Who was Christine?
Jacqueline Rose shares Bill Weatherby’s apparent surprise that he found himself Marilyn Monroe’s confidant (LRB, 26 April). Perhaps she would have understood more quickly if she had known that Bill was gay. Weatherby was an immensely shy and private reporter who had escaped from the Guardian’s Manchester newsroom at the end of the 1950s to establish himself in New York as a showbiz correspondent and feature writer; he was also an acute observer of the gathering civil rights struggle in the South. He was part of the gay underworld of the civil rights movement, becoming close friends with James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin (he was proud of the fact that he was the only white pall-bearer at Baldwin’s funeral).
Christine, Bill’s lover, was a black man whom he met in New Orleans and then travelled with through Georgia and Louisiana. His fictionalised account of their remarkable journey in his book Love in the Shadows, published in 1966, pretends that they were a heterosexual inter-racial couple. This was extraordinary enough at the time; a book detailing a black and white male partnership would not have found a publisher.
I got to know Bill in the 1980s when I was his remote employer at the Guardian in London, and I can vouch for the fact mentioned by Jacqueline Rose that he shared a fellow feeling with Marilyn for the down and out, and for the excluded, whether black or gay. I went with him to visit tenements in Harlem where he was funding unemployed members of his extended family, and I last saw him in a tiny apartment in Poughkeepsie, up the Hudson River, where he ended up, lame from a stroke and virtually destitute, looked after by James Monroe Parker, his faithful partner. Like many journalists of his generation, he was thoughtless with money and had no pension, vaguely assuming that he would always be able to write. He died in 1992, aged 62.
A Lifetime of Being Not-Picasso
I learn from Andrew Wilton’s letter that Turner’s Interior at Petworth is really Interior at East Cowes, and on its way to being Interior at Jerusalem (Letters, 26 April). What a relief. If only we’d mastered the facts, we wouldn’t have to go on taking seriously the bewilderment and revulsion that greeted so much of Turner’s work in his lifetime. Here is the artist Josef Anton Koch, for example, in Rome in 1828, reacting to a show of Turner’s on the Quirinal: ‘Notwithstanding the large and vulgar crowd which had collected to see the exhibition of the world-famous painter, it would have been better for poor Turner if he himself had not turned up. The old Cacatum non est pictum [‘Shitted is not painted’] is still the appropriate response … Suffice it to say that whether you turned the painting on its side or upside down, you could still recognise as much in it.’ That last sentence became a Turner topos. The shit proliferated. Someone in 1828 passed out a drawing of a nude woman leaning on the dome of St Paul’s and farting into a trumpet aimed at St Peter’s. The words ‘Turner! Turner! Turner!’ issued from the trumpet’s mouth, and below was a dog depositing a turd and barking: ‘Anch’io son pittore.’
This is the point at issue in any account of modern art: not ‘ineluctable progress towards abstraction’ – after all, Picasso was almost as philistine an opponent of Mondrian and Jean Pougny as Wilton – but the fact that ambition in painting from 1800 on was so often associated with the laughable, the scabrous, the incomprehensible, the genuinely (as well as the falsely) transgressive. What the Picasso show at the Tate makes clear is the peculiar difficulty English culture in the 20th century had with any such association. It grated against class allegiance. Wilton’s difficulty is special – for him Lord Clark and Sir Lawrence Gowing are dangerous radicals – but in its way representative.
Marx at 193
John Lanchester’s estimate of the planet’s fresh water supplies seems off the mark (LRB, 5 April). ‘The American average consumption of water is one hundred gallons per person per day,’ he writes. ‘There isn’t enough fresh water on the planet for everyone to live like that.’ Even if everyone in the world consumed as much as the Americans, the total amount consumed by a global population of seven billion would be 700 billion gallons a day, which isn’t many times more than the daily flow of fresh water down Niagara Falls.
Neal Ascherson claims that ‘Czech nationalists in the 19th century had been passionately Slavophile’ (LRB, 22 March). In fact, their Slavophilism came to an end in 1848 with the Pan-Slav Congress in Prague, to which the Russians sent no delegates and at which the Slav peoples in attendance discovered they could not communicate with one another in their different languages. The congress took place in German. But even several years earlier the Czech satirist Karel Havlíček-Borovsky´ returned from an extended stay in Russia disenchanted by the cruelties of Russian serfdom and the fact that his Slavophile employer required him to tutor his son in German, not Czech. We may be Slavs, Havlíček-Borovsk´ y told his fellow Czechs, but we are Austrian Slavs.
Another Czech cultural and political icon, Tomáš Masaryk, the founding president of the First Czechoslovak Republic, also came back from Russia disillusioned (a meeting with Tolstoy was particularly trying) and wrote the balanced and still valid study Russia and Europe (1913) to explain why he felt the Czechs had more to learn from America.
