Afghanistan and the UK

Whatever the successes of Operation Pitting last year, in which more than 15,000 individuals were evacuated by the British from Kabul, the disastrous end to the UK’s involvement in Afghanistan, along with that of the US and other Nato allies, must inevitably call into question the whole enterprise: was it worth it? Lindsey Hilsum’s fine review of Elliot Ackerman’s The Fifth Act (September 16) reflects on the meaning of that conflict, not just for the affected country and its people, but for those who served there, left comrades behind and in many cases, like mine, left part of our soul there as we committed wholeheartedly to what we believed, as I still do, was the right thing to do. (I was defense attaché in Kabul, 2008–10.)

Joe Biden’s betrayal of the Afghan government, though presaged by Donald Trump’s solipsistic deal with the Taliban, remains shocking. It is up there, or down there if you prefer, with Mary I’s loss of Calais; In many respects it is worse, as so many Afghans believed in what we were doing and were persuaded that we were going to hang around for the generational change necessary to put their country on the path to development. All that is now lost and Afghanistan faces a bleak future.

We should not forget that along with the national betrayal there is also a deep sense of personal betrayal, even if out of our control. For all those who were evacuated, many hundreds who deserve our protection were left behind and remain in hiding. The UK Home Office also continues its baleful role in trying to keep out former interpreters, despite losing case after case when they come to court; this is just disgraceful. Among those betrayed are not just those who worked alongside British forces, but Afghan members of the British Council who, as they rightly point out, were preaching and promulgating “British values”; they might be forgiven for thinking that the principal one of these is hypocrisy.

Simon Diggins
Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire

Colditz

The trouble with reviewing two books on similar subjects is that the reviewer is prone to make sweeping statements that he hopes pertain to both works. This is especially so when the reviewer has a thesis that he is particularly keen to develop. May I suggest this is the trap Roderick Bailey has fallen into when reviewing my book, The Traitor of Colditzand Ben Macintyre’s Colditz: Prisoners of the castle (September 16)?

Bailey is right to distinguish Macintyre’s book from mine by pointing out that TheTraitor of Colditz has references and attribution while Colditz: Prisoners of the castle does not. But he is so keen to sustain his overall hypothesis – that a “good yarn” can’t add anything to our understanding of history – that he dismisses all my references as “sparsely spread and illogical”.

The Traitor of Colditz has more than 250 references (endnotes), a five-page section explaining my research and sources, a long bibliography and an epilogue that reconsiders some of the sources. Among the thousands of documents I used, some of which were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and had never before seen the light of day, there are files (Bundesarchiv) that for the first time identify and picture the Abwehr’s head of counterintelligence at all German PoW camps, as well as the team of MI9 officers (Imperial War Museum and the National Archives) who were tracking the traitor Walter Purdy and working with the British spies John Brown and Julius Green. There is also evidence to show that Purdy was at Colditz for four months, rather than the “fleeting” appearance Bailey claims. And as a barrister I was particularly interested in Purdy’s treason trial at the Old Bailey, on which I uncovered new (National Archives) material to tell this story. Some of these documents are reproduced in my book.

I was hoping that by displaying all my workings so plainly I could entice academics such as Dr Bailey to judge my research on its own merits. Alas, it seems he has chosen a lazy journalistic simplification over rigorous academic interrogation. Why let one reference or 250 get in the way of a “good yarn” about the demise of good sourcing?

Robert Verkaik
Bramley, Surrey

The Queen’s reading

Rory Johnston (Letters, September 16) seeks to refute the idea that the late Queen was not well read. I’m happy to pass on, from the late Martyn Goff, éminence grace of the Book Trust, that he knew of one literary work the Queen definitely read and enjoyed. It was during a royal trip to Singapore in October 1989. After the first dinner the Queen told her private secretary that the book she’d been reading on the flight had been left on the plane. Did he have anything she could read when she retired? The secretary recommended that she try The Remains of the Day, which had just won the Booker prize. She agreed – but after several days without receiving any mention from the Queen about the book, the secretary asked if she was happy with it. “I’m enjoying it”, she said, “but there’s one thing I want to ask you. Is it really like that – below stairs, I mean. Is that really how they talk?”

I like to think of the Queen taking Kazuo Ishiguro’s formal Anglo-Japanese prose style to be typical of servants’-quarter discourse, where valets and butlers routinely discuss rumours about claiming “flashy” new ways of cleaning teaspoons.

John Walsh
North Marden, West Sussex

Guides to Ulysses

In her review of Patrick Hastings’s new guide (September 2), Sarah Davison says that Harry Blamires’s New Bloomsday Book (1966) has been, for decades, the “standard companion for diligent students” of Joyce’s Ulysses. Could it be a transatlantic matter that every lover of the novel I know on this side of the pond (including me) swears instead by Hugh Kenner’s magnificent guide (revised edition 1987, Johns Hopkins University Press), which is properly titled Ulysses too? Over here, Kenner and Guy Davenport were the magisterial and mischievous Joyceans and Poundians of their critical generation. Kenner’s guide is one of the treasures of my reading life, and not only because it is indispensable to my reading of Ulysses.

Michael A. Rose
Vanderbilt University, Nashville TN

Poets’ economics

John Ramsden’s claim (Letters, September 23) that no women combined poetry with economics needs correction. Harriet Martineau published poetry along with her economics tales and tracts. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mary Howitt and Caroline Norton wrote poems about factory conditions, nineteenth-century capitalism’s primary testing ground. Norton’s “A Voice from the Factors” was written specifically to complement Lord Ashley’s ameliorative campaign to modify the use of child labor. The price of better working conditions should be paid, she argued, “though slower gain attend the prosperous crowd”. Norton believed that women were oblivious to their own role in economic inequality and it was the poet’s role to enlighten them and to press for limited but essential reforms.

The Chartist Mary Hutton (whose biography I have recently completed) thought otherwise. In “The Factory Lord’s Daughter and the Factory Slave”, the former knows and agrees with the prevailing economic doctrines: “Perhaps there were some poor? What then? / They are all worthless, idle men; / For did they work with zeal and care, / All would an independence share”. Of course she agreed, because “the pleasing truth / With her own views did coincide; / For by believing this, forsooth, / Her whims, her caprices, and pride, / Could be more amply gratified / And she would not so wicked be / As given to idle misery.” Far more militant than her contemporaries, Hutton would have no truck with Norton’s upper-class reformism. “On the present system of this country”, she wrote, “it is evident that the interests of one class of the community are diametrically opposed to the other.”

Then there was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, poet, novelist, author of Women and Economics, and member of the American Economic Association. In 1898 she wrote that “The labor of women in the house, certainly, enables men to produce more wealth than they otherwise could; and in this way women are economic factors in society. But so are horses.” In the twentieth century Winifred Holtby, Vera Brittain and Sylvia Townsend Warner considered economic questions alongside their poetry and prose.

Women wrote about economics all the time, sometimes directly, sometimes telling it slant. In his “Letter to Byron” Auden observed it in Jane Austen: “It makes me most uncomfortable to see / An English spinster of the middle class / Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’, / Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety / The Economic basis of society”.

Janet Tool
Warrington, Cheshire

TS Eliot and William Hazlitt

Steven Epperson’s letter (September 9) cites Tom Paulin’s suggestion that T.S. Eliot took the concept of “dissociation of sensibility” in the seventeenth century from Hazlitt, and Seamus Perry disagrees (Letters, September 16). It seems extremely unlikely that Eliot took the notion from Hazlitt, who he once said “had the most uninteresting mind of all our distinguished critics”. More probable is that he took it from George Santayana, whose lectures Eliot attended at Harvard and whom he knew personally. In Santayana’s Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900), we read about “the divorce between the fulness of life on the one hand and the depth and unity of faith on the other.” Santayana is also a possible source of another of Eliot’s famous phrases, the “objective correlative”, as he said that a poet’s “glorious emotions must at all hazards find or feign their correlative objects”.

Stephen Barber
Witney, Oxfordshire

Obits

I greatly enjoyed Nicola Shulman’s review of obituary anthologies by Nigel Farndale and Andrew M. Brown (September 23). Towards the end of the review she wonders whether Graham Mason’s inebriety was the cause of his death, but it was – to be precise – emphysema. To quote the wonderful closing paragraph of the Telegraph obit:

Graham Mason cooked Mediterranean food well, liked Piero della Francesca and Fidelio, choral evensong on the Third Program and fireworks. After Marsh Dunbar’s death in 2001, with almost all his friends dead, he sat imprisoned by emphysema in his flat, with a cylinder of oxygen by his armchair and bottles of white wine by his elbow, looking out over the Thames, still very angry.

David Roman
Washington DC

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