Vol. 46 No. 10 · 23 May 2024

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It’s not cricket

Allen Schill compares Shrovetide football to lacrosse (Letters, 9 May). My Toronto-born grandfather played lacrosse for Canada in the early 20th century. He told us he learned the rough-tough game from Indigenous Americans, with whom, as a young adventurer, he was well acquainted. Having moved to London in 1919, he taught his two daughters the same version of the game, in preparation for their attendance at Francis Holland School, Regent’s Park. In her first game at the school, my mother let rip in the way she had been taught and was promptly sent off in disgrace, having whacked several classmates and tripped them up with her stick. She was allowed to play again once her game was sufficiently ladylike.

Frances Cole
Aldbury, Hertfordshire

Levitating Nuns

Malcolm Gaskill writes about levitating nuns in early modern Europe (LRB, 9 May). Similar stories persist well into the 20th century. Alexander Bedward, the Jamaican Baptist preacher and proto-Rastafarian, claimed to be able to levitate, and predicted that he would physically ascend to heaven on New Year’s Eve, 1920. Crowds assembled to watch the event, some of them hoping to ascend with Bedward. No levitation occurred. But supernatural tales attached themselves to later figures, including Leonard Howell, one of the first Rastafarians. When I visited Jamaica for the BBC in 2002, I spoke with Amy Fairweather, who was present in 1941 when the police raided Howell’s commune, Pinnacle. She said that Howell had evaded capture by turning himself into a woman. ‘He can do this at any time,’ she said.

Jolyon Jenkins

Better in Memory

Julian Barnes writes of professional art historians: ‘I assume that they have – must have – a better visual memory than amateur art-lovers, and perhaps even artists. After all, literary critics in my experience have a better memory of books than most readers, and better even than that of many writers’ (LRB, 9 May).

Pierre Bonnard is an example of a painter who used the unreliability of memory to his advantage. Henri Cartier-Bresson photographed Bonnard’s studio wall in 1944. Tacked to it are postcards and small-scale reproductions of paintings by Picasso, Monet, Seurat, Gauguin and Vermeer, a Hellenistic nude woman’s torso, some postcards of Le Cannet and even a reproduction of one of Bonnard’s own works, The Window (1925). Despite having a panoramic view of Le Cannet from his studio window, Bonnard chose to bring it inside with him. This wasn’t for ease of replication, but because he wanted the remove afforded by a reproduction. You aren’t quite there, staring across the shimmering Mediterranean or analysing the intricacies of Vermeer’s The Little Street. Instead, the landscape is probably rendered in black and white, and the image over-saturated. Your imagination has to finish the work your eyes began. In Bonnard’s last decades, he painted almost exclusively from postcards and small drawings. He used these as a prompt to a more personal version of what they depicted, warped – or rather enhanced – by memory. Explaining that he disliked painting directly from life, he said: ‘I go and look … I take notes. Then I go home. And before I start painting, I reflect, I dream.’

Adrien Sevaux
London W11

Where culture comes from

I wonder how Terry Eagleton’s piece on the foundations of culture would read if it was less Eurocentric, and written from the domain of an indigenous culture (LRB, 25 April). Here in Aotearoa, it is impossible to conceive of ‘culture as a surplus over strict need’. Māori art, ancient and modern, tā moko (tattoo), whakairo (carving) and waiata (song), are all intrinsic, inseparable, living parts of the very existence and identity of the tangata whenua (people of the land). Even commoditisation and appropriation have failed to untether art, song, dance or storytelling from the ancestral threads that are central to modern Māori identity. It is something that we pakeha need to learn from as we dither around wondering whether our cultural base is the Sistine Chapel, Beethoven and Eliot, or something specific to Aotearoa that we still struggle to define. The growing divide is not ‘between the symbolic realm and the world of utility’ but between an inward-looking, self-satisfied European academia and other cultural worlds. One cultural theory doesn’t fit all, and we seem increasingly far away.

Ian Ferguson


In his account of Festac ’77, Sean Jacobs quotes Andrew Apter’s view that Festac was ‘less concerned with policing boundaries and more about expanding them’ (LRB, 9 May). A significant exception was the rejection from the colloquium of the paper ‘Racial Democracy in Brazil: Myth or Reality?’ by Abdias do Nascimento, an event that caused significant controversy and was widely reported in the Nigerian press.

At the time, Nascimento was a visiting scholar at the University of Ife. In an open letter written eleven years earlier, he had criticised the Brazilian government for excluding radical Afro-Brazilians from the festival’s previous iteration, Fesman ’66, in Senegal; he was forced into exile two years later. His Festac paper together with an account of the exclusion and documents on Afro-Brazilian theatre and art were published in book form by Sketch Publishing, Ibadan in 1977.

Thomas Forrest

The Shoah after Gaza

Elizabeth Benedict cast doubt on Pankaj Mishra’s remark, quoting Peter Novick, that the Holocaust ‘“didn’t loom that large” in the life of America’s Jews until the late 1960s’ (Letters, 25 April). In 1964, Bob Dylan’s album The Times They Are a-Changin’ featured the track ‘With God on Our Side’, which included the words:

The Second World War
Came to an end
We forgave the Germans
And then we were friends
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now too
Have God on their side

The song ranges from the genocide of Indigenous Americans to the conflicts of the Cold War, arguing that barbarism always comes clothed in moral righteousness.

Martin Gorsky
London NW11

In Orbit

Adam Mars-Jones writes that ‘to be in orbit, after all, is to be held in a balance of forces. Any acceleration would nudge things out of kilter’ (LRB, 8 February). In fact, as Newton taught us, an object in Earth’s orbit is acted on by just one force – gravity – which induces at all times an acceleration towards the Earth. It’s this acceleration which keeps the satellite on its orbital path: in the absence of gravity, the object would move in a straight line at constant velocity and not be in orbit at all.

Andrew Gelman
New York

See stars, Mummy

I was delighted to see Rosemary Hill’s review of my book about Barbara Comyns, but there were one or two inaccuracies (LRB, 9 May). For example, with regard to the identity of the biological father of Comyns’s daughter, Caroline, Hill claims that ‘When she found out, if ever, isn’t clear.’ But I make it quite clear in the book that Caroline was 75 years old when she saw letters confirming that Rupert Lee was her biological father. Referring to my treatment of the complex relationship between Comyns and her lover’s partner, Hill remarks that ‘here, as elsewhere’, my narrative is ‘oddly flat’. She implies, perhaps, that I should have been more judgmental. My biographical approach was to let readers decide for themselves.

Avril Horner
Kingston University, Surrey


Robert Crawford’s list of book titles and categories subjected to the British Library cyberattack was so like a naturally occurring OuLiPo exercise that it prompted me to use their technique of N+7 on the quotation heading the text (LRB, 4 April). Replacing nouns by those occurring seven nouns later in a small dictionary (plus or minus four as a stylistic cheat) gave:

Thus all the bottles on any given submarine are found standing together, and no adhesives or chaperones ever separate them.

Melvil Dewey, A Claw and Submarine Inebriate for Cataloguing and Arranging the Bottles and Panellists of a Lifetime

I thought this might help.

Brian Reffin Smith

Which came first?

In her call for scepticism with regard to the date of composition of early modern plays, Penny McCarthy claims that ‘we only ever have a terminus ad quem for any play – a “date by which” it must have existed’ (Letters, 21 March). We often also have a terminus a quo, a date before which it cannot have existed. The play Arden of Faversham, to which many experts think Shakespeare contributed at least one scene, obviously cannot have been written before the real-life murder of Master Arden that it depicts. If, as almost everyone agrees, the Earl of Essex is the ‘General … from Ireland coming,/Bringing rebellion broached on his sword’ mentioned in Shakespeare’s Henry V, this allusion cannot precede the planning of Essex’s expedition in 1598. Wherever we are sure that a play alludes to a historical event – there are many examples – that event gives us a terminus a quo for the play’s composition. And when the terminus a quo and terminus ad quem are close to each other, we can indeed begin to do what McCarthy thinks we should avoid and ‘pinpoint a date of composition’.

Gabriel Egan
De Montfort University, Leicester

Pocket Envy

Women may get pocket envy, but Susannah Clapp seriously underestimates the tyranny that pockets impose on men (LRB, 25 April). First, there are so many of them. Think of an everyday outfit – trousers, jacket, overcoat of some description. That’s likely to amount to a dozen pockets. If you have been foolish enough to wear cargo pants the numbers multiply. Pockets may confer powerful carrying capacity, but the cost is a logistical nightmare. Encounters in which you are required to withdraw something from a pocket call for a frantic prolonged search that may result in its eventual discovery in the first pocket you tried. Some Frenchmen get around this by carrying a satchel or sacoche. After first visiting France I got one myself only to absent-mindedly leave it on a counter complete with currency, passports etc.

The sheer visibility of pockets can also have dire consequences. There is a family story about my uncle, who was brought up in rural south-west Scotland. To our enduring embarrassment, he once appeared in the local paper under the headline ‘The Boy with the Bulging Pockets’. Returning home one day he had been confronted by the local bobby, who forced him to disclose two rabbits, the fruits of poaching.

Neil Blackshaw
Alnwick, Northumberland

Susannah Clapp suggests that the preponderance of pockets in men’s clothing might be attributed to ‘vulva envy’. I agree with the sentiment, but shouldn’t it be ‘vagina envy’?

Frances Post
London N10

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