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Letters


A Bed for Fifty

Let’s be good empiricists about Bosch, and in particular about The Garden of Earthly Delights. Marta Uminska is right that the first mention we have of the painting (seemingly alongside others by Bosch) is from 1517, in the diary of a traveller from Apulia: ‘Some paintings of diverse bizarre things, representing sea, skies, woods, fields and many other things, some of which emerge from a sea mussel, others that are defecated by cranes, women and men both white and black [not the least of Bosch’s provocations] in diverse actions and poses, birds, animals, of all sorts and done with much naturalness, things so pleasant and fantastic that, to those who have no knowledge of it, it cannot be described well in any way’ (Letters, 20 October). The diarist saw the painting in Henry of Nassau’s palace in Brussels. No one knows for sure when the Garden was painted: scholars plump for dates stretching from 1490 to the first years of the 1500s. So all that is certain is that the triptych was in Nassau’s possession 15 or 20 or even 25 years after it was done. No trace of its original commissioning and whereabouts has survived. Twenty years is a long time, certainly in the Netherlands around 1500.

Specialists generally agree that either Henry or his uncle Engelbert, who like his nephew was a great art lover, must have commissioned the painting. The agreement here strikes me as wishful (art historians are always pleased when they can edge the ‘bizarre’ back into the realm of power and good taste). The Nassaus were art lovers, and Bosch in later life was a painter coveted by connoisseurs: the count could have acquired the triptych years after it was done. In time it became a Nassau talisman: by 1567, when the Duke of Alba arrived in the Netherlands, Nassau’s head of household was tortured almost to death by the duke’s henchmen for having ‘faict refuz de bailler une painture de Jeronimus Bosseman’. (He gave in eventually: by 1568 the Garden was heading for Madrid.) The painting was a treasure, but it does not follow that those who treasured its inventions understood them very deeply, or claimed to. The first title we have for Bosch’s triptych crops up in a Spanish inventory from 1593: ‘una pintura de la variedad del mundo, que llaman del Madroño’ (‘A painting of the world’s variety, which they call the Strawberry’). I warm to the ‘they’ here: the strawberries in the Garden are especially beautiful, and may be a clue to the painting’s worldliness. ‘Of all sorts and done with much naturalness.’ Isn’t it likely at least, recalling the Apulian diarist, that Nassau and his head of household knew full well that what they were protecting was a singularity, a wonder, a mystery, perhaps even a survivor from a lost – suppressed – world of belief? We all go guessing after that singularity. But don’t imagine the art historians’ guesses rest on more solid ground than Vaneigem’s.

T.J. Clark
London SW4


No Broguing

The shoes in question may lack defining holes, but I’m a bit punctured by Baer Pettit’s good-natured relabelling of my mother’s pair (Letters, 20 October). And yet ‘broguing’, as a term for the pricked patterns in leather, appears in Wikipedia but isn’t known (as far as I can see) in the OED or any other dictionary; it sounds like a neologistic back formation, picking up on associations with ‘embroidery’ and ‘brocade’. ‘Oxfords’ sound too dressy, too urban and not outdoorsy enough, while ‘Derbies’ have the right feel for turf but ‘A kind of sporting-boot having no stiffening and a very low heel’ (OED) doesn’t fit the bill. The main thing, however, is that neither term was used in my family or works at all interchangeably with the kind of Romantic visions of English country life that I was trying to recapture from my childhood. For instance, Coleridge’s ‘amorous knight’ wanders through a glade clad in thigh-high brogues: ‘And thro’ those brogues, still tatter’d and betorn,/His hindward charms gleam an unearthly white./As when thro’ broken clouds at night’s high noon/Peeps in fair fragments forth the full-orb’d harvest moon!’ I’m not suggesting that this tatterdemalion display is something wearers of brogues usually get up to, only that you couldn’t really make the same bucolic impression in Oxfords.

