Vol. 45 No. 16 · 10 August 2023

Search by issue:

Liminal Zone

Jonathan Sawday writes about the paperwork generated in the course of the First World War by the British Expeditionary Force (LRB, 29 June). The French and Belgians were no slouches either, as the BEF came to learn. When 2/Lt Ralph Hale Mottram, 9th Norfolks, was summoned to 6th Division HQ in Poperinge from trenches just outside Ypres in February 1916, he was briefly interviewed, handed a stack of blue forms or réclamations – dubbed a ‘horrible business’ by the staff, all regulars, more used to bullying colonial subjects than appeasing local townsfolk and farmers – and told to get on with it.

The forms were locals’ requests, backed by witness testimony, or procès-verbaux, for compensation arising from the BEF’s occupation of their land, often damages to fields and buildings concomitant with billeting, or losses to combustibles such as hop poles and coal, concomitant with the troops’ efforts to stay warm and to brew tea: ‘dégâts occasionés par les troupes britanniques’. (The réclamations were in fact the most difficult class of claims to investigate, as they were submitted after the departure of the unit allegedly responsible.) Mottram, who was bilingual and had a background in banking, did get on with it, and soon became the division’s claims officer, a post created to deal with the unusual circumstances which prevailed in France and Flanders. Then promoted to the Claims Commission’s head office in Boulogne, Mottram survived the war. He became a writer, and produced a trilogy of novels – The Spanish Farm (1924), Sixty-Four! Ninety-Four! (1925) and The Crime at Vanderlynden’s (1926) – based on his wartime experiences of that odd, grey, liminal zone, neither entirely trench nor rear, civilian nor martial.

Craig Gibson
Thornhill, Ontario

Intimated Disunion

Colin Kidd writes that ‘the advanced liberalism of the late 19th and early 20th century sometimes closely approached socialism, as it did, unsurprisingly, in Belfast, which with its heavily unionised workforce was at the core of the UK’s industrial economy. In 1907 the Labour Party Conference was held there’ (LRB, 13 July). The Belfast Trades and Labour Council had been attending the conferences of the Labour Representation Committee for some time. At the 1906 LRC conference in London, the executive recommended that the organisation change its name to the Labour Party. The proposal was accepted without debate, so that the 1907 Belfast conference was the first to be held under the new name.

‘The welcome which the Belfast workmen gave the conference was, for eagerness and warmth, worth ten thousand aristocratic or mayoral breasts,’ J. Bruce Glazier of the Independent Labour Party wrote in his report. ‘Their hand-grips and bright lighted eyes greeted us at every turn. The visit of the British Labour Party was to them as the rainbow-arch over the sky to the blessed Noah.’ However, the goodwill that the British representatives of the Labour Party showed in 1907 didn’t last long. Although Clause VIII of the Labour Party Rule Book enjoins the National Executive Committee to ‘establish Constituency Labour Parties in each Westminster parliamentary constituency area’, the NEC has made no effort to organise a CLP in any of the constituencies in Northern Ireland, or in the Stormont constituencies or local councils. In 2003, after a legal battle, the NEC did allow residents of Northern Ireland to become members of the Labour Party and permitted the formation of a regional constituency party. We are still fighting for the right to select Labour candidates for all seats in Westminster, the Stormont Assembly and local councils.

Paul Haslam

Colin Kidd writes that the Alliance party ‘took 20 per cent of the seats’ in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections of 2022. It would be more precise to say that the Alliance won 17 seats (17/90 = 18.8 per cent), but its first-preference vote total was 13.5 per cent. In the more recent May local government elections the Alliance came third in Northern Ireland with 13.3 per cent of the first-preference votes, just shy of 100,000 votes. It won 67 council seats (67/462 = 14.5 per cent): a small seat bonus and a net gain of fourteen councillors since 2019. (The party is appealing the electoral count in Derry and Strabane, where a counting error may have cost it a seat in favour of the SDLP.) In these elections, 43.8 per cent of the first-preference vote was taken by Irish nationalists and republicans, including independent nationalists and republicans.

Brendan O’Leary
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia


Michael Hofmann writes about Douglas Smith’s translation of Konstantin Paustovsky’s The Story of a Life (LRB, 29 June). I kept waiting for him to refer to the first English translation of this work, but he never did. Hofmann does say that during the Khrushchev thaw, Paustovsky was very well known in the Soviet Union and ‘enjoyed some reputation, now long gone, in the West’. I can confirm this from personal experience: one volume of the translation was lent to me by my Russian teacher at school in Bradford sometime between 1968 and 1970, more or less hot off the press. The translation was published by Harvill Press in six volumes between 1964 and 1974, the first three volumes translated by Manya Harari and Michael Duncan, volume 4 by Manya Harari and Andrew Thomson, and volumes 5 and 6, after Harari’s death, by Kyril FitzLyon (aka Kyril Zinovieff). Harari, who co-founded Harvill, and FitzLyon-Zinovieff are themselves interesting émigré figures and translators. I have an almost complete set in front of me now. The dust jacket for volume 2 (1965) tells us that ‘Paustovsky lives with his wife and stepdaughter in Tarusa, south of Moscow,’ and that he ‘visited England for the first time in 1964 when the first volume of his autobiography, Childhood and Schooldays, was published’.

David Denby

Lewis Pyenson wandered away from Michael Hofmann’s question, ‘What’s the Russian for “podunk”?’ (Letters, 27 July). But a good stab at an answer would be Poshekhonye, a remote rural region on the banks of the River Sogozha in the north of Yaroslavl province, 250 miles north of Moscow. Vasily Berezaisky brought the metaphorical possibilities of this place to the attention of Russian readers in a book of 1798. The idea was eventually immortalised in the title of the last novel by the satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, Poshekhonian Antiquity (1887-89).

David Saunders
Newcastle upon Tyne

Preaching to the Animals

Mary Wellesley tells the story of St Francis preaching to the birds: ‘On hearing his sermon, the birds opened their beaks, spread their wings and bent their necks in reverence’ (LRB, 27 July). In the Basilica di sant’Antonio in Padua, there is a most engaging fresco depicting St Anthony, a follower of St Francis, preaching to the fishes. Rejected by ‘heretics’ in Rimini, the story goes, St Anthony went to the shore, where fish gathered eagerly to hear him. The fresco shows a formidable variety of creatures, many of them smiling; I particularly like the lobster, which appears to be waving cheerily.

Jane M. Card
Harwell, Oxfordshire

Pain, No Gain

William Davies compares the economic crisis of the 1970s with the situation we face today, in particular the causes of inflation and the measures taken to address it (LRB, 13 July). He doesn’t mention the important role of the Price Commission between 1977 and 1979 in lowering companies’ expectations that they might be able to respond to inflation with price increases – the threat that the commission would investigate companies was very real. Labour went into the 1979 general election with this interventionist policy, which had helped reduce inflation to 9.9 per cent from a figure in the mid-twenties two years before. Margaret Thatcher’s first action after winning was to close down the Price Commission.

Anthony Colman
Aylmerton, Norfolk

Monumental Guns

Francis Gooding, writing about London’s monumental guns, mentions a Soviet T34 tank with ‘a slab of flats on the Old Kent Road in its sights’ (LRB, 18 May). He will be relieved to learn that the tank, formerly at the corner of Pages Walk and Mandela Way, has now gone, replaced by a skip made into a house. The tank, affectionately known as Stompie, was regularly painted by local artists, often with anti-war symbols. Sadly, these days, social housing residents in SE1 face more intractable threats than decommissioned tanks.

Mike Gavin
London SE26


David Ireland mentions that Helen Macfarlane, translator of The Communist Manifesto in 1850, is ‘widely derided’ for her rendering of ‘ein Gespenst’ as ‘a frightful hobgoblin’ (Letters, 13 July). At the time, ‘hobgoblin’ was sound literary currency. In 1684, John Bunyan’s ‘Who Would True Valour See’ has ‘Hobgoblin, nor foul Fiend/ Can daunt his Spirit.’ In Jeremy Bentham’s Book of Fallacies (1824), ‘The hobgoblin, the eventual appearance of which is denounced by this argument, is anarchy, which tremendous spectre has for its forerunner the monster innovation’. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance (which Macfarlane makes reference to in her own writings for the Red Republican) says: ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.’

David Black
London N22

Mirror Ball

To build on Rosemary Hill’s remarks about Noël Coward’s acting, it is instructive to consider his first and final film appearances (LRB, 29 June). Aged just eighteen, he received a double credit as ‘the man with a wheelbarrow/a villager in the streets’ in D.W. Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1918). In this First World War drama, set in France, filmed partly under barrage near the front and released eight months before the Armistice, Coward is at least creatively present in the conflict which, in reality, he avoided. But it’s his final role, playing alongside Michael Caine in The Italian Job (1969) as the royalist criminal financier Mr Bridger, that best displays the various, even contradictory facets of his ‘mirror ball’ persona. Viewed today, the film speaks more acutely than anyone at the time might have guessed about England’s future in relation to mainland Europe and beyond. The bullion being stolen is a down payment by China to Fiat for a car factory.

Gareth Evans
London E8

Who’s in, who’s out?

Robert Crawford ends his piece on poetry anthologies with mention of the polylingual Golden Treasury of Scottish Verse from 2021 (LRB, 15 June). Also published that year was Swirl of Words/Swirl of Worlds, a collection of poems selected by Stephen Watts, commissioned and published by PEER. This is an anthology of 116 poems in 94 different languages (Crawford will be pleased to see this includes Scottish and Irish Gaelic), all spoken in Hackney where PEER is based. English gets a look-in too.

Anna Rayne

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences