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What a blast

Andrew O’Hagan’s essay about the culture of watching was rather well timed (LRB, 9 October). After reading about David Blaine, ‘the man in the perspex box being watched to death’, I turned on the television to see another man, Derren Brown, playing Russian roulette for the edification of a Sunday-night audience. Apparently three million people tuned in to enjoy the experience, as Brown sweated and panicked, fearing for his life. O’Hagan’s indictment of the tabloid press seemed vindicated when its TV critics began falling over themselves to say how brilliant the broadcast had been. ‘On Sunday evening,’ Dominic Mohan wrote in the Sun, ‘I spent one hour studying a man whose brains could have been spattered over a camera. That didn’t happen, but while watching Derren Brown’s Russian roulette, I realised I was staring down the barrel of great TV. Voyeuristic, yes. Sick, possibly. But magic merged with reality television – what a blast.’

Perhaps O’Hagan could have made more of the way ‘reality’ is constructed in these presentations. People may enjoy the ‘frisson of reality’, as he said, but production companies will go to almost any fiction-making lengths to provide it. Those of us in the entertainment industry chuckled darkly when it was leaked (by the police) that Derren Brown had been using blanks in his TV spectacular. Channel Four knows its audience: they still insist it was a live round.

Matthew Scully

Orazio brought the suit

Artemisia Gentileschi must indeed have been a woman of extraordinary courage; but Susan Sontag is not correct to praise her for doing ‘something heroic, virtually unheard of: taking a rapist to court and demanding conviction’ (LRB, 25 September). The legal suit that precipitated the rape trial against Agostino Tassi was brought not by her but by her father, Orazio Gentileschi.

Deborah Heller

To the Malibu Hills

I admire Clancy Sigal’s attempt to be fairer to John Ford on the Red-baiting front than I was (Letters, 9 October), but surely he knows that artists are likely to be more than one thing. Ford may have distinguished himself by telling Cecil B. DeMille to shut his trap, but he was not always so clear when it came to the question of Communists in Hollywood.

‘While he was fighting the blacklist at the Directors Guild,’ Joseph McBride, Ford’s biographer, said in a recent interview, ‘he was also part of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which was the ringleader of the blacklist. It was a dangerous game, playing both sides of the fence to protect himself.’ Ford was clearly one of those men whose hatreds were so general and so brutal that any softening on his part could be taken for a declaration of moral support. He didn’t like DeMille’s haranguing of Communists, but that doesn’t mean he liked Communists; the fact is he liked Communists much less than, say, Elia Kazan, who still managed to be an informer, and who died last week not entirely forgiven. It was a frightening and confusing time, and my point was that John Ford, for all his bluster and passion, did not show himself to be immune to such fears and such confusions. He made no attempt to oppose Ward Bond and John Wayne in their persecution of people on the left – he never, for a second, shied from giving those two actors work – and it seems to me that his position on the blacklist is mostly a history of wilful fudging.

There may be another truth hiding in all this. Like his friend Frank Capra, Ford would appear to have had a good instinct for what it would take to make liberal films in Hollywood, i.e. a director who was not thought to be a Communist. Another blacklistee, the writer and director Abraham Polonsky, pointed out in the 1970s that the studios would only really allow moderates to make political films. Capra ‘could do anything he liked’, Polonsky said, ‘and Ford’, by remaining right-wing, ‘might do something tremendous like The Grapes of Wrath.’

That’s Hollywood. And on that fact I wholeheartedly defer to Mr Sigal, who once captured the place in a sentence. ‘Too many freeways, too much sun, too much abnormality taken normally, too many pink stucco houses and pink, stucco consciences.’

Andrew O’Hagan
London E8

According to Joseph McBride, John Ford did indeed argue against Cecil B. DeMille’s attempt to force a loyalty oath on the Screen Directors Guild, but mainly because he feared it would split the Guild and reduce its effectiveness. Ford didn’t exactly tell DeMille to go to hell at the meeting. Instead, he said of his fellow director: ‘I think he is a great guy … I admire him. I don’t like him, but I admire him.’ Afterwards he sent DeMille a letter, calling him ‘a magnificent figure … I have never seen such courage as you displayed Sunday night. God bless you, you’re a great man.’ It seems as though Ford, having stuck his neck out, hurriedly back-pedalled. The end result, in any case, was that the Screen Directors Guild did vote to enforce a loyalty oath, thus ensuring that blacklisting prevailed, a decision it rescinded only when forced to do so by the US Supreme Court in 1966.

