Vol. 44 No. 21 · 3 November 2022

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Keys to the World

Craig Sams refers to the ‘hardwood chestnut coppice woodlands’ of Sussex, whose wood was used to produce dense charcoal for the smelting of iron for cannons (Letters, 6 October). I was a coppice-worker, forester and charcoal-maker at my farm near Steyning in Sussex during the 1980s. Having made charcoal from a variety of species I would contend that the most favourable for iron-founding is the hornbeam Carpinus betulus, which was planted extensively for the purpose after the native oak was used up and still thrives in the iron-founding districts of the Weald of Sussex. It is the hardest of European woods and makes a dense charcoal that would resist crushing in the furnace under the weight of the ore and limestone charge. A further advantage is that it provides a crop from regrowth every fifteen to twenty years without the need for replanting, and favours the heavy clay land where ‘clay ironstone’ ore was found and which was necessary for the construction of ‘hammer-ponds’.

The sweet chestnut, Castanea sativa, was mainly grown for hop-poles and fencing stakes, being in-ground durable. It grows well only in sandy soil. I have made much charcoal from the ‘chogs’ left over after the straight timber has been used and while it makes a good, clean charcoal for use in barbecues, it is light and brittle compared to hornbeam, therefore less energy-dense. It would be crushed in a furnace.

Kevin Mayes
Owhiro Bay, New Zealand

Sex in the Brain

Arianne Shahvisi makes an eloquent response to the anonymous letter-writer who felt it unfair to accuse ‘gender-critical feminists’ of being ‘in league with the far right’ (Letters, 22 September). That same week I read of three diatribes from political leaders railing against ‘gender ideology’: Jair Bolsonaro while visiting London; Giorgia Meloni on the neo-fascist campaign trail in Italy; and Vladimir Putin reiterating his belief that ‘a woman is a woman, a man is a man.’ Russia has anti-LGBT+ laws similar to Hungary’s under Viktor Orbán, who last year revoked legal recognition of transgender people and recently claimed that ‘children must be protected from “gender ideology”.’ In the US anti-trans laws deny healthcare and rights to those who transgress gender norms, while fanatics are campaigning to have libraries ban LGBT+ books along with anti-racist and women’s rights literature.

Given all this, it seems disingenuous of Richard Garside to suggest that ‘gender-critical’ groups have nothing to do with these abhorrent politics (Letters, 6 October). His selective quoting from online sources asserting feminist principles ignores other views: expressions of contempt, derision, ignorance and, yes, hatred towards trans people; at the extreme end of this spectrum are those who wish to remove or reduce trans people’s rights. A resurgence of biological determinism and the belief that sex is immutably dimorphic isn’t only not feminist, it contributes to persecution and works in the interests of patriarchy. There is a need to challenge the idea that women’s rights and trans rights are intrinsically in conflict, when there is a progressive, expansive possibility, as Shahvisi’s original article suggested, of our recognising ‘broader forms of diversity’.

Frankie Green
Whitstable, Kent

Expulsion from Uganda

Mahmood Mamdani writes about the expulsion of Asians from Uganda by Idi Amin in 1972 (LRB, 6 October). He cites Alec Douglas-Home’s assertion, as foreign secretary, that Britain had a special responsibility for the Ugandan Asians at the time of Amin’s order. This obscures the fact that for some time previously, Edward Heath’s government had been touring countries, in the Caribbean among other places, trying without success to persuade them to take ‘their share’ of the refugees. Only when it became clear that no one was prepared to do so did the UK government adopt an apparently responsible humanitarian position.

Mamdani makes something of the class divides within the Uganda Asian population. I ran a project in one of the refugee camps during the winter of 1972-73 and it was clear to me that these divides meant little or nothing to the people expelled. All the refugees arrived with the one suitcase they were allowed, having been stripped of property, belongings and most if not all of their money before they left for the UK. In some cases the British government had sent members of the same family to camps hundreds of miles apart, so that our biggest initial task was to bring together families whose members were as far apart as Devon and Scotland.

Gary Craig


To comply with the EU’s state aid rules, Ian Jack writes, ‘the Scottish government had to devise a tendering process for the shipping services on the Clyde and the Hebrides that MacBrayne’s had considered its own’ (LRB, 22 September). The Scottish government did devise such a process, but it has never been explained why Scottish ministers were so sure that the European Commission had demanded that CalMac routes be put out to tender. The EC had not prescribed this as the only way to comply.

In 2003 there was a ruling by the European Court of Justice about subsidy or state aid for a German bus company, Altmark. CalMac, which had not been broken up at that time, received legal opinion that the Altmark ruling definitely applied to CalMac and allowed tendering to stop without legal consequence. The UK Department of Trade and Industry appeared to agree. Ministers in the Labour/Lib Dem Scottish executive, however, were advised by officials that Altmark did not apply to CalMac. The hugely expensive tendering process went ahead. CalMac was split up into different companies, including the newly created Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL).

