Vol. 20 No. 12 · 18 June 1998

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I was pleased to see that in the latest issue of the LRB (LRB, 4 June) the Diary section was indeed a diary (and a fascinating one at that); all too often the space is used to smuggle in yet another book review. Over several years I’ve urged the editor to devote the space to a proper diary, so I hope she may now have conceded the point. I’m slightly nettled, though, that she should defer to W.G. Runciman and not to me. What is it that he has that I don’t? A fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge? A shipping line? A peerage? If it were only these there would be hope, as who knows what fortune may still have in store? But I fear it was just dear old gravitas and there’s no hope of that.

Still, if Runciman’s piece does mark a breakthrough, those of us whose Nachlass is beginning to bulge will be much in his debt.

Alan Bennett
London NW1

HELLO! and thanks for the invigorating account of the social whirl under New Labour. I look forward to a full page spread of photographs next time.

Marian Sugden
Elsworth, Cambridgeshire

Congratulations to whoever wrote the very funny diary of ‘W.G. Runciman’. One could object, I suppose, that combining hereditary political, financial and academic élites in a single stock figure was too baldly a satiric device. But the resulting composite is beautifully done – the patrician complacency, the extravagant name-dropping, the unrevealing revelations and Pooterishly self-admiring anecdotes. You’ve located a real comic talent, worthy of more formidable targets.

Peter Womack

Tips for the Trenches

John Bayley in his review of Rudyard Kipling on the Irish Guards (LRB, 4 June) mentions the old man’s advice to his son John about putting tennis netting over trenches on the Western Fornt, and says that ‘we do not know whether John Kipling ever read the paternal advice.’ Actually, we do know. On 29 August 1915, after the advice on ‘rabbit netting’ had been pressed on him several times, young Kipling wrote home to say: ‘Many thanks for Dad’s letters. His “tips for the trenches" are rather quaint. Surely you know that it is a standing order never to have anything over the top of a trench, even rabbit wires. If the Bosch [sic] comes, he has you like rabbits underneath it.’ He was dead a month later, but out in No Man’s Land rather than under the net. Bayley understates matters when he says that Kipling senior’s ‘hatred of the German establishment was deep and bitter ‘. His letters, particularly those to his equally bloodthirsty and almost equally bigoted friend Theodore Roosevelt, are pervaded by a loathing for all Germans and a desire for their destruction en masse. ‘I almost begin to hope that when we have done with him there will be very little Hun left.’ He expressed an especial pleasure in the idea that Germany was losing so many young men of marriageable age. The ‘irony’ of this never seems to have struck him -certainly not when he wrote ‘Mary Postgate ‘, which is the most explicitly sadistic story of them all, and which, though published well after John’s death, was composed before it.

Christopher Hitchens
Washington DC

Last Englishman

Ashis Nandy’s condescending review of Stanley Wolpert’s biography of Nehru (LRB, 21 May) makes important points about modern India. Much – but not all – of it rings true. Nandy argues that a Westernised Nehruvian secularism and progressivism were adopted only by the Brahmanic middle classes. But those classes were never simply Westernised. Moreover, many ideas on rights, representation and state responsibility were and are widely endors-ed in the villages and factories as well as in the academy or the legislature and the goal of material progress has become ever more evident in recent decades. One might expect marginal people to endorse the rule of law and the hopes of democratic socialism, and many have organised themselves around such principles. Nandy counterposes the ‘different … concerns and aspirations’ brought in from beyond the middle classes and claims that they represent India’s ‘own political and communal traditions ‘. This essential-ised India, uncontaminated by the West, is itself a modern invention, now deployed most vehemently by the Hindu Right. It seems to represent, not so much the political emergence of formerly marginal ideas and suppressed classes, as yet another distortion of their interests, and has a disturbing influence among the middle classes and intellectuals.

Peter Robb
London N1

Internationalist and Revolutionary

I well remember Christopher Hitchens strutting into the Blackfriars blood-donating session (LRB, 4 June), and trumpeting to the overworked technicians and prone blood donors that he wasn’t British but internationalist and revolutionary, and that he refused to join the Oxford Vietnam Peace Movement because our political line was ‘US quit Vietnam’, not ‘Victory to the Vietcong’.

