One of the things that goes missing in Hammershøi’s Montague Street, and in Alice Spawls’s discussion of it, is the people who live here (LRB, 4 February). Montague Street isn’t really ‘mostly hotels’. There are some hotels. A number of buildings are owned and used by the British Museum. But there are also many people living here. The houses from number 21 to number 29 were turned into (approximately) 28 flats at the beginning of the 1980s. The work was done by Camden Council and the Department of the Environment; now the flats are managed by Soho Housing Association. They were occupied in phases between September 1981 and spring 1982. My guess is that of the people who moved in during that time about 70 per cent of us are still here. I have seen my neighbours (now friends) move in, have children, and now those same neighbours can be seen some mornings taking their grandchildren to local schools. We take in deliveries for one another, we water each other’s plants when they need attention, we hold keys and take messages and feed cats, and we have grown up and old together over the past 35 years. How much longer we will be allowed to stay is open to question.
Alice Spawls’s writing about the streets around the LRB office reminded me of another writer’s words about the same area. Margery Allingham sets ‘The Longer View’ in ‘the web of little streets which floats out like a dusty cape round the neck of the Museum’. Spawls tells us that this is ‘where people only end up by accident, or on their way somewhere else’; Allingham told us eighty years ago that ‘it was a sort of halfway house. If you lived here you were either going up or coming down.’
Michael Wood’s discussion of Jean-Luc Godard’s film Le Mépris, adapted from Alberto Moravia’s novel A Ghost at Noon and featuring Fritz Lang directing an adaptation of the Odyssey, calls to mind a curious story (LRB, 21 January). ‘In his imagination Moravia was thinking of Pabst,’ Godard said in the Montreal conversations mentioned by Wood, ‘because Pabst had filmed a Ulysses or an Odyssey.’ In fact Moravia’s novel was a relatively faithful account of the genesis of a real film, the Italian director Mario Camerini’s Ulisse, starring Kirk Douglas and Silvana Mangano and released the same year as Moravia’s novel (1954). That film had been initiated by G.W. Pabst, like Lang a major figure in 1920s German cinema now living in exile. Pabst had obtained the backing of the producers Carlo Ponti and Dino De Laurentiis in Italy and Joe Levine in the US. Before production began, however, Pabst was evicted from his own project by the producers, who thought his approach too psychological and not spectacular enough, and replaced by Camerini.
Moravia’s novel describes a veteran psychological German filmmaker and his problems with his crass, philistine Italian producer (‘Battista’, representing De Laurentiis). Godard, unusually, changed little in his adaptation, having Fritz Lang play the German director and Jack Palance the crass producer (American this time, not Italian) who takes his orders in the film by telephone from a certain ‘Joe Levine’ in Hollywood. The curious thing is that Le Mépris was produced by Ponti and Levine – Pabst’s producers – and was detested by them, as they lost money and thought that Godard had betrayed them by his treatment of the novel, despite being scrupulously faithful to it.
Wood doesn’t mention one of Godard’s best lines in the Montreal conversations. Baited after a screening of Le Mépris, with the comment that his arch-enemy François Truffaut described himself as the ‘marshal’ of French cinema, Godard, without missing a beat, replied: ‘Precisely. [Truffaut’s film Day for Night] reminds me … of all the films made under Vichy.’
I am French
Further to Jeremy Harding’s piece on the French response to the Charlie Hebdo killings, on a recent weekend visit to Lyon my shoulder bag was searched several times a day (LRB, 21 January). It is mufti green and multi-pocketed. Each compartment has its function: in one, pipe and tobacco; in a second, spectacles, hairbrush and purse for loose change; in a third, medical ointments, bandages, pills and toothbrush. The interior is spacious enough to contain a pocket Larousse, and emergency reading (currently Verlaine’s poems and E.M Cioran’s Syllogismes de l’amertume). It has a slit pocket for identity papers.
The security guards were not unamused as I displayed my carriage system with a running commentary. But I got blasé. And as I unfurled the interior I remarked: ‘Et, voilà, mon Verlaine et mon Cioran.’ But my pronunciation of the latter caused a sudden stiffening, and I was body-searched.
Where will we live?
I enjoyed Stefan Collini’s dismantling of the higher education Green Paper (LRB, 21 January). I am not surprised he is cross. But at least he has a Green Paper to get cross about and can retain a faint hope that the government will reconsider its plans if ‘cogent objections are put forward’. In other areas of policy the government has outsourced its analysis to free-market think-tanks whose job it is to come up with exciting ideas to keep their (anonymous) funders happy.
On housing and planning, there has been no Green Paper proposing a decisive shift from support for social housing to support for ‘starter homes’ for sale. But this is what is proposed (in reality, if not explicitly) in the Housing and Planning Bill now going through Parliament. If the bill is enacted, we are likely to see a massive social change with the end of genuinely affordable housing in most English villages and, of course, many urban areas. There has clearly been no proper risk assessment or ‘rural proofing’, and no analysis of what is really stopping houses being built: the economic model of the house builders, which James Meek wrote about so well in the LRB of 9 January 2014.
Campaign to Protect Rural England, London SE1
The New Smoking
‘We have talked ourselves into thinking that children are inherently tricky and picky eaters,’ John Lanchester writes, ‘so we give them a diet skewed towards the crowd-pleasing SFS [sugar, fat, salt] tastes’ (LRB, 21 January). According to this view it is we who pander to children’s degraded tastes, too irresponsible and lacking in self-control to curb dietary habits that are harming us all. But this is to leave out of the equation half a century of the food and advertising industries’ relentless efforts to stimulate precisely those tastes.
The other factor Lanchester cites as a cause of the diabetes epidemic is inactivity. Yet so much modern technology has been designed and marketed to curtail physical activity. This is not a conspiracy; but what started out after the war as ‘labour saving’ has in the computer age become time and money saving as well. Plainly, the problems that ensue shouldn’t merely be left to individuals to deal with as best they may. They require tackling at both governmental and social levels. Lanchester ends: ‘If obesity is the new smoking, sugar is the new tobacco. We’re going to have to treat it the same way.’ We could start, then, with some class actions, which did so much to expose the tobacco companies’ cynicism. But it may be a long haul. Pure, White and Deadly, John Yudkin’s book about sugar, was published in 1972. He was vilified, the sugar industry recruited academics to smear his research and reputation, and reportedly even hired thugs to harass his children on their way to school.
Thank you, John Lanchester: Sainsbury’s Light Soy Sauce contains 15.4g sugar, so down the sink it went.
King Lear in Pisa
Frederick Seidel’s poem ‘America’ refers to Ezra Pound as a shade who accompanies Seidel, like some Eliotic ‘familiar compound ghost’ or doppelganger, ‘down Broadway on my daily walk’ (LRB, 4 February):
King Lear, preposterously arrogant and unrepentant and anti-Semitic,
Went to meet the American Army at Pisa to surrender.
Poetry may be truer than History, as the ancient philosophers claimed, but a few historical rectifications may nonetheless be in order. First, in May 1945, Pound turned himself in to the American authorities at Lavagna (near Rapallo), then was transferred to the CIC quarters at Genoa for three weeks of interrogation before being transported by jeep down the coast to the military DTC at Pisa and placed in an outdoor cage whose dimensions were exactly those of today’s Guantánamo. That’s to say, he didn’t just walk into Pisa to give himself up: he was sent there in handcuffs, with a supervisory cable from Washington insisting he be accorded ‘no preferential treatment’ and that ‘utmost security measures’ be implemented ‘to prevent escape or suicide’. Second, Pound was arrogant, yes, anti-Semitic no doubt, but not (unlike, say, Heidegger) wholly ‘unrepentant’. In an interview with Allen Ginsburg in Venice in 1967, Pound admitted that ‘the worst mistake I made was that stupid suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism.’ Around 1970, paying tribute to his lifelong companion Olga Rudge in his still unpublished Venice notebooks, he wrote: ‘she wd have saved me from idiocies in antisemitism.’ Here we begin to hear the (silent) rue of Lear.
New York University
Although pointing this out risks committing one of those ‘lazy critical confusions of life and art’ referred to by Michael Wood on the facing page, Frederick Seidel’s ‘America’ seems to believe the ‘drunken fisticuffs’ between Wallace Stevens and Hemingway occurred ‘in Paris’, a city Stevens dreamed about but never visited. In fact, they fought at Key West, Florida. The poem is exact in other details (such as the construction of Pound’s cage at Pisa), so perhaps this matters. In Paris, as it happened, Hemingway boxed with Pound, witnessed by Wyndham Lewis, whose eyes, Hemingway thought, were those of ‘an unsuccessful rapist’, and who had himself already been hung upside down on park railings by T.E. Hulme. By this stage, too, Pound had fenced with Yeats (and, near disastrously, with William Carlos Williams, who by his own account punched Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven in the face), and had thrown Robert Frost over his shoulder in a ju-jitsu move: the same Frost with whom Stevens swapped contrary theses on the nature of each other’s poetry, I believe at Key West, Florida.
Doctors rise up!
I congratulate Lana Spawls on finding the time so vividly to portray her daily (and nightly) life as a junior doctor (LRB, 4 February). Fifty years ago, I was a first-year doctor at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. My experience was much the same as hers. The hours were even more ridiculous: on alternate nights we wouldn’t get to the end of our list of tasks until 3 a.m., after which we would be called out of our beds at least once before getting back to the wards at eight. We then worked another 12 hours before our ‘night off’. We rarely sat down to eat until the small hours, when we feasted on cornflakes pilfered from the nurses’ kitchen.
We knew then, as Spawls does now, that we were most of the time too exhausted to be good doctors, and that as a result patients were suffering – sometimes dying – unnecessarily. We felt powerless to change things, conditioned as students to be sycophants, giving ourselves up as burnt offerings to our consultants, the gods whom we aspired to join.
For the last fifty years the NHS has been consistently underfunded. This particular government’s attempt to argue that weekend services can be improved without additional resources is farcical. Its attempt to discredit junior doctors is a cynical and devious excuse to undertake further privatisation. But now there is one big difference. The mass of junior doctors has learned and organised, and for the first time in history they are identifying themselves as workers, rather than gods.
The Frog under the Coconut Shell
The late Benedict Anderson claims, in his memoir, that ‘Americans are not naturally given to grand theory,’ and names five sociological grand theorists from the last century: Mosca, Pareto, Weber, Simmel, and Mann (LRB, 21 January). Yet if ‘grand theory’ is associated with any one individual it is with the American sociologist Talcott Parsons, the target of a withering attack by C. Wright Mills, who coined the term for precisely that purpose in The Sociological Imagination (1959). Parsons was accused of having little sense of what the social world was like and of making up the little he had while sitting in his office at Harvard. Mills was being a bit unfair as Parsons was responsible – along with Mills himself – for making many of the ideas of the European sociological tradition available to the English-speaking world.
University of Warwick, Coventry
‘Once the Iraqi nuclear threat had been removed by the Israeli strike on the Osirak reactor in June 1981,’ Joost Hiltermann writes, ‘Iran no longer felt the need to pursue a nuclear path’ (LRB, 4 February). The opposite is true. Following the destruction of Osirak, Iraq decided to launch an independent nuclear programme in order to reduce its reliance on foreign suppliers. In the LRB of 24 October 1991 I described the findings of the IAEA inspectors following the first Gulf War. In place of a nuclear weapons programme based on plutonium produced by a reactor, Iraq had a team of indigenous scientists working on uranium enrichment using electromagnetic separation, the method developed at Oak Ridge and Berkeley in the United States during the Manhattan Project. The equipment was not subject to the restrictions imposed on reactor technology and the Iraqis made progress. It was brought to an end by the Gulf War in 1991 before it could produce sufficient enriched uranium for a weapon.
This indigenous Iraqi nuclear weapons programme, together with the use by Iraq of chemical weapons, persuaded Iran to begin its own nuclear weapon programme during the Iran-Iraq War. Iraq’s nuclear programme between 1981 and 1991 had a further consequence. Dick Cheney and Tony Blair used it to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq by emphasising the danger caused by Iraq’s WMDs, especially its nuclear component. Yet Cheney and Blair knew perfectly well in 2002 that the IAEA had dismantled all Iraq’s nuclear facilities several years earlier.
University of Sussex, Brighton
Big and Small ‘c’
Colin Kidd poses a classic conundrum in asking how the Whig politician Edmund Burke became Conservatism’s founding father (LRB, 4 February). ‘The Tory misappropriation of Burke’ goes back ‘at least as far as the 1830s and 1840s’, Kidd writes, but I would suggest that the crucial moments came much later, first with the debates over Irish Home Rule from 1886, after which the Liberal Unionists carried their Burke-inspired defence with them as they moved towards their new Tory allies; and then with the Edwardian crisis of 1909-14, when Unionists (Conservative and Liberal) needed some powerful intellectual ammunition with which to defend their beloved constitution from revolutionary ‘Jacobins’ (i.e. Liberals and Labour). Only then could Burke be portrayed as a consistent political thinker whose body of thought was best described as ‘conservative’, and thence Conservative.
Pembroke College, Cambridge
The Inequality Problem
Ed Miliband neglects to mention the effect of austerity on mental and physical health (LRB, 4 February). The closest he gets to it is a reference to ‘family instability’, and families having a deep sense of insecurity about the future. A Freedom of Information request to England’s mental health trusts revealed that there had been 8139 ‘serious incidents’ in 2014-15, an increase of more than a third over the previous two years, including a leap in unexpected deaths to 1714, including 751 suicides, up 22 per cent since 2012-13. The Conservatives’ economic policies have precipitated a rapid decline in people’s quality of life, and a massive escalation in stress and anxiety for millions of people. The calculation is simple: if the Conservatives keep around one-quarter of the registered electorate sufficiently happy, then, under first past the post, any suffering experienced by the rest won’t matter come the next election.
Make way for Cicero
James Davidson recalls how Cicero’s forensic destruction of the corrupt Gaius Verres brought the entire population of Sicily into his clientela (LRB, 4 February). A touching footnote to this episode can be found in the hill town of Enna at the centre of the island, where a plaque set up by the community in 1960 praises Cicero as ‘the defender of Enna and Sicily’. It ends by stating that the plaque was set up in 1960 by the community of Enna, ‘ancora memore dopo venti secoli’.