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Here was a plague

Whatever sins can be blamed on Thatcherism, the fact that 60 per cent of Edinburgh’s injecting drug users (IDUs) turned out to be HIV positive when testing began in the mid-1980s cannot be attributed to Thatcherite policies, as Tom Crewe implies they can be (LRB, 27 September). It certainly puzzled epidemiologists that in no other British city (including Glasgow, less than fifty miles away) was the figure much higher than about 10 per cent, and in many places it was much lower. There are two main hypotheses. First, there was a crackdown by Edinburgh police on the carrying of syringes (leading to more sharing of paraphernalia) and an almost complete lack of methadone maintenance treatment (MMT) in Scotland at the time. However, in 2001 a study found that more than half of London IDUs were still sharing; they were just less likely to share with strangers. As for methadone, the decision of the British addiction establishment to discourage MMT in the early 1980s, just as the first dependable controlled trials showed how helpful it could be and just as the HIV epidemic was exploding, made MMT increasingly difficult to obtain across the whole of the UK. Governments played absolutely no part in that decision. The policy was reversed towards the end of the 1990s, but only after many lives had been needlessly damaged or lost. Calvinist attitudes may have made MMT even harder to obtain in Scotland, but only somewhat.

The second, more likely explanation for Edinburgh’s unique epidemic is its festival, one of the oldest and largest in the world. Many Americans attend or take part; unrecognised HIV infection exploded among gay Americans around 1980, long before other Western countries and sub-groups; and sexual minorities are over-represented in the arts. Also, it’s difficult to believe that Edinburgh’s IDUs ignored the opportunities the festival provided for locals to earn extra money. Heroin addicts are often driven to do things they would prefer not to do: shoplifting, small-scale drug-dealing, selling sex. Both male and female addicts do that, including men who don’t identify as gay or bisexual: hence the categorisation of at-risk populations simply as ‘MSM’, Men who have Sex with Men.

Around 1980, therefore, what had been virologically unhazardous encounters for gay (or adaptable) Edinburgh IDUs in the 1970s suddenly became extremely dangerous, but it wasn’t until about three years later that anyone realised this and began to act on it. During that short but crucial period, many people in many countries got infected with HIV who might have avoided infection had they known more than the experts knew. Edinburgh had far more IDUs in that category because the Edinburgh Festival attracted far more unknowingly HIV-positive gay and bisexual Americans per head of the local population than other British cities and they often stayed for several weeks.

Between 1980 and 1983, I provided a (rarely requested) psychiatry service to a busy NHS London STD clinic. Increasing numbers of otherwise healthy gay men were mentioning, in passing, that they had noticed enlarged but painless lymph glands. Many had visited the US. If we removed a gland and sent it for microscopic examination, nothing specific was ever found. Naturally, we reassured them: ‘Lot of it about, probably a virus, no need to worry, expect it will settle, come back if it doesn’t.’ We certainly didn’t say: ‘On no account have sex with anyone unless you or they are wearing a condom. And don’t forget to make a will.’

Colin Brewer
London SE1

I was completely knocked back reading Tom Crewe’s essay on Aids, back to my life in 1990, when HIV and Aids dominated much of what I did as a women’s health and reproductive rights activist, and as a writer and editor. The first thing I wrote about HIV was in 1985, when it struck me that the use of untested donated blood in transfusions designed to treat anaemia in pregnancy and to prevent maternal deaths from haemorrhage may have been one of the main reasons women in Africa were getting HIV.

Crewe focuses on gay men in the US and UK. HIV/Aids as a major factor in women’s health wasn’t officially acknowledged by international agencies until a meeting in Paris in November 1989. The issue first received public recognition on World Aids Day on 1 December 1990, and professional attention at the eighth International Aids Conference in Amsterdam in 1992. Women were getting ill and dying all that time, but they knew nothing. The years of delay in making antiretroviral (ARV) treatment available in Africa, and especially to pregnant women to prevent transmission during pregnancy and breastfeeding, are unconscionable. I recall being ridiculed when I said at a Department for International Development meeting with NGOs that was designed to address HIV in the global South, that it was urgent to get ARV treatment to Africa. The senior DFID representative scoffed that that would never happen, it cost far too much. I was not invited to attend another meeting.

The number of people who died in the prime of their lives doesn’t allow for Crewe’s nostalgia about the pre-HIV gay sex scene. The people with HIV I talked to for my book with Sunanda Ray, Women and HIV/Aids (1993), weren’t worried about missing out on the fun of sex. They were anxious about ‘the risk of infection that they represented to others; social, occupational, domestic and sexual hostility and rejection; being abandoned and left alone in pain; an inability to alter their circumstances; the ability of partners, family, friends and others to cope with their problems; the availability of treatment and care; the possible loss of privacy and confidentiality; a declining ability to cope; and the loss of physical and financial independence’.

Marge Berer
London EC2

Tom Crewe writes: I don’t think I’m ‘nostalgic’ for the pre-HIV sex scene – envious, certainly. Nor did I claim that people with HIV felt themselves to be ‘missing out on the fun of sex’, though it would be very odd if this wasn’t one aspect of the appalling misery of infection, especially in the pre-symptom period – Oscar Moore and Derek Jarman both thought it was and I quoted them saying so. Marge Berer’s broader implication, that because gay sex became in the 1970s the vector for a previously unrecognised disease, it must for ever fall under its shadow, is more troubling. Let’s try a thought experiment: if we view the days when heterosexuals could have sex without risking HIV transmission as a happier time, in Africa for example, are we guilty of nostalgia? Are we somehow invalidating or diminishing the subsequent suffering? I don’t think so. Lurking here seems to be an old assumption: that casual, non-procreative sex with multiple partners can only ever be trivial, superfluous, a ‘lifestyle choice’. Perhaps it was a problem all along.


He got it all from me!

Colin Burrow, in his review of Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s biography of Robert Graves, would not be quite so bemused if he had a better understanding of the background to Graves’s work (LRB, 11 October). Burrow’s irritation with The White Goddess (1948) is instructive. I once said to Laura Riding: ‘But there are some good ideas in there [The White Goddess], aren’t there?’ She drew her shoulders up and smacked the table. ‘Of course there are!’ she said, eyes wide. ‘He got it all from me!’ The figure of the ‘white goddess’ itself sprang from her earliest collection of poems, The Close Chaplet (1926), although she makes perfect sense of the notion, while Graves exaggerates it to a grotesque extent. The lengthy discourse in The White Goddess on words and their meanings, and their ‘sympathetic associations’ with each other (e.g., apple = Avalon = Apollo and so on) derive directly from Riding’s essays and writings on language, from Contemporaries & Snobs (1928), Anarchism Is Not Enough (1928), and on and on through her work, including her poems. The confusion shared by all commentators concerning The White Goddess and, equally, any number of Graves’s poems, is down to the fact they have not bothered to read Riding’s work. As Graves emphatically wrote in 1963, when he was still clear-minded, to his critic Douglas Day (Swifter than Reason), until critics understood her, they would not understand him.

By contrast with The White Goddess, Burrow finds The Reader over Your Shoulder (1943) ‘very readable’ and with ‘much sound advice’. The sparkling spring for that book is to be found in Laura Riding’s essay, ‘The Exercise of English’ (1936). Graves gives no acknowledgment of Riding in his book. So much for her, ‘the maddest woman’. So much for Nancy Nicholson, a ‘feminist’. So much for Beryl Graves (‘Beryl Pritchard’, as Burrow calls her), somehow on ‘the edge of this magnetic circle of master manipulators for some time’. So much for Margot Callas, with ‘a shelf-life of only about three years’. Burrow and Moorcroft Wilson don’t get it: Graves could not have survived without them. They kept him to a proportion – ‘Blup, blup, blup,’ Nicholson and Riding used to sing to him whenever he pontificated. He knew their value. Take, for example, the quotation Burrow finds in Wilson’s book:

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

This is from one of Graves’s finest poems, critics agree, ‘The Cool Web’, published in 1926 in a collection dedicated to ‘NN and LR’. Guess where the ‘cool web of language’ comes from. Guess where the entire meaning comes from.

‘Facts matter,’ Burrow says. Well, fictions abound in his review, as they do in Wilson’s book. Riding’s ‘auto-defenestration’ wasn’t from a ‘fourth-storey window’: it was the third storey. Graves’s house in Mallorca was not ‘funded chiefly by royalties from I, Claudius’; it was bought jointly by Riding and Graves, was designed by Riding, and was registered in Riding’s name in 1932, two years before I, Claudius was published. ‘In collaboration with Riding he wrote A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927),’ Burrow says. No, he didn’t write it: she wrote it, he collaborated, as recent scholarship, of which Moorcroft Wilson and Burrow seem blithely unaware, demonstrates.

The ‘fact’ is that acknowledgment of Riding’s place in Graves’s work would enhance his reputation, not diminish it, by lending it a sane perspective. Graves was a fine poet, as Burrow acknowledges, and never more so than during his 14-year association with Riding, which even his previous biographers admit. What does that suggest?

Mark Jacobs
Nottingham Trent University


Churchill at the BBC

Gillian Nelson and Raymond Clayton’s childhood memories of the BBC prompted two vivid memories of my own (Letters, 27 September). The first is from 3 September 1939, my parents’ joint birthday; I was four at the time. It was a Sunday, and we were moving into the front room from our normal living quarters, the kitchen. There was a ritual lighting of a fire and the transfer of a large wooden wireless powered by two large batteries, recharged weekly at the village garage. Shortly after the wireless was up and running I was called to order and my attention focused on a solemn male voice. I sometimes believe that I remember the words, but I presume that is the effect of many subsequent hearings. My mother began to cry. My father comforted her. I inquired as to the reason for this dismay on a day intended for rejoicing. My father replied that a war had been declared and that it would bring a great deal of trouble and misery.

The other memory is provoked by Raymond Clayton’s recollection of Churchill’s broadcasts and the sense they conveyed of ‘reassurance and resolve’. I come from a South Yorkshire coalmining community and Churchill’s reputation was poisonous – it would have been difficult to say who was the greater enemy, Hitler or Churchill. Hitler annoyed us with his overflights of bomber squadrons, during which we were forced to take shelter in a cellar reinforced by discarded pit props. But Churchill’s voice on the wireless or appearance on the cinema newsreel rekindled memories of his role in the Tonypandy coal strike of 1910-11 and his vitriolic opposition to the miners during the 1926 lock-out, which marked the beginning of an era of hardship in mining communities that lasted until the outbreak of war. I remember the reaction to the most celebrated of Churchill’s wartime speeches. Again I am unsure of my recollection of his words. I am sure of the reaction: ‘Aye, our sweat, our toil, our tears – he’ll be eating best steak and smoking his bloody cigar’; and ‘We’ll be doing the fighting, that bugger’s got a plane waiting to take him to Canada’; and ‘He talks as though he’s got a tomato stuffed in his mouth.’

Coal production was a chronic, disabling problem throughout the war. The ‘Bevin Boy’ conscripts were generally discontented with their fate and no more enthusiastic than the existing miners. I have no memory, and can find no report, of Churchill visiting a mining community. Apparently his name is still anathema in what are now ex-mining communities.

John Robbins
Crafers, South Australia

It is possible that the people described by Ian Jack as having false memories of hearing Churchill’s Dunkirk speech on the wireless in 1940 did in fact hear it, less than two weeks later (LRB, 30 August). Harold Nicolson was present when the speech was made in the House of Commons on 4 June. On 17 June he referred in his diary to a speech Churchill had broadcast the previous day: ‘I do wish that Winston would not talk on the wireless unless he is feeling in good form. He hates the microphone and when we bullied him into speaking last night, he just sulked and read his House of Commons speech over again.’ Nicolson doesn’t say which speech he is referring to, but the rest of the entry suggests that it was the one about Dunkirk: ‘Now as delivered in the H of C that speech was magnificent, especially the concluding sentences. But it sounded ghastly on the wireless. All the great vigour he put into it seemed to evaporate.’

Geoffrey Taunton
Montmorillon, France


What to do with the Kaiser?

Stephen Sedley takes issue with a ‘concocted’ Daily Mail story claiming that the Kaiser would be ‘held in the Tower pending a trial at which he would be prosecuted by the solicitor-general’, ‘the bombastic’ Sir Gordon Hewart (LRB, 11 October). In fact, the Daily Mail wasn’t entirely wrong; plans for a trial involving Hewart were being drawn up. The British couldn’t predict for certain what the Dutch would do with the ex-Kaiser once the Treaty of Versailles entered into force, or indeed whether he would stay put or flee to another country. Hewart, by now attorney-general, began to lay the groundwork for Wilhelm’s prosecution just in case he did fall into the Entente’s hands. The procurator-general, Sir John Mellor; a departmental lawyer, R.W. Woods; and two silks, George Branson and Frederick Pollock, set to work on a trial plan.

Pollock, envisaging the proceedings, asked: ‘What would I do if I were William’s counsel?’

I should advise him to follow Charles I’s example – protest against the jurisdiction and the Court, and say nothing more. But if he decided to plead, then

1. Admit nothing, claim all the rights of a prisoner in an English criminal court, require strict proof of all material facts[.]

2. Make all possible dilatory objections.

3. Rely on the usual German arguments only as a last resource.

After the Dutch refused to hand over the ex-Kaiser, Hewart pulled the plug on the British prosecution plan. The ill-starred Woods was given a new project to work on: the trials of Wilhelm’s subordinates at Leipzig for war crimes.

Kirsten Sellars
Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, London WC1


There’s nothing harder

E.P. Thompson had an ‘epiphany’, according to Katrina Navickas, when on moving out of his comfortable intellectual milieu in 1948, he engaged in adult education in Leeds (LRB, 11 October). Thompson had grown up during the rise of fascism in the 1930s, joined the British army, served in tanks in Italy, had a brother executed in Bulgaria while fighting for the Partisans against the Nazis, returned home after the war and within six months led a railway track-laying gang in Yugoslavia in support of the Communists. Nothing, though, one must conclude, in comparison to the life-changing effects of teaching adults.

Eoin Dillon
Dublin


Shame on you, Mr Lorentzen

Christian Lorentzen should be ashamed of himself (LRB, 13 September). He writes that Alex Blum got ‘fired from his job as a youth hockey coach when parents protested at the presence of a felon in the rink. He was no longer even allowed to drive the machine that smoothed the ice.’ That machine is called a Zamboni, a vehicle much loved for its Zen-like glide and a name (its inventor’s) suggestive of a mammoth tube of pasta, whose pronunciation evokes an immediate, curious joy. Opportunities to say or write the word ‘Zamboni’ are not to be wasted, Mr Lorentzen.

Lee Gillette
Brussels


His kitchen hat was red

Clara Magnani claims that Napoleon tried to poach Chateaubriand’s chef (Letters, 11 October). Surely Napoleon, who was not renowned for his cooking abilities, would have got his own chef to do the deed. Though what ‘poached chef’ tastes like, I suppose only the French would be tempted to answer.

Andy Boobier
Skipton, North Yorkshire