Vol. 27 No. 3 · 3 February 2005

Search by issue:

The Usual Suspects

Stephen Sedley underestimates the shift in evidentiary standards that may follow the creation of a national DNA database (LRB, 20 January). DNA evidence possesses enormous power as a corroborative instrument, but is less reliable when used as the sole basis to identify suspects. The larger and more comprehensive the DNA database, the less reliable the evidence, as the number of accidental matches increases correspondingly. There will be a greater likelihood of miscarriages of justice, especially since juries will treat DNA evidence with great reverence. There is a significant risk that, with a national database in place, serious, expensive and difficult detective work will be avoided in favour of merely rounding up database matches and grilling suspects, with a consequently disastrous reduction in the standards of proof.

Thomas Davies
Guildford, Surrey

Was Will a papist?

In judging the document supposedly discovered in the roof space of Shakespeare’s father’s house in Henley Street in 1757 ‘too good to be true’, Colin Burrow joins the ranks of those who reject the notion of Shakespeare’s Catholicism (LRB, 20 January). I do not claim that Shakespeare was a papist. On the contrary, his religion, along with much else about the man rather than his work, remains inaccessible; but the adherence of John Shakespeare to the faith is hardly in doubt. Take the piece of paper discovered in 1757. It was not a ‘will’ in the ordinary sense, but a copy of St Charles Borromeo’s ‘Last Will of the Soul’, to which John’s subscription declared him to be ‘an unworthy member of the Holy Catholik religion’. Malone, who transcribed the document at the time, may later have had doubts about its authenticity, but he need not have worried. In 1923 a Spanish version of Borromeo’s testament printed in Mexico City in 1661 was discovered by the Jesuit scholar Herbert Thurston; and in 1966 an English edition of 1638 was found, closely resembling Malone’s text. Neither Malone nor his informant John Jordan, who was certainly capable of forgery, could have known about these authentic copies of the Borromeo text. And we know that Campion and Parsons asked for thousands of copies of it to be distributed in England. Sammy Schoenbaum, who provided most of the facts, had his own reservations as to the value of the Borromeo text as evidence of John Shakespeare’s Catholicism. I am not so cautious.

Patrick Collinson
Trinity College, Cambridge

Chemistry Lesson

Tim Flannery says that carbon dioxide gas is ‘three times as voluminous as the coal burned’ (LRB, 6 January). As a good approximation coal may be considered to be carbon. A mole of carbon has a mass of 12.011 g and, since its density is 1.8 g/cm3, a mole of carbon has a volume of 6.67 cm3. On the other hand, a mole of CO2 (or a mole of any gas at standard temperature and pressure) has a volume of 22,400 cm3. So the gas is more like three thousand times as voluminous as the solid.

Bernard Liengme
St Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Canada

Pursued by Bearists

Despite Helen Cooper’s understandable caution about performing bears (Letters, 6 January), there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that polar bear cubs taken away from their mother before they are weaned (as these bears certainly were) can be successfully and safely reared by humans, until they mature aged about four. Richard Davids’s Lords of the Arctic: A Journey among the Polar Bears (1982) offers many such stories, both reported and first-hand. Cubs are very friendly: Davids and his crew rescued one which had been detached from its mother and it ‘pressed against us, purring in a rough kind of chuckle. The pilot he liked especially and curled round his neck while we searched for the missing mother.’ That bear cubs bond readily with humans makes Cooper’s imagined fraught backstage less plausible.

It is unlikely that King James ‘lent’ his possessions for use in the public theatres. I suspect that the cubs (which belonged to the king and were kept in the Tower menagerie, not in Henslowe’s bear-garden) were used only in the court performances of the revamped Mucedorus, The Winter’s Tale and Oberon, all of which probably took place between February 1610 and February 1611. The bear cubs were born in November or December in either 1607 or 1608, and so had not yet reached ‘bear puberty’.

I also take issue with the notion that these bears needed to be trained to perform. Only people need comic timing. Stage animals make us laugh when they get something ‘wrong’, or when human actors exploit their comic potential. Andrew Gurr has noted that ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ is, uncoincidentally, the moment in The Winter’s Tale when tragedy turns to comedy. The white bear scenes in Mucedorus are pure comedy. I would argue that the cubs’ comic function is performed by their appearing at all, not by any specific behaviour.

Finally, in the additions to the 1610 Mucedorus, Mouse carefully exits backwards, keeping a close eye on the direction in which he last saw the white bear, only to reverse into it. Surely this is possible only if there are two white bears? The manoeuvre is a deliberate surprise for the audience as well as for Mouse, and it is a joke prompted by there really being two white bears in theatrical circles in 1610. Cooper admits that the increase in stage-bear activity might be a response to the cubs, but how much better an explanation would be their actual involvement.

Teresa Grant
University of Warwick

If Alan Bennett . . .

Alan Bennett may be right about the surprise of many inhabitants of the Lune Valley at the suppression of Cockersands Abbey, and thus at the end to supplies of fresh fish, but the date of surrender was 1539, not 1536 (LRB, 6 January). Henry VIII’s commissioners, visiting the abbey in 1536 under the mandate of the Act of Suppression, found that the abbey’s income totalled £366 4s 1d – well over the £200 determined by the crown as the benchmark for a functioning abbey. They also reported the church and monastic buildings as being largely in good repair. Moreover, most of the 22 monks, aged between 29 and 60, petitioned to remain in the religious life. When the end came three years later, therefore, in the case of Cockersands at least, it wasn’t the mercy killing of a dying beast that some traditional views of the Dissolution suggest. Cockersands was founded in 1184 by a hermit on the beach near the Lune Estuary, and the last remaining abbey building, the octagonal chapter-house, which survives on a local farm, can be visited from the Lancashire Coastal Path. Because it was a Premonstratensian, not a Benedictine monastery, the monks had a pastoral role in the local community as well as a contemplative one within the cloister.

Andrew Jotischky

Alan Bennett, taking his tour around Burford church in Oxfordshire last October, must not have noticed the signatures of the Levellers who were briefly imprisoned in the church in 1649 after Cromwell had crushed their mutiny, and who scratched their names in the lead of the font while waiting to be shot outside the church door in the morning.

Christopher Small
Isle of Lismore, Argyll

Alan Bennett wishes there were a register of war memorials in this country. The UK National Inventory of War Memorials was established in 1989 and is an ongoing project to compile a comprehensive record of war memorials of all kinds. It currently has records for 50,000 of the estimated 54,000 memorials. The information in the inventory can be accessed by contacting the Imperial War Museum. It is intended to create online access, when funds permit.

Nick Chapple
London SE24

If Alan Bennett finds himself at Stokesay again, he should have another look at the war memorial in the churchyard: the side against the hedge has a list of the names of men who returned alive to the parish from World War One. I’ve never noticed a list of returnees on any memorial elsewhere.

Virginia Warren

More work! Less pay!

Enrico Berlinguer’s 1977 ‘austerity’ programme was not simply a matter of resisting a rising tide of consumerism, as Federico Varese has it (LRB, 6 January). The austerità that Berlinguer and the union leader Luciano Lama urged on Italian Communists combined a wage freeze with a ‘war on waste’ – ‘waste’ specifically included absenteeism, wildcat industrial action and university occupations. Berlinguer and Lama’s principal targets were not apathetic consumers but unruly activists.

In the previous five years, Autonomist Marxists and other radical social movements had carved out a space to the left of the Communist Party, mobilising around slogans such as ‘More pay! Less work!’ With the simultaneous emergence of the youth-based ‘movement of 1977’ and the doctrine of ‘austerity’, this cycle of contention reached its peak. In one emblematic confrontation, Lama was surrounded by demonstrators derisively chanting ‘More work! Less pay!’ The Communist response was marked by intransigent brutality, verbal and on occasion physical. The Party leadership denounced their radical opponents as Fascists, asked for a crackdown by the state and demanded that all waverers rally to the defence of Italian democracy.

The PCI’s scorched-earth tactics brought the cycle of contention to a halt, at the cost of widespread political demobilisation and disenchantment: the Party’s membership fell every year from 1977 until its dissolution in 1991. Despite his communitarian rhetoric, Berlinguer’s actions indirectly fostered the individualistic consumerism of the 1980s – and ultimately the ascent of Berlusconi.

Phil Edwards
University of Manchester

With a Smile

I was prompted by Frank Kermode’s piece on The Merchant of Venice (LRB, 6 January) to look out André Gide’s comments on the play in his journal. In his entry for 30 June 1923, he writes of the ‘frightful injustice that is smilingly imposed’ on Shylock:

If Shakespeare were animated by Christian sentiments, what a fine occasion to show them here! But no, Portia’s clemency does not for a moment become that of the Gospels, and it is by no means in the name of Christ that the Duke sets up a doctrine of forgiveness in opposition to the Jew’s legitimate and fierce intransigence. His daughter and his fortune are taken from him; never for an instant is it admitted that the feeling of his legitimate right is confused with his desire for revenge. He is now ruined, deserted, flouted; and they want to force him to become a Christian!

Sylvia Elias
London SW3

They booed

Neal Ascherson sees a connection between the Ukrainian orange revolution of 2004 and the Paris revolution of 1848 (LRB, 6 January). Attending the gala performance of Taras Bulba that opened the autumn season at the Kiev opera house last September, I was reminded that the Belgian revolution of 1830 began in the opera house in Brussels. The audience in Kiev clapped enthusiastically as bouquets were presented at the end of a lusty performance of Gogol’s tale of Zaporogian Cossacks giving 17th-century Polish occupying forces a bloody nose. A young woman staggered on with a bouquet in a basket so large it had to be placed on the stage, rather than in the hands of a soloist, and a voice announced that the bouquet was from the prime minister, Viktor Fedorovich Yanukovich. The clapping stopped abruptly, there was some booing, the performers looked awkward and pointedly avoided the offending bouquet.

Andrew Sheppard

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences