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Two New Words, And A. N. Wilson On Isaiah Berlin
I found, in the latest TLS, words I did not know.
One was "biltong" -- a South African variant on the American meat jerky (see here). This appeared in a review by Frances Wilson, of Jennifer Scanlon's "Bad Girls Go Everywhere," a biography of that provincial cosmopolitan girl, Helen Gurley Brown": "her own body has for years...resembled a strip of biltong."
The second was "dazzle painting" for a kind of camouflage that does not hide but does confuse the enemy (see here), which appeared in a short review by Nicholas Rankin of "Churchill's Wizards":
"Many of the familiar stories are given an airing;[sic] Richard Meinertzhagen's ruse of leaving false battle plans at the Battle of Gaza in 1917, the dazzle painting of shipping and the stunning success of "Fortitude" -- the shceme to delude the Germans over the real location of the Allied invasion of France."
Articles in the TLS sometimes infuriate. A recent review by A.N. Wilson of the Letters of Isaiah Berlin did so, and in the same TLS in which "biltong" and "dazzle painting" were made known to me, Henry Hardy and his co-editor, Jennifer Holmes, replied to Wilson. They chose to ignore his "bizarre and petulant judgments" but took devastating issue with "so many of the points he makes" that "are based on factual errors."
And here, of relevant and great interest, is a letter that appeared in a later issue of the TLS from Paul Trewhela (who must have been biltonged practically to death in South African prisons):
Refugees from Riga
Sir, – Suppose that A. N. Wilson is right in every judgement he makes of Isaiah Berlin, whom he knew – “malicious, snobbish, boastful, cowardly, pompous”, guilty of “loghorrhoea” and of “somewhat obsessive social climbing” (July 16) – he is nevertheless too narrow and lacking in historical imagination.
It is one thing to have been born, like Wilson, to a British family in 1950 and to have grown up in the long peace of this country of this generation, and quite another to have been a Latvian Jew born in Riga in 1909, arriving in this country, as Wilson recalls Berlin telling him, “with a little cardboard suitcase”. Berlin’s demeanour really was that of someone as Wilson describes him, “an exile in a foreign land”.
My friend and trial colleague, Eli Weinberg, with whom I shared a cell in prison in South Africa, the author of the best-known photographs of Nelson Mandela from before his arrest, was like Berlin a Latvian Jew, born in Riga a year before Berlin.
At the age of six Weinberg was a mascot of the Cossacks in the First World War, separated from his family in 1914 by the turmoil of the German advance; later arrested and tortured in post-war Latvia under the “Grey Barons”; arriving afterwards as a refugee in South Africa, none of whose languages he spoke, but several of which he mastered fluently, including Zulu and Sotho; his immediate family in Latvia wiped out under Hitler.
Might it not have been more charitable for Wilson to have imagined Berlin as formed by similar terrors, a shipwreck from the mincing machine of Stalin and Hitler?
Since we are the beneficiaries of Berlin’s gifts to this culture, from a part of the world of which we know – almost – nothing, Wilson should have been more perceptive about the inner demons that could well have driven this man, who gave us his priceless interview with Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad in the winter of 1945–6, when he was her “Guest from the Future”.
In their personal formation, A. N. Wilson and Isaiah Berlin are worlds apart.
31 Berryfield Road, Aylesbury.
Quaere from the sidelines: might A. N. Wilson's malevolence toward Isaiah Berlin have anything to do with Berlin's unwavering support for Israel, a country which A. N. Wilson detests? I have my own suspicions.