Rudyard Bloody Kipling
Bernard Porter (LRB, 25 April) is wrong to state that Kipling referred to his first English school as the ‘House of Desolation’. He gave this name to the house in Southsea where his parents brought him from India and left him, at the age of five and in the company of his three-year-old sister; they returned to India and he did not see them again for nearly six years. This may have been a common experience for the children of middle-ranking Anglo-Indian families, but there is every reason to believe that it marked Kipling for the rest of his days. His foster family bullied him physically and mentally; he was (for example) taunted and beaten for months for his clumsiness before it was discovered that he was severely short-sighted (this is the child whom Porter insultingly describes as ‘goggle-eyed’). In ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ Kipling drew one of the most powerful and harrowing pictures of child abuse in literature, but he also traced his beginnings as a writer to this time. Porter’s mistake, and his failure even to mention the most important event of Kipling’s early life, exemplify the ignorance and incompetence which he displays in his review.
Far from affecting ‘to despise his own calling’ Kipling was a passionate stylist, a lover of literature in both English and French; he was also a consummate professional whose training as a journalist was the making of him as a short story writer. He worshipped Jane Austen and Henry James, and if there was any form of art he despised it was art which (as one of his characters says of a second-rate painter) ‘goes no deeper than the plaster’. Since Porter praises (and I hope misrepresents) Gilmour for ‘perceptively’ pointing out that ‘there is no First World War equivalent’ to the Barrack-Room Ballads, I doubt he can have read the extraordinary stories and poems which Kipling wrote during and (especially) after the war, some of which treat the experiences of physical and psychological wounding with searching tenderness, others of which express the passions of hatred and revenge with a ferocity for which we should have the courage to be grateful. Kipling was (unfortunately for him) in a very good position to write about the war from the standpoint of a parent, a grieving survivor, whose desolation at the loss of his son was increased by never finding his body. His homage to the ‘Tommy Atkins’ of the Western Front took the form, not of the swinging, raucous, radical Barrack-Room Ballads, an outgrowth of their time and place, but of his sober, painstaking and purgatorial history of John Kipling’s regiment, the Irish Guards.
Porter gives a superficial and inadequate account of Kipling’s curious, subtle, savage, contradictory passion for England, which was both his home and his place of exile. Along with D.H. Lawrence (another unbalanced hater), Kipling is England’s greatest and most problematic interpreter, through whose anguished desiring gaze we see further into the roots of Englishness than is comfortable or even at times bearable. He can also be sharply, woundingly funny about ‘awful old England’, whose charms are not always obvious. The impression Porter gives of a sour, petulant, friendless nay-sayer is not the result of observation, but the lazy recycling of a prejudice. Kipling loved England even though (or because) he knew how mean-spirited it could be.
University College London
Bernard Porter writes: It may surprise Danny Karlin to learn that I agree with most of his letter, except of course its tone. I was careless about the boarding house in Southsea, which wasn’t strictly a ‘school’. On everything else I’m sure we could find common ground. I agree about the impact of the cruelty Kipling was subjected to at Southsea. ‘Goggle-eyed’, like ‘runtish’, was intended not as an insult but to indicate his perception of himself. His attitude to his craft was of course ambivalent, as it was bound to be given a great artist who felt he needed to be accepted by philistines. Karlin takes issue with Gilmour’s observation that there was no real First World War equivalent to the Barrack-Room Ballads, but then goes on to explain why this was so. (They were each of their time and place.) I said he was desolated by the loss of his son. Karlin’s version of Kipling’s view of England doesn’t clash essentially with mine, except that I see it as an ‘outsider’s’ one. That was my main point, and – it seems to me – a legitimate matter for debate, but not for insults.
Can you cope with the door?
Hal Foster's summary of Reyner Banham's contribution to 20th-century architecture (LRB, 9 May) underlines the uncompromising nature of the Modernist project, whose influence on architecture and beyond is hardly a cause for celebration: from the mass-mechanisation of the food industry in the UK to the striking inability of postwar architects to cope with the concept of the door. This is because the true Modernist apotheosis wasn't on this earth at all, but in space. A quick flick through pop-culture representations of the space genre from the 1920s to the present shows similar design norms at work as those in the high art of Kubrick: an aversion to door handles, lapels, skirts (a hangover from the 19th-century dress reform movement), appetising food. Here is a future that is a tedium of hygiene and dreary solid-state efficiency. The refusal of Modernist architects to study most existing built environments other than to scorn them as an object lesson in how not to do architecture could almost suggest that an alternative reality would soon come to pass where the work of the Smithsons would fit in: an environment that didn't need to bother with foliage, the seasons, the walk to the shops or to work. I remember being told by my brother in the early 1970s that I shouldn't bother learning how to ride a bike because by the time we were adults we'd be floating about in a space station.
