Vol. 43 No. 9 · 6 May 2021

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Enough Oak to Go Around

Neal Ascherson mentions that the construction of a 74-gun ship in the 18th century required nearly three thousand mature oak trees (LRB, 1 April). This sounds like a recipe for woodland devastation, but it should be borne in mind that woods can be replanted and managed in the face of demand for timber. Managed oaks stand at about fifty trees per acre, so around sixty acres would have yielded enough for a first-rate ship. Oliver Rackham, in Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape (1976), scrutinises timber usage and prices from the medieval era onwards, showing that oak was both available and sustainable: although usage increased the price remained stable. Some three thousand acres would have supplied enough timber for the fifty ships Ascherson says France built over a ten-year period, not much in a country its size over that length of time, especially as many trees would have been selected individually, so that natural regeneration could create healthy, mixed-age woodlands.

French and UK foresters continue to grow oak sustainably. The real problem today is the grey squirrel, which kills the central stem of young oak trees, typically when they are between fifteen and thirty years old, rendering them fit for little but firewood.

Richard Craven
Ludlow, Shropshire

Neal Ascherson writes admiringly of the first line of the United States constitution, noting that one of its primary drafters, Gouverneur Morris, ditched the initial phrasing – ‘We the peoples of the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island’ – in favour of the simpler ‘We, the people of the United States’. Ascherson agrees with Linda Colley that this was a brilliant act of statecraft in that it created ‘a united American nation’ that hadn’t existed before. For many at the time, however, that was precisely the problem. One anti-federalist in Pennsylvania denounced the phrase as proving that ‘the old foundation of the union is destroyed … and a new and unwieldy system of consolidated empire is set up, upon the ruins of the present compact between the states.’ Patrick Henry, the man responsible for the line ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ asked: ‘What right had the members of the Convention to say “We, the people”, instead of “We, the states”?’ The real reason the delegates changed the initial phrasing was that they feared one or more states wouldn’t ratify the blatantly anti-democratic document they had drawn up in secret, and it might be awkward for states outside the Union to be listed as authors of an agreement they had opted not to join.

Richard Kreitner
New York

I was amused to read Neal Ascherson describe Tokugawa Japan as a ‘narcissistic samurai dreamland’. While they still formed the ruling elite, by the early 19th century many samurai, a group amounting to no more than 10 per cent of the population, lived in poverty and were indebted to powerful merchants. ‘Narcissistic’ presumably refers to the idea that Japan was closed off to the rest of the world. As Linda Colley writes, Japan was ‘integrated in regional markets, and had long had connections with other continents by way of China and generations of Dutch merchants’. In fact, concern about European colonialism fuelled an arms and industry race in several enterprising domains such as Satsuma and Choshu. There is much about premodern Japan that fires the imagination, but this ‘dreamland’ was an important part of global history.

Thomas Monaghan
Yale University

Snakes and Ladders

Stefan Collini observes that ‘meritocratic’ is now overwhelmingly used as a positive term, contrary to Michael Young’s original satire (LRB, 1 April). Much of the current debate is around whether education enables young people to compete fairly for ‘good’ jobs, but we should also pay attention to the way merit is rewarded. Collini points to soaring inequalities, notably in the massive shift in the returns enjoyed by financiers and lawyers relative to occupations such as teaching.

If educational achievement is central to meritocracy we should be more worried than we are about gender equality. Indeed, it may be that the term ‘equality’ itself has some distorting effects, suggesting as it does that the goal is ‘no gender difference’. For many years now, in every OECD country, women have been outperforming men educationally, at almost every level and in almost every subject (the exceptions generally being engineering, some sciences and maths). But the pay and careers gap between men and women stubbornly refuses to close at the same rate as the competence gap widens. This growing divergence generates what I call the Paula Principle: most women work below their level of competence. It is a major component of the meritocratic shortfall.

I wonder what Michael Young would have made of this. Gender equality was not his strongest interest. I wrote a book with him about ageing and unemployment, and had to work hard to persuade him to include women in our sample. The contrast in the respective abilities of men and women to cope with being without work in the 1980s turned out to be one of the more interesting results.

Tom Schuller
London N19

Maxwell’s War

Owen Bennett-Jones is right to highlight the significance of the Second World War in shaping Robert Maxwell’s personality (LRB, 1 April). However, there is more to say about the context for his ‘decision to join the British army’. The accounts are contradictory, but it seems possible that Maxwell may have been among the several hundred Czechoslovak refugees who enlisted in the Foreign Legion before being transferred to the Czechoslovak army as it re-formed in exile in France in September 1939. This was a fractious body which recruited, often forcibly, among an eclectic mix of expatriates, career officers, migrant workers and refugees, as well as Španěláci who had fought with the International Brigades. By some estimates, perhaps a quarter of its personnel were Jewish.

