Vol. 44 No. 17 · 8 September 2022

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Jonathan Coe reveals that among his juvenilia, probably dating from 1971, lurks ‘a long, complicated spy story called Manhunt’ (LRB, 18 August). I wonder if it wasn’t inspired by another long, complicated spy story, also called Manhunt, broadcast on the ITV network in 1970 in 26 fifty-minute episodes shown on Fridays. Set in Occupied France, it starred Peter Barkworth, Cyd Hayman, Philip Madoc and Robert Hardy. I surreptitiously tuned in post-watershed when my parents were out. From what I recall, it would fully have merited that enticing AA certificate had it been shown in the cinema.

Mat Snow

The Old-Fashioned Way

Michael Crabtree quotes Vic Gatrell’s remark that the Cato Street conspirators were the last to be executed in England in ‘the old-fashioned way’ (Letters, 4 August). Execution by decapitation of those convicted of treason was in fact a very recent penalty in 1820, replacing a much crueller and even more old-fashioned method. Previously, the sentence for high treason had been ‘that you be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck and being alive cut down, your privy member shall be cut off and your bowels taken out and burned before you, your head severed from your body and your body divided into four parts to be disposed of at the King’s pleasure’. The last person so executed was James O’Coigley, on 7 June 1798, for ‘compassing and imagining the death of the King and adhering to the King’s enemies’ (in this case the French). The Treason Act was amended in 1814, with the earlier horrors replaced by death by hanging and postmortem decapitation, as suffered by the Cato Street five in 1820. Although Edward Despard’s conviction for treason and his subsequent execution (1803) pre-dated the 1814 amendment, he was spared the disembowelling, thanks to pleas for clemency from his wife and Lord Nelson. But fate wasn’t done with him: two hundred years later he came back as a ‘real life’ character in the TV series Poldark.

Rob Wills
Brisbane, Queensland


Malcolm Gaskill writes about the ambush by partisans in via Rasella, Rome on 23 March 1944 and the German reprisals that followed (LRB, 7 July). The definitive account of these events, and of the public struggle over how they should be remembered, is Alessandro Portelli’s The Order Has Been Carried Out: History, Memory and Meaning of a Nazi Massacre in Rome (2003). In the late 1990s, surviving members of the GAP partisans agreed to talk to Portelli because they trusted him, despite what they had been through: Italy is the only country whose resistance fighters have faced legal actions intended to make them take the blame for German reprisals. As Gaskill mentions, it was argued at the time and subsequently that the partisans should have given themselves up after the ambush, and that this might have prevented the reprisals. But, as Portelli makes clear, there was never a German demand for their surrender; the first public announcement by the Germans on the night of 24 March said the order had been given that ten people be shot for every German soldier killed, and that ‘this order has already been carried out.’

Roxana Waterson
Anghiari, Italy

Sanctuary Then and Now

Barbara Newman writes that the ‘modern sanctuary movement aims to transform relationships between humans and the natural world, establishing equality among all resident species’ (LRB, 21 July). Many nature sanctuaries, however, are sites of catastrophic human rights violations against the Indigenous peoples that call them home. Far from being ‘opposed to authority’, the parks enforce fortress conservation (the complete exclusion of humans apart from tourists and conservation researchers, usually from the global North) through the deployment of eco-guards armed and trained by Western donors.

Chris Chapman
London SE9

North-South Divide

Rory Scothorne quotes Tom Hazeldine to the effect that the phrase ‘North-South divide’ dates from 1980 (LRB, 4 August). The sentiment, if not the phrase itself, dates back further than that. Geoffrey Moorhouse’s Penguin Special Britain in the Sixties: The Other England (1964) set out to investigate ‘the gulf between North and South’, which had been a matter of public debate ever since the Guardian published an article with that title in August 1962. If 1962 still feels too contemporary, we might turn to Ranulph Higden of Chester, who observed in the 14th century that English kings always preferred the soft-speaking and prosperous south to the harsh speech and hard living of the north.

Martin Spence
London SE20

One could argue that the North has been a subordinate part of England ever since William the Conqueror’s ‘harrying of the North’ in 1069-70. Subjugation is managed differently nowadays. It isn’t just a matter of laws that favour the industries of ‘the South’ (which doesn’t include the South-West), but specific decisions by the Westminster government to invest in the South-East, for instance to build Crossrail but not to electrify the TransPennine route or to invest in the main lines through Devon and Cornwall; to move a national collection of pictures from the then National Science and Media Museum in Bradford to London; and to develop the Diamond Light Source synchrotron in Oxfordshire and not in the North-West. Such decisions demonstrate that anything considered nationally important must be located in the South-East, and all serious management jobs must be there too.

