Vol. 40 No. 23 · 6 December 2018

Search by issue:

There is another way

Emma Barnes writes that Keynes would have found unrealistic ‘the idea that governments might impose hairshirt policies on citizens (especially when there was no guarantee that other governments would do the same) or that individuals themselves would choose to reduce their consumption dramatically (again, with no guarantee that others would do the same)’ (Letters, 22 November). It’s worth noting that one of Keynes’s closest friends, Frank Ramsey, who was also a fellow of King’s, produced a paper on savings whose significance for the question of how a society should respond to climate change wasn’t appreciated until decades after his death at the age of 26. As the economist Partha Dasgupta puts it, the paper helps us answer the question ‘How should we measure human wellbeing over time and across generations?’ ‘Over time’, in Ramsey’s eyes, meant an unlimited extension into the future. He was interested in whether it was possible to devise a formula for the proportion of a nation’s wealth that it should save in order to produce the maximum benefit for all future generations. If a nation, having inherited the benefits of a previous generation, saves too little, it will deprive future generations. If it saves too much, it will suffer deprivation itself in order to benefit future generations.

In working out a ‘Ramsey Rule’ for saving, Ramsey created a term for the maximum possible rate of enjoyment a society could aspire to. He called it ‘Bliss’; it appeared as the letter B in his equations. ‘Enough must be saved,’ he wrote, ‘to reach or approach bliss some time, but this does not mean that our whole income must be saved. The more we save the sooner we shall reach bliss, but the less enjoyment we shall have now, and we have to set the one against the other.’

A recent paper on climate change, to take just one example, adapts Ramsey’s model of economic growth to argue that ‘sacrifices of consumption that lower emissions prevent economically harmful climate change and thereby increase consumption possibilities in the future.’ And Ramsey’s inquiry goes to the heart of the issues of nuclear power and nuclear waste, where the question is: how much should we spend today to avoid possible harm to our descendants in ten thousand years’ time?

Karl Sabbagh
Bloxham, Oxfordshire

Did Greene know?

Michael Wood writes about the origins of The Third Man (LRB, 8 November). As Michael Korda remembers it, the film, which was talked about by Graham Greene (recently of MI6; he joined in 1941 and worked for Kim Philby) and Alexander Korda (knighted for services to MI6 and on whose production board the senior MI6 officer Claude Dansey sat), was first intended to be a ‘spy story’. Alexander Korda’s assistant Elizabeth Montagu, formerly of the OSS in Bern (where she had worked for Allen Dulles), accompanied Greene on a research trip to Vienna, where he was given a room in the hotel reserved for British officers, also the base for MI6’s Vienna station. This is the same hotel where the film’s character Major Calloway works (Wood calls him an ‘army man’ but he is clearly an intelligence officer).

Montagu introduced Greene to Philby’s friend, the Vienna correspondent for the Times Peter Smolka, now known as Peter Smollett, later OBE, a Russian spy who died in 1980 without having been exposed. It wasn’t until 1994 that research in the Soviet archives showed Smolka had been recruited by Philby in 1933 as agent ‘ABO’. Smolka spent nights drinking with Greene and showed him his unpublished though carefully researched stories, including one about the watering down of penicillin, for which he was eventually paid the generous sum of £250. Montagu later claimed that Greene and Korda wanted to conceal Greene’s indebtedness to Smolka’s material. His only credit in the film comes as the name of a bar or nightclub called Smolka.

Another coding is Harry Lime’s ‘best friend’, Baron Kurtz. Nigel West points out that this character shares the name of the MI5 agent provocateur who betrayed Graham Greene’s cousin Ben Greene. This was the royal biographer Harald Kurtz, an Austrian historian based in Oxford. Kurtz was exposed as a liar who denounced alleged Nazi sympathisers and fifth columnists for money; Ben Greene, a Quaker who helped many German refugees, was imprisoned because of him. Kurtz later ran an antiquarian bookshop until the Royal Library at Windsor noticed a shortfall on its shelves.

The most important coded message of all is perhaps hidden in plain sight. We may never find out if, at the time he wrote The Third Man in 1948, Greene already knew that his friend Philby (who was, it says in the Mitrokhin Archive, Smolka’s recruiter) was a traitor. This was after all several years before the exposure of Burgess and Maclean. But The Third Man tells the story of a writer who betrays his friend Harry: was Greene sending a signal to his erstwhile colleagues at MI6 about Kim (born Harold) Philby, who had smuggled people through the Viennese sewers when he was there in the early 1930s?

