Edmund Gordon mentions the proposal made by the conservation group Buglife that insect-friendly corridors be set up across the UK to prevent an insect apocalypse (LRB, 12 May). The most successful precedent for this was the trenches on the Western Front in the First World War. The insect was the louse, which spread trench fever. It saved many lives because the disease made soldiers (including A.A. Milne and J.R.R. Tolkien) ill enough to be invalided home, but wasn’t lethal – though recovery was slow for a significant minority, who developed a chronic condition remarkably like long Covid.
The first bacteriologists to use the term ‘herd immunity’ for humans (Topley and Wilson in 1929) were keen on a broad definition; they said that the English herd was immune to typhus and plague because typhus-spreading lice, and plague rats and their fleas, had been driven towards extinction. Some time later it was worked out that lice were actually having a hard time because they starve to death and die from hypothermia when underclothes (their habitat) are taken off at night and changed frequently, while plague rats with fleas were no longer running down the mooring ropes from infested tramp steamers because they had been fought off by poison in the holds, guards on the ropes and, eventually, the rise of rodent-proof container ships.
Blake Morrison writes that certain elements of Kay Dick’s They remind him of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five: ‘The narrator even has a dog; its name and breed aren’t specified but I couldn’t help thinking of Timmy’ (LRB, 12 May). Kay did indeed have a dog named Timmy, who would have been her companion in 1977 when They was first published. I met them both in 1989, at their basement flat on the seafront in Brighton. Timmy was small, black and white, and of no fixed breed. He was also quiet and extremely well behaved. It’s not always true that dogs resemble their owners – no one would have accused Kay Dick of being quiet and well behaved.
Matthew Karp discusses Robert E. Lee’s diminished stature (LRB, 7 April). Here in the Old Dominion, in Alexandria at least, this can perhaps best be seen in the treatment of the historical marker on the 600 block of Oronoco Street outside what was known hereabouts as ‘Lee’s Boyhood Home’. The sign noted that Lee lived in the graceful house before going north to West Point, and returned in the spring of 1865, climbing over the garden wall to see ‘if the snowballs were in bloom’. Last year the house was put on the market, but the sign was airbrushed out of the listing agent’s photos. Later the city removed the ‘Lee’s Boyhood Home’ sign, replacing it with one reading ‘The Potts-Fitzhugh-Lee House’, which omits the business of the snowballs. It mentions that Archibald MacLeish lived in the house (he was librarian of Congress). On the new sign, Lee and MacLeish get one sentence each.
With the Lost Cause safely buried, plenty of people now wish that more harm had come to Confederates after their surrender, and Albion Urdank isn’t alone in suggesting that because Confederate leaders weren’t hanged for treason, it ‘allowed the South to remain unreconciled to defeat’ (Letters, 21 April). But it is hard to imagine that killing the South’s war heroes would have made it immediately repent of a slave society that had existed for more than two hundred years. Nor would it have been very popular among Northern voters in 1865: plenty had wanted to negotiate an end to the war sooner, and many were quite ready to move on and abandon the freed slaves to their fate.
Also, how many to punish? The constitution defines treason as making war against the United States. That would include the bloody Nathan Bedford Forrest, but also the reconciliatory James Longstreet. And treason is also defined as providing aid and comfort to those making war. As Robert E. Lee often cared little about feeding his men, on any march a lot of his soldiers were begging at doors. The traitors might have included not only these soldiers but also any rural housewife who had handed an apple to one of them.
For an example of what it could have been like, in 1921 there was a miners’ strike and revolt in southern West Virginia, now known as the Battle of Blair Mountain. About a hundred arrested miners were sent for trial to Charles Town, where it was assumed an impartial jury could be found. The prosecutor, a fiery little man named George Beltzhoover, realised that because Federal marshals had been brought in, the miners had made war against the United States and so could be tried for treason and hanged. Sixty-two years earlier in the same town, John Brown had been successfully tried and executed. But this time, faced with a possible mass hanging of their peers, the jury declined to convict. Abraham Lincoln, an excellent trial lawyer, could well have anticipated a similar outcome for a mass trial of Confederates.
Shepherdstown, West Virginia
Maya James overlooks the international realities of the UK’s energy problems (LRB, 12 May). For at least the next ten years the UK’s energy system remains locked into global oil and gas markets, with all their dangers and volatilities. Neither domestic fracking nor more North Sea investment will make anything but the most marginal difference, since their outputs will also be governed by world market prices. Indeed, all investment in the North Sea takes place on the condition that it is an international province.
Eventually we hope to be largely free of gas and oil imports, but the idea that this will then give us energy independence is nonsense. Wind pylons require imported components and materials, nuclear power plants (even smaller reactors) use imported fuel and are sensitive to system breakdown. Electric vehicle batteries require rare earths and metals mostly only available from dodgy supplier countries. Interconnectors, the high-voltage cables that connect the electricity systems of neighbouring countries, can break down or be shut off. The whole grid system depends on imported microcircuits, as do all back-up and storage technologies.
Finally, this promised future national energy security won’t make an atom of difference to the present impossibly high fuel prices. Home insulation will help a little, but the only certain short-term relief is for the big oil and gas producers (our supposed friends in the Middle East) to use their large spare capacity to pump more oil and gas to replace Russian exports and bring global prices sharply down. Overcoming their refusal to do so requires political and diplomatic skills which seem to be beyond us. We also need climate campaigners to grasp that emergency measures of this sort don’t conflict with the longer-term goal of decarbonisation.
‘It’s unclear why “sliym” slipped out of the English Eden,’ Liam Shaw writes, wondering why Wyclif’s word choice fell out of favour, while describing as a ‘euphemism’ the idea spread by later Bible translators that the first man emerged from ‘dust’ (LRB, 21 April). ‘Oddly desiccated’ it may sound, but these later translators were correct: the Hebrew word aphar, in Genesis 2:7 and elsewhere, is ‘dust’.
It’s clear how Wyclif’s slime slipped in: he was working from Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, where man is indeed formed ‘de limo terrae’. Sixteenth-century Catholic scholars faced their own conundrum. Required by the Council of Trent to prefer the Vulgate to all other translations, Benito Arias Montano, the chief editor of the Antwerp Polyglot Bible (1568-73), duly placed it in the column beside the Hebrew text. By turning to the next column, however, the reader could learn from a new Latin translation of the Greek text of the Septuagint that man was made from pulvis (‘dust’) – a fact made clear by Sante Pagnini’s Latin translation direct from Hebrew provided in the apparatus. Publishing their Pentateuch in 1609, however, the English Catholic translators of the Douay-Rheims Bible stuck with ‘slyme’.
University of East Anglia, Norwich
Andrew O’Hagan writes about his mother’s fear of pausing the TV while watching Coronation Street, in case she paused it for the whole nation (LRB, 21 April). In the early fifth century BC, when the new technology of writing was just taking off, the small Greek city of Teos set up on stone an inscribed oath of office, to be recited in public several times each year by the city’s magistrates. The stone listed various dreadful things that would happen to any official ‘who does not read out the things written on the stone to the best of his memory’. The elderly technophobe who drafted the text evidently wasn’t quite sure how this alarming modern invention was supposed to work.
Wadham College, Oxford
Andrew O’Hagan’s account of his late mother’s struggle with new technology reminded me of my 93-year-old mother-in-law’s question to the family a couple of years ago: ‘Is the internet in colour?’
Sainte Dode, France
Julian Barnes writes that Jacques Lartigue was taken to a performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in June 1913 (LRB, 7 April). The work did have its premiere on 29 May that year, with the music together with Nijinsky’s choreography causing a riot at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. However, it wouldn’t have been Stravinsky whom Lartigue saw conducting. The first run of performances, which ended on 13 June, Lartigue’s 19th birthday, were conducted by Pierre Monteux. The work didn’t reappear in Paris until 1920 in a new production, choreographed by Léonide Massine and conducted by Ernest Ansermet. According to Stravinsky’s autobiography, he first conducted The Rite of Spring in 1926 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam.
Colin Burrow writes that Pope’s ‘skulduggery’ was a ‘major reason for the collapse of his critical standing in the 19th century’ (LRB, 21 April). I’d like to see chapter and verse on that. I think that more significant were aesthetic and moral objections, summed up in the view of 18th-century poetry expressed by Matthew Arnold in his essay on Thomas Gray: ‘It proceeds by ratiocination, antithesis, ingenious turns and conceits. The poetry is often eloquent, and always, in the hands of such masters as Dryden and Pope, clever; but it does not take us much below the surface of things, it does not give us the emotion of seeing things in their truth and beauty.’ If the 19th century was in the shadow of the Romantic movement, then Pope was bound to seem antipathetic.
Brasenose College, Oxford
Contrary to what Jonathan Parry supposes, France did not import cycling from Britain – it was the other way round (LRB, 21 April). The first person to attach pedals to a draisine (hobby horse) was a Parisian mechanic called Pierre Lallement, in 1863. According to his testimony in an 1866 patent (reported in David Herlihy’s Bicycle: The History), he conceived the bicycle in 1862, and built it in his spare time in 1863, whence he ‘took (it) to the boulevards and all the people saw it’.
For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.