Vol. 42 No. 17 · 10 September 2020

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Wet or Dry

Anyone who joins Stefan Collini in grazing through back issues of the ‘dry as dust’ Review of English Studies (of which I am one of the editors) will enjoy the article by that latter-day ‘go-to man for readable, informed thoughtfulness on any literary subject’ Stefan Collini titled ‘“The Chatto List”: Publishing Literary Criticism in Mid-20th- Century Britain’ (LRB, 13 August). It’s in Review of English Studies 63 (2012), and is almost as nutritious as Frank Kermode’s piece on the date of Cowley’s Davideis. Maybe that strange hybrid thing called literary criticism still depends on the combination of communicative flair and scholarly grit which Kermode displayed to such a singular degree? Just a thought. And by the way, Review of English Studies is happy to consider all ‘impeccably learned’ submissions, no matter how wet or dry.

Colin Burrow
All Souls College, Oxford

Stefan Collini’s recollections of Frank Kermode and the significance of his book Romantic Image reminded me of the encouragement Kermode gave me when in 2001 I wrote to him with the idea of republishing the book (originally published by Routledge & Kegan Paul in 1957) in a new series I was establishing called Routledge Classics. Not only did he grant permission, he also contributed a new epilogue, where he regretted that ‘the old Arnoldian tradition, which fostered the notion that criticism (including literary criticism) was a force for civilisation, a prime cultural necessity, is pretty well dead,’ but concluded:

Some books have not been allowed to die. Romantic Image, by no means the best of them, is now in its 46th year of life, and there must be those who, by reading it along with those others, keep it alive. I owe such readers a debt of gratitude, but that is a small matter. Preserving the idea of criticism as a civilised and civilising force is much more important, and they are doing that, too.

Roger Thorp
Thames & Hudson, London WC1

It’s not surprising that Frank Kermode gives a disenchanted account of his time at Manchester in his memoir Not Entitled. By the time I arrived there as an undergraduate in 1971, he had departed for Bristol, but he was vividly remembered. ‘Poor old Frank,’ one of his former colleagues said to me with a chuckle, ‘always with some bee in his bonnet.’ In other words, he had ideas. Clearly that would never do.

Paul Dean

Repetition Is Good

In response to Brian Mossop, I do not deny for a moment Margaret Tudeau-Clayton’s contention that French speakers are encouraged to use synonyms (Letters, 13 August). I distinctly remember characters in Racine, for instance, who, once embarked on the subject of their ‘désirs’, are prepared to tell us a great deal about their ‘soupirs’, their ‘voeux’, their ‘feux’ and even their ‘flammes’ before coming around to calling them ‘désirs’ again. But whatever licence to repeat may customarily be allowed to translators faced with the task of persuading Anglophones to take such emotions seriously, I would still dispute the idea that native speakers of English, by contrast to their French counterparts, are encouraged to think that repetitiveness with vocabulary is stylistically desirable. I was myself only ever issued with two books about prose style at school: one, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, though fairly scathing about the over-elaborate means of avoiding repetition it termed ‘elegant variation’, was hardly a proponent of monotony per se, and the other, Roget’s Thesaurus, was specifically designed to help its users avoid verbal repetition. (Far from being banned, as Mossop and Tudeau-Clayton might lead one to expect, this latter book has been continuously in print since 1852.) As a result, although I may (often) be wrong, I would instinctively regard Mossop’s claim that I am ‘wrong, wrong, wrong’ as over-emphatic, redundant and aesthetically deficient.

Michael Dobson
Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

Consider the Hare

Katherine Rundell discusses the ancient reputation of hares as witches or fairy-folk (LRB, 2 July). The notion of hares as witches has a particularly tenacious history in Ireland. Medieval commentators such as Caxton recorded the belief that Irish ‘beldams’ could ‘transform themselves into the likenesses of hares, in order to milk their neighbours’ cattle and steal their milk’. As recently as the late 1940s, when I was a child in Co. Tyrone, a witch-hare was said to have appeared in a small cottage in the countryside, where it was quickly identified as the incarnation of a woman who had been evicted from the place in the famine years, uttering fearful curses as she left. As a sign of its unearthly nature, this hare chose to sit up at the cottage table where it ate chocolate peppermint creams. An elderly confectioner who owned premises in Omagh called ‘The Sweetery’ – which doubled as the barber’s shop where I got my hair cut – recognised that to have the hare sitting in his window, devouring the occasional chocolate, would form an excellent advertisement for his business. But his wife quickly stymied the scheme, as he explained: ‘Davey, she says, it’s either me or thon hare.’

Michael Neill
Auckland, New Zealand

End of the Viking Age

‘There is little disagreement’ over the timeline of the Viking Age, Tom Shippey writes (LRB, 13 August). It stretches from the raid on Lindisfarne in 793 to the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. In England, maybe. But where I live the Viking Age lasted until 1266, when Norway conceded control of the Hebrides to Scotland following an impressive but less than successful expedition in 1263 by King Haakon. Viewed from Orkney and Shetland the Viking Age ended even later, after King Christian I, then in financial trouble, pledged them as dowry when his 13-year-old daughter Margaret was betrothed to James III of Scotland in 1468; they were finally ceded to the Scottish Crown in 1472.

Mary Braithwaite
Cullipool, Isle of Luing

In Case You’d Forgotten

Anand Menon sets out some of the damage likely to accrue to the UK should no deal with the EU be reached by the end of the year or a deal be reached on the basis the government is contemplating (LRB, 13 August). But he considerably underestimates the damage in loss of trust resulting from the Johnson government’s decision within a few days of leaving the EU in January to junk the Political Declaration on our future relationship, which it signed last October. There has been a general election since then, Menon says, ‘and the UK has a new government, which is entitled to a different view on the issue.’ But that general election was won on a promise to get Brexit done on the basis of the October deal, including the Political Declaration. The newly elected Parliament endorsed the whole deal in January. So small wonder if there is a loss of trust in a country which used to claim its word was its deed. And without trust it is hard to negotiate successfully.

David Hannay
House of Lords, London SW1

Drain the Swamps

Steven Shapin doesn’t mention possibly the most important global function of the mosquito, namely that the risk of malaria has preserved large areas of the planet from the more extreme effects of human depredation and so allowed the ecosystems in those areas to function with an ameliorated anthropogenic influence (LRB, 4 June). Now that we have the capacity to reduce malaria and live in greater density in such areas, it is all the more important that we take measures to preserve their ecosystems.

Martin Levien
Totnes, Devon

Hot, But Not That Hot

Colin Grant writes that in TauTona, South Africa, the world’s deepest gold mine, ‘temperatures soar to 80°C’ (LRB, 16 July). This is far higher than a person could survive for more than a very short time. The rock surfaces in the deepest parts of the TauTona mine reach 60°C, and the cooling system reduces the air temperature to about 28°C (82°F). Working conditions are still oppressive, however, because of the high humidity.

Don Lock
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Serge and Trotsky

Tariq Ali states that a year before his death, Victor Serge ‘suffered what may have been a mild heart attack’ (LRB, 16 July). In my opinion, it’s time to put to rest the term ‘heart attack’, which, like ‘nervous breakdown’, has outlived its usefulness. The term ‘heart attack’ is mainly used among lay people to refer to what doctors call a ‘coronary event’, of which there are several gradations, the most serious being a ‘myocardial infarction’. But all are due to myocardial ischemia, i.e. a decrease in the coronary artery blood supply to the heart muscle, often caused by a clot occluding a coronary artery.

Serge gives a good description of his symptoms, of which the essence is ‘My heart starts to beat strongly and unevenly.’ If you’re a physician (you wouldn’t need to be a retired clinical cardiologist like myself), you will spot that he was quite possibly suffering from attacks of paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. These episodes may be ‘mild’ symptomatically, but they can be the forerunner of a feared complication: an arterial embolism between the heart and some other part of the body, most catastrophically the brain, causing a major stroke (which is the reason many people with atrial fibrillation take blood-thinning medications). It is possible that Serge’s death in a taxi was caused by such a stroke, though they are not usually fatal.

Raymond Aronson
Tel Aviv

Tweeny Maid

Rosemary Hill’s piece about Churchill’s cook reminded me of stories told by my grandmother, Lillian Bird, about her time in service (LRB, 16 July). She entered a large Hertfordshire house in 1907 at the age of 14 as a ‘tweeny maid’. One of her tasks was to hold bowls for the ladies of the house into which they could vomit up their lunches and teas to make room for the next huge meal while preserving their narrow waists. She soon left service, fleeing with her husband, a gardener at the house. I don’t recall seeing this aspect of country-house life in Downton Abbey.

Michael Prior
Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

Not Just Strings

Philip Clark writes of the ‘small mob of naysayers’ who heckled Tippett at the premiere of The Rose Lake in 1995 (LRB, 16 July). They were a few extremely conservative composers who decried all music that wasn’t explicitly tonal. The concert series went under the title ‘Visions of Paradise’; they called out ‘Visions of Hell!’ Although, as Clark writes, Tippett happily acknowledged the applause, I was sitting near him and saw that he was visibly distressed by this reaction to what he knew to be his final work.

Colin Matthews
London SW11

In correcting Philip Clark’s reference to the The Lark Ascending as a string piece, Alan Hollinghurst omits the two clarinets from his list of missing instruments (Letters, 13 August).

David Ings
Compton Dando, Somerset

Maigret’s Room

I submit two further entries for your worst-translated title contest (Letters, 30 July). Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940) was and still is distributed in Italy as La signora del venerdì (‘The Friday Girl’). And Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers (1955) is La signora omicidi (‘Mrs Murders’).

Masolino d’Amico

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