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Letters

Vol. 30 No. 3 · 7 February 2008

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Good Thinking

Jenny Diski’s review of On Ugliness does not mention ugliness as a political issue (LRB, 24 January). Ireland almost conducted a national campaign against it. Erskine Childers, minister of health in the late 1960s, was obsessed by the hypothesis that ugly people were more likely to develop mental illness. He ordered his department to investigate. Research money would be found, he said, no expense would be spared. Civil servants dissuaded him with some difficulty: no objective criteria could be established to define ugliness (or beauty); a scientific study would be impossible. He reluctantly dropped the idea and went on to be president of Ireland.

Augustus Young
Port Vendres, France

Why not let him in!

The (Jewish) editor of the Tagebuch who published the article ‘Lasst ihn heran!’ (‘Why not let him in!’) which struck the young Eric Hobsbawm as ‘suicidal’ was Leopold Schwarzschild, the most brilliant, but now largely forgotten German journalist of the interwar period (LRB, 24 January). Under his leadership the Tagebuch, which was founded by my great-grandfather Stefan Grossmann in 1920, provided the most substantive analyses of the last years of the Weimar Republic. When it returned as the Neue Tagebuch in Paris in July 1933, it quickly established itself as the leading exile publication and reported authoritatively and consistently on the preparations for war that had begun almost immediately after Hitler’s assumption of power. Indeed, Schwarzschild warned in the first issue of the Neue Tagebuch that ‘“war" was the only area in which the National Socialist movement was completely clear and unambiguous’ and therefore a ‘gradual, but unstoppable descent into some form of violent conflagration’ was inevitable.

He had recommended letting Hitler in in the wake of the regional elections in Prussia in April 1932, in which the NSDAP gained a 36.3 per cent share of the vote, not after the general election three months later as Hobsbawm claims. His argument, based on the premise that the basic democratic institutions of the republic were still intact (an important qualification), was that Hitler would be neutralised if he had to share responsibility for German economic and foreign policy. By the time the general election in the summer produced a 37.3 per cent share for the NSDAP, Franz von Papen was in the middle of dismantling the last vestiges of the Weimar Republic, having already, in breach of the constitution, dismissed the Prussian government. In those conditions any coalition with Hitler was unthinkable for Schwarzschild. In a sense, Hitler’s fortunes had already peaked, as demonstrated by his humiliation by Hindenburg in August and the electoral defeat suffered by the NSDAP in November 1932. As Schwarzschild argued in February 1933, Hitler was already beaten when victory was presented to him.

Andreas Wesemann
London E8

No, we weren’t

I assume that it was an editorial decision rather than the reviewer’s to title Steven Mithen’s review of Daniel Lord Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain ‘When We Were Nicer’ (LRB, 24 January). There are good reasons to suppose that our hunting and foraging ancestors were ‘egalitarian’ in the sense that would-be dominant self-aggrandisers were held in check by joking, teasing, enforced sharing, vigilant monitoring, counter-dominant coalitions, and occasional assassinations. But that didn’t mean they were ‘nice’. Presumably some were and some weren’t, then as now. The difference is that sedentism and a sustainable sufficiency of food (fish will do as well as grain) made possible, as Mithen says, a return to primate-like social structures in which the nasty could get away with self-aggrandisement by means that the environment of hunting and foraging lifeways precludes.

W.G. Runciman
Trinity College, Cambridge

Video-Gaming

Andrew O’Hagan begins his attack on video games with a series of skirmishes with what he suggests are some of the most popular games of recent months: Halo 3, Assassin’s Creed and Eternal Forces (LRB, 24 January). The first two titles will be instantly recognisable to almost anyone who plays video games. The last, which he describes as ‘a game set in New York in which the Antichrist attempts to achieve world hegemony’, will not. A check on metacritic.com, which aggregates review scores from across the best-known gaming magazines and websites, reveals that Eternal Forces has received an average mark of 38 out of 100. This hardly bears out O’Hagan’s claim that the game ‘has proved popular with a generation trained – one way or another – in the mental rigours of holy war’. As for Halo 3 and Assassin’s Creed, it would be hard for a fair-minded critic to deny that both have at least some artistic merit: Assassin’s Creed in particular provides fascinating evocations of Jerusalem, Acre and Damascus at the time of the Crusades and its treatment of the Knights Templar and hidden artefacts is superior to The Da Vinci Code’s at least – though that might not be saying much.

George Poles
London N16

(Re-)Absorption

Max Zweig is mistaken in describing Irian Jaya as an island: it is, rather, the western part of the island of New Guinea (Letters, 3 January). The territory was formerly called Netherlands New Guinea, becoming West New Guinea when the Dutch finally relinquished their last colony in the East Indies and then going under the Indonesian name Irian Jaya. In response to pressures for greater autonomy, it is now more usually referred to as Papua or West Papua.

Second, it was not ‘conquered by Indonesia’s generals when Nixon was in power’, a phrase that connotes a military invasion between 1969 and 1974 (like the one intended to subjugate East Timor in 1975). While there has been a long demographic, cultural, political and occasionally bloody military campaign to ensure its domination by Indonesia, West Papua was never actually conquered. The UN handed control of the territory to Indonesia in 1962 and, even though the takeover was given dubious legitimacy by a referendum in 1969, the process of (re-)absorption was a fait accompli well before Nixon’s accession to the presidency.

Michael Goldsmith
Hamilton, New Zealand

Apropos Alan Bennett

I learned from Alan Bennett’s Diary of the great Reg Park’s death last November (LRB, 3 January). Also, that Park was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s inspiration. Mine too! Transplanted from Park’s home county of Yorkshire to South Africa as a child in the late 1940s, I remember watching with awe and pride a performance of the new Mr Universe on stage at the Playhouse cinema in Durban in 1951, where such high-culture events were rare. A mighty six foot two and almost eighteen stone, he bench-pressed a 450 pound barbell, to the applause of a full house (that of the women muffled, through their practice of keeping on their white gloves, worn, always, to the Bioscope). Intrigued that a half-starved postwar England could produce such a behemoth (South African men believed they had the world copyright on size), I pestered my father for a set of weights. A nine-stone youth not quite up to it as second choice outside-half in the college rugby junior XV, I needed the body that weight training seemed to promise.

Spotting an ad in an English tabloid for a muscle-building course offered by a ‘Holborn Academy under the direction of Professor Walsh’, I sent off my 10s 6d postal order together with my shaming measurements, and waited for the Union Castle mailboat to deliver the professor’s assessment of my potential, plus the first month’s set of exercises. I was promised a 17-inch neck, and other startling measurements in proportion. The professor could not have been overjoyed with my progress, reported monthly along with the postal order; and it was with a mixture of shock and guilt that I read after some months that a bodybuilder called Walsh had thrown himself under the wheels of a train at Liverpool Street Station. My overdone letter of condolence to the academy in due course brought a reply, poorly typed on cheap notepaper with a crudely inked-in black border, claiming the ‘professor’ had specifically urged that I be kept at the exercises to achieve the ambitious goals promised. But the weights were now leaden in my hands, and soon abandoned. I never made the 2nd XV.

Sean Gallagher
London W14

Double-Dipped

It’s odd reading a favourable review of a novel in the same pages as one reviewed it, favourably, a quarter of a century earlier. Is The Book of Ebenezer Le Page (LRB, 24 January), as I suspect, the first to be double dipped in the LRB? If so, it shouldn’t be the last.

John Sutherland
London NW1

A Bristol Romance

Michael Wood suggests that Eça de Queirós may have found it possible to write during his years as Portuguese consul in Bristol because he had escaped Portugal’s velvety romance (LRB, 3 January). Bristol in the 1880s, despite mid-century slum clearance, was indeed a grim and grimy city. I don’t know for certain where the consulate was located, but can only assume that it lay near the docks, for commercial reasons, in which case its romance is likely to have been no more than notional: the connection with far-reaching maritime trade. But the author himself did not live in Bristol. His house was at what is now 38 Stoke Hill, in the hamlet of Stoke Bishop, four miles north of the city centre and well outside the city boundary. I live just around the corner. The area is separated from the sights and smells of the city by the height of Durdam Downs. The house itself is one of a group of four 18th-century houses, all showing some degree of Gothic influence, which look south-west across Old Sneed Park towards the Avon valley and the hills beyond. Otherwise the hamlet in the 1880s consisted of a church (constructed in 1860), a vicarage, a row of late 18th-century cottages, a substantial farm, and other more modest dwellings. The front of the house has six windows with Gothic arches all surmounted by striped metal awnings. This dominates a gently sloping garden with a sundial, an 18th-century glasshouse, and a black 4x4 in the driveway. The coach-house and other outbuildings are currently being renovated.

As if the house were not romantic enough, a short walk across fields would have brought Eça de Queirós to the Roman track known as Mariners’ Path, which led down between wooded slopes to the old Roman port of Abonae, now Sea Mills, where the Trym meets the Avon. An attempt had been made to revive the port in the early 1700s, and the ruined walls of the wet dock can still be seen. This was a favourite resort of landscape artists, and from the old port one could watch incoming vessels navigating the tricky curve in the river known as Hung Road. By the 1880s a single-track freight railway ran alongside the Avon here, with Sea Mills station opening to passengers in 1865. But even today, with the further addition of the A4 Portway thundering across the Trym, the scene is inescapably picturesque.

By contrast, I’m not aware that Hawthorne wrote much of interest during his period as US consul in Liverpool between 1853 and 1857. In 1856 the Hawthornes moved up the coast to Southport (my home town), where they took rooms overlooking the sea. Hawthorne’s journal of the period is full of wonderful details, but sadly he doesn’t record what he and Melville talked about when the latter visited for a few days in November 1856. If Moby-Dick had not been completed in 1851, I would have assumed it to be strongly influenced by this visit. You may indeed have wandered the open oceans in a whaler, but until you’ve visited a Lancashire resort out of season you’ve never truly looked into the void.

Philip Booth
Bristol

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