Michael Fort


In her review of France: An Adventure History, Rosemary Hill accuses me of basing my description of Caesar and the druids on the fantasies of mystics, antiquaries and filmmakers with their flaming wicker men and gapingly anachronistic stone circles (LRB, 7 July). She conjures up the image of a psychohistorian happily seduced by ‘intuition’. If I ever meet that Robb-figment, I shall have a word or two to say.

A scholarly approach would involve reading contemporary sources in the original language, translating them accurately and providing precise references in tedious but indispensable endnotes. This is what I did, as untediously as I could. The point was to evoke the pre-Conquest Roman view of Outer Gaul. Caesar did indeed describe the druids as a priestly caste of scientists and intellectuals. He did report ‘enormous effigies, the limbs of which [the druids] fill with living men before setting them on fire’. His best friend in Gaul was a druid, Diviciacus, who once cried on his shoulder and addressed the Roman Senate in circumstances quite similar to those in which Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the House of Commons. These historical realities of the first century bc are entirely unconnected with the deluded 17th-century fantasies with which Hill is familiar.

Graham Robb
Penton, Cumbria

Better than It Sounds

Tom Stammers writes about the reception of Wagner (LRB, 4 August). In 2001-3, I directed a Ring cycle for the English National Opera every bit as ‘sparse’ as the ENO’s recent Valkyrie, which Stammers describes in his piece. Our version was billed as ‘staged concerts’, which meant there was next to no production budget, but the ENO stock cupboards enabled us to build a set, and to light it and costume the singers, while a surprisingly generous rehearsal schedule made it possible for me to work in detail on the text and music with a very committed and capable cast. To begin with, I had thought the result might be similar to Wieland Wagner’s minimal postwar productions, which responded to the moral decay of Nazi Bayreuth with a determinedly apolitical aesthetic. What in fact happened was that the absence of grand scenic gestures allowed the domesticity and intimacy of the operas to emerge: at its heart The Ring is a tragedy played out within the blood-knot of the family. The sung scenes are a series of intense conversations between husbands and wives, parents and children, lovers and siblings. It’s in the orchestral interludes that this domesticity takes on a mythic scale.

Stammers refers to ‘the agonies of Wotan, a father compelled to abandon his only child’. Even within The Valkyrie itself, there are two moments to which this could refer – the death of Siegmund and the farewell to Brünnhilde. But far from having an ‘only child’, Wotan is astonishingly fecund. All of the Valkyries are his daughters, and so are the Norns: a fact that led Anna Russell, in her comic contribution, to point out that every woman Siegfried meets seems to be his aunt. Stammers isn’t quite accurate either when he says that Loge’s Magic Fire ‘failed to ignite’ at the performance he attended. The fire effect planned for the production was banned by Westminster Council so, rather than attempt something else at the last minute, Jones and the ENO decided to miss it out. Mythic moments do not fare well in a world ruled by health and safety officers.

Michael Walling
Enfield, Greater London

Tom Stammers surveys an array of often contradictory responses to Wagner and his music. He doesn’t include that of the 19th-century American humourist Bill Nye, given wide circulation by Mark Twain: ‘I have been told that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.’

Norbert Hirschhorn
Minneapolis, Minnesota

In the Gold Mines

Andrew Liu writes that South Africa’s gold mines recruited tens of thousands of Chinese indentured labourers in the early 20th century because the Africans they first hired were too expensive (LRB, 21 July). The issue, however, wasn’t expense – the Chamber of Mines cut African wages by half in 1901 – but availability. The South African Wars caused a severe labour shortage for the mining industry by disrupting recruitment networks and, more important, opening up unexpected new opportunities for those who would otherwise have had to work as miners. Many Africans occupied land on abandoned settler farms whose former owners had been displaced by the conflict or were being held in concentration camps. This respite was brief, and land dispossession soon intensified, leaving many with little choice but to return to the mines.

Indentured Chinese workers were not the only solution the industry considered as a means to address labour shortages. The white American engineers who ran many of the Rand gold mines explored the possibility of recruiting African American workers, while others favoured unskilled white labour from Europe. This latter prospect horrified the Randlords, who feared that an influx of white workers would transform the colony into another Australia, where labour politics were, as Liu notes, closely connected with the exclusion of Asian workers. Migrant African or Chinese workers, by contrast, didn’t have the vote and could be got rid of much more easily if they became militant or otherwise inconvenient.

Duncan Money
Leiden University, Netherlands

Embassy to Peking

Joseph Banks may have had a hand in almost every expedition and scientific enterprise in the late 18th century, but he did not, as Pamela Crossley writes, accompany George Macartney on his embassy to Peking in 1793 (LRB, 18 August). Banks did help Sir George Staunton assemble his official account of the mission, published in 1797, but from the safety of London, where he was running the Royal Society and accumulating honours.

Ian Ferguson

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