The Glasgow Review Issue 2

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'Now you see it, now you don't': The Love Poetry of Edwin Morgan

Christopher Whyte

Edwin Morgan's literary `coming out' coincided with his seventieth birthday and with an exhausting round of commitments undertaken as unofficial bard for a Glasgow celebrating its designation as European City of Culture. It was a peculiarly public moment at which to make such an apparently private declaration, to admit that `in fact all the love poems which I have published are gay'.[1]

The fact that homosexual acts had been decriminalised in Scotland barely ten years earlier goes some way towards explaining why the poet postponed such a declaration to late on in life. It is more difficult to account for the silence of his readers and critics. Did they simply fail to notice the special status of his love poetry and the key it offers to understanding Morgan's work as a whole? Were they embarrassed? Disingenuous? Did they feel the truth was unspeakable? Was the danger of guilt by association too paralysing? Was their silence caused by prudishness or was Morgan's homosexuality considered to be so tangential to his writing that it could safely be ignored?

A quarter of a century after publication, Morgan's poem `Glasgow Green' reads as an outspoken plea for tolerance of the sexually disenfranchised.[2] Through much of that time the poem has been taught in secondary schools, in either blissful or culpable ignorance of what it actually says. But although the illusion of such ignorance is increasingly difficult to maintain, literary critics still affect it. Some may feel they owe it to the poet to pretend not to understand. In an essay focusing on the love poetry Iain Crichton Smith fails to confront the gender issue, merely noting that

when we think we have caught him [Morgan] is not there at all. Even his love poems do not give him away. Who is this loved one, man or woman?[3]

He goes on to describe the poem `Stanzas' as `a private love poem ... which gives tantalising glimpses of the Morgan concealed behind the mask', nothing more. Crichton Smith notes the literary, sometimes cliched quality of the love poetry and Morgan's attraction to `twentieth-century casualties', - but without articulating the obvious explanation. He accepts the stereotype without naming when he claims surprise at coming `face to face with desolate love and often loneliness'.[4] When Colin Nicholson discerns in one of the most outspoken poems from Holding Hands Among the Atoms `a fine reminder of the emotional damage inflicted by repressive intol-erance',[5] an uninformed reader could be forgiven for completely missing the point of the comment. It is as if Morgan's love can still not be spoken, at any rate not by his critics.

A difficulty in dealing with issues of censorship derives in part from the New Critical heritage with its exaggerated respect for the text as semantically final and somehow immune to social conditioning or interference. Within the Russian tradition the approach might be very different. Unable to include in her `Poem without a Hero' stanzas relating to Stalin's purges and the prison camps, Akhmatova substituted dotted lines. Her learned note that Pushkin had done the same in Eugene Onegin is at once a joke and a warning to her readers.[6] A pact of this kind, where both poet and audience are aware of how censorship moulds the text they share, is alien to Anglo-American analysis, equally troubled by the uncertain status of Mendelstam's Voronezh Notebooks and the constantly varying, never fully revised text of Proust's A la Recherche ... And Morgan could enter such a pact with only some sectors of his audience. The others had to be oblivious of its very presence. Even when it became possible to print the excised lines, Akhmatova did not wish to do so `but rather that they should exist separately and yet be known to come from that place'.[7] She did not wish the traces of censorship to be effaced from the text. A parallel operation would be to re-edit Morgan's love lyrics supplying the masculine pronouns, which would be equally foreign to the intention and the genesis of the poems.

Morgan's love poetry is designed to cater for at least two reading publics. His pronouncements on the subject can appear confused:

You may have a gay subject matter, and that will appeal to people who are inclined in that direction, and it may cause offence or problems with a different kind of audience. But a great many things seem to me to have a general appeal, even though they have a special appeal as well. I think that would be the kind of thing that I would probably prefer ... The more specific reading is an extra, a bonus, something that is there. I'm not saying they must be taken in that kind of way, though obviously the other meaning will come out more and more as time goes on, as the readership changes, and as more is known about it ... Do you think it should have been spelt out more in my work, just to make the point, or is it in fact done adequately the way I have done it? ... Perhaps it was, not so cowardly.[8]

A heterosexual reading seems mandatory. Yet the same time, more or less hidden signs tempt adepts to tease out a second, very different reading. Morgan even forecasts a change in the balance between the readings as the nature of his audience changes. Elsewhere in the same interview he takes a more pragmatic view:

I knew that when I was writing (the poems) that they must be ambiguous and that comes in many cases, I suppose, from a kind of apprehension, more than anything else.

