Vol. 44 No. 20 · 20 October 2022

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Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite describes the ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence’ by residents of the Isle of Dogs in 1970 as ‘just one instance of the racism pervasive in London in the decades after the arrival of the Empire Windrush’ (LRB, 22 September). That isn’t fair. The demands of the Isle of Dogs Citizens’ Committee related specifically to the services provided by Tower Hamlets Council to the Isle of Dogs, and were focused on better roads, more buses, better shops and a cut in the rates.

The protest began on 1 March 1970 when residents blocked West Ferry Road on the west side of the island, and the Blue Bridge on the east side. One of the key organisers was Ted Johns, a Labour councillor. ‘We have declared UDI and intend to set up our own council,’ the protesters said. ‘We can govern ourselves much better than they seem to be doing. They have let the island go to the dogs.’ The intention was to take the piss out of Tower Hamlets Council while drawing attention to its complacency. ‘Prime Minister’ John Westfallen, a big fan of Passport to Pimlico, issued spoof entry permits to the Isle of Dogs, purportedly as a precursor to the issue of passports. The phrase ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence’ was meant to capture media attention.

In September 1993, Derek Beackon became the British National Party’s first elected councillor, taking a seat on the Isle of Dogs. If Sutcliffe-Braithwaite is correct, this was in line with the area’s usual politics. However, if my understanding is closer to the truth, the BNP victory was a consequence of the defeat of independent working-class struggle. I see the declaration as part of a proud history, from the Poplar suffragette and rebel councillor Nellie Cressall, through the rent strikes of the 1960s, to the 1980s, when the Isle of Dogs had the highest level of organised poll tax refusal in Tower Hamlets. It was the rotten state of the Tower Hamlets Labour Party that paved the way for the BNP, as well as the Liberals’ use of race as a way to reach alienated Labour voters with their ‘Island Homes for Island People’ campaign.

Nick Moss
London NW10

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite claims that in 1960, Anthony Armstrong-Jones ‘singlehandedly transformed the dress code’ of upmarket restaurants in London by entering the Trattoria Terrazza in a roll neck. Unfortunately, not many other eateries followed suit. In 1965, Bob Dylan was turned away from the restaurant at the Savoy for not wearing a tie, and similarly the Rolling Stones. In the early 1970s, El Vino’s, the legendary haunt of journalists in Fleet Street, was still refusing to serve ladies at the bar (especially if they were wearing trousers), and men without ties.

Having been a photographic model in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I would point out that the change in women’s clothes wasn’t wholly the work of Mary Quant. Without the photographs of Brian Duffy, Terence Donovan and David Bailey, together with the revolutionary hairdresser Vidal Sassoon (out with the perm and in with the cut, out with rollers and in with the blow-dry), as well as the fashion editors who commissioned their work, Mary’s success might have taken somewhat longer. In the end, though, it wasn’t fashion that changed women’s lives, it was the pill.

Clemence Bettany

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite writes that by the early 1960s, ‘most girls leaving East End schools … went into office work. They travelled into the centre of town every day and spent their wages in the record shops, the new coffee bars and, of course, the boutiques.’ In July 1967, at the end of what I’d hoped would be a temporary job teaching English in a girls’ school in Greenwich, my run for the gates was interrupted by three of the 15-year-olds who had made my life a misery – except that this time they were the ones weeping. ‘What are we going to do, miss?’ they sobbed. ‘We don’t know how to get a job. We don’t even know how to use a phone.’ They, like most of the other leavers, were inevitably going to get jobs in the Peek Freans biscuit factory up the road. They had never been ‘up London’ in their lives and had been startled by the sight of my miniskirt on the day I arrived. The suddenly obvious irrelevance of what I’d been trying to teach them made me resolve there and then to continue working in education and – if possible – to change it.

Cary Bazalgette
London N5

Keys to the World

Tom Stevenson mentions that ‘one of the forerunners of modern maritime codes was seventh-century Byzantium’s Rhodian Sea Law, which dealt with liability for lost or damaged cargo’ (LRB, 8 September). There were even earlier forerunners. Athens, in the fourth century BCE, had a number of laws designed to facilitate commerce by sea. One was the bottomry loan, a short-term, high-value, high-interest loan taken out with collateral provided by the ‘bottom’ or keel of a ship, or its cargo or some portion of it. Interest rates weren’t set by a central bank, but negotiated between lender and borrower. Sea voyages were hazardous in the ancient world: the chances of a ship being wrecked or attacked by pirates were not negligible. Bottomry loans acted as a kind of insurance for the borrower, because if the cargo was lost, he kept the money and did not have to pay any of the interest either.

Robin Waterfield
Lakonia, Greece


Ian Jack mentions some of the famous ships that were built in Port Glasgow. One of these was the Grace Harwar, which Alan Villiers took round Cape Horn in 1929 (LRB, 22 September). Two men died on this voyage, one of them the journalist Ronald Walker, the other unnamed, just one of the many who lost their lives rounding the Horn. In September 1909, my grandmother’s oldest brother, Captain Thomas Carter Fearon, was asked by the owners, Messrs W. Montgomery, to take the Grace Harwar from Port Talbot with a cargo of cement for the Chilean ports of Talcahuano, Valparaiso and Huasco; then sail, in ballast, to Newcastle, Australia, where the ship would load coal for Peru and Chile; and then take on nitrate at Iquique for the UK – a round voyage of two years. When the ship was at anchor in Iquique a hurricane caused a steamer to collide with it, upending the iron bowsprit, which was unusable on the homeward voyage round Cape Horn to Hamburg and then to Cardiff, where Fearon decided ‘it was time to give up sailing salt water.’ He had rounded the Horn 36 times, most of them as captain.

The Grace Harwar was supposed to be a ‘hoodoo ship’. One of its masters had buried his wife in the ballast and the crew believed he had killed her. In fact, early in 1907 the newly married Captain Hudson had taken his wife on a voyage from Australia to Chile. She had tuberculosis and steadily weakened as the ship crossed the South Pacific in winter. She died as the ship reached South America. Hudson pickled her body, put it into a salt-beef cask and carried it back to New South Wales, where it was properly examined to prove he hadn’t murdered her.

Paul Haslam
Derry, Northern Ireland

A Nation like Lava

I was very pleased, 35 years after first learning of Jozef Piłsudski in Neal Ascherson’s The Struggles for Poland, to read Ascherson’s review of my biography of Piłsudski (LRB, 8 September). I should begin by correcting an inaccuracy relating to the assassination of Poland’s first elected president, Gabriel Narutowicz, in 1922. Ascherson writes that he was ‘shot dead by a young fanatic’. In fact, the assassin, Eligiusz Niewiadomski, was a 53-year-old art critic and follower of the right-wing National Democrats. He had believed their lies that the election had been stolen, and that Narutowicz was an illegitimate president who wouldn’t have been elected without the help of Jewish and minority votes. This act of violence had a profound impact on Piłsudski, convincing him that Polish society wasn’t ready to adhere to the central tenet of democratic government, that the vote of every citizen should count equally.

Ascherson argues that Piłsudski’s legacy lies not in what he built – a sovereign and independent Poland – but in what he allegedly failed to do: prevent the destruction of Poland in September 1939. Ascherson maintains that Piłsudski left the country woefully unprepared for war, yet Nazi Germany’s open and egregious violations of the rule-based international order began only after Piłsudski’s death, when war was still more than four years away.

Piłsudski believed that the threat or application of force to deter Hitler was the only way to keep Poland secure and to preserve the international order. When Hitler threatened to take back Danzig and the Polish Corridor by force in February 1933 (less than a month after taking power), Piłsudski dispatched troops to reinforce the German-Polish frontier. He then spread rumours that he was planning a joint Polish-French assault on Nazi Germany, which the Nazi regime had to take seriously given that Poland’s armed forces in 1933 were more than twice the size of Germany’s. Hitler, then presiding over a demilitarised Germany, conceded to Piłsudski’s demands and publicly renounced all territorial claims on Poland.

It is likely that Piłsudski’s response to Nazi Germany’s land-grabs, starting in 1936, would have been to call for the rapid modernisation of the Polish armed forces. Consider his letter to President Herbert Hoover in October 1931, responding to reports of growing sympathy among American, French and British diplomats for Germany’s territorial claims on Poland: ‘Poland believes,’ he wrote, ‘that there is at almost any moment the danger of the invasion of Polish territory by German irregular troops. If this should occur, the whole Polish army would be immediately mobilised and march into Germany to settle the thing once and for all, and they would not be influenced by any action of the League of Nations or anyone else.’ Faced with the re-occupation of the Rhineland in 1936, the annexation of Austria and Western Czechoslovakia in 1938, or the dismemberment of the rump Czechoslovak state in March 1939, Piłsudski would surely have recognised the threat to Poland and acted accordingly.

Joshua Zimmerman
Yeshiva University, New York

On Hoarding

The hulking shadow of my paternal uncle loomed large, for me, reading Jon Day’s piece on hoarding (LRB, 8 September). The only Christmas presents Uncle M could bear to give his relatives were duplicate copies of books he already owned, and the only way he felt able to acquire these copies, given that he would then have to relinquish them, was by ‘borrowing’ them from the local library. He didn’t feel able to part with anything he had purchased or received (or picked up in public places, including from litter bins, those limitless repositories of damp, discarded newspapers and potentially repairable umbrellas), so the only items that qualified as potential gifts were, by default, stolen goods. Yet these contraband books tended to be thoughtfully chosen. My discovery, as a poorly read teenager, of Thomas Mann would probably never have occurred had it not been for Uncle M’s criminal largesse. I dare say that angry letters from librarians and invoices for replacement books were among the voluminous papers he collected, and reluctantly bequeathed to posterity.

Stephen James

Make It Rhyme

Nora Goldschmidt translates Cicero’s self-glorifying line ‘O fortunatam natam me consule Romam’ as ‘O lucky Rome, born in my consulship’ (LRB, 22 September). Sixty years ago, our class thought it caught the style and sentiment best as ‘O fortunate the Roman state, its natal date my consulate.’

Mark Mildred
London SW11

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