Vol. 44 No. 7 · 7 April 2022

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What Not to Wear

Simon Akam quotes from the directive to Sandhurst officer cadets regarding the wearing of mufti that ‘“jean cut” trousers are not to be worn as a replacement for chinos’ and horizontal pocket openings or press studs remain anathema (LRB, 10 March). That had me reaching for Customs of the Army 1956, a pamphlet issued to me at Sandhurst in 1963 which I never bothered to read. It states:

An officer should be smart and well turned out at all times. This is most important in plain clothes … Above all, an officer must avoid buying flashy or highly coloured clothes … As regards the wearing of sports clothes and scarves in the Mess, officers are recommended to seek advice from the Adjutant or from some other officer of the unit.

I then turned to the 98-page hardback Royal Artillery Standing Orders and Instructions 1955, given to me when I was commissioned and also unread until now. In the section ‘Articles of Dress: Officers’, sandwiched between instructions on ‘Gold Shoulder Belt’ and ‘Jacket – Service Dress’, paragraph 22, titled ‘Hose Tops’, ordains that ‘Turn-over of hose top will be 3 in. wide. Top of hose-top to be 2 in. below the line of knee joint at the break of the knee.’ Some things have changed, clearly, but not that much.

Akam refers to the magisterial On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (1976), in which Norman Dixon showed that the army attracted precisely the most unsuitable personality types into its officer elite. My Sandhurst instructors rushed around talking enthusiastically about ‘initiative’ (as they had been instructed to do) but adhered to dress codes with such conformity that you knew initiative or independent thinking was never going to have a chance.

David McDowall

The Little Red Schoolbook

Jolyon Jenkins writes that the director of public prosecutions ‘had a hard time working out exactly what was obscene’ about The Little Red Schoolbook (Letters, 24 March). A publication didn’t have to be about sex to be obscene. As attorney general in the mid-1950s, Reginald Manningham-Buller argued that legislation against ‘horror comics’ was unnecessary because there was no case law ‘restricting the meaning of “obscene” to matters relating to sex’. In the following years, the courts expanded the category of obscenity to cover depictions of antisocial behaviour of various kinds, notably drug-taking. Cain’s Book by Alexander Trocchi was an early victim. Where publications targeting young people were concerned, obscenity could function as a proxy for sedition. The detective investigating Oz remarked:

The whole theme and message is directed to young students urging them to revolt against society and to discard morality, responsibility and self-discipline in every sense … this type of publication is much more harmful than the Danish and Swedish ‘hard core’ pornography, in that … Oz No. 28 attacks the very roots of society and because of its open sale and distribution is, within the meaning of the obscenity laws, proportionately more obscene.

You may think, as barristers used to say, that this makes no sense, but evidently it did for a while to some.

Christopher Hilliard
University of Sydney

Stephen Sedley writes about the law with regard to obscenity and censorship (LRB, 10 March). In 1959 I joined the publisher Rupert Hart-Davis, whose Soho office became the HQ for the defence in the Chatterley trial, despite Rupert’s own misgivings about the case. In 1963 the firm was taken over by Harcourt Brace, under Bill Jovanovich. He had bought Mary McCarthy’s The Group for a huge sum and was determined that we should handle the non-American English rights. Rupert, not unaware of the writing on the wall, asked every member of the firm individually to read the book. Without exception we all said that we thought it a disgusting book and would rather not be involved in its publication. Rupert reported accordingly with as much tact as possible, but Jovanovich put the firm up for sale at once, and we were soon out on the street.

Nicolas Barker
London W11

Cocky Little Man

Horatio Bottomley’s riposte to the chaplain at Wormwood Scrubs – ‘Sewing, Bottomley?’ ‘No, reaping’ – may well be apocryphal, as David Renton observes (LRB, 24 February). But it was witty enough to find its way into several memoirs, among them Gerold Fancourt Clayton’s The Wall Is Strong (1958). Clayton encountered Bottomley at Maidstone convict prison, an establishment reserved for first offenders sentenced to penal servitude, when he arrived there as governor in 1926. By this time, Bottomley was no longer sewing mailbags, having graduated to Maidstone’s printing shop, where he worked as a proofreader – ‘the softest job in the prison’, according to Clayton. A ‘cocky little man’, he had ‘established himself as virtual “king” of the prisoners’: ‘They called him “sir”,’ Clayton recalled, adding that he ‘would not have been surprised if prison officers had done the same’. Two wardens lost their jobs on Bottomley’s account; he gave others cigars when he returned from bankruptcy hearings in London. On his release, he wrote to Clayton, inviting him to invest money in a new magazine; once again, Clayton found himself ‘stunned’ by the man’s ‘colossal cheek’. He ended his days, as Clayton notes, as a ‘variety turn’ at the Windmill Theatre in Soho, ‘a pitiable figure’ delivering excerpts from his best-known speeches.

Ben Bethell
London SE4

I Shall, You Will

My grammar teacher at an Australian country high school in the 1940s would have partially endorsed Maurice West’s view of the distinction between ‘will’ and ‘shall’ (Letters, 10 March). I was taught that the first person ‘I shall’ is in the indicative mood, a statement of fact, while ‘I will’ in the first person is emphatic, a strong expression of the speaker’s volition. Mr Connor told us a joke to illustrate the point, about a teacher who believed in free will. He refused to rescue a student floundering in the water because he was heard to cry out ‘I will drown, I will drown,’ thereby insisting that he did not wish to be saved.

Ruth Wilson
Edgecliff, New South Wales

Battling Siki

Imaobong Umoren mentions the Senegalese boxer ‘Battling Siki’, who unexpectedly knocked out Georges Carpentier in France in September 1922 (LRB, 10 February). After that bout, promoters were eager to bring him to England before the end of the year to fight Joe Becket, holder of the British heavyweight title. The egregious Hugh Lowther, fifth earl of Lonsdale, bestower of the Lonsdale Belt and president of the National Sporting Club, had other ideas. On 1 November 1922 he wrote to the recently appointed home secretary, W.C. Bridgeman, confirming that he was doing all he could to prevent the contest, because ‘matches as between white and black men have a detrimental effect on their respective races and they are mischievous and of a far-reaching nature.’ Previous home secretaries, including Winston Churchill and Reginald McKenna, had shared his view that interracial boxing would be ‘contrary to the interests of the nation’. Bridgeman agreed, and the contest was forbidden.

A year later Siki moved to the United States, where his boxing record and personal fortunes rapidly deteriorated. In December 1925 he was found shot dead in the street in New York, aged 28. The man he never met, Joe Becket, had quit the ring in October 1923 after being knocked out at London Olympia by Georges Carpentier; he lived until 1965.

Andy Connell
Appleby-in-Westmorland, Cumbria

Bloody Pommy

Michael Neill writes about ‘accentlessness’ (Letters, 10 March). He associates it primarily with class and empire, but I see it as a more fundamental human phenomenon – the perception of difference by comparison, as practised by developing children. When my daughter, fresh from school in England and speaking with a very RP accent, started at a new school in Canada, she returned from her first day in tears: ‘They all say I’ve got an accent, but I haven’t, have I?’

No one thinks of themselves as having an accent until it is pointed out to them when they are immersed in a new cultural context. My grandfather arrived in Cambridge from Bradford in 1915 and began taking elocution lessons because exposure to other undergraduates made him realise that his speech was accented. He would never have thought of the RP speakers at his college as heavily accented, just as it would never have occurred to him at home in Wyke that he had an accent himself. But to flourish in 1915 Cambridge he needed to achieve a new sort of accentlessness, leaving behind the accentlessness of working-class Yorkshire for the accentlessness of RP Cambridge.

Of course class and race shape the potency of cultural contexts to a considerable extent. But as I said to my daughter, ‘This is Cultural Relations 101 – we all have accents.’ I had arrived in Canada to run the British Council there, and my daughter’s discovery illustrated what cultural relations are about: learning to hear your own accent and to see your own prejudices and assumptions; and learning not to hear and see those of others in the critical way that comes naturally until we escape our cultural solipsism.

Martin Rose
Saffron Walden, Essex

So Much for Caligula

Julian Bell refers to the ‘67 autocrats whose busts now stand in Rome’s Capitoline Museum’ (LRB, 24 March). In fact, the collections of the Musei Capitolini contain only around half that number, plus a dozen princelings, favourites and other male members of the Domus Augusta. Conspicuous by their absence are the three ephemeral Suetonian Caesars of 69 AD (Galba, Otho and Vitellius), many of the longer reigning but still precarious rulers of the unstable third century, and, strikingly, Caligula, the posthumous ‘cancellation’ of whose images makes them rarer in museums than his present notoriety might suggest.

Brandon Green
Whistler, British Columbia

Hero or Ruffian?

Diarmaid MacCulloch calls Henry VIII ‘Victorian England’s hero’ (LRB, 10 March). Yet in A Child’s History of England, Charles Dickens says the king was ‘a most intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature and a blot of blood and grease upon the History of England’. Was Dickens’s attitude really so counter to the sentiment of his time? I wonder if the rehabilitation of Henry VIII isn’t actually the fault of Charles Laughton.

David Mills
London N6

Alliterative Actresses

Anne Archer, Beulah Bondi, Claudette Colbert, Claudia Cardinale, Deanna Durbin, Diana Dors, Doris Day, Dorothy Dandridge, Fenella Fielding, the two Helens (Hayes and Hunt), Jennifer Jones, Laura Linney, the two Marilyns (Maxwell and Monroe), Marjorie Main, Maria Montez, Melina Mercouri, Mercedes McCambridge, Nanette Newman, Paula Prentiss, Rene Russo, Rosalind Russell, Ruth Roman, Sheila Sim, the two Sylvias (Sidney and Syms), Stefania Sandrelli: movie buffs could have endless fun supplementing David Trotter’s list of film actresses with ‘first and second names starting with the same letter’ (LRB, 24 February). There are other GGs in addition to his subject, Greta Garbo: Gloria Grahame, two more Gretas (Gynt and Gerwig), and Greer Garson, whose career overlapped with Garbo’s and who was at the time almost as famous.

Ian Britain

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