Apprehension about the consequences of speaking very directly?


In other words, he wrote under a special dispensation. Imagine a male heterosexual poet being forced to expunge from his work any explicit indication that his beloved was a woman. He could never mention her name. Reference to her dress and to those parts of her body which betrayed her biologic gender would also be taboo. How much love poetry of the mainstream Western European tradition could pass this test? How can major poetry be written under such restrictions?

A reading of Morgan's love poetry which fails to take account of its doubleness, of the extra space it provides, has limited value. Some may object that the gender of the loved one is irrelevant. If a heterosexual reading is available, the homosexual reading can safely be ignored. After all, why should we be forced to read a poem twice? Yet it is not merely a question of gender. Censorship has moulded these texts. It is one of their constituent factors. The speakable is curtailed and distorted to make room for what cannot be spoken. The heterosexual reading itself has to accommodate the hidden one. If the beloved cannot be specified as male, neither can he be specified as female. A limitation creates a larger space. Absence of gender definition, the absence of a sign, becomes significant, bears meaning. Censorship moves in one direction only, against homosexuality and in favour of heterosexuality, destroying any equality between the readings and making the suppressed message necessarily more potent. With the passage of the years, however, Morgan increasingly casts his camouflage aside, achieving in his 1991 volume a directness of utterance which establishes a very different relation to his audience.

There is an unmistakable progression in the love lyrics Morgan published from 1968 to 1991. Doubleness is the rule in The Second Life (1968). The urge to speak out, whatever the consequences, grapples with the poet's need to protect his social person, the person he is when not writing or being read. In From Glasgow to Saturn (1973) greater explicitness subsists uneasily with self-censorship, producing poems which are paradoxically more opaque than those preceding or following. In The New Divan (1977) and Themes on a Variation (1988) attempts to provide an alternative, 'safe' reading are abandoned, and the poems of Holding Hands Among the Atoms (1991) have an unprecedented forthrightness. The poet's relationship with his public is gradually redefined. Some of the recent poems may alienate through their refusal to compromise. In others, the gender of the participants ceases to be an issue. They deal with patterns of relating which are not restricted to a particular sexual orientation.

Several lyrics from The Second Life appear to reinforce the cultural stereotype of the homosexual lover as alone, abandoned and frustrated. Another interpretation is feasible. Perhaps the solitude is motivated principally by the need for censorship. The poem can only be written once the lover is gone, because this obviates the need to describe him physically. An empty space is ambivalent. It has no gender. Thus in `One Cigarette' the weight of representing the lover is borne by a cigarette still smouldering in the ashtray.

The opening line warns us that what appears in the poem is a mere adjunct of what cannot be shown or seen. The real fire is hidden. The need for ellipsis clearly indicates a suppressed content. The poem has a rich sexual symbolism. The phallic nature of the cigarette is obvious and its location in `the non-smoker's tray' evokes an active-passive complementarity. The `last spire' of smoke suggests a different kind of contact as it blows into the poet's face, with an ambivalence of taste or smell. The ash which `sigh(s) down among the flowers of brass' implies detumescence, and the ornamental tray into which it subsides may also have an anatomical meaning. Smoking stands in for lovemaking as the cigarette stands in for the penis. Such playful eroticisation of everyday objects emerges as a response to the need for censorship, yet is powerfully sensual in a way more direct methods might have failed to achieve.

The lyrics surrounding `One Cigarette' in The Second Life describe a happy absence, avoiding indications of gender with a diligence that is tell-tale. The `wet hair' of `The Picnic' is the merest hint at the feminine while the single `breast' of `From a City Balcony' points in the other direction. Morgan prefers moments when a picture from the recent past forms in the poet's mind because censorship can already operate at this point. The poet is able to edit the story. If the lover were present, some untoward action on his part could reveal all while the readers, as it were, look on. `When you go' insists on the necessity of absence at the very start of the poem, apparently through a fear of abandonment, but perhaps because only then can memory and art do their work. The distance is a courtesy paid to the poet's audience, to their need not to know or not to be forced to acknowledge that they know. Morgan's rule would appear to be that nothing in the poem should enforce a homosexual reading on those who do not bring such an expectation to the poem. This tactic may have made it possible for his work the honoured place it currently occupies in Scottish schools.

