Vol. 45 No. 10 · 18 May 2023

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Feast of St Monday

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite’s piece on the sick note took me back to my childhood in the mid-1950s, when my mother worked as a cleaner in a Tyneside doctor’s surgery (LRB, 13 April). I would pass the surgery on my way to school and there was often a queue at the waiting-room door, especially on Mondays when the numbers would be bolstered by coalminers. These celebrants of the Feast of St Monday considered the doctor a ‘canny lad’ because of his willingness to issue sick notes. GPs were permitted to charge for this service; at the surgery where my mother worked the rate was one shilling, which the doctor collected in a tin box. Each Friday my mother, a member of the 1950s precariat, was given an envelope containing her wages, paid entirely in shillings. She never received National Insurance stamps.

GPs were de facto notaries in working-class communities, boosting their income with fees for tasks such as signing passport photos (I recall that the charge for this service many years ago was a fiver). A friend of mine in the early 1980s, starting out on her first not very well-paid job as a junior hospital doctor, was delighted when she had the chance to earn ‘ash money’ – her fee for the additional signature required on a death certificate when the body was to be cremated.

Bill Lancaster
Hutton Rudby, North Yorkshire

Ways of Listening

Daniel Cohen’s piece about Spotify had me thinking about the many means I have used to listen to recorded music over the years (LRB, 4 May). In childhood, my parents’ record player and the radios in the kitchen and the family car; when I turned eleven, a cherished radio-cassette player of my own; as a teenager, a nice, pocket-sized Walkman, replaced ten years later by a much less portable fat flying saucer of a Discman; at university, finally, some proper hi-fi; a succession of iPods (never, for me, the smartphone); and now, as I sit writing this, Spotify and Bandcamp and internet radio on my laptop.

There’s one thing I left off that list. Sometimes, maybe when I was nine or ten, maybe in the early evening after I’d escaped the dinner table and before my parents began to wonder what I was up to, I’d pick up the telephone in the hall and dial 1-6-0. A second’s silence, then a pop song would play down the line, something from the Top Ten, a different song each day, playing on a loop. This was Dial-a-Disc, a service provided by the General Post Office, which must have seemed like magic when it started in the 1960s, and hopelessly antiquated by the time it was discontinued in 1991. What you were actually listening to was a tape playing on a machine in some distant location. The sound quality was exactly what you’d expect of a tape recording sent hissing down hundreds of miles of electrical wire and played through the tiny mono speaker in your phone receiver.

I must have made the majority of my 160 calls in 1978, so will have heard Boney M and Kate Bush and hits from the Grease soundtrack. I definitely remember dialling up sometime the following year in hopes of hearing Tubeway Army’s ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’ By then I could have listened to it whenever I liked on one of my homemade recordings of the Radio Luxembourg chart show, but there was something uniquely thrilling about being able to pick up the phone and have my favourite song be there, waiting for me. Dial-a-Disc was a form of streaming, I suppose, avant la lettre.

Agnieszka Hodgson
London N1

The Reaction Economy

Richard Carter describes Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals of 1872 as the ‘first English-language science book to be illustrated with photographs’ (Letters, 16 March). Could I plead the case for Anna Atkins’s Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, published nearly thirty years earlier, in 1843?

An obvious difference is that Darwin’s photographs were black and white, while Atkins’s (which, unlike Darwin, she took herself) were blue and white. The 19th century saw an explosion (sometimes literally) of photographers experimenting with various light-sensitive chemicals. Atkins used cyanotypes, pressing her seaweeds onto paper coated with photosensitive iron salts, which turned blue when exposed to light. (She moved in scientific circles, and learned of cyanotypes from their inventor, her friend John Herschel.) The photographs in British Algae are unique images that were time-consuming to produce: an estimated six thousand cyanotypes were needed for the dozen or so copies of the book, which Atkins published herself.

Thirty years later, printing had progressed. The illustrations in Darwin’s book are heliotypes: cameras were used to produce negatives on papers treated with silver-based salts, and those negatives were then exposed onto printing plates. Cyanotypes fell out of favour, but their beautiful blue colour lingers in the popular imagination: this is where we get the term ‘blueprints’ for exact copies of technical drawings.

John Bothwell
Durham University

Berdles Men

Jessie Childs mentions the treatment meted out to the sailors of the Spanish Armada shipwrecked off the Irish coast in 1588 (LRB, 4 May). The treatment varied according to where in the British Isles you fetched up. In most places the sailors were set upon and slaughtered, but the crew who made landfall at the Scottish port of Anstruther in East Fife were given ‘keall, pattage and fische’ and were hospitably entertained by the townsfolk, as the parish minister James Melville recorded in his (later published) Diary, adding that they were ‘for the maist part young berdles men, sillie, trauchled and houngered’. Having recovered from their ordeal they were permitted to return home. On reaching Spain, the captain, Juan Gómez de Medina, found that an Anstruther boat had been interned in the port at his home town and the crew imprisoned. He lost no time in having the men released, sending them home to Fife with messages of goodwill to the Reverend Melville and the local laird, John Anstruther.