Edward Buscombe
London NW6

A Play for Plotters

Frank Kermode thinks it obtuse of me not to have sensed that, when he referred to the events of February 1601, he meant to refer to earlier ones (Letters, 9 October). If my interlinear antennae have now met the challenge of his letters, then I think he supposes (1) that a play could only be performed – whatever the initiative or purpose behind the performance, and whether the performance were public or private – if the performers had secured ownership of the text by payment to the author or authors; (2) that Shakespeare’s company, having paid out for his Richard II in 1595, would have been unlikely to pay for another (albeit very different) play on the same era ‘five’ (four?) years later. Even if we accept (1), (2) does not follow. In early 1599, in that aftermath of the Hayward publication during which the dramatisation was performed, Richard’s reign was a sensationally topical subject. In 1611, when it had long ceased to be so, the company ‘commissioned’ a further play on the same reign (the one recorded by Simon Forman). An alternative interpretation of Kermode’s statements is that he thinks that Shakespeare’s company would not have affronted him by commissioning a play about Richard II by someone else. If so I point again to the 1611 production, and add that, if the play of 1601 was Shakespeare’s, his companion Augustine Phillips spoke affrontingly of it.

Blair Worden
Souldern, Oxfordshire

His Own Prophet

Michael Hofmann (LRB, 11 September) believes that Robert Lowell is a great poet whereas August Kleinzahler (Letters, 9 October) thinks his poetry ‘isn’t really much good at all’. To me this sums up the main problem with contemporary poetry. Poetry publishers have spent so long pushing the tedious, the pretentious, the mediocre and the second-rate that these days no one can agree on who’s any good and who isn’t. Contrast this with the literary consensus that coalesced around Yeats, Eliot, Auden and MacNeice. Faber and Faber have moved heaven and earth to persuade us that Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney are in the same class but I, for one, remain unconvinced. For my money the two greatest recent poets are R.S. Thomas and Craig Raine. The trouble is I can’t find anyone to agree with me.

Simon Gladdish

At the 13th Hour

It seems a shame that William Wootten’s review of my edition of David Jones’s wedding poems (LRB, 25 September) will, largely for political reasons, dissuade many from reading Jones, who is in my view the greatest native British poet since Hopkins. In seeing Jones as ideologically pro-Fascist, Wootten badly mistakes the direction of the political energy of Jones’s poetry. No other poet in the past century comes close to him in consistently and thoroughly opposing totalitarianism. It is true that in conversation with friends before the war, Jones agreed with Hitler’s critique of Western parliamentary democracy as ‘plutocracy’. But what’s wrong with that? Plutocracy is now generally recognised as the major flaw in our democratic systems, where those who raise the most money dominate the media and conduct the most effective political campaigns, and wealthy contributors and highly paid lobbyists have inordinate influence over the framing of legislation. Because Hitler blames the English for plutocracy, Wootten blames Jones for using the word in one of his Wedding Poems, implying that he thereby, in 1940, aids and abets the enemy. Jones continued to use the word negatively, after the war, in The Anathemata, which is an implicitly anti-Nazi poem. It is a term Jones first acquired not from Hitler but in 1929 from his friend the historian Christopher Dawson, who was ardently anti-Fascist.

Jones was sympathetic to the prewar Germans. It was not a political or ideological sympathy. He believed, as virtually every historian now does, that the Treaty of Versailles was unjust and punishing. He thought the Germans were right to rebel against it. Furthermore, in wanting conquest, the Germans were, he thought, no worse than the imperialist English and French. That is what he means in words Wootten quotes against him: ‘For any evil that war apologists can fling at the Axis Powers the Axis Powers can easily and justly retaliate’ – words Jones wrote before the war. When the existence of Nazi extermination camps was revealed, Jones was appalled, and said: ‘I was wrong about the Nazis.’ Not wrong in his agreement with aspects of their political criticism – he had always disapproved of the ‘corrective measures’ proposed by Hitler – but wrong in imagining the Nazis incapable of such extremes of evil. He never published an admission of error because he had never made his position public – none of the quotations for which Wootten holds him accountable was published by Jones; but in private he was candid and forthright about his mistake.

Before the war he was not pro-Nazi. He merely believed Hitler’s repeated claim to want peace. Jones desperately feared war because for three years during World War One he had experienced mechanised slaughter first-hand. Wootten sees Jones’s immediate postwar poetic manuscripts as ‘far from loyal literature of the home front. Ancient Rome is depicted in Fascist terms on one page and refigured as the British Empire on the next.’ Here Jones is more politically astute than his reviewer. Jones opposed imperialism of any kind, agreeing with Augustine’s definition of empire as ‘robbery’. Does Wootten think there is no continuity between Roman, Fascist and British imperialisms? Jones had experienced that continuity while serving with the British occupying force in Ireland in 1918. He saw, in his words, ‘how fear made men brutal’ towards the local population. Of course there are degrees of injustice, and Nazi Germany was worse than imperialist Britain. Not much moral sensitivity is needed to appreciate that, and poetry is seldom improved by stating the obvious, especially when it is nationalistically self-serving.

