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Letters

Vol. 41 No. 21 · 7 November 2019

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Lush Situation

Hal Foster writes that the title of Richard Hamilton’s Hers Is a Lush Situation (1957-58) is ‘another line from an advert’ (LRB, 24 October). Hamilton lifted a lot of lines from adverts, but not this one. In an article for New Left Review in 2003, Foster credited it more accurately to ‘a line in an Industrial Design review of a recent Buick’. The review was written by Deborah Allen, the automobile critic and co-editor, with Jane Thompson, of Industrial Design, a magazine based in New York.

Allen’s review was based on an experience she had one evening in early 1955, while riding shotgun in a Buick Century. She had been visiting a friend in Westport. As he drove her back to New York along US Route 1, the setting sun reddening the Buick’s chrome detailing, Allen suddenly saw that her friend ‘lived in his car and how he enjoyed it’. As a public transport user and a sceptic of the exaggeratedly low-slung and streamlined cars of the period, she was ‘amazed that there could be some sense in this car. It was a revelation.’ Back in the magazine’s office in Midtown, Allen typed up a report on her Olivetti Lettera 22. All the exhilarating impulsion of her recent ride is captured in the review, which, unlike many of her others, seems to epitomise the era’s most optimistic view of cars and what they promised in terms of mobility, modernity and social progress. The Buick, she told her readers, ‘was not designed to sit on the ground or even roll on the ground; it is perpetually floating on currents that are conveniently built into the design.’ Allen’s analysis of the way the car’s styling reinforces its dynamics verges on poetry:

The Buick’s designers put the greatest weight over the wheels, where the engine is, which is natural enough. The heavy bumper helps to pull the weight forward; the dip in the body and the chrome spear express how the thrust of the front wheels is dissipated in turbulence toward the rear. Just behind the strong shoulder of the car, a sturdy post lifts up the roof, which trails off like a banner in the air. The driver sits in the dead calm at the centre of all this motion; hers is a lush situation.

The phrase supplied Hamilton with the title, as well as the intellectual and aesthetic fuel, for a series of paintings in which the lipstick-red mouth of a bodiless driver hovers above an inventory of Detroit styling features including visor-hooded headlamps, chrome spears, tail fins, speed markings and a CinemaScope windshield that reflected the UN building, mostly gleaned from Allen’s diagrammatically illustrated car reviews. (Hamilton consulted copies of Industrial Design magazine in the library of the US Embassy at Grosvenor House, having been tipped off by his friend, the design critic Reyner Banham.) Yet in 1957, when Hamilton was beginning work on the Hers Was a Lush Situation series, Allen was relinquishing her role at Industrial Design magazine, and indeed her whole editorial career. She and her husband had moved to Washington DC, and for a while she commuted to New York, taking a magazine’s worth of copy to edit on the train, but finally she was unable to sustain the dual pressures of running a large family (with five children) on the one hand and a magazine on the other. Still, the curious voyage of Allen’s editorial work across continents, disciplines and contexts to gain an unexpected second life in Hamilton’s artwork is a gratifying corrective, however small, to the gender inequality of that period, and helps to complicate the perception of series like Hers Is a Lush Situation and Hommage à Chrysler Corp as being merely parts of women conflated with parts of cars.

Alice Twemlow
Amsterdam

C.S. Lewis got there first

James Meek notes Dominic Cummings’s interest in the innovations of Silicon Valley, specifically the ‘dynamic document’, in which ‘all the background numbers in, say, an electronic version of a government report would be continually updated by live datastreams; anyone reading the report would be able to slide policy numbers up or down electronically to see the effect on outcomes’ (LRB, 24 October). C.S. Lewis got there more than sixty years earlier with his account of the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) in his novel That Hideous Strength (1945). As described by an enthusiast, N.I.C.E.

marks the beginning of a new era – the really scientific era. Up to now, everything has been haphazard. This is going to put science itself on a scientific basis. There are to be forty interlocking committees sitting every day and they’ve got a wonderful gadget … by which the findings of each committee print themselves off in their own little compartment on the Analytical Notice-Board every half hour. Then, that report slides itself into the right position where it’s connected up by little arrows with all the relevant parts of the other reports. A glance at the Board shows you the policy of the whole Institute actually taking shape under your own eyes. There’ll be a staff of at least twenty experts at the top of the building working this Notice-Board in a room rather like the Tube control rooms. It’s a marvellous gadget. The different kinds of business all come out in the Board in different coloured lights. It must have cost half a million. They call it a Pragmatometer.

Whether Cummings’s career will end in the same scenes of chaos and destruction as the careers of his fictional forebears remains to be seen.

