Inigo Thomas’s essay on Turner’s steam-train picture has prompted much comment (LRB, 20 October). But neither Thomas nor anyone else who has discussed the painting has really sorted out a central problem: which bridge are we looking at? There were stories in Ruskin’s time purporting to describe the artist drawing from the train as it crossed the river at Maidenhead. And Anthony King seems to accept that the distant bridge on the left of the composition is the Maidenhead road bridge (Letters, 3 November). It looks to me like an amalgamation of Brunel’s two-arched rail bridge and the old road bridge with its rusticated voussoirs. But the structure that bears the weight of Turner’s rushing locomotive is surely not, as Nick Wellings claims, Hanwell Viaduct, also known as the Wharncliffe Viaduct. That is a sheer-sided brick structure, certainly part of Brunel’s project. The train in the painting is crossing what is fairly clearly a medieval stone bridge, with triangular cutwaters. Might one aspect of the subject be, like that of the Fighting Temeraire, an elegy for past technology in the light of the new?
The past is very evident in the collection of vignettes that Turner assembles around his central image. The ploughman (it’s surely a plough, not a gun) and the dancing figures are gathered like mementos in a souvenir album with, let’s face it, precious little spatial relation to the train and its bridge, which have their own perspective, almost unconnected to their surroundings. Turner had been professor of perspective at the Royal Academy and proved in innumerable works that he could handle the device theoretically and practically, literally and imaginatively. The complete breakdown of perspective in Rain, Steam and Speed is particularly intriguing since this is a work in which Turner seems to be reasserting his admiration for Poussin and his vividly expressive classical geometry.
Bob Hall wonders what the hare was doing on the bridge. It is another of the illustrative vignettes, and as Thomas says, a traditional symbol of speed. In the narrow medieval structure Turner depicts he has room only for a single track, but the hare, streaking ahead, is not presented as threatened by the train; rather as a natural exemplar of what man has at last achieved in the locomotive.
In all this debate, we might remember what Ruskin thought of the picture. He never wrote about it, and said only, in a grudging reported comment, that Turner painted it ‘to show what he could do with so ugly a subject’. He was not the definitive interpreter of the master.
Peter Geoghegan is rather too generous in his account of the economic failings of the Yes campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum when he writes: ‘It envisaged using oil revenues to cover the expenditure involved in constructing a new state, but in 2015-16 the tax take from the North Sea collapsed to £60 million, a casualty of Saudi Arabian attempts to smother US shale gas at birth’ (LRB, 3 November).
First, oil revenues were required to cover not just the new state’s start-up costs but, far more important, the ongoing (and longstanding) gap between Scottish public expenditure and onshore tax revenues (over and above Scotland’s share of the UK deficit). Second, while it is true that the tax raised from North Sea oil fell dramatically in 2015 as a result of a decline in the oil price, this development merely made a bad situation worse. There was already a large shortfall between projected revenue and expenditure in an independent Scotland, based on the oil price in 2014.
The independence prospectus was fundamentally flawed in 2014 because it used a very short and atypically benign sample period (2008-13) that concealed the long-term picture, downplayed the risks of basing economic plans on a highly volatile asset, made optimistic assumptions about future oil prices, and conveniently ignored the long-run decline in the profitability of North Sea oil (and thus of any tax revenues) as a result of rising exploration and extraction costs.
All of this was pointed out repeatedly during the campaign but was generally dismissed as the scaremongering of Project Fear. In so far as the problem was acknowledged at all by the Yes campaign, it was airily assumed that any additional deficit could be covered by borrowing. While that might have been fine in principle (at least as a temporary measure to cover a temporary downturn in revenue), it was never explained in practice how an independent Scotland that was in a currency union with the rest of the UK could expect to obtain the Bank of England’s backing for taking on vast quantities of additional debt. Advocates of alternative currency arrangements, such as the unofficial adoption of sterling, euro membership or issuing a new Scottish pound, were conspicuously silent about the fact that their solution of choice would be incompatible with running a 10 per cent deficit for the foreseeable future.
In short, Geoghegan is right that a second referendum campaign will require fresh thinking in a challenging economic environment, but he is wrong to imply that this dilemma is primarily the product of changed circumstances.
Susan Pedersen writes about the pioneering of international relations theory in the Journal of Race Development in the early 20th century (LRB, 20 October). There remains to this day a Rhodes Professor of Race Relations at Oxford, the title given to what is in effect a chair in African studies. It was occupied by Terence Ranger from 1987 until his retirement ten years later.