In the end, only a relatively small portion of the Czechoslovak army saw action in the German campaign and less than half managed to join the evacuation to the United Kingdom in June 1940. Many of the soldiers complained of racial discrimination and ill-treatment at the hands of a reactionary officer corps, composed mainly of ethnic Czechs. On 23 July 1940, some five hundred men, many of them Jews, took part in a communist-instigated mutiny at a camp at Cholmondeley Park in Cheshire. Afterwards, the mutineers were transferred to the Pioneer Corps, one of the least glamorous parts of the British army. Among them was young vojín (private) Ján Ludvik Hoch, later Robert Maxwell, who self-consciously embraced his new ‘Britishness’. Although some of the defectors did subsequently rejoin the Czechoslovak Army, Maxwell was able to secure a transfer to the North Staffordshire Regiment and entered civilian life as a decorated British officer.

Guy Bud
London NW1

Owen Bennett-Jones quotes Robert Maxwell’s declaration: ‘You just happen to be British, I chose this country!’ In his autobiography, Landfall at Sunset, the Scottish author and seaman David Bone, recalls Joseph Conrad saying something very similar to him: ‘Bone! I am more British than you are. You are only British because you could not help it.’ Incidentally, Bone is also credited in the Oxford Essential Quotations with the phrase ‘Damn you, Jack – I’m all right,’ and was the first to broadcast the word ‘bloody’ (‘Ye bloody idiot,’ used by his captain during an encounter with an iceberg off Cape Horn), in a BBC talk in or around 1934, causing a stir in the press.

Conrad Natzio
Woodbridge, Suffolk

Public Nuisance

Alice Spawls writes that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will ‘restore’ the offence of public nuisance (LRB, 1 April). In fact the intention of clause 59 is to codify the existing common law offence. Although this isn’t without problems, the clause is a liberalising step in two respects: it will reduce the maximum sentence from life to ten years’ imprisonment (this is unlikely to make any practical difference, since the courts rarely approach the limits of their sentencing powers for this offence), and it will raise the bar in relation to what the prosecution must prove about the defendant’s state of mind.

Jon Heath

Good Behaviour

Readers of Clair Wills’s essay about Molly Keane and Good Behaviour may be surprised to hear that this extraordinary novel almost didn’t get published (LRB, 18 March). In early March 1980 I got a phone call from Gina Pollinger, whose job as an editor at André Deutsch I had inherited. Gina, now a well-established agent, was in despair. She had tried one publisher after another – publishers with deeper pockets than Deutsch – and could interest no one in this novel she so loved. Would we be interested? Neither Gina nor I – both of us, as it happens, Jewish – belonged to the hunting set depicted in Molly’s novel and to which her subsequent editor, Diana Athill, did belong; but we did recognise a good book when we saw one. Almost exactly a year later, on 12 April 1981, André Deutsch published Good Behaviour and I don’t think it has been out of print since.

Esther Whitby
London NW1

As If

James Fanning takes issue with John Mullan’s observation that Dickens was unusually given to fantasising, the proof being that his fiction is ‘full of as ifs’ (Letters, 18 March). Fanning notes that Nostromo, The Secret Agent and Sons and Lovers all match the 266 uses of ‘as if’ in Great Expectations. But this hardly seems to settle the matter. Someone needs to count the ‘as thoughs’.

Sylvia Pearson

Kenny G

Gill Partington doesn’t mention Kenneth Goldsmith’s career as a broadcaster, notably at the New Jersey radio station WFMU from 1995 to 2010, under the name of ‘Kenny G’ – an ironic reference to the saccharine pop saxophonist (LRB, 1 April). Kenny G’s Hour of Pain, as it was advertised, featured such highlights as the host singing extracts from Frederic Jameson, Roland Barthes, and Deleuze and Guattari, interludes from Albert Ayler, a Peter Wyngarde monologue and the Broken Penis Orchestra. He even included a couple of my own techno-jazz poems, which he’d discovered on a scratchy old CBC Radio transcription disc.

In this instance I was flattered that Kenny was keeping my obscure cultural artefact alive. Of course all creative work develops through the assimilation of appropriated material, while collage/montage/cut-up is a vital tool in exploring the media landscape. However, isolated from economic realities as Goldsmith is – at least partly – by his position at the University of Pennsylvania, he doesn’t seem fully aware of the difficulties faced by creative artists as the idea of copyright is eroded. Some of my boomer musician acquaintances have seen their royalties (which are also their pensions) implode.

Paul Green
Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex

Analytic v. Continental

Peter Dews is unpersuaded by the claim that ‘a Danish pastry can’t be distinguished from a croissant, since croissants are also produced in Copenhagen’ (Letters, 18 March). In Denmark ‘Danish’ pastries are called Wienerbrød – ‘Vienna bread’ – because they were reportedly introduced by Austrian pastry chefs. So while one may be able to distinguish it from a croissant, a Danish pastry is not what it claims to be.

David Gilchrist

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