Vol. 43 No. 18 · 23 September 2021

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Everything became more exciting

One feature of Frances Wilson’s Burning Man that Seamus Perry does not mention is her dismissal of D.H. Lawrence’s first literary biographer, Richard Aldington (LRB, 9 September). For Wilson, Aldington is the ‘so-called friend’ who ‘met Lawrence on no more than a handful of occasions and never liked him’, but who ‘became the self-appointed guide to his life and work’ and ‘was incontinent on the subject’. She does remark that ‘it is in the biographer’s remit to edit those facts that don’t fit,’ and maybe that is why she ignores the evidence for the close friendship between the two men over a period of fourteen years, which included Aldington’s support for Lawrence in the aftermath of the suppression of The Rainbow in 1915 and Lawrence’s expulsion from Cornwall in 1917, as well as his role in the illicit distribution of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1928.

Far from being self-appointed, Aldington was chosen in 1950 by Alexander Frere of Heinemann and Allen Lane of Penguin Books to introduce seventeen anniversary editions of Lawrence’s work and to write the biography; they recognised his clear-eyed awareness of the complexities of Lawrence’s personality as well as his status as a discerning literary critic, thoroughly familiar with Lawrence’s output. Portrait of a Genius, But … is not ‘an offhand biography’, as Wilson puts it, but a measured, searching and profoundly touching portrait which, as its title indicates, expresses a view of Lawrence that Wilson would seem to share.

‘Being with him was like moving from an ordinary atmosphere into one of oxygen,’ Aldington wrote. ‘Everything became more exciting and vivid. But he – and we – paid for this unique self of his by the existence of his antithetical self, perverse, destructive, hating, hateful, conceited as a gutter Lucifer.’ For Aldington, Lawrence would always be the most exciting person he had ever met and his writings finer – despite the faults Aldington identified – than those of any other writer of the day. Aldington’s literary career and personal reputation were damaged hugely in subsequent years by his controversial biography of T.E. Lawrence, but his work on DHL still merits reading.

Vivien Whelpton
Woodbridge, Suffolk

The Sixth Taste

There is some reason to doubt the story Daniel Soar tells about the origins of the controversy around monosodium glutamate (LRB, 9 September). Public concern over the adverse effects of MSG consumption began with a letter sent to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 signed by Dr Robert Ho Man Kwok. In 2018, Howard Steel, another doctor, claimed that he had invented Dr Kwok and written the letter as a joke. However, the US radio programme This American Life debunked Steel’s claim by contacting Kwok’s family (Kwok himself died in 2014). Very recently, a writer for the Washington Post interviewed Kwok’s daughter, who explained that Kwok had written to the journal because he ‘wanted to figure out what was causing this reaction’.

Jordan Sand
Washington DC

Daniel Soar writes: The dead get the last laugh. As Jordan Sand says, two people claimed to have written the infamous letter. One died in 2014 and can’t be interrogated. The other died four years later, at the age of 97, and can’t be interrogated again. But he – Howard Steel, or Howard Steel’s ghost – can be heard speaking on that episode of This American Life. In the voicemail he left, there’s at least a record of his side of the story. It’s a bit like the old brainteaser about Portia’s caskets: either he was telling the truth, or he was lying about having lied. A hoax? Or a hoax about having perpetrated a hoax? It’s a puzzle that can never be solved. Believe whichever ghost you want to, but one of them, I find, whispers more persuasively.

Who was Alden Pyle?

As Charles Glass mentions, Edward Lansdale is often said to be the model for Alden Pyle, the ‘idealistic if naive’ American spy in The Quiet American (LRB, 12 August). So when I was carrying out research on the CIA in Vietnam for a film in the BBC’s documentary series The Agency in 1990, I decided to write to Graham Greene. To my surprise I received a reply; half a dozen lines, almost brusque. No, he said, he had never met Lansdale. I felt a bit chastened. Suggesting he had based a character on a real person might have implied his imagination wasn’t up to it. In fact, Greene’s vision of the US in Vietnam in that book charted with uncanny accuracy the moral and political course of the war, years before US troops arrived. Next to that, whom he might have had in mind when inventing Pyle doesn’t seem to matter.

Andrew Weir
London SW2


In his report on the Campbeltown wind turbine factory, James Meek paints a bleak but persuasive picture of the opportunities lost for the green economy (LRB, 15 July). As he says, factories have struggled to win orders for even the most low-value manufacturing while, at the top of the food chain, wind farm ownership in the UK is dominated by foreign companies remitting billions of pounds of profit overseas. This history is all the more troubling given that every penny of profit earned from wind farms comes from government subsidy. Despite government rhetoric, there is little sign of ‘subsidy-free’ wind farms taking off; every one of today’s wind farms would be running at a loss without subsidy. There is no ‘free market’ in wind.

However, while there is little evidence that government intervention can bring home more of the supply chain, retaining a greater share of wind farm ownership in the UK can be directly influenced by government policy, as other countries have demonstrated. In Denmark, for example, almost half the onshore turbines are locally owned, by communities, co-operatives and municipalities. Germany too maintains a high level of local ownership in onshore wind farm development.

In Britain, unfortunately, laissez-faire policymaking has shied away from this kind of regulatory and political support, with the result that less than 1 per cent of the UK’s installed renewables capacity is locally owned. This gigantic failure of public policy has happened at all levels of government – local, devolved and national – and has gone unchallenged, so far, by any political party. Campbeltown and its Kintyre hinterland, for example, with a population of just ten thousand, hosts 24 wind farms, either operational or in development, some of them among the most productive in Europe. As far as I can tell, only two of these are locally owned. The profits from the rest leave Kintyre. If Kintyre were in Denmark, its communities would be prospering from their wind profits; in Scotland, they continue to struggle for jobs and income and to stop people leaving.

Calum Macdonald
Garrabost, Isle of Lewis

Worth £100

Terry Eagleton writes that Wittgenstein’s Tractatus was ‘first presented as an academic thesis’ (LRB, 9 September). The work went through many forms during the 1910s, but the version published in German in 1920 and then in English in 1922 was finished when Wittgenstein was fighting for Austria in the First World War. The manuscript was first seen by Bertrand Russell in 1919, when Wittgenstein was interned in an Italian POW camp. The PhD viva Eagleton mentions took place ten years later, in 1929, by which time the Tractatus was widely considered one of the most important works of contemporary philosophy. As Ray Monk relates in his biography of Wittgenstein, the immediate reason for the submission of the Tractatus as an unlikely doctoral thesis was to secure a £100 research grant from Trinity College, Cambridge. This was awarded the day after he received his degree – ‘£50 for the summer, and £50 for the following Michaelmas term’.

Ben Ralph
University of Bath

On Failing to Read Books

Clair Wills’s review of Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett calls to mind Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s ode to ‘fantasy books’ (LRB, 12 August). Sedgwick doesn’t define ‘fantasy’ as a genre, but thinks of fantasy books as those we are gauzily aware of but haven’t read, and which ‘therefore have a presence, or exert a pressure in our lives and thinking, that may have much or little to do with what’s actually inside them’.

Sedgwick also offers what is to my mind the best possible justification for readerly procrastination: in failing to read books, I am cultivating a ‘spiritual practice’ that leads me to ‘enhance and enrich [books] over time, investing them with my own obsessions and the fruits of my varying thought and self-relation’. As a frequently delinquent book reader, I am particularly grateful for reviews, like Wills’s, that convey so thorough an engagement with a book that it takes up residence in one’s mind as an object of ‘accumulated reverie’.

Rhoda Feng
Washington DC

Better to Be Single

Rosemary Hill presumes that Homerton and South Hackney day continuation school, of which Constance Spry became principal in 1921, must have been under the impression that she was married when it appointed her (LRB, 9 September). That is by no means certain. As Alison Oram points out in Women Teachers and Feminist Politics, 1900-39 (1996), between 1921 and 1923 the vast majority of education committees (with the tacit agreement of the Board of Education) decided to dispense with the employment of married women as ‘the most obvious and natural way’ of mitigating teacher unemployment and the effects of education cuts. By 1926 about three-quarters of all local authorities operated some sort of marriage bar. Despite her change of surname, Constance Spry might have found it more convenient to remain single.

Celina Fox
Great Chishill, Cambridgeshire

Where does the bus stop?

J.R.S. Davies queries the bus journey in the final chapter of Under the Net, but Iris Murdoch’s knowledge of London transport needn’t be at fault (Letters, 9 September). The 88 is approaching Oxford Circus down Langham Place; Jake Donaghue is looking out of the front window. The ‘crowds in Oxford Street’, I presume, are streaming over the pedestrian crossing ahead of him while the bus waits at the traffic light, which gives him time for the long reflection beginning ‘What is urgent is not urgent for ever but only ephemerally,’ before his stop. After that, a brisk five minutes’ walk east down Oxford Street will bring him to Rathbone Place.

John Clegg
London WC1

On the Platform

Much as I enjoyed Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite’s overview of the rise and precipitous fall of the British coal industry, there was one remark that had me struggling into my old trainspotter’s anorak (LRB, 9 September). The Great Western Railway did not fire its locomotives with anthracite, preferring the cheaper and far more effective steam coal found in the eastern half of the South Wales coalfield. The anthracite from the western half was, however, very popular in breweries and maltings etc because of its low arsenic content. A few American railroads – the ones that operated in the anthracite belt – did use it as fuel but they had to build locomotives with very wide fireboxes (GWR locomotives had narrow fireboxes) to accommodate the different combustion characteristics. They probably had to use the blower a lot too.

Richard Kelham
Cley next the Sea, Norfolk

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