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Myths of Englishness

I found James Meek’s essay on Brexit and myths of Englishness very illuminating, but as ever I am struck by the lack of attention given to the subliminal effects of the two key words ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ on the minds of voters in the referendum (LRB, 11 October). In the absence of well-informed and reasoned debate many may well have been swayed, as Meek plausibly argues, by the power of suggestion. How significant then was it that the Old English word ‘leave’, with its positive connotations of permission, provision and respite, stood against the Old French ‘remain’, with its connotations of death, leftovers and failure? How might the vote have gone if the Old English ‘stay’ (vital support, self-control, stability, thoughtfulness) had been chosen for the campaign instead of ‘remain’? Who would not prefer to stay firm rather than remain obdurate? How many dogs ever won a pat on the head and a biscuit by complying with the command ‘Remain!’?

Alan Goater
Chinley, Derbyshire

James Meek describes the Leave campaign’s ‘English cuppa’, that ‘national tradition’ with its ‘union jack-tagged teabag’ that Brussels wants to shoot ‘just to watch it die’. But where does tea come from? What is it? ‘Our cuppa’ – tea, sugar – is a product of that other national tradition: colonialism and the collective will to overlook its traces or claim them as our own. (No wonder Leave liked it so much.) Like Stuart Hall said, ‘They don’t grow it in Lancashire, you know. Not a single tea plantation exists within the United Kingdom.’ At the ‘heart’ of ‘English’ identity, right there inside the teacup (made in China?), is that unacknowledged interdependence of the ‘essence’ of the nation and the ‘other’ it would disavow. Probably, the greatest myth of Englishness is Englishness itself. And we drink it up every day.

Mary Hannity
London SE15

Grumpy about Genes

Meehan Crist quotes Carl Zimmer’s claim that ‘some of our siblings are more like our identical twins’ (LRB, 25 October). This may be a ‘surprising discovery’ to Crist but not to those of us whose siblings are actually our identical twins. People who write about genetics almost always assume a readership devoid of monozygotes. Twinhood may present a ‘radical destabilisation’ to you people, but please can you stop making up for your loneliness or whatever it is by erasing us from your pontifications on ‘what it means to be human’ etc. By the way, our children – you’d probably call them cousins – are technically half-sisters.

Tom and Alex Parkinson
London N16

There is another way

Adam Tooze asks: ‘As the world melts before our eyes, what does Keynesian managerialism have to offer our children and grandchildren?’ (LRB, 13 September). Tooze focuses on Keynes the advocate of growth, which must be managed and maintained by the state to ensure full employment. But he was also an admirer of Malthus, whose claim that the increase in human population would always outrun the capacity of that population to sustain itself (leading inevitably to famine and death) was not borne out in the 19th century, but could yet be proved right by climate change. Keynes was concerned about the impact of increasing population – he was always a strong advocate of reproductive rights – and The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) stresses the fragility of human society and the dependence of the large, industrialised populations of Europe on complex, vulnerable systems of organisation and trade.

So Keynes would undoubtedly have taken the challenge of global warming seriously. But he was also a realist about political constraints. The idea that governments might impose hairshirt policies on citizens (especially when there was no guarantee that other governments would do the same) or that individuals themselves would choose to reduce their consumption dramatically (again, with no guarantee that others would do the same) would probably have struck him as unrealistic. However, there is another way: concerted investment by governments in technological and other means to reduce emissions, from clean energy to a dramatically transformed agricultural sector. Such an investment drive would create jobs and prosperity, and might be a way to avert catastrophic climate change. In the fallout from the Great Depression, governments turned to rearmament as a way of restoring employment and prosperity – a dangerous route – but investment to tackle climate change could be a far better, if belated, response to the 2008 crash. Such a programme would be in keeping with Keynes’s belief in international co-operation, the possibility of state action and the transformative power of investment to improve people’s lives. Most important, it would offer a way to tackle the biggest challenge of our time based on hope and concrete action, rather than on despair.

Emma Barnes

Along the Voie Sacrée

In his essay on the ‘Sacred Way’ to Verdun, Inigo Thomas mentions that the meaning of the word Gericht – the operational name that Erich von Falkenhayn gave to the 1916 assault on Verdun – is ‘execution ground’ (LRB, 8 November). That would be an eccentric translation. Gericht normally means ‘tribunal’, ‘law court’ or ‘place of judgment’. This matters because to translate Gericht as the macabre ‘execution ground’ is to lend support to an interpretation of the battle as a deliberate effort to kill and maim French soldiers. The more normal translation suggests that Verdun was intended as a decisive battle in a more conventional sense, a trial by combat.

