That was the year that was
It stirred this old demonstrator’s heart to be reminded of the 1968 call for international revolution: ‘We Shall Fight, We Will Win, Paris London Rome Berlin’ (LRB, 24 May). But it also reminded me of the left factionalism of those times. I was on a march to Grosvenor Square when one of our group complained about the Eurocentrism of that very slogan. Did he have a more international alternative? Yes he did. Yes he did. ‘The sword is mightier than the biro. Paris, London, on to Cairo’.
Tariq Ali credits Harold Wilson for not sending troops to fight in the Vietnam War when under heavy pressure to do so. The pressure came from the United States, but in reality there was little chance that Wilson could have intervened even had he wanted to. Britain, along with the Soviet Union, had co-chaired the 1954 Geneva Conference, which negotiated French withdrawal from Indo-China and established North and South Vietnam as two nation-states separated by the 17th parallel. Anthony Eden was given most of the credit for this diplomatic achievement, which led to an uneasy peace in the years following. So when war flared up again in the 1960s it was diplomatically virtually impossible for Britain to join the belligerents. American leaders, who had played no part at Geneva, seemed unable to grasp this point.
As a black alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill I read Jocelyn Harris’s praise of its Unsung Founders Memorial with dismay (Letters, 10 May). By and large, the monument is considered a slap in the face to the university’s black community. It is smaller than many home dinner tables. Worse, it often serves as a lunch table for white undergraduates who are blissfully unaware of its significance. Any intended symbolism is inverted – or, perhaps, ironically laid bare – as the granite slave figures carved into the table’s base remain invisible to a public that sees fit to use the monument as a nappy-changing station. Most troubling of all, though, is the fact that it lies almost literally in the shadow of another statue, named Silent Sam, which is a memorial to the university’s Confederate war dead. Speaking at its dedication in 1913, the industrialist Julian Carr bragged of having ‘horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds because she had maligned and insulted a Southern lady’.
If I’m not mistaken, the torn strips of newspaper featured in Anne Rothenstein’s engaging cover image are from the Belfast Telegraph and/or the Belfast News Letter of 3 June 1953, the day after Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation (LRB, 10 May). The two newspapers, staunchly Unionist in outlook, had large circulations in Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland. This is reflected in the enthusiastic descriptions of celebrations of the event – bunting, bonfires, street parties – in contrast to the muted public reaction of those living in Catholic areas in the North.
The BBC had decided in autumn 1952 to set up a temporary low-power transmitter to serve the Belfast area in time for the coronation; boarding houses and hotels promised customers they could ‘watch the coronation in comfort’. In Dublin, several pubs installed TV for the occasion. Coronation Day passed without official recognition by the Irish government and invitations to the British ambassador’s garden party were declined. The following day the Times in London reported that the coronation was celebrated with ‘covert enthusiasm’ in Dublin. Many stayed at home to listen to the blanket radio coverage, and some businesses arranged for staff to listen to the radio broadcast of the service. Not everyone shared in the enthusiasm: one customer in a pub in Dublin’s Marlborough Street smashed the television with a hatchet.
Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire
I happen to live close to the places mentioned in Mary Wellesley’s piece on the topography of the 14th-century alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (LRB, 26 April). It is approaching the sixtieth anniversary of a letter Professor R.V.W. Elliott wrote to the Times in which he linked the authorship of the poem to the Cistercian abbey of Dieulacres beside the River Churnet about a mile from Leek. The abbey was founded in 1214 by Ranulph de Blundeville, earl of Chester, having transferred from Poulton in Cheshire as a consequence of predatory Welsh raids.
The Dieulacres connection was further strengthened, Elliott claimed, by the rights the abbey had to land in Cheshire and North Wales, including fishing rights on the River Dee. The relationship between the abbey and Leek may also offer a clue. A commission of inquiry of 1379 rebuked William, the abbot of Dieulacres, for oppressing the people and keeping a band of 21 men ‘to do mischief they can do to the people and they have lain in wait for them, assaulted maimed and killed some, and driven others from place to place until they have made fine with them’. The following year armed men were charged with beheading John de Warton by command of Abbot William. The abbot was imprisoned, released and pardoned. No one was found responsible and de Warton’s death went unavenged. The fractious relationship between the town and the abbey continued until the dissolution of the monastery in 1538. In subsequent writings, Elliott suggested that the beheading of de Warton was played out in the poem with the decapitation of the Green Knight.
Do we have a policy?
Conrad Teixeira describes the LRB’s use of untranslated French as ‘atavism’ (Letters, 10 May). For me, emerging proudly monolingual from the same sort of comprehensive school as his, it was just such moments of untranslated French or German in the books I was reading that drew me into a lifelong obsession with language learning. To remove such passages from the LRB would be to remove yet another incentive, small but significant, for English readers to extend themselves beyond the Anglophone world. Indeed, as long as English remains so dominant, learning even the basics of a foreign language is a much more radical act than undertaking the linguistic play internal to English that Teixeira cites so admiringly.
Further to Elizabeth Powers’s comment that reproduction of art-historical subjects in monochrome until the mid-1960s was partly the result of conditioning, I’d suggest that technical considerations remained pertinent (Letters, 10 May). As an undergraduate at Cambridge at the start of the 1970s, I attended Nikolaus Pevsner’s weekly lectures on art and architecture, illustrated exclusively with slides in monochrome. He said that he used form, shape and composition for his analysis of paintings and that inaccurate colour was unhelpful. On one occasion he projected three different colour slides of the same painting; each showed the same image but with radically different colours owing to the differences in production processes, so that it was impossible to know which, if any, was an accurate reproduction of the original work.
Technology has moved on hugely since then and colour rendition is much more faithful than it was (though there’s still the complication of additive/subtractive colours in comparing printed and projected images), but you only have to Google a famous painting – or buy a postcard – to see that it still often looks completely different from one image to another, depending on lighting, camera and processing.
James Meek mentions in his piece on the NHS that he tried and failed to interview Jon Ashworth, MP for Leicester and shadow health minister (LRB, 5 April). I can assure him that Ashworth at least read the article, as I bumped into him in a park in Leicester a couple of days after the issue came out. We had a discussion about how the NHS’s complex privatisation could be reversed.
Who abolished it first?
Christopher Clark reproduces David Kertzer’s claim that the constitution of the Roman Republic of February 1849 was the first to get rid of the death penalty (LRB, 10 May). This distinction belongs to the Wallachian Proclamation of Islaz of the preceding year (21 June, by the Gregorian calendar), which was adopted as the principality’s new constitution on 23 June by Prince Gheorghe Bibescu, just two days before his resignation and flight to Transylvania. Alongside articles emancipating the principality’s Jewish population, establishing freedom of the press and introducing equal access to education for all citizens of both sexes, Article 19 decreed the abolition of the death penalty both in law and in practice.
Emmanuel College, Cambridge
At Maison Empereur
As Inigo Thomas recognises, Maison Empereur is indeed a wonderful shop with an astonishing variety of domestic goods (LRB, 10 May). I have a kitchen implement bought there whose intended purpose I have never worked out, but which is useful for various tasks. Myths of origin can be equally uncertain. The idea that Marseille was founded by the Phocaeans is wishful thinking – perpetuated by the city’s football team, Olympique de Marseille, who call themselves ‘les Phocéens’. This notion is linked to a late 19th-century desire to attribute the origins of the city to acceptably civilised Greeks, and not to other, more questionable races. Inhabitation of the area of the Vieux Port can be dated back at least eight thousand years. The extraordinary hand prints in the Cosquer cave, have been carbon-dated to at least 28,000 years ago. These prints were originally considered a practical joke, because it wasn’t thought possible that the site had been inhabited so long ago. All well before those late-arriving Phocaeans.
Light through the Fog
‘How many readers will know,’ Colin Burrow wonders, that ‘galingale’, as used by Peter Green in his translation of The Odyssey, ‘is galangal, the aromatic rhizome used in Thai cookery’ (LRB, 26 April)? For me, this raises two further questions. How likely is it that the ancient Greeks would be using in their cookery an aromatic rootstock of the ginger family (Alpinia galanga or Kaempferia galanga)? And did the ancient Greeks have trade links with the Far East? The answers, it seems to me, are ‘Not very’ and ‘Not known’.
I would think it more likely that ‘galingale’ would have been one of the species of tall Cyperus sedges that grow at the edges of bodies of water in Europe and North Africa, the best known being Cyperus papyrus, the papyrus plant of Ancient Egypt. In Britain ‘galingale’ is used for Cyperus longus. However, if it is edibility one is looking for then Cyperus esculentus (also known as ‘chufa’) would be the one to choose. This has edible nut-like tubers (corms) that are usually roasted, or peeled and cooked, or eaten raw as they are sweet and digestible. The plant is native to Central and Southern Europe and to North Africa. It has been cultivated in the Mediterranean for a long time; corms have been found in Egyptian tombs of c. 2000 BC.