Vol. 45 No. 6 · 16 March 2023

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On the Rocks

Rosemary Hill discusses John Smeaton’s ingenious design for the reconstructed Eddystone lighthouse (LRB, 16 February). She doesn’t mention that in order to anchor the lighthouse securely at the base, Smeaton sliced off a fair chunk from the top of the House Rock on which it stands. This gave rise to a curious incident two centuries later, when, in the course of the UK/French arbitration on the delimitation of the continental shelf in the 1970s, France claimed that the result had been to convert what had previously been an island into a ‘low tide elevation’, which would be covered by the sea at high tide. In consequence, the argument ran, the rock was no longer entitled to serve as a base point for the deciding of maritime limits. The drawings in Smeaton’s Narrative of 1791 suggest that he might have taken off as much as 4.3 feet. There would, of course, have been no way to check that two hundred years later other than by dismantling the lighthouse to reveal the rock beneath, then recording the levels of contemporary tidal movements, which vary considerably in that part of the English Channel. The Court of Arbitration, happy to say, found an elegant way to sidestep the question, and Eddystone does still serve as a base point for the measurement of the median line between the UK and France.

Frank Berman
London SE3

Rosemary Hill notes that John Smeaton was ‘respectably buried’ at Whitkirk. Temple Newsam, the Elizabethan mansion gifted to Leeds by the Wood family (lords Halifax) is close to Whitkirk. The transfer of the house and estate included a condition that a service of thanks for the gift be held annually at the house. Five or six years ago, my partner and I were in the area and attended the service, expecting something short in the modern Church of England tradition. It was, in fact, a full sung Eucharist, attended by, among others, several councillors and the present Lord Halifax, featuring bells, candles and smoke. Germane to Hill’s theme was the celebrant’s cope, which had on its back a large embroidered representation of Smeaton’s Eddystone lighthouse. The present Eddystone lighthouse, of 1882, is built of Cornish granite, shipped through Wadebridge. It is said that the successive layers of stone were assembled on the quay at Wadebridge, to ensure that they meshed, before being disassembled and shipped to the rock.

Rob Close
Drongan, Ayrshire

Rosemary Hill’s piece reminds me of an occasion when, back in the 1970s, my friend Alastair and I were walking along the shore in East Aberdeenshire at the time of a low spring tide. Arriving at Rattray Head lighthouse, we spotted someone we correctly took to be the keeper. We slithered across the reef and he invited us aboard. Winding our way up to the top, we discovered that the light source was no more than a wee oil lamp, surrounded by massive reflectors that produced the powerful beam required. I noticed that there were holes in some of them. The keeper told us that the Luftwaffe had taken a pot shot or two when passing by and that it would cost a fortune to replace them – and anyway, he added, it made ‘nae difference at all to the light’.

William Guthrie
Herstmonceux, East Sussex

What’s so good about elections?

Rahmane Idrissa writes that ‘one person, one vote makes no sense to people in Mali because it insists that majority opinion is the only way to adjudicate daunting issues of justice and power in a complex, heterogeneous society’ (LRB, 2 February). Idrissa puts his finger on one of the things I regret, looking back at my own fifteen years with a conflict-prevention NGO and, before that, 25 years as a foreign correspondent for American and British publications: the complacency with which we put elections before all else when gauging progress in less privileged, crisis-prone countries. We wanted those elections free, we wanted them fair, we wanted them transparent. We demanded electoral reform, independent electoral commissions and level electoral playing fields. What we never wanted to do was question the usefulness and suitability of having those elections in the first place. It never occurred to us to ask whether elections might actually be causing the violence we were talking about, rather than ending it. We assumed that elections meant democracy and peaceful outcomes.

I think this applies far beyond Mali, even in the richer countries of the global north. The electoral systems introduced after the American and French revolutions were certainly more broad-based than the absolute monarchies or theocracies that came before. Universal suffrage made these systems even more representative. But the intention of the American Founding Fathers or the bourgeoisie in revolutionary France was never to give power to ordinary people, but to substitute a ‘natural’ aristocracy for an inherited one. In this the elites in these countries continue to succeed. Electoral systems work admirably to produce elite-run oligarchies or, in the US case, something more like a plutarchy.

Hugh Pope

The Reaction Economy

William Davies mentions Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, the first English-language science book to be illustrated with photographs (LRB, 2 March). But Darwin did not take the photographs used in the book; nor did the photographic technology of the time allow the capture of fleeting facial expressions.

