The best things in life are free
Adam Shatz presents, most fastidiously, many facets of Alain Robbe-Grillet and his work, and writes with particular sensitivity about the eccentric vitality of the Robbe-Grillet clan (a vitality greatly appreciated by myself) and about Robbe-Grillet’s two great passions: literature and his ‘petite Catherine’ (LRB, 31 July).
I know that this critique will be widely read, and there’s the rub, the reason I am particularly distressed by an inaccuracy which, in view of the reputation of the LRB, is likely to be taken as gospel: I have never received ‘clients’, either in my ‘chambre secrète’ or anywhere else; neither before Alain’s death, nor after. I have only ever been a dominatrix for my personal pleasure, never ever for money! (This fact would be easy enough to verify.) Please know that it would be most prejudicial to me should such a misconception ever be taken as fact.
Château du Mesnil-au-Grain, Normandy
Old Boys’ Club
I am grateful to Susan Pedersen for her close reading of my book on R.H. Tawney, different as her interpretations sometimes are from mine (LRB, 21 August). Pedersen places Tawney, Leslie Stephen, me and the (Oxford) Dictionary of National Biography, which I have edited for ten years, and which Stephen edited first in the 1880s, in a type of old boys’ club. We have Oxbridge in common, the same literary traditions to uphold, and have followed common professional paths. Thus my ‘generosity’ to Tawney, it is argued, flows naturally from experiences and influences shared. We all of us, in her view, inhabit a common British elite culture that characterises the DNB as well.
There is, first, a simple chronological point to be made: two generations separate Tawney from Stephen; another three generations separate Tawney from me. It may be stretching things a little to imagine that ‘influence’ flows quite so easily and directly across such lapses of time.
Second, what is the nature of this influence? Stephen was a mid-Victorian intellectual liberal who lost his evangelical faith, resigned his Cambridge fellowship and grew intolerant of radicalism. Tawney, on the other hand, was a lifelong socialist and Christian. For what it is worth, I am neither of those things. Indeed, Pedersen may measure the social differences between Tawney and me in the campaigns he led. My grandparents were immigrant tailors in the East End, the indirect objects of Tawney’s concern as a member of the Edwardian Anti-Sweating League. In the interwar period Tawney gave more of his time to the cause of extending the school leaving age to 16 than to any other; my parents were both 14 when they left school in the 1930s. Taking the similarities at face value, she may miss the essential biographical differences and present an unduly narrow view of British intellectual life, which has been more open and plural than Pedersen recognises.
My admiration for Tawney, which was expressed with caveats in the book, may owe something to my having worked in adult education, as he did, but is also a reflection of the testimony of his students and contemporaries. Pedersen is suspicious of ‘character’, but these people talked and wrote freely of the resources of character that Tawney brought to his work. Compare him to other socialist intellectuals like Harold Laski or G.D.H. Cole, whose influence has waned since the mid-20th century, and the importance of character, personal authority and humanity may become clearer.
It is important to note, however, that, pace Pedersen, Leslie Stephen never adopted the evaluation of character as the ‘framework … for the Dictionary of National Biography’. In all that he wrote and said about the DNB, in public and private, Stephen emphasised that it should be sober, factual, and serviceable as a work of reference. His approach precluded heroic celebration and national self-congratulation; others may have wanted to see the DNB in those ways, but its traditions are more modest and workmanlike, which is the reason it has endured.
Pedersen warns against the ‘interiority’ – the complacency of a self-referential tradition – which she takes me to represent. But there is a danger of falling into a type of ‘exteriority’ in which the differences within British intellectual history and identity are obscured by stereotyping.
St Peter’s College, Oxford
Poor Tawney. In Susan Pedersen’s litany of failures, he didn’t have a first-class degree; was a poor husband; wrote only for men; was an inadequate political thinker; was reasonable rather than aggressive to academic thugs like Trevor-Roper; and finally (it gets really serious here) failed to wash his own socks. Pedersen claims that Lawrence Goldman’s biography doesn’t help us ‘to understand the psychic dramas that might produce such a “selfless” (or possibly self-punishing) personality’. All this is beside the point. Almost alone among the accomplished thinkers in the socialist pantheon – Cole, Webb, Shaw, Crossman, Crosland – Tawney continues to speak to people today, precisely because, in Pedersen’s terms, he deals in moral judgments while they dealt in ‘programmatic vision’.
How bad are we?
