Vol. 23 No. 8 · 19 April 2001

Search by issue:

The End of Farming

Andrew O’Hagan won’t be surprised at the way current events confirm the dark findings of his rural rides (LRB, 22 March). But even he may have been startled by the manner, one might almost say the ‘enthusiasm’, with which authority of all kinds endorses the view that postcards are a much more profitable product than food. The real work of ‘the countryside’, we now understand, is tourism – we’re reminded of this every time a businessman or politician opens his mouth. It makes more money, supports more jobs and earns more esteem than all the branches of British agriculture put together. Even the farmers themselves, or the more amenable of them at least, see their future as auxiliaries to this all-important industry. Tourists are to be cajoled by all means out of their present reluctance to visit us. They must be reassured, they must not see, or hear, or smell anything nasty or distressing. Efforts to deal with the present epizootic are influenced, if not dictated, by their wishes. Such an interest in and attitude to what used to be called ‘the land’ has been gaining ground for some time, but the present ‘crisis’ shows it up with unprecedented clarity. Dystopias of the past have often dwelt on a conflict between a completely urbanised society and a surviving, or saving remnant ‘outside’. We now have a different and more soothing outlook, at least we will once the present little problem has been solved. We have only to keep a steady nerve and get through the distressing necessities which promise to clean up and purify the ‘countryside’ once and for all. It will banish disease, pain, dirt – tourists don’t like such things – and will offer a landscape of neat fields and woods, traversed by well-maintained roads and footpaths and amply furnished with places of refreshment and diversion, where every prospect pleases without exception, as guaranteed by brochure. There will be a small native population, anxious to serve and oblige. There will even be some domestic animals picturesquely disposed about the green pastures, but they will present no threat to body or mind, being made of quite realistic plastic.

Christopher Small
Isle of Lismore, Argyll

Sharp-End Reporters

Even thirty years ago, travel in rural Afghanistan was, as Jason Burke says, arduous (LRB, 22 March). I was glad of armed guards on the vegetable truck I hitched from Bamiyan to Kabul, after a friendly warning that undefended vehicles were sometimes hijacked by opium smugglers, religious zealots and plain, old-fashioned bandits – and this was in the good old days, when Afghanistan still had a king and Kabul a Western-educated middle class. Burke is, however, wrong to reproach himself as a voyeur for witnessing a second public execution, with no clear journalistic justification, after reporting the first he had seen.

Sharp-end reporters of earlier generations felt the same self-doubts: why, I often asked myself, was I accompanying yet another body-count, or watching yet another village going up in flames, when these generic Vietnam stories had already been written to death? The answer, I have decided in my tranquil Japanese mountain village, is that omnivorous curiosity is a reporter's best motivation, and the psychological strain of calmly watching detestable activities goes with the job.

Murray Sayle
Aikawa, Japan

Syngeing out of Tune

David Edgar and I have both been reading W.J. McCormack’s biography of John Millington Synge, Fool of the Family (LRB, 22 March), but have we been reading the same text? On the matter of Yeats’s much trumpeted admonition to Synge to visit the Aran Islands, contrary to Edgar’s assertion, the biography makes no reference to Yeats’s advice on page 28. Page 140 deals with Synge’s diary entry for 21 December 1896, which records his meeting with Yeats, but makes no mention of having received any earth-shaking admonition to go west. Page 186 does not attribute ‘momentous consequences’ to Yeats’s putative advice, but to the meeting between the two writers. On page 194, McCormack places the proposal and its timing where it belongs: in the realm of unverified and by now unverifiable speculation. To redirect Edgar’s misdirected criticism, the whole point of McCormack’s argument is that, as Edgar says, this so-called ‘vital event has been anticipated and recollected without ever having been described’ with any degree of historical accuracy, least of all by Yeats.

Edgar claims that Synge should be compared with Chekhov and not, as McCormack does, with Ibsen, although Synge had no recorded or verifiable acquaintance with Chekhov’s work, and each of his plays can be seen as being preoccupied, like Ibsen’s Ghosts, with the impact on the present and future of the past. When the Moon Has Set, as McCormack contends, takes the transgenerational guilt of Ghosts and nervously, with telling excess of explanation, seeks to explain away the particular nightmare that was history for him and his class.

Fool of the Family is a carefully researched antidote to the noxious and still prevalent virus of peasant protégé Syngeitis, initially incubated by Yeats. One of the greatest merits of McCormack’s biography is precisely what Edgar censures: its insistence on what cannot be known, on what is difficult to date, on what conclusions cannot (and should not) be drawn and, thanks partly to Yeats’s propensity for mythmaking and partly to family meddling, on what cannot now be challenged.

Mary King
Ballyduff, Co. Wicklow

Saving Masud Khan

In her response to Wynne Godley’s story (Letters, 22 March), Kirsty Hall appears to confuse ‘true’ with ‘real’. There can be no doubt that Godley’s states of mind at the time of his analysis with Masud Khan were real, but it is clear that they did not constitute the ‘truth’ of Wynne Godley (other than in the merely tautologous sense that it is true that at the time these were real states of mind). Hall seems to think that considerations of truth, in the sense of being able to ‘distinguish between what is true and what is false’, are simply irrelevant. But however deeply and perhaps irresolvably vexed it may be, without some discriminating notion of truth the whole enterprise of psychoanalysis collapses into being a remunerated hand-holding exercise by what Ernest Gellner memorably described as ‘merchants of hope’. In this scenario the truth of what you are or what you think you are doesn’t matter as long as you come out of the analytic encounter feeling good about yourself. The logic of this blurring of true/false is potentially fatal; among other things it enables the step whereby the merchant of hope becomes, as in the case of Khan, a merchant of abuse.

Christopher Prendergast

Flett is left-wing

Behind Keith Flett's letter about Peter Ackroyd (Letters, 5 April) lies a simple truth: Flett is left-wing. This does not make him a less interesting writer, but it should add a note of caution.

Michael Howard
Eastbury, Berkshire

Freud Memorial Lecture

I wonder how, given the circumstances, the withdrawal of the invitation to Edward Said to deliver the annual Freud Memorial Lecture could be deemed ‘contrary to the spirit of psychoanalytic understanding and dialogue’ (Letters, 22 March). First, the reason given by the Society is clear: the deteriorating situation in the Middle East, combined with the Neo-Nazi sentiment nourished by Jörg Haider and the Freedom Party in Austria’s coalition Government, aggravates the anxious climate in which Austrian Jews are living. One would certainly not wish to intensify it. Indeed, the Freud Society made public a statement concerning the political situation in Austria and deploring right-wing extremism well before the invitation to Said was withdrawn. It has, in other words, consistently maintained a position strongly opposed to any socio-political behaviour that might add to the tension. The provocation for retracting the invitation, the violence depicted in the by now infamous photo showing Said ready to throw a stone from the Lebanese border at an Israeli guardhouse, is a risk.

As significant, however, is the fact that what the photo represents renders the visit by Said to Freud’s home, the home of an individual forced to flee a Nazi commando raid, deeply insulting to the Jewish community at large. The giving of a memorial lecture in the name of a Holocaust exile is unthinkable when the lecturer in question is a participant in anti-Israeli violence. This exceeds by far any question of free speech.

I have long admired Said’s writings on literature and multiculturalism. But his claim to have only been throwing a pebble in competitive fun with his son is quickly undone by the photo: his hand is wide open to hold something far bigger. And his claim that he is unwelcome in Vienna for being Palestinian, much as Freud was unwelcome for being a Jew, is squelched as soon as one considers that the Freud Society was certainly not unaware he was Palestinian when the invitation was initially made. Do the circumstances surrounding the withdrawal of the invitation not render ‘the spirit of psychoanalytic understanding and dialogue’ irrelevant?

Lois Oppenheim
Montclair State University, New Jersey

Editor, ‘London Review’ writes: Perhaps it’s the despised ‘spirit of psychoanalytic understanding’ that makes me unable to see the difference between throwing a rock, a stone or a pebble at an empty guardhouse, while seeing all too clearly the difference between throwing any of the above and sending out the helicopter gunships. I am also able to see a distinction between the words ‘Jewish’ and ‘Israeli’, and though I don’t know how closed a hand has to be to throw a pebble, I do know how closed a mind must be to fail to see this distinction.

Zélide Lives!

In her review of Marion Mainwaring’s biography of Morton Fullerton, Hermione Lee (LRB, 8 March) compares the book with ‘other biographies tracking the “invisible lives" of writers’ lovers’ – among them the ‘now-forgotten but interesting Portrait of Zélide (Benjamin Constant’s mistress, Mme de Charrière) by Wharton’s friend Geoffrey Scott’. But Isabelle de Charrière’s was not an ‘invisible life’ even in her own time, and her Oeuvres complètes are available in a ten-volume critical edition. There is also a thorough biography in English by C.P. Courtney. As for Scott’s Portrait of Zélide (1925): it was reissued in 1997 by Turtle Point Press with a preface by Shirley Hazzard. Scott’s biography undervalues her as an author; but even he does not regard her simply as an episode in the life and career of Benjamin Constant – and nothing in the voluminous correspondence between them supports the notion that Charrière and Constant had an affair.

Janet Whatley
University of Vermont

Kings came calling

Patrick Collinson (LRB, 22 March) is wrong to state that ‘no English king of Ireland ever visited his Hibernian kingdom, not once in the 260 years of its distinct existence, from 1541 to 1801.’ On the contrary, two such kings came calling at the same time. In the summer of 1690, the lawful monarch James II and the usurper William III were both in Ireland. They met in battle at the River Boyne, an affray that is still recalled with relish in some quarters.

Fergal Tobin

Carpet Bomber

Michael Dibdin

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