Darwin acquired the photographs for the book from three sources. Some were already on sale to the general public; he got permission to reproduce others from an earlier book by the French physiologist Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne de Boulogne; and he commissioned a number of original photographs, mainly from the London-based Swedish photographer Oscar Gustave Rejlander. Duchenne’s images, captured with the help of the pioneer photographer Adrien Tournachon, include several of a toothless old man whose contorted facial expressions were obtained – and frozen long enough to photograph – by applying electrodes to different combinations of muscles in his face. Duchenne claimed the old man had a medical condition that rendered him impervious to pain. Rejlander, having struggled to coax his models into providing and holding realistic expressions, trimmed his magnificent moustache to make his own face easier to read, and provided Darwin with several selfies in hammy, melodramatic poses.

Richard Carter
Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

Three Cages

Jonathan Rée writes that Ludwig von Mises expected the Bolshevik government to fizzle out, imagining it would ‘fade away like the brief and farcical episode of Anabaptist rule in 16th-century Münster’ (LRB, 2 February). But that rebellion remains ever present in the city. Three cages in which the corpses of the Anabaptist leaders Jan van Leiden, Bernhard Krechting and Bernhard Knipperdolling were displayed after they had been publicly tortured and executed still hang from the tower of St Lambert’s Church on the Prinzipalmarkt. As the novel Q by the Italian collective Luther Blissett has it, ‘No one looks at them. The past hangs right over their heads. And if they try to lift their heads too far, the cages are there as a reminder.’

Ian Ellison
Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt

When the Engine Cuts Out

Tudor Wright passes on the remarks of a central heating engineer to the effect that the brickwork in half of London’s houses is ‘rotten’ owing to shockwaves from bomb blasts in the Second World War (Letters, 2 March). But that gets the emphasis wrong. It isn’t that the brickwork is rotten because of blast damage, but that the cement between the bricks saved the houses. Modern houses on hard concrete foundations with hard cement between bricks are rigid structures that would crack and fail in a blast. Prewar London houses were built directly onto clay with soft, lime-based cement between the bricks. In a blast houses nearby would jump or dance but retain their shape. I live in a house built in 1900 which is about three hundred yards from the site of two V-1 hits. Some of the brickwork is far from level, but what that shows is the way the building has bent to ground movements over the years.

The London County Council bomb damage survey relates to London as it was during the war. My house is now in London but in 1945 it was in Middlesex, so it isn’t covered by the survey. Yet the Blitz and the V-1/V-2 attacks extended far beyond the boundaries of London as they were drawn at the time. For example, my grandparents lived in East Barnet, now in London but then in Hertfordshire. Bomb damage to their home on 10 May 1941 wasn’t made good until April 1951 at a cost of 327 pounds, nineteen shillings and seven pence paid for by the War Damage Commission.

J.P. Quethiock
London N15

Blank Pages

David Trotter writes that Helen DeWitt’s novella The English Understand Wool has ‘69 pages, many of them largely blank’ (LRB, 15 December 2022). This may be the occasion to puzzle about the LRB’s habit of describing the extent of a book with its last printed page number. Trying to imagine a sheet of paper with just one side is mind-flipping, and my mind is flipped every time I read that a book has 419 or 173 pages. Those who stop reading DeWitt’s book at page 69 will miss the graceful pause on the blank page 70, the lively ‘Author’s Note’ on page 71 (reflections on patronage and digital technics that bear on the themes of the story just completed), and the final silence of page 72.

Robin Kinross
London NW5

Invisible Books

Gill Partington writes about invisible books, which puts me in mind of the late French/Canadian/Welsh concrete poet Peter Meilleur, who also wrote under the nom de plume Childe Roland, after the Robert Browning poem (LRB, 16 February). Peter would set out across the ‘vast white expanse of the page’, mapping the shifting environment of thought that shaped his written words, even as a reticence to spoil the clean brilliance of the page created a tension he was never able to resolve.

Perhaps Six of Clubs, a series of poems printed in white ink onto white pages, comes closest to realising his vision. This is ‘kite’:

the page, blown high into the
sky, was now in the mind’s eye
a kite, a window on the world,
and could be reached through
a particular line of thinking, a
string of corresponding words

To Peter’s dismay the publisher insisted that a pale grey shadow be added to the white font for ease of reading. Peter also chafed at what he saw as the static nature of the collection’s final book format, telling me he’d have preferred pure white poems printed onto a deck of white cards that could be shuffled, transforming them into a form of prophecy.

Sophie McKeand
Caerwys, Flintshire

Iron Curtain

Sheila Fitzpatrick mentions that when in a speech in 1946 Winston Churchill used the term Iron Curtain, he had borrowed it from Goebbels (LRB, 2 February). That may be, but the phrase itself had appeared some time earlier. Mrs Philip Snowden’s Through Bolshevik Russia (1920) describes the trip she had made to Russia earlier that year as part of a joint TUC/Labour Party delegation. Describing their arrival in Petrograd, she declares: We were behind the iron curtain at last!

Alan Harding
Gislingham, Suffolk

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