Vol. 28 No. 24 · 14 December 2006

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Memories of Empson

Frank Kermode’s piece about Empson at Sheffield evoked many memories (LRB, 16 November). As a student there in the 1950s, I was in Empson’s ‘tutor-group’ (with three others), so saw him at closer quarters than most. I don’t remember remarking on his ‘dirtiness’, though his habit before a lecture of dropping his flat cap, muffler and coat on the floor impressed me with its fine disregard for cleanliness as well as convention. I also enjoyed seeing him on his very old, preposterously rusty sit-up-and-beg bicycle, wobbling stoically amid the smog and tramlines of Western Bank.

On the day that T.S. Eliot was due to give a poetry reading, Empson turned up in a stridently new, ugly brown suit. Uncharacteristically self-conscious in front of our shocked stares, he muttered something about the need to put on ‘a pair of trousers’ in honour of our distinguished guest. (We toyed with the idea that a pack of Senate vigilantes had bought the suit and stuffed him into it.) I recall my embarrassment, overlaid with protectiveness, when he stood up to introduce Eliot seemingly without having thought about what he wanted to say.

His Chinese sage’s beard was controversial. Grey wisps hung below his chin which he twisted into tendrils as, with eyelids closed but fluttering, he held forth gnomically. Yet the rest of his face was clean-shaven. To us, a bearded generation (through laziness not fashion), this seemed pointless, like having your cake and not eating it. When he was asked about his views on Chinese music, something about ‘skiffle’ being part of the question, he clearly had none, but, not wishing to seem churlish, rambled on obligingly for a while before pausing to admit that he had no idea what ‘skiffle’ was.

He was patient and gentle in his tutoring too. I had to read aloud my waspish essay on Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age in one session and he took quite some time to explain to me that it was not criticism to label it ‘journalism’, so that it wasn’t appropriate to use the term ‘mere’ either. He then muttered something about my having ‘argued my case well’ and raised my mark from B+ to A-.

Donald Jowett
Blockley, Gloucestershire

Former Selves

Neal Ascherson translates Günter Grass’s Beim Häuten der Zwiebel as ‘Peeling the Onion’ (LRB, 2 November). The title has a further resonance. In The Tin Drum, the adult drummer Oskar Mazerath performs in the Onion Cellar nightclub, where patrons peel and slice onions in order to bring tears to their eyes and thus break through the emotional numbness they experience in the aftermath of war and defeat. Hence, for Grass, peeling the onion suggests not only the revealing of layers of complicity, guilt, self-deceit and hypocrisy, but also a way of stinging oneself out of the emotional coma these have induced. Yet, as Grass well knows, this is not easily accomplished. A more awkward, yet fuller, translation of the title – as ‘On the Occasion of Peeling the Onion’ – would bring out the ceremonial aspect this process of catharsis appears to have for Grass, and the suggestion that he engages in it now with a confessional detachment from the actions that have made it necessary.

John Black
Malaspina University College, Nanaimo, British Columbia

Hungary 1956

Eric Hobsbawm states that the Hungarian freedom fighters in 1956 were ‘deeply nationalist, anti-Soviet and anti-Russian’ (LRB, 16 November). While nationalism is certainly a feature of Hungarian history, the revolution in 1956 was a patriotic uprising, not directed against neighbours but aimed at the benefit of the country for its own sake. What the fighters were ferociously against was the regime. There was genuine hatred of the Party apparatchiks sweeping past in their curtained ZIL limousines in what was supposed to be an egalitarian ‘people’s democracy’.

Even on the eve of 23 October, in the crowd outside Parliament, there was no inkling that within hours there would be gunfights. I was part of that crowd. We were good-humoured but at a loss as to what to do next. There was an air of expectation. The authorities then made certain that our good humour turned to irritation and anger. First, the lights were turned off, and the same evening First Secretary Ernö Gerö, returning from a trip to Yugoslavia, made his inflammatory speech dismissing the demonstrators as a reactionary mob, which did more than anything else to bring about what followed. Someone shouted out of the blue: ‘Let’s go to the radio station.’ To this day I am uncertain what made this person say this – it was so unexpected – but there has been speculation that Gerö planted sympathisers in the crowd to cause trouble and thus isolate Nagy. We marched to the radio station and the rest is history.

Hobsbawm omits what happened on 25 October, when unarmed demonstrators were fired on in front of Parliament. Who fired from the roofs of the surrounding buildings has never been cleared up; perhaps it was the AVO or hardline Communists. The demonstrators’ bitterness over this bloodshed led eventually to the siege of the Budapest Party headquarters. Hobsbawm fails to mention that by the time the AVO gave themselves up there had been gunfire from the building and casualties in the open spaces of Republic Square. The Communist Party would never have come to power without the heavy-handed support of the occupying Russian army. If free elections had been allowed to continue after 1945 (it got 17 per cent that year) it would have won perhaps 15 or 20 per cent of the vote. There had been no popular support for Communist rule, and this is the essential truth exposed by the revolution in October 1956. Without Russian tanks the regime collapsed instantly; with their return it re-established itself, only to disappear again once Gorbachev declared his policy of non-interference.

Sandor Vaci
London SW1

Apparently it’s emetic

John Hodgson can describe Richard Dawkins’s atheism as vacuous only because ‘atheist’ is a term which non-believers use purely as a polemical convenience when we have to define concisely what we don’t believe (Letters, 30 November). No atheist is principally that. What we’d want to call ourselves is humanist or materialist, or biologist or linguist, or for that matter socialist, because one or more of these, or something else again, is what we do and think and are. We have ‘purely and simply finished with God’, to adapt a phrase of Engels’s.

‘God’ creeps in because that fantasy, that wishful devotion to some sort of mythic being, has held the stage for so long. Dawkins spends most of his efforts on genetics, because it is a useful and verifiable way of analysing how living creatures come into being and reproduce (or fail to). His atheism bulks large at times because he sees that religious fantasies are demeaningly potent in human culture, so it is time to urge people, by means of reasoning based on evidence, to think clearly about the world and about our natures. What could be more worthwhile in the present situation?

David Craig

Vote Uribe!

Michael Taussig can stop wondering about one small matter: my cleaning-lady’s operation had nothing to do with my connections with President Uribe (Letters, 16 November). As for his other – rhetorical? – questions, he well knows that Colombia suffers from guerrillas and paramilitaries, fed by the drug trade, and that the violence, corruption and threat to legitimate authority worsened in the last two decades of the last century. Those curious about the consequences of this for the system of justice should read Mauricio Rubio’s Crimen e impunidad. It is indeed often difficult to know where the truth lies in Colombia, but the efforts of many Colombians to reduce violence are certainly not merely cosmetic.

A note on your title for this correspondence, ‘Vote Uribe!’ I trust your next piece on Venezuela will be headed ‘Vote Chávez!’ Perhaps we can also look forward soon to something on Cuba – ‘Vote Raúl!’?

Malcolm Deas
St Antony’s College, Oxford

A Poet’s ‘Life’

Colin Burrow’s opening paragraph offers a fierce and perceptive account of the besetting sins of literary biography, and the rest of his review seems to make a persuasive case for the guilt of John Stubbs (whom I have not read). But why so Calvinistic in his standpoint? From his argument one would suppose that all biographers are absolute sinners and that their sin is always mortal (LRB, 5 October).

The truth is far otherwise. Boswell’s Life of Johnson, for instance, stands convicted by today’s critical consensus of shaping a crusty, patriarchal Johnson to fit a thesis, but the sinful result is a wonderful book, and some readers find particularly moving those moments when Boswell doggedly records some action or opinion of his idol which he cannot approve. Many recent scholarly biographies – among dozens of potential examples, take Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf – succeed in illuminating the works through better understanding of the life circumstances without for an instant reducing the writings to the status of evidence. Far from saving them the trouble of reading Donne’s poetry, a good biography will send its readers eagerly back to engage with the poetry afresh.

Isobel Grundy
Edmonton, Alberta

Unfair to the Kurds

Tariq Ali does not try to understand why the Kurds – both the grass-roots and the leadership – decided so overwhelmingly to back the American effort at removing tyranny from Iraq (LRB, 16 November). He faults them for their blind nationalism, even accusing them of wanting Iraqi Kurdistan to become an ‘American-Israeli protectorate’. He fails to recognise that in a world still largely defined by the nation-state, the liberation of a people as oppressed as the Kurds can come about only through nationalism. So far the Kurds have overturned their subjugation in much of southern Kurdistan (Iraqi Kurdistan) without bringing harm to others, and it is this that gives the Kurds of Diyarbakir reason for optimism. That this has happened in spite of US objections shows that the Kurds are first and foremost looking after their own interests.

Sabah Salih
Bloomsburg University, Pennsylvania

Bad Medicine

Steven Shapin says Bad Medicine is ‘not history’, and advises me to ‘consider another way of making a living’ (LRB, 30 November). Are my facts wrong? Is my argument incoherent? Are there gaps in my reading? No. It’s something much worse: I’ve discussed progress. ‘Academic historians of medicine didn’t – with rare exceptions – criticise the idea of medical progress,’ Shapin writes, ‘so much as fall silent about it.’ Shapin and his colleagues have been relying on that silence; but now I have broken it. Shapin can’t reply by attacking my book head on, because, as he says, there really is ‘genuine and substantial medical progress’, and there is ‘no “logical" flaw or “fallacy"’ in the idea of a narrative of progress. At the heart of his review then, there is no argument.

I haven’t just broken the silence, I have written a book of interest to what Shapin condescendingly calls ‘the laity’. I’ve written a history of medicine that makes sense to doctors (‘required reading’, the BMJ has called it). I’ve addressed a topic that he says has ‘the strongest grip on lay imaginations’. But apparently I’ve gone wrong because I have rejected the principle of ‘charitable interpretation’. He forgets that his own book Leviathan and the Air Pump (written with Simon Schaffer) is systematically and explicitly uncharitable to Boyle. And his review is remarkably uncharitable in its reading of my book. Shapin says I hold that ‘doctors were willing victims of Bacon’s “Idols of the Theatre".’ He knows the whole point of an Idols argument is that people unwillingly fall into error. He claims I find Roy Porter obtuse. Actually I describe him as ‘the greatest medical historian of his generation’.

