Vol. 45 No. 7 · 30 March 2023

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How to Plot an Abortion

Clair Wills writes that ‘you have to tell a story’ to procure a legal abortion in the UK (LRB, 16 March). That isn’t true of our abortion services as currently constituted. Because continuing a pregnancy always carries greater risk to the physical or mental health of a woman than an abortion before 24 weeks, abortion is legal on demand. What’s more, the staff who provide abortion services usually care deeply about their work and do not require a story: they simply support women in their need or choice to have an abortion.

I do, however, agree that our legislation urgently needs updating. To take just one example, the 1967 Abortion Act requires that two doctors sign to say that they agree your abortion is legal. This is a formality, yet it builds prejudice into the system (no other simple medical procedure requires two doctors to sign a form), and wastes large amounts of valuable time and NHS money. However, abortion care practitioners like myself are sometimes nervous of proposing changes to the law, for fear of unleashing regressive forces.

Robert Harper
Exminster, Devon


Emma Smith argues that Twelfth Night centres on a plot or subject remarkably close to one that is important for our current culture: migration (LRB, 16 February). This seems to me a mistake. The immigrant knows where he or she intends or hopes to go. But Viola’s first words in the play are ‘What country, friends, is this?’ She is a lost traveller, she has been shipwrecked – and shipwreck is the great initiating metaphor that powered classic Romance for centuries. The shipwrecked person is subject to mere weather, to chance, to randomness – or, as Elizabethans would have said, is powerless before Nature. Subjection to Nature makes a hero a fool, in everything humiliated. But humiliation can bring humility, and in this new state of heroic humility there is a future. This useful moral and philosophical backing to Romance brought significance to the shipwrecked hero and heroine (‘Shipwreck is everywhere’), a metaphor even defining the human condition, whereby the newborn child (for instance) may be seen, either tragically or romantically, as thrust into a world both alien and cruel.

Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies think of love as the guide in a world of natural chaos, the ‘ever-fixed mark/That looks on tempests … the star to every wand’ring bark’. The current culture sees public issues, such as immigration, as more vital than the private experience of love, but everyone in Twelfth Night looks to love to give their empty life more meaning: Orsino, the rich and refined aristocrat who floats on a great abstract sea of Time and turns love into music, easily mastered; Olivia, who every day weeps her way around a cell of faithful mourning, only suddenly hearing a clock chime after she has fallen in love with Cesario, when real time begins; Malvolio, who loves a lustful dream of social climbing that turns to nightmare; Sir Toby, whose friendly, party-minded social crookery leads him to have to marry a clever woman whom he would think of as a servant; Feste, the greatly gifted intellectual games player who loves money and music. Even the ludicrous Sir Andrew gives the play its best line by murmuring, gratified: ‘I was adored once.’

Most of these characters take on love unhandily, and Malvolio is particularly bad at it, ‘sick of self-love’ as he is: the fooling of him by Sir Toby and his chums is the most cruelly brilliant passage in the comedy. But the whole later part of Twelfth Night reflects a different chaos that takes over after Viola, then Sebastian, enter the play. The twins come from their shipwreck experienced in Nature, in randomness, in humiliation and humility, learning in the process how to be nobodies, or what the Sonnets call ‘fools of Time’, ‘poor but free’, able to live in the world of what happens to happen. Sebastian is enchanted to be snapped up by a beautiful, rich, well-born and adoring woman. His stronger and more suffering sister earns her happy ending by the almost professional grace and ardour with which she woos Orsino’s woman for him.

Whenever the comedy speaks of love, it manages to fuse two aspects: its ‘Naturalness’, its oceanic quality, which is also dangerous; and its formal songs and games, its tricks and disguises, all the obliquities of Illyria itself. Powerless yet endowed by need and humility, Viola is in relation with Orsino while addressing Olivia, like ‘Patience on a monument’ – and Orsino himself comes startlingly to want to murder Viola, as a prologue to loving her. It may be this fusion of the two aspects of love – as music, as chaos – that made ‘Twelfth Night’ seem the right title for a play, even though it made no sense to the artless Samuel Pepys.

The chaos or anarchy that takes over the comedy’s second half suddenly grows before the end into a peacefulness, a harmony. This begins with its last-act entry of Sebastian, unknown to most until this moment – a coming-together not of lovers but of brother and sister. As the company records its amazement, the always fine and fitting language of the play takes on an immediate secular holiness of speech and subject. Together, the twins are, like love, ‘One face, one voice, one habit and two persons’; one twin says to the other: ‘Of charity, what kin are you to me?’ And the Duke speaks of ‘this most happy wrack’, as if he were alluding to what the Christian Church used to name the ‘Fortunate Fall’.

Twelfth Night was Epiphany (meaning ‘illumination’), the evening of 6 January, and the last and principal day, for Elizabethans, of their twelve-day celebration of Christmas. It recalled the visit of the three Kings and/or philosophers who travelled far to bring gifts to the newborn Jesus in the stable. So, on Twelfth Night, loving gifts were given, but also – presumably in memory of the divine birth among hay and animals – riotous ceremonies took over, perhaps inherited from the Roman Saturnalia: they featured especially an anarchic reversal of status, by which the child, the servant, the nobody and the fool became the gleeful and perhaps revengeful master for a night, Lord of the Feast.

This is not a Christian comedy, nor even a work of that Neoplatonism hinted at in its last scene (though years ago Jonathan Miller did direct an impressive version that came close to the Neoplatonic throughout). Twelfth Night is tough, worldly and courtly, learned as well as anarchic in its comedy. But it brings energies and harmonies together in a way that makes it the most achieved of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. More: its glittering fusion of artifice (games, ceremonies, rhetorics, disguises, forgeries) with direct and strong feeling is saying something rather private about what poets and actors may give to a whole culture, turning their own ‘shipwrecked’ needs and losses to a generative power within civilisation. It would be a pity to underrate this achievement, or to misjudge it, merely to synchronise it with the political issues of our own immediate moment.

Barbara Everett
Somerville College, Oxford

Crisis in Care

James Butler describes the Scottish Government’s proposed National Care Service as a ‘relatively modest commissioning body’ (LRB, 2 March). Not so. The National Care Service (Scotland) Bill attacks the principle of public delivery of public services on a scale unseen in Scotland since the Thatcher era. The legislation going through Holyrood will transfer statutory responsibility not just for social care but social work and community health away from local government, and where necessary the NHS, to new ‘care boards’. These will deliver services by procuring and contracting from the private, voluntary or public sector. The only transfer of ownership envisaged is out of the public sector. Should councils wish to continue providing services, they will have to enter, and be successful in, procurement exercises. That’s assuming they are allowed to bid: Section 41 of the bill will allow care boards to exclude local authorities and health boards from tendering for contracts.

The impact will be immense. The memorandum issued with the bill is costed on the basis that 75,000 staff will be transferred out of local authority employment, with an estimated one-third of current council spending going to the care boards. Members of the boards will be answerable only to ministers in Edinburgh. The proposals do not tackle the failing that is the constant thread in Butler’s piece – the treatment of care as a commodity not a service. Any similarity between the NHS and what is being sold as a National Care Service is purely nominal. Instead the NCS will expand market mechanisms and further encourage the reaping of profit from services to the vulnerable.

Stephen Low

Theirs and No One Else’s

Nicholas Spice speaks of ‘the conductor demanding ever more rehearsal time, the players wanting to get home and have a life’ (LRB, 16 March). This put me in mind of Frank Zappa’s definition of conducting as ‘drawing designs in the nowhere which are interpreted as instructional messages by guys wearing bowties who wish they were fishing’.

Chris Sansom
London E5

Nicholas Spice writes that Tár is about ‘an internationally acclaimed conductor … whose spectacular fall from grace follows serial grooming and abuse, for sexual favours, of younger colleagues’. But one of the many things I enjoyed about the movie was that this was never made explicit and we were left to ponder what was real, rumour, natural or supernatural. Because of this I was disappointed that it lost out at the Oscars to the bafflingly fêted Everything Everywhere All at Once, essentially a Kung Fu Ghostbusters for hipsters, which makes it sound better than it is.

Stuart Maconie

Nicholas Spice writes with regard to the historically low numbers of women conducting orchestras that ‘the pace of change has quickened recently,’ noting that there were seven women conductors at last year’s Proms. He might also have cited the successful tenure of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra between 2016 and 2022, where she will continue as principal guest conductor. It was remarkable to see her rapport with the orchestra, early in her tenure, in a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Hilary Kitchin
London N8

Brussels Pout

Ian Penman writes that Baudelaire’s My Heart Laid Bare was originally translated in 1887 as Intimate Journals (LRB, 16 March). Journaux intimes was indeed first published posthumously in 1887 (and immediately devoured by Nietzsche), but was not translated into English until 1930, when the British religious publisher Blackamoore Press brought out Christopher Isherwood’s version (with an introduction by the recently converted Eliot). A second, revised edition of Isherwood’s translation was published in 1947 by the Hollywood-based Marcel Rodd Company, another small press specialising in religious and devotional literature (this time with an introduction by the recently reconverted Auden).

Richard Sieburth
Highlands, New Jersey

Trop Dandy

I’m grateful to Raymond N. MacKenzie for his kind words about my translations of novels by George Sand and Louise Colet (LRB, 2 March). I did want to correct one error concerning Colet’s This Was the Man. MacKenzie writes of Marilyn Gaddis Rose’s translation of 1986 that she ‘does a better job with annotations, especially with regard to unlocking the roman à clef’. In fact, the poet Béranger, the editor Buloz, as well as the Deschamps brothers and Alfred de Vigny, are clearly identified in my introduction. The introduction deals with the roman à clef, the endnotes with extraneous matters. Colet’s long footnote on Byron, incidentally, is removed to the endnotes so that the narrative is not, unless the reader wishes, stopped dead in its tracks.

Graham Anderson
Witney, Oxfordshire


Elizabeth Vandiver mentions H.D.’s daughter Perdita (Letters, 2 March). In her memoir The Days of Mars, H.D.’s partner Bryher records that during the Second World War the American academic and OSS official Norman Holmes Pearson ‘rescued Perdita from a dreary job in the country to do more interesting work in London’. The ‘job in the country’ was with the codebreaking operation at Bletchley Park, which Perdita called ‘Tapeworm Manor’. In London, Perdita first became Pearson’s secretary, then worked for his assistant, James Angleton, in the counter-intelligence unit of OSS. It seems that Perdita’s pet name for Angleton was ‘Ezra’, a reference to Angleton’s poetry and to his favourite poet, her mother’s one-time lover Ezra Pound. Perdita’s letters to ‘Kitten’ and ‘My pets’, her collective names for H.D. and Bryher, are at Yale.

Michael Holzman
Briarcliff Manor, New York

In Time of Schism

I was somewhat surprised to find my name mentioned in Fraser MacDonald’s article about Kate Forbes and the Free Church of Scotland (LRB, 16 March). Apparently, MacDonald thinks that I am a right-wing influence on the Free Church. I realise that it is de rigueur in certain progressive circles to label anyone who disagrees with you as ‘far right’, thus sidestepping the need to answer any criticism. MacDonald has tweeted that he will not engage with me because I am ‘far right’, though I doubt he could name one ‘far-right’ policy I support. I would like to correct the record.

I do not engage in clickbait or culture wars. I try to write serious comment on the issues of the day on my blog, the Wee Flea. I have not been a ‘serial reply-guy’ to Humza Yousaf. I wrote a couple of articles on his attempts to reintroduce a blasphemy law into Scotland under the guise of his authoritarian hate crime bill. I wrote one article criticising Tommy Robinson but defending his right to speak. Citing Jordan Peterson is not amplifying the ‘radical right’. I also cite Lenin, Stalin, Benn, Corbyn, Obama, Trump and many others.

Any person ignorant of the Free Church reading MacDonald’s article would come away with the impression that it is a predominantly Highland church, an inbred, reactionary, right-wing group of hypocrites, followers of American evangelicalism, threatening a theocracy, unstable, repressed, racist, slavery-defending, exclusive, wild, weird, disputatious, schismatic, anti-LGBTQ, Sabbatarian.

The piece is a polemic against Kate Forbes through an attack on her church (the SNP establishment has already seized on it as ‘proof’ in its anti-Forbes campaign). But it is historically wrong, logically flawed and hysterically inaccurate in its description of today’s Free Church. For those who are interested I have written a full response on my blog. MacDonald’s article is witty, erudite and interesting. But I am reminded of the words of John Donne: ‘Thy giant wit o’erthrows me, I am gone;/And rather than read all, I would read none.’

Rev. David A. Robertson
Sydney, New South Wales

Iron Curtain

Further to Alan Harding’s note about the origins of the term ‘Iron Curtain’, the first known use of the phrase in English was in H.G. Wells’s novel The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth, published in 1904 (Letters, 16 March).

Peter Rowland
London E11

Invisible Books

Sophie McKeand champions the white-on-white poem series Six of Clubs by the late Peter Meilleur, and says he was ‘dismayed’ by the publisher’s insistence on adding a pale grey shadow to the white font (Letters, 16 March). In the 2010s Hafan Books (I and John Goodby) produced more than one edition, trying different compromises. However, only the grey-shadowed Six of Clubs is still available from Hafan, alongside a version of its dark inverse, Stars (Peter wanted black ink on blacker paper), also Trees and the savage concrete drama Ham & Jam. All may be printed on demand; proceeds go to the charity Swansea Asylum Seekers Support.

Tom Cheesman

Always 57

Lorna Finlayson perfectly captures the complexities of student assessment in today’s universities (LRB, 16 March). I was reminded of an article from a simpler time by Laurie Taylor, in which he pointed out that when confronted by a pile of essays or exam scripts, try as you might the first one was always a 57.

Peter Malpass

Lorna Finlayson’s Diary took me back to the 1970s when my husband’s lecturer in Buddhism at Lancaster University offered this sublime assessment of one of his essays: ‘Tight. Like Bill Wyman’s bass or the Liverpool defence.’ Happy days.

Caroline Walker
Beaminster, Dorset

On Missing the Point

Stephen Bayley wasn’t always a cheerleader for big, shiny regeneration (Letters, 16 February). Recently, I was searching for TV news reports about the Curve Theatre in Leicester, designed by the late Rafael Viñoly. On an edition of Newsnight from 12 November 2008, Bayley appears as a sceptical talking head wondering whether ‘large, clunking masterplan solutions’ can revive ‘a dead or dying city’. Clearly, the opportunity to buy a Rolex in a heroic space has changed his mind.

William Farrell

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