Peter Campbell’s essay (LRB, 7 March) reminded me of the only adventure I ever had on an escalator. One was quite enough. With three other undergraduates at Newnham College, I spent an evening out in London during the war. Having had a meal in a restaurant after the theatre, we were completely unable to find a taxi – not unusual at 11.30 p.m. in the black-out. One of my friends was a bright and beautiful girl who walked with a crutch and a stick as the result of what may have been polio in childhood. We persuaded her with difficulty that the Underground, of which she had no experience, was our only hope of reaching our London address.
Green Park (I think it was) had a particularly long up-escalator. We helped her on, two of us went ahead with her stick, so as to be ready at the top, and I was coming up behind, but didn’t get too close, laden as I was with her coat and handbag. Hating to be conspicuous, she was glad that there were no other people about. Almost halfway up, she dropped her crutch as she tried to keep a firm hold on the handrail. It clattered down past me incredibly fast. By this time she had collapsed on a step and was crying out in panic. Strangulation didn’t occur to us, but we knew her clothes would be torn off under the plate.
Terror had set in when someone shouted, ‘It’s all right, I’m coming,’ and a tall man, not in uniform, simply shot down the entire down-escalator and raced up the one we were on, just in time to snatch her off the mechanism in his arms, an action none of us was likely to have managed. Had he stood at the top of the up-escalator to try and snatch her off it there would have been a risk of his falling over backwards, while her clothing would be partly caught. His quickness was in seeing this wasn’t the right thing to do. Presence of mind had simultaneously to be an understanding of technique.
There was still no sign of anyone else in the station. I had nightmares of the crutch hopping past me, nothing to those she suffered later, but the miracle of the right man in the right place redeemed them. The Angel Raphael, I dare say.
For many years, I have told people that signs on the Underground’s escalators once proclaimed: ‘Stationary on the Right, Forward on the Left.’ Even a perpetually Labour-dominated London County Council became a mite embarrassed about this and the signs were eventually removed. Peter Campbell’s essay refers to a similar admonition on the Underground escalators, but not to that one. Can it be that my tale was untrue? What a shame.
What MPs Read
Robert FitzGerald (Letters, 7 March) tells us that Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was a book ‘for the coffee tables of the dissenting middle classes’. I can’t speak on the basis of circulation statistics or academic Rezeptionsgeschichte (but who can, really?): what I can do is report that when I was growing up in a working-class family in South-East London in the 1930s, my father, who was a carpenter, read the book avidly and with fascination. And so did all his friends – bricklayers, house-painters, electricians etc. They all agreed (I can hear them now) that this book was the only one they had ever met that described adequately the scandalous realities they faced as they tried to scrape a living in the building trade of those days. The one tatty copy I ever saw had been more or less read to pieces as it did the rounds, and was minus its cover when it reached my father. FitzGerald may be reporting the fate of the 1955 edition: he must not imagine that in the days of the Depression the book had no working-class readers.
I base my opinion of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and its readership on 45 years’ teaching English literature in seven different countries. How about David Rose (Letters, 21 March)? Assuming him to be the same David Rose that appears on the contents page of your academically-respected organ, I must wonder what qualifications the world of advertising lends to a reading of Tressell?
David Rose writes: Tressell's protagonist, Owen, was frustrated by the reluctance of his colleagues to engage in any debate about their circumstances because they felt it wasn't their place to discuss such things. Robert FitzGerald is refusing to engage with my arguments on the basis that I am not of his class. Forgive me if I don't appreciate the irony.
Could you give me directions to the British Museum?
While befuddled tourists and easily humoured out-of-towners may have cheerful memories of Scramble!’s sophomoric pranksterism, there is an aspect of their activities which Piotr Jozefow doesn’t mention (Letters, 21 March). No one who was present at those Powys Square meetings in the late 1960s and early 1970s could have had any illusions as to the aims of Gregor Ross’s inner circle. Many of these people had connections with direct action groups, and if I’m not mistaken there was a sizeable input from associates of the Angry Brigade. (Since Jozefow still lives in that neck of the woods, maybe he should take a stroll round and remind himself of what went on in the basement of No. 8. Or maybe that’s all been gentrified, too.) Those art-school assemblage maps were fluff. Ross’s idea of reimagining the city was to level it. He spent a year in Naples, where people knew how to wire large structures with explosives (under the cover of New Year fireworks, Camorristi owners sometimes blow up unwanted buildings). Admiration for Provos changing Derry street-names to Gaelic was another of Ross’s weekend fads, and there must be some of Jozefow’s neighbours who recall his Erse-ing of the Signs in 1972. His manifestos advocated attacks on property and the abandoning of what he called the ‘noxious bourgeois fraud called civics’, which really meant: let all hell break loose and see what is left once the dust has settled. Ross belonged to that class of spoilt suburbanite prigs who have an almost Puritan hatred for the city. ‘The ideal city is the desert’ was one of Scramble!’s dumber slogans. Ross’s Maoist back-to-nature fantasies were hitched to theories filched from the 1960s architectural avant-garde. You can see the results of that particular experiment, even in Bloomsbury. The real test of Scramble! wasn’t pointing tourists getting off the No. 12 bus in the direction of the Blue Mosque, but the Clun commune in 1973. And a grim experience that was. Any environment advertising itself as canvas Corbusier has to be structurally unsound at best. Ross had an undoubted flair for self-publicity and was a talented intaglio printmaker, but he revealed a hysterical incompetence when it came to organising anything without a laundry or convenience store in sight. Just because Scramble! is remembered for hippyish japes like edible A-Zs shouldn’t blind anyone to the fact that here was a group thought by some to have had intimate links with self-proclaimed terrorists. Sure, Ross and his cohorts were unlikely to blow up the Westway all by themselves, but they were prepared for violence morally and ideologically.
Michael Byers writes (LRB, 21 February) that the war on terrorism has been linked by Bush’s advisers to the way Americans think about themselves. He fails to mention the most important strand of all: the tradition of Puritanism which the late Christopher Lasch called America’s ‘strongest reservoir of moral idealism’. On the morning of 11 September, I was teaching The Crucible. When Bush addressed the nation that evening and in subsequent speeches, I was struck by how much the rhetoric of 17th-century Puritans has become his own: the sharp distinction between good and evil; no neutral ground; retributive justice; a vengeful God who is on our side; the relentless will dedicated to rooting out a malicious enemy. As Miller’s Reverend Hale says, ‘The powers of the dark are gathered in monstrous attack upon us.’
Ohio Wesleyan University
What’s for supper?
It is quite true, as Adrian Woolfson says (LRB, 21 March), that in the cellular slime mould Dictyostelium discoideum individual amoebae assemble together (when the food runs out) into a multicellular slug which migrates and then differentiates into a stalked fruiting body. It would be impressive if such a creature could reasonably be said to have ‘learned’ to ‘navigate simple mazes’. However, Toshiyuki Nakagaki’s studies have shown no such thing. These experiments (described in Nature 407, 470) were actually carried out with the acellular (or ‘true’) slime mould Physarum polycephalum, which is a totally different creature with a totally different life-cycle. In particular, there is no self-organisation of independent individuals into a community with emergent complex properties. The maze experiments used the plasmodium phase of the mould, a multi-nucleate single cell, or syncytium. The ‘maze’ consisted of two successive pairs of alternative, different-lengthed paths. The plasmodium initially occupied the whole area, but when food, in the form of ground oat flakes in agar jelly, was placed at the start and end points, the organism generally concentrated itself into the shorter paths.
In three trials out of 19 the slime mould continued to occupy the whole maze, and in another two seems to have refused to play the game altogether.
Musselburgh, East Lothian
In writing about Astérix (LRB, 21 February), Mary Beard makes a brief reference to René Goscinny's childhood in Argentina. I would like to advance the idea, which others here have also toyed with, that during Goscinny's childhood years he came across the cartoon character Patoruzu, a native Indian and Argentine superhero, the creation of Dante Quinterno, born in Buenos Aires in 1909. The character first appeared on 27 September 1930 (when Goscinny was four), in the evening newspaper Crítica. In 1935 the cartoon was moved to the morning newspaper El Mundo, and in 1936 became the subject of Dante Quinterno's own magazine, itself called Patoruzu. Patoruzu was a nationalist hero, something of a Fascist with a powerful punch which he used to defend the good and the honest, and the true interests of the nation etc.
Only for Telling a Man He Was Wrong
The implied singer of ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’ is not, as Alison Light thinks (LRB, 21 March), a woman beaten up by her bloke, but a young man assaulted in verse one for praising the Conservatives and in verse two for pressing the merits of Gladstone. The logic of the chorus has both eyes blacked each time, and it is no surprise that verse three finds the young man recommending non-engagement, or at least discretion. On this song and ‘The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’, Charles Coburn built a performing career of more than seventy years. Since his death in 1945 the chorus seems to have developed a life independent of the song, free to carry a quite different anxiety.
University of Liverpool
Readers who want to know more about William Carlos Williams’s enjambments, and about his exemplary poem ‘To a Poor Old Woman’, should seek out Stephen Cushman’s monograph William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of Measure (Yale, 1985), two references to which were cut from my review in the LRB, 7 March.
St Paul, Minnesota