For 2300 years medicine did more harm than good. ‘On Wootton’s account you have to wonder why’ medicine survived, Shapin says. True, and I devote a chapter to an explanation. It’s wrong to assume, I say, that the modern increase in life expectancy is due to medicine. ‘Yet there are serious debates over what portion of increased longevity can legitimately be ascribed to medicine,’ Shapin says, as if this would be news to me, though that’s the subject of another chapter. Worse, he directly misrepresents my argument. I say that it is ‘plain wrong’ to think ‘there is a straightforward logic of discovery’; Shapin claims ‘Wootton insists’ on such a logic. Finally he asserts that I take my information ‘overwhelmingly at second-hand’. This is false: an example is my discovery of two previously unnoticed early germ theorists. I found them within days of starting work, and conclude that the field is ‘relatively unexplored’, and Shapin finds this statement ‘bizarre’.

People went on consulting doctors, despite the fact that medicine didn’t work. Shapin says: ‘it’s reasonable to infer from this that they felt they were getting value for money.’ Since they weren’t being cured, they must have been paying not for a cure but for what Shapin calls ‘meaning’. Well, people paid astrologers to find lost and stolen goods. They consulted them even though their success rate was abysmal. Did they feel they were getting value for money? Yes – or at least they thought other customers were. Did they get what they were paying for? No. The problem lies in this gap between belief and reality, and it won’t be dissolved by saying that although they weren’t recovering their goods they were getting ‘meaning’. It’s problems like this that historians have been passing over in silence. And of course if you consistently deny the existence of any tension between belief and reality, what you end up with is relativism. What is at stake here is nothing less than what is history, and who controls it.

David Wootton
University of York

Steven Shapin writes: If being right is to be the criterion for historians’ attention, when exactly shall we start? Who and what are we permitted to write about? I applaud Wootton for aiming to instruct the laity; I regret that he has served them so badly.

Ronnie’s Big Break

Eileen Lottman opens her letter in response to my piece about Ronald Reagan by suggesting that Reagan’s speaking tour around General Electric factories was entirely non-political, but ends by saying that he embellished the speech that she wrote for him with remarks that reflected his development as a conservative political thinker (Letters, 16 November). I think she understates the level of political anxiety at GE during the 1950s. Following a major strike at the company in 1946, executives embarked on an elaborate exercise intended to neutralise and weaken the unions and to improve community relations. This included such ideological projects as ‘economics education’ classes for workers on company time, and taking a very hard line in union negotiations. Reagan’s time at GE overlapped with all this, and it is hard to imagine that he was unaffected by the political fear, free-market ideology and anti-unionism in GE at the time.

Kim Phillips-Fein
New York University

The Tech

Ferdinand Mount is not quite correct to say that technical secondary schools never materialised (LRB, 16 November). Having passed the 11-plus exam, I started at Cheltenham Technical High School in 1958. The school came into being around 1950, but has now been effectively disbanded. Included in the curriculum were woodwork, metalwork and engineering drawing, two of which I took at O-level. In the sixth form I studied maths, physics and woodwork and gained entry to a College of Advanced Technology. Many of my contemporaries were subsequently employed at GCHQ or at one of the light engineering companies in the local area. The school offered an excellent education and produced a workforce matched to local needs.

Peter Lewis
University of Bath


In his list of talented chroniclers of Talleyrand’s life, David A. Bell does not mention the remarkable use Talleyrand is put to in Roberto Calasso’s The Ruin of Kasch (LRB, 16 November). True, the last thing one could say of this provocative book is that it is a formal chronicle of Talleyrand’s life (or anyone else’s), especially given Calasso’s delight in muffling whether he is speaking literally, allegorically, tropologically or anagogically. But Talleyrand remains the book’s master of ceremonies and it would be wrong for Calasso to go missing from an account of what historians of different kinds have made of that Bishop of Autun.

John Sabapathy
University College London

Transatlantic Divide

Perhaps Martin Holladay of pleasant, rural Vermont might have been less puzzled by the English phrase ‘he was had up for kerb-crawling at Marble Arch’ had he lived in a metropolitan area in the US, where such activity is common and often illegal (Letters, 16 November). In ‘American English’, the fellow was arrested and taken before a magistrate for driving slowly along the kerb trolling (or soliciting) for a prostitute of one sex or the other.

Brian Tilbury
Lottsburg, Virginia


It was with horror that I saw that an error on the part of my finger or mind had substituted an ‘l’ for a ‘b’ in my poem ‘Dromleg’. The stone circle, probably the best-known in Ireland, is of course called Drombeg.

Adam Thorpe

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