Thomas Dilworth
University of Windsor, Ontario

Stanley’s Joke

Jerry Fodor underestimates the complexities of Stanley’s first words to Livingstone (LRB, 9 October). He was referring jokingly to the line ‘Mr Stanley, I presume’ in The School for Scandal, not for Livingstone’s benefit – missionaries are above that kind of thing – but with an eye to posterity. Of course, it may all have been unconscious. But Fodor is surely right on the main point: we all infer like mad from the beginning to the end of life, and are only rarely conscious of the fact. Stanley’s joke is a fair example. He was making very complicated inferences about the impression he would make back home.

However, I question Fodor’s suggestion that Stanley-type inferences could be effected by ‘some kind of computing machine since computations are themselves plausibly construed as chains of inferences’. They are nothing of the sort. They are chains of implemented instructions that only look like inferences to real inferrers, which people are and computers are not.

Bill Myers

Good and Bad Labour

Denis MacShane (Letters, 25 September) was wrong in saying that Rotherham hospital had had no investment for many years before the present Government: I worked there from 1989 to 1995, during which time major new departments of geriatrics and dermatology were opened.

S.L. Barley

On the Cheap

Steven Shapin neglects certain points in his article on the influence of industry and commerce on universities (LRB, 11 September). Fifty years ago research was described as either pure or applied, though Pasteur suggested that applied science was a figment: only applications of science exist. In Canada, these traditional categories have been displaced by ‘curiosity-driven’ and ‘mission-oriented’ research. The inflexibility of ‘mission-oriented’ research is a limiting feature in a university context. Much of the work is likely to result in dead-end routine investigations inadequate for patent applications, publication in refereed journals or inclusion in a thesis, yet a measure of success in these areas is vital to the morale and future of a graduate student. Mission-oriented research mostly requires a frontal attack on a problem, leaving little room for manoeuvre, while doctoral science students require individual problems that can evolve in any direction that is intellectually valid.

Also, using graduate students to pursue industrial problems in a university is a cheap way for parsimonious companies to do research. The cost of establishing laboratories, libraries, offices, workshops and stores, and of hiring people to run these vital services, is avoided. The arrangement means that the industrial sponsor doesn’t have to pay for pensions or medical insurance for the scientists and support staff involved – and doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows traditionally expect to earn less than industrial and faculty scientists. In short, applied research conducted in an academic setting is much cheaper than in an industrial setting even when companies partly underwrite the research.

John Scott
St John’s, Canada

Communist Anti-Communism

Tom Vanderbilt (LRB, 21 August) writes of The Manchurian Candidate that, despite its talk of Communists, it ‘is not a properly political film’. But it has a clear political theme, which bears on policies in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. The plot demonstrates that Communists judge American anti-Communism to be good for Communism. While, as Vanderbilt comments, neither film nor book explains the embrace of Communism by the Angela Lansbury character, the film at least shows her embrace of anti-Communism to be a rational Communist strategy.

William Wilson
New York

Blood Relatives

I will take my medicine on the doctrine of concomitance from the good doctor W.L. Smith (Letters, 9 October). I did not mean to imply that the Church taught that Christ is not fully and physically present in the Host, but I find it odd to refer to the Host (as Ingrid Rowland did) as the ‘body and blood of Christ’. I have never seen or heard the Host so referred to in the context of the Mass.

However, I’m less inclined to accept correction on other matters. Although Smith was not to know this, my principal objection to Rowland’s review – missed by the LRB editors – was that it stated that the consecration of the Host was thought to take place by the operation of the Holy Spirit at the elevation. It was merely with the last three of those words that I wanted to take issue. Whatever one’s opinion of how the consecration of the Sacred Species takes place (and I never expressed mine), it has never been seriously proposed that in the old Roman Rite the consecration was thought to be effected at the elevation of the Host. There is certainly no evidence that 15th-century Florentines saw the elevation in this way. The late medieval understanding of the Mass was that the consecration is effected by the words of institution, and that the elevation of the Host gives the opportunity to adore Christ’s body.

I don’t deny that one might consider there to be an ‘implicit’ epiklesis in the Roman rite in use at the time, and I am aware that the most recent Roman rite has introduced an explicit epiklesis to three of the eucharistic prayers. That they have done so is evidence of what I claimed – that an explicit one was lacking in previous Roman rites. Smith admits that a fourth eucharistic prayer in the new rite lacks an explicit epiklesis. It is the one which most resembles the old Roman Canon.

Mark McLean
University of Aberdeen

In the Breach

Stephen Sedley refers to the requirement in criminal matters for the defence to set out its case before the trial, a provision, he says, ‘much honoured in the breach’ (LRB, 25 September). His suggestion is, I assume, that the provision is more often broken than observed. But the quotation originated in Hamlet’s discussion of the regulations attending the King’s drinking habits. He expressed his disgust at one of them in the words: ‘It is a custom more honour’d in the breach than in the observance.’ As it was the continuing performance of the custom which prompted his comment, it would have been absurd for him to have said it was more often broken than observed.

