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Vol. 32 No. 2 · 28 January 2010

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Preparing for Armed Battle

‘It was not just Communist misrule and Soviet imperialism that the brave crowds overthrew in 1989, but Hitler’s malign legacy,’ Neal Ascherson writes (LRB, 7 January). Yet the collapse of Communism – and the rise in unemployment and income disparity it produced in much of Eastern Europe – has also created a space in which that legacy has continued to fester. The Czech Republic, for example, has placed thousands of healthy Roma children in schools for the mentally disabled, in defiance of a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. Arab, African and Turkish immigrants in Eastern Europe are confined to ghettos and prevented from integrating. And while there aren’t many Jews left, their sinister hand is invariably detected by the emerging parties of the populist far right, such as the Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik); the newsletter of the ‘trade union of Hungarian police officers prepared for action’ (one in every ten officers is a member) recently declared: ‘Given our current situation, anti-semitism is not just our right: it is the duty of every Hungarian homeland lover, and we must prepare for armed battle against the Jews.’

Theo Russell

Alan Bennett is right

Alan Bennett is right to note that the 1947 Royal Show was the first to be held following the Second World War (LRB, 7 January). However, he and his fellow coach travellers from Leeds would need to have visited Lincoln rather than York to enjoy the Royal Agricultural Society’s show that year. The Royal Show took place in York the following year, in 1948.

Andrew Walker

Alan Bennett is wrong

Alan Bennett writes: ‘Most men and fewer dons don’t like women’ (LRB, 7 January). Could he tell us what that means, and how he came to write such a sentence?

Michael Tanner

Alan Bennett wonders

Alan Bennett wonders how he came by the phrase ‘habit of art’ (LRB, 7 January). He settles on the ‘Catholic’ pedigree, which leads from Thomas Aquinas to Jacques Maritain to Flannery O’Connor, which is good enough. The Aquinas who originated the phrase, however, is the fictive character of Paradiso 13, instructing Dante on why entities created directly by God are superior to those created indirectly, through intermediary agents. (Like goods produced in China, they get further away from the original model.) The tercet (75-78) in question reads, in Singleton’s translation: ‘But nature always gives it defectively, working like the artist who in the practice of his art has a hand that trembles’ (‘ch’a l’abito dell’arte ha man che trema’).

Bennett is surely right about its being a Catholic thing. I don’t have a copy of Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry handy, but if memory serves, Maritain presents the text as a touchstone for his theory of art, altering line 78 to read as an ambiguous fragment: ‘l’abito dell’arte e man che trema.’ The latter translates more comfortably as ‘the habit of art’ than does the phrase in the original sentence. Maritain’s book was a must-read at US Catholic colleges in the 1950s and early 1960s, and I suppose elsewhere: I read portions of it with three different teachers at Boston College. No doubt Flannery O’Connor was as familiar with Maritain’s book as she was with the work of that other modish French Catholic writer Teilhard de Chardin.

John Brennan
New Haven, Indiana

Eliot Recycled

As Michael Wood demonstrates in reviewing T.S. Eliot’s letters of 1923-25 (LRB, 3 December 2009), Eliot like the rest of us was not above recycling a good remark. In the spring of 1947 I.A. Richards, at a somewhat awkward literary conversazione at Harvard, helpfully intervened with a brief homily on the supreme importance of poetry, ending with this assertion: ‘In short I should say that poetry is the house we live in.’ To which Eliot, silent up to that moment, responded: ‘Should you really? I should rather have called it the wallpaper.’ He had made exactly the same response to the same claim by Richards in his Criterion review of Science and Poetry 20 years earlier.

Warner Berthoff
Concord, Massachusetts

Hare-Brained? Sure?

In my review of Harold Evans’s My Paper Chase (LRB, 17 December 2009) I wrote that Lord Thomson, the proprietor of the Times and Sunday Times, ‘had had enough’ of industrial disputes by the time the papers were sold to Rupert Murdoch in 1981, to which Jacob Ecclestone responds that ‘Thomson had indeed “had enough". He died in 1976’ (Letters, 7 January). My consolation, rather than excuse, is that this is less embarrassing than the contrary mistake, which I have also made in print, of referring to someone as dead when the someone is still very much alive.

As Ecclestone concedes, this is less important than the larger story of what happened to those papers – and the press as a whole, I would add – in the 1970s and 1980s. He is right in saying that the lockout of 1978-79 was a desperate measure which was mishandled by the management and ended in defeat, but then he is not an entirely detached witness. In The History of the Times, Vol. VI: The Thomson Years 1966-81, the late John Grigg described the surprising choice of Ecclestone as head of the Times chapel of the National Union of Journalists in 1976, at a time when ‘he had come to feel rather aggrieved that he had not progressed further on the paper.’ Because of his antagonism towards the management, and his inability to see ‘that the real interests of the NUJ were incompatible with those of print unions’, he ‘supported the print chapels’ resistance’ to modernisation.

