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Vol. 25 No. 3 · 6 February 2003

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After Ecstasy

Dave Haslam (LRB, 23 January) is wide of the mark in his account of how Ecstasy produces its effect. Psychotropic drugs work by stimulating the post-synaptic receptors. This can be achieved in two ways: by stimulating the receptors directly or by increasing the level of the brain transmitter which naturally carries out that task. Ecstasy does it the second way, by bursting the vesicles containing serotonin and dopamine in the pre-synaptic neurones, making them active in large amounts in the synapse and producing the sought after rush.

So far, so good. However, as the Ecstasy wears off, and the serotonin and dopamine are reabsorbed into the neurones and broken down, the neurones themselves undergo a change: a pruning of some of the dendrites that connect each neurone to thousands of others. The cumulative effect of this damage is a feeling that the high is not as good as it used to be; any attempt to chase it will be counter-productive, since further micro-damage will ensue.

Nick Davis

Dave Haslam doubts whether it’s possible to appreciate Frank Zappa ‘without a brain half fried on LSD’: an odd example to choose, as Zappa himself famously used only coffee and cigarettes. He took a libertarian line on drug supply, but had rather stern views on consumption.

Graham Kemp
University of Liverpool

How shall we speak of the monarchy?

Time’s whirligig; escaped the chop; golden boy; knocked the gilt off; drama queen; the finger pointed; jam-rag; busted; rehab bin; drastic pruning; public purse; earning a crust; drum up business; sounded off: I hardly expected to read so many tiresome figures of speech in a single issue of the London Review of Books. Yet there they were, all of them, in a single column of Glen Newey’s article (LRB, 23 January). It was supposed to be about ‘the Royal Family’s latest annus horribilis’. Instead, like the worst examples of its genre, it set about recycling, in tabloidese, all their misfortunes and mistakes since well before the previous one. Its thesis appears to be that the monarchy does not deserve to survive if the House of Windsor cannot earn the necessary respect. This is quite clear to most people without having their noses rubbed in a jam-rag.

Martin Blyth
Poole, Dorset

I read Glen Newey’s piece on the Royal Family just after the letters about Wallace Robson in the same issue, and the one topic cast light on the other. As I remember, Robson was a less interesting and sympathetic tutor than his number two at Lincoln College, Denis Burden. But when ‘Robby’ gave a course of lectures on the English critics, we flocked to them and told each other how good they were. We loved Robson because he was ours. The college cat, a lethargic animal, was called Wally in his honour.

Similarly with the monarchy. Most British people like it most of the time because we have grown up with it. It is ours. It is part of our constitution, in more senses than one. We have rejected other things which we have grown up with. Will we reject this one as well? When we decide, we will be entitled to consult our history, habits and prejudices as well as ‘democratic ideals of political and civic equality’.

What would Robson have made of Newey’s article? I think he might have criticised it as ‘insincere’, not in its underlying anger but in its choice of weapons. Newey can’t possibly believe that he is making a valid criticism of the monarchy when he alludes to the Royal Family’s German origins.

Anthony Buckley

Is deference still with us?

A passing allusion to Wallace Robson in my review of Humphrey Carpenter’s Angry Young Men (LRB, 28 November 2002) has caused some readers to remember him with resentment and some with admiration. I feel uneasy about my original remark because I didn’t make it clear that I was reporting an AYM view rather than my own. I was friendly with Robson for almost forty years and never doubted that he was a learned and gifted if not very productive critic. Had I been writing primarily about him I could have added anecdotes of his often weirdly unexpected but usually pleasant ways of talking. He did sometimes express amazement that some of the great canonical books (The Faerie Queene comes to mind) were taken seriously; this was part of his conversational charm. But you could be sure that he knew those books and could speak differently of them on a proper occasion. Bernard Bergonzi (Letters, 23 January) gets him about right. I remember him saying of Barthes’s Le Plaisir du texte that an interest in that kind of criticism marked the difference between professionals and amateurs, and firmly associating himself with the latter. He meant that he was an old-style man of letters, a profession that does not proscribe oddity and yet remains a serious occupation. He once wrote that the duty of the university teacher of English was to ‘bring the student up against a recalcitrance in his subject-matter’; and that was what he tried to do. Evidently some liked the experience, and some did not.

Frank Kermode

All the Horses in Germany

Primo Levi did not, as Neal Ascherson writes, ‘watch camels towing yellow Berlin buses across the Ural steppe into Asia’ (LRB, 28 November 2002). In The Truce, Levi describes watching, from a camp just south of Minsk, part of the Red Army’s return home by road in the summer of 1945. The flow of disparate motor vehicles and soldiers on foot, many of them shoeless, was gradually replaced by horses of all kinds, ‘all the horses in Germany’, it seemed, driven along by a few girls riding bareback. Levi counted tens of thousands of horses a day, some of them pulling buses with their local Berlin destinations still on them. Other Berlin buses were still going under their own power. Levi and his Italian companions intercepted and ate a few of the horses, without objection from the Russians. Later, on his own way home, he saw a ‘worn out, grey and woolly’ camel at a level crossing in Moldavia, not pulling a bus but loaded with sacks.