Marina Warner
London NW5

‘What could be the connection between brogue on the foot and sounds in the ear and on the tongue?’ Marina Warner asks (LRB, 6 October). Seamus Heaney suggests something of a reflection on this question in his poem ‘Broagh’. One of a series on place names and geographical features, the poem refers to the soft riverbank where ‘the shower/gathering in your heelmark/was the black O/in Broagh.’ Heaney then links the difficulty for the English of pronouncing Gaelic words with the difficulty of controlling the Irish people, ending the poem, which has used a number of English, Scots and Irish terms, by calling attention to ‘that last/gh the strangers found/difficult to manage’.

Tony Martin
Birmingham

Marina Warner consults the OED to find that it dates the first use of ‘brogue’ to 1575. But the word probably derives from Gaelic (along with Brittonic), a very much more ancient language. ‘Brogue’ is the English form of the Gaelic bròg (plural brògan), which, depending on context and possibly local dialect, can mean shoe, foot, hoof, goad, house, or sorrow.

David McDowall
Richmond, Surrey


When London Was Bigger

Christopher Tayler describes New York in the 1740s as having a tenth of London’s population, but in fact it was more like a hundredth (LRB, 6 October). London then had a population well north of 600,000.

Jeffrey McGowan
Central Connecticut State University, New Britain


Unfair to Geneticists

The distinguished geneticists Brian and Deborah Charlesworth charge me with overstating the reductionism of classical genetics and underestimating its contribution to the study of development (Letters, 20 October). They also dismiss the work of Needham, Waddington and the Cambridge Theoretical Biology Club (TBC), as ‘contributing nothing’. They correctly point out that one of the founders of modern genetics, Thomas Hunt Morgan, was a developmental biologist before he turned to fruitfly genetics in the early 1900s, and that Sewall Wright, one of the trio who created the fusion of Mendelism and Darwinism which formed the 1930s Modern Synthesis, was a proponent of epigenetics. But they neglect to add that Morgan turned from development to genetics because genetics seemed amenable to experiment while development was too complex, and that Wright, whose population studies made him receptive to complexity, was dismissive of the ‘bean-bag genetics’ of the classicists, who treated genes as individual units rather than as parts of an interacting system.

The Charlesworths’ point that the experimental techniques available at the time were inadequate for turning the TBC’s theoretical insights into practice is absolutely right. But to dismiss Waddington – who coined the term ‘epigenetics’ and is their predecessor at Edinburgh – so cavalierly is ungenerous, especially now that epigenetics has become such a productive research programme.

To return to my main argument, redefining evolution as ‘a change of gene frequency in a population’ is a reductionism too far, depriving living organisms of playing any part in their own destiny. The bringing together of molecular genetics, epigenetics and development as part of the endeavour of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis helps restore Darwin’s vision, in the closing words of The Origin, of ‘an entangled bank, clothed with plants of many kinds, with birds singing … insects flitting about … worms crawling … and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.’

Steven Rose
London WC1


No hares were harmed

We are indebted to Inigo Thomas for a delightful analysis of Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed, but may I, on behalf of the small minority of readers who treasure their old anorak in the hall cupboard, make one or two practical points (LRB, 20 October)? When Thackeray imagines the train dashing ‘out of the picture and be away to Charing Cross through the wall opposite’, he is presumably thinking of the orientation of the painting in the east wing of the National Gallery in 1844. What about the actual train? If the bridge in the painting is indeed Maidenhead Bridge, then the train might be speeding towards Temple Meads, Bristol, but definitely not to Charing Cross, which was the eventual London terminus of the South Eastern Railway (not the Great Western). The station wasn’t opened until 11 January 1864, some twenty years after the completion of Turner’s painting.

Continuing the assumption that it was the Great Western Railway that inspired Turner, it may well have been a Firefly class locomotive working the train. (The first of the class was in service from 1840 and the last not withdrawn until 1879.) Then the one thing we can be sure of is that the splash of bright colour at the focus of the painting is not the open fire-box (not ‘fire-chamber’, please). This had one door only, at the far end of the boiler, and from this viewpoint would be invisible. Is this enigmatic splash of colour Turner’s equivalent of Tennyson’s ‘Ringing grooves of change’? Tennyson had the decency to confess afterwards that he had thought trains ran in grooves. Perhaps Turner thought the fire-box was at the front of the locomotive. Or was this a ‘What the heck’ moment when Turner decided the fire-box ought to be at the front of a locomotive?

Finally, may I reassure everyone that almost certainly no hares were harmed in the painting of this picture. Unless the hare ‘froze’ (and I’m not sure hunted hares ‘freeze’), perched on top of one of the rails, the train would simply pass it by. Maidenhead Bridge was double-tracked from the outset and there would have been ample room for the hare to crouch in complete safety. We can only speculate as to what Turner thought the hare was doing on the bridge in the first place. Perhaps performing roughly the same function as the small mouse in Terence Cuneo’s paintings, many of them commissioned by the Great Western Railway.

Bob Hall
Old Windsor, Berkshire

The Firefly class, in common with all other locomotives in 1844, was a coke (not coal) burner, with an open barred grate to its fire-box. The light is the incandescence from this shining along the underside of the boiler. (Dickens in Dombey and Son describes a similar light as Mr Carker prepares to throw himself under an approaching train.) Further, the locomotive is on Hanwell Viaduct, not Maidenhead Bridge. The additional wording to the title of Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire (second in line behind HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar) is ‘tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838’. The Temeraire was decommissioned at Chatham and tugged upstream, from east to west, to be broken up at Deptford. It is thus impossible for the light of the setting sun to fall as it does on the warship. That light is the false light of nostalgia. Turner isn’t just engaging with his world, he is actively endorsing it.

Nick Wellings
Brighton

If the stone bridge to the left of Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed is, as seems likely, the Bath Road Bridge in Maidenhead, which is located to the north of Brunel’s bridge, the train must be travelling west away from London as the dawn rises behind it, not towards the capital. The direction of travel is significant for it implies, in line with Thomas’s interpretation, that Turner was seeking to depict the blind extermination of old, rural England by invasive industrial forces.

Anthony King
University of Warwick

Inigo Thomas claims that the hare faces certain death and remarks, in response to Turner’s contemporary C.R. Leslie, that ‘there’s no reason to think the hare better represents speed … than the train.’ But there is. The hare was (and is), as Turner must have been very well aware, the fastest animal native to Britain. That alone makes it the better candidate to symbolise speed. In 1844, the average speed of a locomotive was significantly lower than the top speed of a hare. It’s true that in 1845, a year after Turner’s painting, a Firefly set a new speed record of 61 mph. But on ordinary days, when Turner was observing it or travelling in it, when it was leaving or approaching Maidenhead Station, and when it was not trying to break a record, the train would have been travelling at well below 40 mph – although that must still have felt exceedingly fast to the Victorians. An average hare can run at between 30 and 40 mph over a distance of ninety metres or so, and at 50 mph over twenty metres. In the painting, both the hare and the train are already more than halfway across the bridge, and the hare is well ahead. The Maidenhead railway bridge (if this is the location) is about eighty metres long. Certain death? Far from it. My money is on the hare.

Katy Jennison
Witney, Oxfordshire

In my piece about Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed, Félix Bracquemond appears as George Braquemond. The error is mine. In the passage where I mentioned Bracquemond, I referred to his prints at the first Impressionist salon, and how his version of Rain, Steam and Speed left out the hare that is in Turner’s painting. But Bracquemond did present a hare among his prints at that salon: it was based on a painting by Albert de Balleroy, an artist whose speciality was hunting scenes, and it depicts a hare at rest.

Inigo Thomas
London NW1


Accidentally Brutal

In her review of Minoo Dinshaw’s biography of Steven Runciman, Rosemary Hill asserts that, as a historian, he is ‘out of fashion’ (LRB, 20 October). Runciman’s ‘Byzantine life’, whatever else it was, was that of a scholar. The two historians whose views Hill cites are David Abulafia on The Sicilian Vespers (‘a classic’), and Averil Cameron on A History of the Crusades (‘a great achievement of narrative history’). Hill turns ‘classic’ into a dismissal: it ‘does not mean definitive, or accurate or even terribly good’.

Runciman died in 2000. In 2007, the British Academy published A Century of British Medieval Studies, edited by the late and much lamented Alan Deyermond. In its thirty contributions covering all parts of the field, few were mentioned more often, more approvingly and by more contributors than Runciman. As it happens, I can speak for myself: ‘Bestriding 13th-century Italy like a colossus was the Emperor Frederick II, and his biographer David Abulafia bestrides the historiography for the period beyond as well as up to 1250 without, however, making redundant Steven Runciman’s Sicilian Vespers (1958), one of the great history books of all time.’ Hill’s final words refer to ‘this well-meant but accidentally brutal biography’. Something similar could be said of her review.

Jinty Nelson
King’s College London


What are we allowed to say?

Timothy Garton Ash says that his book Free Speech came out strongly against trigger warnings (Letters, 20 October). I apologise for understating his vehemence on that point. Or anyway, initial vehemence, because then there’s this: ‘There may occasionally be the need for a cautionary note’ (i.e. a small trigger warning). And this: ‘Warnings should be given when something could genuinely trigger trauma.’ But why be so elastic? Trauma has a rigorous clinical definition that could have been cited against the mock-clinical warnings. As for his rejection of laws on hate speech, Garton Ash’s public stance and his book are less unyielding than his letter suggests. His curated site freespeechdebate.com currently features two articles endorsing and two opposed to the censorial practice of no-platforming, itself inspired by the success of hate-speech laws. Free Speech opposes hate-speech laws but makes a partial exception to allow bans on ‘dangerous speech’ (while admitting that such bans call for the greatest delicacy in deciding where and when).

I drew a link between Garton Ash’s proposals for a ‘connected world’, the academic ideal of cultural pluralism or ‘diversity’ and the fortification of identity politics. If he wanted to avoid these associations, which his letter disowns, he should have refrained from arguments for individual liberty that turn midway into panegyrics on cultural diversity. Free Speech gently ridicules Balkan separatists, for example, only to affirm in the next sentence: ‘Diversity is both a product and an enrichment of liberty.’ But what sort of diversity does he have in mind? His principles require him to mean diversity of thought, yet the context implies diversity of culture. He often tries to split this difference. I think it is a difference that should not be split.

Amia Srinivasan’s letter asserts the reality of American racism, supported by an anecdote from her undergraduate time at Yale, and ends by declaring: ‘“Identity politics” is often simply a demand for community membership on equal terms.’ But it is never simply that. It is a demand (with supply often running ahead of the demand) for institutional subsidy of racial and ethnic groups, in the belief that the adoption of a named cultural identity is a suitable means to the realisation of political equality. I would regret the means even if I shared the belief. A fair objection to identity politics on campus is that it reinforces self-segregation in places where integration has achieved a limited success.

David Bromwich
North Haven, Connecticut


Feeling Thoroughly Ill

Jon Day repeats the persistent myth that lactic acid (or lactate) accumulates in muscles during exercise and causes pain (LRB, 6 October). Research has shown that lactate produced by working muscle is taken up by tissues throughout the body and used as a fuel; its association with fatigue and pain is tenuous at best.

Day isn’t fair to the British runner Jim Peters in claiming he ‘gave up’ after failing to bluff Zátopek in the 1952 Olympic marathon. According to Rob Hadgraft’s biography of Peters, Plimsolls on, Eyeballs out, Peters admitted: ‘True to my Cockney tradition, and although I was absolutely shagged and knackered, I told him it [the pace] was too slow.’ The ruse backfired, but Peters fought on nevertheless and was still within 150 yards of Zátopek at 15 miles. It wasn’t until the twentieth mile that Peters collapsed by the roadside.

David Bradford
Farnborough, Hampshire


Compendium of Clichés

Adam Mars-Jones writes of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell that ‘Wine his mother drinks doesn’t pass any sort of sensory organ in the foetal narrator but is assessed with unstinting prenatal connoisseurship just the same’ (LRB, 6 October). But embryonic tastebuds are present by the 14th week of gestation, and foetuses swallow amniotic fluid from 12 weeks. Indeed, experimental evidence as far back as 1937 suggests that they actively gulp fluid when a novel taste is experienced.

Ben Fletcher-Watson
University of Edinburgh


Sustainable? Yes, when it suits

Gillian Darley cites the sudden emergence of a widespread interest in sustainability as the explanation for the shift from the mid-century penchant for large-scale demolition to today’s obsessive restoration of obsolete buildings (LRB, 20 October). But to reduce this shift to such an apolitical consensus isn’t enough. It ignores the fact that while the widespread demolition of obsolete Victorian housing and country houses slowed in the 1970s the slack was quickly taken up by the demolition, partial or total, of urban housing estates, often described as breeding immorality, drug-use and crime, and popularly viewed as a threat to the social fabric. It was this threat that enabled working-class housing to be demolished in swathes; the London Borough of Hackney tore down more tower blocks than any other European local authority in the early 2000s. These buildings, collective, urban social housing, were seen as a threat to Thatcher’s ‘property-owning democracy’ and so began to be replaced with traditional, pitched-roof, neo-vernacular housing for private sale. This would, it was hoped, bring good middle-class families into bad working-class areas in order to prevent the total breakdown of society that such housing estates were said to threaten. Of course it would have been more sustainable to retain the existing housing, to renovate those elements which had become dilapidated. But that would have done nothing to change the politics of these estates. In Deptford, this process of demolition and renewal involved adding decorative pitched roofs to those modern, flat-roofed apartment blocks which escaped the wrecking ball. The walls of the surviving towers on these estates were either painted over in tasteful shades of pale blue or covered in a skin of brick. Today, the decision to preserve rather than demolish is often undertaken by private developers and is almost always about profit. The obsolete buildings Darley cites are seen as worth renovating not because it is sustainable to do so, but because they are cultural capital. Heritage sells. Granaries are turned into offices and flats because they can be sold for more than new builds. Where the prospect of retaining existing buildings threatens a developer’s profits the buildings are not preserved. Derelict buildings which have served no function for decades are no longer obsolete because they have become valuable; housing estates full of homes and life have become obsolete because they are no longer aluable. The Heygate Estate and Robin Hood Gardens are laid out in a way that makes them unprofitable for developers to renovate and sell; they will be replaced by new-build towers of expensive apartments. These seem inexplicably wanton acts in an age supposedly so committed to sustainability.

A.D. Robertson
Cambridge


The German War

I’m moved to respond to Carla Wartenberg and now Carole Fabricant (Letters, 20 October and Letters, 22 September). Earlier this year I visited Berlin with my partner. We stayed with her niece, whose home in Schoeneweide was surrounded by lovely, tall 18th and 19th-century houses. The streets were wide; most of the buildings had plush architectural features, the vista much as it would have been for two hundred years. Taking all this in, camera clicking, we noticed a seemingly derelict industrial estate across the road. We entered through an open wire gate. It turned out to be the Dokumentationszentrum. There we discovered that from 1943 a slave labour camp had existed cheek-by-jowl with the Deutsche domesticity all around us: avenues of lovely trees, borders of sweet-smelling shrubs, electrified wire, block houses. Berlin had three thousand such camps. I don’t know how big they were, but a conservative calculation suggests there were at least three million slaves in Berlin at any one time, their numbers boosted, when required, by the occupants of concentration camps. Unlike most concentration and death camps, forced labour camps were not distant from civilian population centres. Passers-by will have seen the armed guards and two thousand slaves marked with their diamond badges, forced every morning to march to factories along the nearby Spree, and back again every evening. Every night Berliners will have heard the sounds of extreme imprisonment, every day smelled the odours in the air. It is pointless to continue pretending their lack of action was because ‘they just didn’t know.’

Garry Saunders
London N16