Vol. 43 No. 19 · 7 October 2021

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In Praise of Indexes

Indexes are trouble, Anthony Grafton writes (LRB, 23 September). He also makes clear how valuable they can be. Within a year of the invention of the Dewey Decimal System in 1877, W.H. Smith, then financial secretary to the Treasury, ‘was astounded’ to find several top graduates of the Staff College (usually sappers or gunners, temporarily in the fledgling Intelligence Division) combing obscure sources and subjects germane to their assigned part of the world and indexing it all into a 537-page quarto catalogue of seven columns with numerous cross entries to between five and nine divisions. This was a state of the art database capturing information ready to be turned into real-time intelligence for the Foreign Office (the War Office declined to involve itself with anything so tawdry as ‘intelligence’). Smith now understood why Lord Salisbury called the Intelligence Division ‘a most valuable department of state’ and offered to increase their grant whenever they asked. In the 1890s, when Edward Maunde Thompson, principal librarian and secretary to the British Museum, disdained to co-operate with the librarian of this unknown department, he received a gentle admonition from the Treasury; it was, he was told, ‘believed to be the best military library in the world’. Soon he, too, became a close, if confidential, advocate of the strange goings-on at 16-18 Queen Anne’s Gate.

William Beaver

Philby did it

Charles Glass puts the failure of the British and American attempt to overthrow the Albanian regime in the late 1940s down to the fact that ‘the Hoxha regime had long since penetrated the exile movements’ (LRB, 12 August). In fact, the failure was down to a key participant on the British side: Kim Philby, who was already a key asset for Moscow. Between 1949 and 1951, while he was based in Washington liaising between the SIS and the OPC/CIA, every single one of the agents who entered Albania was rounded up and killed by Hoxha’s security forces.

Joseph Saxby
London W9

Anglo-Catholic Radicals

Paul Flewers, making the case for a radical political tradition in Anglo-Catholicism, gives the example of Conrad Noel, the ‘Red Vicar of Thaxted’ (Letters, 9 September). Noel was appointed to Thaxted in 1910 by the patron of the benefice, Daisy, Countess of Warwick, a socialite turned socialist. Two years earlier, she had appointed Edward Maxted to nearby Tilty, another living in her gift. The son of a tinsmith, Maxted had himself been apprenticed to the trade. He then left for Canada, where he earned enough money to put himself through a theology course at King’s College, London. He was ordained and served his first curacies in working-class parishes in London, notably St Anne’s, South Lambeth, where the vicar, Father Morris, put socialist principles into practice and preached an embryonic liberation theology. On his days off Maxted worked for the Social Democratic Federation, touring London with the Clarion van.

A burly former boilermaker, Maxted could not have made a greater contrast with the patrician Conrad Noel, with his aristocratic connections and matinée idol looks. Noel tends to get all the attention, as though he was the only priest preaching socialism. Maxted might have lacked Noel’s gift for theatre, but when it came to preaching socialism he was in a class of his own. During his time at Tilty, he held a public meeting every Saturday evening either in the nearby, intransigently Tory market town of Great Dunmow or on the green on the outskirts of his own parish. Standing on a box, without any amplification, he addressed the large crowd that invariably assembled, mainly in order to barrack him. He also sometimes invited speakers from the Independent Labour Party to these meetings.

Such were the feelings aroused by the ‘socialist vicar’, verbal abuse sometimes turned into physical assault. On 5 November 1909, Maxted was burned in effigy at Great Dunmow’s Guy Fawkes Night. Where Noel concentrated on recreating an imagined medieval community at Thaxted, Maxted campaigned for council-funded housing for farm workers to replace the leaking hovels in which many of them lived, even on the estates of his patron. He stood as a candidate for Essex County Council, coming second to his Tory opponent, and when, at harvest time in 1914, the local farm workers went on strike for better pay and the right to join a union, he went round the villages encouraging them. (As far as I know there is no evidence that Noel appeared in support of the agricultural labourers.) The outbreak of the First World War brought the strike to a halt.

During the war, Maxted fell silent, protesting only against the use of schoolboys to replace the farm workers who had left to join the fighting. In 1918 he swapped parishes with a vicar from Bristol, and in 1922, after a brief and stormy ministry in New Zealand, he and his family migrated to the US, where they became American citizens. As a republican who had chafed at serving under the king as supreme governor of the Church of England, perhaps in his role as a minister of the Episcopal Church he relished praying instead for the president of the republic. He died in Houston in 1966, aged 92.

Ian Beckwith
Church Stretton, Shropshire

Call it what it is

Thomas Meaney chose his words carefully when describing the US ‘departure’ or ‘withdrawal’ from Afghanistan (LRB, 9 September). No mention of ‘retreat’, which is usually understood to mean a tactical disengagement following a setback. In 1991, this semantic distinction cost many Iraqi soldiers their lives on the infamous ‘Highway of Death’ – the road from Kuwait City to the border with Iraq at Safwan, and then on to Basra. The Iraqis, having communicated their intention to withdraw from Kuwait in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 660, had been assured they would be unmolested along the way. When Iraq complained of US interference in its troops’ withdrawal, George H.W. Bush angrily denounced Saddam Hussein, declaring: ‘He is not withdrawing. His defeated troops are retreating. He is trying to claim victory in the midst of a rout.’ There followed the infamous ‘turkey shoot’, while the white flags of surrender flown by desperate Iraqi soldiers were ignored. With regard to Afghanistan, and to paraphrase Bush, the US did not withdraw; its defeated troops retreated. Significantly, Biden has warned that the US has unfinished business in Afghanistan, declaring: ‘We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it.’

Dominic Carroll
Ardfield, County Cork

Mrs Gilroy

Marina Warner writes about Beryl Gilroy’s reissued memoir, Black Teacher (LRB, 9 September). In the 1970s I was a pupil at Beckford Primary School in North London when Mrs Gilroy, as we called her, was the headteacher. I remember sometimes pretending to be ill so I could be taken to her office, which was always open and welcoming. In her book she refers to me as ‘our knowledgeable grandson of a lord’ (I must have been annoying) and reports:

Some of the children offered to sing their national anthems but, oddly enough, there were no offers from the English. They only seemed to recognise ‘God Save the Queen’ after considerable prompting. The most militant among them protested!

‘We don’t sing that,’ said Jenny, the little daughter of middle-class intellectuals. ‘We hate the queen.’

‘Yes we do,’ John chipped in. ‘She has too many houses. She should give them to Shelter.’

John Foot

The Sixth Taste

Daniel Soar writes that, at the end of the 19th century, ‘for 1200 years meat had been banned in Japan’ (LRB, 9 September). That would take us back to 700, but no law banning meat was issued then, or at any time. It is true that eating ‘useful animals’ (oxen and horses) was taboo, but this was because forested mountains covered most of the country and there was scant agricultural space: land had to be given over to rice production, and couldn’t be lost to animal feed. People took to rivers and seas for protein for practical reasons. The idea that they avoided meat through Buddhist belief is also a canard. Wild animals requiring no set-aside for feed (deer, boar, hares) were copiously eaten, as were birds.

Timon Screech

Many years ago, my wife and I gorged on a delicious wheel of blue cheese left over from a party. I got her to the emergency room just before the swelling completely occluded her airway. Allergy testing turned up only one sensitivity – to monosodium glutamate. We carry an adrenaline epipen in case it happens again. We check the fine print on the backs of bottles, jars and packets, and on menus in restaurants. Sometimes we forget and geographic tongue is the first warning that something contains MSG; it always does: there have been no false positives. Some natural foods – tomatoes and mushrooms in particular – also cause a reaction, though it’s less extreme. It’s concentrated MSG powder added to food that causes serious swelling and urticaria. For some of us, it’s no laughing matter.

Richard Fotheringham
Brisbane, Australia

Alone of Its Kind

Barbara Taylor quotes Patricia Lockwood’s remark that Marian Engels’s Bear is ‘alone of its kind’ (Letters, 9 September). But, as Taylor asks, ‘What is its kind?’ If we are talking about novels with a bear as protagonist that include woman-bear romantic involvement, then we can include The Bear Comes Home by Rafi Zabor, which won the Pen-Faulkner Prize in 1998. Narrated from an ostensibly ursine perspective, it relates the existential and romantic challenges faced by a hip alto-sax-playing talking bear as he attempts to break into the US jazz scene.

Bill Williams
University of Lisbon

Getting Away with It

John Lanchester explores the attitudes in different sporting cultures towards operating outside the rules. Cheating holds an exalted place in Nascar (LRB, 29 July). The sport emerged from the practices of moonshine runners in the American South during Prohibition, who modified their cars to gain an advantage over law enforcement agents. Nascar drivers and teams have continued the noble tradition of trying anything to stay ahead of the law. Since Glenn Dunaway’s winning car failed inspection after the very first Strictly Stock Series race in 1949, illegal alterations to car engines, bodies, tyres, type of fuel used, not to mention dodgy in-race manoeuvres, have displayed an imagination which is perhaps surprising in a sport which at first glance involves nothing other than left turns for hours on end. Involvement in cheating ‘scandals’ seems only to enhance the reputation of the sport’s greats, such as Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt. As the legendary driver Richard Petty is said to have remarked: ‘If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.’

Joel McIlven
Totnes, Devon

Where does the bus stop?

Let’s settle this (Letters, 9 and 23 September). The 1966 London Transport Bus Route Map shows the 88 running from Acton via Shepherds Bush, Marble Arch, Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Westminster, Tate Gallery, Vauxhall, Stockwell, Clapham Common and Tooting to Mitcham, extended to St Helier Estate (in rush hours) and further still (on Sundays) to Belmont and Banstead Hospital.

Simon Matthews
Sheerness on Sea, Kent

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