Adrian Gregory
Pembroke College, Oxford

Inigo Thomas writes: I took Alistair Horne’s book about the Battle of Verdun with me when I travelled along the Champagne and Lorraine section of the Western Front in October, and it was from his book that I took the meaning of Gericht. That book was published 56 years ago. Ian Ousby, in The Road to Verdun (2010), says Horne’s use of Gericht is ‘arcane’; Adrian Gregory calls it ‘eccentric’. Arcane or eccentric as it may be, an execution ground is what the Battle of Verdun became.

Sharky Waters

After reading Amia Srinivasan’s article about great white sharks, I consulted my experienced surfer friend Doug on the matter of how to remain safe from attacks (LRB, 11 October). While Doug agrees with most of Srinivasan’s advice, especially about not surfing alone, he disagrees that surfers shouldn’t carry a knife. Doug believes the best way to optimise your personal safety in the presence of a great white is to quickly jab a knife into your surfing partner’s leg then retreat as fast as possible to the beach.

Joe Baker
Dunedin, New Zealand

Against Metrics

In Natsume Sōseki’s Kusamakura (1906), a fictional artist, a wanderer through an enchanting countryside, explains why he does not wish to return to Tokyo: ‘If you live in Tokyo for a long time, you get your farts counted.’ Sōseki was perhaps registering his resentment of the controlling culture of Meiji Japan.

Control isn’t given, needless to say, as an official reason for the collection of metrics: efficiency and accountability are the watchwords, as we learn from Stefan Collini (LRB, 8 November). The assumption is that if people are accountable for their activities, they work harder and achieve better results. This doesn’t take into account the social costs of metric-led systems. Collini mentions the distortions that result when policemen or medical workers take on easy cases rather than difficult ones in order to achieve their targets.

There are other social costs too, which I will illustrate with a personal anecdote. In the last few years I have had to use specialist nursing services at a major London hospital. At the end of a session the nurse suggests I return in about a year’s time. But they won’t give me an appointment in advance: I have to ask my GP to refer me again. The NHS targets system is such that the hospital has an interest in discharging patients then seeing them again as new referrals. What isn’t taken into account is that this procedure generates extra costs for another part of the NHS – my GP practice – let alone the cost to me in the time I have to waste getting a new referral.

Grazia Ietto Gillies
London SE21

Stefan Collini asks of league tables in higher education: ‘Has a single university been willing to repudiate the whole farrago rather than trying to put the most positive spin it can on the figures?’ Birkbeck, University of London, announced on 9 October that it would withdraw from UK university rankings because the methodologies do not fairly recognise Birkbeck’s strengths or represent the college in a way that is helpful to students.

Anne Summers
Birkbeck, University of London

Big Books

Adam Mars-Jones recalls the reverence shown in his schooldays for the ‘heft and mystique’ of Liddell and Scott’s Greek lexicon, a work ‘perhaps more central to Victorian high culture … than the Oxford English Dictionary itself’ (LRB, 8 November). Happily, earlier generations were not so awed by this tome. An ancestor of my mother’s lugged about an earlier edition (‘Eton College, September 27th MDCCCLXIV’), and scribbled verse all over the flyleaf. Being no classicist, I can only guess at most of it, but the following is in English:

A lexicon writ Liddell & Scott
Half was clever & half was not –
I leave you to read my riddle,
Which was Scott & which was Liddell.

Another hand has added the following lines, which, the Encyclopaedia Britannica tells me, some wit once suggested for the epitaph of Gladstone’s chancellor of the exchequer:

Here lie the bones of Robert Lowe
But where he’s gone we do not know
If on high – to realms above
There’s an end to peace & love
If beneath – to a lower level
We can’t congratulate the D—l.

Lowe himself, we are told, so enjoyed this that he put it into Latin (‘Si ad coelum evolabit, Pax in coelo non restabit’), which may explain its inscription here.

David Wilson

‘There was humour in Liddell and Scott,’ Adam Mars-Jones writes, ‘or so we were told.’ I recall one joke, at least: ‘louo, I wash, louomai, I wash myself (very rare).’

Rickie Dammann
Poynings, West Sussex

What Remainers Want

Simon Wren-Lewis remarks that ‘many of the politicians and sections of the media that argued for austerity … have also promoted Trump and Brexit’ (LRB, 25 October). Things haven’t lined up as neatly as that. In fact the architects of UK austerity (and strong adherents of the market fundamentalism that Wren-Lewis abhors) also spoke out strongly for Remain: Osborne, Cameron and Clegg, aided by a complicit New Labour leadership. Jeremy Corbyn, conversely, must be one of the few MPs who actively opposed austerity and he has been lambasted for his unwillingness to oppose the Brexit decision.

Wren-Lewis also condemns the EU for focusing in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis not on the banks but on government debt, which in turn prompted the ‘widespread adoption of austerity policies in the Eurozone’. In China, by contrast, a fiscal stimulus led to what was ‘perhaps the only unambiguous success story in this period’. He might have mentioned that the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact insists on enforced adherence to strict fiscal discipline. Austerity was not an aberration of EU policy or a mistake on the part of misguided officials, as Wren-Lewis seems to imply: it has been integral to its outlook since the early 1990s.

Anne Wilson
London SE13

On Lorraine Hansberry

Thomas Laqueur mentions a play called Raisin in the Sun by a ‘black playwright’, but doesn’t give the name of the author (LRB, 11 October). It was Lorraine Hansberry, who was 29 in 1959 when the play became the first by an African American woman to be performed on Broadway. It has been translated into at least 35 languages and performed all over the world. The title of the play comes from the poem ‘Harlem’ by Langston Hughes: ‘What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?’ Hansberry was also an advocate of women’s and lesbian rights.

Roy Kift
Essen, Germany

Churchill at the BBC

John Robbins scorns my characterisation of Churchill as a source of ‘reassurance and resolve’ in wartime (Letters, 25 October). Robbins’s memories of his early years in a mining community have left him with an image of Churchill as a brutish, implacable enemy of the working class. I fully understand his feelings. My early years were spent in the working-class suburbs of Manchester, the hub of the cotton industry. My father had his promising career in that industry – achieved through hard work at night school – destroyed in the Depression. In our family there was no lack of bitter talk about Churchill’s past, not least his catastrophic blunder in the ‘Great War’ – the Dardanelles campaign. But after Dunkirk the country desperately needed leadership and Churchill was the only politician in the public eye who could offer it. He had a reputation for opposing Chamberlain and Halifax’s appeasement policy and he had a gift for speeches that conveyed grim, unwavering determination and commitment. And let’s not forget his appearance: that pugnacious ‘British Bulldog’ face was a gift to cartoonists, and boosted his popularity. Leadership is a complex matter.

As for the ‘Bevin Boys’, I was one of them. Bevin assigned some recruits to the mines. The rest could choose: mines or military. I chose the mines. We got along pretty well considering our varied backgrounds and the old hands accepted us into their ranks with good humour. But they were certainly a touchy lot, ready to down tools at any perceived grievance. I had been at work for only about three weeks when I joined my first strike. As a Bevin Boy you were still a civilian.

Raymond Clayton
Stanford, California

The Politics of Translation

Marina Warner is perhaps being ironic, but it’s important to say that tens of thousands of Ephraimites were not killed because they ‘failed to pronounce the “Shibboleth” in the way [the Gileadites] thought was right’, but because they were Ephraimites, and were trying to deny the fact (LRB, 11 October). As the passage in Judges makes clear, the aim of the Gileadites in demanding that men attempting to flee the battlefield over the River Jordan say the word ‘Shibboleth’ was to force them to give themselves away. Ephraimites ‘could not frame to pronounce it right’, as the Bible puts it, and came up instead with ‘Sibboleth’.

A more recent example of a Shibboleth has given its name to the ‘Parsley Massacre’ of 1937, in which thousands of Haitian migrants to the neighbouring Dominican Republic were slaughtered. It was said that in order to distinguish the Haitians from indigenous, Spanish-speaking Dominicans, the soldiers of the Dominican dictator, Trujillo, would hold up a sprig of parsley, in Spanish perejil, and ask what it was called. If the Haitians, speakers of a French-based Creole, were unable to pronounce the ‘r’ sound in the Spanish manner, producing instead the characteristic French uvular fricative, they were killed.

Tim Marr
Woodbridge, Suffolk

Brian Mossop writes in support of non-literary translators, one of whom I have been for some forty years (Letters, 8 November). He disparagingly quotes Friedrich Schleiermacher as saying, in a lecture in 1813, that a non-literary translator risks becoming ridiculous when ‘he wants to be recognised as an artist.’ Such opinions ‘are uttered only by people who have never translated non-literary texts’, says Mossop. But I think Schleiermacher was broadly right. I tend to equate what I do to the work of a gas fitter, providing a basic service which I have studied to master. Proof of this is provided by the triumph of the CAT-tool, which remembers what you have done in the past, thus saving a percentage of the labour involved in ‘mechanical’ translation of a word in the source language into its usual equivalent in the target language. There is more to non-literary translation than mechanical activity, but that doesn’t make the people who do it artists.

Robert Walkden
Tideswell, Derbyshire

Do you know Digby?

I wonder if any of your readers have any information on Digby Goddard-Fenwick? I know his poem ‘Isobel’ was set by Frank Bridge and I think he taught Evelyn Waugh at prep school. He may have been declared bankrupt in 1939 and I’m pretty sure he tried to tap Waugh for money after the publication of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Other than that, any information very gratefully received.

Paul Wilson