Malcolm Hurwitt

In a cogent piece by Stephen Sedley I find this: ‘A judge sitting without a jury has no alternative but to look at the evidence she is offered.’ I am used to seeing God referred to as She, but why is a Lord of Appeal joining in the tease?

E.S. Turner
Richmond, Surrey

A Useful £40

Rosemary Hill (LRB, 25 September) says that while various gentlemen were paying to keep their names out of Harriette Wilson’s memoirs, ‘Henry Brougham decided to pay in kind’ with legal advice. Yes, but when Harriette learned he had his eye on high office she reminded him about his ‘flaming love letters’; and as Lord Chancellor he paid her a useful £40 a year. By the way, although John Murray II spurned her memoirs, John Murray V published an edition in 1957, The Game of Hearts – coyly, however, under another imprint, Gryphon Books.

John Wardroper
London N1

Nietzsche and Co

I’d like to point out in response to Jenny Diski’s review of the book on Nietzsche’s sister by Carol Diethe (LRB, 25 September) that there is indeed no ‘British Nietzsche Foundation’ – the book jacket gives the wrong details – but there is a Friedrich Nietzsche Society and its website contains full details of its publishing and conference activities. Margaret Thatcher is not a member and never has been.

Keith Ansell-Pearson
University of Warwick

In Spitalfields

Sukhdev Sandhu’s article (LRB, 9 October) brought back memories of life in Spitalfields in the 1980s. I ran a local history project at the time, and lived for some of the period in an 18th-century house on Wilkes Street. It still had an outside toilet; the only heating was a woodburning stove in every room. The longest-standing inhabitant, Charlie, was a sitting tenant, and as a result the rent was almost nothing; his door was open to all, not least a transvestite prostitute who stopped in for cups of tea in between giving blow jobs to City workers, market men and Bengali restaurateurs on Commercial Street.

There was always light in the toilet at night, from the construction of the Broadgate Centre, the largest building site in Europe, which dominated the walk from Liverpool Street to Brick Lane. The niceties of the City petered out in Artillery Lane: after that, homeless people – the huge rise in homelessness had just begun, and it was still a shock to see healthy-looking young people begging – gathered round fires made from the pallets left at Spitalfields Market. On the day I moved in, Charlie showed me round the market, identifying which pallets would burn best in our stoves.

My work at first involved spending freezing (and faintly spooky) winter months alone upstairs at 19 Princelet Street, the Huguenot weaver’s house and later synagogue that is still aiming to become a fully open museum of immigration. I then moved to the Montefiore Centre, a community centre for at least three communities. We had a party to celebrate its tenth anniversary: Abba in one room, bhangra in the other. The evening was disrupted by Punjabi gangs from East Ham. I had asked one of the Sebag-Montefiores to attend the party: he turned up fresh from the Royal Festival Hall to find the place in chaos, with gangs of young men rushing in and out of the front door, and blood smeared down a wall of the entrance hall. He stood by his car, looking at the mêlée with concern: ‘Can I do anything to help? I was stationed near Chittagong during the war, and speak a little Hindustani.’

Jon Cannon
Ogbourne St George, Wiltshire

Who gets the loo roll?

The assumptions behind the books reviewed by Katha Pollitt and the follow-up letter (Letters, 25 September) really get my goat. The one I object to most is that (menials apart, and a scattering of doctors, vets and dons) women didn’t ‘work’ until about 1975 or 1980. Working-class women in the textile districts of Yorkshire and Lancashire always took it for granted that they would work, marry and have children to bring up. The same is true of women who worked in light engineering in Birmingham and the Black Country. My father died when I was four, and my mother went back to teaching and brought me up in the 1920s and 1930s. We had a housekeeper; working-class women got help from grandparents. But there were no luxuries of either money or time for my mother or me. What some of the well-heeled women of today are complaining about is that they don’t have time for the luxurious lifestyle that they think their positions in the City or the media entitle them to. As for the drivel about men not doing the shopping, if wives ring-fence all domestic activity, they only have themselves to blame.

Ken Kirk
Paphos, Cyprus


The state of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) was declared in December 1971, not 1974 as Sukhdev Sandhu suggests (LRB, 9 October).

Fatema Ahmed
Edgware, Middlesex

By what mysterious forces did the subtitle of my book morph from ‘The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World’ to ‘The Impulse to Destroy a Damaged World (LRB, 9 October)? No doubt it was due either to someone at the BBC or Blair et cie, but still a bit puzzling!

Elizabeth Spelman
Northampton, Massachusetts

Editor, ‘London Review’ writes: We'd ask Lord Hutton to investigate but we can't afford Jonathan Sumption. Maybe we should consult Susie Orbach instead.