Vol. 46 No. 4 · 22 February 2024

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Experimental Network

James Meek’s account of the technologies that have enabled companies like Netflix to ‘drown the world in small-screen entertainment’ omits a crucial social and technological shift concealed by the term ‘small screen’ (LRB, 4 January). Growing up in Britain in the 1960s, I watched black and white TV on a screen that was indeed very small by today’s standards. But the advent of low-cost liquid crystal display, and in the early 21st century the more expensive organic light-emitting diode technologies used in today’s ‘flat-screen’ TVs, helped to transform not just screen size, but American viewing habits. My local Best Buy is offering 85-inch flat-screen TVs for as little as $750 – or less than $70 a month for twelve months on an interest-free store credit card. A gigantic 100-inch screen can be had for less than $2000. By contrast, a trip to the local movie theatre to watch films on the ‘big screen’ will cost a family of four around $100 once the cost of popcorn, hot dogs and soda has been added to the price of tickets.

To accommodate these ‘small-screen’ behemoths – together with their sophisticated sound systems – in their own homes, more and more middle-class Americans have converted their basements, which are still a feature of so many suburban homes outside the more densely populated inner cities, into ‘family rooms’. Once the unloved, seldom-visited location of the furnace and the air-conditioning system, but now remodelled and dominated by a massive, wall-hung, ultra-high-definition flat-screen TV, perhaps furnished with a small bar and comfortable cinema-style seating, this is the environment in which the products of HBO, Hulu and Disney+ are now consumed.

Fearful of mass shootings in public spaces, bedevilled by poor public transport, cautious of interacting with strangers, middle-class Americans have retreated below ground to watch their not so small screens. The billions of dollars in revenue generated by companies such as Netflix depend on the more general atomisation and privatisation of so many facets of American life – a trend they have, unwittingly no doubt, helped create.

Jonathan Sawday
Saint Louis University, Missouri

Where Zeus Sat

Ange Mlinko, reviewing my book Homer and His Iliad, states that I climbed ‘Mount Gargaron to describe the carpet of golden crocuses’ on which Zeus and Hera made love in the Iliad (LRB, 2 November 2023). Jonathan Brown then writes to say that ‘alas, Lane Fox climbed the wrong mountain’ (Letters, 25 January). They are both wrong. I have never climbed this mountain, neither does my book say I did.

Where, though, was Homer’s Gargaron//Gargaros? Brown, like many others before him, asserts that it is the highest peak along Ida’s chain, Babadağ. His valuably illustrated book Homeric Sites around Troy (2017) already claimed as much. He refers to it as ‘topmost Gargarus’: so, incidentally, did Tennyson, no eyewitness, in ‘Oenone’, the poem about Paris’s jilted wife which he began in Spain in 1830. In the Iliad Homer calls the mountain akron, not akrotaton, never using the superlative ‘topmost’.

I follow J.M. Cook, J.V. Luce and the ancients soon after Homer who identified Gargaron with Kocakaya, a much lower peak nearer the westerly end of Ida’s chain. Brown says that ‘there is no view of the plain of Troy from Kocakaya.’ In September 1968 Cook visited it in thick cloud, but Luce subsequently verified the view from its peak to Troy and the Hellespont and, even more clearly, from Troy back to the peak. In June 2002 the botanist Martyn Rix observed the local Crocus gargaricus in green leaf in bracken and woodland on slopes of the Ida range well below its highest peaks.

Brown also says that the site of the Greek fleet and camp ‘were’ at Beşika Bay, not at what is now the Lisgar marsh, formerly Kesik Bay. Beşika, first proposed in 1912, has become a popular candidate, but Homer three times refers to the Greek ships as if they are stationed by the Hellespont. Beşika Bay is not on the Hellespont. In 1998 Luce added further objections, mostly convincing, and preferred to locate the fleet further north at Kesik Bay. Against him, Brown cites İlhan Kayan, who indeed conducted excellent geological soundings over many years. In 2001 and later in 2009, he argued that Kesik Bay had silted over in the late Bronze Age, certainly before Homer. In 2002-3, nonetheless, he co-authored an article with Luce and others which inclined to Kesik as the site of the Greeks’ ships in Homer’s poem.

Kayan’s careful inferences are still open to question, but the crucial point is that Homer’s Greek fleet and camp exist in poetry, not history. Like Brown, I believe Homer visited Troy and its surrounds, but I still believe he looked north, to the Hellespont, and later sited the Greek fleet there, swamp or no swamp. When composing he worked with a mind’s eye view, mostly coherent, but not with notes or maps. His big Greek fleet and camp never ‘were’ anywhere in real life.

Robin Lane Fox
New College, Oxford

Reasons to Learn French

Bruce McClintock suggests that Shirley Temple Black might have had to take a crash course in French before taking up the post of US ambassador to Ghana because French was still the international language of diplomacy (Letters, 4 January). Satow’s Diplomatic Practice (now in its eighth edition) makes clear that by the mid-20th century French (succeeding Latin) had long since lost its status as sole diplomatic language. There are instructions by Canning and Palmerston, as far back as 1823 and 1851, that British representatives should use English. And it was agreed between Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George and the French foreign minister in 1919 that French and English should have parity as the official languages of the Versailles Conference.