One effect of the lover's absence is a tendency to idealisation. Some of the less successful lyrics have an almost querulous intonation. Emotion and sensation are excessively refined. `Strawberries' is an appropriately sweet, even sugary title for a poem which nonetheless suggests a lingering threat in the storm hovering over the Kilpatrick hills. Danger lurks in the wings of the idyll. The only indications of gender here are in the neutrality of `abandoned like a child' or the sameness of `two forks crossed'. Such assumptions of reciprocity or even passivity by a male speaker are among the most telling indications of sexuality in the poems. Heterosexuality, in both social and literary terms, is configured as a relationship between unequals, the sporadic deification of the female partner being symptomatic of her inferior status. In positing equality or reciprocity Morgan implicitly pushes the relationship depicted beyond such bounds.

Delicate poems like `Strawberries' or `The Picnic' are balanced by `Glasgow Green', where the more violent, destabilising elements of desire emerge with particular force. Morgan comments that

both are really required. Both are true, both aspects do exist, so possibly it's good to have both the romantic and the realistic.[10]

The word shouted in the first section expresses protest (`No!'), not consent. This is a love of `anguish' and `loneliness', of `hunter and hunted in their endless chain', a love composed of thorns. We only read one half of the crude dialogue enacted in the city centre park. The maleness of the speaker is clear from the aggressiveness of `I'm gaun to have you ... turn over ...', of his victim from `Mac' and `bastard'. Morgan cuts just in time to spare us a scene of male rape. The cut again demonstrates the imperative of censorship, and the repetition of `real ... real ... real' in the following section hammers out the fact that this poem underpins the idealised intimacy and tenderness of `Strawberries'.

Next, Morgan dazzlingly coopts the rhetoric of Protestant sermonizing to plead the case for homosexual love, even in its most unacceptable, brutal manifestations. It is characteristic of him that, rather than rejecting the tradition, he uses its modes to give majesty and dignity to a voice that can no longer be marginalised. From a `thorn in the flesh', a disturbing nuisance which must be removed, homosexual love becomes a potential for growth. It is not only nurtured (`watered') but `planted' for a specific purpose (as opposed to the thorn which enters the skin accidentally). This love will bring a harvest of grain and wine. It inhabits the `sea of desire' from which `beds of married love' are excluded. Desire is located outside wedlock and the safety of the home. Married love excludes both violence and desire. While it is accurate to describe the subject of the poem as male rape, it is crucial to remember that both participants in public sex of this kind are beyond the law. The victim is a criminal even before the violence starts.

The poem which gives its title to the volume The Second Life can be read as a celebration of achieved maturity. But it is also a `coming out' poem, celebrating the speaker's acknowledgement and acceptance of his sexuality. This is done through a series of coded statements and subterfuges. The snake comes out of its old skin just as the eye sheds the film which had blocked it. The emphasis is on emerging, letting oneself be seen: `Slip out of darkness, it is time'. `Caked layers of grime ... like homely coats ... will be dislodged'. When Morgan writes that `Many things are unspoken in the life of a man', he is warning the reader of the importance of what cannot be said in this particular poem, so that `unspoken love', though attributed to `a place', Glasgow, echoes with implications of sexuality, of emotion towards a person. The contrast of `man' and `men' with `people' gives a masculine colouring to this section, so that 'men will still be warm' hints at a tenderness that is between males, rather than being general and ungendered.

The `old seeds' are mirrored in the poem immediately following, `The Sheaf', a superficially enigmatic piece expressing the feelings of a man who knows he will not (chooses not to) procreate. His only children are `the children of my heart', and his life is gathered into the grey soil like disappearing rain, for he has no offspring. Yet he characterises himself with an image of harvest, of fruitfulness. The suggestion may be audacious, but the melting drop with which the poem ends could be the poet's own seed, a sperm not spent in making children, but distributed more generally, spilled in masturbation, non-procreative sex, or poems:

On the generations,
on the packed cells and dreaming shoots,
the untried hopes, the waiting good
I send this drop to melt.

