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Letters

Vol. 28 No. 15 · 3 August 2006

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Self-Righteous Editors

I was sorry that Jeremy Waldron couldn’t find room in his review of John Durham Peters’s book on free speech (LRB, 20 July) to refer to the recent case of the Danish cartoons, though he may have been fortunate enough, living in the US as he does, not to have had to endure all the liberal posturing that went on as the rights and wrongs of the decision to print the offensive items in question were debated ad nauseam. It wasn’t much fun having to read or listen to self-righteous newspaper editors or press commentators elevating the principle of free speech to such an altitude that it seemed to mean someone such as themselves being free to say or to publish whatever they liked wherever they liked whenever they liked. And then, to make things worse, claiming that the exercise of that right was somehow courageous, as if they were all 21st-century Voltaires living under an absolute monarchy. (I’m delighted finally to learn via Waldron that Voltaire probably never said what he’s said to have said about being prepared to die in defence of someone else’s right to speak freely: I can now think better of Voltaire for never having said it.) The free speech issue, so quickly and glibly politicised as it invariably is, is seldom discussed with any sense of context at all, as though it trumped all pragmatic considerations of the effect that the failure to acknowledge any limits to it might well have. Newspaper editors seem to operate as though we all live in societies so unfairly repressive that speaking out freely is not just a right but a duty. They are quite wrong.

Penny Larsgaard
London NW3

Thrillingly New

In his review of my biography of John Osborne, David Edgar claims that I pay ‘hardly any attention’ to the causes of change in the theatre of the 1950s other than the Royal Court and Look Back in Anger (LRB, 20 July). He has overlooked the chapter ‘Context Is All’, in which I discuss all the playwrights he mentions. He also complains that I didn’t address the ‘major argument’ that ‘Samuel Beckett’s plays changed the vocabulary of theatre, while Osborne’s play is formally, surprisingly conservative,’ although I point out that ‘compared to Beckett’, Osborne ‘was a traditionalist’. More important, Edgar says that I fail to stress the radical ‘emotional intensity’ that Osborne brought to the stage, the ‘vitality’ of his language or even that Look Back in Anger ‘found a new audience’, although I wrote that

what made Look Back thrillingly new among the plays of the 20th century is that in the blazing heat and vitality of its language, in its unstoppable grievance and need, it spoke directly to England. It was the first British play that openly dramatised bruising emotion and it was the first to give the alienated lower classes and youth of England a weapon. The immensity of feeling and class hatred that Osborne poured into its traditional form were a shock to the entire system and made history.

John Heilpern
New York

Sociabilité

Benedetta Craveri says that I accuse her of an ignorance of basic social history, and that I failed to read her footnotes (Letters, 6 July). In fact, in my review I paid tribute to her ‘serious research’. What I claimed, and stand by, is that her book ends up resembling traditional fables about the French nobility despite this research. I did not, as she seems to think, argue that her book adheres to the fables in every particular; had it done so, it would hardly have been worth reviewing. As to the word salon, the point is not that Craveri knows it came into common usage only after 1794 (I did not deny that she knows this), but that she does not take this fact seriously. Curiously, Craveri tries to deflect my criticism of her prose style by insisting that one of the several passages I cited as illustration is nothing but a ‘paraphrase’ of Emile Magne. Happy as I am to learn that she now wishes to disclaim the passage in question, it is not, contrary to what she says in her letter, at all an obvious paraphrase. Nor does she seem entirely aware that ‘paraphrase’ means to render something in one’s own words.

David A. Bell
Baltimore, Maryland

Don’t you mean Mary?

I suppose it is too much to hope that when he included ‘Sidney’ in his list of translators of the Psalms, Ian Sansom meant Mary Sidney (LRB, 6 July)? She translated the last 107 of the Psalms; her brother Philip Sidney translated the first 43. The credit due to Mary has been scanted ever since: in 1606, Sir John Harington expressed his belief that she must have relied on the superior knowledge of the chaplain of her husband, the Earl of Pembroke, to compose her verse translations, ‘for it was more than a woman’s skill to expresse the sence so right as she hath done in her vearse’.

It is always assumed that Philip just happened to have translated 43 of the 150 Psalms before he died, and that Mary then completed his work. It is true that she implies as much in a dedicatory poem to her brother. But the numerology suggests something different. The dedicatory poem, ‘To the Angell spirit of the most excellent Sir Phillip Sidney’, brings the number of poems by Mary up to 108, a mystical number for the Sidney coterie: it is for instance the number of sonnets in Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella. Mary’s Psalms are her own sonnet sequence, addressed not only to God, but to her Brother.

Penny McCarthy
London SE3

Not New Zealand

I must take issue with Rashid Khalidi’s inclusion of New Zealand in his list of nation-states with colonial settler origins that treat their indigenous people as second-class citizens and subject them to ethnic cleansing, discrimination and massive land loss (LRB, 6 July). This was certainly the case until the 1970s, but over the last three decades there has been a remarkable change in New Zealand’s political culture. Maori have moved from the margins of society to its mainstream, and a massive programme of reparations has been set in train. We have a long way to go, and there has been a nasty backlash as opposition politicians have tried to capitalise on resentment about the changes among the pakeha majority, but anyone who has not been here for thirty years would find themselves in a very different place.

Tony Simpson
Wellington, New Zealand

Made in Scotland

‘There is also a faint possibility that the bicycle originated in Scotland,’ Graham Robb writes (LRB, 6 July). Robb is unduly dismissive of Kirkpatrick MacMillan’s claim to have invented the bicycle in 1839: he doesn’t even mention his name, or tell how he came to fame by riding his invention the 68 miles from his home in Dumfriesshire to Glasgow in June 1842.

Stewart Buchanan
Glasgow

A Run on the Lira

An elderly woman who knew Lee Miller in prewar Cairo once told me a story about Miller’s exploits there which isn’t mentioned by Anne Hollander (LRB, 20 July). The Italians were beginning to ‘make a nuisance of themselves in Abyssinia’ and one afternoon Miller suggested that the two women take a walk while she went to ‘do her duty’. They made their way through the bustle to the Italian bank, an imposing building with brass steps, which was by that time shut. Miller climbed the steps, squatted, and pissed on the brass steps, which ran green. They then returned home.

Ian Hennessey
Honiton, Devon

What happened to Labour?

I was appalled to read W.G. Runciman’s analysis of what has happened to the Labour Party since 1945 – not because of his interesting historical assessment but because of the conclusion he draws from it (LRB, 22 June). He is correct that the Labour Party was never a socialist or Marxist party, but his argument that a fundamental change of attitude in the British electorate brought about by growing affluence during the second half of the 20th century has shunted a commitment to fairness and greater equality off the political agenda is a flawed apologia for New Labour. New Labour’s meek submission to the selfish attitudes so encouraged by Thatcherism make an alternative political programme harder to promote now, but the collapse of democratic-socialist aspirations was not inevitable. As Runciman himself says, ‘affluence didn’t, after all, overwhelm the social-democratic ethos of egalitarian and bureaucratic but also prosperous Sweden.’ Even within its social-democratic traditions there are many ways the Labour Party could still free itself from the shackles of New Labourism, distinguish itself from the Conservative Party and win a general election. Of course it would have to protect the affluence to which British society has become accustomed, but ‘fairness’ rather than the divisive and fallacious notion of ‘choice’ should be the basis of its political philosophy and policies.

Roger Fieldhouse
Exeter, Devon

Planet Wal-Mart

As a pickleholic who lived for a while in the United States I cannot agree with John Lanchester that most of a Wal-Mart gallon jar of pickles would be certain to go mouldy before it could be eaten (LRB, 22 June). An American gallon is much smaller than a British one, equivalent to 6.4 imperial pints. It’s still a big jar, but in US homes there’s usually plenty of room in the fridge, where, as all pickleholics know, pickled cucumbers should be kept. They will not go mouldy if one always uses a stainless steel tool to take them out: never, never fingers. The oldest piece of stainless steel cutlery I own is my parents’ pickle fork. I buy my pickles at Lidl at a very low price for the largest available jar. I would gladly purchase a larger one – even a gallon jar – for keeping in the fridge, possibly for dispensing into smaller, more convenient containers, using a perforated spoon for the transfer. The diluted vinegar in which the pickles are packed can be used in salad dressings.

Margaret Withers
Launceston, Cornwall

Jumping the Shark

Bill Grantham is taking the phrase ‘jumping the shark’ too literally (Letters, 20 July). While it does originate in the Happy Days episode in which the Fonz leaped over a shark on water-skis, the term is used, as Jenny Turner used it, to indicate the moment when a programme went suddenly downhill. Happy Days continued for another six seasons, as Grantham says, but the show jumped the shark the moment the Fonz did the same in the fifth season. Some feel it happened even earlier: voters at www.jumptheshark.com suggest things went wrong when a live studio audience was introduced in season three.

Phil Gyford
London EC2

Free Mrs Danvers!

Michael Wood says that, despite Hitchcock’s claims to the contrary, Mrs Danvers in his film version of Rebecca ‘does quite a lot of walking’, and ‘sweeps about the house in her long black dress’ (LRB, 20 July). But Judith Anderson, who played the part, backed Hitchcock’s account of Mrs Danvers’s immobility. She told me more than forty years ago that she had hated playing the part because her freedom of movement had been restricted. ‘In all my scenes Hitchcock made me stand just so on chalk marks.’ Still, Anderson’s portrayal of the jealous and obsessive Mrs Danvers created a flesh-and-blood obstacle to Maxim de Winter’s remarriage.

Jay Shir
Jerusalem

Bit Wrong

Thomas Jones writes that ‘the limitations of a 32K memory revealed themselves most bluntly in the fact that our computer couldn’t count any higher than 32,767’ (LRB, 22 June). The BBC micro used 32 bit integer variables, so it had no problems with numbers far larger than 32,767 and, in any event, that limitation would have had nothing to do with the amount of memory.

Andy Armstrong
Alston, Cumbria

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