Vol. 44 No. 11 · 9 June 2022

Search by issue:

Black Glasses!

John Foot writes about Rodolfo Graziani’s career as one of the chief prosecutors of Italy’s campaign against the Ethiopian Church in the late 1930s (LRB, 21 April). Graziani went on to be commander of Italy’s armies in the last period of the Second World War, and it was in this capacity that in Florence on 2 May 1945, following the surrender of Axis forces in Italy, he was handed into the custody of my friend Captain Hamish Henderson, an intelligence officer attached to the Eighth Army.

Hamish (a poet) oversaw Graziani’s writing of the surrender document ordering all Italian and German forces in Italy to lay down their arms. The German general Max-Josef Pemsel, chief of staff of the Ligurian Army, was also in custody; Hamish took his proclamation of surrender too. The two generals were then taken to a radio station in Florence to broadcast their statements. Knowing that Partisans and Communist Florentines would be gathering outside, Graziani asked for a disguise. Hamish offered his greatcoat and officer’s cap. ‘Black glasses!’ Graziani demanded. ‘I can’t go without occhiali neri!’ With pistol drawn, Hamish led his small party to safety, keeping the documents in his pocket (today they remain the property of his wife).

Hamish returned to Scotland with his greatcoat. The story goes that in 1953 it was used by the man who blew up ERII letterboxes in Edinburgh. It was subsequently burned, or maybe it was secreted and sent to Canada as a historical relic. Graziani and Henderson were both well over six feet tall, but had little else in common. Hamish, Franciscan in his poverty, was a Gramscian folklorist and political activist. Graziani, the brutal imperialist, became a marquis and remained a fascist, proud of his rehabilitation in Christian Democratic Italy.

Timothy Neat
Penzance, Cornwall

The First Bicycle

Tom Wells rejects Jonathan Parry’s supposition that France imported cycling from Britain (Letters, 26 May). It was, he says, the other way round, and ‘the first person to attach pedals to a draisine (hobby horse) was a Parisian mechanic called Pierre Lallement, in 1863.’ Here in Dumfriesshire we dispute that. A blacksmith cum dentist called Kirkpatrick Macmillan (1812-78, known locally as ‘daft Pate’) of Keir Mill near Thornhill built his own bicycle in 1839. He saw a ‘hobby-horse’ – also known as a velocipede, pushed along by the cyclist using their feet on the ground – and decided to attach pedals to it. He rode his invention to Glasgow (a distance of 68 miles) and back in 1842. As he entered Glasgow he bumped into a little girl, hurting her leg, and was arrested and fined five shillings for obstruction of the queen’s highway. On the return journey, Gavin Dalzell in Lesmahagow saw the contraption and made a copy of it in 1846; for more than fifty years he was generally regarded as the inventor of the bicycle.

Pate was apparently quite unconcerned with the fuss he had prompted, preferring to enjoy the quiet country life to which he was accustomed. His tombstone in Keir churchyard commemorates his invention, and there is a plaque to him on his former smithy at Courthill, Keir.

Sue King-Smith
Tynron, Dumfries and Galloway

The Birmingham Six

Graham Boal insists that in the appeal hearing for the Birmingham Six, the Crown did not seek to uphold their convictions (Letters, 12 May). At that hearing, he did indeed concede that the collapse of the two main planks of the case against the defendants – the forensic evidence and the confessions – meant that the Crown would not contest the quashing of the convictions. However, he then tried the patience of the court with a lengthy submission in which he appeared at times to be arguing the opposite. He ploughed on despite increasingly sceptical interventions from the judges. As Lord Justice Lloyd remarked, ‘My difficulty, Mr Boal, is that half the time you are engaged in supporting the submissions we have already heard … The rest of the time you are engaged in what seems to be a form of damage limitation. I think it would really be convenient if we knew at what stage you are advancing which arguments.’ He was eventually smoked out by Lord Justice Mustill: ‘Is the gist of your submission that Walker would have been convicted … and that he would have brought down the other defendants with him?’ To which Boal replied: ‘Yes. This is why I have been at pains to develop the argument that there may be a real distinction between the words “unsafe” and “unsatisfactory”.’

The effect of this muddying of the waters was that it enabled those who wished to do so to continue arguing that the six convicted men were freed on a technicality. As Boal will be aware, for many years afterwards that view was commonly held in the senior levels of the judiciary. This is one of the reasons it has taken the West Midlands Police so long to begin looking for the real bombers.

Chris Mullin
Alnwick, Northumberland


Bernard Richards asks for ‘chapter and verse’ to support my suggestion that Pope’s skulduggery over the publication of his letters was ‘a major reason’ for the decline in his reputation in the 19th century (Letters, 26 May). So I’ll let him have it.

Isaac D’Israeli’s much reprinted Quarrels of Authors (1814) included ‘A Narrative of the Extraordinary Transactions Respecting the Publication of Pope’s Letters’ (1.176-202). This put the quarrel with Curll in the public gaze. As Pat Rogers explains in The Poet and the Publisher, Charles Wentworth Dilke’s work on Pope’s letters drew the skulduggery to the attention of readers of the Athenaeum (i.e. more or less everyone who mattered in the 19th-century literary establishment). That work was gathered posthumously in The Papers of a Critic (1875), 1.93-342. Dilke emphasises ‘the double-dealing of Pope in respect to these letters’ and says ‘Pope has suffered and must suffer for it’ (1.101). Whitwell Elwin’s 1871 edition of the Correspondence, part of a complete edition of Pope’s Works, states that the letters ‘had been selected, fused, abridged, amended, redirected, and falsified with a steady eye to his self-exaltation, and the wail over the treacherous promulgation of careless letters which he had not been permitted to purge of a single fault, or imprudence, was a lie to persuade the world that the flattering portrait he had painted for public exhibition was a true picture of the author in his rapid, unstudied effusions … He was a conscious and deliberate pretender’ (1.xxxi-xxxii).

More chapters and more verses could be supplied on request, but I doubt readers would enjoy a re-enactment of the endless literary quarrels of the past. Aesthetic preferences as well as religious prejudices certainly played their part in the decline of Pope’s reputation, but it is entirely accurate to say that his dealings with Curll over his correspondence were ‘a major reason’ (note the indefinite article) for that decline.

Colin Burrow
All Souls College, Oxford

Slime v. Dust

Liam Shaw’s excellent depiction of our slimy world does a minor disservice to modern molecular biologists by focusing on our predecessors’ disdain for slime (LRB, 21 April). Phase-separation is now the dominant theory for the organisation of internal processes within the nucleus and cytoplasm. In this theory ‘biological condensates’ concentrate the proteins involved in a particular process into a non-membrane-bound organelle which can be in a liquid, gel or semi-solid state (a pretty good definition of slime). By forming slime of different composition and density the DNA can package itself within the nucleus, express genes and be partitioned during cell division. The role of DNA as a code remains, but the central role of sliminess in molecular biology has returned.

Samuel Corless
Heidelberg, Germany

Liam Shaw points out that although a great many things are slimy, only a fraction of them trigger revulsion. Equally, there are some slimes that are decidedly more positive. The musician Shygirl, in her song ‘Slime’, uses the word to mean ‘best friend’ or ‘homie’. This usage originated in New York in the early 2000s, popularised by the rappers N.O.R.E. and Vado. ‘Slime’ isn’t the only visqueux Shygirl song. On the track ‘Gelato’ – which, like ‘Slime’, was produced by the late musician SOPHIE – she incants hypnotically: ‘My melted body/goo goo, so gloopy’.

Temitope Fisayo
London SE14

Progress Estate

Rosemary Hill’s exploration of her family’s residence in the ‘hutments’ of Eltham, built during the First World War for workers at Royal Arsenal, neatly contrasts this housing scheme with the development (a little earlier) of the far more salubrious ‘garden suburb’ inspired design of the Well Hall Estate for senior staff (LRB, 26 May). The estate was not, as she suggests, built by the local authority but rather by central government, which then brought in the London County Council to manage it. In 1920, this arrangement was brought to an end: the LCC ceased to manage the estate, the Office of Works sold houses to sitting tenants (following a pattern established in similar ‘garden suburb’ estates, originally set up as co-partnership tenancies), and sold the rest to the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, which was when it acquired the name by which it is now known, the Progress Estate. In 1980, what remained of tenanted housing on the estate (the 1967 Leasehold Reform Act having allowed many one-time tenants to have become owner-occupiers) was then sold to a housing association.

Anne Bottomley

On Paper

Tom Johnson’s review of Orietta Da Rold’s Paper in Medieval England includes descriptions of paper and parchment manufacture that are incorrect (LRB, 12 May). In explaining watermarks, he writes that ‘wire shapes were placed within the drying mesh’. In hand-papermaking, watermarks were woven into the laid lines of the paper mould, which was not a drying mesh but the means of forming the sheet from wet pulp. The sheet was immediately turned out, stacked, pressed, and only then hung up to dry in airy lofts. In parchment-making, Johnson writes that the skin was stretched on a wooden frame before the hair was scraped off with a lunellum. In fact the skins were dehaired on a beam, not on the frame (herse), and the lunar knife was used to create a fine writing surface by removing thin layers of remaining flesh, blood vessels etc. The resulting sheet could not be described as having an ‘oily surface’.

Dana Josephson
Witney, Oxfordshire

The Kanjisphere

John Komurki refers to a ‘national mimeographic tradition’ in Japan, ‘distinct from the Western tradition of Gestetner/Dick’ (Letters, 12 May). The suggestion is that this tradition belongs to the past. But in the first two decades of the 21st century I used a Risograph printer (invented by the Riso Kagaku Corporation in the 1980s) to print high-quality stencil copies of lengthy handouts and multi-page exams for my art history students. Last week, I reviewed a five-part zine-style mini-comic, Shred or Dead, each volume of which has its own colour Riso cover. Since its invention, this sophisticated stencil printer has become the backbone of small design and print studios around the world. Not only does the steno principle allow any shape that can be drawn to be affordably printed, but the flexibility of the Riso process makes it available for many creative uses. Further, artists can choose any colour they want, not just the ones that laser printers are able to reproduce.

Geoff Wichert
Salt Lake City, Utah

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences