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Letters

Vol. 26 No. 1 · 8 January 2004

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Something in the Tea

E.S. Turner wonders whether bromides were really administered to soldiers during the war (Letters, 18 December 2003). A National Service aircraftsman second class, I was posted to RAF Yeadon in 1949, and given the job of catering clerk. Soon after my arrival, the catering officer went on an advanced catering course, and never returned. I spent the rest of my service in sole charge of catering for the camp (120 officers and men): ordering the rations, writing the menus, travelling to York each week with a driver to collect the rations, distributing them to the three messes, and keeping the accounts. At my demob, a wing commander flew down from Accounts at York to say that there had been an investigation into how I’d managed to overspend by £2000. Had I had been an officer, he said, I would have been court-martialled. As I was ‘misemployed’, however (an AC2 carrying out a warrant officer’s duties), there was nothing to be done. During my service, on specific days but at wide intervals, I was told by the cooks that bromide was to be put in the tea. Sure enough, on those days the tea tasted disgustingly bitter, and everyone threw it away. But bromide never appeared on the rations lists. I never ordered any, I never knew (or thought to ask) where the supplies came from; and I never actually saw the cooks putting it in the tea.

Leo Baxendale
Stroud, Gloucestershire

The New Piracy

Readers of thrillers will already have been aware of the ‘new piracy’ described by Charles Glass (LRB, 18 December 2003). James Hall’s Off the Chart and Reg Gadney’s The Scholar of Extortion both suggested that not only the Malacca Straits and the Far East generally are at threat from piracy: it is a danger in the Caribbean and along the northern coasts of South America. As shipping continues to provide a large part of Britain’s invisible earnings, I wonder what effect Geoff Hoon’s recently announced Naval cuts will have on the struggle against pirates.

L.J. Hurst
Derby

Down with Publishers

Thomas Jones considers the presence of uncorrected scanner errors in the Vintage edition of Henry Green’s Loving ‘extraordinary’ (LRB, 4 December 2003). Not so extraordinary, I’m afraid. In the 1997 Dent Everyman edition of Trollope’s Phineas Finn, one finds: ‘fail’ instead of ‘fall’; ‘Phineas was very ill able to conceal his thoughts and were his heart almost upon his sleeve’; ‘I can’t cat lunch’; ‘The charge against him … rang in his cars’; ‘Madamo’ for ‘Madame’; ‘primo geniture’; ‘Snall House’; and, most remarkable, ‘Lady Glencora rose from her scat.’

Ross Arthur
Cambridge, Ontario

Thomas Jones has it that De Gaulle’s emergency blood supply was stored in the squash court because Macmillan didn’t have a refrigerator. My recollection is that it was stored there because, as Macmillan said in an interview some time afterwards, ‘the refrigerator was full of haddocks.’

Alex Dillon
Comrie, Perthshire

Lovely Iris

Can I have been the only Murdochian who gave a whoop of delight (and recognition) at reading John Jones’s Diary (LRB, 18 December 2003)? For here was the missing link, writ large. One could read the whole piece as a supplement to, a missing chapter of, any of Iris’s novels. Her stories give us indistinct, often blurry, clues as to the precise provenance of her heroes and villains, her posturers, her intellectuals, her sociopaths, but after 1970 and A Fairly Honourable Defeat the severity of many of her characters’ philosophical pursuits and opinions offered no doubt that their origins, in some cases their whole personas, were inspired by fellow Oxford dons. With her death, far from being robbed of our annual feast, that seasonal Murdoch novel we would have paid five times the cover price to devour within a week of its publication, we have had her husband’s various published revelations, a movie, Peter Conradi’s stunning biography, A.N. Wilson’s memoir (which gave John Jones ‘a warm glow’ but filled me with disgust). It is John Jones, however, who, with his words as much as with his faded photographs (did the Box Brownie have delayed shutter release or was there a third person on hand to snap away?), has finally given us what even the archivally omnivorous Conradi and the sneeringly matey Wilson could not: Iris’s muse! To learn that Iris and John Jones shouted philosophical phrases at one another as they toured the countryside on the latter’s postwar motorbike (forever the pillion passenger where men were concerned, lovely Iris, yet always in control once Elias Canetti was dead); to discover how Plato, Kant and Hegel were tossed around (much like us normal mortals employ family gossip); and to be made aware of John Jones’s utter modesty and goodness, and his flirtation with fringe Christianity, is to realise that he was far more than, as Conradi has it (writing of him with his wife, Jean), ‘one model … for the kindly, hospitable, ambiguous host-and-hostess figures who dominate Iris’s novels of the 1960s and 1970s’: he was the man who appears in all early works in nebulous priestly or pedagogic guise and in her later ones philosophically but is absent in any of these inspiring roles from all the biographical insights thus far published. It is a tribute to his overwhelming virtuousness that he has been, until now, barely visible. I hope I live long enough to read his published letters, his collected poems, the biography, and to see his statue erected in Trafalgar Square.

