, which Nana Abu couldn’t resist calling ‘the sword arm of India’. While most of the men were handpicked, none of these units had ever worked together – a state of affairs, Nana Abu wrote, that ‘was going to be tested and tried after the war started’. They were there to supply animal transport (AT). While the French had spent a fortune on the Maginot line, they still needed mules to get supplies to the front. Unlike mechanised transport (MT), AT could deliver supplies right where they were needed, and often ended up pulling MTs that were stuck on that winter’s slippery roads. The units landed in Marseille in December 1939.
Nana Abu writes that he could not get billets for his men, and was told to make do with tents pitched in the snow. Someone must have taken mercy on his unit, as they were allowed to stay inside the Château Reyard (Nana Abu was impressed by the ceilings). The next morning, they were loaded on troop trains without heat of any sort for the men or the mules: only the British officers had heated bogies. The trains that took them to St André were part of the German reparations for the last war.
They finally reached their destination near Marquette-lez-Lille, and used the area around a deserted brick kiln as the site for their camp. A shed designed for colouring bricks served as their living quarters. They became ambassadors of Indian culture, and started holding exhibitions for the French at the camp, including performances of Pothawar Khattak dances. They spent that winter helping with the construction of defences along the Belgian front, working long hours in freezing weather. While at the front, the men had to sleep in shallow dugouts as the frost had deeply penetrated the soil.
Nana Abu’s men and their work must have been taken note of, because by February 1940 his unit was visited by the secretary of state for war, Oliver Stanley, and other VIPs; Montgomery and the Duke of Gloucester followed. Nana Abu used these visits to plead for guns for his men, as prevailing British thinking seemed to be that his men only needed their short swords for protection, a literal example of bringing a sword to a gunfight.
When the Germans invaded France on 10 May 1940 the unit was on a goodwill tour of England. They returned to France via Cherbourg but by the time they reached Arras Nana Abu found that the BEF HQ was gone, and that there was a chance Lille had been captured. He writes of seeing exhausted Belgian and French soldiers, most without their weapons. Somehow, a special train was arranged to transport his unit towards Lille. He writes of seeing ‘a constant flow of carts, cars … a solid block, jammed tightly across the width of the road … a fabulous, gargantuan, malevolent monster’. The French local civil administration had collapsed, and Nana Abu was trying desperately to get in touch with his superiors. Failing to reach them by phone, he saddled his horse and rode across the countryside to HQ, where he was advised to move towards Dunkirk. At this point, he was responsible for 300 Indian men in a foreign country with no back-up.
On 20 May a staff officer of the Rear HQ told Nana Abu to ‘throw away his arms’ and go towards Dunkirk immediately; the men ‘should not move as a military body nor carry arms’. Nana Abu held a conference with his junior officers: they agreed with him that they shouldn’t abandon their arms. He plotted a route to Dunkirk on a map, not knowing the location of the British troops or that of the enemy. They left Lille after dusk on 21 May, and crossed the La Lys river canal at 0200 hrs on 22 May, reaching Steenwerck by 0700 hrs. After getting some drinking water from the locals, he decided to advance to the Forêt-de-Nieppe that afternoon, travelling about 36 miles over a period of 36 hours. He had chosen a roundabout route hoping to avoid congestion, but found that the forest was full of refugees who had been told the French army would protect them. The forest was bombed by the Luftwaffe that evening. Nana Abu remembered a ‘screaming noise in the sky as the enemy bombs came down’. Despite all his years of war, this was his first aerial bombardment. The forest was ablaze and petrol dumps caught fire, causing more heat and smoke, and panicking the refugees. Nana Abu chose to abandon the rest of his mules at this point, and head towards La Temple, where they found shelter. The unit reached Crochte on 23 May, but once again the HQ was gone. They ran into some German tanks and took shelter in a deep drain; they went undetected, but were left thoroughly cold and wet. By the time they reached Winnezeele the next day their rations were running out.
When they finally arrived at Dunkirk, they found the army in ‘utter confusion’: there was no discipline and many of the boats were overloaded and sinking. So Nana Abu made other plans. On 25 May he gathered some British volunteers and four lorries and set off back towards his camp at Lille. By this time, the roads were clear and all civilian traffic was being directed towards Paris. But when he reached St André he saw a dogfight in the air, and was informed of a tank battle underway near Lille airport, so the unit was forced to head back towards Dunkirk again. By now shells had started falling and, nearing Armentières, they ran into a traffic jam, as many of the civilians had decided ‘to die at home rather than die in the wilderness’. The Luftwaffe was using bombs and tracer bullets to keep the civilians off the roads, leading to ‘horrible scenes’. At the Deûle Canal bridge, his unit was straffed by two enemy planes, which dropped bombs and machine-gunned two of the lorries. They were back at the coast on 27 May, to be greeted by the glare of the burning docks.
Shortly after his arrival at about 1800 hrs Nana Abu was told to head towards Malo-les-Bains. Embarkation was not going to be easy, so he suggested that his men be allowed to assist – after all, they were the only men left with arms. Malo-les-Bains had the only wharf which could be breached at two places, and because of its length many boats could be berthed alongside it. Nana Abu posted an armed body at the first breach of the wharf to prevent gate-crashing and ordered his unit’s trumpeter to organise the embarkation, using ‘Stand to attention’ three times, followed by ‘Fall in’, then ‘Stand at ease’ and then ‘Stand fast’. While this was going on they endured ‘half a dozen near misses’ from German landmines, which left craters 120ft in depth and 30ft in diameter on the beaches. His unit was finally evacuated on 31 May, and on the way back to Dover his risaldar-major, Mohammed Ashraf Khan, made tea for the crew and the rest of the contingent. When they landed they used the tea trays and empty copper buckets to beat out folk tunes. Everyone joined in spontaneous dance. Nana Abu lost none of his men during the evacuation; the force all told lost only 12.
More than two million Indians served like my great-grandfather (including five of his brothers) in a war they didn’t start. These Indians, and other ‘natives’ all across the world, carried the British burden: one can ask if the Allied victory would have been possible without their service. Despite the discrimination they encountered, they went out of their way to help those they could. After Partition, Nana Abu’s seniority ensured that his army number was Pak Army 1. In retirement, he wrote books in both Urdu and English. By the time I was born dementia had set in, and I don’t remember him speaking, but I do remember his upright, regal bearing and his crushing handshake.