In my day every schoolboy knew that vixere and vixerunt were simply alternative forms of the perfect tense third person plural. Like Mary Beard, I always heard Cicero's statement reported as vixere, but there is absolutely no difference in grammar or sense either way. What really intrigues me is what Davor Butkovic (Letters, 20 September) thinks vixere means.
According to Jenny Diski, David Gilmore, in his book about misogyny, refers to Yeats’s complaint that ‘Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement’ (LRB, 6 September). These words are actually spoken by Crazy Jane, who is answering the Bishop’s condemnation of her sexuality by asserting that ‘Fair and foul are near of kin, and fair needs foul.’
Jenny Diski refers to man's fear of being engulfed during sexual intercourse with women. In Rosa, Maurice Pons's most entertaining novel, the chief male protagonist, and many other men, do indeed end up engulfed in Rosa's very capacious uterus.
Was I alone in finding grounds for suspicion in the friendly way Butcher's innings, discussed by John Sturrock in Short Cuts (LRB, 6 September), and one or two other English cricketing exploits were greeted by the Australians this summer? Their enthusiasm was an aspect of their conceit: by warmly acknowledging these feats they were congratulating themselves, too – if you can make a ton against us, it can only be a fluke or divine intervention.
It is surprising to find Alex de Waal (LRB, 23 August) claiming that ‘the human rights movement itself crossed a Rubicon when it endorsed the military-humanitarian interventions in Somalia, Haiti and the former Yugoslavia.’ What ‘human rights movement’ does he refer to? Many organisations constituting this nebulous entity supported these interventions; many others opposed them. The very issue of whether such actions are permissible continues to divide ‘the’ human rights movement, now stranded on both sides of the Rubicon, and consequently easier to defeat.
In his review of a good handful of war novels (LRB, 6 September), James Meek included a needless and inaccurate list of countries in which wars have been fought since the Second World War. Mauritania appears twice and the Congo appears well after Zaire. To suggest that Gabon, Cameroon or Ghana have been at war is plain wrong. Gabon has seen, at most, occasional ethnic rivalries between locals and West African street traders. Cameroon has been attempting to keep its frontier dispute with Nigeria over the Bakassi peninsula within peaceful bounds, while its three-hour-long attempted coup in the early 1980s doesn't seem worthy of inclusion in Meek's hit-list. Ghana suffered a number of coups in its first two decades of independent rule, but has taken in more West African refugees than Canada as a proportion of population. What war has occurred in Zambia since 1945? Or in Burkina Faso or Mali? Have people really fought and died in France or in Italy? What lets Liberia off the hook, or the Scandinavian countries, or Nigeria (but not Niger)?
Ballymena, Co. Antrim
What both Thomas Nagel and Barry Stroud appear to overlook (LRB, 20 September) is that ‘yellow’ is defined by a range of frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum. We can distinguish between different sections of the small part of the spectrum which is visible to us and we now call these sections ‘colours’. Whether my ‘yellow’ is what another man sees as yellow we cannot tell, but most helpfully we can distinguish our own ‘yellow’ from the other so-called colours we discern. Although man needs to be present to call it ‘yellow’, that part of the electromagnetic spectrum exists independently of man.
In Short Cuts (LRB, 20 September), Daniel Soar writes that only around 12 per cent of Big Issue vendors these days are sleeping rough, compared to 95 per cent in the early days. This is, I take it, in part a sign that the magazine has been effective in helping people off the streets. But I’d be very surprised if the total number of those sleeping rough on Britain’s streets had diminished by a similar proportion over the last ten years, which might suggest that the Big Issue is leaving its core workforce behind. There is little doubt that the magazine is a good thing, but it is also rather an odd thing. The guiding principle is a version of the Protestant work ethic, and it makes an implicit distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. There are plenty of people who buy the Big Issue but never give any money to beggars, on the grounds that vendors are earning their money, not just expecting handouts (begging’s not exactly a leisure activity, but never mind that). But buying the Big Issue is still, in the minds of consumers, an act of charity: customers are bestowing their generosity on the less fortunate at least as much as they are spending money on something they want – I’d guess the proportion of buyers who actually read the magazine is lower for the Big Issue than for any other paper in the country. For all its virtues, it also gives the pious and tight-fisted an opportunity to feel good about themselves for a mere pound a week – in this respect it has something in common with the Lottery. Well, so what, if it gives the people on the other side money they wouldn’t otherwise have: ‘Luis’, Soar tells us, can earn up to £3 an hour (less than the minimum wage); but we aren’t told how many hours he can work, and presumably business slackens as the week progresses. It isn’t much of a job, when it comes down to it, and it certainly isn’t a job that anyone should have to do.
Something Daniel Soar doesn't touch on is, does the Big Issue pay the people who appear in it the same sort of money as other papers pay? I ask because I've wondered in the past whether the likes of Julie Burchill who are published in the Big Issue contribute not for cash but for the good feeling of knowing you're indirectly helping the homeless earn a few quid. Or do they appear there on just the same basis as in any of the other publications they grace – if that's the right word in Burchill's case?