Vol. 45 No. 21 · 2 November 2023

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Avoid the Puffy Ones

‘Its water-processed flour makes a regional famine food,’ Stephanie Burt writes in her poem ‘Horse Chestnuts’ (LRB, 5 October). Horse chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum) are actually poisonous, and even if collected in large quantities and leached – i.e. soaked, to reduce the toxins – are of rather low food value, so I wonder where they have ever been extensively used thus?

Michael Weiner’s Earth Medicine, Earth Food (1972) suggests that A. californica (not hippocastanum) was used by Native Americans in their practice of ‘slow-roasting the nuts (which would have rendered the saponins harmless) and then cutting them into thin slices, putting them into a cloth bag and rinsing them in a stream for 2-5 days’. Whether in famine conditions it does not say. A better use, aside from playing conkers, would be to process them in a similar way to extract the saponins for use in laundry, though it would be rather a chore.

Sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa), on the other hand, are delicious. I have spent this afternoon gathering them in the woods to boil and eat. Avoid the shrivelled or puffy ones, which have already been targeted by the chestnut weevil (Curculio elephas).

Dariel Francis
Tunbridge Wells, Kent

Austin’s War

In his review of my book J.L. Austin: Philosopher and D-Day Intelligence Officer, Thomas Nagel gives an accurate account of my argument that the main reason for the very high casualties on Omaha Beach was that it was defended by the first-rate 916 Grenadier Regiment (with extra artillery drawn from two additional battalions), rather than the Ost battalion of the 716 static Infantry Division as Allied intelligence had expected (LRB, 7 September). Anthony King contends that it wasn’t this mistake that explains the disaster on Omaha, but the high bluffs behind the beach from which the Germans were able to enfilade American troops (Letters, 5 October).

The Allies had studied Omaha for at least two years before D-Day, and were perfectly familiar with the potential dangers of its physical geography. They knew it presented more formidable difficulties than the other beaches and did their best to counter them, but realised, nonetheless, that casualties on Omaha were likely to be higher. They still felt, however, that the landings on Omaha had a reasonable chance of succeeding without unreasonable casualties. What turned the anticipated difficult fight into a slaughter was the fact that the beach was defended by much better troops, and troops who were much better armed, than the Allies expected.

There were many causal factors which created problems on Omaha – the bluffs, the rough weather, the inaccuracy of the early morning bombing, the fact that the ‘swimming’ tanks were launched from too far out etc – but if I were pressed to identify the main cause of the Omaha disaster, then Allied ignorance of the 916 Regiment’s position and additional armaments remains the best candidate.

M.W. Rowe
Biddenden, Kent

David Carpenter mentions the slogan ‘A vote for Hogg is a vote for Hitler,’ coined by J.L. Austin in the run-up to the 1938 Oxford by-election (Letters, 19 October). At the end of the war, Quintin Hogg stood against my father, then known as Frank Pakenham, in the Oxford election. Large pictures of Winston Churchill were posted with the words ‘Love me, love my Hogg’ scrawled across them. I suggested that pictures of my father should be posted with the words ‘Love ME’ prominently inscribed. This idea was not adopted. Hogg won the election by several thousand votes.

Antonia Fraser
London W8

Sceptical about Forceps

Erin Maglaque gives a fascinating account of the tensions involved in managing childbirth in the 18th and 19th centuries (LRB, 7 September). There is one significant influence in the development of instrumental delivery that she doesn’t mention, which is the decline in the quality of nutrition and, specifically, the rise in vitamin D deficiency that followed urbanisation in the Industrial Revolution. As described by the late Peter Dunn in the West of England Medical Journal in 2014, the resulting rickets caused pelvic deformity in women and an increase in obstructed labour, driving the development of forceps deliveries and eventually the Caesarean section.

Peter Jones
Witton-le-Wear, County Durham

Red Ball, Blue Ball

Geoff Mann, discussing probability, stages a thought experiment (LRB, 7 September). ‘Say, for example, you have a cardboard box filled with an equal number of red balls and blue balls. You pull a ball out at random, then put it back, then do the same over and over again, each time recording how many times you have pulled out red or blue balls consecutively. Over time you will likely find that the most common outcome is just one ball, red or blue; you will get two of the same colour frequently, too.’

The implication is that a change of colour from one ball to the next is more likely than two consecutive balls being the same colour. But that isn’t right. As the colour of the ball drawn is independent of the colour of the last ball drawn, the probability of getting a red or blue ball next is always the same, i.e. 50 per cent. So in the long run you should get more or less the same proportion of runs of one and runs of two. I ran a simulation of 220 (1,048,576) draws of two consecutive balls. The fraction of outcomes in which the two were of the same colour was 0.498; the fraction for two balls of different colours was 0.502. (Because of fluctuations in the short run you wouldn’t expect to get exactly 50/50; but you would expect to approach 50/50 the longer the simulation ran on.)

Mann is correct, of course, when he adds that ‘it’s rare you’ll pull out six or seven same-colour balls in a row.’ This is because, say, to get three in a row, you need to have already got two in a row, and as we have seen, that happens only half the time, so the pool of starting points for three in a row is half that for two in a row, and so on for four, five etc.