Michael Henry Heim
Don’t chance it in the coracle
Nigel McGilchrist is correct to place emphasis on the importance of obsidian in the prehistory of the Mediterranean (LRB, 22 March). However, while Melos and Lipari were indeed major sources of the stone during the Holocene, it is inaccurate to suggest that other sources played insignificant parts; obsidian from Monte Arci on Sardinia, and to a lesser extent from the island of Pantelleria, was also distributed widely, as the work of Robert Tykot has demonstrated. Moreover, Melian obsidian appears in Greek mainland contexts as early as the 11th millennium BC (at the cave of Franchthi, in the Argolid): 8000 BC, as reported in the review, is too recent a date. As regards the type of vessel that this and other materials were likely shipped in, research by Cyprian Broodbank suggests that, in all probability, rowed canoes, rather than small and unstable coracles, were used.
Brown University, Rhode Island
The Death of Felix Artuso
Jenny Diski doesn’t have her facts right about Chief Petty Officer Felix Artuso (LRB, 8 March). Artuso was an engineer on the Argentinian submarine Santa Fe. After the vessel was captured by the British in April 1982 the decision was taken to move it to the whaling station in Grytviken for two reasons; it was occupying the only alongside berth at Shackleton Point, and it had live torpedoes in its flooded tubes. Had water got into them they could have exploded. Before it was moved, however, it was decided that some parts of it would be guarded to prevent scuttling or other destructive action. Its ballast tanks were damaged, and it started to loll as it moved off the berth. The order was given to blow air into the ballast tanks in an effort to right it. Artuso moved forward to obey the order, but the British marine guarding the valve (who had not been made aware of the instruction to open it) took action in accordance with his own orders. It was a tragic error. Artuso was buried with full military honours the next day. I was in South Georgia at the time. Since then there have been attempts to get family members from Argentina to South Georgia but, to date, they have been unsuccessful.
David French compares the battles of Isandhlwana (1879) and Maiwand (1880), where the British were worsted by the Zulus and Afghan tribesmen respectively (LRB, 5 April). As he says, these triumphs over modern armies caused a sensation, though neither of them quite as much as the similar defeat of Western arms at the Battle of Little Bighorn a few years earlier (1876). The key to these defeats lay in the parity of military technology. Custer’s men had single shot Springfield 73 rifles; Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull’s men had Winchester repeater rifles. At Isandhlwana (and probably Maiwand) the British had Martini-Henry single-shot rifles. The Zulus had some of these too, but the short stabbing spear, used by highly disciplined units, was a match for rifles that continually needed reloading. All such outcomes were put beyond reach of Third World armies, first by the Gatling gun, introduced in the 1880s, and then by the Maxim, the first fully automatic weapon (1884). These were used over and over against Zulus, Mahdists and Matabele and never failed.
A similar technological catch-up occurred in the 1950s when the Viet Minh managed to carry broken-down AA guns on bicycles down the Ho Chi Minh trail and then reassemble them at Dien Bien Phu, where they were more than a match for French air power – flimsy helicopters and old Second World War piston-engined planes. Within a few years, US jets, heavily armoured Chinooks and napalm had put that sort of success in pitched battle beyond the Vietnamese. But there is a recurrent tendency for ground soldiers to catch up. The latest instance is the high-tech weaponry belonging to Gaddafi that is now being bought up by Somali pirates, some of whom could probably sink a modern warship.
It was about the Cold War
The nuclear defence HQ at Wilton Park near Beaconsfield was not ‘the only one ever built’, as Jim Brennan states (Letters, 26 April). A former nuclear defence HQ survives in Melton Park, Newcastle upon Tyne. On the edge of a suburban estate of semis and detached houses, an anonymous bungalow-like building in a large garden is the disguised entrance to a warren of subterranean concrete chambers and tunnels. I visited it many times in the 1990s, when it was being used to store the archives of Northumberland County Record Office.
Newcastle upon Tyne
If Jim Brennan were to visit my native county of Fife he would find a plethora of brown roadside heritage signs directing motorists to the ‘secret bunker’ off the B940 near Anstruther. Having started life after the war as a radar station, it became a Regional Civil Defence Corps HQ, but it was extended in the 1970s in the light of a plan to make it the main seat of government in Scotland in the event of a nuclear conflict, a role which it kept until 1992. Two years later it was opened as a visitor attraction.
The siting of the bunker was strategic, near Rosyth naval dockyard, the GCHQ outstation at Hawklaw and RAF Leuchars – where, during the Cold War, all plane movements were monitored by East European factory ships moored just beyond territorial waters and bristling with electronic equipment, though none was ever observed to cast a net into the water.
I have just seen Brian Harrison’s 1986 review of my book Victorian Lives (LRB, 19 June 1986). He says my sources were not typical of contemporary prisoners; that I paint too bleak a picture of their experience; and do not recognise the ‘Victorian activism’ of the reformed prison. He is wrong on all three counts.