In his review of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel, Vernon God Little (LRB, 20 November), James Wood states: ‘Last year, the prize’s new sponsors let it be known that it was time for a shiny new populism, and so far the judges have concurred.’ These allegations are serious, defamatory and false. Martyn Goff, the prize’s administrator, assures me that the Man Group made it clear, when they took over sponsorship of the prize, that they did not wish to influence judges’ choices in any way. We acted, as judges, with total independence. No representative of or intermediary from the Man Group ever contacted us with reference to the submitted novels or our ranking of them. Our long list, short list and eventual choice of winner reflected our estimate of literary quality and nothing else.
c/o Colman Getty PR, London W1
Your reviewer of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel says that the Man Group, the new sponsor of the prize in 2002 and 2003, ‘let it be known that it was time for a shiny new populism’, and that ‘so far the judges have concurred.’ This is a completely false and damaging statement. At no time has any member of the Man Group made any suggestion whatsoever either to this or last year’s judges or to anyone connected with administering the prize. The slur made by your critic is a very serious and damaging one to the Man Group and its unconditional generosity.
c/o Colman Getty PR, London W1
James Wood writes: When I said that the Booker judges ‘concurred’ with the ‘shiny new populism’ of the Man Booker Prize’s new sponsors, I was being idly figurative, and am happy to retract any imputation that the sponsors influenced in any way the outcome of the prize. I was a Booker judge in 1994, and know perfectly well that it would be impossible for the prize’s sponsors to interfere with jury members (indeed I’m amused by the idea, implicit in both Carey and Goff’s letters, that the sponsors would have read the books).
Obviously enough, I meant that the juries of the last two years seem to have fallen in – unconsciously, of course – with a perceived new zeitgeist. When Man plc took over sponsorship last year, there was a good deal of speculation that what Lisa Jardine, last year’s chairman, called ‘a new era’ had begun. There was talk about opening up the prize to American fiction (I agree with Jardine that this is a very bad idea); the location of the award ceremony was moved from the stuffy Guildhall to the cooler British Museum. At the time, journalists wrote of ‘a very British coup on behalf of Booker’s new sponsors, the Man group plc’ (Observer, 27 October 2002), and that ‘the administrators want to control the prize’s image, and any debate about changing its constitution.’ (Observer, 26 May 2002).
Most of this was probably just journalistic hot air. Still, both this year’s and last year’s judges laid new emphasis on the importance of choosing accessible, plot-driven novels, and the two books chosen would seem to comport with that emphasis. Next year a rebarbative Maori epic as winner? We shall see.
In Buenos Aires
Michael Wood says that the first European settlers on the ‘smelly coastal swamp’ beside the River Plate called their new city after Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Aire, ‘Our Lady St Mary of Good Air’ (LRB, 20 November); and that even if the Spanish phrase del Buen Aire were to mean ‘of good aspect’ this ‘would still be quite a splash of bravura’. So it would have been – but in fact those Spaniards dedicated their city to ‘Our Lady of Good Wind’, patroness of sailors, in thanksgiving for their safe passage. I grew up in Buenos Aires, and my parents’ quinta a little outside the city was named ‘Buen Aire’. We had a ceramic-tile representation of Our Lady of Good Wind let into one side of the house; she is shown holding the child Jesus on one arm, and on the palm of her other hand a three-masted sailing-ship.
My first visit to Buenos Aires was different from Michael Wood's. On the pretext of attending a conference, and inspired by too many Hollywood movies of the Bogart era, I went in search of a seedy waterfront bar where, clad in a grubby white suit and Panama hat, I could romantically drink away my declining years. Alas, I couldn't get to the waterfront at all. There was the old port, the new port, the public gardens (out of bounds because of subsidence), the railway station, the municipal airport; and the only bar I could find was cut off from the river by a busy highway. Disconsolate, clutching a bag of exam papers due for marking, I trudged on until I found a cracked and disused concrete pier sticking out into the River Plate. I'd walked to its end and settled down to the essays when a gust of wind carried off half the papers; I watched them sink slowly into the South Atlantic. When I told my students the story, most of them didn't believe a word of it. I had to give them all good marks.
Jack Kennedy’s older brother, Joe, did not die over the English Channel, as Elizabeth Drew claims (LRB, 20 November). His mission, codenamed Aphrodite, involved taking off in a war-weary bomber loaded with explosives. The crew were to complete the arming system, then bale out over Kent, allowing a ‘mother’ plane to take radio control and crash the bomber on a German target (probably a V1 or V2 launch site). Kennedy didn’t even reach Kent. His bomber exploded over the town of Blythburgh, Suffolk. As for Drew’s suggestion that ‘British radar upset the delicate wiring in the plane’: weeks of investigations, in which aircraft with the most sensitive detection equipment reflew Kennedy’s course, found no clues to the accident. All told, there were 19 Aphrodite missions. None succeeded; Kennedy’s was not the only bomber that exploded prematurely. Technicians on the base suspected a faulty arming system.
