Vol. 43 No. 10 · 20 May 2021

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The Coo Situation

I was very touched by Michael Hofmann’s poem ‘H.H., 95’ (LRB, 4 March). It was full of familiarities that I find somewhat alarming. It may be, though, that his wood pigeons (‘The gaspy whistle of wood pigeons’ wings/and their little-brained Roo-coo-coo/anaesthetises another summer’) are in fact, and in spite of their wings, collared doves, more delicate creatures, and relatively recent immigrants to the UK. Both species featured in an excruciating poem I wrote in my twenties when I thought I was a poet (‘The collared doves are busy in the wood./The cushie-doos are adding two to three/ … roucoule, roucoule their glutinous/monotony’).

The coo situation, as far as I know, is this. Feral pigeons or rock doves do two coos (debatable given the bubbliness of the call). Collared doves do three – ‘Roo-coo-coo’. White-winged doves of the South-Western United States, Mexico and Central America do four, at least in Austin, Texas. Wood pigeons do five, with a clipped sixth on the last call in a series (mourning doves also do five, very differently and with no clipped sixth).

The wood pigeons in Virginia Woolf’s The Years were Welsh, and said: ‘Take two coos, Taffy. Take two coos, Taffy. Take two coos, Taffy. Tak …’ This for some reason has haunted me. My father’s wood pigeons said: ‘You’ve rooined [ruined] it, you fool, you’ve rooined it you fool, you’ve rooined it, you fool, yo …’ He once commented on what he took to be an aberrant wood pigeon – it was in fact a pioneer collared dove – and Mary Warnock, who knew a bit about birds, said with some vehemence, ‘They’re French!’, to general merriment. (I once saw her take an axe to an incapacitated greater black-backed gull.) Collared doves did arrive in the UK from France, starting in the 1950s, but they were migrants originating in the Middle East.

Galen Strawson
London NW1

Unpleasant Compounds

Tom Stevenson, writing about the history of nerve agents, records the synthetic work carried out at I.G. Farben from 1936 onwards (LRB, 6 May). He doesn’t mention the work carried out in England in the late 1930s, much of it secret for many years and for obvious reasons. One of the leading scientists in this endeavour was Bernard Saunders, who was my PhD supervisor in the late 1960s. I recall asking him how his thinking had led to the development (and, indeed, the large-scale manufacture) of such unpleasant compounds. He replied that two of the most toxic elements in the periodic table were phosphorus and fluorine, so the idea was that synthesising compounds containing both might be a promising approach to making very toxic chemicals. His monograph Phosphorus and Fluorine (1957) records in surprising detail his work on nerve agents, their synthesis and properties. In it he gives a full account of ‘testing’ one of the early compounds, di-isopropyl fluorophosphate (DFP), on himself, at the one part per million level, in a specially designed cabinet. The frontispiece of the book shows the effect on the pupil of one of his eyes (a pinpoint). He never attempted to justify this work as anything other than necessary preparation for war or potential war, though the subsequent development of phosphorus-based pesticides might have been some justification. To the end of his life he remained a committed Christian.

Peter Baker
Prestwood, Buckinghamshire

Free Shipping

John Lanchester writes that much about international shipping is mysteriously invisible (LRB, 22 April). While catastrophic events such as the sinking of the oil tanker Erika off the coast of Brittany in 1999 attract international attention, the continuing threat posed to the safety of navigation and the marine environment by more than a thousand containers lost at sea each year is largely overlooked. In 1997, stormy weather caused 62 containers to be washed overboard from a Tokio Express container ship off Land’s End. Just one of those containers carried 4.8 million pieces of Lego. Almost a quarter of a century later, Lego pieces are still washing up on Cornish beaches. As climate change has contributed to a rise in sea levels and extreme weather conditions, the likelihood of shipping accidents at sea and lost cargo has increased.

The legal smokescreen obscuring ownership and operational responsibility in international shipping is not entirely impenetrable. Governments and other stakeholders should develop practical ways of co-operating – at the level of the Safety of Life at Sea convention and through the work of regulatory bodies such as the International Maritime Organisation – to ensure proper reporting and management of the problem of lost containers.

Paul Cullen

The force of John Lanchester’s remark that shipping goods around the world today ‘is, in practice, free’ was made tangible to me yesterday. I was having a hospital lunch in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The requested diced pears arrived in a small plastic container with one of those nearly impossible to remove lids. While examining the lid for the safest point of attack, I saw the words ‘packaged in Thailand’. Also on the lid were the words ‘see side for country of origin.’ On the side I found ‘product of South Africa’. My pears had made a long journey to find me. Pears are grown locally in the Shenandoah Valley, where I live, but can’t compete on cost in the modern shipping economy.

Lex Miller
Shepherdstown, West Virginia

On Edward Said

I appreciate the skill with which Adam Shatz ventriloquises the details in my intellectual biography Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said (LRB, 6 May). But I must address some significant inaccuracies.

Shatz compares Said’s memoir Out of Place to Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club. He maintains that it is a better analogy than my choice, Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone, the only memoir from the Arab Middle East that displays anything like Said’s psychological complexity. But Beer in the Snooker Club is a novel, not a memoir. He seeks to correct my argument that place governed Said’s thinking, saying it was really the vaguely temporal gestures of ‘late style’ that did so, ignoring Said’s frequent statements to the contrary as well as the spatial imagery and appeals to ‘imaginative geography’ that predominate in Said’s major books.

He finds me unreliable on music because I include Janáček in a list of experimental composers alongside Henze, Ligeti and Cage. But Janáček’s theories of speech melody in Slavic music were eccentric, and he is widely considered a forerunner of musical minimalism, which I am not alone in describing as experimental.

I am accused at one point of an ‘ad hominem attack’ on Dominique Eddé, the author of Edward Said: His Thought as a Novel (2019), with whom Said had an affair. But I say nothing at all about Eddé; my criticisms are restricted to her book. In a purported study of Said’s thought, Eddé believed Beginnings to have been his first book (it was his second), argued that Camus and Orwell were major influences (he despised them), and claimed that he lacked the courage to try his hand at fiction (he wrote a good deal of it). These facts do raise questions about how well she knew him, just as I argued. A book that Shatz calls ‘discreet’ is strewn with tasteless accounts of her rendezvous with Said and personal reminiscences designed to wound him.

The most egregious error, though, is Shatz’s assertion that after approaching me to write the book, the Wylie Agency pressured me to keep all mention of Said’s affairs out of it. This is a complete fiction. No one at the Wylie Agency (or anywhere else) asked me to keep anything out of the work. I set out to write an intellectual biography, not a lowbrow tell-all with tales of sex and scandal.

Timothy Brennan
Saint Paul, Minnesota

Lenin in the Library

Paul O’Brien writes that the ‘Hiberno-English pronunciation’ of the ‘th’ sound ‘is similar to the German’ (Letters, 22 April). To elaborate, the German doesn’t have a ‘th’ sound (a dental fricative) of any kind. German speakers – as well as Scandinavians and others without such a fricative – substitute their native ‘d’ (voiced) or ‘t’ (voiceless). Hiberno-English does the same: dis, dem, dose, one-two-tree.

This Hiberno-English trait was very conspicuous among older Irish immigrants to the US and their descendants, among them the late (but not lamented) mayor of Chicago Richard Daley. Defending police behaviour during the riot at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, he is quoted as saying that ‘the police are not here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder.’ My guess is that ‘da mare’ was telling us the cops were there to preserve ‘this’ order.

Robert Hammarberg
Arlington, Virginia

Snakes and Ladders

Tom Schuller is a little harsh in singling out Michael Young for his lack of concern over gender (Letters, 6 May). British sociology as a whole, in its analysis of social mobility, has a weak record when it comes to gender. The classic 1949 LSE mobility study did collect data on both sexes but concentrated on men. In the 1970s, the next generation of major national mobility surveys, heavily influenced by Nuffield College, sampled only male workers. Yet when Paul Iganski and I analysed census data on employment and ethnicity in the 1990s, we found that gender was the most significant explanator of occupational outcome. The widely used socio-economic ‘classes’ of the Office for National Statistics in fact owe much of their composition to women’s positions in the labour market. For example, the professional and managerial class contains almost twice as many men as women, while in the clerical and intermediate white-collar category, the reverse is true. As girls out-perform boys in education, this strongly suggests that one potentially powerful way of reducing social immobility would be to concentrate on gender disparities in employment.

Geoff Payne
Newcastle upon Tyne

Ruthless and Truthless

Ferdinand Mount, discussing the mores of that well-known classicist Boris Johnson, is impressed by the number of words in Classical Greek that are compounds of pseude – a ‘lie’ (LRB, 6 May). Modern Greek is just as enjoyable, with the Oxford Greek Dictionary giving us, for example, Ψευτοφυλλαδα (‘pseudofillatha’) – a ‘lying newspaper’, useful for describing Johnson’s columns in the Daily Telegraph. A newspaper itself is εφημεριδα (‘ephimeritha’) – clearly here today and gone tomorrow.

Lydia Hill
Haddenham, Cambridgeshire

Convincingly Irish

Christopher Tayler seems to think that Patrick O’Brian was ‘a bit odd’ as a name and suggests that O’Brien would have been a more convincingly Irish spelling (LRB, 6 May). Maybe now, but not in the period O’Brian was obsessed with. The 1841 Census for England and Wales records 58 instances of O’Brien in the London area. Of these, 42 (72 per cent) were Irish-born people or their descendants. There were only sixteen O’Brians but fourteen of them were Irish (88 per cent).

Liam Shaw


Readers scratching their heads over the Marquis de Sade’s use of a communion wafer as a sex toy in Caroline Weber’s piece should consult their copies of Justine et autres romans (LRB, 6 May). Not only does the heroine suffer this practice at the hands of the monk Sévérino (‘il l’enfonce au local obscène de ses sodomites jouissances’) but the same is meted out to a swan.

Stephanie Poole

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