‘Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach,’ Hugh Trevor-Roper said in the 1960s. ‘But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness.’ As things stood, he went on, African history consisted in the study of ‘the unedifying gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe’. Trevor-Roper had been Ranger’s doctoral supervisor and was attempting to kill off an emerging discipline that Ranger, John Iliffe and others were seeking to establish at the University of Dar es Salaam and more widely. Trevor-Roper’s inclusion in The Invention of Tradition, edited by Ranger and Eric Hobsbawm, may have marked an attempt at reconciliation, or at least some acknowledgment of an alternative historiography, but Trevor-Roper never learned when to keep his mouth shut; a month after The Invention of Tradition appeared, the Sunday Times began its serialisation of the Hitler diaries, which Trevor-Roper authenticated but which soon turned out to be fakes [The Invention of Tradition was reviewed by Norman Stone in the LRB of 21 July 1983.]. In a way, the episode destroyed him. African history is today a recognised field of study.
I wonder if T. Lothrop Stoddard’s white supremacist polemic The Rising Tide of Colour (1920), mentioned by Susan Pedersen, is the same as the book Tom Buchanan advises Nick Carraway to read in The Great Gatsby (1922): ‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires by this man Goddard … The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved … This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.’
While I cannot claim to be impartial, having grown up on New York’s Lower East Side knowing some of the people mentioned in Jeremy Harding’s review of Beat Generation at the Pompidou, it was when I arrived at his comment that Maurice Girodias published ‘various unreadable works by Henry Miller’ that I realised Harding was either having us on or he simply cannot stand the Beats (LRB, 8 September). His intention seems to have been to declare the whole thing (the movement, the show) a waste of time, that American poetry was fine without them. Was it really?
Ginsberg, he says was an ‘unholy fool’, and an ‘illustrious, predatory queer’. That’s a bit too much mischief. I spent considerable time around Allen as a teenager. He encouraged me to continue my classical studies; we worked together on my first translations. He was hardly predatory. Perhaps Harding means ‘promiscuous’? Everybody orgied back then. By ‘illustrious’, I suppose he means ‘famous’. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? There really were no out gays back then. Ginsberg was brave.
Jeremy Harding writes: It would have been nice to call Ginsberg a ‘holy fool’, only he wasn’t an ascetic. On his imperious need for physical intimacy – here, there, wherever – it’s ingrained in the work and splashed all over the life, that vast baggage piled on top of Beat generation writings.
Enitharmon have just republished an ‘anniversary epistle’ to Allen Ginsberg from David Gascoyne on the occasion of Ginsberg’s 60th birthday in 1986. It’s a fascinating document – it eluded the editor of Gascoyne’s Selected Prose 1934-96 – and says what any curious British reader might have felt from the 1950s on: that American verse had ‘an adventuresome energy of a kind absent from the poetry of the UK’. Ginsberg embodied that energy. On a weekend out from school in the 1960s, I drifted to Indica Books on Southampton Row, and came across Ginsberg browsing the shelves. I might as well have seen Blake – I was 16 and impressionable – though it was another ten years before I discovered that he liked to sing Blake’s poems. His own weren’t exactly Blakean. Still, they were unlike any of the crafty British tours de force we had to learn about: Larkin, Hughes etc. Ginsberg just set off across open ground, undefended by metaphor. Towards the end of his life, I went to a reading in London; he had his harmonium with him and performed a round of Blake’s songs. That was something.
Garry Saunders states that ‘a conservative calculation suggests there were at least three million slaves in Berlin at any one time, their numbers boosted, when required, by the occupants of concentration camps’ (Letters, 3 November). One slave is a slave too many. But is he seriously suggesting that their numbers would have just about equalled the official population of that city in the 1930s and first half of the 1940s?
Srdeni Vashtar is not a ferret, as Katherine Rundell writes in her excellent piece on Saki (LRB, 11 August), but a ‘polecat-ferret’, a hybrid of the common ferret (Mustela putorius furo) with a wild European polecat (Mustela putorius). They are stronger, fiercer and more independent than either polecats or ferrets, and, like Sredni Vashtar, don’t like to be caged. Also, most accounts of the death by tiger of Sir Hector Munro’s son omit the fact, recorded in various provincial newspapers at the time, that Hugh Munro, a civilian, was not out hunting when the tiger attacked, but squatting to relieve himself in the bushes after a picnic (Letters, 8 September).
Maryland Institute College of Art
Rosemary Hill seems to suggest that Maynard Keynes was bursar of Steven Runciman’s Cambridge college (Trinity); in fact he was bursar at King’s (LRB, 20 October).
Trinity Hall, Cambridge