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Writing it down

Peter Parsons

31 August 1989
Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens 
by Rosalind Thomas.
Cambridge, 321 pp., £27.50, March 1989, 0 521 35025 5
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... has gone into determining the level of literacy – a futile business, since we have nothing but a sprinkling of casual facts, which prove nothing unless they are typical and their society static. RosalindThomas’s rich and invigorating book takes a more concrete and profitable stance. The real question is not how many were literate, but literate in what, and for what? The uses of literacy do not ...

Bench Space

Mary Beard: Norfolk Girl gets Nobel Prize

15 April 1999
Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life 
by Georgina Ferry.
Granta, 425 pp., £20, November 1998, 1 86207 167 5
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... if recognition at all) and early death (something to do with all that radiation) regularly combine to outweigh the charisma that might attach to scientific discovery. The paradigm case is Rosalind Franklin, who died of cancer at 37 and was posthumously written out of the story of the discovery of DNA, in which she had played a crucial part. James Watson’s outrageously self-heroising Double ...

Foremost Economist

Rosalind​ Mitchison

25 October 1979
Population Malthus 
by Patricia James.
Routledge, 524 pp., £17.50
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... agriculture to a rise in population. Here the same careful and sympathetic work lets us see the Malthus family, part of the middling ranks of 18th-century society, the education of the young Thomas Robert, his friends and the development of his ideas till in 1805 he was an established figure, the author of the famous Essay on Population (by then in the sophisticated form of the later editions ...

Happier Days

Rosalind​ Mitchison

4 April 1991
Scottish Voices 1745-1960 
by T.C. Smout and Sydney Wood.
Collins, 334 pp., £16.95, August 1990, 0 00 215190 1
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... Here is an anthology of pieces drawn from published hooks on life in Scotland, mostly memoirs and mostly familiar to historians. Old friends include George Robertson, Joseph Mitchell, Thomas Somerville and Ramsay of Ochtertyre. The accounts are separated into themes, such as school, factory and mine, leisure, crime (though none of the memorialists claim active participation in this). The ...

High Time for Reform

Rosalind​ Mitchison

1 May 1980
The Philosophic Radicals: Nine Studies in Theory and Practice, 1817-1841 
by William Thomas.
Oxford, 491 pp., £15, December 1979, 0 19 822490 7
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... politics. One of the obvious limitations was, then as now, the gulf between the political issues which carried popular feeling and those that really mattered. As an instance of this, William Thomas holds – rightly, I think – that the Municipal Corporation Reform of 1835 was really more important than Parliamentary Reform. He expects his readers to understand the interactions of the two ...

Modern Wales

Rosalind​ Mitchison

19 November 1981
Rebirth of a Nation: Wales 1880-1980 
by Kenneth O. Morgan.
Oxford, 463 pp., £15, March 1981, 0 19 821736 6
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... speaker who has chosen to write in English, that ‘the only thing English about an Anglo-Welsh writer ought to be his language,’ and repeats the attack by Bobi Jones, a learner of Welsh, on Dylan Thomas for ‘importing and adapting culture from an uninteresting and impoverished England’. In both statements Welsh-speakers are not only claiming what is certainly their right and privilege, to prefer ...

South Britain

Rosalind​ Mitchison

1 April 1982
The Economic History of Britain since 1700. Vol. 1: 1700-1860 
edited by Roderick Floud and Donald McCloskey.
Cambridge, 323 pp., £25, October 1981, 0 521 23166 3
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The Economic History of Britain since 1700. Vol. II: 1860 to the 1970s 
edited by Roderick Floud and Donald McCloskey.
Cambridge, 485 pp., £30, October 1981, 0 521 23167 1
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... they have been conducted over the last 15 years, are now settled. Other discussions receive a new twist, or are taken down to an altogether deeper level of thought. In Volume I, McCloskey and R.P. Thomas measure the cost to the American colonists of trade control by the British Navigation Acts, and end up with the figure of under 1.8 per cent of colonial income: a new low. As a price to pay for the ...

Carlyle’s Mail Fraud

Rosalind​ Mitchison

6 August 1981
The Collected Letters of Thomas​ and Jane Welsh Carlyle: Vol. VIII 1835-1836, Vol. IX 1836-1837 
edited by Charles Sanders and Kenneth Fielding.
Duke, 365 pp., £32.95, May 1981, 0 8223 0433 3
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... and the need for ‘rigorous thrift’. Family support was a major element in resource management. Carlyle’s brother, whom he had earlier aided, was now ready to repay the money, so that Jane and Thomas had some two and a half years in reserves when Volume VIII opens. Book-writing was a total activity, putting tremendous strain on Jane and requiring that whoever they had as servant had to be trained ...

Green Films

Geoffrey Hawthorn

1 April 1982
Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage 
by Stanley Cavell.
Harvard, 283 pp., £12.25, December 1981, 0 674 73905 1
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... Cary Grant sits down at a table with Ralph Bellamy and Irene Dunne in 1937 and says: ‘So you two are going to get married.’ It is The Awful Truth. Grant sits down at a table with Bellamy and Rosalind Russell in 1940 and says again: ‘So you two are going to get married.’ It is His Girl Friday. Asked what the Bellamy character in the film, the man who plans to marry his former wife, looks like ...

The Cinderella Molecule

Steven Shapin: Solving the Ribosome

24 January 2019
Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome 
by Venki Ramakrishnan.
Oneworld, 272 pp., £20, September 2018, 978 1 78607 436 2
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... worked in practice. For some scientists, the theoretical solution was the great prize and the work that remained to be done was a series of mopping-up operations or puzzle-solving, what the historian Thomas Kuhn called ‘normal science’. By the 1950s it had become clear that the cellular organelle where proteins were manufactured was the ribosome – given its name by an American microbiologist. The ...

Room at the Top

Rosalind​ Mitchison

15 November 1984
An Open Elite? England 1540-1880 
by Lawrence Stone and Jeanne Fawtier Stone.
Oxford, 566 pp., £24, September 1984, 0 19 822645 4
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... 1760 the counties diverge. In Northamptonshire house-building was at a low level for the next century. Of course the county already possessed a large collection of sumptuous houses. Somehow the Sir Thomas Bertrams of the day resisted the urge to build extra wings for male recreation – smoking and billiards – to enlarge and systematise the laundry and kitchen quarters, to house an enlarging bevy of ...

Portrait of the Scottish Poor

Rosalind​ Mitchison

5 June 1980
The State of the Scottish Working Class in 1843 
by Ian Levitt and Christopher Smout.
Scottish Academic Press, 284 pp., £7.50, December 1979, 0 7073 0247 1
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... A man with a broken leg or suffering from a severe attack of fever would be classified as able-bodied in many parishes. The Scots had had a large share, through Adam Smith, Samuel Smiles and Thomas Chalmers, in the fashioning of a theory of economic individualism, and their working class was now paying for it. The special and appalling hardships of Paisley, which had forced on Peel’s ...

Big Daddy

Linda Nochlin

30 October 1997
American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America 
by Robert Hughes.
Harvill, 635 pp., £35, October 1997, 9781860463723
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... a few swings at that imperturbable kitschmeister, Jeff Koons, and his inflated cast of cuddly bunnies and miniature blown-glass bimbos, as a not so grand finale. In between, we have everything from Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cole to Thomas Eakins to Thomas Hart Benton; from Mary Cassatt to Georgia O’Keeffe to Eva Hesse; from the Shakers’ minimalism (good) to that of Barnett Newman (bad); from ...

One word says to its mate

Claire Harman: W.S. Graham

4 October 2001
The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of W.S. Graham 
edited by Michael Snow and Margaret Snow.
Carcanet, 401 pp., £12.95, November 1999, 1 85754 445 5
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... world’ is how he described himself, only half-jokingly, in a letter written at a low ebb in 1949. His career began auspiciously in the early 1940s with the enthusiastic support of his hero Dylan Thomas, but the surrealism of his early collections, such as Cage without Grievance and 2ND Poems, seemed to mark him out as an oddity who could easily be ignored. The White Threshold in 1949 and The ...

Somewhere else

Rosalind​ Mitchison

19 May 1988
The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction 
by Bernard Bailyn.
Tauris, 177 pp., £12.95, April 1987, 1 85043 037 3
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Voyagers to the West: Emigration from Britain to America on the Eve of the Revolution 
by Bernard Bailyn.
Tauris, 668 pp., £29.50, April 1987, 1 85043 038 1
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Migration and Society in Early Modern England 
edited by Peter Clark and David Souden.
Hutchinson, 355 pp., £25, February 1988, 0 09 173220 4
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Gypsy-Travellers in 19th-Century Society 
by David Mayall.
Cambridge, 261 pp., £25, February 1988, 0 521 32397 5
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... to the cities went instead to America, and did so on a scale that frightened landowners. The alarm was raised by Lord Hillsborough, Secretary of State and owner of a large chunk of County Down, and Thomas Miller, Lord Justice Clerk and a custodian of the vast Sutherland estates. Both realised the reverse of the speculative impulses in the Americas: land without labour would produce no income. If ...

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