Vol. 34 No. 20 · 25 October 2012

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The Two Jonsons

Ben Jonson was not in fact hailed by a ‘throng’ outside Berwick on his walk to Scotland in 1618, as Blair Worden states (LRB, 11 October). A recently discovered account written by a fellow traveller suggests that the poet’s reception there was of a different order. Culverins were ‘mounted’ and the bells rung at his approach, as an overture to three days of – as the account puts it – ‘royal’ entertainment. On his departure northwards he was accompanied by ‘all the knights, gentlemen, Mayor and Aldermen’ as far as the border, where glasses of wine and a volley of shot from a company of musketeers marked his passage from England into Scotland. Such celebratory displays of hospitality were repeated often along the journey, in towns and cities as well as at grand country houses. Sometimes, a more intimate note was sounded: at Howick, in Northumberland, the walkers were sent on their way with a ‘merrybub’, or Marybud, from a lady’s maid ‘for our farewell’, while at North Berwick a piper and a posse of dancing shearers made them welcome. On other occasions the crowds of which Worden speaks were indeed in evidence: at Royston, ‘the maids and young men came out of town to meet us,’ while at Edinburgh ‘the women in throngs ran to see us etc, some bringing sack and sugar, others aquavitae and sugar.’ At Pontefract, Jonson’s arrival even caused some health and safety issues:

All the town was up in throngs to see us, and there was dancing of giants, and music prepared to meet us. And notwithstanding we took a byway to escape the crowd and staring of the people yet a swarm of boys and others crossed over to overtake us, and pressed so upon us, that we were fain to present our pistols upon them to keep them back.

We are currently editing the ‘Foot Voyage’ account for publication as a pendant, of sorts, to the Cambridge Works. It paints a vivid picture of Jonson in his pomp, and provides a striking complement to the ‘Informations’ recorded by William Drummond a few months later. Here, he is genial, generous, expansive and hospitable, a grandly comic turn passing a festive summer with everyone from courtiers and noblemen to itinerant captains, drunken parsons and agricultural labourers, the whole enterprise fuelled by ale, claret, sack, burnt wine and hullock. Such a figure is perhaps difficult to reconcile with the severe moralist and demanding scholar remembered by some of his early admirers, but it does accord with the spirit and tone of much of his work and with the Ben Jonson commemorated in jest books and elsewhere far into the 18th century.

James Loxley & Anna Groundwater; Julie Sanders
University of Edinburgh; University of Nottingham

Le Grand K

Steven Shapin skips quickly past what ought to be a cornerstone of his subject, the international prototype for the kilogramme (LRB, 30 August). It is a relic of a previous metrological era, being the sole surviving measurement derived from a manmade object. Seated in a laboratory just outside Paris and known to its carers as ‘le Grand K’, it was described by Mary Bowers in India’s Caravan magazine as being ‘hardly bigger than an apricot’.

Most of the experts Bowers consulted were optimistic at the time that the quadrennial conference of the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM), held in 2011, would adopt a physical constant to replace the ageing prototype. In the end, the conference postponed the decision to its next meeting. Robert Crease, whose book Shapin is reviewing, says that the problem is weight loss ‘due to the escape of bubbles’ trapped in the metal. But Bowers quotes Richard Davis, the physicist in charge of the model, saying that the sister prototypes against which ‘le Grand K’ is measured could instead be getting heavier. Even if the kilogramme is losing mass, he told her, ‘there aren’t any serious theories’ as to the reason, only ‘possibilities’ – the evolving-out of hydrogen bubbles being one of them. ‘Others blame the cleaning process,’ Bowers wrote, ‘which has not been changed in over a century and still involves wiping the object manually with alcohol and a soft cloth.’

Ollie Brock
London E8

The Death of Aziz Shehadeh

Adam Shatz repeats an error that Avi Raz makes in his book The Bride and the Dowry regarding the murder of my father, Aziz Shehadeh (LRB, 11 October). ‘Shehadeh was finally murdered,’ Shatz writes, ‘by a Palestinian extremist who seems to have doubled as a collaborator.’ It is true that the murderer was a collaborator, but he had no link to any Palestinian political organisation. As I record in the updated edition of my memoir, Strangers in the House, after many years of Israeli cover-up we discovered that the murderer was acting on behalf of his family: my father, a lawyer, had taken a case to have them evicted from the property of the Anglican church near Hebron, where they had been squatting. The murderer believed that the country he served as a collaborator would condone his actions. He was right. Not only did Israel cover up the murder, it issued the lie that the murder was carried out by the Palestine Liberation Organisation because of my father’s political moderation, in particular his desire for a peaceful settlement with Israel through the creation of a Palestinian state.

Raja Shehadeh

The Great Electricity Sell-Off

It is not helpful to say, as Ian Fairlie does, that ‘nuclear power is not carbon-free’: there is at present no energy supply technology which is carbon-free (Letters, 11 October). Nuclear fission for the generation of electricity is carbon-free in the only useful sense – it does not use fossil fuels as the primary energy source. This is a big plus, but it is the only one nuclear power has going for it.

Chris Osman

Ian Fairlie writes: ‘evidence is building from more than forty epidemiology studies across the world that the incidence of infant leukaemia increases near nuclear installations.’ He is being mischievous: the evidence also shows that this is likely to be due to an increase in ‘foreign’ viruses because the new workforce is drawn from around the country and beyond. These viruses cause oncogenes to be switched on in susceptible children. There is no evidence that this phenomenon has anything to do with radiation.

Gwyn Carney

And thus seized control of the state

The Alawis, Nir Rosen writes, ‘were practically serfs to the Sunni feudal lords put in place by the Ottomans’ (LRB, 27 September). He has been misinformed. Within their heartlands, the Nusayri mountains, the Alawis were largely left alone by the Ottomans until the late 19th century, when improved military capacity made it possible to subdue what was regarded as a troublesome non-Sunni tribal society. Following the collapse of Ottoman rule, the General Syrian Congress in 1919 called for ‘a constitutional monarchy based on principles of democratic and broadly decentralised rule which shall safeguard the rights of minorities’. France swept aside the Kingdom of Syria by force the following year. Partly because of Syrian nationalism, it decided to break Syria up into small components, including a separate Alawite state, which was only reintegrated with the rest of inland Syria in 1936. In addition France encouraged the minorities to enlist in the Troupes Spéciales du Levant, which formed the army after Syrian independence in 1946. The Alawites defeated the Druze faction for supremacy within the army and the Ba’ath and thus seized control of the Syrian state.

David McDowall

The Akwizgran Discrepancy

Since the publication of my article about a forgotten European enclave, I have continued to receive inquiries from readers and other scholars asking for references and sources (LRB, 22 March). My first and best source, who convinced me that ‘Amikejo’ really had existed and was not a Polish novelist’s fantasy, was the American scholar Steven Press. He has now made his detailed research accessible online, under the title ‘To govern or not to govern: Prussia and Neutral Moresnet’.

Neal Ascherson
London N5

We are a broad church

Many readers must, like me, be impressed that, according to Hope Leman, many Tea Party supporters subscribe to the LRB (Letters, 27 September). But I am intrigued to know which political stances expressed in the paper they particularly approve of. Or is this a matter of ‘Know thine enemy’?

Hamish MacGibbon
London NW1

Viewed from here, the Tea Party shows a remarkable similarity to various political movements in interwar Europe: a right-wing populist movement which uses radical slogans to conceal profoundly conservative core values, financed by big business, cheered on by right-wing media, and drawing its support from the angry, the ignorant, the bigoted and the borderline psychotic. But Hope Leman assures us that many of its members are intelligent, well-read people. So that’s all right.

Tony Dennis
Leighton Buzzard

Hope Leman should consider the possibility that David Bromwich’s distaste for Paul Ryan does not stem from the ‘snobbishness’ of his being a professor of English at Yale, but rather from facts such as these: Ryan’s acceptance speech at the Republican Convention was a tissue of distortions and misrepresentations (which, if conscious, might properly be called lies, as indeed they were by several independent fact-checking organisations afterwards). Ryan has had to back away again and again from his budget plan as he met criticism from a public dismayed by its harshness towards the poor and the elderly; more recently, when asked to explain his tax plan, he declined, saying it would take too much time, because it is so ‘complicated’. Might this display of contempt for the voters he is trying to win over reasonably be called ‘populist snobbishness’?

Donald Friedman
Berkeley, California

Hope Leman makes the astounding claim that there are ‘many intelligent, well-read people in the Tea Party’. Perhaps things are different on the western side of our nation, but here in South Carolina the Tea Party can be characterised as ignorant, illiterate, racist and crypto-fascist.

Paul Denman
Columbia, South Carolina

Unnecessarily Polite

We have most of Richard Cobb’s letters to Hugh Trevor-Roper, Simon Skinner writes, ‘but not their antiphons’ (LRB, 19 July). The reason there are so few replies to Cobb is perhaps not that Cobb failed to keep his archives in good shape, as Skinner suggests, but that few who had first-hand experience of how vicious Oxford gossip could be in the postwar period would have vouchsafed anything to Richard Cobb – one of its worst and most persistent offenders. It is typical of Cobb’s manipulative self-promotion that he should claim friendships in the bohemian worlds of the very different figures of Dylan Thomas, Julian MacLaren-Ross and Louis MacNeice, who were all friends of Dan and Winnie Davin, and whom Cobb might have encountered at the Davins’ house in Oxford on the occasions when he turned up from Wales demanding a bed for the weekend – a convenient friendship quickly forgotten once he had his Oxford fellowship. It is true that he was a drunk, to which Skinner alludes in unnecessarily polite terms, but he might have added also that his greed was legendary; people feared to sit near him in hall, as there would be little left for them.

Keith Ovenden
Wellington, New Zealand

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