So it is inconceivable that an Anglophone African country emerging into independence, like Ghana in 1957, should have had any need to conduct its dealings with resident embassies in French. It wouldn’t have occurred to us at the British Embassy in Bonn in the 1970s to send diplomatic notes to the Foreign Ministry in anything but English, and I expect our French counterparts used their own language – accompanied in each case, if it was thought necessary, by a courtesy translation into German.

Frank Berman
London SE3

At a reception in the British ambassador’s garden in Rangoon in the late 1950s one of the Burmese guests asked why members of the diplomatic corps had cars with CD, not DC, plates. A bystander enlightened him: ‘It stands for Corps Diplomatique – you see, French used to be the diplomatic language …’ The French ambassador promptly left.

Jane Reid
London SE1

Protest v. Civil Disobedience

Shortly after describing the way in which, in several jurisdictions, the legal noose is inexorably tightening around the right to protest, Jan-Werner Müller asserts a distinction between protest and civil disobedience – ‘that is, open and deliberate law breaking’ (LRB, 8 February). However, if the law is continually tightened to limit and punish protest, won’t this lower the threshold at which protest becomes, in Müller’s terms, civil disobedience?

Neil Blackshaw
Alnwick, Northumberland

Why indeed?

Clocks are mentioned just three times, and only in passing, in Paul Keegan’s report on Tate Modern’s Philip Guston show (LRB, 25 January). This is far fewer than the number of clocks and watches included in the images; indeed there is a one-handed clock nearly dead centre in The Studio, the painting at the top of Keegan’s essay. Keegan is not alone in overlooking these elephants in the room. Books on Guston barely mention them, and when I attended a press preview of the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the curator didn’t raise the subject as we passed by oversize clocks and wristwatches staring from perhaps a quarter of the canvases. Certainly Guston painted timepieces purposefully. Why?

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

How to Hate Oil

In his review of my Penguin Classics edition of Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, Edmund Gordon quotes my introduction, where I write: ‘How to more properly hate oil … becomes both an ideological impasse and a literary plot’ (LRB, 4 January). From this, Gordon generates the claim that I argue the novel’s ‘ultimate target is oil, as distinct from the oil industry’. In fact, I make the opposite argument, that Sinclair offers a structural critique of oil capitalism – its industrial impacts, habits of mind and emotion, and modern cultural traditions. This was in keeping, I hope, with my adaptation of the quote from Adorno’s Minima Moralia: ‘One must have tradition in oneself, to hate it properly.’

Michael Tondre
Stony Brook University, New York

Nasty Little War

In her insightful review of my book A Nasty Little War, on the disastrous Allied ‘intervention’ in the Russian Civil War of 1918-20, Sheila Fitzpatrick misreads its relevance for Russian policy today (LRB, 25 January). Because the Ukrainian national movement was weak then does not mean that it is weak now – viz. the country’s determined self-defence over the past nine years. And because the Ukrainian national army committed pogroms then (as did all the warring sides) does not mean that Ukraine is antisemitic now – viz. its election of a wildly popular Jewish president. Rather, the lesson of the intervention is that Putin will ultimately fail for the same reason the Whites did: because his regime is brutal and corrupt, because he has no political programme beyond nostalgia for past glories, and most of all because he cannot accept that the non-Russian nationalities do not want to return to Moscow’s rule.

Anna Reid
London W6

Sheila Fitzpatrick writes about the ‘ill-defined’ Western military intervention in the Russian Civil War, which in the Siberian theatre included a US army expeditionary force. In parallel to the military effort, hundreds of doctors and nurses, deployed under the banner of the American Red Cross, were stationed along the Trans-Siberian Railway from late 1918 until early in 1920. Operating in part from specially equipped trains, they treated wounded soldiers and Russian civilians suffering from typhus, which was widespread. The viability of the medical mission was, however, hostage to the Whites’ fading fortunes in the war. At one point, the chief nurse, Alice St John, wrote to headquarters from Verkhne-Udinsk (now Ulan-Ude) that ‘the complete dissolution of any form of stable government in Siberia has made it impossible for us to carry on successfully any Red Cross work other than the distribution of warm clothing and relief supplies; with the growing military activities east of Baikal and the withdrawal of American troops from this section it is impossible for us to keep our nurses or other woman personnel east of Manchuria Station … Here in Verkhne-Udinsk we are surrounded by Bolsheviki and this is true all the way west to the Amur Basin.’ In 1920 the Americans sailed away.

Allen Torrey
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Origins of the Gay Novel

Tom Crewe writes that Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library ‘has no women in it’ (LRB, 8 February). Evidently he didn’t register the brief telephone conversation Will has with his sister Philippa.

Clarissa Wyatt
Ripon, North Yorkshire

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