He made no sign
James Wolcott writes about Saul Bellow (LRB, 24 January). Those who have long memories will remember Bellow’s Aspen connection. In the early 1970s he spent a summer or two here at the Aspen Institute. I was at the Physics Centre and somehow we became friends. At the time he was between marriages – there were five, all told – and, one of those summers, had a ladyfriend from Chicago visiting. I was seeing, as they say, the actress Estelle Parsons, who was also visiting. Bellow and I decided to pool our resources to entertain the ladies. One of the things we did was to hike to Cathedral Lake rather early in the season when there was still snow on the trail. It was a memorable hike. We had got about halfway when a rather tough-looking fellow with a gun came down the trail in the opposite direction. Bellow and I had just read James Dickey’s novel Deliverance and wondered if we were about to relive the plot. But following shortly after him came Robert McNamara, then another individual with a gun. McNamara had until recently been secretary of defence. When he came within earshot, Bellow said fairly loudly: ‘McNamara is a shit.’ If McNamara heard, he made no sign. Bellow was wearing a rather unfashionable blue sun hat and wasn’t recognisable. Pity they didn’t have a chance to talk. Some time later Bellow said he thought people like McNamara were served cuts of meat unavailable to the rest of us. He also made a comment about literary critics: ‘We make them an offering and they take it as a provocation.’
Not a Woman in Flight
Sarah Perry writes that her novel The Essex Serpent ‘doesn’t specify the year in which it is set’ (Letters, 24 January). The cover of my paperback edition does: ‘1893’. By then, Perry says, women had for several years ‘been admitted to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge’. But they couldn’t actually matriculate at Oxford until the 1920s, or at Cambridge for many years after that. She accuses me of ‘diminishing the achievements of women’ because I fail to account for those who’ve been ‘written out of history’. But there’s no mystery about how many women were on the British Medical Register in the 1890s: fewer than a hundred at the start of the decade, and barely twice that by its close. To admit that they were outliers isn’t to denigrate the majority of women who didn’t have careers as surgeons or engineers or anything else; it’s to speak of a time when women were denied access to most educational opportunities and democratic rights.
Bellini or not?
Charles Hope is immensely more knowledgeable about Venetian painting than I am, but on the specific points he makes about Bellini and Mantegna I’m going to stick cautiously to my guns (Letters, 24 January). Everything depends, as so often in arguments about attribution, on the little word ‘seems’. If the second version of The Presentation of Christ in the Temple simply isn’t by Bellini, ‘that would explain,’ Hope writes, ‘why it seems so inferior to the many wonderful pictures by Bellini displayed elsewhere in the exhibition.’ It seems so to Hope; it still does not seem so to me. I stand by my description and evaluation of Bellini’s way with light and expression and exact relation between figures in the painting’s main group, though I continue to think the men and women looking on are somewhat leaden, especially in comparison with the two electric witnesses in Mantegna. This is the point at which connoisseurs wheel on the dread phrase ‘Bellini and workshop’. It might serve, as long as it does not distract us from Bellini’s central intensities.
I’m not sure, equally, that the hanging side by side in the show of The Drunkenness of Noah and The Feast of the Gods does much to help us decide if Bellini painted both in the course of his puzzling last years. Who did exactly which portions and aspects of The Feast of the Gods – Bellini, Dosso Dossi, Titian – remains a matter of dispute. (The picture was delivered to Ferrara in 1514, but what it looked like then, before other artists ‘corrected’ it, and just when Bellini had done the real work on his uncorrected version, the documents don’t tell us.) My eye goes to the group of figures in the right foreground of Feast, which do look like survivals from the original, and I’m struck by affinities of pose and idea with Noah. Noah is very differently painted, yes; but the exhibition catalogue’s claim that ‘the older [Bellini] grew, the freer his handling became’ surely isn’t based, as Hope would have it, entirely on the Besançon painting. I look, for example, at the handling in Bellini’s late St Jerome with St Christopher and St Louis in San Giovanni Crisostomo – the Jerome in particular – and reckon I see a painter opening himself, at the end of his life, to extraordinary things he saw younger artists doing. But I know my ‘reckon I see’ is a version of Hope’s ‘seems’.
White Men v. Human Beings
Robert Cioffi remarks that Josephine Quinn’s ‘central claim – that the concept of “Phoenician” identity has for nearly three millennia been imposed from outside – is not as controversial as it may sound’ (LRB, 3 January). Indeed not. And, fascinating though the case of the Phoenicians may be, it is by no means exceptional. If the ‘idea of Phoenicia’ was largely an invention of the Greeks and Romans, so too was the idea of a distinctive group of people inhabiting large swathes of western North Africa, speaking various dialects of Tamashek or Tamazight, organised socially, politically and economically in many different ways but referred to uniformly by the Greeks and the Romans as barbaroi (‘barbarians’) – a misleadingly homogenising ‘identity’ which, much later, the British and French adopted when referring to ‘the lands of Barbary’ and ‘the Berbers’ or ‘les Berbères’. And, of course, there is the example of early Western identification (based on faulty conceptions of geography) of the many different nations and tribes of what today are referred to as ‘Native Americans’ as generic ‘Indians’.
Such is the tendency of those who consider themselves superior – whether in the remote ‘classical’ or more recent colonial past – to ignore the complexity of indigenous societies and to transform the ‘native’ peoples encountered into ‘the natives’ (and rivals into ‘frogs’, ‘dagoes’, ‘wops’, ‘ities’, ‘japs’, ‘yanks’, ‘limeys’ etc). After all, ‘barbarians’ were merely people who were uncivilised and did not speak Greek or Latin but made noises like ‘bar-bar’. But these people had their own languages and cultures – often highly developed – and had their own terms for themselves.
Quinn reports that there are only five Greek-language inscriptions in which people identified themselves as ‘Phoenician’ and only one that refers to Phoenicia as a place: the bilingual funerary marker for Antipatros of Ashkelon, who, in his native language, refers to himself as an ‘Ashkelonite’. I am reminded of the film Little Big Man in which the ‘Indian’ chief Old Lodge Skins refers to his people as ‘the human beings’, remarking that ‘there is an endless supply of white men, but there has always been a limited number of human beings.’ The Phoenicians did after all teach the Greeks their ABC.
David Ford writes about his experiences monitoring sheep in the Lake District and Devon for radioactivity following the Chernobyl accident in 1986 (Letters, 3 January). According to the UK government’s annual publication Radioactivity in Food and the Environment (RIFE), levels of radioactivity in sheep were still sufficiently high in 1999, 13 years after the disaster, for restrictions on the sale and movement of sheep to be kept in place on a number of farms in an area of about 250 square kilometres centred on Eskdale and Wasdale in the western part of the Lake District. By this time the monitoring of radioactive caesium (Cs) was carried out on sheep carcasses at slaughterhouses, not in the field as in Ford’s time. Levels in meat from sheep had declined since 1986 and were in all cases below the EU’s official danger level of 1000 Bq/kg. RIFE 1999 also reported a steady decline since 1986 in the concentration of radioactive caesium in trout from upland tarns in the Lake District such as Devoke Water, which drains into Eskdale. The natural level of radioactive caesium in living organisms is zero, but if it is present in the environment a small proportion will be absorbed by plants and animals.
All the residual radioactive contamination recorded in sheep and freshwater fish in the Lake District was attributed by RIFE to fallout from Chernobyl. That’s understandable, but a cautious scientist might want to see some confirmation that the level of contamination in Lake District sheep and trout before the accident was in fact zero. Graphical data on radioactivity in trout in Ennerdale Water published in an earlier edition of RIFE only go back to 1986. The lack of data wouldn’t be such a problem were it not the case that there is, close to the contaminated area of the Lake District, another potential source of artificial radioactivity: the water of the Irish Sea, whose contamination is attributed by RIFE primarily to the disposal of radioactive liquid from the Sellafield Nuclear Reprocessing Plant and from the neighbouring solid waste dump at Drigg. RIFE 1999 reports concentrations of Cs-137 in the Irish Sea ranging from a low of less than 10 mBq/kg in Cardigan Bay to highs of 150 mBq/kg along the western coast of the Lake District on either side of Sellafield, and 200 mBq/kg in the Solway Firth. These levels were lower by two orders of magnitude than those recorded several decades earlier, which reflects the substantial reduction over the years in emissions from Sellafield.
It is an observed fact that elements dissolved in sea water are readily carried by spray into the air, where they can then be transported by onshore winds and fall as rain over the land. This process is most easily demonstrated in the case of the abundant element sodium, but it also occurs with soluble minor and trace elements such as caesium. What we don’t know is what proportion of the contamination in the Lake District has been of local origin (i.e. from Sellafield) and what proportion travelled in 1986 from Chernobyl. That would make an interesting research project, though perhaps not one that would suit the current political atmosphere.
Consider the Narwhal
There’s one thing to add to Katherine Rundell’s piece about the narwhal (LRB, 3 January). Recent evidence from Canadian scientists shows that narwhals bop Arctic char on the head with their tusks to stun the fish, and then eat them.
I knew nothing of the use made of King Arthur by 16th-century geographers, till enlightened by Harald Prins, though it just shows that Arthur legends die hard (Letters, 3 January). I feel that both John Dee and Richard Hakluyt should nevertheless have known better. As I mentioned briefly in my review of Nicholas Higham’s book (and at greater length in a piece in the LRB of 31 July 2008), Geoffrey of Monmouth’s legend of Arthur’s European conquests had been disproved by Polydore Vergil’s Anglica Historia, commissioned by Henry VII but only published after a twenty-year delay in 1534. Polydore pointed out, very reasonably, that if Arthur had conquered half of Europe, some European chronicler would surely have mentioned the fact: but no one had. This provoked furious patriotic denials, notably by John Leland, whose Assertio inclytissimi Arturii regis (1544) wrote Polydore off as a bitter, jealous foreigner ‘steeped in Italian vinegar’ (Italo perfusus aceto), protested the truth of the legend, and listed all 149 knights of the Round Table to prove it. So there!
Just the same, as far as I was aware, the learned world reckoned that Polydore had settled Geoffrey’s and Arthur’s hash, and by the 1570s and 1580s Dee and Hakluyt might be expected to have caught on. Milton commented in his History of Britain (1670, but begun decades earlier) that he doubted Arthur’s very existence, adding with a dash of English vinegar (and so much for Geoffrey): ‘He who can accept of Legends for good story, may quickly swell a volume with trash.’ But alas, people believe what suits them, especially when it comes to national pride. I’m surprised at those Dutch geographers, though. It can’t have been ideology in their case. Word just hadn’t got round.
Buckland Newton, Dorset
How do birds breathe?
Francis Gooding, reviewing Steve Brusatte’s Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, extols bird lungs because they can ‘extract oxygen from air on inhalation and exhalation’ (LRB, 3 January). That’s ‘twice the bang for the buck’, Brusatte says. The problem for this theory is that each volume of breathed air passes only once through the principal gas-exchange tubules (called paleopulmonal parabronchi) of the bird lung. Some breathed air passes through these tubules when a bird inhales; some passes through the tubules when the bird exhales. All breathed air, when it passes through the tubules, goes through in the same direction (posterior to anterior). Thus, as Gooding says, the lungs are unidirectional. However, each volume of breathed air goes through the tubules only once, so the oxygen is not extracted twice. There is no question that bird lungs have distinctive performance properties compared to mammal lungs, but the fact is that after decades of study, these properties are still not fully understood.
Michigan State University, Lansing
Francis Gooding echoes Steve Brusatte in asserting that birds are dinosaurs. In the cladistic context in which this is held to be true, it’s just as valid to say that cetaceans are ungulates (whales and hoofed animals have a common ancestor much more recent than birds and dinosaurs) or that all higher tetrapods are lungfish. The old Linnaean taxonomic framework is often rejected by palaeontologists who wish to conflate two groups in a monophyletic clade. Some dinosaurs were ancestral to birds, but that does not make birds dinosaurs.
Don’t trust it
Steven Shapin repeats the story that, after Crick and Watson had completed their model of the DNA double helix, they went into the Eagle pub in Cambridge, where Crick bragged: ‘We have discovered the secret of life’ (LRB, 24 January). Crick always denied he said any such thing, and at the Cold Spring Harbor symposium to mark the centenary of Crick’s birth in June 2016, Watson admitted he had made the phrase up, ‘for dramatic effect’. This underlines what historians of the period have long known: we should not believe every word of The Double Helix.
University of Manchester
Poison and the Bomb
Norman Dombey claims that Porton Down knew how to treat novichok toxicity while the alleged Russian poisoners probably did not (LRB, 20 December 2018). Yet the anticholinesterases, of which the novichoks are examples, are not only agents of chemical warfare: they have been used widely as insecticides. Accidents happen all too frequently during their application, and most health services have emergency protocols to deal with them. As their name suggests, these agents inhibit cholinesterase enzymes. The major function of cholinesterases is to break down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. When the enzyme is inhibited acetylcholine concentrations rise far above the threshold to produce the symptoms Dombey describes. Death usually occurs from asphyxiation caused by the paralysis of respiratory muscles. This effect is produced by acetylcholine acting at nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, but toxicity is complicated by action at muscarinic acetylcholine receptors, which results in a tightening of the airways themselves (similar to a severe asthma attack). Atropine is not ‘an anti-convulsant, which stabilises the effect of the nerve agent on muscles’: it is a muscarinic acetylcholine receptor antagonist, which blocks the action of the neurotransmitter at these sites and reduces the associated symptoms.
It isn’t correct to say, either, that the oxime ‘breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine’. Pralidoxime, the standard agent used in the case of poisoning with commercial insecticides, can disrupt the bond between anticholinesterases and the enzyme, thus regenerating it and allowing the breakdown of acetylcholine. These standard treatments would be close to useless in the case of the mass poisonings that would likely occur as a result of chemical warfare. The dose of atropine needs to be carefully titrated so as to ameliorate the symptoms without causing atropine poisoning, and pralidoxime must be administered shortly after exposure, lest the bonding becomes resistant.
Many years ago I was interviewed for a research student position at Porton Down, then known as the Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment. The director at that time, R.W. Brimblecombe, assured me of the importance of the concept of defence in the organisation’s mandate and activities. Youthful scepticism, perhaps even cynicism, caused me to reject that account: I was more persuaded by other evidence suggesting that Porton Down’s true preoccupation was with offensive projects. I turned down the job. I would be happy to be shown that in the intervening fifty years, work at Porton Down has made massive strides in the ability to protect the British people against chemical attack. Nothing in Dombey’s article suggests that this is the case.