Vol. 45 No. 17 · 7 September 2023

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James Lasdun created a false persona for me in his review of Alexander Stille’s book on the Sullivanians (LRB, 27 July). I am Janie P., a former member of the Sullivanian group, and Stille interviewed me for his book. Describing the fear that motivated much of our behaviour while in the group, Lasdun writes: ‘Janie P., who had obeyed an order not to visit her dying mother, bleated feebly: “I mean I could have, but they brainwashed me.”’ Stille doesn’t say that I ‘bleated feebly’, and I would never have intoned the phrase that way. This seemingly minor misrepresentation indicates that Lasdun wants to convey that those of us who were in this cult remain helpless and weak. To the contrary, many of us, since leaving, have led accomplished and fulfilling lives, having learned from Sullivan’s theories and gained – despite the horrors of the leadership – from the experience of communal life.

Janie Paul
Ann Arbor, Michigan

In Need of a Rule

Seamus Perry derives the adjective ‘Wavian’ from Waugh, presumably following the model of ‘Shavian’ from Shaw (LRB, 10 August). Please, somebody, settle for me once and for all whether there is or is not a general rule for forming adjectives from the names of people and places: ‘Mancunian’ from Manchester, ‘Liverpudlian’ from Liverpool etc. I am anxious to avoid such mistakes as ‘Birminghamesque’.

David Aneurin Morgan
Salisbury, Wiltshire

To Turn One’s Plate

Tom Stevenson mentions a savage disagreement between French and Russian ambassadors in 1768 over diplomatic precedence recorded in Ernest Satow’s Guide to Diplomatic Practice of 1917 (LRB, 10 August). Satow also tells of an intense dispute between the French and Spanish ambassadors, the Comte d’Avaux and the Marques de la Fuente, which occurred in Denmark in 1633 over the seating at the wedding of King Christian IV’s son. The Danes proposed that d’Avaux could sit next to the king, or next to the imperial ambassador. D’Avaux replied: ‘I will give the Spanish ambassador the choice of the place which he regards as the most honourable, and when he shall have taken it, I will turn him out and take it myself.’ The matter was resolved when de la Fuente absented himself on grounds that he had urgent business elsewhere.

In my own time in the Australian diplomatic service, some fifty years ago, there was a widely circulated anecdote about a French ambassador who, feeling slighted by his placement at a diplomatic dinner, showed his displeasure by turning over his soup plate to refuse the first course. His point made, and honour satisfied, he went on to enjoy the rest of the meal.

Rob Wills
Brisbane, Queensland

Ban the Bomb

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite has the measure of the British state’s hapless civil defence preparations, but is less surefooted when it comes to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (LRB, 27 July). It wasn’t a movement of ‘the immediate postwar era’, but (as its activists saw it) marked a break with that stifling period; indeed it was the first step towards 1968. While CND marched from London to Aldermaston in 1958, the ‘annual march’ of subsequent years, which became the ‘iconic CND protest’, was actually in the opposite direction. The Cuban Missile Crisis may have ‘boosted support’ at that particular moment, when nuclear war seemed imminent, but it also created a sense of impotence, and the superpowers’ success in defusing the crisis helped demobilise the movement. It was revived in 1980, initially by European Nuclear Disarmament rather than CND, in response to Nato’s decision, while Jimmy Carter was US president, to introduce cruise and Pershing II missiles into five European countries including the UK – Reagan and his ‘Star Wars’ programme came later.

Martin Shaw
Seaton, Devon

Pain, No Gain

Anthony Colman refers to the role of the Price Commission in helping to cut inflation during the Callaghan administration (Letters, 10 August). I was one of the economists seconded there as the permanent staff fled its anticipated abolition by Thatcher. I worked on the report on the price of gas, which was then supplied by the nationalised British Gas Corporation. We recommended increasing the price because a premium fuel was undercutting other sources of energy and made coal look expensive. North Sea reserves were being depleted much too quickly. Even the shelving of our report did not save the Labour government and certainly did not help save the coal industry.

John Craven
Rogate, West Sussex

Who’s in, who’s out?

Robert Crawford, in his survey of British poetry anthologies, doesn’t mention one particularly contentious selection (LRB, 15 June). W.B. Yeats’s Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892-1935 (1936) omits all the Great War poets – Owen, Rosenberg, Sassoon, Blunden and their comrades – on the dubious grounds that ‘passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.’ In his introduction Yeats acknowledges that these poets ‘were invariably officers of exceptional courage and capacity’, but his contempt, especially for Owen, is betrayed in a letter of 26 December 1936, in which Owen is dismissed as ‘all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick – he calls poets “bards”, a girl a “maid” & talks about “Titanic wars”. There is every excuse for him but none for those who like him.’ A bit rich, coming from the author of ‘The Song of the Happy Shepherd’, ‘A Faery Song’ and ‘The Secret Rose’.

Sharon Footerman
London NW4


Deborah Friedell wonders why the fervently anti-communist J. Edgar Hoover didn’t publicly blame the Russians for being behind the Kennedy assassination, especially given Lee Harvey Oswald’s clear connections with the Soviet regime (LRB, 27 July). The answer is straightforward: fear of a nuclear confrontation. If Russia had been involved, it could have been taken as a declaration of war; public opinion would have demanded the strongest possible action and the US would have been compelled to make a military response. President Johnson ‘guided’ the Warren Commission report into the assassination to avoid blaming the Russians: a lone-gunman assassin was much the safer option.

Sean McGlynn
University of Plymouth at Strode College, Street, Somerset

Not Welcome

Owen Bennett-Jones writes about second homes in Wales (LRB, 27 July). I moved from Yorkshire to work in North Wales twenty years ago and was met with almost universal friendliness. Two anecdotes, however, might illustrate the antipathy that the Welsh in general feel towards their neighbours to the east. I once listened to a debate on the bilingual ‘Croeso – Welcome’ road signs in which a speaker argued that since ‘Croeso’ was widely understood by English visitors (and indeed, appears in some English dictionaries), the English word could be omitted from the sign. Linguistic purity would be maintained, with the added bonus of conveying exactly what sort of welcome was being extended. The bilingual signs remained. A sign of a different sort can still be made out, although the paint is fading, on the sea wall above the beach near where I live. WALES IS A LOVELY PLACE FOR A HOLIDAY, the graffiti reads, in letters a foot high. NOW GO HOME.

Mike Watkinson
Morfa Nefyn, Gwynedd

The Remove of Coke

In his review of my novel The Winding Stair, Stephen Sedley suggests that Francis Bacon’s handwritten memorandum ‘Reasons for the Remove of Coke’ was not intended for King James I, on the basis that it lacks a formal address (LRB, 27 July). But this hardly decides the matter: a separate note of address may have gone missing, or the memo might have been delivered via a clerk or courtier. At any rate, Bacon’s memo was very likely read by James, since most of its (non-obvious) recommendations were adopted.

Jesse Norman

One of His Tricks

Jenny Turner reports that Fleur Jaeggy wrote an Italian translation of Thomas De Quincey’s Last Days of Immanuel Kant (LRB, 27 July). It’s worth noting that the opium eater was playing one of his tricks: Last Days is a plagiarised version of a German work published in 1804 by Kant’s last amanuensis, Ehregott Andreas Wasianski.

Jonathan Rée

Jenny Turner remarks that ‘the first bit of German’ used by Fleur Jaeggy ‘in her most famous book, Sweet Days of Discipline (1989), is the word for “duty”, Zwang’. In fact the sense of this word is considerably more forceful: ‘compulsion’. (In chess, a player in Zugzwang has no choice but to play a certain move or resign.) The German word for ‘duty’ is Pflicht.

Roy Kift


As a former chemistry teacher I thoroughly enjoyed Mike Jay’s account of the journey from perfumery to molecular stereochemistry (LRB, 27 July). I was reminded of my days as a newly qualified teacher at a Leicestershire comprehensive school in the 1970s, when I was given a group of reluctant pupils with the instruction to ‘keep them occupied’. After a couple of false starts we agreed that they might enjoy making simple glass ornaments. I knew a little about glass blowing so I was able to teach them how to combine coloured and transparent glass to make animal figures and Christmas tree decorations. Then one of them made a small bottle complete with stopper. Her classmate said she should buy some perfume, pour some of it into the bottle and give it to her mum as a Mother’s Day gift. ‘We could actually make the perfume too,’ I said. With some dried lavender, rose petals, and orange and lemon peel, we applied solvent extraction and steam distillation to good effect and everyone was able to produce small bottles of perfume for their mothers.

HildaRuth Beaumont
Brighton, East Sussex

Not Fair

Randall Kennedy, writing about affirmative action in the United States, points out that the practice was used only at elite institutions, such as Harvard, where there are many more applicants than there are places (LRB, 10 August). In the UK, too, most universities can admit the majority of applicants who meet the minimal entrance requirements, but Oxford and Cambridge in particular have many more applicants than they have places to offer. How should this problem be addressed? I would argue that the solution lies in random selection. An institution like Harvard should set minimal entrance requirements. There would of course be many more applicants than available places. The lucky candidates would then be selected by some random process. The great advantage of this method is that it is completely blind to differences in class, gender or ethnic origin. It is also less likely to breed resentment among unsuccessful candidates than other methods, which inevitably arouse suspicions of unfair discrimination of one kind or another. The use of random selection for entrance to elite institutions may strike some as unrealistic, but it has in fact been used very successfully for medical school admissions in the Netherlands for more than thirty years.

Donald Gillies
London SE21

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