In 2006 the routes went out to tender and one of CalMac’s offshoots won. A year later, in response to an inquiry from the SNP MEP Alyn Smith, the European transport commissioner Jacques Barrot said that if the Altmark principles applied, CalMac’s subsidy would not be regarded as state aid. He made it clear to a delegation of Highland councillors that he thought the Altmark principles did indeed apply.

Why were Scottish ministers and their officials so determined not to try to use the Altmark ruling to avoid the costly and disruptive tendering process? When the SNP took over in 2007, its ministers also accepted that there was no option but to go down the tendering route. One can’t help but think CalMac’s recent history might have been a bit happier had that advice been robustly challenged.

David Ross

Dudes in Drapes

In her gripping account of Westminster Abbey’s monuments, Miranda Carter says George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, who was buried at Westminster on 18 September 1628, was ‘so hated that his funeral had to take place at night’ (LRB, 6 Oct­ober). A.P. Stanley’s Historical Memorials of Westminster Abbey (1868) refers to Buckingham’s funeral as of ‘the smallest possible dimensions’ and puts its size down to ‘pop­ular distrust’ of the duke. But in letters to Dudley Carleton, John Chamberlain (1553-1628) claims night-time funerals were not unusual. In 1616 Lady Mary Cheke was buried at night at St Martin’s in the Fields ‘with above thirty coaches and much torch­light attending her, which is of late come much into fashion’. In 1617, at St Barth­olomew’s Hospital, James I’s secretary of state Ralph Winwood received a night-time funeral with ‘little noise or show’. Two years later, according to Chamberlain, the funeral of Christopher Hatton, MP for Buckingham (the town) was held ‘this night at the Abbie at Westminster’. In 1636, during a night-time funeral procession for a trumpeter, Samuel Underhill, who had died of the plague, eleven noisy mourners were sent to Newgate for sounding their trumpets and drawing their swords.

Paul Franczak
St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex

Miranda Carter recounts Horace Walpole’s hilarious portrait of the Duke of Newcastle at George II’s funeral in 1760. Walpole, she writes, was ‘present by virtue of being an earl’. In fact, he only became an earl in 1791, in succession to his nephew. Lord knows how Horace really got to the funeral – though his father having been the king’s prime minister for twenty years must have had something to do with it.

Richard Hewlings
Swavesey, Cambridgeshire

Harmony of Discordant Canons

Colin Burrow writes that the earliest ancestors of the modern dictionary of quotations ‘emerged in academic and religious environments, and were conceived as both summations of and short cuts to learning’ (LRB, 8 September). The earliest work he cites is Thomas of Ireland’s Manipulus florum (‘Handful of Flowers’), printed in Paris in 1306. I would suggest an earlier volume, vastly more impressive and influential.

Around 1140, a rather shadowy Italian cleric named Gratian produced a Concordia discordantium canonum (‘Harmony of Discordant Canons’), known as the Decretum Gratiani, a massive anthology of key passages from the Bible, the Church Fathers, Church Council rulings and papal bulls and letters. Gratian’s compendium arranged these extracts in an impressively systematic framework, facilitating their use by teachers and preachers whose busy schedules precluded immersion in the sources. About a hundred years later, the Decretum was supplemented by the Decretals of Gregory IX, largely the work of Raymond of Peñafort and William of Rennes. Together, these constitute the classics of Catholic canon law.

Those unfamiliar with Gratian’s Decretum and its supplement are likely to suppose that these ‘dictionaries of quotations’ were of interest only to canon lawyers and other churchmen. But the range of questions they covered included issues central to secular life. For instance, my recent work on the mid-16th-century Spanish debate over the justice of the New World conquests has impressed on me the vital importance of the 23rd section of the second book of the Decretum, on just (and unjust) war.

David Lupher
Tacoma, Washington

Strictly Speaking

It’s a small point, but the twelve thousand corrections officers at Rikers Island in 1992 would not make ‘a battalion’, as Sarah Resnick writes, but rather twelve battalions or a somewhat large division (LRB, 22 September).

Johan Enegren


‘A number of truly adventurous oddities made it to the small screen’ in the 1970s, Jonathan Coe writes (LRB, 18 August). One he doesn’t mention is the BBC’s Survivors, a drama series about the people who remain after a plague wipes out most of humanity. In the first episode the scriptwriters cheerfully write out 99.98 per cent of the world’s population; in the second, one of the survivors, in search of useful allies, leaves a badly injured man to die in agony; and in the ninth, a man with learning difficulties is executed by his group for a murder they then discover he didn’t commit. This last storyline did not make it into the BBC’s insipid remake in 2008.

Nick Wray
Coldingham, Berwickshire

On the Slip Road

Nat Odgers writes that everyone who picked her up in the course of a successful hitchhiking trip said that ‘they never saw hitchhikers these days’ (Letters, 6 October). I made several long hitchhiking trips in the mid-2000s, from the Arctic Circle to Odessa, and was often told the same. I always pointed out that a driver only sees an unsuccessful hitchhiker – the good ones already have a ride.

Benjamin Sims
Reading, Berkshire

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