John Lanchester should be careful in lumping together sugar, fat and salt as the cause of the decline in public health (LRB, 21 January). As a student of economics, perhaps he would appreciate two reports from Credit Suisse that forecast trends in food commodities. ‘Sugar: Consumption at a Crossroads’ (2013) suggests that sin taxes enacted on sugary drinks in particular could have a measurable beneficial effect on public health. But in 2015 the bank published ‘Fat: The New Health Paradigm’, which, on the basis of a review of medical research, exonerated natural fats (but not trans-fats or chemically extracted seed oils) of negative health consequences, including heart disease and obesity. ‘The higher intake of vegetable oils and the increase in carbohydrate consumption in the last 30-40 years are the two leading factors behind the high rates of obesity and metabolic syndrome in the US,’ the report stated. It also raised the issue of official dietary recommendations: ‘Contrary to what might be expected, our analysis suggests we now probably consume not enough fat, not enough saturated fat and too much carbohydrates. This is particularly true in the Western world.’ Fat shouldn’t be blamed for the problems caused by the excessive consumption of carbohydrates. In his memoir Family Romance Lanchester tells us that his mother slimmed down by following her doctor’s simple and effective prescription – to limit starches.
Colin Kidd refers to a ‘nationalist mob’ descending on the BBC Scotland headquarters in Glasgow on the Sunday before the independence referendum in September 2014 (LRB, 4 February). While there was a large demonstration outside the Pacific Quay building on the banks of the Clyde, it was far from being a mob. I was working a shift at the Daily Record that day. The paper is based on the other side of the river, a short distance from the BBC. A bemused colleague arrived on the main editorial floor to tell the few staff present that a large nationalist procession was making its way along the Broomielaw, bound for Pacific Quay, and we gathered at the windows to watch it pass. There were men, women and children of all ages, as well as more than a few pets. There were hundreds of saltire flags, and a few homemade placards questioning the corporation’s political reporting.
A few half-hearted boos were aimed at the Daily Record building (the ‘mainstream media’ were being blamed for the ‘No’ campaign’s persistent poll lead). But even the most committed Unionist could not have been intimidated. This was a well-behaved, cheerful and – as far as I could tell – entirely sober group of campaigners who believed they were making a point in a principled, democratic manner. I couldn’t help but feel they were wasting their time: the referendum was less than a week away, and they should have been out canvassing. Polls suggested that many undecided voters were edging closer to the ‘Yes’ side in the final days. It’s fair to assume that not many changed their minds at the sight of a few hundred protesters standing around outside a television studio.
I enjoyed Michael Wood’s tribute to William Empson, but I had difficulty with his account of Macbeth’s soliloquy (LRB, 4 February):
If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and
catch with his surcease success.
Empson argued that ‘catch, the single little flat word among these monsters, names an action.’ Wood praises Empson and his ‘act of alert critical reading to spot the action word among the proliferating concepts’, concluding that he was ‘finding metaphors for the behaviour of a piece of language’. Wood comments on the style, one might feel, while mistaking the substance. The function of the word ‘catch’ is to crystallise Macbeth’s feeling of uncertainty. His speech begins with an ‘If’, followed by ‘it were’ three times over, a repetition not found elsewhere in Shakespeare. These are ‘counterfactual conditionals’, as linguists call them, referring to an action or state that cannot or will not take place, a sense reinforced by other conditionals: ‘if … could … might … We’d jump the life to come.’ After seven lines spent contemplating an escape (‘jump’) Macbeth returns to reality: ‘But in these cases,/We still have judgment here.’ The point about the ‘action word’ then, is that it refers to an impossible action. Empson might have found it boring to spell this out, and perhaps this is what he meant by comparing it to ‘a child snatching at the moon as she rides thunderclouds’, knowing she will never catch it.
With regard to student loans, Norman Gowar states that ‘UK graduates who choose to work abroad … will be outside UK tax jurisdiction and never pay back their loans however much they earn’ (Letters, 4 February). I can’t speak for ‘non-UK EU graduates who move back home’, but he might be reassured to know that, as a UK graduate who left to work in the US, I complete an overseas income assessment form every year and have been repaying my loan for the last ten years. Being outside UK tax jurisdiction means that loan repayments cannot be collected through PAYE, not that they cannot be collected at all. Had I left for somewhere more exotic it might have been more difficult to find me.
Emory University, Atlanta
Lana Spawls writes that ‘only six people are legally allowed to be official picketers’ (LRB, 4 February). In fact, there is no legal limit on the number of pickets allowed on a line: the figure of six comes from the Code of Practice for Picketing, issued in 1966. It says that ‘pickets and their organisers should ensure that in general the number of pickets does not exceed six at any entrance to, or exit from, a workplace,’ but there is no limit in law on the number of people who may lawfully picket.
Terry Eagleton informs us that D.J. Taylor ‘is a product of the Oxford English School, and is by no means uncritical of its less than honourable history’ (LRB, 18 February). In fact, David read modern history at St John’s College. I should know, as I had the enjoyable, if challenging, experience of trying to teach him some medieval history.
In a rumination on the way D.J. Taylor ‘styles himself’, Terry Eagleton associates the use of initials in the place of first names with ‘a certain English stiffness, which may be one reason it is rare in the United States’. It was far from rare in the US in the period under question: among men of letters, H.L. Mencken, E.B. White and I.F. Stone stand out, but there were many others. In more recent times the US has Tayloresque holdouts like P.J. O’Rourke and D.T. Max. White males in the US are often given two names that are intended to be combined as initials: D.J. and J.T. being among the most common.
John Pemble claims that after the Reform Act of 1867, ‘for the first time ever men without property were allowed to vote’ (LRB, 7 January). The 1867 Act extended the vote to all male urban householders and male lodgers paying £10 rent a year for unfurnished accommodation, and almost doubled the electorate to two million, but it was still built around property qualifications. It was the Representation of the People Act 1918, consequent on the war efforts of property-less men and many women, that really widened suffrage (from the 7.7 million entitled to vote in 1912 to 21.4 million by the end of 1918) by abolishing nearly all property qualifications for men.
Dan Hancox states that Basques helped to write the Spanish constitution of 1978 (LRB, 17 December 2015). In fact there was no representative of any of the Basque parties in the group that did that job and the members of the Spanish Congress representing Basque parties either voted against or were absent when the constitution was approved in October 1978. In the referendum held to ratify the constitution later that year, it was supported by only 35 per cent of the population of the Basque country with the right to vote, and in none of the Basque provinces did support reach 50 per cent.
Alan Bennett expresses surprise that the governor of the Bank of England chose Lincoln Cathedral as a suitable venue to give a speech announcing a likely rise in the interest rate (LRB, 7 January). Our generation isn’t the first to couple God and Mammon in this way. The collapse of sterling prompted the archbishops of Canterbury and York to decree a service of national prayer on Sunday, 3 January 1932, which in turn inspired the Oxford classicist H.W. Garrod to supply a ‘missing stanza’ to Coleridge and Southey’s ‘The Devil’s Walk’. The lines are printed in Garrod’s Epigrams:
He passed a church, and listened in,
And almost lost the sense of sin.
‘Why, this’ (the Devil said) ‘might cheer
The very devil’ – for his ear
Had caught the satisfying sound
Of two archbishops praying for the Pound.
The LRB’s caption-writer speculates that Dürer’s drawing of a man pointing to his side, which has been interpreted by some as an image of the risen Christ displaying his final wound, might have been received by Dürer’s physician, to whom he sent the drawing, as an ‘early modern pager alert’ (LRB, 4 February). Christ’s wound is traditionally depicted on Jesus’s proper right side (as art historians say), and Dürer’s image shows him gesturing towards his proper left side. That said, it’s usually supposed that Dürer used a mirror in producing this wonderful self-portrait, now in the Kunsthalle in Bremen. In which case, in order to produce the figure in the image, Dürer would indeed have stood before the mirror pointing with his left hand to a spot on his right side (you can try this, as I have, in your bathroom mirror). If he’d wanted to depict himself as the risen Christ, he would have reversed the posture. If, on the other hand, it’s a pager alert, would Dürer’s physician have known that the message had to be decoded with the help of a mirror? Such spatial ambiguity could have terrible results in a clinical context. A third possibility: the figure in the image is gesturing towards the region often associated with the spleen – the seat so it was believed of melancholy, a state which fascinated Dürer (see his Melencolia I of 1514). ‘The yellow spot where it hurts’ is thus the seat of his depression, as well as the source of his artistic temperament. So, neither a pager alert, nor a religious icon, but a note to his therapist?
