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Letters

Vol. 38 No. 23 · 1 December 2016

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Hooray Polly

Rosemary Hill sets about D.J. Taylor’s ‘guide to modern snobbery’ (LRB, 3 November). I’ve never read anything by anyone who admits to being a snob – it’s always by someone further down the table. As a colonised Irish girl growing up in Ulster, a dilute victim of Stockholm Syndrome, I was deeply enamoured of the ripples of news of upper-class mores and minxes flowing across the sea to the shores of Lough Neagh, though the news might have been a teeny bit skewed by my getting the know-how from the ersatz columnist William Hickey in the Daily Express. I wanted to be like these mythical people, whose only qualifications for being in ‘the papers’ were that they were the daughters of baronets or cousins of viscounts or the 13th son of an earl and often had names that wound on and on like old serpents, dragging the testimony of centuries of intermarriage through the great houses of England in their wake – Lady Victoria Gettehout Bayne Allstrop Wyndbag-Buttingforth Smythe-Scott.

In Tyrone in those days we were so far behind the times that we spoke a remnanty Elizabethan language: wind was ‘wynd’, tea was ‘tay’, we used the word ‘blade’ for a young woman (not a young man) and ‘cub’ for a boy; and ‘lavatory’ and ‘looking glass’ were the words we would have used if the English hadn’t stolen our ‘toilets’ and ‘mirrors’. I’d never heard the word ‘pardon’: if you didn’t hear what was said you got a clip round the ear. And we used writing-paper torn out of exercise books with copybook headings when we put pen to paper. ‘Grand’ was the word we used when things were more or less fine. So when Nancy Mitford’s book about U and non-U came out (I was 14 and sent off for it with a postal order) I was more than pleased to find that I spoke U lingo by default. It stood me in good stead when I went to Vogue when very young and found it full of sweet and beautifully mannered women. Hickey had led me to believe the upper classes were fast and rowdy arrogants, who drank themselves into a stupor and were, of course, titled. The women at Vogue didn’t qualify – they were more like Jane Austen heroines and their put-downs were so subtle I didn’t recognise them. Tiggers never do.

There were two people in the Vogue features department then: the features editor, who was me, 22 years old, a fool in the forest, no experience whatsoever of any job; and Vicky, my nice, impeccable and competent secretary. She always, always wore a fat headband, pearls, a round-necked Fair Isle cashmere sweater, a tiny kilt with a big safety pin, and loafers with a green and red strap. My fake-fur-collared purple coat from Dickens and Jones didn’t, I sadly realised, quite answer. She always went away to the country on Friday afternoons but I didn’t know where. Quite soon she gave in her notice (I don’t think it was anything I said) and I remember my stunned astonishment when I read in the court circular in the Times that my nice Vicky Scott was Lady Victoria Gettehout Bayne Allstrop Wyndbag-Buttingforth Smythe-Scott and had been appointed lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret. I couldn’t make head or tail of it. She hadn’t ever mentioned it. I thought titles were hung on labels around necks like the enamel ones on old decanters. Blimey. I wanted her to come back so I could walk around her, looking at the real thing.

My enchanted snobbery had a profound effect on me. I married an Old Etonian, grandson of the Hon. Charles Grenville Fortescue, sixth son of the third earl, though I never knew it until my future mother-in-law (God she must have been appalled, but manners prevailed) let me know it. He was Andy to me.

Polly Devlin
London W4

Brutal

Owen Hatherley doesn’t find space to relay the opinion of Duccio Turin, professor of building and Reyner Banham’s colleague at University College London, that Brutalism gave full expression to an industry that had become near-monopolised by the cement and concrete interests, had deskilled its workforce through casualisation, intimidated and blacklisted trade unionists, presided over levels of death and injury next only to mining, and sided with a Tory government that smiled when 24 pickets were arrested during the 1972 national building workers’ strike, three of whom were imprisoned for three years (LRB, 17 November). Turin was of the view that in their obsession with style, architects, along with their critics and commentators, were blind to the realities of the building industry’s treatment of its workers. Witness the late Zaha Hadid, who reportedly said that the appalling conditions of the migrants working on her al-Wakrah stadium in Qatar, intended for the 2022 World Cup, were no concern of hers.

Rodney Mace
Hay-on-Wye

Owen Hatherley overlooks one crucial ‘social’ relationship: the one between the architects and the people who work, live or learn in the buildings they have designed. In some cases they seem to see no reason to regard the occupants as anything more than lucky visitors to their masterpieces. As one of the first occupants of the Economist building designed by Peter and Alison Smithson in the mid-1960s, I found that they had ignored our needs at both macro and micro levels. As a result an unduly high proportion of the interior was devoted to ‘utilities’ – lavatories, lifts, staircases etc – with only a sliver remaining for the tenants. Alison Smithson would only allow small, albeit picturesque, Japanese lacquer baskets to hold the masses of paper generated by the journalists’ activities. In another case she refused to allow the famous school she and her husband designed in Suffolk to be photographed when occupied by teachers and other irrelevances.

