Ms Jowell Misses Her Chance
Thomas Jones describes the far-right legionaries of Forza Nuova who took sneaky advantage of the touring Olympic torch fiasco as unwelcome allies for the no doubt politically sounder folk who have been doing their anti-Chinese bit around the place these past few weeks (LRB, 24 April). But if there are going to be protests in the streets as the by now ludicrously misnamed ‘flame of harmony’ is paraded internationally, according to some geographical scheme which I for one am quite unable to follow, how much more encouraging it would be if they were aimed, not specifically at the Chinese, but at the monstrous expansion and corruption of the whole Olympic idea. At the bad taste, among other things, of perpetuating a ritual such as the circulation of the torch, which appears to have been the brainwave of the Nazi Party in 1936, on the occasion of the games in Berlin which have so often been condemned as a gross politicisation of what had hitherto existed as a more or less sporting event. Carried, as the torch surely would have been that time around, by extravagantly beautiful and athletic young German men, spectators would at least have been spared the weird episode of street theatre offered to those who turned out in London in hopes of seeing such co-opted celebrities as an ageing and unfit television news reader or a pretty young presenter from Blue Peter. Could grotesquerie go further? Only perhaps had our own minister for the Olympics, the not obviously very sporty Tessa Jowell, been persuaded to get into her running gear and taken her chances with the Chinese torch-minders as they fought their unlovely way through the streets of the capital. I seem to remember that when the 2012 Games were awarded to London, one of the great benefits we were promised was that, Olympic glory being what it is, the nation as a whole would now be feeling a sudden urge to get off the couch and start training in eventual expectation of a medal. Ms Jowell passed up the opportunity to set the example and project an enticing trailer for the big feature in four years’ time. But then she has other things on her mind: notably the horrendous extent to which the estimated cost of the London Olympics has grown ever since the day in 2005 when it was announced they would be held here. Horrendous not least because it is now apparent that the original estimate was kept deliberately and misleadingly low by a government so sold on the vision thing that it preferred that the rest of us go around with our eyes shut.
Don’t Get above Yourself
I am very willing to believe that Paul Anderson has new and reliable evidence about the circulation of Tribune in the mid-1940s, in which case my calculation about the combined circulation of the three periodicals in which much of Orwell’s best writing appeared may have to be revised (Letters, 10 April). But, as Anderson acknowledges, the Audit Bureau of Circulations seems not to have certified any figures for Tribune, and one has to rely, therefore, on the figures provided by historians of this period. The most recent, and possibly the most authoritative, of these is Kenneth O. Morgan, in his 2007 biography of Michael Foot, who was an editor of Tribune for part of the period in question, 1945-47. During these years, Morgan writes, ‘sales, at perhaps ten thousand copies (so far as the facts could be uncovered), were disappointing.’ He later makes the point that this figure persisted until the end of the decade. It ‘increased considerably, to perhaps eighteen thousand’, in the early 1950s during the brief heyday of the Bevanites in the Labour Party, though this was long after Orwell’s association with the paper had ended.
So, if, as Anderson agrees, Horizon and Polemic ‘sold something in the region of ten thousand between them’ in the mid-1940s, it was on this evidence entirely accurate to claim that the combined circulation of all three journals was around half of the ABC’s certified figure for the LRB in 2004.
More like a Building Site
Stephen Walsh’s review of Wagner and the Art of the Theatre (LRB, 24 April) brought to mind my worst experience of directors’ opera hell. The occasion was Handel’s Julius Caesar, performed by Scottish Opera in 1992 and directed by Willy Decker. The main feature was a flight of steps up and down which members of the cast grappled and tugged a large paper/plastic crown (indicating that the subject was political in-fighting). To indicate, further, that chance played a large part, a baize-covered gaming table had to be attached to the staircase. (You think I’m joking.) The only time for it to be hammered into place was during the singing of some climactic arias and duets, making the whole thing sound more like a building site than an opera.
Elif Batuman tries her best to create an analytical framework for the study of ‘graphic novels’ or ‘comic books’ (LRB, 10 April). However, by focusing on Umberto Eco’s 1962 essay ‘The Myth of Superman’, she risks ignoring later developments in the world of comics. ‘The Death of Superman’ storyline, completed in 1992, has the mythic hero existing in a ‘romantic-novelistic’ time. The death of Captain America last year was a politically charged event in the world of comics, linked strongly and provocatively to real-world happenings. Having started out landing a punch on Hitler’s jaw in the 1940s, Captain America was assassinated because of his opposition to the Superhuman Registration Act.
Use of the story cycle has indeed been prominent throughout the life of comics, but Batuman doesn’t pay as much attention to another technique used by comic-book writers: retroactive continuity. This method, known as ‘retcon’ in comic-book circles, can help to alleviate the potentially jarring inconsistencies in a story cycle. Previously established facts are uprooted or re-explained by a new author on a series. The most famous retcon was written by Alan Moore during his seminal run on the Swamp Thing series in the 1980s. The ‘hero-in-two-persons’ became in this case a ‘hero-in-no-person’. Previously Swamp Thing was taken to be Alec Holland, a human biologist transmogrified into vegetable form in a laboratory accident. In Moore’s retcon, Swamp Thing only believed that he/it was Alec Holland. The philosopher Donald Davidson famously took up this idea in his thought experiment ‘Swampman’, presented in his essay ‘Knowing One’s Own Mind’.
Jenny Diski proposes that ‘ventriloquism is clever only when the audience is aware that the dummy is not really speaking’ (LRB, 10 April). She points to a 1950s BBC show with Peter Brough and his dummy, Archie Andrews, asserting that ‘someone was either not thinking very clearly, or being brilliant in an avant-po-mo sort of way’ in putting a ventriloquist on radio. Edgar Bergen and his dummies, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, were a tremendous popular success on radio in the US. The Charlie McCarthy Show was the highest-rated radio programme in 1937, and stars such as Mae West, Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis and Nelson Eddy were happy to be invited to meet the dummies on the show.
East Orleans, Massachusetts
Judith Chernaik is a little hasty in her declaration that ‘each movement’ of the F-A-E Violin Sonata – the collaboration between Schumann, Brahms and Albert Dietrich – ‘begins with the musical notes signifying Joachim’s “motto”’ (Letters, 10 April). The most famous movement of the sonata, Brahms’s Scherzo, makes no reference to them at all. In the first movement Dietrich doesn’t introduce them until the 19th bar, and in the Finale Schumann waits 17 bars before using the motto. Only in the Intermezzo, also composed by Schumann, do we hear these notes at the outset.
Feilding, New Zealand
John Burnside’s mention of a Sortex machine in his memoir ‘Losing Helen’ (LRB, 24 April) reminded me of the time in the early 1950s when I worked briefly for Sortex, as a shorthand-typist. I was offered the job, and the interviewer told me I must never discuss money with the secretary I’d be working with, as they were paying me more than they were paying her. I was embarrassed when payday came round. Unable to bear it, I told her. She told me that she’d been told not to talk about money with me, as they were paying her far more than I would be paid. We compared pay-slips; we were earning the same.