Vol. 43 No. 3 · 4 February 2021

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What happened to them?

Rebecca Wragg Sykes, quoted by John Lanchester, finds it ‘impossible not to wonder if a terrible contagion’ might have been part of what did for the Neanderthals (LRB, 17 December 2020). That possibility must be ruled out. Neanderthal hunter-gatherer bands, like their Homo sapiens counterparts, were too small and sparse to sustain the chains of microbial infections that could cause epidemics. They were quite mobile and lived in practical isolation from other bands, without the communication technologies that could provide infectious microbes, or the animal vectors that carried them, with viable routes of transmission over the extensive territory the Neanderthals occupied. It is quite probable that they occasionally died of infections, most likely caused by parasites that inhabited the animals they butchered and ate, or by free-living bacteria and fungi occurring in water, soil and plants. Those infections, however, were dead ends for pathogens not adapted to their accidental hosts, and they did not last long or spread far. A few individuals must have died of infection, but not enough to threaten the survival of the species. Indeed, no hominin or hominid species is known to have become extinct because of a pandemic of infectious disease, and there is no reason to believe that Homo sapiens will be the exception.

Mazen Labban
Rutgers University, New Jersey

Goodbye to Europe

Perry Anderson presents the conflicts in the Balkans as the EU’s failure (LRB, 17 December 2020 and 7 January). ‘The new Union proved powerless to dam the waters of disaster,’ and ‘failed miserably, not preventing but stoking war in the Balkans’. The evidence given for the latter assertion is a unilateral act by Germany, not the EU. The US and Nato are excused, despite the fact that Anderson describes the region as ‘an American security protectorate’. The organisation that did not have the power to act gets the blame, while the one that did is exonerated.

It is true that throughout the 1990s the EU itself had no capacity for military decision-making, but the impression Anderson gives – that this deficiency was remedied by a Franco-German initiative in 2003 concerning the Spitzenkandidat arrangement or the appointment of a permanent president of the Council – is not correct. In fact, the decision to equip the EU for military decision-making and action in the sphere of crisis management or peacekeeping (inter alia, by creating a military committee and a military staff) was taken first at the Helsinki European Council in December 1999. The political background for this wasn’t just EU ‘powerlessness’ in the Balkans but the frustration caused by the US’s reluctance to get involved. And, remarkable as it now seems, the historic changes that were made to the scope of the EU’s capacity for action were made in response to a UK-French initiative, not a Franco-German one. (Indeed, if I may say so, having been closely involved as part of my role at the Ministry of Defence, the primary impetus actually came from London.) The new arrangements were eventually incorporated in the Treaty of Nice, signed in 2001. Neither the Spitzenkandidat process nor the appointment of Herman Van Rompuy (eight years later) have any relevance to this.

Ian Lee
Skipton, North Yorkshire

Like a Bee

Tobias Gregory quotes Seneca on the collection of pollen by bees ‘from many flowers’ (LRB, 19 November 2020), and Daniel Spaulding quotes Isocrates on bees ‘sipping the best’ nectar from ‘all the flowers’ (Letters, 7 January). In fact pollen collection and nectar collection are two separate processes, and both writers seem to suggest that the two activities are pursued promiscuously, as if pollen and nectar came into a hive as a potpourri, which isn’t correct.

Colonies of bees certainly bring in all kinds of pollen and nectar, but individual bees work either as pollen carriers or nectar collectors and normally deal with just one food source at a time. Thus, pollen on the legs of a homebound bee is never rainbow-hued but single-coloured, according to the source: blue if the pollen is raspberry, yellow if the pollen is rape, red if the pollen is wild cherry. Inside the hive, things are also arranged in an orderly fashion, with different pollens stacked in specific zones. Division of labour and a form of ‘library cataloguing’ has been the norm for bees for millions of years.

Such behaviour, if relevant to analysis by literary critics, would seem to suggest that the most successful writers will be those who concentrate their attention on one thing at a time, live narrow, disciplined lives, give respect to queen and countryside, ruthlessly get rid of all drones annually – and always obey the massed will of the workers (all female).

Timothy Neat
Penzance, Cornwall

Unfair to Reynolds

James Hall points out Joshua Reynolds’s close engagement with abolitionism in the 1780s (Letters, 21 January). One might also add that in the final year of his life he subscribed to the second edition of Ottobah Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery (1791), the most searing anti-slavery tract of the period, written by a man who had first-hand experience of the subject. What is interesting about the study of artworks and the archival traces that surround them, no less so of Reynolds’s pictures and his sitter book, is the way they continue to exert force today. Whatever Reynolds’s intentions in his use of the indefinite common noun ‘negro’, and however we might wish to historicise it with reference to the language he used for his other models, we must acknowledge, too, that the meaning and agency of historical artefacts exceed their original contexts. They can come to stand for ideas and attitudes in the ‘now’ far beyond the ‘then’. The task for historians and art historians today – as historical materialists in Walter Benjamin’s sense – is to do justice to both.

Esther Chadwick
London N1

The Railway Hobby

What Adam Lechmere describes – travelling on trains hauled by particular locomotives – is properly called haulage bashing or loco bashing (Letters, 21 January). There’s also the more common practice of track or line bashing – trying to travel on every line in a country’s railway system, irrespective of motive power – as well as depot or shed bashing, which should be self-explanatory. I have been told about one group of people who sneaked into depots by night and photographed themselves sitting in the locomotives’ cabs. One extremist even stripped off while doing so. I expect that anti-terrorism precautions have put paid to this particular activity, but bashing, in most of its forms, definitely still happens.

Paul Steeples
London SW9

On the Bows

Clare Bucknell mentions the figurehead of the HMS Caledonia, ‘a female Highland warrior figure in kilt and sporran’, which survived the wreck when the ship was ‘driven onto the north Cornwall cliffs in high winds in 1842’ (LRB, 19 November 2020). A replica of the figurehead still stands above the graves of its crew in the churchyard of St Morwenna of Morwenstow, the original having been moved inside the church to preserve it. The vicar at the time of the wreck was Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker, among whose achievements was encouraging, and enabling, the Christian burial of the bodies of sailors whose vessels were wrecked on the rocky shores of his parish. He was helped in this by an Act of Parliament of 1808 which provided some public monies for the purpose, but he also expended considerable funds of his own paying his parishioners to assist in the recovery of bodies and remains.

The single survivor from the Caledonia (a Jerseyman named Le Daine) remained as Hawker’s guest for some six weeks before being given clothing and money to enable his return home. Hawker also took the trouble to write to the owners of the vessel, in Arbroath, to tell them of the disaster and confirm that the dead crew members had received a Christian burial. Built into the cliffs near the church can be seen the wooden hut that Hawker constructed (from old ships’ timbers), where he looked out for vessels in trouble, wrote the poetry for which he is well known in Cornwall, and smoked the odd pipe of opium.

Ian Sandilands
Bude, Cornwall

Lenin at the Library

In her fine review of my book, Sheila Fitzpatrick wonders whether I looked into Lenin’s seating preferences in the British Museum reading room (LRB, 7 January). Indeed I did. Some thirty years ago, in a short Reader’s Guide to Lenin’s associations with the library, I wrote:

Although Lenin may have had a favourite seat in the reading room, neither he nor anyone else has left any indication of which seat that may have been. Several numbers have been suggested including: G7, H9, R7, R8, and L13. In fact, the last is probably the most likely, positioned, as it was then (and indeed still is), in a row opposite the open-shelf reference works on British and European history, which he doubtless made use of on several occasions.

The same topic is discussed by Richard Bancroft, a former director of the museum, in a charming Soviet documentary from 1962 which marked the sixtieth anniversary of Lenin’s arrival in the capital.

Robert Henderson
Lower Largo, Fife

Sheila Fitzpatrick is at a loss to know what lettres-trappes – sent by Post Office detectives investigating late deliveries in Lenin’s London – might be. Surely they were envelopes posted to the relevant address in order to pinpoint who or what was responsible for the inefficiency. Historians of the postal detective service might know how the traps were sprung.

Robin Blake
London NW1

‘The’ or No ‘The’

Jane Card investigates whether Richard Hull’s novel is titled Murder of My Aunt or The Murder of My Aunt (Letters, 3 December 2020). As a librarian and hence a frequent user of WorldCat, I must say that its indispensable global union catalogue cannot resolve the matter. Each library item is catalogued with an eye foremost to facilitating access to the item in that library – not to building a coherent account of the work.

Standardising cataloguing practice has been a struggle leavened but not eliminated in the internet age. As late as 1997 a Library of Congress discussion paper noted that initial articles in titles ‘tend to be used intermittently’ and that ‘one of the most widely used solutions for dealing with initial articles has been to omit them from cataloguing data altogether.’

Lowell Rudorfer
Silver Spring, Maryland

A Great Deaf Bear

James Wood searches for the Beethoven who composed the Hammerklavier sonata (LRB, 7 January). A related question is which Beethoven composed Für Elise, the scourge of every piano student and their parents. Like the Hammerklavier, not publicly performed in his lifetime, but with fewer breathtaking trills, it was discovered forty years after his death by another Ludwig (Nohl). The manuscript disappeared, but may never have existed in the first place. As for Elise, her identity has never been confirmed, although it was possibly composed für Therese (Malfatti) or für Elizabeth (Röckel).

Gavin Tucker
London SW2

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