Levi also says, in relation to an earlier glimpse of the Red Army repatriating by rail through Poland, that the Army was ‘restless and colourful as travelling acrobats’, whence perhaps Ascherson’s ‘the transport columns looked like circus caravans’; but first, and in the same breath, he says that the ‘extraordinary spectacle of the Red Army going home’ was ‘solemn and choral as a Biblical migration’.

Peter Robb

Barred frae the Pantheon

Arnold Rattenbury mentions that Hamish Henderson was reported to have been appalled ‘that the American singer Pete Seeger, attracted by both tune and strangeness of language, had sung his “Freedom Come All Ye" at Carnegie Hall without understanding what the words meant’ (LRB, 23 January). The next paragraph quotes another ‘work’ of Henderson’s, used in anti-apartheid campaigning, sung by packed crowds welcoming Mandela to Edinburgh:

They have sentenced the men of Rivonia
Rumbala rumbala rumba la
The comrades of Nelson Mandela
Rumbala rumbala rumba la
He is buried alive on an island
Free Mandela Free Mandela

I wasn’t in Edinburgh on that occasion, but as a child in the US in the early 1940s I was present to hear Pete Seeger performing this rousing song of the International Brigade fighting in the Spanish Civil War:

Viva la Quince Brigada
Rumbala rumbala rumba la
Viva la Quince Brigada
Rumbala rumbala rumba la
Que se ha cubierta de gloria
Ay Manuela ay Manuela

It appears that Henderson was being somewhat less than charitable.

Frank Dux

Arnold Rattenbury’s quotation from Hamish Henderson beginning ‘My aim is to write a long, unified, connected poem’ was first published in the Edinburgh-based magazine Chapman in 1968. In that piece (which forms the preface to his partially completed poem sequence ‘Freedom Becomes People’) Henderson highlights what he sees as ‘the murderous alienation of the poet in contemporary society’. This is one of the reasons he went to folk-song for inspiration, to connect with the people, although, as Rattenbury rightly states, this strategy was firmly grounded in a solid classical foundation. What is ironic is that this great modern Scottish poet, the author of some of the finest poems of the Second World War and of the monumental lyric ‘Roch the wind in the clear day’s dawin’ should not be included in, for example, Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah’s New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (2000). Henderson did not wear his Marxism lightly, and neither did his compatriot Tom Scott (the editor of the previous Penguin Book of Scottish Verse), and both are penalised, it seems, by their omission from that influential anthology (it must be said that both do appear in Douglas Dunn’s Faber Book of 20th-Century Scottish Poetry, 1992). This fact surely furthers Henderson’s claim about the poet’s ‘murderous alienation’, even among his own kind, though it could be said, I suppose, that ‘Barred frae the company o the Pantheon’ as he micht be, he’d be happy enough in the bothie or pub being sung aa nicht.

W.S. Milne
Esher, Surrey

The Decline of Bullshit

Reading Stefan Collini’s analysis of Christopher Hitchens’s journalism (LRB, 23 January), I began to ask myself what exactly the ‘bullshit’ is that Hitchens and others are so good at spotting. I grew up supposing that ‘bullshit’ meant the same as ‘humbug’, but that doesn’t appear to be what it means to the dedicatee of Hitchens’s book, Robert Conquest, described by Hitchens as ‘founder of the “universal front against bullshit"’. If the bullshit Conquest was against included, to use one example, Stalinism, it would seem odd to think of Stalinism in terms of humbug. It would be a shame if bullshit were to become a merely dismissive term no different from ‘nonsense’.

Margery Rowe

Stefan Collini’s reference to Christopher Hitchens view-hallooing his quarry like a huntsman reminded me of an incident which took place in the early 1960s at a prep school called Mount House, on the edge of Dartmoor. I was an assistant English master there; two of the pupils were Christopher and Peter Hitchens. One winter’s day, my English class were reciting Masefield’s ‘Reynard the Fox’. Quite suddenly, we heard the sound of a huntsman’s horn, close by: the Dartmoor Hunt were riding through the school drive and the sports fields in pursuit of the inedible. We abandoned the poetry to watch the real thing. I recall Christopher as a Puckish character, questioning, quick-witted, with literary talents beyond his years. His English master, C.P. Witherington, used to read me excerpts from his pupil’s prose with classic English understatement: ‘Not bad, eh!’ Peter like his more buoyant elder brother was exceptionally gifted, but shy, a little lugubrious and something of a loner.

John Harding

Blind Spot

D.D. Guttenplan speaks of ‘Paula Fox’s return from the dustbin of publishing history’ (LRB, 12 December 2002). Is her story to be told in this way simply because her major literary achievements happen to have been in an area which is a blind spot for most critics? Her novels for young readers have won the Newbery Medal, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and the highest international accolade, the Hans Christian Andersen Medal.

Emer O’Sullivan
Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt

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