I am surprised that the Oxford dictionary Jud Heywood consulted did not pick up the full account of the word provided in The Australian National Dictionary (Letters, 4 December). The earliest source cited there explains: ‘In Egypt the various rumours were brought into the camps by the drivers of the water-carts. As these water-carts were branded Furphy, it is easy to see the origin of the slang meaning.’ A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms gives as the second meaning of the word ‘a rumour thought to have arisen in gossip around the water-cart in World War One (a latrine rumour); any false report’.
The family which made the water-carts also produced the author of the greatest Australian novel ever written, Such Is Life (1903), a book full of furphies, though by a happy coincidence Joseph Furphy published it under the name of ‘Tom Collins’, whose existence is a furphy.
Bruce Clunies Ross
A Frog’s Life
It was generous of James Wood in his review of J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello to have mentioned little in the book other than the addresses Costello delivers (which collectively take up less than a sixth of the novel’s length), if, as he says in his letter (Letters, 4 December), the rest is ‘pretty rudimentary as fiction’ and ‘more often than not’ reads as ‘the necessary fabular wrapping around the “lectures” themselves’. It is not generous to deny Costello, and her shadowy author, the autonomy and unfixability he so freely gives to the frogs Costello declares herself to believe in towards the end of the book. Wood believes in belief, and is, like all believers, selective. On the issue of those frogs: Costello is stopped at the gates of heaven and forced to declare her belief in something before she can pass through. Her telling the assembled judges that she is a writer and therefore has no beliefs gets her nowhere, so instead she gives a moving speech about the little frogs which, in Wood’s words, ‘died and were regenerated’ in ‘the river she grew up alongside, in Australia’. Wood brings his peroration to a close at this point, the frogs lingering as an image of the sacred. Which leaves out the banally bureaucratic response of Costello’s interrogators. ‘It says nothing here, in your docket, about a childhood on the Dulgannon … Is childhood on the Dulgannon another of your stories, Mrs Costello? Along with the frogs and the rain from heaven?’ She doesn’t deny it. They accuse her of allegorical intent; she doesn’t deny that either. If the story ended there, Wood’s argument about confession (or its ‘aura’) and religious belief (or its ‘shape’) might still hold; this would be the stance of the martyr who refuses to recant, her whispered eppur si muove. But Costello shares her inquisitors’ scepticism about the solidity of her own beliefs. She asks herself whether she can perhaps persuade herself to believe in her exaggerated frogs; for the moment, they are false. Confession comes in two types: the religious and the political. It seems to me that the place Costello is put in at this late stage in the book has as much to do with the second camp as the first. Costello is old and bullied, by followers and antagonists; she can no longer be sure what she is or was, or what she believes in. This is one singular message the novel conveys; I think she should be left alone in her uncertainty.
St Paul, Minnesota
Something in the Tea
Touching on the hazards of fraternisation with the ex-enemy in postwar Germany, Richard Wollheim says: ‘Every day the army cooks were instructed to step up the bromide ration in the tea until the taste was bitter, and the spoon stood virtually upright in the billycan’ (LRB, 4 December). The notion that the Army ‘put something in the tea’ to deaden priapic urges has long been as popular as it is indestructible. Bergen Evans, in The Spoor of Spooks, and Other Nonsense (1955), says there is no evidence that bromides were administered in any wartime command, ‘or that they would have had the effect claimed for them if they had been’. Yet the belief that this went on was universal. The Americans, according to Evans, thought the added substance was saltpetre, the English believed it was copper sulphate; the Germans were convinced that their coffee was drugged and the French that their wine was tampered with. And so on. Was Bergen Evans right to be so dismissive? Is there a retired quartermaster, or army cook, who can shed light on this subject?
Jose Bové did not, as Steven Shapin puts it, ‘trash’ a McDonald’s under construction near Montpellier (LRB, 20 November). With the aid of his compatriots in the Confédération Paysanne he dismantled his local McDonald’s in Millau and reconstructed it two hours later.
When I first came to London in 1946 I saw a display of Camembert in a grocery shop in Soho. ‘Camembert,’ it proclaimed, ‘from Normandy, 2/6 a box.’ There was another pile of boxes with the notice: ‘Ripe Camembert, 2/- a box.’ A further pile of dishevelled boxes was labelled: ‘Very ripe Camembert, 1/6 a box.’ In the corner was a pile of wreckage: ‘For the connoisseur: 6d a box.’ I bought a sixpenny box: Camembert never tasted so good again.