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Letters

Vol. 21 No. 20 · 14 October 1999

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Mondeo Man

In 1983 I drove a Vauxhall Cavalier and discovered that I was the living symbol of petit-bourgeois machismo. Then I ran a Volvo, just at the time when everyone was calling us pricks. Now I have a bloody Mondeo and there are headlines about me in the LRB. Will Ross McKibbin (LRB, 30 September) please tell me what he drives so that I can sign up to Automobiles Anonymous?

Jerry White
Leamington Spa

Doomed to Sincerity

The one thing I am able to say with certainty about Germaine Greer’s dyspeptic dithyramb (LRB, 16 September) is that, despite claims to the contrary, it is not a review of my Oxford edition of Rochester. Of two lyrics whose opening lines are quoted, ‘Absent from thee I languish still’ and ‘An age in her embraces passed’, we are told in authoritative tones by Greer that ‘no manuscripts are known.’ Whoops! My texts of these two poems are both from a manuscript source, with another manuscript cited in support. So whose edition is she reviewing? Perhaps the same one that told her that ‘it is usually assumed that Jacob Tonson, himself a poet, compiled Poems 1691,’ whereas I give the credit to a much more usual suspect, Thomas Rymer, or perhaps the edition containing the amazing claim that ‘17th-century prologues were seldom if ever written by the authors of play-texts.’ In Greer’s imagined edition ‘no attempt is made to collate the 1691 printing of Valentinian with the manuscript sources and the version printed in 1685, and, what is more, no explanation is given’ for this decision, ‘if indeed there was one’, whereas in mine it is explained that the 1691 variants have not been listed because the 1691 edition was discovered (through collation naturally: there is no other way) to be wholly derived from 1685.

The edition reviewed by Greer also appears to lack the landmark essay by John Burrows included in the Oxford edition, in which the techniques of computational stylistics are brought to bear on the Rochester dubia. No conscientious reviewer could have failed to comment on this important methodological innovation.

Greer complains that ‘the setting out of the textual notes, no bigger than grains of sand silting across page after page, discourages even the specialist trying to get her bearings.’ The textual notes of the edition (there are also 153 pages of explanatory notes) are set in an elegant eight-point Caslon. Those who find this too small are at liberty to enlarge on a photocopier or scan and reformat. Moreover, the lists of variants for most of the poems are preceded by textual essays or notes outlining the structure and problems of the particular tradition. Specialist and non-specialist readers are both well served in this respect; but it has never been the case that an understanding of complex stemmatological relationships can be acquired without patience and effort.

Why go on? Once it is established that my edition has become mixed up with somebody else’s, there are still important things to be learned from Greer’s reflections on Rochester’s life and the biographical heritage. And I am grateful, after deciding on quite other grounds that the British Library manuscript of ‘Lucina’s Rape’ was prepared under Rochester’s supervision, to discover from her that some of its corrections may be in the hand of his mother.

Anyone concerned about the nature and extent of Meredith Sherlock’s contribution to my edition has only to contact her personally at her easily discoverable e-mail address at Monash University to obtain her own unmediated views on the matter.

Harold Love
Monash University, Melbourne

Germaine Greer is right to doubt that Rochester’s ‘Sab: Lost’ was a piece for the theatre, although the title is not mysterious. ‘Sab:’ refers to Sabinus, a Rochester pseudonym. Sabinus was the supposed author of three replies to Ovid’s letters in Heroides. Like the letters of Sabinus, a number of Rochester’s poems answer a woman’s complaint.

John Murphy
Medford, Massachusetts

Daisy, Daisy

In his article about Stanley Kubrick (LRB, 30 September), Michael Wood says that when HAL, the computer in 2001, is slowly dismantled and ends up singing ‘Daisy, Daisy’, ‘pathos instantly turns to bathos, lapses into one of Kubrick’s broad and unfunny jokes.’ First, the song is clearly regressive – HAL is reduced to pure childishness – and in consequence the effect is surely as disturbing as it’s bathetic, is disturbing because it’s bathetic. Secondly, the choice of ‘Daisy, Daisy’ was by no means arbitrary. Although no one has ever noticed it, this particular song was selected, not just for its simple-mindedness and ‘half-crazy’ reference, but because it was one of the first songs ever ‘taught’ to a computer. It can be heard on a 1965 Brunswick LP called Music from Mathematics, arranged by M.V. Mathews, ‘sung’ by an IBM 7090 computer and Digital-to-Sound Transducer. And a spooky little number it is.

Neil Hornick
London NW11

Where’s the carburettor?

Jerry Fodor (LRB, 30 September) asks why learning where the carburettor is should be thought to help us understand how an engine works. By itself it doesn't, but it would be useful to discover that it's connected to the inlet port. This is perhaps an argument for closer links between functional neuro-imaging and traditional neuro-anatomy.

Graham Kemp
Department of Musculoskeletal Science,
University of Liverpool

Sniping

In Tom Paulin’s bewitching diary of his Donegal holiday (LRB, 16 September), he describes how putting up snipe in a saltmarsh reminded him of John Clare’s ‘To the Snipe’, which he calls ‘one of the most subtle and profound nature poems in the language’. This reminded me of his discussion of the poem in Writing to the Moment. Just as Donegal makes him ‘feel like the freebooter in the poem whose Cromwellian tread disturbs the pudgy marsh’ and that he’ll ‘never see these snipe again’, so in Writing to the Moment he wrote: ‘Into this paradisal place of “little sinky" fosses come “free booters" who are more than simply hunters, they are symbols of enclosure, plundering free-marketeers, who have come to steal the common land and destroy the delicate ecological balance there. They have entered a marshy open-air church with its “hassock tufts of sedge" in order to kill the spirit of the place.’ But when I went back to the poem I found it saying something rather different.

Paulin assumes that the poem describes a single environment, a marsh, but with ‘a paradoxal sense that such sacral places are both somehow heavenly and hellish. So Clare’s marshes have “trembling grass", an “old sallow stump", “rancid streams", “a gelid mass". This is a sulphurous terrain, a warm “desolate and spungy lap", whose “tepid springs" echo the line “startle with cracking guns the trepid air".’ So this marshy paradise also threatens the snipe with betrayal, inviting violation by sportsmen. Hence the poem’s ‘final bleak ironic passive vision’.

But the poem could be read as describing two different environments: the marsh and the surrounding moorland. The marsh is indeed a paradise for snipe, where ‘security pervades’ because the ground ‘Nor bears the weight of man to let him pass/ Where thou alone and mute/Sittest at rest/ In safety’. Danger faces the snipe only when they leave the marsh for moorland streams. ‘Yet instinct knows/Not safetys bounds – to shun/The firmer ground where sculking fowler goes/With searching dogs and gun.’ Clare reserves his ‘hellish’ description for this moorland environment. The ‘tepid springs’ are in ‘The moores rude desolate and spungy lap’, and here, too, is ‘The little sinky foss/Streaking the moores whence spa-red water spews/From pudges fringed with moss’. It is only on the moor, where the streams are ‘scarcely one stride across’ that the freebooters can enjoy their sport.

On this reading, the poem is less subtle, and the conclusion – ‘That in the dreariest places peace will be/A dweller and a joy’ – is scarcely ironic. Clare’s vision must indeed have been shaped by the impact of capitalist agriculture on the countryside, but ‘To the Snipe’ does not refer directly to this desecration. It celebrates the security offered by retreat into the solitude of the poetic imagination from the pain and hostility of the surrounding social world ‘where pride and folly taunts’.

John Torrance
Poole, Dorset

Tom Paulin’s suggestion that Philip Larkin was inspired by Fifties Ulster, which must, he says, have felt ‘fiercely British … almost campily over-the-top British’, is not borne out, either by the Belfast poems or the letters. That Ulster felt, and sounded, Irish to him, is not only evident in the poem, ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’, but in letters in which he refers, not entirely in jest, to ‘the mad Irish’. Larkin was excited by the difference, not the similarity – and, of course, he was in love, a condition well known for inspiring attachments to unlikely places. As for Paulin’s colouring-in of the ‘bunting-dressed/Coach-party annexes’, this strikes me as presumptuous. Bunting is not necessarily red, white and blue. In England in the Fifties, as now, festivities could be announced in bunting of all different colours – even green.

Carol Rumens
London W12

What happened to Good Friday?

Garret FitzGerald says that ‘without the provision which postponed the start of decommissioning, the IRA would not have allowed the Sinn Fein leadership to sign the Agreement’ (LRB, 2 September). In fact, Sinn Fein did not sign the Agreement – nobody did, as it was accepted on a vote. Moreover, in that vote Sinn Fein abstained, establishing for itself a unique position among those who subsequently campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum.

Sean McDougall
Institute of Contemporary British History,
London WC1

See you in court, pal

There are a couple of errors in John Lanchester’s article on übergeeks (LRB, 30 September). On the development of the spreadsheet he refers to the kinds of ‘fiddle-and-jiggle calculation’ that ‘were suddenly made easy by the spreadsheet, which only existed on the PC’. Some of us had been using spreadsheets on ‘mini-computers’ for years before Lotus 1-2-3 came along. It was quite a while before the PC world had an integrated word-processing/spreadsheet/e-mail package of the type that I was using on a mini in the early Eighties.

Lanchester says that Marc Andreesen ‘wrote the first program which enabled users to see graphics on, as opposed to just read text on, a web page, called Mosaic’. This misrepresents the early history of the Web. Andreesen was building on substantial work that had been done by others. His talent was really much more like Gates’s: he used his experience as a public sector employee in order to develop a successful commercial company (or rather, one that was successful for a while).

Gene Damon
Richmond, Virginia

It is not Linus Torvalds’s mother who is the six-times winner of the Finnish national karate championships, as John Lanchester tells us, but his wife, Tove. Lanchester is also wrong to say that ‘Netscape didn’t try to sell their browser: they gave it away.’ Netscape started out selling their browser. It was only after Microsoft released Internet Explorer for free that Netscape were forced to stop charging money for theirs.

Dane Jackson
Miami University, Oxford, Ohio

Empson’s Poems

I am about to publish an edition of Empson's Complete Poems, not of his prose as your contributor's note said in the issue of 30 September. The edition will be out in the spring.

John Haffenden
Sheffield University

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