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Vol. 42 No. 15 · 30 July 2020

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Noisomeness

Keith Thomas reminisces about his introduction to regular baths when at Oxford in the 1950s (LRB, 16 July). The architectural historian Gavin Stamp once told me that when George Frederick Bodley came to build new student accommodation at King’s College, Cambridge in 1888, he asked the fellows whether he should include a bathroom, but was told not to be ridiculous: as terms were only eight weeks long the undergraduates could bathe after they got home. Michael Hall, Bodley’s biographer, thinks this story is probably apocryphal, because he saw no evidence that bathrooms were even contemplated, and in the completed building students had to make do with earth – rather than water – closets. Simon Bradley, author of the revised edition of the Buildings of England for Cambridgeshire, tells me that the introduction of fixed bathrooms for male undergraduates is an early 20th-century phenomenon, though Newnham provided its female students with bathrooms as early as 1875. Robinson College, completed in 1981, was the first college to be fully fitted with en suite bathrooms, although this was primarily with an eye to catering for the burgeoning conference market, not student hygiene.

Otto Saumarez Smith
University of Warwick

Keith Thomas’s essay reminds me of an exchange I had with an ancient porter at my Oxford college in the late 1960s. He had been there since before the First World War and liked to reminisce about ‘the old days’. ‘What’s the main difference between the old days and now?’ I once asked him. ‘Well, sir,’ he replied, after some thought, ‘in the old days the young gentlemen used to change their shirt every day and take a bath once a week. Nowadays they take a bath every day and change their shirt once a week.’ It was clear from the shaking of his head that he did not regard this as an improvement.

Richard J. Evans
Barkway, Hertfordshire

Keith Thomas asks why the bidet has never caught on in Britain or, for that matter, in the United States. Neither the British nor the Americans have ever been able to overcome the bidet’s association with birth control, which dates back to a time when douching was believed to prevent pregnancy. As Norman Haire, the most prominent sexologist in Britain between the wars, noted in the 1930s, ‘the presence of a bidet is regarded almost as a symbol of sin.’

Mark Bostridge
London NW3

He, She, One, They

Amia Srinivasan’s fascinating piece on pronouns reminded me of a debate in the quizbowl community – quizbowl is a trivia competition similar in format to University Challenge in which the paragraph-length questions move from the hardest clue to the easiest, with players encouraged to interrupt when they know the answer (LRB, 2 July).

Women have been under-represented in history, literature and the arts, so gendered pronouns create difficulties in writing questions about them. For instance, a question that starts ‘During her premiership, this prime minister sacked foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe …’ will cause many players to buzz straight away with ‘Margaret Thatcher’, even if they don’t know that specific fact, because of the paucity of female prime ministers. Question-writers have experimented with using gender-neutral terms like ‘this person’, but that can be laborious, and savvy players are wise to it.

In one recent quizbowl tournament (hosted by Oxford University Quiz Society on Zoom for a largely American audience) the singular ‘they’ was used in all questions, which allowed the question-writers to test knowledge of figures like Artemisia Gentileschi in ways they haven’t been able to in the past.

Michael Bentley
Bellevue, Washington

The Chinese ta (他) is a single character (ideogram) for all of the following: she/he/they/her/him/them. It combines ‘human/person’ (亻) with ‘also’ (也). Ta also means ‘other’. Every time one uses ta, there is an implicit acknowledgment that the other is someone who, while not you or I, shares in our common humanity. A female ta (她) exists, which swaps the ‘person’ component for ‘female’ (女). Its use is not strictly observed, let alone enforced. Happily, both characters sound identical so the spoken form is non-gendered. Is it too much to hope that ‘he’ and ‘she’ might be retired, and replaced by the omnivalent ‘they’, serving as the English ta?

Yih Lerh Huang
Ottawa

Amia Srinivasan writes that most English-speakers haven’t distinguished between the second person singular and plural ‘you’ since the 17th century. Glaswegians frequently say ‘yous’ as a plural for ‘you’, though they rarely do so when writing – out of a mistaken sense of propriety, I reckon. Its meaning is, however, perfectly clear.

Paul Brown
Glasgow

Serge and Trotsky

In his review of Victor Serge’s Notebooks, 1936-47, Tariq Ali writes that Trotsky remained Serge’s ‘mentor and friend’ (LRB, 16 July). It is doubtful whether Serge ever needed Trotsky’s mentorship and the period of their friendship was brief. Serge was active in Trotsky’s Left Opposition in 1936-37, though political disagreements over Spain and plans for a Fourth International put the relationship under strain. It was, however, over another issue that their relations deteriorated beyond the point of repair. As Ali mentions, in 1920 Serge translated Terrorism and Communism, a pamphlet that Trotsky wrote from his military train amid the turmoil of the Russian Civil War. It was a vitriolic response to the charge made by the veteran German Social Democrat Karl Kautsky that in resorting to the Red Terror the Bolsheviks were compromising the possibility of socialism being achieved. ‘Who aims at the end cannot reject the means,’ Trotsky wrote. ‘The struggle must be carried on with such intensity as actually to guarantee the supremacy of the proletariat.’ In his memoirs Serge said that he was disturbed by the pamphlet’s ‘schematism and voluntarism’.

Eighteen years later, at a time when the international left was embroiled in debate about the origins of Stalinism, argument raged over Trotsky’s role in suppressing the Kronstadt rebellion in 1921. In 1938, in Their Morals and Ours, Trotsky once again polemicised about the means and ends of revolution. Rejecting the idea that the socialist revolution can be constrained by abstract moral principles, he argued that any method was morally legitimate if it defended the revolution against its enemies, since socialism represented a higher stage of human development. Somewhat surprisingly, he appeared to endorse the point made by Serge and other critics that there is a ‘dialectical interdependence of means and ends’, and yet he could offer no cogent grounds to explain why methods used by the Bolsheviks during the Civil War became morally reprehensible when used by the Stalinist regime, which also claimed to be defending the socialist revolution. Serge politely accused Trotsky of making a virtue out of necessity, but Trotsky dismissed him as a ‘petty-bourgeois moralist’ and ‘an adversary, and a hostile one at that’.

Steve Smith
Bures, Suffolk

Bitter Elegy

Thomas Keymer is wide of the mark in claiming that in the 1810s William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt extolled Wordsworth’s ‘poetry even as they deplored the politics’ (LRB, 18 June). Hazlitt’s condemnation of The Excursion in Hunt’s Examiner (August 1814) is a bitter elegy both for Wordsworth’s increasingly constricted egotism and for the extinction of the glorious hopes that initially attended the French Revolution. Eighteen months later, Hunt’s lead article in the Examiner of 18 February 1816 pointedly contrasted the sycophantic sonnets of the 1810s with the majestic sonnets apropos Milton in 1802, and concluded with the forlorn hope that Wordsworth’s future sonnets might be ‘like his best ones, less Miltonic in one respect, and much more so in another’. Far from praising Wordsworth’s poetry in the 1810s Hazlitt and Hunt were outspoken voices in establishing the narrative that Wordsworth’s political apostasy had vitiated the power of his poetry.

Charles Mahoney
University of Connecticut

Maigret’s Room

Regarding mistranslated titles, the prize for the all-time worst should go to the late and over-rated translator of Italian William Weaver for rendering Primo Levi’s La chiave a stella as The Monkey’s Wrench (Letters, 2 July and 16 July). As someone once pointed out, this makes two mistakes at once. The tool referred to in the original title was a ring spanner, not a monkey wrench. And even if it had been a monkey wrench, that is not, as Weaver had it, a wrench possessed by a monkey.

Peter Hayes
Melbourne

Translating Camus

Bridget Fowler writes that ‘la dégradation nationale’ translates as ‘national indignity’ (Letters, 2 July). The new crime she refers to is in fact ‘l’indignité nationale’, the punishment for which was ‘la dégradation nationale’, which roughly translates as ‘loss of civic rights’.

Fowler claims that capital punishment ‘had been abolished in France between 1848 and 1939’. In 1848 the death penalty for political reasons was abolished. Victor Hugo, among others, hoped for total abolition and tried to get the words ‘for political reasons’ removed, but in vain. The last public execution in France was in 1939, but the guillotine remained in use until capital punishment was abolished by François Mitterrand and Robert Badinter in 1981.

Michael Holland
Oxford

In the Type Archive

Alice Spawls writes about Adobe InDesign, a program that I worked on as a software engineer for several years (LRB, 2 July). Her discussion of typographic spacing – that the point of good typesetting is to be invisible – is very good, but I must correct her on one point. ‘Now it’s just bitmaps,’ she writes, about modern typesetting. No, it’s not. Bitmaps are the resolution-dependent patterns of pixels that we see on our computer screens. The characters (glyphs) of a font are resolution-independent geometric instructions for drawing the symbol. Much closer, really, to what the punchcutter cut, and nothing like the bitmap fonts that we struggled with in the early days of desktop publishing.

InDesign uses optical kerning, which analyses the shape of a character and adjusts the space after it to produce a better ‘fit’ with the characters that follow it. This is important because although well-produced fonts include built-in kerning pairs for many character combinations, very few cover all possible adjacent characters. It’s a very rare font, for example, that contains a defined kerning pair for uppercase ‘K’ followed by lowercase ‘v’ – an everyday character combination in my life.

Olav Martin Kvern
Seattle

Not Just Strings

Philip Clark refers to Stravinsky’s ‘string orchestra piece Dumbarton Oaks’ (LRB, 16 July). In fact it is scored for flute, clarinet, bassoon and two horns as well as ten string players.

Chris Sansom
London E5

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