Vol. 45 No. 2 · 19 January 2023

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Underwater Living

James Meek asks why we don’t embrace ‘elegantly raised, flood-resistant houses’ on stilts or floating bases (LRB, 5 January). There are good reasons for not doing so, and even in the Netherlands – which he applauds as a place of ‘constant experimentation’ – such homes are always a minority in new developments. Houses with living accommodation significantly above ground level are difficult to design for those with mobility needs. Local planning policy usually requires a percentage of all new development to be fully wheelchair adapted, and a larger proportion – in some cases all homes – to be ‘accessible and adaptable’. This means that visitors with mobility needs should be able to access living spaces, and use a toilet, on the entrance level of a home, and it should be easily adaptable for wheelchair users.

In Jaywick Sands in Essex, a very flood-vulnerable community where I have been working on regeneration strategy and planning guidance for the local council, ten new homes were built recently with their ground floors raised around three metres above ground level – meeting the national guidance from the Environment Agency. At a recent consultation, residents complained that these homes were not suitable for older people, or for families – imagine lugging a buggy and toddlers up slippery metal stairs to a landing three metres up while you fumble with your house keys. Developing new homes that are both safe and accessible to all potential residents is difficult and expensive. That is before we start on the risks of building even fully accessible homes in places where residents might need to be evacuated in an emergency. Fundamentally, we should not be encouraging more residents into areas of flood risk, no matter how ‘innovative’ the design solutions.

After the 1953 floods, the Netherlands and the UK took very different approaches. In the Netherlands, the government decided effectively to shorten the coastline, building barrages and joining up dune-fringed islands with artificial reefs and dams. This reduction – from 745 miles to less than 200 miles – means that there is a far shorter line of defences to maintain. By contrast, in the UK the government opted to improve defences along their historic lines, mostly sea walls that meander along the shoreline of every river, creek and inlet. While this meant there was no substantial change to the landscape at the time, it has bequeathed us a hideously expensive maintenance obligation, with the result that the Environment Agency is now implementing ‘managed retreat’ in some areas.

Meek is right to say that the coastline has fluctuated hugely over time. Whole communities – Dunwich, most famously – have disappeared into the sea, while other areas have silted up and become land. Last year, the head of the Environment Agency gave his strongest statement yet that some areas simply cannot be defended. Fairbourne in Wales has become something of a test case, after the decision was made not to maintain its defences. Meek is also right that there is a tussle between the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which wants to see housing supply increased, and Defra, of which the Environment Agency is effectively a branch. The planning guidance regarding flood risk and coastal change was updated last year, and clearly states that only in exceptional circumstances should development be permitted in flood-prone areas. But defining exceptional circumstances is difficult, and without the government taking a strong line, the trade-offs Meek describes will continue.

Hana Loftus
Colchester, Essex

Dicky Bird Society

Before the Plumage League and the Society for the Protection of Birds, mentioned by Katherine Rundell, children were active in campaigning against the use of bird feathers and skins in women’s hats (LRB, 3 November 2022). A national movement of children’s bird and animal welfare clubs was sponsored by provincial weekly newspapers. This began with the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle’s Dicky Bird Society in 1876; within five years the club had fifty thousand members, each of whom had signed a promise ‘to be kind to all living things, to protect them to the utmost of my power, to feed the birds in the winter time, and never to take or destroy a nest. I also promise to get as many boys and girls as possible to join the Dicky Bird Society.’ The society grew from the Weekly Chronicle’s ‘Children’s Corner’, edited by ‘Uncle Toby’, the pen name of W.E. Adams, a former Chartist (the pseudonym was a nod to the character in Tristram Shandy). Imitators soon followed, including the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph’s Kind Hearted Brigade and the Portsmouth Times’s League of Love.

Andrew Hobbs
Preston, Lancashire

For Entertainment Only

In the 1950s, when the contents of country houses and villas that had been requisitioned during the war were being auctioned off in quantity, my father, a solicitor whose office was in Took’s Court (Cook’s Court in Bleak House) off Fetter Lane, would regularly come home with purchases from the nearby second-hand shop, whose proprietor he knew only as ‘the old lady’. She used to buy job lots not wanted by the dealers and sell their contents at a modest mark-up. When on occasion a taxi drew up outside the house, it meant Dad had bought something so bulky he couldn’t bring it home on the Tube.

One such acquisition was a magic lantern with several wooden boxes of slides. In contrast to the experience of Dennis Lack (Letters, 15 December 2022) it was lit neither by electricity nor by gas but by a row of oil-fed wicks. My father closed the dining-room curtains and lit the burners, and we had a magical show. When daylight was let in again, a substantial area of the ceiling was black with soot. My father managed to mollify my mother by replacing the burners with a light bulb.

In spite of some breakages and losses over the years, the magic lantern with its bulb and a substantial number of slides is still in the family. One slide has a cockney visitor to the zoo standing by a cage with a sign saying ‘Man-eating tiger’ and asking the keeper, ‘’Ere, guvnor, when’s the man a-goin’ to eat the tiger?’

Stephen Sedley
Dorney, Buckinghamshire

When the Engine Cuts Out

Gabriel Egan writes about the way a V-1 engine cut out shortly before it detonated, giving those below a few moments’ warning (Letters, 1 December 2022). As I remember it, the key sonic characteristic of the V-2 was that it plunged to earth so fast that the sound of its dive was heard only after it exploded. In January 1945, not yet three years old, I was looking out of a first-floor window in Beckenham when a V-2 plummeted into a nearby sports ground, shattering most of the windows in the street. Although I was mostly protected from the flying glass by lace curtains, I was cut on the nose – I bear the scar to this day. Mike Dodds writes that he is old enough to have heard an approaching V-1 (Letters, 15 December 2022). It occurs to me that, now nearly 81, I am probably in the youngest cohort of people who can remember the war.

Peter Gillman
London SE20

City Myths

Owen Hatherley, discussing Richard Vinen’s book about Birmingham, writes that the city has ‘never been able to capitalise on its music scene in the way Manchester has’ (LRB, 3 November 2022). This may be true if the definition of ‘music’ is limited to the range between Black Sabbath and Duran Duran, but no reference is made to other kinds of music. Vinen includes eleven lines about what is now the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, mostly as a vehicle for a story about the composer and conductor Andrzej Panufnik, but beyond that makes no acknowledgment of the richness of the city’s musical history. The Triennial Music Festival, which started in 1768, hosted the premieres of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and Mendelssohn’s Elijah, and the CBSO has long been one of the world’s great orchestras. The associated Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and the CBSO’s four choirs have widened the repertoire and promoted inclusive access in the city and beyond. Birmingham now possesses the finest concert hall built in Britain since Victorian times. In his fruitless search for cultural validation, Vinen was failing to look in the right places.

Paul Tindall
London E11

No Red Wave

Adam Shatz, writing about November’s US midterm elections, remarks that ‘the polls, unreliable as ever (this was one thing Trump got right), told us that high inflation and anxiety about crime were going to provoke a Republican tsunami’ (LRB, 1 December). Actually, the polls in 2022 were accurate and did not predict a ‘red wave’ of any kind. For example, the Economist’s poll-based forecast predicted a possible range for the Republicans of 46 to 55 seats in the Senate and 208-244 in the House of Representatives, with average forecasts of 50.8 and 224.5; in other words, near ties in both Houses of Congress. The Republicans ended up with 49 Senate seats and 222 in the House, well within the forecast ranges.

Journalists seem to have taken the lesson of 2016 and 2020 to be ‘don’t trust the polls,’ despite the evidence. In the 2016 primaries, the polls were right about Trump having a big lead over his opponents; it was the pundits who were wrong. In the general elections of 2016 and 2020, Trump managed something like two percentage points better than the polls predicted, which isn’t nothing, but it’s a sign of how well the polls have done historically that a two-percentage-point discrepancy was considered large.

Andrew Gelman
New York

Bloody Londoners

Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes that no Jacobite prisoners were executed by ‘hanging, drawing and quartering’ after the 1745 rebellion (Letters, 5 January). I would refer him to Paul O’Keeffe’s recent book Culloden: Battle and Aftermath, which describes the hanging and disembowelling of Jacobites before enthusiastic crowds on London’s Kennington Common. Beheading was a privilege reserved for prisoners with noble blood.

Neal Ascherson
London N5


I can well understand why Sharon Footerman was puzzled by my assertion that in 1960 Oxford and Cambridge ‘abandoned Latin as an entrance requirement’ (Letters, 5 January). Nonetheless, both universities did, after much controversy, take this decision in May 1960. The key word is ‘requirement’: until 1960 no student could matriculate at Oxford without a qualification in Latin; after 1960 they could, and most applicants in the sciences did so. Colleges could, of course, still decide to set a Latin paper as part of the selection process for certain subjects, especially for arts applicants.

Stefan Collini

Versions of Manzoni

Tim Parks compares Michael Moore’s new translation of Manzoni’s The Betrothed with the 1972 translation by Bruce Penman (LRB, 5 January). The extracts he quotes from the latter are strikingly similar to the wording in an earlier translation by Archibald Colquhoun. This appeared in 1951, with an interesting account by Colquhoun of his many predecessors: translations into English began in 1828, with three more published in 1834 alone. These were not, of course, translations of the final version of the novel, published by Manzoni in 1840; but they are remarkable evidence that early in the 19th century British readers’ sympathy for the Risorgimento could be taken as read. Colquhoun’s translation is dedicated ‘To the Italians of the Second Risorgimento of 1943-45’.

Anne Summers
Birkbeck, University of London

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