Nick Wray
Coldingham, Borders

I Like Anchor Butter

Neal Ascherson writes about Max Aitken’s support for ‘the grandiose project of Imperial Preference’ which A.J.P. Taylor said ‘meant in practice British tariffs on foreign food, while foodstuffs from the Dominions came in free’ (LRB, 24 October). A guaranteed British market for antipodean dairy goods, made possible by the advent of refrigerated shipping in the 1880s, was a preferential arrangement by any name. Raising wool on the plains and grazing beef in the bush had glamour but dairy farming in high, cleared rainforest country and in riverine valleys defined the economy and society of vast areas of rural Australia, as well as the location and function of innumerable country towns. This could never have happened without the cheerful willingness of the British people to eat dairy goods from ten thousand miles away. By the end of the war, 90 per cent of Australian butter exports went to Britain, ditto from New Zealand, and while this did change in ensuing years as the Japanese and Koreans experimented with butter-eating, the British kept eating our supplies by the ton. When Last Tango in Paris was released in Britain in 1973, a poster fixed to a wall at Piccadilly Station was graffitied to show Marlon Brando telling commuters as they ascended the escalator: ‘I Like Anchor Butter.’ When Britain began negotiating to join the Common Market that year, there was a lot of yelling and arm-waving by Australian and New Zealand politicians, to no avail. The impact was sudden and devastating. Where I live, industry was so badly hit that the local agricultural show had to be cancelled for two years.

Jane Hyde
Maleny, Queensland

The Rule of the Judges

Stephen Sedley’s comments on the government’s defeat at the hands of the Supreme Court present the issue as an entirely legal one (LRB, 10 October). In fact it was entirely political. Gina Miller and her supporters were not, of course, interested in pursuing an arcane point of constitutional law. Their avowed objective has always been to reverse the result of the 2016 referendum by one means or another. Does anyone believe that the justices, in their personal capacities, were not in sympathy with this objective?

Sedley refers to ‘Johnson’s overt refusal to accept that the law is what the Supreme Court says it is’. There was no such refusal, overt or otherwise. Having taken appropriate legal advice, the prime minister prorogued Parliament and the lawfulness of this action was upheld by a High Court whose members included three of the country’s most eminent judges (the lord chief justice, the master of the rolls and the president of the Queen’s Bench). The High Court, Sedley continues, ‘started at the wrong end: because prorogation of Parliament was essentially a political act, they reasoned, the courts had no power to look into its legality.’

Until the Supreme Court ruled otherwise, the High Court’s understanding of the law would hardly have been questioned. The highest court in the land is not in fact the Supreme Court. It is Parliament itself. If Parliament considers that an action of the executive infringes its rights or privileges it has formidable remedies available to it without recourse to vicarious litigation. Miller could, for example, have called on her friends in Parliament to impeach the prime minister (or the whole cabinet for that matter). The Speaker, a partisan Remainer, could have convened the Commons despite the prorogation. Would the Supreme Court have intervened to say that was illegal? One may doubt it.

Sedley refers to the ninth article of the Bill of Rights, which forbids the questioning of ‘proceedings in Parliament’ in ‘any court or place out of Parliament’. As to this, Sedley tells us that ‘the justices patiently explained that the whole point was that the challenged acts had taken place not in Parliament but behind its back.’ (‘Patiently explained’ implies an audience of thickos. Does this include the thickos of the High Court?) In the present case the prorogation was hardly a wheeze concocted when Parliament wasn’t looking. It was an act of open defiance to a House of Commons resolved on sabotaging the result of a referendum, which has done its best to humiliate the prime minister and which is afraid to face its constituents in a general election.

Until the Fixed Term Parliaments Act the government of the day regularly dissolved Parliament for no better reason than that it was riding high in the polls. By Sedley’s logic, such dissolutions would also have been an abuse of the prerogative power which it would be the Supreme Court’s right and duty to address. But, after all, the Supreme Court’s constitutional coup is no more than a successful skirmish achieved against an unprecedently weak administration. A government with a decent majority will be able to confine the court to its proper sphere by a one-paragraph Act of Parliament.

Martin Mears
Norwich

Good Little Communists

The ‘Lysenko Affair’ was not the disgraceful episode that we believed for decades to be a blot on Lysenko’s scientific integrity (Letters, 24 October). It reflected badly on the scientific community worldwide. Like most scientists he worked within the political limits of his environment, in his case Stalin’s Russia. His research into genetics confirmed Lamarckism, the idea that acquired characteristics can be inherited. This principle had animated plant and animal breeding since the dawn of agriculture until Mendel’s mathematical principles of genetics became the new scientific paradigm. Mendel’s theories were useful but incomplete. With our modern understanding of the way DNA works we know that our genetic code is constantly modified by external factors and that these changes affect how genes are expressed and passed on to subsequent generations via what is called transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. The science of epigenetics has only been around for ten years or so but it continues to confirm that Lysenko, without the technology we have today, was correct in his observations and conclusions. Yes, it is true that Stalin saw Lysenko’s theory as vindicating the dictatorship of the proletariat in that future generations of Russians would naturally be caring and sharing good little communists without the need for a repressive state apparatus, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong.

Craig Sams
Hastings, East Sussex

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