Vol. 44 No. 5 · 10 March 2022

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Dear John

Julia Laite writes about the effects of ‘Dear John’ letters on soldiers’ mental health, and the consequences for the women who wrote them (LRB, 10 February). Both my parents were in the military during the Second World War. My mother joined the US navy in 1943 and became a gunnery instructor. My father was British, conscripted in 1939 for the duration. He was in the Royal Air Force for six years, becoming a flight sergeant and pilot. They met when my father was on a training mission on a US navy airbase in Pensacola, Florida, and were married wearing their dress uniforms in New York in 1944. They were 22 years old.

My father was subsequently transferred back to the European theatre, and then, after the war, to India. He was gone for eighteen months. Before he left, my mother got pregnant with me. She was given an honourable discharge and went home to her mother’s small ranch in Southern California. During their separation, my parents wrote letters back and forth almost every day. Neither of them ever mentioned where he was. Her letters were filled with enthusiasm and buck-up cheer, as in the ads she may have seen in Life magazine at that time.

I was born in October 1945. My father wasn’t demobilised until I was nearly a year old. He was, if not shell-shocked, certainly numbed and slightly crazy from the war. He went ‘home’ to my mother and me, a stranger in a strange land. By the time he got to the San Fernando Valley, I was a wilful toddler. When my grandmother put me in his arms, he took hold of me awkwardly, reluctantly, as I shrieked, squirmed and shat. Then he handed me back. My grandmother never forgave him. Pretty soon, she kicked all three of us out of her house – the pilot, my mother and me. Poor child-mother and child-father and their demanding, wiggly baby-child, alone in orange grove, dirt-road Reseda. All they had, my parents, aside from me, were their military uniforms and arm patches, citizen soldiers now, both of them.

My point in telling this story is to register another form of mental stress and potentially deep psychological damage done to some Second World War vets who returned, physically well but emotionally damaged, and sadly distant from babies they had never had a chance to bond with. I call it secondary familial PTSD. I observed it as I grew up, as did many of my friends. They had the same framed photographs on top of their TVs: their parents’ weddings, the men in uniform.

Mary Carter
Placitas, New Mexico

‘Few wartime memoirs contain reflections on the amount of money soldiers spent on buying sex,’ Julia Laite writes, further claiming that behaviour likely to tarnish the image of the fighting man ‘has not been included in personal or official histories of war’. A corrective is suggested by the existence of the three-volume Sexual History of the World War by Magnus Hirschfeld, published by Panurge in 1937, or the single-volume study Sexual Life During the World War by H.C. Fischer and Dr E.X. Dubois, published by Francis Aldor, also in 1937. A selection of chapter headings from these titles barely begins to scratch the surface of a deep and much documented seam of military lore: ‘Love & Drugs’; ‘Regulation of Army Brothels’; ‘Transvestism’; ‘War Wives & Immorality’; ‘Eroticism of Nurses’; ‘Homosexuality’; ‘Erotic Life in Prison Camps’; ‘Lust in the Conquered Areas’; ‘War Eunuchs’.

Chris Moore
Winfrith Newburgh, Dorset

Bloody Pommy

Thomas Nagel quotes Philippa Foot on being asked how to detect a ‘lower-class accent’: ‘My dear, any British accent is lower class’ (LRB, 10 February). There is a striking consonance with the construction of ‘colour’ explored by Musab Younis in his piece in the same issue. To speak in something like BBC English or Received Pronunciation was to be accent-less, just as to have ‘white’ skin was to be colour-less: it was as if each constituted a norm so absolute that anything else could only be considered a deviation.

As with speech, so with nationality. I spent my early childhood in 1950s Ireland, mostly incarcerated in a prep school that was a strange relic of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy: here boys were expected to speak RP, while only the native Irish were deemed to have ‘accents’. I didn’t learn that I had one myself until my parents took me to New Zealand at the age of twelve. There I found myself in a school which also mimicked the posh schools of the imperial homeland, yet whose pupils felt nothing but contempt for a new boy with a ‘bloody pommy accent’. But I was already too old to change the way I spoke.

A curious reversal occurred during my time as a postgraduate student in Cambridge in the 1960s. There most people, hearing me speak, simply assumed I was British, until (following the example of several friends) I applied for a part-time job at one of the city’s language schools. At the interview, all went well until I was asked to give an account of my education: at the mention of New Zealand, the mood immediately cooled. ‘Well, of course,’ the principal said, ‘you would have to take elocution lessons – at your own expense – before we could possibly employ you.’ ‘Colonials’, it went without saying, speak, like the ‘lower classes’, with an accent – one to which no nice, fee-paying foreign girl should ever be exposed.

Michael Neill
University of Auckland

In Vichy

Arun Kapil is rightly dismissive of Éric Zemmour’s insistence that ‘Vichy fought to save French Jews by assisting in the round-up of “foreign” Jews (many of them had been naturalised in the late 1920s and 1930s but were stripped of their citizenship by Vichy), in what was still a solely German operation commanded by the Gestapo’ (LRB, 24 February). In fact we have detailed accounts of the way French officials worked with German Kommandants to deport Jews to Auschwitz. Here’s one example: on 13 January 1944, the prefect in Charente-Maritime told the mayor of the village of Aytré that all Jews had to be expelled from the village by order of the occupying army. Among the 21 Jews was my father’s uncle, Martin. On 27 January, the Kommandant of the Sicherheitspolizei (security police) in Poitiers wrote to the regional prefect (French) in Poitiers to request him ‘to arrest … all Jews present in the region, without regard for their nationality or their age and transfer them as soon as possible to the closed camp for Jews in Drancy’. In the early morning of 31 January, four gendarmes arrested Martin in the village of Sainte-Hermine and handed him over to the occupying forces. A day later the prefect in Poitiers informed the Kommandant that he had the ‘honour’ of sending him the list of arrested Jews. Martin was duly transferred to Drancy and deported from Paris to Auschwitz on 10 February on Convoy 68. He never returned.

Martin was born in Poland, emigrated to France, fought for France in the First World War and was naturalised in 1923 – that is, the early, not the late, 1920s. I’m not sure how this story can be told without calling it ‘collaboration’ between the Nazis and French officials. As for ‘saving’ French Jews, it’s clear from the Kommandant’s edict that he wanted ‘all Jews without regard of their nationality’ to be arrested, and the officials obliged.

Michael Rosen
Goldsmiths, University of London

I Shall, You Will

Matthew Bevis, reading Charlotte Mew’s line ‘You will have smiled, I shall have tossed your hair,’ wonders about the shift from ‘will’ to ‘shall’ (LRB, 16 December 2021). It ‘isn’t a glitch or a mistake’, he writes, but ‘Mew’s way of not having too much style. “Shall” is somehow less lyrical than “will”, less polished, and perhaps a shade less volitional.’

Perhaps Mew had been taught, as I was at my grammar school in the 1960s, that ‘shall’ is for the first person, singular and plural, and ‘will’ for all other persons.

Maurice West
Shirley, Greater London

A Stiff Examination

Seamus Perry quotes Henry James saying: ‘I really think I could sit a stiff examination on that lady’ (LRB, 24 February). In fact he said ‘stand a stiff cross-examination’. There is a difference between sitting a written exam and being cross-examined viva voce. Perry doesn’t tell us who the lady is. It’s Mrs Brookenham from The Awkward Age. The quotation is from a letter James wrote about the novel on 17 July 1912 to the Oxford literary scholar Robert William Chapman (1881-1960), who is now best known as the editor of Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson. (Richard Burton once said in a television interview that he would like to have been a scholar like R.W. Chapman.) The letter is in the Lubbock edition of James’s letters (1920), but not in the Edel edition (1984), which is a pity.

Bernard Richards
Brasenose College, Oxford

Nothing to Add

William Davies captures the isolating, demoralising, often weird experience of post-pandemic university life (LRB, 24 February). At the University of Washington, the main forum for students to commiserate with one another about the anxieties of remote learning has been an Instagram page called ‘UW Confessions’. Students submit anonymous messages, which are then posted against a colourful background for thousands of followers to see. As if to confirm Davies’s argument regarding the difficulty the first internet generation has with writing, at around the time midterm papers were due, one exasperated student submitted the following confession:

I fucking hate essays. I don’t have a single original thing to contribute to this. Why do I have to establish an original perspective … Just teach me what we already know and let’s leave it at that. Why the fuck would I have anything of value to add on top of these ancient philosophers, these scientists, experts and authors? What the fuck am I supposed to say?

Townson Cocke
Seattle, Washington


David Renton’s discussion of the chequered career of Horatio Bottomley mentions ‘a firm of solicitors called Wontner and Sons’ (LRB, 24 February). Wontner and Sons wasn’t just a firm. It was, in effect, the forerunner of the Crown Prosecution Service. For more than a century, the Wontners family firm played a key role in the administration of justice in the capital. In 1822, a clockmaker turned marshal of the City of London called John Wontner was appointed keeper of Newgate Prison. He seems to have employed his son, Thomas Wontner, as a teacher in the prison. Thomas then deployed his knowledge of the law to become a solicitor. He also wrote two exposés of the legal system: Old Bailey Experience and The Forensic Victimologist. By the latter part of the century, Wontner and Sons were acting for the Metropolitan Police, the Home Office and the Treasury. It wasn’t until 1935 that the Met created its own legal department, and hired most of its staff from Wontners.

Pamela Cox
University of Essex

Battling Siki

Imaobong Umoren mentions the boxer Louis M’baricu Fall, also known as ‘Battling Siki’ (LRB, 10 February). When he knocked out Georges Carpentier in Paris in 1922, Siki didn’t win the heavyweight championship, as Umoren writes, but the lightheavyweight. The heavyweight crown was quite securely worn at the time by the mighty Jack Dempsey.

John McGill
Quoyloo, Orkney

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