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Letters

Vol. 32 No. 1 · 7 January 2010

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Hare-Brained? Sure?

Writing about the sale of Times Newspapers to Rupert Murdoch in 1981, Geoffrey Wheatcroft claims that Lord Thomson was in his eighties and ‘had had enough’ of industrial disputes (LRB, 17 December 2009). Thomson had indeed ‘had enough’. He died in 1976. On a more serious level, Wheatcroft seems to have accepted uncritically Harold Evans’s assertion that it was the ‘great achievement’ of Reg Brady, a Communist shop steward in the pressroom, to shut down the Sunday Times for a year, thus paving the way for the paper’s acquisition ‘by a ruthless Australian’.

As it happens, Evans and William Rees-Mogg, the editor of the Times, repaid the loyalty of their journalists in April 1978 by collaborating with the commercial managers in a hare-brained scheme to crush the print unions. The journalists were warned that they, too, would be dismissed if, by 30 November 1978, the NUJ chapels at the two papers failed to sign new agreements covering the introduction of computer-based technology. (I was father of the Times chapel at the time.)

A week or so before the deadline expired, the Sunday Times NUJ chapel signed the agreement. The Times chapel, on the other hand, met a few hours before the deadline, and voted after long debate not to sign. Members felt that in spite of the provocative and disruptive behaviour of some groups of workers, it was wrong of management – including the editors – to threaten journalists with dismissal. It was seen as management by diktat, and instead of defending their journalists Evans and Rees-Mogg were party to the bullying.

Management made good their threat to suspend publication of all the titles in the group on 30 November, and the lockout, the longest in modern British industrial history, lasted 50 weeks. It ended in total defeat for the management. That the journalists – unlike the printers and clerical workers – were not sacked was not down to any residual affection but to the fact that both editors and management knew perfectly well that once sacked the editorial staffs could never be reassembled. I believe the threat to dismiss the journalists was synthetic from the outset, but that in no way absolves the management of causing great distress to Times employees. Harry Evans may indeed harbour a ‘burning hatred’ for Reg Brady, but to allege that this minor shop steward ‘shut down the Sunday Times for a year’ is to falsify the record.

The postscript to the lockout came with Murdoch’s purchase of the papers in January 1981. Shortly afterwards, having appointed Harry Evans as editor of the Times, Murdoch also appointed a new industrial relations manager – Reg Brady.

Jacob Ecclestone
Diss, Norfolk

T.S. Eliot (nearly) volunteers

The 1988 edition of T. S. Eliot’s Letters up to the end of 1922 contained 509 from Eliot himself. In 2005 Lawrence Rainey extended the list to 638, but overlooked letters at, for instance, Yale, Harvard and the Library of Congress. He now counts 704 in the new edition of Volume 1 (LRB, 3 December 2009), and reports that he can ‘say with authority’ that it ‘excludes’ ten (a number he specifies three times), as though no strays could have escaped his attention. He gives the text of two items allegedly missing, a postcard franked 23 December 1921 and a note to Lytton Strachey of 21 May 1919. These are to be found in the notes to pages 618 and 350 respectively.

Letters will continue to come to light. Discovered already, but too late for inclusion, are a bread and butter letter to Wyndham Lewis of 18 June 1921 (Cornell); three messages conveyed to Bertrand Russell while Russell was in prison for promoting pacifism, May-September 1918, with a message from Vivienne Eliot and two replies from Russell (McMaster); and a telegram to Eliot’s brother Henry, dated 2 August 1918 (Missouri History Museum):

enquire chance training commission military or naval if return america banking journalism languages yachting married thirty reply immediately marlow eliot

Jim McCue
London SE1

Unfair to Rottweilers

Colin Dayan believes it is unfair to ban a dog from an apartment building because it belongs to what is thought to be a dangerous breed (LRB, 3 December 2009). Who is to decide if an individual dog is dangerous? We can’t trust the opinion of the owner. A woman in San Francisco believed that her dog (a 150-pound Presa Canario, a breed which she knew to be bred for combat and used extensively for fighting) was ‘gentle and loving and affectionate’. It probably was, to her. She said this in court, where she was on trial for murder because her dog had ripped one of her neighbours to shreds in their apartment building.

Humans frequently attribute human qualities to dogs, but what we perceive as love and loyalty are better understood as submission to the dominant member of the pack (the owner) and aggression towards creatures outside the pack or to subordinates within the pack. In the US more than a thousand people a day present at emergency wards with dog bites. Many are children whose parents have mistaken dogs for humans.

Dayan thinks that the legal classification of dogs as property vitiates the rights of both dogs and owners. But dogs themselves cannot be held responsible for obeying the laws of human society.

Bob Hanenberg
San Francisco

Working for Lady Fuchs

Daisy Bickley asks what’s wrong with cooking a cauliflower for four minutes in a pressure cooker (Letters, 17 December 2009). Nothing, so long as you like it reduced to a tasteless mush.

Charles Lewsen
Bristol

Taut, Lean, Elegant

Stuart Kelly (LRB, 3 December 2009) describes Liam McIlvanney’s prose as ‘taut, lean, elegant’, those stock adjectives of contemporary critical praise. (When was the last time someone stuck their neck out to admire a bit of exuberant, extravagant, elegant writing?) It may be a fair assessment of McIlvanney’s style in general – I haven’t read the novel so I wouldn’t know – but if so, the sentence Kelly quotes can’t be typical: a lengthy, apparently superfluous description of an everyday object, thick with adjectives, adverbs and participles, and not a main verb in sight. I’ll take Kelly’s word for it that ‘the horror of what is unfolding is already present in the rhythm of the sentence.’ It may also tell us something about the quality of attention that the novel’s protagonist pays to things that most people overlook or take for granted. So it’s not a bad sentence. But the ‘taut, lean, elegant’ thing to have written would have been ‘a book of matches’, and to have left it at that.

Martin Sanderson
Ipswich

Green Go Home

As Ernesto Priego insists, in Mexico no one would use the word ‘gringo’ to mean anyone other than a US citizen, and a white US citizen at that (Letters, 19 November 2009). This is true for most of the rest of the region, but there are some exceptions. Brazil, Peru and Chile are the ones I know personally, but I’ve heard tell that Honduras (interestingly, given the scabrous history of US activity there) is another. In Chile, where I’ve lived for 25 years, any white, non-Latin foreigner is a gringo. I’m a white Brit, so certainly am, but so would I be if I were Canadian, German, Swedish, Australian, Polish or white South African. French, Italians, Greeks and – obviously – Spaniards aren’t, however. Usage of the term is similarly broad in Brazil and Peru; in Argentina, however, just over the mountains from here, the US-only rule holds.

The usual origin story in Chile is the ‘Green Go’ variant, derived from the crossing lights of the British-built railways in the north of the country. But this is no more reliable than the many other stories in the region and in Spain.

Malcolm Coad
Santiago

This gringo correspondence has gone on long enough! The term derives, I believe, from the song ‘Green Grow the Rushes O’, as sung by the men of the 71st Regiment of Foot (MacLeod’s Highlanders), under Brigadier General William Beresford, landed by Rear-Admiral Sir Home Popham – apparently on his own initiative – to occupy Buenos Aires in June 1806:

I’ll sing you one, O
Green grow the rushes, O
What is your one, O?
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.

Having captured or sunk the better part of the Spanish Navy at Trafalgar the year before, the British were in a triumphant mood and looking to grow their empire at the expense of Napoleon’s allies. Popham had successfully invaded the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope with the 71st Foot only a few months earlier.

At Buenos Aires, Beresford’s ‘Green-grows’ were taken prisoner by the Porteños, however, and their regimental colours remain in Argentine possession to this day. Popham was recalled and censured by court martial. Nevertheless, the City of London presented him with a jewelled sword of honour for his endeavours to ‘open new markets’. An early attempt at globalisation, obviously.

Peter Dreyer
Charlottesville, Virginia

Not Quite

Michael Wood adds to a quotation from Frank Kermode: ‘Nice work if you can do it, as Cole Porter didn’t quite say’ (LRB, 17 December 2009). Indeed he didn’t. ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’ is a lyric by Ira Gershwin. It was sung by Fred Astaire with, unfortunately, a provincial vocal group, in A Damsel in Distress. After extolling the wonders of marital bliss it ends:

Loving one who loves you,
And then taking that vow …
Nice work if you can get it,
And if you get it – won’t you tell me how?

Andrew McCullough
Los Angeles

Follow the engineers

John Gray seems to believe that economics (as well as economists) would be in better shape if the laws of economics were as precise, and as complete, as laws in the natural sciences ( (LRB, 19 November 2009). In many cases it is true that the ‘future’ (of chemical processes, say) can be precisely predicted on the basis of the laws of nature, and engineers take advantage of those fortunate circumstances. But there are also counter-examples: it is notoriously difficult, for example, to predict the exact time an earthquake will occur.

Should predicting the occurrence of financial crises in any case be the aim of an economic theory? Those of us who work in engineering have adopted a more modest, though still challenging, approach. In aerodynamics, for instance, we investigate how to get turbulent air flows under control, instead of trying to predict ‘catastrophic’ events.

Wilhelm Schneider
Vienna University of Technology

Did she marry a lord?

Ange Mlinko repeats the rumour that Barbara Guest married an English lord (LRB, 3 December 2009). She married Stephen Haden-Guest in 1948; he was the son of the Labour MP Leslie Haden-Guest, who was made a political peer in 1950. Stephen Haden-Guest inherited the title in 1960, six years after the couple divorced.

Caroline Williamson
Brunswick, Australia

Irresistible Itch

In his account of Keith Joseph’s suggestion, in his 1974 Edgbaston speech, that the feckless lower orders should be prescribed contraception, Colin Kidd sadly doesn’t mention that Joseph was referred to by many thereafter as ‘Sir Sheath Joseph’ (LRB, 3 December 2009).

Richard Tagart
Antwerp

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