Harry Watson

Hearts Were Trumps

Malcolm Gaskill remarks that parliamentary soldiers such as Robert Rodway ‘struggled to work out … what they were doing or why’ (LRB, 30 March). Yet the psalms the soldiers sang before battle told them why they were there. Before Marston Moor, for example, they sang the second psalm: ‘The King and Rulers of the earth, conspire and all are bent, Against the Lord and Christ his Son, which he among us sent.’ And at Edgehill, number 149: ‘To plague the heathen, and correct the people with their hands: To bind their stately Kings in chains their Lords in iron bands. To execute on them the doom that written is before: This honour all his Saints shall have, praise ye the Lord therefore!’ And there were the ten verses of the popular song ‘The Zealous Soldier’ (c.1646), which included the words: ‘For God, and for his cause, Ile count it gaine/To lose my life; O can one happier Die,/Then for to Fall in Battaile, to maintaine/Gods worship, truth, extirpate Popery.’

Gaskill also says that with the Restoration, ‘revolutionary England sprang back into royalist shape.’ But not all the country sprang back. There were anti-royalist uprisings and plots, with former Cromwellian soldiers at their heart and head, in the early 1660s, and then the Danvers/Rathbone plot of 1665 to seize the Tower, burn the city and kill the king. Most prominent among the rebels were the millenarian Fifth Monarchy Men, who knew that after the four preceding monarchies of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome, they were the force to bring about the Fifth Monarchy, namely the rule of King Jesus.

Rob Wills
Brisbane, Queensland

Edward Barlow wonders about the origin of the saying ‘Hearts were trumps when Basing House was took’ (Letters, 4 May). I believe it refers to a tradition that in the final siege, in October 1645, the garrison had been surprised while the men were playing cards. The tradition and the saying date back to the early 19th century at least, though most sources give clubs, rather than hearts, as the trumps.

John Clegg
London WC1

An Elite Worth Joining

David Trotter judges the films of Preston Sturges on the evidence of his autobiography: his wealth, conservatism and sense of entitlement (LRB, 13 April). But it’s Claudette Colbert’s witty dialogue, in the classic screwball manner, that drives The Palm Beach Story and cuts through the privilege that Trotter perceives behind the director’s ‘facetiousness’. Noticing the way that Colbert repeatedly mocks men, millionaires or otherwise, variously otiose and clueless, makes for an enjoyable feminist reading of the film. William Wyler’s Oscar-laden The Best Years of Our Lives, which Trotter describes as ‘magnificent’, is by contrast seriously deficient in its treatment of female characters. While class discrepancies among US servicemen returning from the war are explored, with some alertness to gender, in noir films of the period, in Wyler’s film women function exclusively as supports to enable the three heroes either to readjust to the middle-class lives they had before the war, or to enter the middle-class lives they deserve to enjoy from now on.

For a film that came to be regarded as a microcosm of US society, The Best Years of Our Lives has an even more glaring flaw: the absence of any reference to Black participation in the war overseas. It was made in 1946 and desegregation in the US forces only came about in 1948. I think Sturges has to be credited with more awareness in the matter of race, despite Trotter’s reservations about the church scene in Sullivan’s Travels where a Black pastor generously welcomes a group of white convicts to a film screening. It’s a moment of genuine seriousness at the heart of a comedy I see as a self-satire on Sturges’s part.

Liz Heron
London N16

Unlikely Destination

Greg Afinogenov notes that the geographer and anarchist Peter Kropotkin escaped from St Petersburg in 1876 and was then ‘spirited away to Britain’ (LRB, 4 May). David Stoddart’s On Geography and Its History (1986) offers another deadpan detail. ‘He fled to Hull, where not even the tsar’s secret police would think to look for him.’

Bill Hayton
Colchester, Essex

Voter ID

James Meek is right to point out that proven cases of personation at polling stations are rare (LRB, 4 May). Nonetheless, our research has found that two-thirds of voters would feel more confident about the security of their vote if they were required to show ID. It is vital that any such requirement is accompanied by measures to ensure voting at polling stations remains accessible to everyone.

The Electoral Commission is responsible for raising public awareness of the voter ID requirement. Our communications campaign focused on areas with elections, of course, and so excluded London. Over the course of the campaign, awareness of voter ID in England but beyond London increased from 22 per cent in December to 87 per cent at the end of April. In just four months, this brought awareness in line with public understanding of other long-standing aspects of the process, such as the need to register to vote.

With the polls now closed, our focus turns to evaluating the elections. We will report specifically on the implementation of voter ID in the coming weeks, to understand its impact on voters and lessons to learn for future polls.

Craig Westwood
Electoral Commission, London EC1

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