Vol. 8 No. 20 · 20 November 1986

Search by issue:


SIR: Most authors probably become inured to the greater or lesser distortion of their work by reviewers. I am certainly no exception. However, the discrepancy between the analyses offered by Norbert Elias and myself in Quest for Excitement and most of the things attributed to us by Edmund Leach (LRB, 23 October) is so great that I should be grateful if you would allow me to correct one or two of his more blatant misrepresentations.

I propose to deal with three basic points: that our book is mainly about sport, particularly football, and that ‘leisure activities which are not contests between rival teams of players … are ignored,’ thus making the subtitle, Sport and Leisure in the Civilising Process, ‘quite inappropriate’; that Elias’s theory of civilising processes is a ‘very Germanic, 19th-century idea of long-term social progress’, and that it was first formulated ‘precisely at the time when Hitler was refuting the argument on the grandest scale’; and finally, that the research into football hooliganism that I am conducting with Patrick Murphy and John Williams asserts that hooliganism is ‘a cathartic substitute for the brutalities that are now forbidden’ and that, in arguing that football hooligans come mainly from the ‘rougher’ sections of the lower working class, we ignore the equivalent forms of behaviour engaged in by Oxbridge undergraduates, rugby players and other members of the higher social classes. Each of these assertions is so wildly removed from what is actually written in Quest for Excitement that I suspect that Leach can only have read the book superficially. Either that or, presumably on the basis of his commitment to some rival paradigm, he has constructed a text of his own. Let me deal with these points one by one:

1. At least half of the Introduction and all of the first two essays in Quest for Excitement – around eighty out of a total of 313 pages – are devoted to an attempt to lay the foundations for a sociological theory of leisure. A whole gamut of spare-time and leisure activities is discussed in this connection, and leisure activities – in general and not just contest sports – are conceptualised as involving a ‘quest for excitement’ as a counter to the routinisation that a civilising process is held to entail. Centrally involved in the construction of this theory is an attempt to lay the groundwork for a sociological theory of emotions.

2. Implicit in Leach’s review is the idea that Norbert Elias – a German of Jewish descent who lost both parents in the holocaust and was forced to flee to England – must have been peculiarly detached from the horrors that engulfed his native country in the Thirties. In fact, the theory of civilising processes that he began to elaborate in that situation is not some latterday version of a 19th-century ‘progress theory’ but a testable, reality-orientated theory about the relationships between state-formation, particularly the formation of reliable central monopolies of force and taxation, and personality structure, social standards and behaviour. In brief, it involves an attempt to theorise the empirical differences that are observable in these regards both before the establishment of such relatively stable monopolies and afterwards in the relatively pacified social spaces that are opened up. My summary fails to do justice to the richness, subtlety and complexity of Elias’s study but it does show that his theory is testable, oriented just as much to ‘regressions’ as to ‘progress’, and does not repeat 19th-century mistakes. Nor is there anything peculiarly ‘Germanic’ about it. In fact, pace Leach, it is he rather than Elias who is ethnocentric and out of date.

3. The Leicester research into football hooliganism is an attempt to explain structurally why sections of the British working class have remained relatively unprotected by the state monopoly of violence and why, under the living conditions they experience, ‘fighting gangs’ and pronounced forms of ‘aggressive masculinity’ are recurrently generated. It is these gangs who are the core football hooligans of today, and their behaviour, although it is a variant of the overall masculinity norms of British society, is demonstrably different from that of ‘hooligans’ from higher up the social scale. For example, it involves both a greater stress on fighting as a source of identity, status and meaning, and a markedly different interpretation of what constitutes publicly acceptable behaviour.

Eric Dunning
Leicester University

The Strange Death of Mehmet Shehu

SIR: I am grateful to Frank Walbank for his informative letter in the last issue about my article about Mehmet Shehu (Letters, 6 November). It is often hard to find out the truth about what happens in Albania, and even harder to have it confirmed authoritatively. I tried to present a hypothesis (‘What seems to have happened is …’), which is not invalidated by Mr Walbank’s information – most of which is available in the volume From the Annals of British Diplomacy by Arben Puto. It is known that Puto and a colleague visited the British archives in 1972. Mr Walbank’s key point is: ‘if Mr Puto passed information concerning Shehu culled from FO archives to Enver Hoxha, this must have happened by autumn 1972.’ This criticism would be valid only if it could be proven that the information about Shehu was discovered by the Albanian researchers in 1972. I do not believe this to be the case.

Mr Walbank’s argument is that the Albanian researchers published a ‘preliminary’ report in an Albanian magazine in 1972-73, and that the 1980 German edition of Puto’s book carries a preface dated 1976. The English-language edition, too, carries a preface dated 1976. But it also has an (undated) ‘Introduction’ which from internal evidence can’t be earlier than 1980. Furthermore, the preface to the 1981 English-language edition says that the book version is different from the 1972-3 magazine report. The fact that research is known to have been carried out in 1972, and that the 1981 volume carries a preface dated 1976, does not date the discovery of the information about Shehu. After as careful investigation as was possible, I was led to believe, and do still believe, that the Albanian research effort was not completed in 1972, that a subsequent visit was made to the British archives – which fits with the timing I suggested – and that this later research was crucial in unearthing information which led to the demise of Shehu.

If Mr Walbank were right, one would have to find an answer to one of the following questions: either a. how did the Albanian researchers dare to sit on the information about Shehu (if they discovered it in 1972)? or b. how could Hoxha not react to such information for a very long time (there is a big difference between nine years and a few months)? This conundrum poses more problems than my hypothesis. Further, although Mr Walbank is quite right to say that ‘an announcement had been made in the House to the effect that the 30-year rule would be waived for the FO documents on the Second World War,’ unwary readers should not take this to mean that all FO documents on World War Two were released in 1972. Many were withheld – and still are withheld – both within individual files released and as entire files. The files marked for release in 1972 contain many slips which record withholding – sometimes for 50 or even 75 years. It is also worth noting that some of the documentary evidence cited by Hoxha against Shehu comes, not from FO files, but from War Office files. Several former members of SOE in Albania told me of key documents concerning SOE and Albania which had failed to appear in the FO files in the PRO as of 1984-86.

As for Mr Hodgkinson’s letter in the same issue, I am sure our former intelligence operatives will enjoy being told that their reports qualify as ‘casual innuendo’ and ‘diplomatic gossip’. I have had my own doubts about the perspicacity of some British agents at times: nonetheless, I cannot believe that Hoxha would have thought the SOE reports were only ‘innuendo’ and ‘gossip’.

Mr Hodgkinson claims that I do ‘less than justice to the cold, coherent patience characteristic of Enver Hoxha’. I have never underestimated these features, as I think is amply demonstrated in the volume I recently edited, The Artful Albanian: The Memoirs of Enver Hoxha, in which I also cover in detail Hoxha’s successive eliminations of his rivals, real and alleged, and his accusations against Shehu, which I characterised as a fairy-tale. Mr Hodgkinson reproaches me for not addressing the question of whether the initiative to get rid of Shehu came from Hoxha in person or from protégés and associates. In my volume I do discuss the succession question, on which there must have been debate (in 1981 Hoxha was 73 and Shehu was 68). One reason I did not address this particular issue in my article is that I have absolutely no way of knowing the answer to the question, but the main reason is that it is not relevant to the main point I was trying to make: that there is one piece of important evidence in the puzzle which is available, on the record, and which had been largely ignored – namely, that British documents of the time spoke of Shehu as a possible pro-British element in an anti-Hoxha struggle. This much is certain. It is also certain that some of these documents came to the attention of the Albanian authorities and of Hoxha personally, as is manifest from his published writing. It is not certain when the Albanian authorities and Hoxha came to know about these documents. From the investigations I have been able to carry out, I do not believe it was in 1972, but that it was much later. And, in spite of Mr Hodgkinson’s emphasis on Hoxha’s patience, there is no case, to my knowledge, of Hoxha sitting on information which casts doubt on the allegiance of a top colleague for anything like nine years.

Jon Halliday
London, SW5

Milton’s Republic

SIR: After having had so much to say, David Norbrook is suddenly silent. I have a suggestion to pep up our correspondence and rekindle his interest. He thinks that Milton could not possibly have meant his 1668 note to Paradise Lost seriously. Whether this is the view of the collective critical industry of the last quarter-century, or something David Norbrook thought up five minutes ago, he still hasn’t told us. The suspense is unbearable, no?

I think that Milton’s stated reasons are entirely adequate: namely, that rhyme vexes, hinders and constrains poets ‘to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse than else they would have exprest them’. However naive this 1668 note may seem to modern readers – who know, for instance, that formal restrictions can stimulate invention, etc, etc – it happens to embody an elementary but permanent truth which David Norbrook can easily test for himself. This is my suggestion. In future, all our letters should be written in terza rima, or, better still, the Pushkin stanza. For me, I confess, this will be tedious, but not impossible. For David Norbrook, it will be a breeze. So he can have first go. If he has nothing new to say, perhaps he would like to rhyme up his first letter of two and a half columns?

Craig Raine


SIR: Robin Chapman’s review of Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote – which was a dream (LRB, 18 September) prompts me to write to question your reasons for noticing such a book. Amid an otherwise illuminating piece Chapman disposed of Acker’s book with a somewhat tired and routine half-paragraph: as someone who persevered through her earlier opus Blood and Guts in Highschool I doubt that it merited any more than that, but this does make one wonder why you bothered to notice it. Cervantes’s novel has been inspiration for a host of imitations, variations and pastiches since its first appearance, not to mention a mountain of critical studies, and it may be that Robin Chapman’s intention was simply to round up some of the more recent examples of this proliferation, in which case Acker’s book would quite naturally have fallen into his net. One cannot help but be aware, however, of the extraordinary hype which has accompanied publication of Acker’s work in England in recent years. This seems to me to have been a perfect example of how a large publisher with an imaginative publicity department can command attention in respectable journals for books which would not merit such notice on the basis of their contents alone. If an author is actively hyped by his or her publisher, a situation is created whereby critical journals may, quite rightly, feel obliged to offer their readers an opinion on that author which the work itself would not otherwise justify. Whether or not your own review was prompted in this way most reviews of Acker’s work which have appeared seem to have been: and any such review automatically robs genuinely exciting and original writers of space which might otherwise be devoted to them.

As Robin Chapman’s piece demonstrated, to try to write about Acker’s work is a thankless task. There are, I think, only two questions of any interest which might arise from it. The first is, given that the tremendously talented, radical, exciting and readable writer Kathy Acker does not exist, why have so many reviewers, literary columnists and interviewers here and in America found it necessary, or desirable, to invent her? The second is how does such an intelligent, sensitive, articulate person as Kathy Acker proved herself to be in a South Bank Show television programme devoted to her work manage to write so much to so little effect? As an early reviewer of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road exclaimed, unjustly on that occasion: ‘This is not writing, but typing.’

Simon Pettifar
Black Spring Press, London SE11

Hello to All That

SIR: Although readers of Martin Seymour-Smith’s review of the first volume of my biography of Robert Graves (LRB, 9 October) will not necessarily expect him to greet my book with unalloyed pleasure, they have a right not to be misled by him on factual details. Two small examples may suffice; despite Martin’s very kind offer to help me with Volume Two, he has used these examples as the basis for the damaging assertion that ‘where this biographer speculates, and where he can be checked, he is mistaken,’ and for the still more damaging implication that I have neglected to do ‘a little elementary homework’. One wonders, incidentally, what he would have asserted or implied had it been I, and not he, who had mistakenly added two years to Robert’s career at Charterhouse.

According to Seymour-Smith’s review, I think that a letter to an influential person ‘must have been sent well after 19 July 1917’, when in fact Seymour-Smith knows – though he did not previously tell us – that it was written on 19 July 1917. I am certainly interested to learn the precise date, but at no point do I declare that the letter must have been sent well after 19 July. On the contrary, that date fits in perfectly with my account on page 181, and also confirms my speculation on page 352 that the letter was written ‘between 19 July … and 24 July’. According to Seymour-Smith’s review, I think ‘that the press-cutting in which Sassoon announced his pacifism was Graves’s first news of it.’ This remarkable statement flies in the face both of my narrative account and of my reference notes. On page 177 of my book, for example, I specifically stated that ‘Robert was sent a copy of Sassoon’s statement on 10 July,’ and on page 352 I specifically point out that the relevant press cutting ‘was not published until 27 July 1917’. And incidentally it is Seymour-Smith on page 55 of his book who begins the sequence of events under discussion with a ‘newspaper cutting’ arriving in Graves’s post: so in this case he has not only accused me falsely, but accused me of his own error! Need I say more?

Richard Perceval Graves
Shrewsbury, Shropshire

Continental Concepts

SIR: The last issue of my favourite publication (LRB, 24 July) brought two editorial oversights. It is not too serious when Patrick Hughes in his charming diary tells us that ‘my record was 52 lengths in the half-hour – that is, 1300 metres … It is my ambition to be able to do a kilometre in half an hour, but I didn’t learn to swim until I was 33, so I am not very fast.’ After all, if he would swim a little slower, he would achieve his ambition. But when Paul Foot translates ‘a feeling for the clandestine’ as Fingerspizengefuehl [sic], he misrepresents a good word. Fingerspitzengefuehl stands for sensibility, sympathetic understanding, empathy and has overtones of tact and delicacy – hardly how Paul Foot would want to describe the activities of the President’s ‘boys’. Are these just incidental difficulties with Continental concepts, or should I also be wary of taking the LRB as my example of good English?

Kirsten Fischer Lindahl
Dallas, Texas

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences