Vol. 42 No. 16 · 13 August 2020

Search by issue:

A New Song

Colin Burrow records Herman Melville’s belief that whales weren’t ‘actually being exterminated as a result of being hunted’; they were ‘just changing their routes to avoid whalers, or … ingeniously hiding beneath the ice caps’ (LRB, 4 June). Not so. Annually migrating humpbacks are a feature of both the east and west coasts of Australia. On the east coast, just off Brisbane on Moreton Island, a whaling station operated from 1952 to 1962. It killed six hundred whales in its first year and only 68 in its last. Fewer whales, fewer kills, and so it closed down, with a total tally of 6277 humpbacks and one blue whale. A few years ago, an expert at the Moreton Bay Research Station was asked if the whales ever changed their course, went further out to sea, as a result of the whalers’ depredations. ‘No,’ was the answer, ‘they never did.’ Year after year they would swim the same course north – 80 per cent of them within five kilometres of the shore – to warmer waters to breed or calf, then swim back south exactly the same way.

Now that most whaling has stopped worldwide, the humpbacks have increased from a near extinction level of a few hundred to perhaps sixty thousand. Of these some 25,000 swim up Australia’s east coast, while 35,000 go along the west. The song of the west coast males is different from the easterners’ (only male humpbacks sing). Not so long ago it was noticed that the eastern whales were singing a new song. It turned out to be the west coast song: two west coast lads had turned right rather than left when leaving Antarctic waters and swam with the eastern mob, who liked the new tune and adopted it.

Rob Wills
Brisbane, Australia

He, She, One, They

Amia Srinivasan understates the delightful lability of the French on by calling it ‘grammatically analogous’ to ‘one’ (LRB, 2 July). In informal speech it is also frequently used as an alternative for the first person plural nous (‘On y va’). But what French gains in flexibility here it loses elsewhere. The use of the male ils for the generic third person plural precludes its use as an equivalent for the neutral third person ‘they’, and despite the coinage of new pronouns (iel, ille), the gendered concordance of adjectives, common to many Indo-European languages – ‘Iel est gentil’ or ‘Iel est gentille’? – makes neutrality frustratingly difficult to achieve.

Simon Torracinta
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Paul Brown cites the use of ‘yous’ as a second person plural pronoun in Glasgow (Letters, 30 July). May I put in a word for that city’s nearest American equivalent, Brooklyn? The plural ‘you’ was once well known, not only there but worldwide, when in prewar gangster movies Brooklyn boys Nat Pendleton and Allen Jenkins addressed colleagues as ‘yous guys’ or solicited their attention with ‘Hey, yous!’ In The American Language (1919), H.L. Mencken lists ‘yous’ as the second person nominative and objective plural form of ‘you’ in ‘the American vulgate’.

America also has the Deep South plural pronoun ‘you-all’ or ‘y’all’, often misrepresented, especially in movies, as a singular, though it is a variant of ‘all of you’. If a Southerner addresses it to one person, it means ‘you and your group/family’.

Rhoda Koenig
London SW2

Flailing States

Public spending in what Pankaj Mishra calls ‘Anglo-America’ exceeds that in Australia, which has dealt with Covid-19 better than either nation (LRB, 16 July). France has perhaps the largest state in the OECD and no obvious taste for individualist dogma. It fared worse than New Zealand. Greece, which has performed well, is not known for possessing a technocratic super-class to which citizens defer equably. Nor has it been untouched by ‘austerity’. Some Anglophone nations did badly (the US), some did well (Canada). Some populists were found out (Boris Johnson), some thrived (Scott Morrison). As for ‘late developer’ nations, Japan transitioned to its present political system before Spain did. Germany unified around the same time as Italy and became a post-fascist democracy at a similar moment. How this squares with their divergent experiences of the virus, Mishra doesn’t say. A bummer, I know, but we have to entertain the possibility that there is no neat lesson from the pandemic.

As for the commanding state that ‘emerged in Germany in the second half of the 19th century’, there may have been some historic events that soured its appeal. Even here, though, Anglo-American liberalism explains everything. Alluding to a mysterious ‘catastrophe’, Mishra says that, well, Germany had to ‘catch up expeditiously with Britain and the US’. There was ‘pressure to compete with established imperial powers’. How thoughtless of them.

Janan Ganesh
Washington, DC

Repetition Is Good

‘It is baffling,’ Michael Dobson writes in his review of Margaret Tudeau-Clayton’s book Shakespeare’s Englishes ‘to be told … that unlike their Francophone counterparts [English speakers] are taught to repeat the same word endlessly rather than employ synonyms. This is one rare point on which Tudeau-Clayton is surely mistaken, erroneous, wrong, deluded, inaccurate, economical with the truth and saying the thing that is not’ (LRB, 2 July). But Dobson is wrong, wrong, wrong. In the field of translation studies, it is a commonplace that good English doesn’t mind and often prefers repetition, while good French prefers and often insists on synonyms – a habit sometimes referred to in English (not always in a positive way) as ‘elegant variation’. During the four decades I spent translating French into English in the Canadian government’s translation service, I very frequently found myself replacing French synonyms with English repetitions in order to create good English style. Conversely, textbooks for students learning to translate English into French always mention that good English allows repetitions, but they should be avoided in French.

Brian Mossop


Otto Saumarez Smith notes that bathrooms became a fixed feature of Cambridge student accommodation in the early 20th century (Letters, 30 July). Students didn’t completely abstain from bathing before this period, however. Marketed at students and other university members, the Greek Revival ‘Oxford Baths and School of Natation’ were established in 1826 and remained active until 1879. The baths could be entered from Bath Street or via boat from the River Cherwell. The Subscription Baths on Hill Street in Edinburgh, also built in the 1820s, similarly appealed to students inasmuch as they were combined with a ‘drawing academy’. Mind and body could be cultivated together, according to neoclassical ideals.

Bathing outside university accommodation sometimes reflected the survival of earlier local (as opposed to Greek) communal customs. In 1818, a young John Henry Newman recorded his habit of taking a cold bath every morning in the ‘plunging bath’ at Holywell, then on the outskirts of Oxford. Its popularity can be gleaned from an anecdote about one Captain Wood, whose great fear was that someone would bathe before him and so ‘take the chill off the water’.

Meanwhile, an annotation by Anthony Wood to the register of the University of Oxford suggests that students bathed from as early as 1607 at the river bathing place known as Parson’s Pleasure, which remained in use until 1992. A nearby place for women and children opened in 1934, becoming known as Dame’s Delight. It closed following flood damage in 1968. River bathing was seasonal, traditionally beginning on 1 May, though in 1972 Michael Watts, a chaplain and precentor at Christ Church, told BBC Radio Oxford that he knew of bathers attending Parson’s Pleasure on Christmas Day, ‘if only to drink champagne and eat Christmas pudding’.

George Townsend
Birkbeck, University of London

At His Horse’s Discretion

Michael Wood, discussing counterfactual narratives, writes that when Ignatius of Loyola recounts the outcome of his meeting with a Moor (or ‘Saracen’) on the road he is ‘borrowing his behaviour from a book – from Don Quixote, to be precise, where the hero on one occasion leaves the choice of his road to “his horse’s discretion”’ (LRB, 30 July). Since Ignatius died in 1556, long before the publication of Part One of Don Quixote (1605), this seems to be a piece of counterfactual criticism. It can be justified, however, if the borrowed behaviour is located earlier.

In my discussion of the same incident in my book Reaction Formations (2019), I point out that both Loyola’s actions, which are narrated retrospectively in his Reminiscences, and those of the fictional Don Quixote are imitations of the hero of Montalvo’s Amadís de Gaula and more specifically in this instance its sequel, Las Sergas de Esplandián (1510). In Cervantes’s parody, the borrowing is obvious. But Loyola is not an ironist. He explicitly states that his actions and motives at that time were part of his internal struggle against the powerful, diabolical appeal of novels of chivalry, in light of his newly awakened desire to become a soldier for Christ. This internal struggle became the basis for the methods of his Spiritual Exercises, which aimed at reproducing in the soul of every ‘exercitant’ the same narrative for transcending the pro et contra in a field of choices, in order to reach a decision. The intention is that the still undecided soul will make its free choice when its true desire (presumed to coincide with that of God) becomes manifest to the desiring subject.

Jonathan Hall
London SW19

Not Just Strings

Philip Clark refers to Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending as a ‘string piece’ (LRB, 16 July). In fact it is scored for solo violin, two flutes, one oboe, two bassoons, two horns and triangle as well as strings.

Alan Hollinghurst
London NW3

Delighted to read that Michael Tippett’s piano teacher was a Mrs Tinkler. At last, a rival in the nominative determinism stakes to Duke Ellington’s piano teacher, Mrs Clinkscales.

Alex Webb

Philip Clark refers in passing to Tippett’s opera The Ice Break (1976). In 2015 Birmingham Opera Company put it on as a promenade performance, with professional soloists and amateur chorus, actors and dancers. As one of the chorus, I can attest to the difficulty of the music and the intellectual effort it took to master it even partly. We took some comfort from the fact that any errors we made would probably go unnoticed.

Rosi Edwards

Maigret’s Room

Peter Hayes says that ‘the prize for the all-time worst’ translated title should go to William Weaver for ‘rendering Primo Levi’s La chiave a stella as The Monkey’s Wrench’ (Letters, 30 July). In his 2002 biography of Levi, Ian Thomson writes that in 1985 Weaver

called on Levi with a draft translation of The Monkey’s Wrench (in Britain, The Wrench). Levi was pleased to see his translator again, but was disappointed by the American title for the book. To translate the Italian La chiave a stella literally as ‘The Star-Shaped Key’ might have been too poetic for Levi (or might have carried an unwanted sense of the Star of David), but it would have been preferable to Arthur Samuelson’s insertion of ‘monkey’ into the title. ‘I’m afraid they thought “monkey” would be cute,’ Weaver tried to explain to Levi (but a ‘monkey wrench’, una chiave inglese, was not the wrench Levi was referring to).

Samuelson was Levi’s editor at Summit, and if the prize for worst-translated title should go to anyone, it is him, not Weaver.

Philip Hoy
Church Enstone, Oxfordshire

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences