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Letters

Vol. 22 No. 24 · 14 December 2000

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Motoring

Frank Kermode wonders (LRB, 30 November) why the verb ‘to motor’ is upper-class while the noun ‘motor’ is plebeian. It is not clear that this is so, or at least that it has always been so. That vast exercise in literary-sporting completism, The Badminton Library, compiled under the patronage of an ancestor of James Lees-Milne’s landlord, the ungentlemanly but aristocratic Duke of Beaufort, includes a volume entitled Motors. Contributors include the Hon. John Scott-Montagu MP, who informs us that ‘the utility of the motor is endless,’ the Marquis de Chasseloup-Laubat and Sir David Salomons, Bart, who provides an essay on ‘The Motor Stable and Its Management’. If there has been a social divergence in the use of the two forms of the same word since the origins of automobilism we probably need a Lees-Milne to explain why.

Andrew Taylor
London SW1

Sheffield looked after you

Maurice Marks (Letters, 16 November) remembers someone in the Sheffield Education Department taking the trouble to see that he got to grammar school and in his autobiography, A Local Habitation, Richard Hoggart tells a similar story about an official in Leeds, who went out of his way to make sure the young Hoggart got in at Cockburn High School. That official may well have been George Guest, or someone in his department, and if Chris Price, in the same issue, thought Guest a mean old sod, that may have been because Price was at Leeds Grammar School which, being an independent establishment, would not come under the aegis of the municipal authority or get much sympathy there. LGS was always thought of as a posh school and snobbish, too, and I'm glad to see Price's experience confirming this. I doubt that it has changed much and am sure it remains endearingly Old Testament in its morals, a recent headmaster warning the school that homosexuality was an abomination.

Chris Price also takes me to task about the buses of the West Yorkshire Road Car Company. He will be relieved to know that we do not really differ. It's true, as Price points out, that the red West Yorkshire buses would deposit you at Vicar Lane bus station, particularly if you were coming from somewhere east of Leeds … Scholes, say, or Stanks. But the long-haul buses to the east coast also left from Wellington Street which, if you came from West Leeds, as we did, was a much more convenient departure point. I have a feeling that on the rare occasions when they were not filled up at Wellington Street, buses would then call in at Vicar Lane to pick up a few more passengers, this possibly confusing the young Price.

The bus station at Wellington Street has utterly vanished, as has the architecturally much more interesting Central Station which stood opposite, part of the site now taken up with something big and banal to do with the Post Office. While much of Vicar Lane bus station has disappeared, too, and been converted into a car park, the west range of buildings still stands, always intriguing to me as a child because built in a peculiarly edible-looking brick, so that mindful of Hansel and Gretel, I fancied it might be made out of ginger biscuits.

There's plenty more where this came from but readers may already be incensed by its inconsequence.

Alan Bennett
London NW1

Self-Obsessed

Susan Eilenberg’s review of my biography of Mary Wollstonecraft (LRB, 30 November) berates her for not living her theories or being entirely lovable. I stand accused of displaying a character whom no one will like. Wollstonecraft desired to control her own image, and I suspect that, when she wrote herself as an ideal mother in her works, she would not have wanted a biographer to juxtapose her pictures with her letters, as I have done, so revealing her as the everyday sort who likes a child more when cleaned and comforted by someone else. Yet, had she been a biographer, she would have described the warts. She criticised Boswell’s Life of Johnson for varnishing the doctor’s ‘overbearing ferocity’ and calling his ‘intellectual cowardice’ by the kinder name of piety. According to her, the biographer should not shift the boundaries of virtue and vice.

Wollstonecraft has always provoked extreme responses. In the 1970s (as Eilenberg reveals by haunting me with my past words) we did not care to have her dissected. But now we can stand back a bit and suggest that to be revolutionary one needs immense self-confidence, assertiveness, immodesty and competitiveness. Wollstonecraft was no more modest and easy to deal with than Kate Millett or Germaine Greer.

Eilenberg seems to discredit her for personalising issues. Wollstonecraft did constantly refer to her body, nerves and depressions in her letters, while in her early published works demanding response only to her intellect. Both tendencies, however, suggest that she would not give up the body to pleasure the mind or vice versa. Though her thoughts are at times contradictory, complex, unstable and variously committed, she always took herself seriously as a thinker and conveyed the excitement of the examined life. Although tempted, ultimately she did not wallow, like some 1970s French and American feminists, in unreason or dismiss reason as male and therefore suspect. As for the dangers of romance, to which she herself so spectacularly succumbed, there is no evidence that her views changed as a result: her own experience deepened them. She was also amazingly frank and not always self-indulgent. Even in novels, that zone of wish-fulfilment, she would not give her alter egos (and I agree with Eilenberg that she rarely detached a heroine from herself) what she had not experienced – unlike Charlotte Brontë or Geraldine Jewsbury.

Wollstonecraft is remarkable for her constant effort to express a predicament. This is what I meant by her modernity: with a few changes of language, she could be an ambitious and self-obsessed Post-Modern woman demanding it all. Probably Wollstonecraft – and certainly Godwin when he revealed her life to the public – misjudged the price of unconventionality. But, although she was in some ways foiled by her own flaws and more by cultural shifts, she tried – almost uniquely – to be true to her sense of common female needs for education, legal and political significance, as well as for affection, esteem and sex.

Janet Todd
University of East Anglia

The Face of Agamemnon

In her review of J.A. MacGillvray’s book on Arthur Evans (LRB, 30 November), Mary Beard’s excursus into the way prehistoric archaeologists debate the moral failings of their predecessors was slightly marred by her own sneer at Schliemann. ‘Who cares very much, after all,’ she asks, ‘whether he did, or did not, gaze upon the face of Agamemnon?’ referring to the familiar story that Schliemann sent a telegram from Mycenae to the King of Greece, claiming to have done just that. He did not. The whole story is best told by Leslie Fitton in her 1995 book, The Discovery of the Greek Bronze Age. She says that ‘the nearest equivalent – and it is nothing like so dramatic or romantic – seems to be his comment in a telegram to the Greek press: “The corpse very much resembles the image which my imagination formed long ago of wide-ruling Agamemnon."’ Of course, without his belief in Homer’s historical value, Schliemann wouldn’t have uncovered the shaft graves at all.

Charles Plouviez
London NW3

tarry easty

At the end of the third paragraph of my piece on Joyce in Trieste (LRB, 30 November) I originally wrote that ‘he returned briefly to the city in 1919-20.’ I was referring to Trieste, but in the transition to print the city migrated to Dublin – last visited by Joyce in 1912.

Roy Foster
Hertford College, Oxford

Battle of the Bugs

James Meek described some strange sexual strategies (LRB, 16 November), but none as strange as that of a mite discovered by the originator of the Selfish Gene theory, Bill Hamilton. Born within their mother’s womb, the brood copulates there and then, as the brothers (only one or two in each brood, with penises as big as the rest of their bodies) seek out and inseminate their sisters. Hamilton didn’t see the pregnant mites’ escape from their mother’s womb, but it presumably involved her death. He wrote that the animal suggested to him ‘a physical embodiment of a Freudian Id’.

Joe Morison
London SW9

Atlas’s ‘Bellow’, Holmes’s ‘Coleridge’

James Atlas’s attempt (Letters, 30 November) to attribute Richard Poirier’s criticism of his biography of Bellow to pique at its ‘unflattering portrait’ of Poirier doesn’t cut any ice. After all, Poirier himself cites evidence of Bellow’s animus towards him in terms that make Atlas’s treatment of Bellow’s treatment of him seem rather reticent. Atlas might have been on firmer ground had he pointed out that, having criticised him for naively equating the author and his fictional protagonists, Poirier proceeds to commit the same sin, eliding the eponymous hero of Bellow’s most recent novel, Ravelstein, with his real-life model Allan Bloom. Poirier says, for example, that ‘Bloom is HIV positive’ and that ‘throughout the book Bellow delights in his friend’s extravagant tastes in clothing.’ To paraphrase Poirier’s strictures on Atlas, the pronoun ‘he’ here ought to refer not to Bloom but to Ravelstein, who is a fictional creation, not a friend of Bellow’s.

David Brauner
University of Reading

Richard Poirier says that Mary conceived Jesus ‘immaculately’, but the Immaculate Conception, as every Catholic schoolchild knows, was that of Mary herself, who was born without original sin on her soul, all the rest of us being tainted by the sin of Adam and Eve. Catholics believe that God the Father spared Mary because she would be the mother of His son, Jesus. Her parents were ordinary people and certainly had sex. The Immaculate Conception has to do with sin, not sex.

Anita McBride
Orland Park, Illinois

Piety Blair

Since I’m the subject of Iain Sinclair’s generous article (LRB, 30 November), could I be the first nit-picker to point out that ‘pard’ doesn’t come from dime Westerns? You’ll find it, for instance, in Bret Harte and it was in common use after 1849 in California. The term comes from the men’s habit of partnering up to go off to look for gold. Oh, and there was a mistake which spoiled a mild joke – I didn’t call him ‘Pretty’ Blair but ‘Piety’ Blair.

Michael Moorcock
Bastrop, Texas

Joan who?

W.S. Milne (Letters, 16 November) quite rightly points out that Charles Péguy’s writings about Joan of Arc had ‘effects’ in the years around 1900. I hadn’t meant to ignore those, but in suggesting that Joan was ‘little known in France until the First World War’, I was reflecting on early 20th-century survey evidence noted by Eugen Weber in Peasants into Frenchmen (1977), which showed that few national conscripts had then heard of Joan. Péguy’s public would have been another matter.

J.L. Nelson
King’s College London

Tanked up

Peter Wollen (LRB, 16 November) does Boris Yeltsin less than justice when he describes him ‘riding on a tank to suppress Parliamentary opposition’. Two years earlier, as Mayor of Moscow, Yeltsin clambered onto a tank to dissuade soldiers from firing on the crowd protesting against the coup which sought to restore Soviet dictatorship. His action may well have helped to save Mikhail Gorbachev’s life – it certainly went a long way to preserving his reform programme, and keeping Russia on the road towards a form of democracy which bears comparison with, say, Florida.

Jim Forrest
Fareham, Hampshire

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