Vol. 35 No. 6 · 21 March 2013

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Poor Thompson

Jeremy Harding falls into the trap of dismissing Frank Thompson as a poet, while admiring him as a man (LRB, 7 March). Poor Thompson. Had he survived, Harding writes, ‘his postwar poetry would have gathered dust in a box in the Thompson family loft.’ Yes, Thompson’s poems could be ‘Georgian’ in the sense of being pastoral and understated (like those of Edward Thomas), but putting aside comparisons with the likes of Auden, or those – Harding mentions Durrell, G.S. Fraser and Keith Douglas – who fought in the war and ‘went on to win a reputation’, I think he wrote durable poems. How about ‘Leisure Love’:

Because I was cool when the angry dogstar struck us,
You threaten to leave for more responsive fires.
Well? I have seen too much of blackthorn by moonlight
To be so wholly the fool of my desires.

Because I stalled. At that high engine-speed
My driving wheels seized up and would not move.
I have walked too long through water-meadows in summer
To be so serious about love.

I’m still uncertain about the truth of living.
From so many answers I must yet find one
That slots in easily and needs no oiling.
And even then my search will not be done.

But one thing’s clear. Your formula will not suit me.
The heat’s destruction was not for you and me.
There is still the challenge of cowslips under hedges.
There is still the critical murmur of the sea.

Seán Haldane
London E12

Lost Words

Henry Hitchings mentions that whole entries were mislaid in the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary during James Murray’s time as editor (LRB, 7 March). On one occasion it was the result of deliberate sabotage. As a child, Cyril Joad, the future BBC radio celebrity and popular philosopher, was a frequent guest at the Murrays’ house in the Banbury Road. One Sunday in summer 1899 the nine-year-old Cyril came across Murray’s Scriptorum, a large shed-like structure in the garden. Having forced his way in through a window he emptied the ink bottles and paste over the notebooks, pulled down the bookcases, and scattered the slips on which the words and their meanings were written and gummed others together. A whole pile of notes to be entered on the slips by the assistant editors was reduced to an unuseable pulp. Many words were probably lost and there was a delay of months in the publication of the next volume. Murray amazingly forgave the boy, and continued with his promise to his parents to keep an eye on him.

Tony Judge

Who He Was

It wasn’t only Pepys, Joe Melia and W.H. Auden who read as they walked (Letters, 21 February). According to K.M.E. Murray in Caught in the Web of Words, James Murray, editor of the OED, while still a schoolteacher in Hawick, ‘claimed that he learned at least two languages’ during his five-minute walk to school every day. ‘He was described by his former pupils hurrying up the street … bearded chin in the air and the cape of his Highland cloak … flapping behind him, open book in hand which he glanced at from time to time as he memorised the contents.’

Michael Robertson
Augsburg, Germany

Fandom to Fandom

While there is a great deal of evidence for Katherine Arcement’s assertion that the overwhelming majority of fan fiction writers are female (for some categories of slashfic the figure may be as high as 95 per cent), the demographics vary a good deal from one fandom to another (LRB, 7 March). The fandoms Arcement has, by her own account, spent most time in, Harry Potter and Twilight, have a significantly higher proportion of teenage readers than many others, but those based on more challenging series do not attract communities that are ‘80 per cent teenage and 80 per cent female’. The balance also varies considerably between sites, and what may be true of FanFiction.Net (nicknamed ‘the Pit of Voles’) is by no means necessarily true of Archive of Our Own, LiveJournal, DreamWidth, DeviantArt or Tumblr – all of which play significant roles in the fanfic community.

Moreover, what may be true of the writers of fanfic certainly cannot be extrapolated to the readers. Many leave behind no data by which they might be identified; those who post comments on sites on which they are not registered will usually appear only as anonymous ‘guests’; and members will usually appear only by their online handle. Like the disproven notions that ‘men don’t read romances’ and ‘women don’t read science fiction,’ the assumption that men don’t read (female-authored) fanfic will not do.

Arcement is also mistaken in defining slashfic (or just slash) as ‘any kind of sex between two men or two women’. The point of slash is that the orientation of one or more canonical characters is changed, which is why slashing is strongest in fandoms where the source parades heteronormativity or machismo. Kirk/Spock, Bodie/Doyle, Aragorn/Boromir, Darcy/Bingley and Harry/Snape stories all slash their canons, but a story featuring, say, Sebastian Flyte and Anthony Blanche in bed would not be slash, nor would a relationship between two lesbian characters in The L Word qualify as femslash.

