A memory came back to me as I read Susan Pedersen’s reassessment of the campaigns that brought (some) British women the vote in 1918 (LRB, 30 August). As a young teenager, soberly feminist in an age of neon-pink ladette pint-downing, I wore on my grey school cardigan a ‘Votes for Women’ badge. It showed an Edwardian woman in a white dress holding a green and purple banner, flowing over her head and around her raised arms. I thought wearing the badge was an act of remembrance, commemorating the last time women had wrought lasting, incontrovertible change in our country. It was an achievement no one could argue with, and no one did. But they should have: just as I was an adolescent, so was the suffragettes’ feminism adolescent, it now seems to me. Cultish, overdramatic, puritanical, their tactics now look not just ‘repulsive’, as Pedersen puts it, but self-defeating. They won the vote, and suffered in doing it, but they forgot to build a party, or at least to make their agenda part of one. Today’s feminists shouldn’t glory in the suffragettes but learn from them instead: feminism can be spectacular, but it must have some way of embedding itself, and if it can be free and insolent without making martyrs, so much the better.
Ferdinand Mount suspects that De Gaulle’s call for a ‘Québec libre’ in 1967 was a ‘wilful gesture’ largely undertaken to ‘amuse himself’ and because ‘he knew it teased’ (LRB, 2 August). Au contraire, De Gaulle’s extraordinary speech from the balcony of Montreal’s city hall was consistent with the views he had held for many years. In his mind, France had shamelessly abandoned its sixty thousand colonists to the British in the 18th century, and it was about time it did something for them; De Gaulle said he had come to Québec in order ‘to pay the debt of Louis XV’. He referred to its people as ‘les Français d’Amérique’.
Ferdinand Mount says that the more he reads about De Gaulle the more he admires the general’s wife, Yvonne. The chef Jacques Pépin wrote of his admiration for her in his autobiography, The Apprentice (2003). In the late 1950s, during his national service, he was a cook at the Matignon, the residence of French prime ministers. (‘Careful,’ he was told by a flunkey from the arts ministry who had just handed him an ornate platter – it had belonged to Marie Antoinette.)
He first met Aunt Yvonne, as he claims she was known in France, in the spring of 1958. ‘The country hovered on the brink of revolution as a junta of disaffected military officers … were poised to stage a coup,’ Pépin wrote.
The crisis reached its peak on the evening of 12 May. Dinner was over, and I was cleaning up in the corner of the kitchen when an aide to one of the cabinet ministers hurried to me. Gesturing toward the president’s salon, where the politicians were negotiating our country’s future, he said: ‘Chef, they’re going to be at this all night. They need food. Can you stay?’ It was the longest night of my life, a night when no one knew who would be the leader of France when the sun rose. As French democracy hung in the balance, I did what I had been trained to do. I cooked.
The next morning De Gaulle became president, and Aunt Yvonne appeared in the kitchen, as she would do every day for the rest of Pépin’s time at the Matignon. She asked him what he proposed to make for supper. ‘I was thinking of a leg of lamb,’ he replied. ‘That’s good. The general loves lamb. But, chef, you must be certain not to cook it too rare. He likes it rare, but he should not have it that way. It’s not good for his blood.’
‘I could not have asked for a more gracious supervisor,’ Pépin says. ‘Aunt Yvonne was a small, immaculately groomed woman, always soft-spoken, and unfailingly polite, the perfect foil for her stern, larger than life husband.’ The De Gaulles’ punctuality was flawless, and supper was always at 8 p.m., whether all the guests had arrived or not. The general’s predecessor at the Matignon, Félix Gaillard, had rarely been on time, although his favourite dish was cheese soufflé – a dish that is all about perfect timing. (Pépin had ‘to have one soufflé ready at the appointed time, another ready to go into the oven when the first one showed signs of collapsing, and yet another in the making’.)
A pile of the general’s clothes was once left in the kitchen. Pépin couldn’t stop himself and tried them on, even though De Gaulle, at 6'5", was a foot taller than he was. He tried on a pair of size 14 shoes, too. The general was vast in every respect except one. ‘His head,’ Pépin says, ‘was so tiny that his hat perched on top of mine like a precariously balanced demitasse.’
After the Fall
Brian Ridsdale suggests that life expectancy in the UK isn’t declining so much as increasing at a slower rate (Letters, 30 August). On 7 August the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released a comparison of mortality trends in twenty countries. It reveals that life expectancy in the UK peaked in 2014 at 82.99 years for women and 79.25 years for men. Both figures fell in 2015 and dropped lower still in 2016. Figures for 2017 are not yet available. The ONS report also showed that the UK and US had the worst recent record of all twenty countries. Life expectancy is still rising in the other 18 countries that have released data for 2016. It has been rising most steeply in Finland, Norway and Denmark for men, and in the Czech Republic, Denmark and Japan for women.
