Joanna Griffiths (LRB, 31 October) gives us a vivid picture of Tromsø, the place where Fridtjof Nansen located the Ultima Thule of ancient myth. She may not believe in those myths, but she does seem to subscribe to more recent ones, claiming that Norway ‘gained independence from Sweden in 1905, after centuries of colonisation’. The truth is that Norway’s centuries of colonisation essentially ended in 1814, when Norway became a free country with the most democratic constitution in Europe and acquired its own government, parliament, currency, civil laws, national defence, customs administration and so on. Whatever dependence on Sweden remained disappeared finally in 1905, when Norway chose its own king (from Denmark) and took control of its own foreign policy. Before then, in the Swedish-Norwegian Union of 1814, the two countries shared the same king (originally the French upstart Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who never bothered to learn Swedish). Their common foreign policy was handled by the Swedish Cabinet (where the Norwegians had a say from 1835 onwards). The Norwegian Left (Venstre) achieved the most in the struggle for democracy, fostering an ultranationalism (norsknorskhet) which couldn’t stand the least encroachment on national sovereignty. In the 1870s, the famous writer B. Bjørnsson was outraged when he discovered that the union flag (a mix of 50 per cent yellow-blue and 50 per cent red-white-blue, generally known as ‘the mish-mash’) in fact favoured Sweden: the blue and yellow were nearer the flagpole and therefore more distinguished in heraldic terms. That said, it is doubtful that Nansen’s Thule theory was ‘a patriot’s gift to the new nation’ as Griffiths maintains. In fact, it’s the other way round: Nansen’s theory should be seen as the fruit of an overheated nationalistic climate in Norway between 1880 and 1905. On the other hand, the political tensions between Sweden and Norway did not seriously impede a close cultural collaboration under the banner of Scandinavianism. Frithiof’s Saga, which Roald Amundsen kept with him on his travels, was written by the Swedish poet Esaias Tegnér, and consequently recited in Swedish by Nansen.
University of Linköping, Sweden
Where have all the books gone?
P.N. Furbank's review of Denton Welch: Writer and Artist (LRB, 17 October) and the subsequent letter from the book's publisher (Letters, 31 October) reminded me that I had requested the book from my library in June. The librarian, having failed to find it in an Internet search of books in print, had given up. At my prompting, she eventually located a copy in the British Library. I then asked about a couple of other recent requests that had elicited no response. An edition of Heart of Darkness together with Conrad's African diaries from Hesperus Press (a new imprint featured on Front Row and advertised in the LRB): no copy in the British Library and a total of only four copies in public libraries in the whole of the British Isles. The Autobiography of Margaret Oliphant (another LRB advertisement), edited by Elisabeth Jay: no copy in the British Library, no copy in any public library.
Buying a book is no easier. The assistant at Ottakars freaked out when I ordered The Illustrated Zuleika Dobson (widely reviewed): Yale University Press! Books are often difficult to get hold of from the States! Fortunately, her computer was able to tell her that the wholesaler (covering the entire UK) had four copies in stock.
Bookshops are full of books I don't want to read and libraries stuffed with videos I don't want to watch. Meanwhile, the many books that I do want to read are increasingly difficult to lay hands on.
The LRB is opening a bookshop in the spring.
Manager, London Review Bookshop
Who refuted the Arians?
Richard Rorty (LRB, 31 October) says twice that St Augustine was involved in the fight against the Arians. Surely he means St Athanasius. From the Nicean Council in 325 until his death in 373, Athanasius was involved in refuting the Arians. Augustine was not born until 354 and by the time he died in 430, Arianism had not been powerful for decades, although it lingered on in some places. Perhaps Rorty meant to write ‘Manichaeans’, the sect Augustine himself at one time embraced then turned against.
Unfair to Scotland
Pat Kane's apology for Scotland (Letters, 14 November) is the simple inversion of Andrew O'Hagan's dirge. His equation of the Scottish press with a satisfied and sophisticated readership quickly gives the game away. Doesn't he realise that North of the Border we endure one of the most diminished print media in Europe? In this context the rhetorical clouds begin to clear: the key organs of description and diagnosis are out of our hands.
Unfair to the US
Peter Reavy (Letters, 31 October) complains that the LRB is riding a hobby-horse about Iraq. It should be clear to him that the hobby-horse is actually being ridden by the Bush regime, who never talk about anything else. It's pretty clear that Bush came to power determined to wage war on his pet demon Saddam by hook or by crook. He was briefly distracted by 11 September, but has now allowed al-Qaida to regroup and rearm while he rabbits on daily about Iraq, a secular state that has nothing to do with Islamic extremism: the Baath Party is explicitly anti-clerical and often attacked by the imams. But Iraq is a much easier target to find than al-Qaida. Hence, quite apart from oil, its attraction.
In the same issue, Andrew Glencross confuses everything by lumping together the America of George Marshall (nearly sixty years ago) with that of Perle, Rice and Cheney. The former was a benevolent influence on Europe; the latter is a danger to the world and to itself.
While it is obviously true, as Derick Schilling reminds us (Letters, 31 October), that ‘Likud does not run Washington,’ it is no less obviously true that between its programme and the aims and actions of American policy-makers there is a community of outlook, temperament and thought. Nor was Anatol Lieven simple-mindedly arguing that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait ‘because of Israel’, as Schilling suggests. But it is the formulation of Schilling’s final remark, with its innuendo of racism and bigotry, that is most revealing. American public opinion – popular and academic-intellectual – has proved unwilling or unable to acquaint itself with the many Islams and the many kinds of Muslim in the world, choosing instead to set up such straw men as Schilling’s ‘Islam’, or the ‘Arabs’, or the ‘Palestinians’. It is precisely the failure ‘to distinguish the suicide bombings from the jihadist attack of 11 September’ – precisely this failure to draw distinctions – that accounts for the unqualified American support of the acts being perpetrated by Israel in the Occupied Territories.
While I was disappointed by the cuts made in my response (Letters, 31 October) to Anatol Lieven's discussion of the Bush Administration's position on Iraq, I understand that it is standard practice for publications to shorten letters. What surprised and angered me was that the sentence,
And if many Americans are currently unsympathetic to Palestinian claims because of revulsion over the jihadist massacres in Israel, it's probably because we can't easily distinguish these atrocities from the jihadist massacres of September 11,
was changed, without my approval or knowledge, to:
And if many Americans are currently unsympathetic to Palestinian claims, it's probably because we can't easily distinguish the suicide bombings from the jihadist attack of 11 September.
In his account of my biography of Milton, Tom Paulin comments that I have ‘oddly’ called Milton’s Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio Secunda or Second Defence of the English People his ‘least attractive work’ (LRB, 8 August). That would indeed be an odd judgment, had I made it, but my statement in fact refers to Milton’s Pro Se Defensio or Defence of Himself, about whose rank in the scale of Milton’s prose most Miltonists agree.
At No. 42
Like John Lanchester (LRB, 17 October), I have fallen out of love with professional football. He laments the decline of the game since the introduction of the English Premiership in 1991. However, in English Journey, his account of a tour of the country in 1933, J.B. Priestley describes a game between Notts County and Notts Forest:
Nearly everything possible has been done to spoil this game; the heavy financial interests; the absurd transfer and player selling system; the lack of any birth or residential qualification for the players; the betting and coupon competitions; the absurd publicity given to every feature of it by the Press; the monstrous partisanship of the crowds (with their idiotic cries of ‘play the game Ref’ when any decision against their side is given); but the fact remains that it is not yet spoilt and it has gone out to conquer the world.
Has the game changed or the spectator?
S.A. Skinner comments on the fate of the Ecole Normale on this side of the Channel (Letters, 17 October). Today the Normal College in Bangor forms part of the University College of North Wales, but it was established in 1858 (thus predating the University), three years after Kneller Hall closed, and takes its name from the fact that it was intended to introduce Ecole Normale methods of teacher-training to this country.
Apropos R.B. Russell’s attack on my review of James Methuen-Campbell’s biography of Denton Welch (Letters, 31 October), I was hoping that readers would take the point that at the time of Welch’s intense infatuation with ‘Dr Farley’ he was, as is stressed in A Voice through a Cloud, a very sick man, prone to wildly unbalanced behaviour. This was not his normal style in his relationships. I ought perhaps to have spelled this out.
Readers who enjoyed the extract from Mallarmé’s Notes for Anatole’s Tomb (LRB, 14 November) may be interested to know that the full French text, with Patrick McGuinness’s parallel translation and essay on the ‘poetry of the undecidable’, will be published as For Anatole’s Tomb by Carcanet in the UK and Routledge in the US next June.
Carcanet Press, Manchester
Anthony Thwaite’s geography is as dubious as Murray Sayle’s if he thinks that ‘Kyushu is about as far south as one can get in Japan’ (Letters, 31 October). Hateruma Island, the southernmost inhabited point in Japan, is about 800 km below the southern tip of Kyushu. The uninhabited Okinotori Island (administratively part of Tokyo), at about 1200 km south of Kyushu, is absolutely as far south as one can get in Japan.