Writing of genocide, Bernard Porter states that ‘literally killing a whole race’ has been ‘the popular meaning that has attached to the word since the Nazis’ (LRB, 31 July). But the physical destruction of individuals has never been necessary or sufficient for an event to be defined as genocide. Raphael Lemkin coined the word in 1944, and explained: ‘Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a co-ordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.’ It is the group, not the individual, that is the target of genocidal destruction. So the word doesn’t have to be ‘stretched’, as Porter states, in order to include ‘humanitarian’ actions such as taking Aboriginal children away from their families and putting them into white people’s homes. Porter states that Tom Lawson thinks this is ‘not much better than literal genocide’; in fact, it is literal genocide.
Further, Porter’s statement that colonies such as New Zealand witnessed ‘nothing at all that could remotely be described as genocidal’ doesn’t make sense unless it rests on a false definition of genocide. His statement that settlers in various colonies had no reason to exterminate the natives’ cultures because they relied on the natives’ labour to work the land they had stolen from them is oxymoronic. Without land, a culture and a way of life is destroyed. Colonisation takes all the land. Ergo, colonisation is genocidal.
David Runciman’s piece about gambling reminded me of the occasion when, in the 1970s, in my capacity as a lecturer in computing and applied statistics at Birmingham University, I was approached by someone from the Gaming Board (LRB, 21 August). There was a proposal for a new variant of ‘one-armed bandit’ and they wanted an opinion as to whether it exhibited ‘random’ results. The existing electro-mechanical machines had spinning drums which were activated by a lever, and the result was determined by one particular line of symbols when the drums stopped. The jackpot was £25. It didn’t seem unreasonable to view these machines as producing random results.
The new variant was to have a jackpot of £75. If it paid out the jackpot at the same frequency as the unmodified machines for the same stake it would lose money. To maintain the odds an additional piece of machinery was fitted. Once the jackpot had been won, the new machinery would detect the next two jackpot lines and flip them over to non-winning lines. This is clearly a non-random process. The probability of winning a jackpot immediately after a win should be exactly the same as on any other play, whereas it was now zero for at least the next two spins. Having reported back I later heard that the machines had been allowed. The explanation given to me was that the Gaming Board did not feel that a judge would understand my argument so they would lose any legal case.
David Runciman captured some of the irrationality of betting but didn’t mention the ‘maxiwin’ ratio in the 1978 Rothschild report: the highest possible prize which may be won in a form of gambling in proportion to the smallest stake necessary to have a chance of winning that prize. This sort of bet allows the gambler to dream of how a huge win might be spent. The National Lottery has the highest maxiwin ratio today in the UK and is, in some ways, the most rational of bets. As one of the early winners of the jackpot, a school cleaner, said when asked if the win would change her life: ‘I bloody well hope so.’
Frant, East Sussex
Gore in Rome
Thomas Powers captures a classic evening’s conversation with Gore Vidal over dinner in Rome hosted by George Armstrong (LRB, 31 July). When Gore was in Rome accompanied by the faithful Howard and dog, he usually relied on George to provide the casual mise-en-scène for such dinners, often with a curry cooked by Johnson, his improbably named Keralese valet. Though Gore possessed unpleasant character traits and sought to intimidate the assembled company, he was forgiven for being extraordinarily entertaining. George, like Gore, came to Italy to escape the prudish confines of post-war America’s disgust at homosexual leanings. Clever, humorous and quiet, he was for many years the Guardian correspondent in Italy – the opposite of Gore, yet they were firm friends for many years. When George retired to live in New York and fell on hard times, Gore, unasked, generously helped him out, among other things by paying him to type his manuscripts. George died in 2006, this debt to Gore little known. Gore never sought to be seen as kind.
What’s he doing there?
I wonder if any LRB readers know what is happening to the house in Kardamyli in Greece which the late Patrick Leigh Fermor bequeathed to the Benaki Museum in Athens. On a recent visit I found it inhabited by a group of – presumably – writers; yet no public announcement has been made that the house has become a writers’ retreat (which was Leigh Fermor’s intention). To the hairy, shirtless, sandalled old man who occupied Paddy’s studio as though he owned the place, and who refused entry on a sweaty August morning to a travelling student, despite his pleadings (and tears): you ruined a young man’s pilgrimage.
Magdalen College, Oxford
An annual subscription to the London Review is £84 in the UK whereas in ‘Europe and the Rest of the World’ it is £108.07. Should the vote in Scotland on 18 September be in favour of leaving the UK, will part of the costs to be borne include a more expensive LRB?
Slightly disappointed that Tony Wood’s piece about Kazimir Malevich didn’t sign off with the white square found at the end of your other articles (LRB, 21 August).