Sebastian Cody
London W1

Voltaire’s Skull

Fredric Jameson, in his illuminating piece on Karl Ove Knausgaard, asks us to ‘recall the story by Raymond Roussel of his discovery, in a dusty provincial museum, under glass, of the skull of Voltaire as a child’ (LRB, 8 November). A story concerning Voltaire features, along with the reanimated skull of the great orator Danton, in Chapter 3 of Roussel’s Locus Solus (1914), and Voltaire is prominent also in L’Allée aux lucioles or The Alley of Fireflies (indeed much of this unfinished novel is set at Frederick II’s summer palace at Sans Souci, where Voltaire was a guest, and its most entertaining section presents a new episode of Candide supposedly written by Voltaire for an expanded edition of the conte philosophique). It was the French humorist Alphonse Allais (1854-1905) who put together a spoofy collection of rarities that included the skull of Voltaire at the age of 17, along with a genuine piece of the fake cross of Christ, and a left-handed Chinese teacup. I have not come across an account of Roussel visiting Allais’s collection (now housed in Le Laboratoire Alphonse Allais in Honfleur). It isn’t mentioned by Roussel’s French biographer, François Caradec, who also edited numerous volumes of Allais’s writings – but that is not to say that it never happened. Since my introduction to a forthcoming translation of The Alley of Fireflies considers Roussel’s typically idiosyncratic depictions of Voltaire, I would welcome any further information.

Mark Ford
University College London

The Politics of Translation

Tim Marr rightly fine-tunes my account of the massacre of the Ephraimites in the Bible, emphasising that differences in pronunciation of the word for ‘river’ (shibboleth) were used to separate Them from Us (Letters, 22 November). He also refers to the more recent episode when Haitians in Dominica in 1937 were ordered to say ‘parsley’, perejil, and those who couldn’t roll their Rs Spanish-style were killed. In 2010, the poet Caroline Bergvall created a prescient performance piece called Say Parsley, which is invoked in the catalogue of the exhibition Say Shibboleth! at the Jüdisches Museum Hohenems (until 17 February 2019, then in Berlin). Language can be used to draw ‘an invisible border carried in our mouths’, the editors write.

As Bergvall’s piece warned, linguistic fingerprinting, far from being a horror of the past, is used in current legal inquiries, especially over immigration. The show includes an installation of Conflicted Phonemes (2012) by the British-Lebanese artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan; he charts and maps the verdicts of a Dutch tribunal which tested asylum seekers’ claims by listening to their accents, then deciding whether they truly came from Yemen, Iraq, Somalia or Syria. He contests the whole enterprise (it has echoes of Bertillon’s criminal taxonomies) and points out that displaced persons, especially when young, pass through many countries, absorbing local languages and their characteristic lilt.

Abu Hamdan has worked with Eyal Weizman and the Forensic Architecture team at Goldsmiths to trace the UK’s similar use of aural forensics back to the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), which allowed audio recordings as testimony instead of verbal transcription. In an essay in the Say Shibboleth! catalogue, the literary scholar Emily Apter comments: ‘Though PACE was intended to reduce opportunities for falsifying records, the fact that it bolstered a presumption of scientific accuracy in the measurement of accent authenticity turned it into a compliant technology for racial profiling and ethnic pigeonholing.’ You could add class to this list. Witness the furore in the 1950s about U and Non-U words and phrases, homegrown shibboleths that were funny to some, but were and still are markers of exclusion for others.

I was very pleased to be reminded by Brian Mossop and Robert Walkden of the everyday encounter with ‘non-literary’ translated stuff (Letters, 8 November and Letters, 22 November). I’m confident that neither of them is personally responsible for the instructions in almost any manual that’s crossed my path – entertainment if you don’t need to understand, but misery if you are trying to set up your new flat-packed something. On the other hand, there are riches to be had from the mysterious languages of tourist menus, heritage notices, tabloid headlines, business speak, street signs, clothing care instructions, ingredient labelling, and increasingly inventive guides to the flavours of chocolates (‘caramelised coconut nibs’, ‘crispy praline with popping sugar’). ‘Piétons, attention, traversez en deux temps’ struck me a few years ago as a surprising use of the word for time; currently ‘backstop’ seems to have baffled French reporters, and not only as to what it means.

Marina Warner
London NW5

Different Kinds of Biscuit

I lived through the fatal management revolution so vividly recalled by Neal Ascherson (LRB, 22 November). In just a few years, 1980s-style managerial techniques to such a degree destabilised Television South West, a small and successful ITV company broadcasting to Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset, that its bid to keep the franchise in the auction of 1991 was rejected.

In phase one, new management were installed who had no experience of television. We were told that TV programmes were ‘just another kind of widget’, and, more specifically, that producing a range of programmes for our regional audience was a process no different from ‘making different kinds of biscuit for a variety box’.

In phase two, the existing middle managers (I was one of them) were sent out on Dartmoor on day-trips to perform irrelevant, nonsensical and uncomfortable exercises. The purpose was to identify those individuals who were seething with a kind of undirected ambition and would-be zealous converts to the new theory.

In phase three, those individuals were charged with running the unhappy, squabbling ‘profit centres’ into which a previously united and creative company was divided, while identifying those colleagues whom they disliked (mostly the poets, dreamers and office-political illiterates) and who could be slated for early redundancy ‘for the purposes of cost saving and greater efficiencies’.

Come the year of the auction, one ‘profit centre’ was charged with making the programme plans, and another with working out the finances. The new managerial theory and practice dictated that the two worked independently and without consulting each other. So when the Independent Broadcasting Authority looked into TSW, it saw that the company couldn’t possibly afford to make the programmes it proposed with the money it would be left with after a massive donation to the Treasury (£16.12 million – more than double the bid of the victor).

Frank Wintle
London NW5

Bat-Shit Insane

Daniel Soar’s piece on the ‘bat-shit insane’ hoax submissions to academic journals brought back memories of a similar hoax, involving a law journal, in which I took part in Sydney in the late 1950s (LRB, 25 October). The prank was the brainchild of the late Jack Beeston, who went on to write the first definitive history of Australian wine. He had noted the apparently disproportionate number of weird surnames in litigation case law. He wondered if there might be a causal relationship between litigants’ names and their essential litigiousness; that is, possessing an easily mocked name throughout life causes a certain testiness, leading to a propensity for getting into legal scraps in adulthood.

The problem was how to define nominal risibility and, crucially, how to measure it. I helped Beeston with the task of turning a plausible hypothesis into a persuasive ‘scientific’ thesis. This involved, as might have been expected, the creation of some pretty bat-shit statistical analysis that included regression analyses, standard deviations, correlation coefficients, Chi-squares and any other baffling but impressive mathematics that came to hand.

Soar’s point is well made: if you want a paper to be taken seriously you have to steep yourself in your subject. He doesn’t think that hoax academic papers are necessarily insane or even wrong – simply unsupported by any empirical evidence. By the time we had finished, the argument did look pretty well supported – provided you took the stats at face value. We did argue over Jack’s invention of the ‘ribaldodron’ – a mathematical device for measuring the risibility of Anglo-Saxon surnames. His genius was to bury mention of the device towards the end of a long paper and to hedge it around with the same kinds of caveat that ‘Helen Wilson’, in Soar’s case, used to frame her observations of the genitals of ten thousand dogs.

In the end, the gaff was blown by a correspondent to the journal who wrote to advise that it was actually his Uncle Ribaldo who had invented the ribaldodron in Turin in the 1930s and that furthermore the device was patent-protected.

Alistair Mant
Steyning, West Sussex

An Exquisite Fowl

Reading Christopher Nicholson’s Diary about rare birds (LRB, 22 November), I was reminded of a limerick by the Yale historian George Vaill which won first place in a contest sponsored by Mohegan Community College in Norwich, Connecticut in 1978:

The bustard’s an exquisite fowl
With minimal reason to growl:
It escapes what would be
By grace of a fortunate vowel.

The bustard (Otis tarda), which once flourished in many parts of Europe, had in fact plenty of reason to growl: it became extinct in the UK roughly 130 years before Vaill wrote his limerick. Recently, however, the bird is making a small but determined comeback, thanks to the efforts of the Great Bustard Group. It is indeed an exquisite, even outrageously flamboyant, fowl.

Kitty Burns Florey
Amherst, Massachusetts

Who booed?

David Renton writes that Rock Against Racism insisted that black bands headline their gigs (LRB, 22 November). Here is my original poster from the 1978 RAR carnival. The Tom Robinson Band were always intended to be top of the bill, or at least that’s what was agreed by the time the publicity was printed, probably two months before. The Clash were a much later addition and were playing as I arrived at Victoria Park early in the afternoon. It was Patrik Fitzgerald’s set that was cut short because of their guest appearance; miffed Clash fans may have been responsible for the booing during his set.

Andrew McLeod
London SE4

David Renton, in his vivid account of Rock Against Racism, mentions the infamous speech delivered by Eric Clapton from the stage in Birmingham in 1976, quoting several phrases. I am pretty sure that although these words are to be found all over the web, they aren’t what Clapton said. The source for the YouTube version of the speech (delivered by an avatar) and the one that appears on Wikiquotes are both attributed to a book I wrote many years ago, but the pages cited mention Woodstock, John Lennon and the International Marxist Group – nothing about Clapton or RAR. The NME, another alleged source, also never reported the speech in full; neither does Daniel Rachel, whose book Renton is reviewing. No one disputes that Clapton made racist remarks. But what they were we don’t know; and he claims not to remember.

John Street

Myths of Englishness

Mary Hannity isn’t quite correct to say that ‘not a single tea plantation exists within the UK’ (Letters, 22 November). There is one on the Fal Estuary in Cornwall, where tea has been produced since 2005.

Sue Kibby
London SW17

Tea is indeed commercially grown in the UK – in Scotland, principally in Perthshire.

Richard Allison

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences