Vol. 41 No. 9 · 9 May 2019

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Off the Christmas Card List

Susan Pedersen refers to Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘delight in establishment credentials’ (LRB, 18 April). I am reminded of one of the times I stayed with my aunt, the historian Dorothy Thompson, at her house in Worcester, some years after the death of her husband, Edward. We were talking of the difficulty they both had balancing political activism with academic demands. I mentioned that Hobsbawm had touched on this dilemma in a talk I had recently seen him give at Hay. Dorothy frowned and said she simply couldn’t forgive him for accepting the Companion of Honour: ‘OK for an actor or entertainer, but absolutely not for serious, critical intellectual work – I’m afraid I had to strike him off my Christmas card list.’

Tim Towers
Chichester, West Sussex

Susan Pedersen remarks on Eric Hobsbawm’s failure to engage with Africa. In partial exoneration it should be pointed out that Hobsbawm considered doing a PhD on the history of the Maghreb, at a time when sub-Saharan African history, to the extent that it existed at all in the West, was an adjunct to the colonial and missionary project. The first Cambridge history of India was published in the 1920s. East and Central African history didn’t really begin to establish itself before the 1960s, and John Iliffe, who became professor of African history at Cambridge, didn’t complete his history of Tanganyika until 1979. By then African history was a specialist discipline, but one that was populated by the generation after Hobsbawm’s. It had its own disputes over colonialism, dependency, capitalism and African socialism, on which he may not have felt equipped to comment.

Eoin Dillon
Mount Brown, Dublin

Secret Pigeon Service

I was interested to read Jon Day’s piece about Operation Columba (LRB, 4 April). My father was the MI6/SIS officer responsible for intelligence operations in France, initially in the Vichy ‘free’ zone, and later in all of Europe. Day writes that ‘it took around three months for an agent’s report to reach MI6 from the field,’ but this would only have been in extreme cases, if a courier had to take a long route from north-west Europe via the Iberian peninsula to Gibraltar or Lisbon, for example, or if the air ‘taxi’ service was cancelled two months running (Lysander planes could only navigate the routes during the few days of a full moon). At the other extreme, one of my father’s agents (who was working for the Gaullist intelligence services and not directly for the SIS) ‘acquired’ a complete map of the Atlantic Wall defences, which reached SIS in London in 48 hours, the moon and weather being favourable.

‘On my return to London (and after Dunkirk),’ my father wrote,

I was quickly in touch with de Gaulle’s earliest garnerings. They provided a growing pool of gossip-ridden but informative characters. This very much mixed bunch both in politics and merit, ranged from burning and saintly patriotism (e.g. d’Estienne d’Orves, Rémy, Manuel and St Jacques) and the brave, able but distinctly unsaintly ‘Passy’ (André Marquis Dewavrin – ‘Metro’ noms de guerre were popular), and the seduisant but unpredictable La Barthe. But they included also, alas, adventurers and the odd traitor, i.e. ‘Howard’, who was housed to our shame by ‘Biffy’ Dunderdale, and which led to the Muselier scandal and eventual imprisonment for Howard. (De Gaulle would have had him shot. Passy’s remedy was, probably, torture.) I think St Jacques (a beau sabreur) was the first to be sent on a mission. He was parachuted ‘blind’ to his own Normandy property on the Orne. He broke his leg on landing, but reached shelter. His carrier pigeons probably ended up in a local pie. Such were our beginnings!

The SIS organisation was then at its worst, partly because it made no serious attempt to pool varied intelligence sources on France: diplomatic (even Vichy); Free French; SOE, and our own counter-espionage were all operating unco-ordinated. This insulation encouraged the French to play us off – an advantage well harvested by de Gaulle and his staff, and particularly by Passy. There were, however, notable exceptions such as André Manuel and Loustannau-Lacau – alias Navarre. Also unlike SOE, with its plethora of leading City figures, we were terribly slow in mobilising and creating the necessary supporting services – training, transport, recruitment. Only (but of great value) over clandestine wireless did we lead, and even here, there was far too much official secrecy and complacency, and a reluctance to absorb the experiences of our much-harassed agents, on exaggerated grounds of security.

Colin Cohen
Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

Jon Day’s piece reminds me of a story involving the rakish actor David Niven, who rejoined the British army after the outbreak of the war. Niven was assigned to Phantom, the secret reconnaissance and signals unit for the invasion of France. There, on one of several critical missions in his scout car, he was reputedly accompanied by a carrier pigeon intended to bring back news of German troop movements. The bird finally fluttered down at HQ with a message bound to its leg. Eager fingers tore at the vital communication, only to find that it read: ‘I have been sent home for making nasty smells.’

Michael Neill
Auckland, New Zealand

Brexit Blues

John Dewey objects that compulsory voting does not allow ‘conscientious abstention’ (Letters, 18 April). But so long as there is a secret ballot, that option exists. In the privacy of the polling booth I can write on my paper ‘Mrs May is not a very nice lady’ (or something briefer); spoiled papers are counted and included in the published result. I know of one case where such conscientious abstention was used, in France in April 1962 at the end of the Algerian War. De Gaulle called a referendum asking voters to support peace in Algeria and effectively expressing full confidence in him to do what he liked. The Communist Party called for a ‘Yes’ vote, but the Parti Socialiste Unifié and others called for active abstention. They got more than a million spoiled papers (5 per cent) and established the existence of a left independent of de Gaulle and the Communist Party – just six years before 1968.

Ian Birchall
London N9

Isn’t that what it’s about?

Jonathan Rée suggests that my new translation of Being and Nothingness is ‘perhaps over-respectful to the original’ (LRB, 18 April). The same could not be said about Rée’s assertion that Sartre’s title is ‘misleading’. What is misleading about calling a work Being and Nothingness (originally L’Être et le Néant, but I assume Rée has no quarrel with my translation of the title) when its subtitle is ‘An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology’ and the entirety of Sartre’s introduction and first chapter are devoted to an examination of … being and nothingness? Stranger still is Rée’s view that Self and Others would have been ‘a better fit’ for a work which only gets round to interpersonal relationships in Part Three, and there explicitly states that its discussion of them is incomplete.

Sarah Richmond
University College London

One Ball Syndrome

Why do men with two balls dice with death for fear of losing one? They neglect the warning symptoms for a long time, risking that the cancer will spread, all for the shame attached to ‘one ball’ syndrome – ‘Hitler, he only had one ball’ etc. Aged 15 in 1960, I lost a testicle, and the embarrassment or fear of ridicule has been so great that I have never once told a male friend. Colm Tóibín has led the way (LRB, 18 April). It is time for men with one ball to come out, and for other men not to endanger themselves, or die, for the sake of losing a ball.

John Taylor
Bridport, Dorset

Among the Gilets Jaunes

The gilets jaunes do not, as Lee De Cola imagines, live in ‘sprawling global cities’ (Letters, 18 April). I live 4.5 km away from the nearest general store and bus stop, and more than 10 km from the nearest supermarket and butcher, with no bus service. Should I use a bicycle to get around, or a horse and cart? I am incompetent on the first and afraid of the second. Has De Cola ever tried transporting a week’s supplies of fresh food, packaged goods, water, beer or wine for a standard family of four in anything other than a petrol-driven vehicle? The answer to climate change is not weaning ‘homo vehicularis’ off cars. It lies in making them more efficient, less polluting.

Doina Percival
Tocane St Apre, France

Gulbenkian’s Legacy

Christina Riggs does not mention one of the most enduring marks Calouste Gulbenkian left on the world: his inadvertent contribution to the modern law of trusts (LRB, 18 April). A series of legal disputes concerning the interpretation of the trust settlements Calouste instituted for his flamboyantly monocled son, Nubar, in the 1920s and 1930s culminated in a decision of the House of Lords in 1968 that remains a leading precedent in this area. Their lordships rejected concerns that the words Gulbenkian used to make provision for his son were too imprecise to be workable, and held the trust valid. Every year law students across the Commonwealth turn their minds to Calouste’s wishes for his son. Quite a legacy to leave for future generations: untold thousands of strangers combing through the details of your family affairs lest they turn up in an exam.

Daniel O’Neil
Surry Hills, New South Wales

Eliot’s Alias

Robert Crawford mentions that among the names used by T.S. Eliot to sign letters to Emily Hale was ‘Herlock Sholmes’ (LRB, 18 April). This spoonerism was used by Maurice Leblanc for two short stories, published in 1910, in which his character Arsène Lupin and Herlock Sholmes are adversaries. It was also used by Charles Hamilton (aka Frank Richards) in spoof Sherlock Holmes stories published in the 1910s. Eliot is known to have had an interest in detective fiction, so presumably came across the name in Leblanc’s stories.

Jane Card
Harwell, Oxfordshire


Ferdinand Mount refers to Rex Dyer as ‘an intermittently autistic geek, and one with a violent temper which often ended in his knocking down people who annoyed him’ (LRB, 4 April). Autistic individuals are engaged in a struggle to function effectively in sensory environments that they typically experience as chaotic and distressing. When they behave in ‘challenging’ ways, they are communicating the sensory distress they are experiencing. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability; one cannot be ‘intermittently’ autistic.

Rorie Fulton
Gwernogle, Carmarthenshire

At the Palais de Justice

Brian Dillon’s review of Carey Young’s video Palais de Justice reminded me of my visits to the building some years ago, when giving English courses to Belgian magistrates (LRB, 4 April). I was told that the lower courts were on the lower floors, while the Cour de Cassation/Hof van Cassatie (Supreme Court) was under the building’s cupola. Rumours abounded concerning the building (on which the scaffolding for long-delayed restoration work had been in place for so many years it was in need of restoration itself): the legend of a homeless man living in a never visited storeroom for years on end, or the local who so hated the building he regularly smeared it with corrosive paste in the hope that it would eventually come crashing down. An entire city block had been erased to clear the site, and the name of its architect, Poelaert, was accursed for generations in the eyes of the populace. Even in today’s Brussels, if you really want to insult somebody, you need only call them a skieven (‘crooked’) architect.

Richard Tagart
Haywards Heath, West Sussex

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