Vol. 21 No. 15 · 29 July 1999

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Anyone for tip-cat?

Gulli-danda, as described by Tariq Ali (LRB, 15 July), is the same game as tip-cat, which my grandfather introduced to me as having been a boyhood game in Gloucestershire in the 1870s. (The OED gives a date of 1801; the game is no doubt much older.) V.S. Naipaul's father, Seepersad, writes in his stories of stick-fighting contests in Trinidad between rival villages. This sport also figures in Thomas Hughes's The Scouring of the White Horse, set in Uffington in Berkshire. In both cases the fighting is described with some misgiving as to whether it is a desirable sport. Does the presence of identical pastimes in England and the former colonies mean that the games were carried out to these places by Britons, or is it that similar simple sports will arise anywhere?

Richard Taylor
Craven Arms, Shropshire

Too Many Alibis

I may be mistaken (I hope not!) for one of ‘Hill’s more pious admirers’, but I think James Wood is more than a little unfair in his estimations of Canaan and The Triumph of Love (LRB, 1 July). There are very beautiful sections in both books. I would single out for special attention the whole of ‘De Jure Belli ac Pacis’ (in Canaan), especially the end of section IV where Hans-Bernd von Haeften’s courage is praised. It is von Haeften’s ‘persona’, not Hill’s ‘personality’, or some other supposed abstracted ‘piety’, which is at issue here: ‘you were upheld/On the strong wings of the Psalms before you died./Evil is not good’s absence but gravity’s/Everlasting bedrock and its fatal chains/Inert, violent, the suffrage of our days.’ The diction is inherited from Paradise Lost, but is replenished, modernised. The ‘resistance’ abides in the historic claim made by von Haeften’s action. ‘The irrefutable/grammar of Abdiel’s defiance’ lies in the German’s determination not to be moved by falsity, not to be shaken, terrified, persuaded ‘to swerve from the truth, or change his constant mind’ in the face of Nazi diktats. The bravery the poet praises is secured wholly in limning von Haeften’s deed, and not in any purported ‘faith’ the poet pretends to.

Taken side by side, the poems may seem ‘at once magisterial and imbecile’ – Hill’s comment on the styles of John Bramhall and the first Earl of Clarendon in ‘The Eloquence of Sober Truth’, TLS, 11 June. Von Haeften’s position can be seen as gravely commendable and exemplary, Hill’s own, in comparison, as clownish, absurd, irrelevant, imbecilic: ‘a voice considerably changed, strained, by the circumstances of the intervening half-century’ since he started writing. If nothing else, Hill’s stance shows a ‘marked courtesy’ to the subjects he chooses to memorialise. It is not that Hill is religious or not religious enough, as Wood contends; it is rather that he is not certain how much we, the readers, know about the religious dimension of our historical experience, and how that impinges on our everyday consciousness. It is easy to forget, after all, how much we owe to Luther, for example, for our stress on individual liberty. It was not so easy for the likes of von Haeften to forget, confronted as he was by the reality of Hitler’s tyranny.

The image that comes to mind for Canaan and The Triumph of Love is that of a diptych: in the first book we have a picture, or writing-tablet, of the ‘worthies’, if you like, of European history; in the second, we have a scene of traduction, defamation and slander, both of the self and of others who are deemed to have fallen short on their promises. In The Triumph of Love the poet attempts ‘to suppress and destroy that pride and self-conceit, which might tempt him to undervalue other men, and to plant that modesty and humility in himself, as would preserve him from such presumption’ (Clarendon’s words quoted approvingly by Hill in ‘The Eloquence of Sober Truth’). He does not succeed in his aim in this volume. He opens the wounds which art elsewhere dresses. ‘De Jure Belli ac Pacis’ more successfully demonstrates the process whereby the ‘curse’ of being an artist is transmuted into the ‘blessing’ of having produced a work of art. You cannot have one without the other: you cannot have ‘the wrestle with words’ without the concomitant, existential wrestle with metaphysics itself.

W.S. Milne
Esher, Surrey

Ten Seconds to Inject

I am glad Mark Greenberg (LRB, 1 July) is not my doctor. He defines 99 per cent reliability in medical tests as meaning that 1 per cent of healthy people will test false positive. Reliability in medical tests refers to how accurately the test separates the healthy from the ill. The population is not the general population, but those who have been tested: 99 per cent reliability means that 99 per cent of those tested have been correctly diagnosed, leaving 1 per cent who have not, whether because of false positives or false negatives. (In Greenberg’s hypothetical there appear to be only false positives.)

Suppose there is an illness that is always quickly fatal and for which the antidote always works. The antidote also kills the patient if she is not ill. One hundred patients in the care of 100 different Dr Greenbergs show positive on the test. Following their erroneous understanding of reliability, each Dr Greenberg withholds the antidote because the odds are 101 to 1 against each patient having the disease. Ninety-nine of the Greenbergs’ patients die of the disease, and the one who had a false positive lives. Another 100 patients are in the care of that ‘disturbingly high proportion of doctors’ who correctly understand reliability and conclude that the odds are 99 to 1 that each patient has the disease. All give the antidote. The patient who had a false positive dies from the antidote and 99 are cured of the disease and survive.

