Vol. 45 No. 15 · 27 July 2023

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To Dig with the Wrong Foot

In his review of Annie Proulx’s Fen, Bog and Swamp, Fraser MacDonald mentions the tools employed in turf cutting, specifically on North Uist, ‘one of the last places in Great Britain where this custom is practised’ (LRB, 15 June). In Irish Folk Ways (1957), E. Estyn Evans wrote that most turf diggers in Ireland use the right foot – a habit reinforced by the traditional one-sided Irish spade, or ‘loy’, which, unlike the English version, did not offer a choice. Evans was later quoted as saying that ‘the Ulster spade, derived from styles introduced by Protestant planters, is normally used with the left foot. Thus the phrase “He digs with the wrong foot” became an oblique way of referring to someone of the other religion, Protestant or Catholic.’

He was struck by the huge variety of spades available and mentioned a factory in Co. Tyrone which specialised in them. Its ‘spade gauge book’, he reported, had 230 different patterns (not counting the special turf spades), with various widths, depths and angles. Evans’s book also included a hand-drawn map of Irish spade patterns, generally narrow and one-sided in the south and west (except Mayo), broader and two-sided elsewhere.

Visitors to the National Trust’s Patterson’s Spade Mill in Co. Antrim can see the last working water-driven spade mill in daily use in Ireland and Great Britain, and a collection of machinery and fittings found there in 1919 and used to produce a range of implements, including spades for cutting turf.

James Grainger
Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire

Free Speech on Campus

Amia Srinivasan writes that ‘David Miller was sacked from his job at Bristol for his criticisms of Israel and Zionism’ (LRB, 29 June). We do not know the reasons given for his sacking because the documentation hasn’t been published. But it would be wrong to bracket Miller with the victimised art history lecturer at Hamline University or others who have been sanctioned simply because of their views on a particular subject or because one or two students found something in their teaching material unpalatable. Miller is obsessed with Israel and Zionism, and used his position to propagate the view that Zionist interests are behind all sorts of evils worldwide and that the university’s Jewish student society was part of their malign web of influence. Miller’s behaviour and his refusal to apologise or retract would have justified actions against him by any university.

David Lehmann
London N19

Amia Srinivasan writes: I did not appreciate the full complexity of the David Miller case when I cited it as an example of an academic being fired for expressing controversial views. According to Bristol, Miller was sacked because he ‘did not meet the standards of behaviour we expect from our staff’. In 2019, the president of Bristol’s JSoc – the university’s Jewish student society – launched a formal complaint against Miller on the grounds that the lectures in his ‘Harms of the Powerful’ module were antisemitic. Slides from the lectures described ‘the Zionist movement (parts of)’ as one of the ‘five pillars of Islamophobia’, and identified several Jewish organisations as part of the ‘British Zionist scene’. Bristol apparently dismissed the complaint. Bristol JSoc continued to insist that Miller was ‘dangerous to Jewish students’ and should be fired. Miller responded by calling the campaign ‘an example of the significant number of fraudulent antisemitism complaints which have been all too common in the febrile atmosphere encouraged by supporters of the Israeli state’. He described both JSoc and the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) – the umbrella organisation that represents university JSocs across the UK and Ireland, and which supported Bristol JSoc’s campaign – as ‘formally members of the Zionist movement’. He claimed that ‘Jewish students on British campuses’ are ‘being used as political pawns by a violent, racist, foreign regime engaged in ethnic cleansing’.

These statements and several others like them were subject to independent investigation by a ‘leading’ QC hired by Bristol, who was given the remit of determining whether Miller had ‘exceed[ed] the boundaries of acceptable speech’, where ‘acceptable’ was to be understood in relation to the relevant law, including the 2010 Equality Act, and ‘all relevant University policies’, including Bristol’s adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism in November 2019. In a leaked report, the QC concluded that there was no formal case for Miller to answer – in particular, that none of Miller’s statements was antisemitic or constituted legal harassment or discrimination. But the QC noted that a broader university investigation might still find that Miller’s speech, in the university’s words, ‘amount[ed] to conduct likely to endanger the health or safety of others’, or ‘could potentially undermine and adversely affect … the university’s relationships with former, current or future students (Jewish or otherwise) and other third parties and, therefore, potentially constitute a breach of the University Rules of Conduct for Staff’. In its announcement of Miller’s sacking, Bristol declined to specify the precise grounds on which the decision had been made, saying only that it ‘regards the principle of academic freedom as fundamental’. Whether it in fact does so would be greatly clarified by the publication of a report of its investigation and findings.


Brigid von Preussen describes the ‘riches of the world’ surrounding Queen Charlotte in Johan Zoffany’s portrait, but omits probably the most valuable decorative object in the scene: an elegant French regulator clock that stands more than seven feet tall (LRB, 29 June). The case, from the atelier of Charles Cressent, was inlaid with mahogany and kingwood veneer and decorated with bold oversize ormolu mounts. The engraved silvered dial, signed ‘Inventé en 1736 par Julien le Roy de la Société des Arts’, indicates solar and mean times as well as the day and the month. The clock remains in the Royal Collection as one of its finest horological examples, in both appearance and technological sophistication.

Bob Frishman
Liveryman, Worshipful Company of Clockmakers (London), Andover, Massachusetts

Bad Ad

Russell Riley emphasises that George H.W. Bush’s 1988 Willie Horton campaign ad ‘wasn’t produced by the Bush campaign itself but by an independent group advocating on Bush’s behalf’ (Letters, 29 June). ‘Bush’s people,’ he concludes, ‘were happy to have the electorate frightened by Horton’s face, but were reluctant to traffic in explicit racism themselves.’ In reality, the financing of an American political ad by a nominally ‘independent group’ is, under toothless US campaign finance rules, a loophole allowing unlimited expenditure. And the campaign did not leave mention of Horton to others. Bush cited the case repeatedly in his speeches. ‘By the time we’re finished,’ his campaign manager, Lee Atwater, said, ‘they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’s running mate.’

Riley suggests that the official campaign ad – ‘a spot called “Revolving Door” showing shadowy convicts walking in and out of a rotating prison gate’ – was more genteel, yet this was the ad condemned as racist by African American leaders and by Democrats. The ‘Revolving Door’ ad was also the one that mattered, having, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll, the greatest impact on respondents of any ad in the 1988 campaign. The ad is on YouTube, and what it shows isn’t a gate so much as a full-height turnstile, a burlesque of a model familiar from the New York City subway. Men walk through this turnstile, going in on the right and straight out again on the left. Riley calls the men shown, many of whom are Black and Hispanic, ‘shadowy’, but in the ad they’re quite well lit.

Benjamin Letzler
Mödling, Austria

Bigger and Closer

Sarah Resnick describes Cape Breton as a ‘small, remote island’ (LRB, 15 June). Not so small, not so remote. The island is 10,311 square kilometres in size and is joined to the mainland of Nova Scotia by a 4500-foot causeway. A quick calculation indicates its area is equivalent to that of the 18 largest islands of the British Isles, Great Britain and Ireland excepted.

George Anderson

Pronoun Trouble

I make no assumption about the gender identity of David Book, but their letter put me in mind of the lectures I have received from cisgendered men since changing my own pronouns (Letters, 15 June). These men profess a concern with semantic clarity, which apparently I threaten. Yet it often feels as if the ‘non-binary form’ with which they feel ‘a bit uncomfortable’ isn’t linguistic but corporeal.

Both Book and Tom Westcott (Letters, 13 July) suggest alternative non-binary pronouns. They are welcome to do so, of course, but a wide variety of singular neopronouns – including xe, sie and ey – are already in use. We are, as a community, not short of options. Most of us use they/them, not out of a wish to be unclear, but because it is the most straightforward option. Anyone who has ever tried to explain a change of pronouns to an eye-rolling relative will understand the benefits of using language that is already familiar when everything else is against you.

Ed Kiely


Michael Hofmann refers to Konstantin Paustovsky’s ‘tiny nowhere places’, and wonders ‘What’s the Russian for “podunk”?’ (LRB, 29 June). Hofmann might agree that podunks are counter-colossal settings of the sort used by writers from Cervantes and Austen to Hardy, Ibsen, Proust and Paustovsky to describe the human condition. They are unfashionable, even timeless. Many nations are a collection of podunks. There are lots of places in America with that name. The Podunk River is a short walk from where I live. Winding under major highways before ending in the Connecticut River near Hartford, much of this stream has remained unchanged for generations. National politicians can succeed by mastering the counterpoint between podunk and metropolis.

Lewis Pyenson
South Windsor, Connecticut


Rye Dag Holmboe, writing about Morris Hirshfield, rather leaves the impression that interest in self-taught artists came to an end in the mid-20th century with the arrival of Abstract Expressionism (LRB, 13 July). Yet that was when Jean Dubuffet began championing Art Brut in Europe, recruiting the same figures who had earlier endorsed Hirshfield – Picasso, Breton etc – in support of outsider artists such as Scottie Wilson, Émile Ratier and Adolf Wölfli. Dubuffet’s own collection, much of it by long-term asylum inmates and prisoners, is today the basis for a permanent museum of Art Brut at Lausanne. Meanwhile, in the US the reputations of more recently discovered self-taught artists – Henry Darger and Joseph Cornell spring to mind – ride as high as Hirshfield’s ever did.

Robin Blake
London N1

Bunga Bunga

David Trotter quotes from Virginia Woolf’s diary: ‘Everybody talking about Abysinnia, wh. I cannot spell’ (LRB, 29 June). This didn’t deter Woolf and five others from bluffing their way onto HMS Dreadnought in 1910, in the guise of an Abyssinian royal delegation. The incident, masterminded by the inveterate prankster Horace de Vere Cole, is sometimes known as the ‘Bunga Bunga hoax’, after the exclamations made by the faux Abyssinians.

Benjamin Ralph

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