Boggs the Forger
I wonder how Terry Eagleton’s argument on the topic of forgery, counterfeiting and plagiarism (LRB, 6 June) would stand to the intriguing case of the currency-artist, J.S.G. Boggs. Some fifteen years ago, Boggs produced a series of facsimiles of the US dollar in various denominations but on one side of the paper only. He then used them to trade, not as pretend legal tender but as works of art, in exchange for goods and services to the value represented on the bits of paper. A work of art representing a $100 bill was ‘spent’ for one hundred dollars’ worth of merchandise (there was a further complication when ‘change’ was required). Subsequently, he upped the ante with what he called the ‘Pittsburgh Project’. This involved producing a new edition of his partial facsimiles and then laser-copying them to the tune of a million dollars’ worth, with a view to putting them into limited circulation; they could be used by their original ‘purchaser’ to purchase goods and services in turn, and so on. He also added a design on the back of the ‘bills’ consisting of five circles, in which the new purchasers were to place their thumbprint as a mark of ownership. The ‘bills’ could thus change hands up to five times.
Clearly, Boggs’s creations were neither forged nor counterfeit banknotes, and at no point did he ever seek to pass them off as legal currency. This did not prevent the US Treasury, Secret Service and IRS from hitting the panic-buttons. They saw very clearly the potential threat to the fiduciary foundations of a monetary system (the sort of thing that obsessed those reluctant to leave the Gold Standard in Keynes’s time). Since Boggs had done nothing illegal, they could not arrest him. He was, however, subjected to surveillance, raids, confiscations and harassments. Once again, he turned the screw tighter, making a new $10 bill with a representation of the Supreme Court on the back (the ‘Supreme Court ten’). Citing the example of the Irish writers who forged literary ‘originals’ in order to discredit English writers by claiming their works were derivatives of the mythical originals, Eagleton claims that in the matter of forgery there is often a politics of origin, authenticity and identity. But this seems small beer compared with the provocative challenge to the authority of the state engineered by Boggs. The Irish forgers could always be exposed: in Boggs’s case, there was nothing to ‘expose’ – everything was, so to speak, above board.
King’s College, Cambridge
Terry Eagleton is correct when he claims to have written my book The Forger's Shadow on my behalf. I should know – I wrote his review.
University of Bristol
No luck (or no brains)
Pete Hutton asks for an explanation of my poem ‘Ode to the Sublime by Monica Vitti’ (Letters, 6 June). In the poem Monica Vitti offers us an account of the film called Deserto Rosso by Antonioni, in which she starred as an embodiment of ‘the sublime’. It is clear that in preparation for her role Vitti read Edmund Burke, who describes the sublime as ‘composed of the influence of pain, of pleasure, of grace, of deformity, playing into each other, that the mind is unable to determine which to call it, pain or pleasure or terror’. She probably also looked at Kant’s discussion of ‘everything’, an entity that ‘exists only in our minds’, vibrating between lust and frustration ‘as the imagination reaches out for it and falls back’ – rather like Mr Hutton’s response to her poem.
According to Francis Spufford (LRB, 6 June), the whole Concorde project ‘was based on an error in social prediction’, in as much as the people who commissioned the plane presupposed that flying was and would remain ‘something done by the rich’. I don’t believe this for a second. Even by 1962, when the Concorde was first mooted, flying wasn’t being done only by the rich, and given the degree to which it had already percolated down into the middlingly well-off, no one can have thought its future was going to be as exclusive as Spufford suggests. The thing about Concorde was that it was going to fly to wherever it went a whole lot quicker than other people carriers. I vaguely remember that around that time, Barnes Wallis, the bouncing bomb man from wartime, was proposing passenger rockets that would get people from London to Sydney via the upper air in 90 minutes or less, and since small conventional aircraft were already travelling at speeds unimaginable only ten years before, the building of something like Concorde was inevitable. The technological prediction was what counted, not the social one; the Concorde was surely foreseen as the icing on the cake, never as the future of air travel.
Perfect timing! Francis Spufford reminds us that BA paid £17 million to get Concorde, whose development had already cost taxpayers nearly £900 million. In the same week, the Government tells us that it's handing over the Millennium Dome (cost to us: over £700 million) to a bunch of property developers free of charge. Who'd be a taxpayer?
Francis Spufford's article on Concorde contains one inaccuracy. Tony Benn's South-East Bristol constituency did not include Filton, the site of both the BA and Rolls-Royce factories. Filton is in South Gloucester, four miles away, so Benn's enthusiasm for Concorde was to do with technocratic zeal, not electoral calculation.
In Bristol today the schools are crumbling, bus services are inadequate, public housing provision declines, and no one flies on Concorde. In the recent municipal elections the Labour Party had to bring in people from more prosperous areas to canvass council estates. The future never used to look like this.
I wonder if Francis Spufford is aware that this amazing aeroplane is also a full foot longer in the air than when standing on the runway prior to take-off. My source for this is the rather less rigorous Jeremy Clarkson (Speed, BBC2). Legroom is apparently unaffected.
However enjoyable it might be to see Jenny Diski at work with her witty scalpel, killing off two writers with a couple of dextrous slashes, it occurs to me that devoting two whole pages of the LRB’s 23 May issue to the early fiction of Philip Larkin, which doesn't apparently deserve to see the light of publication, in an edition by James Booth, which has even less reason – or so it seems from Diski’s review – to be read (let alone pondered), replicates the very sin of unnecessary publication that she so trenchantly castigates.
Jenny Diski’s review of Philip Larkin’s juvenilia is the worst I have ever read in the LRB, which is saying a lot. A parade of undercover PC, it made no attempt to look closely at, or to come close to, its subject, his words, his ways of writing. In his elegy on Yeats, Auden opined that Time, indifferent to politics and ideology,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives.
‘With this strange excuse’ Time has ‘pardoned’ Kipling, Claudel, Yeats himself, and no doubt Auden and Larkin as well. Time is also looking over the critic’s shoulder when he or she denigrates the language of such writers.
Unfair to Teller
Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviet H-bomb, might have disagreed with Steven Shapin’s account of Edward Teller (LRB, 25 April). Sakharov astonished many readers of his Memoirs by claiming that American physicists were ‘unfair and even ignoble’ in their attitude to Teller. In his view, Oppenheimer and Teller deserved ‘equal respect’. In the late 1940s Oppenheimer opposed work on the American H-bomb, hoping that the USSR would follow suit and not create their own superweapon – he didn’t know that Sakharov and his colleagues had already begun H-bomb research. Teller did not trust the Soviet regime at all. He was convinced that only American military power could contain the USSR and called for the speedy creation of an American H-bomb. In hindsight, based on his experiences with Soviet leaders, Sakharov agreed with Teller.
Teller also has personal reasons for his anti-Sovietism. The Hungarian physicist Laszlo Tisza worked for three years in Soviet Kharkov, where a powerful school of physics was developing under the direction of Lev Landau, a friend of Teller’s. During the Great Terror of 1937 Tisza saw one of the best scientific centres in the country destroyed, and people who were dedicated to science and devoted to their Soviet homeland arrested. Landau fled to Moscow (he was arrested in 1938). Tisza slipped out of the Soviet Union, leaving his socialist illusions behind. When he met with Teller in the US he told him what he had seen and talked about his disillusionment. Teller never saw Landau again, but thanks to transcripts of KGB wiretaps, we now know what Landau thought of the Soviet regime in 1957: ‘Our regime, as I have learned since 1937, is definitely a Fascist regime, and it could not change by itself … The question about a peaceful liquidation of our regime is a question about the future of humankind … Without Fascism there is no war … Our leaders are Fascists from head to toe. They can be more liberal or less liberal, but their ideas are Fascist.’ Why did Teller keep secret for so long the story of his two friends who had experienced Soviet socialism at first hand? Elena Bonner, Sakharov’s wife, went to the United States for the first time in 1986 for heart surgery. She met Teller and he suggested that they keep their meeting from the press, so as not to endanger Sakharov, who was still banished to the closed city of Gorky. Teller is only too well aware of his gloomy public image.
Center for Philosophy and History of Science, Boston University
It is misleading of David Runciman – and many others, especially since 11 September – to quote only the final line of Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’ (LRB, 6 June). The closing lines of the poem contain all the usual Larkin qualifications.
The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
He wasn’t a Beatle.
Adventures of a Messiah
Richard Popkin is always a delight to read or listen to when he speaks about the curious case of Sabbatai Sevi (LRB, 23 May). However, John Freely’s book about Sabbatai is far more than just a racy copy of Gershom Scholem’s book. Not only does he add new material about the graveyards of Sabbatai’s followers, but he gives a cultural texture to the story he tells that makes him one of the great travel writers about Istanbul and other parts of Turkey. In an earlier book, The Western Shores of Turkey, he describes a visit to the house said to be Sabbatai’s birthplace. There he saw people ‘who looked more Spanish than Turkish’ and who ‘were praying and speaking in Ladino, the language of the Sephardic Jews’. It could well be that the Jews of Izmir do not want tourists coming to see the house, for when I went there to find it, the rabbi who was to direct us did not turn up.
Two and a half years ago, in Istanbul for a conference, I asked if Freely was well known in Turkey. ‘We consider him one of us,’ my host replied.
In his review of Tom Paulin’s The Invasion Handbook (LRB, 23 May), Frank Kermode mentions several words unknown to him and to the OED. One of them, ‘cuas’, is defined in Terence Patrick Dolan’s A Dictionary of Hiberno-English (1998) as ‘a space between rocks; a cavity, a recess; a hollow’. Dolan’s example from the Irish is: ‘He hid it in the cuas next to the tree.’ The implied scale is rather less grand than Paulin’s ‘abyss/a cuas between plump stately mountains’. Paulin’s own foreword to the Dictionary draws particular attention to ‘cuas’ as a word that takes us into a specific landscape. Dolan also helps with Paulin’s ‘the little kinnet’. He defines ‘canatt’ (in its various spellings) as a sly rascal: ‘What a mean little kinnatt he is!’ In such instances, Dolan is used by Paulin much as Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language was used by Hugh MacDiarmid – whom Paulin acknowledges by allusion.
As for ‘The Invasion Handbook’ itself: that may be Audenesque but it is no invention. Informationsheft GB (Berlin, 1939 or 1940) was a manual on British geography, customs and administration. The Gestapo list of 2820 British subjects and European exiles to be taken into custody was a separate volume, Sonderfahndungsliste GB (1940). Between Abercrombie and Zweig (Paulin’s A-Z), it honoured not only the likes of ‘Steffan Spender’ but also Dr Liepmann, a refugee from Heidelberg and a student of Karl Jaspers who ended up teaching German at my school.
‘Pochles’ is used to describe a person who is physically inept and indecisive in his actions. It is analogous to ‘havering’, which describes a similar mental state. When we were young ‘footering’ was also a common term to describe apparently aimless activity, although normally someone who ‘footered’ was involved in something less sustained than someone who ‘pochled’. I hope that this clears up any confusion.
Portstewart, Co. Derry
James Francken’s survey of US prison writings in his review of Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard (LRB, 23 May) might have mentioned Art Pepper’s 1979 autobiography, Straight Life. An exemplary version of LA Noir, it deserves a wider readership than one limited to the jazz community. Pepper was one of the finest alto players of the postwar period, though as a West Coaster he was undervalued. In 1961 he was convicted for possessing half an ounce of heroin and received a punitive two to ten years. Astonishingly, the authorities decided he should serve his sentence in San Quentin. His book includes a gruelling account of US prison life in the 1960s, written from the standpoint of a sensitive and intelligent musician but also someone whom half a lifetime of hustling had equipped with the brutal survival skills to cope in such an environment. Pepper’s ability to function in and report back from such a harsh terrain – his temperamental mix of artist and hustler – brings to mind Orwell’s remark that it took a man like the ‘half-civilised’ Kipling to produce a literary picture of British India ‘because he was just coarse enough to be able to exist and keep his mouth shut in clubs and regimental messes’.
He did too have rhythm
It is of course not true that Hugh MacDiarmid ‘lost his sense of rhythm’, as David Goldie claims (LRB, 6 June), even though the poet himself thought he had. ‘Bracken Hills in Autumn’ belies the self-criticism, as do ‘late’ poems such as ‘The Wreck of the Swan’, ‘Off the Coast of Fiedeland’ and the translations of Ungaretti into Scots. Such poems, and others, attest to an undiluted rhythmical strength.
Let’s go Tar Heels!
Two corrections of detail to 6'6" Benjamin Markovits’s basketball Diary (LRB, 23 May). First, Michael Jordan’s alma mater is the University of North Carolina. (There is no entity with the title ‘State University of North Carolina’.) UNC, as its devotees and headline writers call it, was authorised by the state constitution of 1776 and chartered by the General Assembly on 11 December 1789. As of 15 January 1795 it became the first state university to open its doors to students. (The University of Georgia was chartered earlier but opened later.)
Second, Michael Jordan was not a ‘country kid’. He grew up in the coastal city of Wilmington. Even the smaller city programmes usually offer better facilities, coaching, competition and publicity than rural schools can manage. These points aside, Markovits has written a splendid piece. I was startled but delighted to find it in your pages.
Mary Ann Harrell
Michael Jordan played his high-school basketball at Laney High School here in Wilmington. His coach initially told him he was too small to play basketball.
Wilmington, North Carolina
Editor, ‘London Review’ writes: The errant appearance of the State University of North Carolina, pointed out by several letter writers, wasn't the fault of Benjamin Markovits, but of the editors, who got carried away with their capitalisations on Friday afternoon. Now we even know that the team is called the Tar Heels.
Michael Ruse argues that if one believes that a Darwinian cannot be a Christian (because Darwinism implies atheism), then to teach Darwinism in a public school is to teach atheism and therefore to violate the US Constitution's requirement of separation of church and state (Letters, 6 June). Ruse's inference is incorrect. The relevant question is whether Darwinism is science or religion. If it is science, then it makes no difference whether it implies atheism; one can teach it as science. The only thing that one cannot do under the US Constitution is to argue that it implies atheism.
Michael Ruse writes to disagree with something he has read in the LRB. He begins his letter by mentioning the length of his subscription – so far so good. In a radical departure from recent tradition, however, he then neglects to cancel that subscription as a mark of his disgust. I really don't know how we are supposed to take his protest seriously in the light of this omission. Perhaps he might like to consider boycotting his LRB mug instead and sending it to me. I didn't know such a thing existed and I covet it.
All Mouth and …
Rick Osborn is right to correct Jenny Diski (Letters, 6 June): the original expression is indeed ‘all mouth and trousers’. I wonder whether Diski has conflated this saying with another, equally pungent epithet: ‘All fur coat and no knickers’ – another ‘one of those pieces of verbal impressionism that defies definition but communicates perfectly’.
The best and proper version is from South-East London – ‘All talk and no trousers’. This put-down is best expressed to a gent.
Can you cope with the door?
Eric James Jupitus (Letters, 23 May) implies that the Smithsons weren't concerned with foliage, the seasons and so on. Nonsense. We asked them to build a couple of rooms onto our house in London. What they suggested and then built for us was a pavilion, kind of wrapped around the large sycamore along the garden wall. The bathroom, its door opposite the sycamore's great trunk in the pavilion's passage, had an astrohatch in the ceiling, so you could look up into the great green canopy as you lay in the bath. Alas the tree died, either poisoned by leaks from the gas main beneath it or from honey fungus. We still have the stump. They also put together a habitable locale for themselves within tumbledown walls in Wiltshire.
Now try ‘Jacques Lacan’
Your gin-winning advertiser at Box no. 10/10 is unable to make a workable anagram out of ‘Slavoj Žižek’. Perhaps ‘Jazz lives OK’ would do?