Censorship at the BBC
Ian Jack refers to the use during the Second World War of switch censors, BBC employees who were ready to cut off a broadcast instantly if a speaker wandered into ‘dangerous territory’ (LRB, 30 August). That wasn’t the only censorship technique available. Despite the entreaties of commissioning editors, the Passport Office (by which we should understand MI6) refused to grant Frank O’Connor, one of Ireland’s best-known writers, a permit to visit London to record for the BBC in 1942.
Trinity College, Dublin
Ian Jack doesn’t mention one occasion when the system of censorship at the BBC during the Second World War broke down with disastrous results. In 1942, the garrison of Tobruk, commanded by Major-General H.B. Klopper, was surrounded. In African Trilogy (1944), Alan Moorehead wrote that
When the battle was actually joined, an announcement came over the air from London suggesting that Tobruk was not after all vital and might be lost. How this disastrous and insane broadcast came to go on the air is still unexplained. The encouragement it offered to the Germans and the depression it spread among the isolated British defenders can be imagined … Klopper and his staff heard it and almost the last message that was received from Klopper said, ‘I cannot carry on if the BBC is allowed to make these statements.’
After fierce fighting, he surrendered. ‘The BBC was listened to intently every day in the desert,’ Moorehead added, ‘because it was usually the only contact the men had with the outside world.’
Build a Wall
Inigo Thomas forecasts that Mar-a-Lago will eventually be ‘worn down by the actions of the waves’ (LRB, 30 August). In 2016 the Guardian reported that the Florida estate may face four months of flooding per year by 2030, and may be underwater more often than not by 2100. All possible, but the Low Countries are still there for a reason: dykes, berms, bulkheads, jetties, vegetated dunes. And Trump can play Gore when it suits him. In December, he got permission for a 38,000-tonne sea wall at his golf course in Doonbeg, County Clare. The original application upbraided the Irish government’s wishy-washy predictions. ‘In our view’, Trump said, ‘it could reasonably be expected that the rate of sea level rise might become twice of that presently occurring.’
Hans Fallada’s recently rediscovered classic Iron Gustav, written in 1938, supplies a German illustration of the ‘dehorsification’ described by Eric Banks (LRB, 5 July). At the novel’s outset in 1914, the patriarch Gustav Hackendahl runs a successful Berlin horse cab business, but he sells off his best horses cheaply for the war effort, which together with the economic effects of total war, undermines the financial viability of his business. After the war, the breakdown of Hackendahl’s family mirrors the wider social crisis. Automobiles take over the city, his horse and cab becomes increasingly anachronistic, and he isn’t respected by his children or by society. Finally he gains a fleeting fame when the press celebrates the oldest cabbie in Berlin after he makes a solo trip to Paris.
The ambivalence of this dénouement, with the French-inflicted humiliations of Versailles and the occupation of the Ruhr redeemed by a journey of atavistic, essentially friendly nationalism, did not impress Joseph Goebbels, who as minister of propaganda required substantial rewrites, correctly suspecting Fallada of anti-Nazi sympathies. The Nazis were keen to make their own use of equine symbolism, as evinced by the pair of bronze horses outside the Reich Chancellery. Cavalry also played a visual role in the invasion of Paris in 1940, in stark contrast to Hackendahl’s benign journey. In a grim irony, fuel shortages during the occupation of France resulted in the reappearance of the horse-drawn fiacre.
Anatomies of Death
The desperate state of the Irish in the 1590s – ‘like anatomies of death’ – was a result, according to Malcolm Gaskill, of ‘rain and snow of an intensity and duration unprecedented in living memory’ (LRB, 19 July). The quotation regarding the condition of the Irish is from Edmund Spenser, but he was writing about the Second Desmond Rebellion of 1579-83 and the famine caused by the English scorched earth policy when quelling it.
Ardfield, Co. Cork
Michael Wood seems to have been bamboozled by the many maskings and unmaskings in Mission Impossible: Fallout (LRB, 30 August). In the scene with the Norwegian scientist, the fake Wolf Blitzer is played by Simon Pegg, not Tom Cruise. Unless, of course, Simon Pegg is really Tom Cruise with a mask. I’ve often wondered.
The brain works in strange ways. Reading the letter by Eric Kurlander, the author of Hitler’s Monsters, I misread the word ‘occultist’ as ‘oculist’, producing the sentence ‘by the 1930s even many oculists, hoping to garner legitimacy, preferred to define their practices as “border science”’ (Letters, 30 August). Then, something made me glance an inch or so to the left, where I saw a letter from Christopher Prendergast, the editor of the Penguin edition of Proust. In one of its volumes, the French word Proust uses, oculiste (he is well known for his optical metaphors), is mistranslated as ‘occultist’. When I pointed this out to Prendergast in the senior common room at King’s College, Cambridge, he sighed as if to say, ‘Not you too.’