I also remember the vast crowds at the Grosvenor Square demonstration: the police beating up demonstrators and the demonstrators retaliating by drawing razor blades. The police couldn’t defend themselves because their arms were linked. The revolutionary situation died because Tariq Ali hadn’t decided what to do with us next. Perhaps it was meant to be anarchy. At any rate another opportunity was lost to celebrate the heroic people of Vietnam, who, in spite of our ineptitude, won their war against US aggression.

Jenny Hinton

For the Good of the Arts

What exactly is David Runciman threatening us with when he writes (LRB, 4 June) that ‘only the blithest of cultural optimists could claim that a society in which no artists felt the need to look beyond the market for support was one in which the arts were fully extended ‘? Extended how? In where they reach to? So far as their public is concerned? In the technical innovations they go in for? Or simply in terms of effort, just as we ‘re now supposed to accept that it’s excellent for our children to be ‘fully extended ‘, if not ‘stretched’ at school? Whichever of these alternatives he has in mind, Runciman is assuming his full extension to be for the good of the arts, and presumably ourselves as their recipients. Some of us, however, would love to see the arts revert to a regime of meaningful intention rather than the flabby extension that we currently suffer from and which Runciman appears to be endorsing.

Mervyn Williams

T(hink) again

There is a longish discussion about the word hinky in the 1993 version of The Fugitive. Detective Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) has the following conversation with two of his Chicago police colleagues as they are waiting for a lift:

Biggs (Daniel Roebuck): This is hinky. This guy’s a college graduate. He went to medical school. He’s not gonna come through all this security, go to the county lock-up to find someone his own people say does not exist. Hinky.

Gerard: What does that mean, Biggs? ‘Hinky’.
Biggs: I dunno, ‘strange’ …
Poole (L. Scott Caldwell): ‘Weird’ …
Gerard: Well why don ‘t you say ‘strange’ or ‘weird ‘? I mean, ‘hinky ‘, that has no meaning.
Biggs: Well we say ‘hinky ‘.
Gerard (annoyed): I don ‘t want you guys using words around me that got no meaning. I ‘m taking the stairs and walking.

As a result of his decision to walk up, Gerard sees the fugitive Dr Kimble (Harrison Ford) on the stairs, which seems quite hinky.

Martin Beagles

Not the Milkman’s

Catherine Wilson (LRB, 21 May) obviously had difficulty accepting Carla Pinto-Correia’s third or fourth-hand story, according to which ‘in the fifty years before 1805, “every naturalist, and indeed every man who pretended to the smallest portion of medical science, was convinced that his children were no more related, in point of actual generation, to his own wife, than they were to his neighbours."’ I would have shared her incredulity had I not listened, incredulously, ten days earlier to a very similar story from County Offaly in the Republic of Ireland: in the Fifties, my friend’s parents regarded as fools those of their acquaintance who looked for any resemblance between parents and children; as far as my friend knew, this belief had no scientific basis, but her family was clear that children were not related to their parents any more than they were to the milkman, the butcher or anyone else. Are other readers aware of any historical or modern evidence for such beliefs? Would the prevalence of these ideas (if they have indeed been prevalent) help to explain the sort of historical attitudes to child-abandonment that John Boswell documented in The Kindness of Strangers?

Susan Ryley Hoyle
London N5

Classes and Cultures

The immediate postwar period may have been the high point of a peculiarly labourist working class, as R.W. Johnson’s review of Ross McKibbin’s Classes and Cultures (LRB, 21 May) argues, but trade-union membership did not peak until the early Seventies. Johnson’s review appeared just as a member of the leftish Socialist Labour Party was elected as General Secretary of Aslef. This suggests that the kind of working-class attitudes which Johnson thinks have been on the slide since the Fifties are still a potent force in society. Perhaps because, beneath it all, the culture of the ‘other side ‘, the employers, has not changed a great deal either.

Keith Flett
London N17

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