Saint Louis University, Missouri
Christopher Tayler quotes Jack Reacher, in one of Lee Child’s novels, claiming that he doesn’t work out, and that his ‘extreme mesomorph physique, with a six-pack like a cobbled city street’ is ‘genetic’ (LRB, 4 February). Nonsense. Six-packs are not genetic, except in the sense that we are all originally endowed with them, more or less. But most of us lose them as adults, owing to bad diet and lack of exercise. It is physically impossible that Reacher could have a ‘natural’ six-pack with his diet and lifestyle. Even in fiction, some minimum of realism is necessary.
Alexander Nagel proposes that Michelangelo’s David was originally ‘intended for a position high up on one of the buttresses ringing Brunelleschi’s cupola’ in Florence (LRB, 4 February). But there are no buttresses ringing Brunelleschi’s cupola. The statue was meant to be placed at the spring point of a wall buttress on one of the three tribunes surrounding the cathedral apse, a hundred feet below the base of the dome, where its proportions would have made perfect sense viewed from the ground. In 2010 a fibreglass replica of David was briefly installed in that position for the citizenry to see what had been intended six hundred years earlier.
‘To be able to see the divine figure from behind, violating a prohibition imposed by God on Moses,’ Alexander Nagel writes, ‘was a transgression associated with the Devil’. I’m afraid he’s got it back to front. In Exodus 33:23 Yahweh is quoted saying to Moses: ‘Thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.’
Iain Sinclair writes that Allen Ginsberg, ‘in order to demonstrate the meaning of nakedness’, took off his clothes at a party in London (LRB, 17 December 2015). Allen made his first naked public appearance at a reading in 1957. The impetus came from a member of the audience, who shouted out, ‘What do you mean by naked?’ In response, Allen stripped and challenged the heckler – according to Anaïs Nin, who was in the audience – ‘to expose his feelings and real self as nakedly as he had’.
The party in London, on 3 June 1965, was organised by the writer Barry Miles. Ginsberg was his house guest. The story goes that John Lennon and George Harrison stopped by Miles’s apartment around midnight to find a naked Ginsberg with a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign tied to his penis. ‘You don’t do that in front of the birds!’ Lennon reportedly said.
If Jenny Diski’s lachrymal glands conform to established principles of human anatomy and physiology, they are of the exocrine, not the endocrine, variety (LRB, 4 February).
Glenfield, New York
It’s difficult to believe that, as Tony Sharpe claims, Hemingway boxed with Ezra Pound in Paris because Hemingway was about 15 years younger than Pound (Letters, 18 February). There was a famous boxing match in Paris in 1929 between Hemingway and the Canadian writer Morley Callaghan, with F. Scott Fitzgerald as timekeeper. In the second round the rather smaller Callaghan, who had considerable amateur boxing experience, cut Hemingway’s lip. This apparently upset Scott Fitzgerald enough to make him forget his role as timekeeper. In the fourth minute of the round, with both men tiring, Hemingway tried to end it quickly and left himself open to a left that knocked him to the floor. It was the end of several friendships.
Gorssel, The Netherlands
Following up the doctrinal debate about appropriation of ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’, I’d merely draw attention to the fact that the tune, played on a suitably rustic pipe, was the call sign of an MI6 ‘numbers station’ in Cyprus, which broadcast strings of numbers in an electronically synthesised woman’s voice to be picked up by its officers and spies in Eastern Europe (Letters, 4 February).
Pulborough, West Sussex
Derek Walmsley presents a chart of the evolution and recent decline of gross revenues from various forms of recorded music (LRB, 7 January). This is part of a larger picture: the switch from touring in order to sell records to giving away recordings in order to sell concert tickets and band merchandise. In 2014 Billboard estimated the value of the global touring industry at $20 billion per year. The concert experience cannot – yet – be replicated digitally and reproduced costlessly, which has made possible a dramatic increase in ticket prices and the proliferation of highly profitable stadium and festival events.
James Hogan describes his travails at the hands of French security guards (Letters, 18 February). I have discovered that for some reason security officers consider coats less in need of searching. So I have bought a couple of fishing waistcoats. These are generally olive green, though some manufacturers offer them in a range of colours. Their numerous pockets are designed to hold the various knick-knacks involved in fly fishing. At airport security X-ray machines they are easily removed and passed through. Even better, they do not count as part of a niggardly cabin baggage allowance. At first I even stuffed a paperback or two into the pockets. That was cumbersome. Now I carry an e-reader.