`The Unspoken' foregrounds Morgan's method of merely referring to what cannot be articulated. The unspoken subsists in the poem as `it'. The first section describes a sensation of happiness while sailing round the Cape of Good Hope in 1941, `but it is not like that'. The second deals with Morgan's feelings when the Russians sent a dog into orbit on a sputnik, excitement and elation, `but it is not like that'. The `but' with which the third section opens hints that Morgan is about to reveal `it'. He does not, although the remarkable quality informing ordinary incidents in a love between men. In spite of the need for secrecy the two `did the common things that in out feeling/ became extraordinary', and the final lines reiterate the `it', crucial, indispensable and eternally unsayable, with a liturgical close of the kind Morgan loves:

O then it was a story as old as war or man,
and although we have not said it we know it,
and although we have not claimed it we do it,
and although we have not vowed it we keep it,
without a name to the end.

The difficulty of doing and not claiming, of knowing and not saying, increases in Morgan's next major volume From Glasgow to Saturn. A poem such as `Christmas Eve' acts as a lever, its explicitness forcing open the reticences of this and the previous collection. It is also symptomatic of the tension between Morgan's discursive strategy and his subject matter. Ambiguity is feasible only where his homosexual experience overlaps with that of heterosexuals. Areas of social and erotic experience which lack this correspondence demand a different treatment.

On a city bus, a man in civvies back from Aden makes a pass:
As the bus jerked, his hand fell on my knee...
... I rubbed my ear
to steal a glance at him, found him
stealing a glance at me. It was not
the jerking of the bus, it was a proposition.

The surveillance of the conductor interrupts them. Their desire is constantly, ubiquitously policed, in a manner which does not distinguish the public sex of `Glasgow Green' from the intimate tendernesses of `The Unspoken', and the poet rises and leaves the bus. What is it that makes the conclusion so unsatisfactory? It may be the jangling insincerity of the last line, given the lie by what has gone before:

It was only fifteen minutes out of life
but I feel as if I was lifted by a whirlwind
and thrown down on some desert rocks to die
of dangers as always far worse lost than run.

No other poem in From Glasgow to Saturn reaches this degree of explicitness. With few exceptions, Morgan sticks to the rules he has set himself, using the neutral pronoun `you' throughout the love poems to blur the gender of the addressee even when the experience described militates against a heterosexual reading.

Several poems read like annotations of a love relationship which does not exclude further sexual partners. `Floating off to Timor' blends images of the Pacific with the realities of Glasgow:

We're cutting through
some straits of the world
in our old dark room
with salty wings
in the shriek of the dock wind.

Timor is associated with `those desires / we keep for strangers', Glasgow with manual labour and coming home to a familiar house. The speaker apologises for this split in his desires, yet the gap cannot be bridged. If only we didn't know each other, he seems to say, so many things would be possible.

`In Glasgow' describes one of these strangers, who throws on a shirt when morning dawns. He has been made to `turn/ like a dark eel/ in my white bed', his feet washed and his hair combed in almost Biblical fashion. The speaker's role is different in `From the North', where he torments himself with speculations about the lovers his partner may find during his absence:

This Saturday on what corner
will you meet your next friend? Give him
a little only, while my foot slips here.

Gay men of Morgan's generation experienced an intensity of repression which gave even the simplest gestures a stolen quality, as if the impossible had been realised. Emotional fulfilment was harder to attain than sexual fulfilment and often came later in life. Love discovered in middle age took on the breathless quality of adolescent experimentation. `At the Television Set' returns to `the common things that in our feeling/became extraordinary', detailing with barely suppressed excitement the precise posture of two men spending an evening together:

For even in this room we are moving out through stars
and forms that never let us back, your hand
lying lightly on my thigh and my hand on your shoulder
are transfixed only there, not here.

In a heterosexual reading, Morgan might be accused of failing to transfigure the mundane sufficiently, failing to justify this excitement. The gender of the participants, though never stated, is an essential ingredient of the poem's success.

Were the `you' of `After the Party' a woman, such an accusation could be fair. The homophobic description of the party has a double role. It provides the speaker with a kind of alibi while emphasising that this was a men only party:

who wants to remember the bad wine,
the worse coffee, that raving blond on the stair
with his jagged half of a Mingus EP dipped in punch -
or his friend old whimpering cut-wrist
squirming on his paunch on the bathroom carpet, imagine
a white fitted carpet and a botched suicide...

