Vol. 46 No. 3 · 8 February 2024

Search by issue:

Blunt Instrument

Adam Mars-Jones, reviewing Isabel Waidner’s Corey Fah Does Social Mobility, notes that in the novel’s depiction of Joe Orton’s murder, ‘all the props are there’ except the hammer, which is ‘here transformed into the trophy for a literary award’ (LRB, 4 January). The hammer is actually there in the scene, but in name only: Orton and Halliwell’s Noel Road has been relocated to a Kalapacs Road, and kalapács is Hungarian for ‘hammer’. It may be worth adding that in 1966, the year before his death, Orton won the Evening Standard Best Play award, the trophy for which was heavy enough to have been used as a blunt instrument.

Jim Pennington
London N4

A Sudden Crack

Rory Scothorne, writing about the ‘festivalisation’ of Edinburgh, mentions the Walter Scott monument in Princes Street Gardens and the ‘local worthies depicted’ on it (LRB, 4 January). In fact, the vast majority of the 68 statues on the monument are imaginative models of characters from Scott’s novels: Ivanhoe, Jeanie Deans from The Heart of Mid-Lothian, Baillie Nicol Jarvie from Rob Roy and Meg Merrilees from Guy Mannering are among the better-known figures. Heads of Scottish writers, positioned round about, include those of Robert Burns, Robert Fergusson, Allan Ramsay and the not altogether Scottish Lord Byron. The only local worthy in evidence (unless we count John Knox) is Scott himself, seated with his beloved dog Maida at the centre of it all. He might be gazing wistfully in the direction of North Castle Street, running uphill from Princes Street, where he lived for many years at No. 39, until financial ruin in 1826 forced him to give it up, with much else, and move into bug-infested lodgings.

At the root of Scott’s disaster was over-spending. It held up, until, as John Buchan writes in his excellent biography, ‘a sudden crack split the whole complex fabric of credit’. Judging by what Scothorne says about the ‘catastrophic trams “mega-project”’, overseen by local worthies on the ‘cash-strapped council’, a bigger split could occur one day soon.

James Campbell
London W12

Painting is terribly difficult

Julian Barnes says that Henry Geldzahler wrote a letter to Andrew Wyeth offering to curate an exhibition of his work at the Metropolitan Museum in exchange for a watercolour (LRB, 14 December 2023). Has anyone actually seen this letter? I suspect it is a figment of someone’s imagination. Having catalogued the Geldzahler collection before its arrival at the Beinecke Library at Yale, I am familiar with the controversy surrounding the Wyeth exhibition at the Met. The director, Thomas Hoving, put pressure on Geldzahler to curate the exhibition because of its potential box-office value. Geldzahler wasn’t convinced, but agreed to visit Wyeth’s studio to see the work in case it caused him to change his mind. Having done so, he told Hoving that the quality wasn’t something he could endorse, and rejected the show outright. Tense negotiations ensued, and Geldzahler agreed to take a year’s leave of absence while Hoving himself curated the exhibition. This is all documented in the Geldzahler archives, and was independently related to me by Kay Bearman, who worked at the Met between 1960 and 2021.

Raymond Foye
New York

Nasty Little War

Sheila Fitzpatrick writes about the Russian Civil War of 1918-20 (LRB, 25 January). Visitors to the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard can go onboard HMS M33, the 568-tonne survivor of Britain’s involvement in this ‘nasty little war’. The ship crept round Norway’s North Cape (and its icebergs) in late May 1919 to arrive in Archangel in early June. The summer was spent with a flotilla of similar small ships navigating as far as two hundred miles into the interior up the Dvina river, using its guns in support of the White forces. ‘Bertie Woosters’ may have predominated in the army but for M33’s small crew, serving in a ship with no armour protection, this was no jolly jape. They faced attack from the banks and from concealed mines in the river, and took at least five direct hits from ‘bolo’ shells, one of which pierced the hull (the repair is still visible). More dangerous still were the rapids and falling water levels, which forced the flotilla’s withdrawal – M33’s sister ship had to be scuttled and abandoned after running aground. M33 was a veteran of the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, so this wasn’t even the first of Churchill’s bloody, failed interventions it had taken part in.

Matthew Sheldon
Chichester, West Sussex

Black, Grey or White?

Rosemary Hill mentions that Guy Burgess was Hilda Matheson’s colleague at MI6’s Joint Broadcasting Committee (LRB, 25 January). Burgess was deeply involved with the BBC Talks Department before the war and from November 1941 produced The Week in Westminster. The Joint Broadcasting Committee was one of a troika of organisations, with Electra House and the BBC itself, that produced propaganda: black, grey and white, depending on the admixture of truth. Burgess, with his association with Section D of MI6, seems to have served as a link between them.

Michael Holzman
Briarcliff Manor, New York


Dani Garavelli writes about a sea captain called John Paul Jones (LRB, 25 January). I thought the name familiar; it transpires I only recognise it from the 2012 film Battleship starring Rihanna and others, in which the US navy fights alien invaders who hop across the water in a grid-like pattern. The USS John Paul Jones is a destroyer in the film (and possibly in real life). Garavelli’s piece wasn’t only corrective in this regard, but also affecting and encyclopedic.

