Vol. 35 No. 1 · 3 January 2013

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Astor does her best

Bee Wilson allocates almost as much space in her review to Nancy Astor’s support for nursery schooling as Adrian Fort does in the biography that is the review’s subject (LRB, 20 December 2012). Yet few Members of Parliament fought so tenaciously for the nursery school cause as Astor did. At the heart of her commitment lay her relationship with Margaret McMillan, which was curious on at least two counts. First, McMillan was a leading figure in the Independent Labour Party and therefore an unlikely ally of the fabulously rich and Tory Nancy Astor. Secondly, in her later years, McMillan, who was familiar with Theosophical beliefs and Swedenborgianism, claimed contact with her dead sister Rachel. Such activities were expressly forbidden to Christian Scientists like Astor. Nevertheless, to judge from their letters, their relationship was marked by a high degree of emotional intensity particularly from McMillan’s side.

Astor’s activities in support of nursery schools were prodigious. In addition to the usual philanthropic fundraising, she led ministerial delegations for the Nursery School Association, made speeches in Parliament, and in 1934 published a memorandum calling for the universal provision of nursery schools. The following year she managed to get a leaflet outlining her Ten Year Plan for Children taken to the Board of Education by the editor of the Times – a Cliveden connection. In support of the plan, she assembled a prestigious coalition of educationalists, reform-minded politicians and religious leaders. That her campaign ended largely in failure was due mainly to the persistent belief that as little as possible should be spent on the care and education of working-class children and to the equally persistent belief that the best place for a child was at home with its mother and, conversely, that the best place for mothers was at home with their children. The extent to which this failure was attributable to Astor’s frequently inconsistent, erratic and eccentric behaviour is difficult to determine but it is unlikely that any politician at the time could have achieved what she set out to achieve.

Kevin Brehony
Froebel College University of Roehampton

Who split first?

Jackson Lears writes that the first splitting of the atom was performed by Cockcroft and Walton at the Cavendish in the early 1930s (LRB, 20 December 2012). In fact the first atom splitter was Ernest Rutherford. In the autumn of 1917 he and his ‘lab boy’ shot alpha-particles from the radioactive decay of radium into nitrogen gas. Energy was emitted, which they detected as tiny flashes on a fluorescent screen. They deflected the path of the emitted energy with an electric field and proved that the flashes are produced by protons. They deduced that when struck by an alpha-particle the nucleus of a nitrogen atom is smashed into pieces, one of which is a proton. In 1932, Cockcroft and Walton split atomic nuclei into smaller bits with a more powerful projectile, by accelerating protons in a high-voltage electrical field.

William Van der Kloot
Newhaven, East Sussex

Our Joan

Marina Warner begins her story of Joan by recollecting her time as a pupil at a Belgian convent school in 1954 (LRB, 6 December 2012). Had she been in a French convent she would have been overwhelmed by the celebrations of that year’s Joan of Arc, Geneviève de Galard, the only French woman among the beleaguered troops at Dien Bien Phu. Celebrated for her heroism as the Vietminh closed in, she was awarded the Legion of Honour, appeared on the cover of Paris Match, was given a ticker-tape parade and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Eisenhower. She is still alive today, married to a French general.

I find it no more surprising that Joan has been appropriated by the Front National than that the Union Jack has been similarly appropriated by the National Front. What is interesting is that Joan is all about defeat: her own defeat, first of all, and its apotheosis at the stake but France’s defeat too – the French were losing badly in the Hundred Years War when Joan took a hand. Similarly, the media hype around Galard (BBC radio was more interested in her than they were in the actual siege) had to do with the fact that the French were losing the war in Indochina. Not surprisingly, there was a boom in Jeanne d’Arc devotion after 1871 and again after 1940. We need our hero figures precisely when we’re getting walloped. That was what the great celebration of Dunkirk was all about. Marine Le Pen calls on Joan because her followers are desperately afraid that France is being overwhelmed by foreign Muslims.

R.W. Johnson
Cape Town

Music Hall Nights

Terry Eagleton writes that ‘the first purpose-built music hall opened in Lambeth in 1852 in a squalid pub’ and that the institution ‘soon spread throughout the provinces’ (LRB, 20 December 2012). Social historians such as Peter Bailey and Dagmar Kift have pointed out that the music hall was flourishing in places like Salford, Manchester and Bradford long before the Canterbury opened in 1852. The first music hall in Britain was probably the Star in Bolton, which opened in 1832 and moved into a larger building as early as 1840. In his memoir Life of an Athlete, the boxer and music-hall acrobat James Ellis (born in 1829) even claimed that the Star was ‘really the only proper music hall in Britain at the time’ (the 1840s). Women were part of the audience right from the start and not just from the turn of the 20th century (and not just prostitutes).

Roy Kift

Damnable Heresies

Bob Hall says that the allegation that Douglas Haig sought to limit the number of machine-guns per battalion is new to him (Letters, 8 November) and refutes the charge by pointing out that the army had machine-guns. Yet the story is one of A.J.P. Taylor’s most memorable in The First World War (1963):

Lloyd George inquired how many machine-guns were needed. Haig replied: ‘The machine-gun was a much overrated weapon and two per battalion were more than sufficient.’ Kitchener thought that four per battalion might be useful, ‘above four may be counted a luxury.’ Lloyd George told his assistants: ‘Take Kitchener’s maximum; square it, multiply that result by two – and when you are in sight of that, double it again for good luck.’ This feat of arithmetic gave 64 machine-guns per battalion. Before the war was over every British battalion had 43 machine-guns and cried out for more.

A similar account can be found in Taylor’s English History 1914-45, where he also asserts that Haig ordered Passchendaele, and that a cavalry attack was part of his strategy in July 1917. I’d be disappointed to hear he’d made it all up.

Paul Nicol
Chelmsford, Essex

The author is dead, again

Deborah Friedell leaves me, as the author of The Little House Cookbook (1979), wondering where she developed her animus towards Laura Wilder’s Little House books – surely not from Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life, the subject of her review (LRB, 22 November 2012). Friedell, tipping her hat to the Library of America edition, identifies the Little House books as ‘the first Tea Party favourites’ to join the Library’s ranks, ignoring the conservative appeal of much of that canon. Rose Wilder Lane, she goes on, ‘wrote the books with her mother’, giving a provocative twist to an author-editor relationship common in the publishing industry.

Friedell makes me long for the olden days of my college literature studies, when the text was all, and knowing anything about the author’s life earned demerits. Expounding on the views of the author’s daughter, Friedell-style, would surely have got me thrown out of class.

Barbara Walker
Ossining, New York

Russia vanishes

An aspect of the decline in Russia’s population that Tony Wood doesn’t mention is the significant flow of younger Russians out of the country (LRB, 6 December 2012). The living conditions at home are surely one of the main reasons: for many, the claims of Russian progress have yet to be matched in reality. And, as is so often the case, those who can leave do, taking with them the knowledge and skill gained in what continues, so far, to be an admirable education system.

An ideological factor emerging, or re-emerging, as a result of the population decline is the apportioning of blame to ‘foreigners’ and ‘the West’ by Russia’s leaders – for example, when attacking sex education programmes for young people. Such attacks are made on two principal grounds: that this kind of teaching goes against Russian (and, increasingly, the Russian Orthodox Church’s) culture and ethos; and that sex education programmes based on Unesco and other ‘Western’ curricula are somehow part of a plot to suppress the Russian birth rate.

Blaine Stothard
London SW9

One factor Tony Wood misses out in his discussion of Russia’s demographic decline is the lack of space in Moscow apartments, which has discouraged parents from having more than one child. There was a substantial government building programme in Moscow between the 1950s and the 1970s, but these apartments usually had only one bedroom. Either the children or the parents had to sleep in the living-room. Since the 1970s, big business has taken over the building of apartments, and these are very expensive. The modest apartments of fifty or sixty years ago are coveted, but their price is out of reach for nearly everyone. According to current statistics, one square metre in such an apartment costs no less than $4000; you would need at least $300,000 in order to buy one. The salary of an average Russian citizen is 20,000 rubles, the equivalent of $700.

Constance Blackwell
London NW6


The church in which Heydrich’s killers hid wasn’t by that time St Charles Borromeo (LRB, 8 November 2012). K.I. Dientzenhofer’s lovely Baroque church was decommissioned by the Catholics in the late 18th century, I presume because of the suspension of the Society of Jesus. It was reopened as a Czech Orthodox church before the war, and dedicated to Cyril and Methodius, who Christianised the Slavs. After the war, and still more after the Prague Spring, it was a potent emblem of pan-Slavic resistance to oppression.

Keith Miller
London SW8

Michael Newton refers to the ‘assassination’ of Heydrich by ‘two Czech special agents’. But there weren’t two Czech agents: there was one Czech and one Slovak. This difference had massive consequences for the men’s families: Kubis’s Czech family was wiped out in the Nazi reprisals, but Gabcik’s family, from nominally independent Slovakia, was beyond the Nazis’ reach.

Nigel Hawker

Ulrich’s Nemesis

Richard J. Evans leaves out Walter Rathenau’s greatest impact on German literature, which was to inspire the character of Paul Arnheim in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, the nemesis of the title character, Ulrich (LRB, 22 November 2012). In his diaries, Musil made the following observations of Rathenau: ‘He likes to say, “But, my dear Doctor," and takes one by the upper arm in a friendly grip. He is used to taking immediate charge of the discussion. He is doctrinaire and, at the same time, lord of all he surveys. One makes an objection; he responds: “I am delighted to concede this premise, but …"’

David Auerbach
New York

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