These are old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago. What is most bitter in hindsight is the consequence of the printers’ doomed campaign of sabotage. Apart from Murdoch’s acquisition of those papers, David Astor had certainly had enough of trying to publish the Observer in impossible circumstances, so that a great liberal paper was sold to an American oil company and then a crooked businessman, while the Berry family, who had struggled to maintain the Telegraph as an honourable Tory paper, lost control of it to a man who now resides in an American prison.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft


Steven Shapin (LRB, 7 January), perhaps taking his cue from tendentiously truncated quotations from Darwin’s letters in Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s Darwin’s Sacred Cause, writes: ‘Preparing the Origin for the press and thinking about its reception made him physically ill: the book was published while he was taking a water cure at Ilkley, his face badly broken out in eczema.’ In fact for nearly 20 years any arduous work had exacerbated Darwin’s chronic illness; for instance, in a letter of 24 February 1849 Darwin told Owen he had ‘lost for the last 4 or 5 months at least 4/5 of my time’ and that he intended to spend two months trying out the water cure at Malvern, which ‘will cause a sad delay in my Barnacle work’. A close examination of Darwin’s letters and diaries shows no correlation between his severe bouts of illness and work on his transformation theory.

Allen Esterson
London W6

England v. France

There are two factual errors in Charles Glass’s piece on Britain and Vichy France (LRB, 17 December 2009). First, it was not General Noguès, commander of the French forces in North Africa, who ordered French troops to fire on the British and Free French at Dakar in September 1940, but General Pierre Boisson, who was the governor-general of West Africa. Second, it was not Darlan who replaced Laval as Pétain’s deputy in December 1940, but Pierre-Etienne Flandin. Darlan took over in February 1941 because the Germans would not talk to Flandin.

There is also a problem of interpretation in the article. Glass quotes an American journalist as commenting on the negative impact that Britain’s and de Gaulle’s campaigns against Vichy were having on the image of de Gaulle and the British in France. In fact what we now know about French public opinion, and what Vichy itself also knew, was that from as early as the autumn of 1940 the French people were largely pro-British despite Vichy propaganda. When the British bombed the Renault factory outside Paris in March 1942, killing some 500 people, an observer noted that ‘most people could not hide their jubilation.’ So to the extent that this was ‘England’s last war against France’ – the title of the book under review – it was a war in which the majority of the French people were on the opposite side from their own government.

Julian Jackson
Queen Mary, University of London

Charles Glass mentions the hard-fought campaign by the British, Australian and Arab forces which advanced into Vichy-held Lebanon and Syria from Palestine. Jewish Palestinians (of the once outlawed Haganah) also took part in this campaign, most notably Moshe Dayan, who suffered irreparable damage to his left eye from a French bullet that pierced his binoculars in an action across the Litani River, thereby ‘earning’ his iconic eyepatch. He was awarded the DSO, recommended by the Australian 7th Infantry Division, to which he was attached.

Raymond Aronson
Tel Aviv

Just Like in the Theatre

Jenny Diski was incorrect in stating that in the UK in 1960 Psycho was the first film to receive programme screening (LRB, 7 January). When Gone with the Wind arrived in Manchester in the early 1940s there were three separate performances daily and tickets had to be booked ‘just like in the theatre’, as one member of the public put it. No one was admitted after the film began, which proved a huge attraction; especially as there was an interval during which, possibly encouraged by Scarlett’s declaration that she would never be hungry again, we indulged ourselves in whatever refreshments were on offer.

Pamela Birley
London SW3

As I remember it, each programme (usually a B movie and a reel of news followed by the main feature) in the late 1940s and 1950s was rounded off with a crackly recording of the national anthem. Audiences usually made an unseemly rush for the exit in order to avoid standing with suitable reverence while this was played. It was in newsreel theatres like those at Waterloo and Victoria Stations that programmes were uninterrupted. It seems unlikely, therefore, that Hitchcock introduced the idea of set starting times for movies. I also think Cocteau’s Enfants Terribles, of 1949, was the first film to show a flushing lavatory. Incidentally, King Vidor’s silent film The Crowd (1928) shows its two stars in a poky apartment with a very visible toilet bowl in close proximity to the main action.

Andrew Wilton
London SW11

In Knots

Nigel Shardlow recommends the reef knot, also known as a square knot, to join two ends of a rope (Letters, 17 December 2009). Clifford Ashley, in The Ashley Book of Knots, thinks differently: ‘Under no circumstances should it be used as a bend. There have been more lives lost as a result of using a Square Knot as a bend (to tie two ropes together) than from the failure of any other half dozen knots combined.’

A reef knot is in fact an intentionally unreliable bend to join two ropes (lines). It is used to reef sails and therefore needs to be quickly tied and as quickly upset (untied) to free the reefed sail. There are much better choices to join two lines reliably, most notably the sheet bend.

Mark Roeyer
Lawrence, Kansas

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