Nick Wray
Coldingham, Borders

No Hot Pursuit

Rosemary Hill writes in her review of John Brewer’s Volcanic: Vesuvius in the Age of Revolutions that ‘we get occasional glimpses of the Bourbon king Ferdinand IV fleeing to Sicily hotly pursued by Napoleon’s brother-in-law Joachim Murat, who takes the throne until he in turn is forced to flee’ (LRB, 5 October).

Ferdinand fled Naples for Sicily twice in the face of invasion, first in December 1798 as French troops commanded by Jean-Étienne Championnet marched south, and for the second time in January 1806 as André Masséna advanced his forces into Bourbon territory. On neither occasion was he hotly pursued. Murat did not take the Neapolitan throne in 1806: it went to Napoleon’s brother, Joseph. The dashing Gascon cavalry general didn’t replace Joseph until the summer of 1808, when Napoleon shifted his sibling to the throne of Spain. Murat never fled Naples. In November 1813, he switched sides and allied with the Habsburgs in return for a guarantee of his kingdom, but, on learning that the Congress of Vienna was likely to restore the Bourbons in Naples, he declared war on Austria. Defeated at the Battle of Tolentino, Murat travelled to the south of France and tried to effect a reconciliation with Napoleon, who had returned from Elba. Rejected by Napoleon, Murat returned to – rather than fleeing from – the south of Italy in the hope of regaining his throne. Bourbon gendarmes captured him; he was executed by firing squad at Pizzo in Calabria.

David Laven
University of Nottingham

On Nagorno-Karabakh

Tom Stevenson addresses some of the complexities of the crisis in the South Caucasus, which has resulted in the violent expulsion of more than a hundred thousand Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh (LRB, 19 October). But some aspects are clearer than he suggests.

Stevenson refers to the ceasefire that ended the 2020 war as a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ – thus, an informal, non-binding arrangement. That agreement was signed by the heads of state of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan; and Armenia has, under duress, abided by its draconian terms. However, key aspects of the agreement were not honoured by Russia (namely, that they would function as peacekeepers, as opposed to standing by while the situation escalated) or were violated by Azerbaijan – in particular, the undertaking that ‘the Republic of Azerbaijan guarantees traffic safety along the Lachin corridor of citizens, vehicles and goods in both directions.’ Azerbaijan abrogated this in December 2022, imposing a blockade that lasted until it completed its military action in September.

Stevenson writes that politics in Armenia and Azerbaijan are ‘bound up with competing historical accounts going back to the Russo-Persian wars or even further’. The ancient history and culture of Armenia in the region, including Karabakh, are voluminously attested both in Armenian and non-Armenian histories dating back many centuries. By contrast, in the late 1930s, per Stalin’s nationality policies, an Azerbaijani history had to be manufactured that showed its roots to be as ancient as those of its neighbours Georgia and Armenia. In recent decades, Azerbaijani academicians have removed references to Armenia and Armenians from publications of primary historical sources, erasing Armenians from the pages of texts, while in Azerbaijan itself thousands of Armenian historical monuments have been eradicated, as part of a campaign to demonstrate that Armenians never lived there.

Marc A. Mamigonian
National Association for Armenian Studies and Research

The Expert’s Eye

Rosemary Hill is right that, for at least forty years, connoisseurship has operated under a cloud of suspicion, not least because its potential to create market value often seems to align with its elitist pretensions: ‘If you can’t see that this drawing is by Piranesi, then you simply can’t see drawing … or Piranesi’ (LRB, 7 September). However, it’s worth noting that the tools of connoisseurship have become vital in efforts to trace the provenance of historical art objects produced by Indigenous artists, where the egregious absence of careful documentation often means that the expert’s eye is the only evidence we have. A recent instance of this, engagingly documented by Alexandra Kahsenni:io Nahwegahbow, is Trudy Nicks’s careful working backwards from a cradleboard by Elizabeth Katt Petrant and Michel Katt Jr to attribute a birchbark basket to Angele Katt – all three artists being Anishnaabe (Ojibwe). It’s a fascinating reversal of fortune whereby connoisseurship, long regarded as irredeemably reactionary, now makes key contributions to art history’s most progressive endeavours.

Charles Reeve

In Need of a Rule

Continuing my search for adjectives that can be derived from the name Waugh, which Seamus Perry triggered by coining ‘Wav­ian’, I have discovered two more possib­ilities (Letters, 7 September). The Bright Young Things’ nickname for him was ‘Wu’, derived from the 1927 silent movie Mr Wu with Lon Chaney, or perhaps George Formby’s song ‘Mr Wu’s a Window Cleaner Now’ from 1932. And when Waugh joined the marines at the start of the war, he irrit­ated the lower ranks by the pompous way he addressed them and was known contemptuously as ‘Mr Wuff’. 

Which gives us two beauties: ‘Wuvian’ and ‘Wuffian’.

David Aneurin Morgan
Salisbury, Wiltshire

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