Americans were slower to embrace dystopias. There, uninhibited notions of progress and of the country as a tabula rasa – not to mention more resources – meant a much more receptive home for the Modernist ideology, even to the extent of a widespread belief in flying saucers. For all that, Star Wars does give us the Death Star, which at first sight is Lutyens in space: the abstract, pure style of his post-1918 memorials to the missing. It could be made of Portland stone. Close up it looks like a mall.
Eric James Jupitus
I.A. Richards and a Bear
In my freshman year at Harvard, I was one of at least two hundred students to take a General Education course in which I.A. Richards was a lecturer (LRB, 25 April). He was one of the best I have ever heard. We also shared an interest in mountaineering. He gave a talk on climbing in the Canadian Rockies, the high point of which was an encounter with a bear. It came into a two-storey cabin where Richards was staying and seemed inclined to climb the stairs, up which Richards had retreated. Richards said the way he dealt with the bear was to pee on it from the balcony that overlooked the ground floor. The bear, he said, got the message and promptly left the cabin.
Walking towards Death
I am somewhat sceptical that the letter which appeared above the name Hideki Matsuoka in the issue dated 25 April was actually written by somebody from Japan. It reads like a typical Western romanticisation of Japanese society and culture, as seen in Madame Butterfly or Memoirs of a Geisha. There are a few indications that the writer may not have been really familiar with Japan. 1. The age of students in Japanese intermediate schools is 12 to 15, not 10 to 14. 2. The Japanese don't have a tradition of raising money by sponsored walks, nor generally of giving to charity, unlike in the West. 3. The Japanese are usually meticulously organised when it comes to trips, and it is unlikely that parents would be unaware of where their children were going and what they were going to do. In particular, it's unlikely that they would have allowed their children to stay in tents as opposed to hotels. 4. Japanese intermediate school students wouldn't have worn shorts at a war memorial in Britain. 5. Dr Koshiro would have been roasted if the parents found out what he'd done. 6. I don't believe that men were allowed to continue studies instead of serving in the Army in 1942-44, especially if the studies concerned something fluffy such as literature, and particularly the literature of France, an enemy country. There were very few people who pursued a doctoral degree in Japan back then anyway, and those who did so were unlikely to end up as headmasters of an intermediate school.
Perhaps Terry Castle’s puttee-wearing Shorncliffe soldier was not ‘ghostly’ at all (Letters, 25 April). Anklets may well have replaced puttees in 1939 – though Michael Barber does not say whether he is referring to long puttees, or short – but they proved unsatisfactory: they failed to anchor the trouser bottoms securely. Much more certain is the fact that my husband, in about 1965, fresh from Sandhurst, bought himself a pair of Foxe’s puttees (short) in a pleasing light greenish fawn – which he dyed black (to resemble the anklets) and wore in comfort throughout his Army career and, as a Reservist, into the 1980s. Puttees were reintroduced in the early 1970s – in a sort of chutney-brown colour. They would seem to have the advantage over anklets or the modern high-cut boots of being infinitely adjustable to suit individual ankle configurations – and are highly recommended even for civilian wear, since they keep feet and ankles toasty-warm in the draughtiest house.
On reading Rita Giacaman’s report ‘From Ramallah’ (LRB, 25 April) two questions immediately come to mind. How many times can the term ‘stormed’ be used in a description of soldiers entering various premises during a military action? And how can credence be given to a report that Israeli soldiers were responsible for broadcasting pornographic films for a period of two days during this action? What actually happened in Ramallah was that Israeli soldiers played tapes at the TV station for their own amusement. This was stopped within five minutes, as soon as the Israelis realised the films were being broadcast. The reason the inflated version of the story receives prominence is that one of the themes of anti-semitism in the Arab world is that Jews are behind worldwide pornography.
N.S. Roseman, who has announced that he is cancelling his LRB subscription after reading my criticisms of the so-called Israel Defence Forces (Letters, 9 May), does not even pretend to have investigated the matter before making his decision. For his information, the news of the plunder of Palestinian Authority buildings and cultural institutions, not to mention the theft by the IDF of valuables from private homes, is increasingly being reported all over the world. The subject has now also been raised in the Israeli media, so much so that the IDF claims to be looking into the problem, as such actions cannot be related to ‘Israel’s security’. Mr Roseman should have looked at Ha’aretz before writing his response.
I see that you have lost another subscriber. I find it extraordinary that a journal like the LRB, which I had assumed was aimed at thinking people, is subscribed to by so many people who cancel their subscriptions when confronted by articles that do not conform to their particular view of the world. You must find this discouraging. May I, therefore, inform you that my recent decision to renew my subscription was, in part at least, due to the fact that you published articles like those of Edward Said, the piece from Ramallah and the fascinating collection of essays following 11 September. My decision was confirmed this week by the articles on Chávez's departure and return in Venezuela and by Yitzhak Laor's thought-provoking piece on Jenin and the Israel Defence Forces.
R.W. Johnson says he went to Zimbabwe to watch Mugabe steal the election (LRB, 25 April). Mostly, though, readers are treated to tales of psychopathic murder and to a shameless celebration of colonial depredation. The narrative line emerges from the scene in the compound belonging to Johnson’s friend, ‘Dave the hunter’: ‘Kalashnikov rounds on the mantelpiece … and pictures of the Pioneer Column, of Selous, the greatest of all hunters … in the hall’. Today, Dave the hunter and his friends Zeno and Jimmy keep up old traditions. Taking full advantage of the shameful shoot-to-kill policy – a policy begun by Ian Smith and continued by Mugabe – Zeno, his ‘passion’ for elephants and rhinos apparently exceeded only by his contempt for African life, has, by Dave the hunter’s count, ‘slotted’ some thirty poachers. Meanwhile Jimmy, the policeman and ex-Rhodesian soldier, pursues another slotting expedition: by his own count, he has coolly murdered 84 alleged rapists and drug-dealers, not one of whom, it seems, was accorded the benefit of a trial, let alone convicted in a court of law. Perhaps Jimmy’s killing spree is justified by Mugabe’s executive lawlessness. A century earlier, Johnson assures us, the European takeover of Africa had ended such anarchy, stamped out cannibalism, and imposed the rule of law. With the end of colonialism, however, life expectancy has gone down while lawlessness, disease, even cannibalism (on Dave the hunter’s authority), are back. I was ready to cancel my LRB subscription. But then I turned the page. There, Richard Gott lays bare the horrors of colonialism as he brilliantly exposes The Oxford History of the British Empire for the whitewashing that it is. The LRB, after all, is capable of self-correction.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Socialist Traditions of Genocide
Richard Gott pointedly ends his review of the Oxford History of the British Empire (LRB, 25 April) with a remark that New Labour looks eager to take up the white man’s burden. No more than Old Labour, surely, with its Kenyan groundnuts scheme, or the socialist tradition in general. Indeed a lot less. Marx and Engels often praised ‘the right of civilisation over barbarism’. H.G. Wells closed his Anticipations in 1902 with a demand for an all-white utopia, and in an article for the New Statesman in August 1913 Sidney and Beatrice Webb called for empire without end: ‘Idle to pretend that anything like effective self-government, even as regards strictly local affairs, can be introduced for many generations to come – in some cases, conceivably never.’ Shortly before, in a letter of 1899, the Californian socialist and white-supremacist Jack London, stirred by US victories in the Spanish-American War, called it ‘unavoidable, the Black and the Brown going down before the White’. In a preface to On the Rocks in 1933 Shaw demanded socialist genocide, and in February 1938, impressed by reports of Hitler’s ethnic cleansing, he wrote to Beatrice Webb asserting ‘the right of states to make eugenic experiments by weeding out any strains that they think undesirable’. So his view of the trial of leading Serbian socialists in the Hague might have been interesting. The selective memory of the Left has chosen to forget the uniquely racist tradition of socialism over a century and more, from Marx to Shaw, when only socialists demanded genocide. Now, if we dare, we may choose to remember it.
St John’s College, Cambridge
Lorna Scott Fox’s review of Mike Davis’s Magical Urbanism (LRB, 4 April) errs in saying that the Los Angeles mayoral hopeful Antonio Villaraigosa was defeated in 2001 by the ‘Republican’ James Hahn. Hahn was also a Democrat: Los Angeles mayoral elections (like all local elections in California) are non-partisan. Further, my LA Weekly colleague Ben Ehrenreich is entitled to his quoted opinion that Mike Davis, a regular contributor to the Weekly, was ‘driven from the city by a campaign of Red-baiting disguised as fact-checking’. But, leaving aside the fact that Davis admitted to such gaffes as mistaking a novel for a work of history, what might really have sent him packing was his winning a six-figure MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ grant, along with a prestigious teaching fellowship at a suburban New York University. This kind of ‘Red-baiting’ might have chased me out of LA, too.
John Lanchester (LRB, 25 April) says that the music industry can solve the problem of online piracy by making ‘it easier, and more convenient, to pay for [the] stuff than it is to steal it’. I can’t see how this will change anything. Ease of payment is not going to persuade people to stop downloading free stuff. Neither would dropping the price of CDs by half do anything to resolve the fundamental problem facing the entertainment industry: that their business is based on an approach to selling physical goods that does not work when those goods become digital. Lanchester argues that because video and audio tapes were relatively cheap, it was more of a bother to copy them than it was to go out and buy them. More to the point, if I made a copy of a cassette, the copy would be inferior to the original. In the digital world, where reproduction is perfect, a recorded song may be copied without loss of audio quality an unlimited number of times and distributed across a network with ease – and that reduces the dollar value of any one copy almost to zero. The entertainment industry has little to offer the hard-core music fan that he or she can’t get already: namely, unfettered access to the largest catalogue of recorded music that has ever been available.