Vol. 44 No. 9 · 12 May 2022

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This Thing Is Historic

Richard Sanger gives an excellent account of the trucker protests in Ottawa, which were under-reported both in the US and the UK (LRB, 21 April). Yes, Fox News was on hand in the snowy streets, but its dispatches were tendentious and unhelpful. I know this because, proud of my Quebecois ancestry and always curious about Canada, I visited Ottawa in February to observe the efforts of this odd bunch, in their attempted vastation with big scary trucks and ominous signs. Sanger rightly notes the bouncy castles, Confederate flags, the small-town stoners and the ‘born-again Prairie Christians’. But he missed the many posted notecards and letters of support from provincial schoolchildren and the woman carrying a sign saying ‘Jeffrey Epstein Raped Me,’ the man playing bongos inside his old car parked front and centre of the protest, and – a singular omission – the song being blared day and night from the sound stage, ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’. This tune (by the band Twisted Sister) is the anthem at most Trump rallies and it roused the truckers, who sang along. When a policeman threatened to arrest me for loitering, I said: ‘But this thing is historic.’ His polite reply was: ‘I don’t disagree with you, sir.’ It took the snowstorm Sanger mentions to send me back to Hawaii.

What made this episode peculiarly shocking to the country at large is the fact that Canadians often define themselves by describing how they aren’t anything like Americans.

Paul Theroux
Hale‘iwa, Hawaii

Suspiciously Dark

Julian Barnes writes that two of the women in Jacques Henri Lartigue’s photograph of the carriage day at Auteuil from 1910 are wearing ‘black and white dresses’ (LRB, 7 April). Indeed the photo does appear to show them in ensembles of black and white. But that probably isn’t what they actually looked like. All purely silver-based photographic materials are sensitive only to blue light. By Lartigue’s time, their range had been extended to include green through the addition of aniline dyes, but even these ‘orthochromatic’ films were over-sensitive to blue and not at all sensitive to red. ‘Panchromatic’ film sensitive to all visible colours didn’t become available to amateurs like Lartigue until the 1930s. So in reality the ‘black’ stripes in the photo at Auteuil could very well have been red, dark pink or even orange, while the ‘white’ stripes could just as easily have been blue or light green. The suspiciously dark lace worn by the woman on the right was probably something tending towards pink or peach, and the ‘white’ dress of the woman in the middle may have been blue.

All this would explain why the majority of the women pictured by the young Lartigue appear to be dressed almost entirely in pure black with occasional touches of pure white, an effect exacerbated by the underexposure needed to achieve his fast shutter speeds. To discover whether a black and white motif was actually common in the Mauve Decade, it would be necessary to consult contemporary fashion plates and verbal descriptions. If the black and white outfits in the Ascot scene from My Fair Lady were based on this photograph, as Barnes says, that would be an excellent example of the way the limitations of a medium can eventually shape historical reality.

Jon Bosak
Ithaca, New York

Julian Barnes attributes the advancement of the ‘democratic and portable art’ of photography in part to the fact that ‘shutter speeds came down.’ In fact shutter speeds went up: it’s shutter duration (the time the shutter remains open to expose the film) that came down. Leaf shutters topped out at about 1/500th of a second’s duration, but the focal plane shutter, patented in 1883 and used in the fastest handheld film cameras, was eventually capable of exposures much shorter than that. (In addition, lenses evolved with increased maximum aperture, allowing more light to reach the film.)

But shutter speed was really never the limiting factor. In photography’s infancy, exposure times were measured in minutes: the photographer merely removed the lens cap for the required interval. It was the development of film with increased sensitivity that allowed for short exposures, and thus for crisp, ‘frozen’ action photographs to be made.

Michael McKissick
Trout Run, Pennsylvania

The Birmingham Six

Chris Mullin suggests that in the 1991 appeal hearing for the Birmingham Six, the Crown sought to uphold their convictions (LRB, 7 April). That is the opposite of the truth. I could refer to transcripts of the proceedings and of the judgment if necessary, but from the outset, and indeed in preliminary proceedings before the hearing of the appeal, I, as leading counsel for the Crown, acting on the instructions of the director of public prosecutions and with the full support of the attorney general, made it abundantly clear that the Crown/prosecution (as respondent to the appeals) would invite the court to allow the appeals and quash the convictions. In accordance with the relevant statute, the Court of Appeal required the Crown to lay all the evidence before the court, so that it, the court, and not the Crown, could decide whether to allow the appeals. That is what happened.

Graham Boal
Thornham, Norfolk

Antibiotic Resistance

Gavin Francis writes about the misuse of antibiotics, arguing that it may soon make everyday infections untreatable (LRB, 7 April). It’s important to recognise that everything he says about the mechanisms of antibiotic resistance was known fifty years ago. In the early 1970s, I was a bacteriologist in the pathology department at the Middlesex Hospital in London. The evolution by natural selection of resistance to penicillin and other antibiotics had been common knowledge for years. The horizontal transfer of resistance between bacteria, as they exchange scraps of DNA called plasmids, was a more recent discovery, but its alarming significance for infectious disease was already well understood.

Scientists at the Middlesex and all over the country were shouting about the importance of using antibiotics only when they were properly indicated. Organisations like the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science were urging governments to restrict the unnecessary use of antibiotics, especially in the agricultural industry. Successive governments took no effective action. To take just one illustration of the consequences: gentamicin, an antibiotic that has some very nasty side effects, was then a treatment of last resort for use only when other antibiotics had failed; today, resistance to other antibiotics is so common that gentamicin is a go-to treatment for infections that one wouldn’t have dreamed of treating with it before.

It seems worth spelling this out because the pattern, whereby well documented scientific knowledge is ignored for decades by policymakers, is now being duplicated with climate change.

Michael Parsons

At the Ikon Gallery

Nicholas Penny’s review of the Carlo Crivelli exhibition at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery doesn’t mention that around a third of the exhibition space is dedicated to works by the contemporary artist Susan Collis (LRB, 7 April). As you move through the exhibition space, Crivelli’s works momentarily give way to a portion of the room that seemingly isn’t yet ready for visitors, or is in the midst of maintenance. Two screws suggest that a painting is yet to be hung; a paint-splattered dustsheet lies nearby; a broom and overalls rest opposite. Accompanying labels reveal that these apparently mundane objects are in fact works by Collis, which have been painstakingly recreated using expensive materials. The paint splatters on the overalls are in fact delicate embroidery; the screws are hallmarked white gold, set with sapphires; the white paint in the bristles of the broom are finest pearls, and so on. Both Collis and Crivelli seek to deceive the eye; Collis’s works prompted double takes from visitors. Penny’s omission is surprising given that he pays close attention to trompe l’oeil in Crivelli’s work, admiring the ‘trickery of his reliefs’ and noting that the representation of flies apparently on the surface of the painting invites us ‘to think about the nature of art and illusion’. His concluding comments go further: ‘This is a welcome change after a quarter of a century of intrusive interventions by contemporary artists in major collections of Old Masters.’ To our mind, this is a genuinely successful – and not at all glib – attempt at transhistorical curation that extends beyond the idea of ‘influence’. Perhaps Penny simply fell for Collis’s illusion.

Flora Clark and Oliver Evans
London SW4

Paper Cuts

Malin Hay gives a short history of Finnish papermaking and its outpost in Ayrshire, the Caledonian Paper Mill (LRB, 24 March). I was one of the architects on the design team for this project in the mid-1980s, the largest inward investment in Scotland at that time. We worked with Kymmene Corporation and its Finnish engineers. On our visit to Helsinki for the first design team meeting, we were driven some distance to visit an ‘exemplar’ plant in the city of Lappeenranta in South Karelia, some 30 km from the border with Soviet Russia. Part of our brief for the Irvine plant, which was to sit on the coast adjacent to several links golf courses, was to lay out the campus such that it could one day accommodate a second mill running in parallel to the first, and also to carry out visual impact studies to reduce the scale of this magnificent leviathan. The exemplar site was subject to no such airs and graces, being located deep in a pine forest. During the Winter War between the USSR and Finland in 1939-40, Lappeenranta, like most of Karelia, was occupied by the Soviet Union in an attempt to push the Finnish border west as a buffer to the security of Leningrad. It remains the second most popular destination after Helsinki for Russian tourists in Finland. The second mill at Irvine has yet to be built.

Gordon Murray

The Kanjisphere

Lydia H. Liu, reviewing Jing Tsu’s Kingdom of Characters, notes that it was hanzi which first ‘showed up telegraphy and the typewriter as imperfect technologies’ (LRB, 7 April). Tsu’s book makes no mention of it, but stencil duplicating, or mimeography, was the only communications technology that did not fall short when it came to complex scripts. That’s because mimeograph stencils could be prepared by hand using a stylus. As a result the mimeo was widespread in the early to mid-20th-century kanjisphere. Japan, for example, developed its own national mimeographic tradition (distinct from the Western tradition of Gestetner/Dick), while in China mimeography was so prevalent that the contemporary word for ‘to print’ still evokes it, as Thomas S. Mullaney relates in The Chinese Typewriter (2017). Indeed, the mimeograph remained popular among people who used ideographic writing long after it had become obsolete elsewhere: in The Origins of Stencil Duplicating (1972), W.G. Proudfoot mentions that the Chinese bookshop on Great Russell Street still made book lists using one.

John Komurki
London SE22

Hero or Ruffian?

David Mills thinks Henry VIII was ‘rehabilitated’ by Charles Laughton (Letters, 7 April). Has he watched The Private Life of Henry VIII recently? Henry is portrayed as a cruel, lecherous slob who tosses away wives as carelessly as turkey legs. Laughton did a similar job of rehabilitation for Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty.

Nicholas Bird
London W3

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