Nicholas Faith
London N7

A Bed for Fifty

T.J. Clark writes of The Garden of Earthly Delights that it seems ‘likely at least … that Nassau and his head of household knew full well that what they were protecting was a singularity, a mystery, perhaps even a survivor from a lost – suppressed – world of belief’ (Letters, 3 November). A singularity and a mystery, yes; a survivor of a persecuted heretical cult, as Raoul Vaneigem suggests, no (LRB, 8 September).

The issue here is an old chestnut. The assumption is that Bosch was so weird he must have been the equivalent of today’s outsider artist: a marginal figure who somehow flourished in the mainstream of medieval high culture. It’s a short leap, in the medieval context, from outsider to heretic, and it’s a theory with strong imaginative appeal. But it doesn’t hold up. Vaneigem’s essay more or less recapitulates Wilhelm Fraenger’s work in the 1940s, which first brought up the supposed links between Bosch, Jacob Van Almaegien and the Adamites. In Fraenger’s reading, since The Garden of Earthly Delights was manifestly not susceptible to orthodox Catholic interpretation, and it was unthinkable that it was a personal piece, it must have been commissioned by some non-Catholic sect. Fraenger’s suggestion was the Brethren, with Van Almaegien at their head, commissioning Bosch to create triptychs that reflected their philosophy of love. Vaneigem puts more weight of intention on Bosch, but the foundation is the same.

The leading modern Bosch scholar, Walter Gibson, demonstrates the ‘gross implausibility’ of Fraenger’s claims. There is no evidence that Bosch’s home town harboured a heretical sect, that Van Almaegien was the head of one, or that he and Bosch ever crossed paths. And beyond some circular symbolic readings of his supposedly Adamatical paintings, there is no evidence at all to suggest that Bosch himself was a heretic.

Instead, the evidence suggests that Bosch was both orthodox and rather clubbable. Aside from his vast success across Europe as a religious painter, he was a respected guildsman and burgher in his home town of ’s-Hertogenbosch, and a member of the inner circle of its Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady. The Brotherhood was very much an orthodox Catholic institution and a mainstay of ’s-Hertogenbosch’s civic life. It’s false to conclude, with Vaneigem, that this in itself constitutes evidence of ‘the degree to which the dominance of the Inquisition … led some men and women into a clandestine second existence’. All it suggests, in fact, is that despite the weirdness of his work, Bosch was socially and religiously orthodox.

As Chaucer, Langland and Brant (whose Ship of Fools Bosch painted) show, bawdiness, madness and anticlericalism were all mainstream at that time, even if they inspired a frisson of worry in readers. Bosch’s oddness and style may be without precedent in large-scale art, but there is plenty to be found in manuscript miniatures. With all this in mind, to presume he was an outsider is to avoid a more interesting question. If he was an insider, then what on earth was medieval Europe really like?

Tim Smith-Laing
London SE1

No Sharp Corners

Both Mike Jay and Will Self give Enoch Powell too much credit for the closure of the asylums (LRB, 8 September and 17 November). By the time Powell gave his speech in 1961 declaring the era of the asylum over, nearly 10 per cent of mental hospital beds had already closed, without any clear steer from government. Even the 1959 Mental Health Act, which emphasised the notion of voluntary treatment, seems to have had little impact on this process; beds had been closing since reaching peak numbers in 1955. As a good politician, Powell was pushing at an already half-open door.

Philip Timms
London W4

Will Self dismisses an intricate piece by Eva Kotátková in the Wellcome’s exhibition on the history of the asylum as ‘an assemblage of oddities … looking rather too archly artful to convey anything much about the fretting and strutting of the sequestered’. Generally I would agree with Self when he says, ‘I felt this was the problem with pretty much all the work on show produced by visitors rather than inmates,’ but not in Kotátková’s case. She has worked closely with inmates at the Gugging Clinic in Austria, an institution hugely influential in bringing outsider art to a wider audience, and has collaborated with patients at the Bohnice Psychiatric Hospital near Prague. Her installation at the Wellcome is remarkable and stacked with insight. We have a poor record in the UK of taking seriously those artists who work instinctively, just for themselves, yet all over Europe and the US there are museums and galleries devoted to Outsider Art / Art Brut. It is mysterious, it confuses, and in this literary country of ours we seem not to know what to do with what we can’t find words for.

Anne Rothenstein
London W2

No hares were harmed

None of the correspondence following Inigo Thomas’s piece on Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed has referred directly to the final pages of Ruskin’s Praeterita and Dilecta (LRB, 20 October). They describe Mrs John Simon’s account of her journey in 1843 from Beam Bridge (then the furthest point westwards that Brunel’s Great Western had reached) to Paddington. There was a tremendous storm, which continued almost to Swindon. She was sharing a compartment with two kindly-looking old gentlemen. At Bristol the one opposite her asked if he might open the window, warning her that she might be drenched. She assented and he stuck his head out for some nine minutes. When he drew it in, she asked if she could take a look.

The following year she went to the Royal Academy and was amazed to see the Turner. ‘As I stood looking at it I heard a mawkish voice behind me say: “There now, just look at that; ain’t it just like Turner? Whoever saw such a ridiculous conglomeration?" I turned very quietly round and said “I did; I was in the train that night and it is perfectly and wonderfully true."’

Anthony Barnes
Norwich

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