Henry Whorwood
London E17


Colin Kidd asks if any 17th-century philosopher can really be said to belong to the ‘liberal canon’ (LRB, 4 January). There is a case to be made, avant la lettre, for Roger Williams. Protégé of Edward Coke, and a Puritan émigré to New England, Williams outraged the Massachusetts theocracy by claiming that the state had no role in religion and that Native Americans had title to settler-occupied land. Expelled by the Boston authorities, he negotiated with the Narragansett for land for a new ‘plantation’, on which to found a refuge for the persecuted. His claim to Rhode Island was endorsed by the English Parliament in 1643. While campaigning in London, he wrote the Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, published in 1644 as he set off back to Providence. It became a key text for the radical movement, bringing the formerly pacifist Anabaptist ‘swarm’ into the core of Cromwell’s army. In 1647, Rhode Island declared itself ‘democraticall; that is to say, a Government held by ye free and voluntarie consent of all, or the greater parte of the free Inhabitants’. Thus Williams’s movement replaced Christendom with democracy as the basis of state legitimacy. Teresa Bejan, in Mere Civility (2017), places Williams alongside Hobbes and Locke in the early modern canon, but only Williams advocates a truly inclusive polity.

Paul Lusk
Whitstable, Kent

Reasons to Learn French

Bruce McClintock reasons that Shirley Temple, as US ambassador to Ghana in the mid-1970s, would have learned French because it was then the international language of diplomacy (Letters, 4 January). I worked at the Australian High Commission in Ghana at the same time, and that wasn’t my experience. Third-person notes sent to the foreign ministry were always in (stilted, formal) English, as were aides-mémoires. All conversations with officials or ministers were also in English. (It was the same during my next posting, in Denmark: official communications and conversations were all in English.) The High Commission reported on fifteen West African countries. In the four English-speaking ones we spoke English, in the eleven Francophone countries we spoke French.

Rob Wills
Brisbane, Queensland

Experimental Network

James Meek writes about Peter Biskind’s ‘network bad/cable good’ model of American television (LRB, 4 January). The fundamentals of modern multi-strand quality TV drama like The Sopranos were developed in network TV. Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley were both network TV writers who became showrunners before cable TV even began to commission fiction. Kelley produced both Chicago Hope (1994-2000) and Ally McBeal (1997-2002) as writer/showrunner. Bochco acted as showrunner (before the term was invented) as early as Hill Street Blues, broadcast on NBC between 1981 and 1987. This show developed a distinctive ‘messy look’ and the use of multiple narrative strands. Bochco found that the pressure to deliver 22 Hill Street Blues scripts a year resulted in very uneven episode quality, even when he used a small staff of four adjunct writers, so he set up a more collaborative writers’ room for NYPD Blue (1993-2005). This was a more adult, more controversial drama, which he ran with David Milch, negotiating scripts line by line to establish a quota of foul language for each show. HBO’s first big commission, Sex and the City, ran from 1998, by which time NYPD Blue was a staple in the primetime schedule.

John Ellis
Royal Holloway University of London, Egham, Surrey

National Evil

When Jonah Goodman’s piece on the history of hypothyroidism in Switzerland appeared, I happened to be in the middle of my annual rereading of Dickens’s Little Dorrit (LRB, 30 November 2023). In the chapter where the Dorrit entourage is ascending to the Great Saint Bernard Pass in the canton of Valais, Dickens’s description of the environs includes mention of ‘the idiot sunning his big goitre under the leaves of the wooden chalet by the way to the Waterfall, sat munching grapes.’

Julie Stielstra
Ellinwood, Kansas

On James Connolly

Discussing Liam McNulty’s biography of James Connolly, Niamh Gallagher writes that Connolly’s work ‘has not always been taken seriously’, and that she and Richard Bourke ‘tried to remedy this by publishing a selection of his writings in The Political Thought of the Irish Revolution’ (LRB, 30 November 2023). Gallagher might also have mentioned the publication by Edinburgh University Press in 2016 of The Revolutionary and Anti-Imperialist Writings of James Connolly 1893-1916, edited by Conor McCarthy, by far the most sustained scholarly project to recover Connolly’s voice.

Michael G. Cronin
Maynooth University, County Kildare

Against Adulteration

Edmund Gordon claims that the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in 1906 led ‘directly’ to the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, which were signed into law less than six months after the novel appeared (LRB, 4 January). Its influence should not be diminished, but public health officials, journalists, civil society organisations and organisations of farmers had been exposing and protesting against food adulteration throughout the second half of the 19th century. Analytic chemists had developed methods and standards to make the detection of adulteration feasible and reliable. In Pure Adulteration (2019), Benjamin Cohen counts 190 pure food laws debated in Congress between 1879 and 1906, as well as many more state and municipal ordinances. Food manufacturers and grocers came to embrace the marketing potential of ‘purity’. All of these developments, with which Sinclair’s work was contiguous, contributed to the passage of consumer protection laws.

David Schleifer
New York

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences