Susan Pedersen repeats the comforting myth that the General Strike ‘was conducted virtually without violence’ (LRB, 8 August). It is true that in most parts of the country police and strikers co-operated, the most famous illustration being the football match played in Plymouth between strikers and members of the local constabulary. (The strikers won 2-1, a fact that Churchill, in his role as editor of the government’s emergency newspaper, the British Gazette, saw fit to suppress.)
But this was only part of the story. Each of the strike’s nine days was marked by violent clashes, and there were several attempts to sabotage railway lines. At Cramlington, near Newcastle, striking miners succeeded in derailing the Flying Scotsman, though no one was killed or seriously injured. A major flashpoint was London’s East End, where some of the most militant strike committees held sway. Mass pickets gathered on main roads in the early hours of Tuesday, 4 May, the first day of the strike, and during the day scores of vehicles suspected of carrying goods or office workers to and from the City were stopped and quite frequently wrecked: several were set alight, others thrown into the river. During a night of fierce street battles, thirty casualties were taken to Poplar Hospital, where one of the injured was said to have died. On 5 May, there were baton charges in Poplar and Canning Town and clashes around the Blackwall Tunnel, where cars were smashed and set on fire. In Hammersmith, seven buses were wrecked; strikers and members of the British Fascisti, who were prominent among the volunteers, fought a pitched battle and police made 43 arrests. The Manchester Guardian Bulletin reported on 6 May that
a new strikers’ plan borrowed from the French Syndicalists has been tried this morning in Camberwell; some women laid their babies on the road in front of commercial vehicles and when the cars stopped, men jumped on the footboards and turned out the drivers and smashed the machinery of the cars.
There was also serious trouble in Scotland and many Northern cities. In Glasgow, rioting broke out on four consecutive nights and was, according to one report, ‘of the wildest description; pots and pans, iron bars, pickheads and hammers were used as missiles’. In Middlesbrough, a mob of four thousand wrecked railway stations and chained lorries to the railway lines. While navy ratings struggled to clear the tracks, fighting erupted at the bus station and outside a nearby police station. In Hull, the police baton-charged a crowd trying to prevent volunteers from offering their services at the town hall. As rioting spread, trams were attacked and burned and the civil authorities appealed for help to the captain of the Ceres, the light cruiser responsible for protecting Hull docks. While fifty of his men faced the crowd with rifles and fixed bayonets, he warned that, if another tram was attacked, he would man all the trams with navy ratings. The warning worked.
After only two days of the strike, the Manchester Guardian Bulletin observed that ‘the symptoms of disorder … can only lead in the end to rioting and bloodshed. A struggle of exhaustion on this scale can hardly end without scenes of violence on a scale of which for generations this country has had no experience.’ This fear was shared by the TUC and was a crucial factor in its decision to call off the strike on 13 May, leaving the miners to fight on alone.
Duchamp in Herne Bay
Brian Dillon is wrong, in one essential detail, when he gives the provenance of Duchamp’s Fountain as ‘the readymade urinal first shown in Paris in 1917’ (LRB, 29 August). [Dillon is blameless: it was an editorial insertion. Apologies.] The urinal was, in fact, American, made and purchased there and entered by Duchamp for exhibition to the Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917. Duchamp was a founder member of the society, and was on its board of directors. He submitted the work under the name ‘R. Mutt’. The hanging committee rejected Fountain, deeming it ineligible as a work of art. The urinal was then taken to Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, 291, from where it vanished, but not before Stieglitz had photographed it in front of The Warriors by Marsden Hartley. This painting depicted mounted soldiers in full Ruritanian 19th-century kit, wearing elaborately plumed helmets. Closer inspection of the helmets reveals that they bear a passing resemblance to the outlines of Duchamp’s urinal, as it appears in the photograph. Stieglitz’s photograph appeared as an illustration in the magazine the Blind Man, a copy of which was sent to Guillaume Apollinaire in Paris while he was convalescing from a wound caused by shrapnel penetrating his helmet. This is as close as Fountain got to being shown in Paris in 1917.
Duchamp had evaded the war in 1915 by explaining that he suffered from an ‘insuffisance cardiaque’, a claim somewhat undermined by his regular sporting activities. As Dillon notes, one of Duchamp’s postcards from Herne Bay confirms that tennis was among his chief occupations during his stay there. This apparently unlikely theme was addressed in a number of the papers at the Herne Bay symposium, contributing to a picture of how and why the sport’s accoutrements featured in his notes towards The Large Glass. Perhaps this is the sort of detail that Dillon is thinking of when he accuses the organisers of Duchamp in Herne Bay of inflating ‘circumstantial clues to the status of the art historical’, although I’m sure that no such elevated claim was made by my colleagues.
Rebecca Solnit’s yearning ‘for a quality of time we no longer have’ exaggerates the extent to which we ever had it, or at least thought we did (LRB, 29 August). It’s long been common to imagine a time in the fairly recent past when life was more leisurely. George Eliot, in Adam Bede (1859), described ‘Old Leisure’: easy-going, living in the country, and ‘fond of sauntering by the fruit-tree wall, and scenting the apricots when they were warmed by the morning sunshine’. He ‘was free from that periodicity of sensations which we call post-time’. ‘Even idleness,’ Eliot lamented, ‘is eager now – eager for amusement: prone to excursion-trains, art-museums, periodical literature and exciting novels.’ Elizabeth Gaskell celebrated in Sylvia’s Lovers (1863) the lengthy bargaining at the market in Whitby in the 1790s. In those days, she wrote, ‘there was leisure for all this kind of work.’ In the 1860s Frances Power Cobbe, comparing her own generation with that of 1800-30, described ‘that constant sense of being driven – not precisely like “dumb” cattle, but cattle who must read, write and talk more in 24 hours than 24 hours will permit.’ In 1875 W.R. Greg published a much quoted article called ‘Life at High Pressure’. ‘The most salient characteristic of life in this latter portion of the 19th century,’ he wrote, ‘is its SPEED.’ The Victorians were, he went on, living ‘without leisure and without pause – a life of haste – above all a life of excitement, such as haste inevitably involves – a life filled so full … that we have no time to reflect where we have been and whither we intend to go.’
Things didn’t get better. H.H. Snell, reflecting in 1901 on Queen Victoria’s reign, described life at the beginning of the 20th century:
Lines and wires and pipes, in entangling complexity cover the face and subcutaneous tissues of the land, throbbing and pulsating every moment of the day with the conveyance of living people and living speech … Papers, magazines and books pour forth from the heated presses hot with the latest news of an excited and progressive world. No one has time to read his paper through before the next edition treads upon its heels with other matter of importance.
Despite Solnit’s claims, human character doesn’t really seem to have changed at all ‘in or around June 1995’.
It feels right that Rebecca Solnit’s piece on the loss of reflection and the increasingly fragmented nature of communication should appear in a magazine devoted to lengthy articles. I’m relieved that I am not alone in feeling that the space for concentration and sustained thought is contracting. Like Solnit, I miss the shape my day once had: a morning paper, then work, and a novel to relax with at night. Now my day might begin with an online article embedded with links that almost immediately pull me into several different conversations at once. The rest of the day continues in the same fractured way.
A decline in the quality of my life is a problem for me. But changes in the way we interact with one another are more serious. The argument that new media are not a replacement for older methods of communication and that different platforms appropriate to different contexts create a richer discourse – that Ted talks and tweets can co-exist with academic seminars and long-form journalism – is partly true and partly disingenuous. The reality is that with limited time in our lives and space in our heads, something has to give. ‘Every time I learn something new,’ Homer Simpson says, ‘it pushes some old stuff out of my brain.’ Ten years ago I might have written a paper on this. Today, writing a letter about it, rather than ‘liking’ it, blogging or tweeting, makes me eccentric. And I didn’t get through Solnit’s piece in one sitting – my attention span’s too short.
Michael Wood uses Borges’s essay on English versions of Homer to illuminate his appreciation of what is gained by transformative translation (LRB, 8 August). He might also have used Borges’s ‘Pierre Menard – Author of the Quixote’ to expand on what he sees as its potential losses. Wood gives the example of a story about the Lebanese civil war of 1975, translated by Joe Dunthorne to London in 2010. The war – a different war – is now seen on television:
In el-Achkar’s narrative the bodies are on the streets outside the door, the mothers are crying for children who have died here and now, and the writer is trying to put these pictures and his mind together. We can’t all be in the middle of the fray, but we can, as I have suggested, name specific losses in translation, and remember the fray when it has gone missing.
Yet while specific losses might be named by an author or by a translator, what will the names mean to a reader? Languages live not only in their simultaneity but also in time. In ‘Pierre Menard’ Borges shows that the same words can never mean the same thing, even in the same language, in any given future. Cervantes’s figure of History as the Mother of Truth, for example, would come over as a rhetorical flourish to his contemporaries, but for a 20th-century author or translator to use it would suggest the basic assertion of William James’s Pragmatism. The vehicle of the metaphor ‘translation’ is a movement in space, so its tenor ignores movement in time. No translation can be ‘faithful’ to its original because the names of the content have not only moved but moved on.
New Brunswick, New Jersey
Last of the Castratos
The Sistine Chapel castrato Alessandro Moreschi did not record for Edison, as Terry Castle has it (LRB, 29 August). He recorded for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company (later to become HMV, and later still EMI) in Rome in April 1902 and April 1904. Assuming Castle’s reference is to the Bach-Gounod ‘Ave Maria’ with violin and piano accompaniment, Moreschi recorded this in April 1904 (not 1902) and it was originally issued on a ten-inch record, number 54777. If anyone is interested in hearing ‘the last of the castratos’, Moreschi’s recordings have been transferred to CD.