Malcolm Gluck
London NW3

Keep off the heroin

Perhaps Terry Castle should take Ben Ratliff's scepticism about Art Pepper's account of the recording of Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section more seriously (LRB, 18 December 2003). The liner notes to the album state that he hadn't played for a few weeks not half a year and of course the three members of the rhythm section, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, were all heroin users themselves. This addiction did not prevent these talented jazz musicians from producing beautifully imaginative and melodic reinventions of popular show tunes and jazz standards. However, none of them was able to lead a jazz group for any length of time or to produce a complete musical vision such as A Love Supreme or Kind of Blue, both the work of musicians who had left their own heroin addictions behind some years earlier.

Dewi Jones
Halifax

Cosmopolitan Cobbett

Linda Colley isn’t entirely wrong when she says that the William Cobbett memorialised by Raymond Williams was a domestic and insular Little Englander (LRB, 20 November 2003). Her argument becomes more tendentious when it tries to situate Williams as part of ‘a succession of socialist expositors’ who have obscured the international dimension of Cobbett’s life and thought. Writing in the New Reasoner in 1959, Victor Kiernan observed that ‘Cobbett’s “good old days" owed much of their flesh and blood, or corroborative detail, to the living world of equalitarian wellbeing that he found in America’ (a point echoed by Colley in her article). Kiernan’s comment was made as part of a sharp critique of Williams’s Culture and Society, mounted on firmly socialist grounds.

Gautam Premnath
Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts

When they were merry

No, no, no, Mr Berry, you don’t call a Nama a Hottentot (LRB, 4 December 2003). That was in the near past when such words were used in a derogatory manner to describe any person with black skin. According to Noël Mostert’s Frontiers (1992), the word was coined by sailors and visitors passing the Cape in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was a ‘European phoneticism of the sound the Khoikhoi made when dancing in the new moon’. Mostert quotes Johann Jakob Merklein, writing in 1653: ‘When they are merry they leap up and down and continually sing the word Hottentot.’

Mieke Gordon
Glencairn Heights, South Africa

The Stuff that Sticks

Having been brought up in a Viennese household in London, I found much in Thomas Laqueur’s Diary familiar, from the Latin tags to the Götz quotation (LRB, 4 December 2003). But he didn’t mention one problem that can result from being a linguistic expatriate: it is dangerous to base your entire knowledge of a language on your own family’s idiosyncratic usage. I was already in my fifties when I was politely informed – after I had given a formal address at an international conference – that the word I learned from my father to apply to the stuff that sticks to your boots when you cross a ploughed field, Kot, doesn’t mean ‘mud’, as I had believed, but ‘shit’.

Paul Kriwaczek
London NW11

We neglected to mention that Thomas Laqueur has written about his relationship with the German language in a collection of essays edited by Wendy Lesser and entitled The Genius of Language, to be published by Pantheon in the summer.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Fausta and Donato

Two years ago an Italian couple came from Bologna to stay with us, Donato, reluctantly, to teach Italian in Glasgow’s East End, Fausta to lend some backbone. The job proved difficult, and come April, Donato had counted only three days of sunshine. One morning, seeing her husband moving with little enthusiasm through breakfast, Fausta announced: ‘Mattina, m'illumino d'immenso.’ Donato’s reply was: ‘Mattina, mi girano i marroni.’ You could translate this as ‘Of a morning my conkers rotate,’ though it lacks what Matthew Reynolds calls ‘extreme subtlety of nuance’ (LRB, 4 December 2003).

Bill Guariento
Glasgow

Furphy

The surname of John Furphy, manufacturer of water-carts in Shepparton, was first used as a synonym for ‘rumour’ in the Australian Army camp at Broadmeadows, outside Melbourne, in September or October 1914 (Letters, 18 December 2003). Rumour was rife among the soldiers when the embarkation of the Australian Imperial Force to fight in World War One was suddenly postponed, and transports that had already sailed from Queensland were held at Melbourne. Press censorship prevented any public explanation of the cause of the delay – fear of German battleships in the Indian Ocean. ‘Furphy’ indicated the location from which the rumours came: either from the drivers of the carts or from soldiers gathered around to collect water. John Furphy had so successfully branded his product – ‘Furphy’ appeared in large block capitals on the side of the tank, and the cast-iron ends bore details of the firm and its products, as well as the improving text ‘Good better best/Never let it rest/Till your good is better/And your better best’ – that all water-carts tended to be known as ‘Furphies’, at least in Victoria. (Later generations added their own messages, the last being ‘Towards an Australian Republic’.)

John Barnes
La Trobe University, Melbourne

First Fuck

Leofranc Holford-Strevens claims that fuck was ‘kept out of not only the OED but all other general dictionaries until Burchfield’s A-G volume of 1972’ (LRB, 20 November 2003). The Penguin Dictionary of English, compiled by G.N. Garmonsway with Jacqueline Simpson, and first published in 1965, cites the word as ‘v/t and i (vulg) (of males) have sexual intercourse (with)’.

Geoffrey Ridley Barrow
Purdue University, Indiana

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