Vol. 12 No. 24 · 20 December 1990

Search by issue:

Distaste for Leavis

Bate and Gaskin (Letters, 22 November) don’t seem very good at reading. I wrote that the Leavises criticised my experimental English teaching and deplored my politics but were not ‘mean’. That is, they were not snide or underhand. They were candid. They were generous (with time, ideas, hospitality). They defended victims (e.g. of anti-semitism). They were not prone to the Bate-Gaskin Syndrome of treating tea-and-cake as a cosily genteel rite which debars you from saying what you think or enforces a mincing politesse. How I miss their salutary honesty.

David Craig
Burton in Kendal, Cumbria

David Craig’s response (Letters, 8 November) to yet another ‘sideswipe’ at F.R. Leavis exhibited neither ‘hagiography’ nor ‘personal animus’ and might have been the alternative Michael Lee was seeking, but below Mr Lee’s letter (Letters, 22 November) you have printed a casual derogation which shows how easily sense may be traduced in the service of (Clive) Jamesian ‘wit’. The penultimate paragraph of Craig’s letter reminisces about an association which was not ‘bland or buttery’, and in illustration a few ‘tonic disagreements’ are described. These might have persuaded even readers unfamiliar with Craig’s books that his sense of the Leavises’ worth had more to do with their hospitality and intellectual integrity than ‘flank-rubbing’. With calculated malice or, perhaps more likely, a fundamental inaptitude for reading, Jonathan Bate and Hilary Gaskin compress and distort this passage to make an easy joke at Craig’s expense and sustain the usual slurs against the Leavises. No wonder, one thinks, looking elsewhere in the same issue, that Wittgenstein expressed dissatisfaction ‘with Cambridge, academic life and England generally’. In fact, this rather crappy little Cambridge emission makes salutary reading in the light of Ray Monk’s piece, which ably demonstrates how an apparently trivial biographical detail may be perpetuated until, whether true or not, it distorts the proportions of its subject.

One is of course aware that not everyone can make the kind of disinterested acknowledgment that distinguishes Mr Craig’s letter, but why, to echo Michael Lee, do they bother to register ‘acute distaste’ after so long? Clearly James, Annan, and their reviewer, Frank Kermode, aren’t expecting to awaken controversy; still less are they concerned with thought and judgment. Surely their ‘unargued jabs’ are little more than signs of belonging to or wishing to join the right gang? Consequently, especially given the rather limited reviewing connection in this country, I expect such nose-thumbings to continue, at least until that generation of establishment figures whose complacency was undermined by F.R. Leavis’s oppositional example has faded from the scene. This gloomy prognosis does, however, pull the rug out from under some of the more serious work in your paper, such as Christopher Ricks’s painstaking corrections of inaccurate quotation and inadequate scholarship. If editorially you share the concerns of Ricks and Monk, why on earth do you print letters which manifestly depend for their cheap effect on misreading English? David Craig writes that Mrs Leavis ‘did not scruple to repeat to me her son Robin’s judgment …’ and you let your correspondents get away with turning this into ‘Mrs Leavis insulted him over tea.’ Craig also writes that ‘in later years’ Leavis snubbed him because he disapproved of his left-wing politics, and refused to engage in a debate when challenged. This struck Craig as ‘idealising’. However differently it might now strike Jonathan Bate and Hilary Gaskin, I don’t think they have the right to appropriate David Craig’s recollection, ignore his essential point that despite such instances he never found the Leavises’ remarks ‘empty, or mean, or anything other than acutely illuminating’, and make him the butt of a Monty Python gag.

Evidently Mr Bate and Ms Gaskin are seeking approval so that they can join the gang. Stylistically, and in general irresponsibility, their effort seems to follow Clive James, but since Frank Kermode used James’s memoir to snipe at Leavis (LRB, 24 May), and Noel Annan’s for the same purpose (LRB, 11 October), it does seem to me that consciously or otherwise the London Review is pandering too much to pseudo-controversy and encouraging the abandonment of principles which, elsewhere, it seems to endorse. Editorial neutrality is tenable, and diverse views are welcome, but something destructively other is occurring here.

Robert Watson
Huddersfield, West Yorkshire

A footnote to Richard Wilson’s heated letter about F.R. Leavis’s ‘homophobia’ (Letters, 6 December): I remember Mrs Leavis pronouncing in a supervision that ‘actors, like homosexuals, were people to feel sorry for: victims of arrested development.’ But there were several representatives of both categories of person in the couple’s circle, and I don’t think that the prejudice – for people of that generation – could be called profound or particularly virulent. One might even say that the essays against ‘the Bloomsbury tendency’ rather scrupulously avoid scoring the sort of cheap point that Wilson’s letter quotes.

Rupert Christiansen
London SW9

Spy Books

In his interesting review of George Blake’s book (LRB, 25 October) Paul Foot describes him as ‘quite likeable’, and ‘an intriguing human character, at any rate on the television screen. On the other hand, the same George Blake continues to defy true analysis because his curious prose is so stilted and enormously boring.’ I agree with him about the early chapters of Blake’s autobiography. I asked myself after reading the sections about his Dutch boyhood: ‘How long, oh Lord, how long? Will it never end?’ A little perseverance was required; and eventually it paid off. My sympathies became increasingly engaged.

What will go on haunting me, as one of the later pioneers of the appalling cult of spy-mania, must be its sheer negativity. I noticed the other day that someone said that the espionage specialist ought to be locked up and the key thrown away, in order not to tempt weaker brethren. Our British history goes to show, however, that the professionalism of the Cecils and Walsinghams in their own generation could often shed light on such murky adventures. If it started as early as the Old Testament, as some claim, no doubt it may last until kingdom come, unless we alter our odd English habits.

Unlike most of his coevals in the Thirties and Forties, Blake had been a loner virtually from the beginning. Compared with, say, Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, or the equally redoubtable James Klugman (who seriously deserves the title of Fifth Man bestowed on someone else by Gordievsky and Andrew in their bulging tome, reviewed in your last issue by John Lloyd), he hardly changed at all. Those spies, ‘the Lord’s hand-picked Englishmen’, in Stalin’s words, mostly came from privileged backgrounds both at public school and at the ancient universities. Joining the Communist Party and then going underground was just another hoop in the fashionable behaviour of the day.

You will not discover any fresh traces of the ‘glorious five’ in Gordievsky and Andrew, no matter what the KGB and their history experts may argue to the contrary. But perhaps none of us can wholly blame the joint authors for seeking to make old facts stand up as if they were suddenly new. They seek to reveal that John Cairncross was, beyond question, the Fifth Man, but he had long ago been named as a Soviet agent.

Andrew Boyle
London W11


It was astonishing to read Marina Warner’s review of The Virago Book of Fairy-Tales (LRB, 8 November) and find that she makes no mention of the illustrations; even more surprisingly, they were not even credited in the heading. Of course, a literary review concentrates on the written word, and perhaps the reviewer doesn’t necessarily feel competent to make a judgment on the visual arts, but in a book of this kind, where the illustrations form an integral part of the whole, the omission seems unforgivable. Angela Carter says in her introduction that these tales were ‘put together with the intention of giving pleasure’: for me, the pleasure was greatly enhanced by the linocuts of Corinna Sargood, from the decorated capitals at the beginning of every tale to the full-page fantasies.

Diana Barrett


Michael Neve concludes his interesting article on the double in literature and psychological theory (LRB, 8 November) with an appreciative summing-up of past achievement and what seems to be a large invitation to the future: ‘Given the grandeur of much of what results from literary duality, and from the critical minds who have had the courage to keep it alive, it is worth looking forward to what the equivalent consequences might be of a unified age, freed of the folie à deux, and speaking the language of a love that has defeated dread.’ It is curious that he doesn’t also look back to William Blake, or even mention him among his Romantic examples. Blake didn’t, it is true, write about doubles so much as opposites (and, being no Trinitarian, he would probably not have taken kindly to the notion of ‘triples’). For him, the doppelgänger (or Spectre) is just one manifestation in the entire world of light-dark, youth-age, Satan-God, Hell-Heaven which, do what you will, is made up of contradiction. And the drama of his mythologies is played, often bewilderingly, through the multiplicity of forms into which human personality may be divided.

The point – missed or neglected by Michael Neve – is that in and through this world-dance of contrarieties, which he described as ‘a fiction’, Blake did indeed look for reality in a ‘unified ego … speaking the language of love’. He called it Jesus, the divine humanity, the spirit of life, imagination. The extent to which he himself ‘found’ it – or was found – would be impertinent and pointless to ask: but when it comes to ‘grandeur’ there is, I suppose, widespread agreement now about his stature. Yet despite the huge amount of Blake commentary and exegesis, there does seem still to be a reluctance, even among the most perspicacious, to take him on. Is it because he is too ‘difficult’, impenetrable except by specialists who know the code? Or is it because, on the contrary, what he said is difficult in another sense, too plain to bear?

Christopher Small

Educative Madness

Michael Neve (LRB, 8 November) suggests that it is within Christianity that the idea first appears that madness is in certain cases educative. There is at least one earlier expression of this thought, however: the Book of Daniel recounts the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness. He is punished for his arrogance by being driven out into the wilderness, ‘till his hair was grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws’ (Daniel 4, 33) – the description caught Blake’s imagination. But Nebuchadnezzar is allowed to learn from his experience: ‘at the end of the days I lifted up mine eyes unto heaven, and mine understanding returned unto me, and I blessed the Most High … and my majesty returned unto me … and excellent greatness was added unto me.’ Madness in this case is certainly educative and retrievable, though his latter state, like Job’s, is only the former state writ larger; one does not expect, or get, any further development.

The startling feature of Augustine’s Confessions, by contrast with these and with early Christian accounts of conversion, was that he pictured the convert not as one entering final security but rather as one beginning a difficult and dangerous journey.

James Dickie


I have spent most of my adult life struggling to understand the plays of Shakespeare, but even the most difficult Shakespearian language is easier to grasp than anything in the Bardbiz debate: cultural materialism, mystified individual autonomy, authoritarian metaphysics, cultural tokens, post-structuralism, unproblematic monads, semantic multiplicity, flexible aesthetic idioms, mechanical determinism, the literary text as an unmediated object, reading as a passive, submissive (stereotypically feminised) activity, radical metaphysics, pseudo-precise simplicities, left pessimism, metaphorical approximateness … Perhaps the Bardbiz debaters should be encouraged to spend as much of their time as possible on the bitter criticism of one another’s letters. That way the rest of us can be sure they won’t be writing on Shakespeare’s texts, thus diminishing the possibility that their gobbledygook will eventually filter through to the footnotes, confusing and depressing future generations of students, directors and actors.

John Caird
Royal Shakespeare Company,

Proof Positive

John Bayley, in his review of Carole Angier’s Jean Rhys (LRB, 22 November), complains that she confused Maidstone with Maidenhead. May I point out that because the book is a long one, and we foresaw for a variety of reasons that we would not be able to get finished copies out to reviewers in good time, we provided them with uncorrected proof copies in advance of the review copies. The printer’s error observed by John Bayley was also picked up by our proof readers. John Bayley himself was guilty of several inadvertent distortions of fact, the most important being the substitution of Stella Benson for Stella Bowen. Stella Benson had no part in Jean Rhys’s story.

Diana Athill
André Deutsch, London WC1

Essence of War

Patrick O’Brian states that John Terraine, in a recent book, quotes Jackie Fisher’s dictum: ‘the essence of war is violence, and moderation in war is imbecility’ (LRB, 30 August). It may have been Jackie Fisher’s dictum but any schoolboy would know that the quote is from Macaulay’s essay on John Hampden, which may be found in Lord Nugent’s Memorials to Hampden, December 1831.

Michael Katz
Great Neck, New York

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