Barbara Newman begins her review of Leonora Neville’s book on Anna Komnene by pointing out the long-standing lack of history written by or about women (LRB, 2 March). She’s right, of course, but may be unduly optimistic in implying that this state of affairs ended in the 1970s. As it happens, I am currently tracking the space and prominence afforded to men and to women – as reviewers, essayists, letter-writers, diarists, reviewed authors, poets and subjects – in the LRB for 2017.
In the five issues of Volume 39 to date, men have made up 78 per cent of the reviewers and used 83 per cent of the total word count dedicated to reviews; 78 per cent of the authors reviewed have been male, with 73 per cent of the books reviewed being written by men. Reviews of books by women average 80 per cent of the length devoted to reviews of books by men. All of the Short Cuts and At the Movies features have been by men; 87 per cent of the letters published have been from men, using 88 per cent of the total word count for letters; 75 per cent of the poets are men and they have supplied 83 per cent of the poems published.
Some of the data sets are of course very small as yet: the prominence of men as the subjects of essays (85 per cent of all the essays where the subject is a person) may be a temporary feature following the election of Donald Trump, while it is surely a statistical blip that the women diarists featured to date – all two of them – have both been writing about men. Newman’s own slimline review (1715 words, 40 per cent of the average length of reviews in that issue) appears so far to be the rarest kind as well as one of the shortest: a woman reviewing a book by a woman about a woman. But possibly this will have averaged out by the year’s end.
Working out how this state of affairs comes about is a different matter, one not really within my remit. I’m unwilling to suppose that misogyny plays a part at the irreproachable LRB – even though the latest front cover trails a long review by a man of two books by men about a ground-breaking photographer with a quote calling the subject ‘that little minx’. A female subject: obviously. And even though one of the nine letters – all by men – that you publish takes a woman reviewer to task for spending some of her review of books about a male artist in discussing his relationship with the main woman in his life, and accuses her of ‘gossip’. For comparison, how likely is Mayakovsky to be called a ‘little minx’ on the cover, or Colm Tóibín and the authors he reviews to be accused of retailing gossip in their study of Diane Arbus?
Maybe it is simply the case that women are just that much less interesting, less significant, less likely to publish review-worthy books, less likely to submit work to you, less likely to write to your standards, less likely to write you letters, more terse overall in their expenditure of words. Possibly. But the ratios that appear – 78:22; 73:27; 70:30; 87:13; 67:33; 85:15; 83:17 and so on – are eerily familiar. Research suggests that people perceive men and women – whether in zombie movies, panel games, crowd scenes or business meetings – as equally represented when the male-to-female ratio they are looking at actually hovers around 83:17. They start to regard situations as unduly female-dominated when women approach 30 per cent of those present.
Barbara Newman cites Catherine Morland on history. Another apt Austen reference is to Anne Elliot in Persuasion. Discussing views of women expressed in print, Anne declares she will not allow them to prove anything because ‘The pen has been in [male] hands.’ To a great extent – somewhere between 67 and 87 per cent, in fact – it seems that it still is. Even now. Even here.
Stephen Sedley rightly identifies the core constitutional principle in the Brexit case as the one that stands in the way of the royal prerogative being used to dispense with laws passed by Parliament (LRB, 2 March). As he says, it follows from this that it matters not whether the law concerned was the Dangerous Dogs Act or the European Communities Act 1972 and the devolution legislation.
This was precisely the argument advanced on behalf of the government of Wales. However, the majority judgment preferred to focus on the unique importance of European Union law as a new and independent source of UK law which, by virtue of its constitutional status, could not be removed by the prerogative.
The effect of the Supreme Court’s judgment may, therefore, not be as wide as some have supposed. The logic underpinning its reasoning would not necessarily be capable of being transposed to any piece of legislation enacted by Parliament.
Leading Counsel for Wales, Brick Court Chambers, London WC2
Markus Eichhorn claims that Frans de Waal’s ‘elegant experiments on primates have shown evidence of intentionality in communication’ (Letters, 2 March). There is other evidence, even more compelling, that dumb animals do not communicate. Presumably what Eichhorn means by ‘intentionality’ is meaningfulness or purposefulness. Music is intensely meaningful to us. To hear a sound as music is to hear it as implicitly calling for (i.e., intending or meaning to elicit) an appropriate response: dancing, singing, clapping, drumming or any other kind of improvised participation that is in some way related to its formal features.
Responses like these are very simple and intuitive, much more so than those demanded by language, and they rely on anatomical equipment no more specialised than a pair of legs or the ability to produce vocal sounds. Even so, dumb animals show not the slightest inclination to enter into musical relations with us. Even lyre-birds, which are capable of precisely mimicking any sound they hear, show no interest in improvising music with humans.
The behaviour of dumb animals can modify our own in ways that seem meaningful to us, but behaviour-modification is not communication. If dumb animals had any inkling of what intentional communication involved, they would want – and they’d be able – to communicate musically with us just as much as we wish we could with them: unfortunately they don’t.
I looked for the usual reference to Richard Nixon in David Bromwich’s piece about Trump, and sure enough it was there (LRB, 16 February). Maybe not a nice man, perhaps a rather nasty one, and his presidency ended terribly, but consider Nixon’s achievements. He initiated a fight against cancer and illegal drugs; enforced the desegregation of schools in the South; legislated to reform healthcare and welfare; established meaningful bodies or laws on the environment, occupational safety and clean air; eventually ended (having first, it’s true, enlarged) the Vietnam War; and opened détente with China and the Soviet Union. Nasty men can perhaps succeed as US president.
Peter M. Smith
Linlithgow, West Lothian
I doubt if there’s any real connection between the size of a man’s fingers and the size of his penis. If Donnie and I had a dick-off, I don’t know who would win (or what, exactly, would constitute ‘winning’). Despite my normal-sized hands, mine is pretty small (but I’m old enough not to care much). Judging by Donnie’s defensiveness when the question arises, I suspect his is as well. And I’ve heard that women who’ve had the misfortune to encounter him in the park call him ‘Little Donnie’.
What a rush to see Sidney Blumenthal come back swashbuckling through your pages (LRB, 16 February). These are some toffish swipes. The word isn’t ‘charisma’, but something like it. Even if the bit about Fred Trump running for mayor against John Lindsay in 1969 didn’t pan out, it’s nice to know Sid’s still got it. This is some jeremiad, more deeply felt somehow than The Clinton Wars and way less long.
For all his command of postwar New York City political history, Blumenthal doesn’t make explicit that the 2016 Hillary Clinton brand was John Lindsay’s liberalism, with Acela trains instead of limousines. But I must give him his with-it-ness. Here’s lookin’ at you, Sid. There’s really no more chipper cipher in the biz, is there? For his next piece, I would love it if he looked inside his trenchcoat pockets for his party’s soul instead of pouring his heart out into reactive spluttering and trenchant ripostes. A message with this kind of flair and fury might have won.
Rory Stewart asks why Roman-style baths and bathing had been abandoned in Britain by the mid-18th century, but not in Aleppo, although both had once been part of the Roman Empire (LRB, 16 February). It’s true that there was no continuous history of hot-and-cold bathing in Britain, but it had in fact experienced a revival by this period. A group of Turkey Merchants opened a bagnio on Pincock Lane (Newgate Street) in London in 1679; this was followed within a few years by the Hummums in Covent Garden and the Duke’s Bagnio on Long Acre, then Verdier’s Hummums on Old Belton Street (1709). By the 1760s Covent Garden also boasted Haddock’s and Lovejoy’s Bagnios. As the name Hummums (i.e. hamam) shows, these establishments in their 18th-century heyday were consciously linked to modern Oriental rather than Ancient Roman precedent, but as they closed or decayed into mere cold baths in the 19th century, a belated desire to reassert the Roman connection also came into play. By the 1880s Pincock Lane had been renamed Roman Bath Street, and the very modest cold bath on Strand Lane – now the last survivor of 18th-century public bathing in Central London – had been reinvented as a genuine Roman relic from the days of Nero, Vespasian or Titus, still in use in its original function. But this wishful reconnection with a Roman heritage could only happen as an alternative to Oriental affinities, not in a combination linking two former provinces of the empire.
King’s College London
In Moonlight, reviewed by Michael Wood, the ‘elaborate toy crown’ on the dashboard of Juan’s (Mahershala Ali’s) car is not a toy but an air freshener (LRB, 16 February). It’s a deft period detail that instantly recalls the 1990s in the United States. The crown-shaped air fresheners were popular with black drivers, prompting some racist internet rumours about their meaning: gang membership, a wily Ku Klux Klan plot, and other, still wilder interpretations. None of that was true. They just looked cool. They’re of a piece with the ‘stylish swerve’ and ‘slight swagger’ Wood notices in Ali’s Juan.
Colin Brewer seems to have read my letter as suggesting that the Finnish Defence Forces were an army of heroin addicts (Letters, 19 January and Letters, 16 February). The technique was one of low-dose heroin use. There were a few cases of soldiers becoming addicts owing to the ready availability of the drug, but it was such a familiar remedy that most soldiers took it without giving much thought to the possibility of addiction, and indeed did not become addicted in spite of regular use. But the military purpose is in the name of the drug. Heroin banishes fear and in that sense can make users into heroes.
Jours en Vaux, France