John Lennard

History Lesson

Greg Afinogenov makes several references to Tsar Alexander’s actions in relation to ‘Poland’ (LRB, 7 February). This use of the word is somewhat misleading, although the tsar himself used it. Afinogenov mentions that Alexander ‘gave constitutions to Finland, Poland and France’. I don’t know about Finland or France, but Poland didn’t exist as a country when Alexander was tsar. By 1797, Prussia, Russia and Austria had dismembered Poland and signed a protocol to excise its name from all future documents. What Alexander did agree to at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the granting of a constitution to what became known as the Congress Kingdom, a rump of what had been Poland. This rump was the one portion of land that Prussia had annexed and that Napoleon, after defeating Prussia at Jena, named the Duchy of Warsaw. To this duchy were added some other small portions of Polish lands removed at the time of the Partitions. This was not ‘Poland’. The constitution named the tsar ‘king of Poland’, and this tiny liberal Congress Kingdom did indeed have a sejm (a parliament) and a senate and did run some of its own affairs, with Alexander’s brother Constantine as commander in chief. But this honeymoon didn’t last, and by 1820 the sejm and senate had been dissolved. In 1831, under the new tsar, Nicholas I, the Poles began an insurrection and with a new government in place announced they were seceding from Russia.

Krystyna Weinstein
Lewes, East Sussex

Royal Bodies

Hilary Mantel appears to endorse the postulate of Catrina Banks Whitley and Kyra Cornelius Kramer that the ‘reproductive woes and midlife decline of Henry VIII’ can be explained by his Kell blood group and the McLeod syndrome (LRB, 21 February). Their clinical analysis is well argued but they make a significant error in stating that the McLeod syndrome ‘is exclusive to Kell positive individuals’. The McLeod syndrome is associated with a rare X-linked genetic variant of the XK blood group system. The XK gene is inherited independently of the Kell blood group system. Therefore, had Henry suffered from the McLeod syndrome, there would still have been an 80 per cent probability of his being genetically K-negative.

Any speculative differential diagnosis to account for the unfortunate obstetric histories of Henry’s wives might well include haemolytic disease of the foetus and newborn (HDFN) due to maternal alloimmunisation by a foetal red cell antigen. However, prior to the introduction of blood transfusion, HDFN due to anti-K (Kell) would have occurred less frequently than it does today. Furthermore, the natural history of the disorder makes it unlikely that all of Henry’s conceiving wives and mistresses, had he been K-positive, would have been afflicted in the way the historical record seems to demand. Without the certainty that Henry was K-positive, the argument is further weakened.

A medical maxim aimed at curbing fanciful diagnoses reminds the clinician that common disorders account for the vast majority of ailments. The McLeod syndrome is extremely rare. Henry’s several problems as described by Whitley and Kramer would not put this diagnosis near the top of my list.

Gerald Smith
London W4

Henry Hitchings writes that ‘in 1902 Edward VII’s coronation was delayed because he was suffering from appendicitis, and the word was suddenly everywhere.’ If indeed the king’s illness was responsible for increasing public awareness of appendicitis, there is a certain irony attached because Jane Ridley’s new biography of Edward VII shows that the monarch’s prostration was due not to appendicitis (inflammation of the appendix itself) but to perityphlitis (inflammation of the tissue around the appendix). The old story that King Edward was deprived of his appendix is a myth.

P.L. Dickinson
London EC1

Go and get killed, comrade

The drift of Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s piece about the Spanish Civil War is that it was ‘one wake-up call after another’, in which the untrained, poorly armed volunteers had their optimism shattered by the reality of battle (LRB, 21 February). The tone is one of disillusionment. The Loyalist side of the Spanish Civil War was my first ‘cause’, at age ten or 11, because my favourite cousin, Coleman (Charlie) Persily, fought on various fronts with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Over the years I’ve spoken to Cousin Charlie and other American ‘Lincolnistas’ and found their youthful commitment unchanged. Maybe it’s old guys putting a romantic gloss on a bad experience. Or maybe, even in the face of the Loyalists’ ugly factionalism and incompetent leadership, they believed in the Republic despite everything. I found these ageing guys full of piss, vinegar and militant optimism. Happy to have survived, happy to have been there.

Clancy Sigal
Los Angeles

Unmitigated Disaster

Terry Eagleton accuses me of using ‘naff phrases and clichés’ in my book Fanny andStella (LRB, 7 March). ‘Bouquets,’ he writes, ‘are the order of the day, advice is sage, disasters are unmitigated, rooms are too small to swing a cat in and events go swimmingly or arrive like a bolt from the blue.’ Eagleton’s careless – or careful – pluralisations give the impression that these phrases are strewn like confetti throughout my book. In fact, each is used once and once only. It is perhaps just as well that Charles Dickens is beyond the reach of Eagleton’s wrath, as Dickens used some of these ‘naff phrases and clichés’ and sanctioned the others. In David Copperfield, Mrs Crupp assures Mr Dick that there wasn’t ‘room to swing a cat’ in David’s chambers, and David and the Doctor agree that they should ‘go on swimmingly’ together working on the Dictionary. ‘The order of the day’ crops up in The Cricket on the Hearth. ‘Bolt from the blue’, ‘sage advice’ and ‘unmitigated disaster’ all occur in All the Year Round (though it’s impossible to know whether Dickens actually wrote these unsigned pieces, or merely ‘conducted’ them).

Terry Eagleton uses ‘unmitigated disaster’ twice in two books, and ‘the order of the day’ no fewer than nine times in the course of seven books, three of them in his Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics (2009).

Neil McKenna
London N5

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