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Letters

Vol. 20 No. 1 · 1 January 1998

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Amazon.com

Some errors have been pointed out to me in my article on Amazon.com (LRB, 27 November 1997): Barnes and Noble are not primarily a ‘mall chain’, and their subsidiary outlets are firm-owned not franchised. Also, Waterstone’s is a wholly-owned subsidiary of W.H. Smith – this invalidates a point I was making about civil war in the British book trade, and arose from my confusion about what Tim Waterstone, as opposed to the firm he founded, has been doing.

John Sutherland
University College London

Inappropriate Parentheses

David Edgar begins his review of my biography of R.B. Sheridan, A Traitor’s Kiss (LRB, 27 November 1997), with the mysterious confession that he would find it ‘comforting’ to be able to dismiss it. He goes on to assuage his disappointment at not being able to do so by inventing a book worthy of scorn and attributing it to me. He writes, for instance, that I claim that ‘most’ of the Malapropisms in The Rivals are about languagessstor, he shows to be false. What I actually wrote is that ‘most of Mrs Malaprop’s more spectacular mistakes are … about language’ – a very different proposition. He writes of my contention that the relationship of Jack Absolute to his father in the same play is a ‘direct dramatisation of the relationship between Richard and his father’. What I actually wrote is that ‘Sheridan’s difficulties with this father were echoed’ in that relationship. An echo is, by definition, indirect.

Edgar attributes to me the ludicrous suggestion that Sheridan’s support for the American Revolution was merely an ‘expression of his revolt against his own father’. My actual suggestion is that in a particular draft pamphlet on the Revolution, ‘Sheridan’s pro-Americanism was linked in his own mind to his personal revolution, his declaration of independence from his father.’ Since, in the pamphlet in question, Sheridan wrote that ‘when a colony is of age’, there is ‘a Parallel between Father and Son’, this is simply a statement of the obvious.

Most seriously, David Edgar suggests that I understand Sheridan’s political beliefs to be, ‘like his plays’, ‘no more than a transference of “his erotic passions and familial affections" into another realm’. The phrase quoted is in fact used in a very specific context, to suggest that, in an early pamphlet on women’s education, ‘his feelings for Eliza were translated into a demand that women in general should be respected.’ To turn a suggestion that a particular political idea was inspired by personal affections into a statement that all of Sheridan’s dramatic and political ideas were ‘no more than’ the transference of such emotions is a grotesque distortion.

The bulk of my book is actually devoted to showing that Sheridan’s political beliefs were serious, tenaciously held and of striking relevance to contemporary Ireland. David Edgar obviously believes that these beliefs can be safely ignored. He writes that ‘most of the great political questions which Sheridan addressed are long since resolved (with the single exception of the land of his birth).’ And (with the single exception of the assassination of her husband) Mrs Lincoln had a most enjoyable evening at the theatre.

Fintan O’Toole
New York

Marriage Proposal

I do not know to whom I shall propose marriage first: Richard Altick for his magnificent exposé of the subversive Punch, or E.S. Turner for his splendidly funny and perceptive review (LRB, 13 November 1997). What is the appropriate etiquette in dilemmas such as this?

Sue Rickard
Australian National University, Canberra

Memories of Barra

I was intrigued by Margaret McHugh’s letter (Letters, 11 December 1997) about the Coddy and Compton Mackenzie on Barra in the Hebrides. I don’t remember the Coddy – I’m not of that vintage – and I assume that the printed record of his stories doesn’t do him full justice. However, I did once stay in Compton Mackenzie’s house, long after he’d left it; it had become a charming and very affordable guest-house, very handy for Barra airport (which is nothing more than the unimproved stretch of cockle beach your correspondent recalls). The house, Suidheachan, still had on display a bottle of ‘Whisky Galore’ Scotch from the wreck of the Politician, murky and barnacled, under a sealed bell-jar; and in an outbuilding one could still see the giant HMV-style gramophone-horn constructed to Mackenzie’s specifications when he edited the Gramophone from the house. Sadly the house was sold to a non-local buyer in January of this year, an event poorly reported in the press.

Harry Gilonis
London SE24

Reconstituted Chicken

Reviel Netz asks in what sense could Ptolemaic tradition be considered ‘unsuccessful’ (Letters, 13 November 1997). Here are some. Ptolemaic tradition gave poor predictions. The differences between its predictions and observation drove Copernicus, Kepler and finally Newton to develop their theories. For a theory, agreement with observation is the only criterion for success – depth and elegance are irrelevant. Ptolemaic tradition is very far from perfect compared either to the Newtonian theory, which is so good that astronomers used it to predict the existence and position of previously unobserved planets, or to a current science such as quantum electrodynamics. The fact that the Earth rotates about the Sun, and not vice versa, is a fundamental feature of the solar system, not an unimportant one. It is fundamental because the fixed body, our Sun, is in an inertial frame, whereas the rotating body, the Earth, is not. The laws of physics take a different form on the non-inertial Earth than on the inertial Sun; not all motion is relative. It may be a commonplace among historians of astronomy that Copernicus was not so different from Ptolemy, but astronomers, including Copernicus, would disagree. It is no insult to the medievals to say that they were mistaken. Only Netz’s point that theories and people are both wrong is well taken. Ptolemaic theory lasted as long as it did because of its advocates’ reliance on their preconceived notions.

Stephen Lane
Bethesda, Maryland

Socialist as Surbiton

Michael Stewart claims that the ‘Living Marxism crowd … want us to believe that the camps in Omarska, Trnopolje and elsewhere are inventions of the world capitalist conspiracy against “socialist Yugoslavia"’ (LRB, 11 December 1997) – three misrepresentations in one clause. LM magazine does not believe in any ‘world capitalist conspiracy’ and we have never used the phrase ‘socialist Yugoslavia’, for the simple reason that Serbia is about as socialist as Surbiton. LM has not claimed that the Bosnian-Serb-run camps were an ‘invention’. But there is a difference between a refugee and transit camp like Trnopolje, however grim, and a real concentration camp like Auschwitz, where the Nazis killed perhaps a hundred times as many people as died in the entire war in Bosnia.

Like many others, Stewart’s article continually draws parallels between the trial of the Bosnian Serb Dusko Tadic at the International Tribunal at the Hague and the Nuremburg war crimes trials at the end of the Second World War. Yet how could anybody with a passing knowledge of history suggest that a local militiaman like Tadic could be bracketed with Goering, Bormann, Streicher or any of the leading Nazis found guilty of crimes against humanity?

Stewart’s distortions of LM’s argument are typical of those who are acting as unofficial mouthpieces for ITN’s libel action against my magazine, over the article ‘The Picture that Fooled the World’, which raised embarrassing questions about ITN’s award-winning reports from Trnopolje camp. This case not only involves an unprecedented threat on the part of a major news corporation to close down a small independent magazine. It also raises wider issues about the censorious use of British libel law.

Mick Hume
Editor, Living Marxism
London WC1

The Casement Affair

Norman Moss’s comments about Roger Casement (Letters, 30 October 1997) show that, even at the distance of eighty years, Casement must still bear the burden of vague innuendo (his employment of Adler Christensen) and poor logic (Casement was an effusive writer; an effusive writer wrote the Black Diaries; ergo, Casement must have written the Black Diaries). Of course this is not to imply that Casement’s supporters are any less guilty of flawed arguments. I was particularly interested in Colm Tóibín’s references to a pro-Casement work entitled The Vindication of Roger Casement by E.O. Maille, M. Ui Callanan, and M. Payne (privately printed, 1994). Tóibín states that he had a copy of this little (18 photocopied pages) book in front of him as he wrote his review. I have failed to find a copy; however, I did find a copy of a book entitled Roger Casement: The Forged Diaries Exposed by Eoin O. Maille (published by M. Payne, Wicklow, Ireland, 1993) which also contains 18 photocopied pages. It seems possible that this is the same book or perhaps an earlier edition of the book to which Tóibín refers. Although it contains the Word Frequency Comparisons discussed by Tóibín, it is a rambling, confused and disjointed discourse. While, on the surface, the Word Frequency Comparisons appear to offer evidence in Casement’s favour, the overtly biased and unsubstantiated nature of Maille’s overall presentation serves only to call into question the validity of all his findings. It remains for a concerted investigation to be carried out, including pressure for the release of all original documents, to settle this issue once and for all. In the interim, contributions such as Norman Moss’s and Eoin Maille’s serve only to stir already muddy water.

Ben Riley
Nashville, Tennessee

The Gunman

I thought I should send the following poem, ‘Dornier Window’, written to explain why I knew all the words that stumped Denis Donoghue in his review of Ciaran Carson’s The Star Factory (LRB, 27 November 1997):

Although it’s 1968 outside,
in here the Second World War is suspended
on thin white cotton, wavering
in convection currents from a new radiator.

Every week is another fighter
for this puppet theatre of war
(on birthdays, bombers or the Short Sunderland).
The horror of getting glue

- polystyrene cement – on the cockpit glazing;
the curves of the nacelles; improvising
accessories from sprue;

the camouflage of umber, ochre, bistre.
Insensitive to the pheromones
of another summer of love
desert warfare studies attrition
in the nap of my fitted carpet.

Philip Rush
Stroud, Gloucestershire

Denis Donoghue’s father had no business arresting Italians in 1939, as Italy did not enter the war until June 1940 – the jackal moving in on the prey killed by the greater predator. Perhaps this was a justifiable prolepsis on the part of the RUC – it certainly speaks wonders for the quality of their intelligence.

Kenyon Alexander
Stratford-upon-Avon

Too Robust

Richard Jenkyns refers, in his piece on English hymns (LRB, 11 December 1997), to the question of the originality of ‘O God our help in ages past’. This is indeed a matter for debate, but the hymn’s authorship isn’t. It was written by Isaac Watts, not, as Jenkyns has it, by Cowper. It’s a fraction robust for Cowper, I’d say.

Fred Sedgwick
Ipswich

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