This is not just a hypothetical question. Fifty years ago, the US Army told us that the antidote to nerve gases would kill if there had been no exposure. Given the speed with which nerve gases work, a soldier would have about ten seconds (under combat conditions) to decide whether a drop of something on his skin was a nerve gas and if so to inject the antidote.

Macneil of Barra

It seems likely that the Argument for Doom Soon might be conceived and promulgated in any society having attained a certain level of cultural and technological complexity: one sophisticated enough, for example, to sustain as unremarkable the notion of subscribers to a popular literary journal who are also prepared to discuss the finer points of Bayesian probability theory. If we believe with Copernicus that our situation is typical, it takes only a hundred thousand years, or the passage of some fifty billion individuals, for any species worthy of the name sapiens to develop such a culture. Contrary, then, to its premise that the moment of its own emergence is ‘random’, the Argument is a predictable and perhaps typically early achievement in the career of its carrier species. In the act of becoming, so to speak, the Argument signals its own nullification.

Tom Buscher

Out of Sight, out of Mind

Frank Kermode’s review of Ben Rogers’s A.J. Ayer (LRB, 15 July) prompts me to enquire whether anyone knows why Ayer never met Wittgenstein. When I attended Wittgenstein’s ‘Conversation Class’ – three hours, three times a week – in 1933, Margaret Masterman, Richard Braithwaite’s wife, was attending on her husband’s behalf, after he had been banished for writing a piece in Cambridge Essays which dared to attempt an explanation of Wittgenstein’s ideas, in the course of saying it was the most important work in philosophy then current in Cambridge. It is not difficult to guess what Gilbert Ryle might have said to Ayer, but specific confirmation, if it were available, would be interesting.

George Barnard
Brightlingsea, Essex

How to make a Greek god smile

In her review of Philip Fisher’s Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences (LRB, 10 June) Lorraine Daston notes with approval Fisher’s observation that ‘wonder is most at home in the medium of the instantaneous or the visual, which is why music, narrative and other arts that unfold in time may arouse admiration, but not full-strength wonder.’ But surely certain moments in music have the capacity to instil ‘full-strength’ wonder, in precisely the sense Fisher intends – i.e. ‘an experience that bursts the bounds of expectation and possibility’. Take the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Rasumovsky’ Quartet, at the point where the development begins. The music ushers us into a certain harmonic territory: we think we know where we’re headed. Then suddenly, in the first violin, just where the ear expects an A natural it hears an A flat. The shock is visceral, but it’s more than that: the mind is set racing in an effort to grasp the colossal new harmonic territory that one note opens up. And in that moment the listener stops listening to pay attention to his own wonderment, so the moment grows and steps out of time – exactly as all ‘wondrous’ experiences do. Notice another similarity between musical wonders and the rainbow sort: to be perceived as such they need to be tiny local perturbations of the normal. A world made up of rainbow-coloured wonders isn’t wondrous: it’s a bad trip. A piece of music that breaks its own rules at every step is a bore.

Ivan Hewett
BBC Radio 3

Tennis Lessons

In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said barely mentions sport. In his review of a book on sport (LRB, 1 July) he barely mentions imperialism. Not much chance, then, of him becoming the C.L.R. James of tennis.

John Bale
Keele University

I have been an uncomplaining reader of the LRB since its kangaroo-pouch beginnings and cannot recall ever seeing an essay on literature by Rod Laver, though presumably he knows how to read and write. Edward Said's parade of Names of Tennis Players I Remember and Caryl Phillips Forgot (if he ever knew them), right down to Don Candy, who enjoyed a reputation in the beer garden of Candy's Wellington Square Hotel and even before that among the wits of Colonel Light Gardens where we grew up, as a kind of prototype Sheridan Bucket of lawn tennis, is a donkey-drop game. The professor may be forgiven mis-hits like the omission of Ken McGregor (Candy's South Australian contemporary and superior) but not his failure to mention the greatest unorthodox individualist in the game during the period spanned by his unreliable memoir. Pancho Segura, if not the inventor of the double-handed forehand, was certainly its most dangerous exponent. Omitting to mention him is the equivalent of writing about literature and imperialism without noticing Conrad. Segura was the great eccentric stylist of tennis, not just for his unorthodox forehand but also for his feline anticipation, belied by a pigeon-toed shuffle around the court, and a preternatural reaction speed which enabled him to take an opponent's smash on the volley and return it double-handed like a shot off a shovel. He was, admittedly, an early member of the professional circus when that is exactly what it was, but his performance on the court was an inspiring counter-example to the orthodoxies of Jack Kramer, who rigidly believed there was only one way – his – to hold a racquet.

Bruce Clunies Ross
Jystrup, Denmark

Edward Said claims to have been involved with tennis for well over fifty years. Perhaps he has been brained at the net a few too many times, otherwise he would not have made the unforgivable mistake of not knowing the four Grand Slam venues. Having attended nine of the past ten Australian Opens, I can vouch for the fact that the event is held in Melbourne.

Sean Callow
London SW9

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