It follows logically that the brief, unforgettable gesture (`I thought/you touched me') was from one man to another.

`The Milk-Cart' and `Estranged' read like a pair, the poet waking without his lover in the first, the lover returning with a quarrel still not made up in the second. Estrangements and absences are real enough, no longer a courtesy to the audience. The delicate balance of the lyrics in The Second Life has been upset as Morgan struggles towards a different discursive position. There is a tension between the limitations he imposes on himself and the subject matter he chooses. These poems are slightly askew. They have lost the fascinating doubleness of the early texts. Their reticence risks being merely misleading.

If Morgan's linguistic primness was becoming redundant, he nonetheless found it difficult to shake off. Both the sequence of poems beginning with `The Divide' and ending with `The Question' in The New Divan (1977) and `Stanzas' and `Dear man, my love goes out in waves' from Themes on a Variation (1988) deal with an older man's longing for a youth, infatuations rather than affairs. The first is unable to respond because heterosexual: `You would say I can't be what I'm not,/yet I can't now be what I am'. The second is gay but committed to another relationship: `you went home to him, and I to me'. Habits of discretion persist, and Morgan refrains from direct statement. The first man is `a splash of red jeans against the wall'. `Iago and Cassio/had a better night' than the one they spend together. It is worth noting that both Shakespeare's characters were heterosexual. Morgan was thirty-eight when the second youth was born. `You think I want a son?' he asks. `Of course I do -/ or daughter', as if ambivalence had become second nature.

Why do these sequences lack the tension of the preceding love poetry? They are less transgressive. An older man's unrequited longing for a youth who could be his son, or his student, is a more common, and much less threatening trope than the acknowledged love of two men of similar age. Morgan is self-consciously poetic, protesting that `Any dignity that came with growing older/ would stop my pencil on the paper', that `I settled and I wrote/ those lines, these lines, only to be true', that he has no words for his beloved's eyes and that `a poem doesn't seize lapels'. He declares his emotion with a rhetoric that is infinitely less powerful than the understatement he had resorted to earlier:

yourself, you are the blade, the freeing light
that cuts imagined age to shreds, and doubts
from veins, and solitude
away, quite altogether, cuts day and night
until there's just eternity...

These ringing tones contrast strangely with the subdued intensity of `One Cigarette' or `The Unspoken', which derives from a sense of belonging to a privileged and restricted group made party to a secret.

`Instructions to an Actor', an uncollected poem from the period 1976-81, is more successful, a double text that shows Morgan engaging playfully with tradition. It can of course be read merely as a director's instructions to the actor playing Hermione in the famous statue scene from A Winter's Tale. But there is a discrepancy between the actor's being a boy and the contemporary jargon the director uses. Phrases such as `you're a dead queen... you're a mature woman' combine to make a subtext so that the moving conclusion refers as much to reconciliation between estranged gay partners as to the characters in Shakespeare's drama:

Finally he embraces you, and there's nothing
I can give you to say, boy,
but you must show that you have forgiven him.
Forgiveness, that's the thing. It's like a second life.
I know you can do it. - Right then, shall we try?

In Morgan's most recent volume, all semblance of camouflage is abandoned. Perhaps his awareness that a limited but appreciative gay public existed for him in Scotland relieved him of the necessity of always also catering for more general tastes. Perhaps the act of `coming out' inevitably had to alter his relationship to his public and to his own texts. In any case, the love poems here do not attempt to make an alternative reading possible. None of them has the quality of immediate, diaristic annotation familiar from the previous volumes. Morgan takes his own reticence as subject matter in `Tram-Ride, 1939' dedicated to Frank Mason, his closest friend in university days:[11]

... would they sometime,
in half a century perhaps, accept that love is
what it is, that tears are what they are, that
Jack can shiver in the numbing close-mouth
of missing dates for Jill and Jake, and suffer?

The slight awkwardness of that `Jake' suggests that Morgan may in part be directing this question at himself. In `Persuasion' it is a probably younger friend who exhorts the poet to greater openness:

...siad it must be, must issue
right out if it was to have any honour -
what: love? - yes: love; it must seal up its burrow,
must take a stair or two, a flight or two, for
poles, horizons, convoys, elevations -
but tender still to backcourts and dim woodlands.

`A Coach-Tour' shows how far the poet has come. It is dedicated to John G Scott, Morgan's partner for some fifteen years,[12] and could be an incident from any intimate love relationship. The gender of his partner is no longer important, the shadowy figure of The Second Life and From Glasgow to Saturn solidifies to a much more present and believable person:

...when you made your face go blank and crossed your
legs and never let the jolting coach-tour
bring our bodies into faintest contact
I was cast back into an ancient panic...

Gone is any temptation to idealise. Morgan's awareness of how Scott's behaviour recalled that of his own parents, which indicates a higher degree of both acknowledged intimacy and self-awareness.

But the most powerful of this group of poems is `A Memorial', equal to any other in the collection. It returns to those `backcourts and dim woodlands', taking as its subject cottaging or toilet sex, anonymous encounters in public conveniences. It is retrospective, almost `Glasgow Green' seen across the distance of a quarter century. Morgan's technique is the same. Because his language sounds both Miltonic and Biblical, the sordid subject matter is elevate. The opening line is humorous, touching and declamatory at one and the same time, its pentameter rhythm sedate and arresting: `Stupendous days of unattended toilets!' Groping in the dark become's a king's touch which may heal the scrofula of loneliness. The participants are likened to the Jews in Babylonian captivity: `By Kelvin waters,/ by Liffey waters we watched the shadows gather'. The hoarse commands are really `entreaties', and these actions are not truly sealed off from the world, for strollers glance `half-honestly but/ not without a flickering eye'. Morgan claims his own verse as a memorial for this forgotten world: `No plaques will be forthcoming, only poems,/ only the voices you hear in poems'. An orgy of alliteration makes his ambivalence as to liberation, the new and better times that are said to have come, emphatic:

It's harder
when liberal laws ensure the lawless places
are outlawed: so much for progress

and the poem ends defiantly, shockingly, not with a statement, but with a gesture, an erection: `Memory/hoists its flesh, its shambles, like a standard.'

A man who has made a journey of this kind is a man of considerable courage and one for whom honesty and direct speech are artistic imperatives. Morgan's outspokenness is that of one determined to survive. He has successfully trodden the delicate line between claiming further discursive space and drawing down the vengeance of the guardians of public morals. Such strategies were less conspicuous than those adopted by figures like the Italian poet and filmmaker like Pier Paolo Pasolini. Yet paradoxically they allowed Morgan a forthrightness Pasolini never achieved. It would be difficult indeed to decide whether the fact that Morgan was spared the hostility and opprobrium Italian society heaped upon Pasolini, and avoided the marginality which was Sandro Penna's lot in his lifetime, was a consequence of these strategies or of differing degrees of intolerance in the two countries. The scope of this essay has necessarily been limited. At the very least, it aimed to articulate in public readings which many of Morgan's admirers have long shared in private. The next step is to place him in the company of Cernuda and Lorca, Proust, Iwaszkiewicz and Kavafis and to see how each of these writers balanced the need to censor against the need to speak.


[1] This remark appears at the beginning of an interview concerning the importance of his sexuality for Morgan's life and work: `Power from things not declared', in Edwin Morgan Nothing Not Giving Messages, ed. Hamish Whyte (Edinburgh 1990) pp.144-187.

[2] Unless otherwise stated, all poems are quoted from Edwin Morgan Collected Poems, (Manchester: Carcanet, 1990).

[3] Iain Crichton Smith `The Public and Private Morgan' in About Edwin Morgan, ed. Crawford and Whyte (Edinburgh 1990) p. 44.

[4] Ibid, p. 38, p. 50, p. 52.

[5] Colin Nicholson's review of Holding Hands Among the Atoms (Glasgow 1991) appeared in the Scottish Literary Journal Supplement No. 36 (Spring 1992) pp. 30-32.

[6] Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, trans, Judith Hemachemeyer and ed. Roberta Reader (Somerville, Mass: 1990): II, p. 470.

[7] Amanda Haight Anna Akhmatova: A Poetic Pilgrimage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990) p. 208.

[8] Nothing Not Giving Messages, pp. 185-87.

[9] Ibid, p. 176.

[10] Nothing Not Giving Messages, p. 178.

[11] Ibid, pp 168-9.

[12] Ibid, pp 170 ff.