Vol. 14 No. 24 · 17 December 1992

Search by issue:

Tiananmen Revisited

The substance of Philippa Tristram’s article (LRB, 19 November) seems to be that the violent crushing of the democracy movement in China in 1989 is both understandable and excusable. It happened, she says, because the Chinese authorities were inexperienced at crowd control, and anyway not many died. And she seems to imply that the students were naughty to have done what they did, because they disrupted President Gorbachev’s visit. She further points out that there is more food on sale in China than in Eastern Europe, so its people should be applauding not demonstrating. Our organisation is concerned with human rights issues in the People’s Republic of China. Our monitoring of arrests, trials, executions, censorship and repression in China following the events of 1989, and our work with Chinese refugees and exiles, afford us a perspective from which Philippa Tristram’s apology for China’s leaders appears profoundly ill-informed and misplaced. In 1989 millions all over China took the only political action open to them in the hope of securing increased liberties and more say over their own lives. Their efforts were brutally suppressed. Repression continues: we have a large, carefully checked body of evidence, continually updated, which Miss Tristram is welcome to consult. It will show her that her article is of a piece with David Irving revisionism, and does a very profound disservice to the Chinese people.

A.C. Grayling
June 4 China Support, London SE1

On record

Moved by the remarkable photograph of a devastated library on your current issue (3 December), I tore off the wrapper with more alacrity than usual. I was dismayed to find that the caption contained yet another fashionable jibe at the new British Library. May I put on record that at least one reader of the LRB would like to see the BL open and in working order as soon as possible? All these jibes achieve is an encouragement to government to cut, cut and cut again. Is that what the LRB really wants?

Margaret Drabble
London NW3

More a lament than a jibe. Everyone would like to see the new building in working order. In the meantime a dismal building is made ever more dismal by chronic incompletion.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Sterling Crises

Assessing my biography of Harold Wilson, R.W. Johnson asserts that ‘one of Pimlott’s central judgments is that Wilson was right to resist devaluation’ (LRB, 3 December). That is a serious misreading: my actual opinion, made clear in the book, is the opposite. I go to some lengths to explain Wilson’s obsessive concern to defend the exchange value of the currency, which can be traced back to the sterling crisis of 1949. But I do not indicate that I agree with it. On the contrary, what I argue is that the failure to devalue voluntarily and when not under pressure was one of Wilson’s most damaging and tragic errors.

Ben Pimlott
Birkbeck College,

Britain’s Thermonuclear Bluff

We are glad that Denis MacShane (Letters, 19 November) has raised the question of US policy with respect to nuclear co-operation between Britain and France. It is true that the US has provided France with informal help on her nuclear programme, but as MacShane points out, this help did not breach US Atomic Energy legislation. After over thirty years of US-UK collaboration any exchange of nuclear weapon design information between Britain and France would almost certainly breach that legislation as well as the US-UK agreement on nuclear collaboration for military purposes, unless the appropriate US authorities were to agree to the exchange. And that cannot be taken for granted. In fact Mr Heath was initially keen on nuclear collaboration with France during the negotiations of 1970-72 which led to British accession to the European Community. But Lord Carrington, then Secretary of Defence, persuaded him that there was no point in pursuing the matter because of ‘Britain’s difficulties of disclosing nuclear information received from the Americans’.

The problems of Anglo-French collaboration on nuclear weapon design and manufacture have been reviewed by Andrew Pierre in Nuclear Politics and more fully by Ian Smart in his Adelphi Paper of 1973. The main problem is that even where the warhead is said to be of British design – the warhead used in the Polaris Chevaline system, for example – it is almost impossible to establish that no design information originated in the US. If Britain wished to build a new warhead with the French based on that design for a new standoff missile, the US would be bound to point out to Britain that the design incorporated information of US origin.

A little-known precedent illustrates the point. In the late Sixties Britain was wanting to collaborate with Germany and Holland in setting up a uranium enrichment plant using centrifuge technology, which had been under development in all three countries. But Britain was planning to use a bearing and other components for the centrifuge which had some resemblance to components developed under its 1955 collaboration agreement with the US on civil nuclear energy. This agreement also contained a restriction on transfer to third parties of US-origin information. In spite of the peaceful purpose of the proposed plant, and the fact that the components proposed were substantially different from the original US designs, the US formally asserted a claim that US-origin information was involved. Lawrence Freedman discusses the incident in Britain and Nuclear Weapons.

In this case Britain successfully resisted the US and the Treaty of Almelo was finally agreed between the three countries in 1970. Britain argued that technology constantly evolves and that it was therefore necessary to have a cut-off in the development process after which any claim of national origin was pointless. While this was accepted by the US or at least not pursued further, we cannot imagine that the US would take a similar line over weapon design information. Indeed the ultimate penalty for transferring weapon design information to nationals of other countries without consent is still death under US law and the US has never worried overmuch about the extra-territorial applicability of its laws, as General Noriega would testify. So it is unlikely that Britain or indeed individual British officials would be prepared to reveal weapon design information to French nationals without US consent, and that consent would be difficult to obtain. It is possible, however, for Britain and France to collaborate on operational matters such as the targeting and deployment of nuclear weapons, or on the joint manufacture of a missile or other weapon delivery system, without asking the US for permission.

We should like to lake this opportunity to thank all those who corresponded with us about the article (LRB, 22 October). As a result we are able to fill in some gaps in the original version. We now have better evidence that Orange Herald, which was tested in front of journalists, was the large fission ‘fallback’. Lorna Arnold, in her official history of British tests in Australia, A Very Special Relationship, writes that after the Grapple series Britain had ‘an extremely expensive high-yield warhead for a ballistic missile’. ‘Extremely expensive’ indicates the ‘fallback’ which was ‘expensive in fissile material’, according to Cook’s biographers. The ballistic missile is Blue Streak and Morton’s official Australian history of Woomera, Fire across the Desert, identifies the Orange Herald test as the test of the Blue Streak warhead. We now estimate that this weapon would have had a yield of 300-500 kilotons. The fallback never went into production on account of the cancellation of Blue Streak.

We were not quite right about Yellow Sun Mark: I, the high-yield fission weapon which went into service in 1958. This was not the Orange Herald fallback, as it would have been too expensive. It must, therefore, have been a large Red Beard of around 100-200 kilotons. The smaller versions of Red Beard were tested in the Antler series at Maralinga in Australia in September and October 1957 and the high-yield version was tested as Grapple X at Christmas Island in November 1957: it was too risky politically to test such a large weapon in Australia.

Norman Dombey, Eric Grove
University of Sussex

Revolutionary Chic

It is sad that Neal Ascherson (LRB, 5 November) did not know Chamfort before reading the biography that he reviews with such sensitive generosity, because that means he has not had the pleasure of reading The Unquiet Grave. The melancholy and bitterness of Chamfort’s aphorisms spoke to Cyril Connolly, and through him to many of my generation who grew up in the war, for whom Connolly and Horizon were links with and often an introduction to a European civilisation from which we were temporarily cut off. Connolly quotes one tribute to the power of Chamfort’s maxims, from John Morley’s Studies of Literature: ‘All literature might be ransacked in vain for a more repulsive saying than this: “A man must swallow a toad every morning if he wishes to be sure of finding nothing still more disgusting before the day is over." ’

Neal Ascherson finds Chamfort’s life more stimulating than his maxims, but the man and the work are inseparable. Nietzsche knew Chamfort through the aphorisms, and through the letters that Mirabeau addressed to him. He did not find the maxims heavy or lacking in wit, since this acquaintance caused him to admire Chamfort, not as ‘the amoralist who admired vital strength’, a vague and dubious description (Nietzsche in fact calls him ‘the wittiest of all moralists’), but as one of a small group of French writers who were at one with the thought of ancient Greece, for the Classicist Nietzsche the greatest compliment. Nietzsche names six: Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, Fontenelle, Vauvenargues, and Chamfort; he praises their brilliance and delicate clarity to the detriment even of Goethe and Schopenhauer. The list varies slightly when Nietzsche cites examples of the French as amore purely intellectual nation (eine viel reinlichere Nation des Geistes) than, for example, the Germans. Pascal and Stendhal come and go, but Chamfort is always present.

Such undiluted praise is rare in Nietzsche. In the long and moving passage of Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft that Nietzsche devotes to Chamfort, he echoes the surprise of Chateaubriand, who knew Chamfort personally, that anyone with such knowledge of men should commit himself to a political cause, or, as Nietzsche says, knowing the mob, should make common cause with the mob. Nietzsche finds only one explanation: his instinctive hatred for the nobility and his wish to avenge his mother’s suffering through his illegitimate birth. ‘Had Chamfort been just a little more of a philosopher, the Revolution would have lacked its most acute wit and its sharpest goad; it would be seen as a much more stupid event, and would not have won over so many minds.’ Mirabeau, whom Nietzsche sets above all past and present great statesmen, looked, he says, to Chamfort as to a higher self, and sought from him encouragement, warnings and judgments, which he heeded.

Nietzsche finds it strange that Chamfort found so little favour with the French, and suggests that the reason might be that he was closer to the Italian spirit than the French, the blood-brother of Dante and Leopardi (another favourite of Connolly’s). He also recalls Chamfort’s last words, spoken to Sieyès, Ah! mon ami, je m’ en vais enfin de ce monde, où il faut que le coeur se brise ou se bronze, and adds: ‘Those are certainly not the words of a dying Frenchman.’

Neal Ascherson’s review conveyed engaging sympathy and admiration for a man who was torn by the contradictions of his birth and of the tormented time in which he lived; but he gravely underestimates the relevance for us today of Chamfort’s clear-sighted view of human society. Whatever began with Chamfort was nothing so trite nor trivial as ‘revolutionary chic’. Such phrases mock sober judgment and human respect. Chamfort wrote: Un homme d’ esprit est perdu s’ il ne joint pas à l’ esprit l’ énergie de coractère. Quand on a la lanterne de Diogène, il faut avoir son bâton. Chamfort’s stick was a goad, never chic in salons, revolutionary or other.

Gerald Long

Dream on

Graham Greene’s A World of My Own: A Dream Diary could well precipitate a whole new genre: the recorded literary dream. In his review of the book (LRB, 3 December) C.K. Stead rightly says that some dreams are ‘insistently “significant" beyond their literal import while at the same time resisting any symbolic interpretation’. Here are two of mine: Philip Larkin came to visit and sat on the sofa with an enormous pile of dark coloured shirts at his side. I can’t remember a thing he said, but he was busily sewing, since nearly all the shirts had missing buttons. On another occasion, I met Seamus Heaney in a large supermarket carpark outside Dublin. He was going to a poetry reading, and had a 1957 Chevvy with a carburettor and intake pipes so large that there was no room for a bonnet. He was very apologetic about the car, and said that it wasn’t his, he had borrowed it from someone.

Bernard Richards
Brasenose College,

Let down

The world would be a much greyer place without Fiona Pitt-Kethley, a lady whom I admire profoundly as much for her chutzpah as for her witty, scatological verse. However, the poet with the one-inch penis to whom she refers (Letters, 3 December) does not, I suspect, require a larger one to follow his trade, unless of course, he is now using it as a writing tool. Could this explain why a certain well-known poet’s recent work is less than penetrating?

Russell Lucas

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