Vol. 45 No. 19 · 5 October 2023

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Austin’s War

Thomas Nagel mentions the gathering of intelligence about the French coastline by J.L. Austin and his ‘Martians’ in preparation for the Normandy landings (LRB, 7 September). My parents visited friends in Normandy in 1938, spending time at Luc-sur-Mer on the Côte de Nacre, ten miles or so from Caen. The story goes that when Austin’s call for photographs went out, my mother retrieved their holiday snaps – groups on the beach, the apartment on the shoreline etc – with the idea of sending them in. My father was dismissive, saying that this stretch of coastline was unlikely to feature in any invasion. The photographs were submitted nevertheless, adding to the many thousands in the intelligence dataset. A year or two after the war they were scrupulously returned.

In the event, Luc-sur-Mer was right at the heart of D-Day action, between Sword and Juno beaches. But the landings happened either side of the town, and that two-mile strip wasn’t taken by the invading force until a day later. (Apparently the offshore seabed was unsuitable for landing craft.) That left a narrow gap in the initial Allied beachhead, but wide enough to allow my father to claim subsequently that he had been technically correct.

Peter Denman
Maynooth, Co. Kildare

Thomas Nagel mentions that J.L. Austin and his colleagues lost track of a ‘crack’ German grenadier regiment which eventually defended Omaha Beach on D-Day. But this intelligence failure wasn’t responsible for the subsequent disaster on that landing ground. Unlike the four other beaches used for the invasion, Omaha was backed by high bluffs from which German troops enfiladed the US troops; one machine-gunner, Hein Severloh, alone slaughtered scores. Given his encyclopedic knowledge of the Norman coast, Austin would have known months before the invasion that many young Americans would die on Omaha. That must have been difficult to bear even for a Martian.

Anthony King
University of Warwick

The Forger’s Forger

Rosemary Hill mentions Eric Hebborn, ‘the forger’s forger’ (LRB, 7 September). Only a few months before his violent death, I was introduced to him in Rome by an Australian friend, a historian of the Vatican. Hebborn took us to a bar, where he regaled us with a theory of his based, he said, on months of ‘archival research’ and on his technical knowledge of Renaissance drawing and painting. The recent restorers of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, he said, had removed much of his original shadowing under the misapprehension it was grime. Concerns about this had already been tentatively raised by others, but Hebborn claimed that he had amassed solid evidence and planned to make it the subject of his next book. Maybe he was just blabbing; he was clearly drunk by the time he told us this. We’ll never know what he might have had in store: after his death, the circumstances of which were never made clear, the apartment he’d been living in was ransacked.

Ian Britain
Melbourne, Victoria

Sceptical about Forceps

Erin Maglaque, in her survey of early modern midwifery, writes that Dr John Burton of York was ‘sceptical about forceps’ (LRB, 7 September). Certainly he was sceptical about the obstetrical forceps of other practitioners. He did, though, try to market his own patent device, whereby a screw mechanism opened and closed two curved pincers, rather resembling lobster claws. These proved disastrous in practice as, unlike the usual hand-operated scissor forceps, they had no ‘feel’ to them, with the result that babies’ bodies and in particular skulls were often crushed by them. Laurence Sterne, who lampooned Burton as Dr Slop in Tristram Shandy, gives these ‘new invented forceps’ a central role in the drama of Tristram’s birth. Their use results in the crushing of the bridge of the baby’s nose, from which follows many pages of Shandean consternation.

Robin Blake
London N1

Not Fair

Donald Gillies addresses the challenge of selecting applicants for limited places at elite educational institutions (Letters, 7 September). The same problem crops up with regard to a wide range of scarce resources, from places at a childcare centre to tickets for a West End show. Gillies advocates random selection (assuming an established base level of eligibility) and gives the example of admissions to medical school in the Netherlands. The national system of admission to Dutch medical schools by lottery has a long and complex history. It was established in 1972, then abandoned in 2017; legislation has been passed allowing it to start up again this year. The system was never a simple ballot; essentially, it admitted a cohort of outstanding candidates, then balloted any remaining students who met a minimum threshold.

Random selection in education has been used in Britain too. A form of ballot was, for example, implemented for admissions to study medicine at Barts and the London for a period earlier this century. Conall Boyle, in Lotteries for Education: Origins, Experiences, Lessons (2010), surveys ballot systems used to manage oversubscribed school admissions, from Lancashire in the 1980s to schools in Essex, Brighton, London, Hertfordshire and Norfolk. The Lancashire ballot system survived a challenge in the High Court, and the UK Office of the Schools Adjudicator has repeatedly approved admission by ballot.

What little research there has been doesn’t show significant differences in performance or completion by students admitted at random or according to criteria. But a ballot system – even one that allows first for a cohort of ‘outstanding’ candidates – does confound aspirants’ expectations based on the socially reinforced idea of ‘merit’ and, less excusably, on a sense of entitlement derived from family, wealth and heritage. The resentment felt by those who miss out (or by their parents) has led to legal challenges, and has consistently gained enough momentum to bring an end to ballots, as happened in the Netherlands and at Barts and the London.

I use a ballot myself to decide who will be admitted to my oversubscribed law courses. Allowing for threshold competence, I literally put students’ names in a hat, and ask a colleague in a neighbouring office to carry out the draw. Unsuccessful students have never objected.

Simon Rice
University of Sydney

Twists and Turns

Daniel Trilling writes about gaining German citizenship as a descendant of a German Jewish citizen expelled by the Nazis (LRB, 21 September). The Spanish government now offers passports to the children and grandchildren of volunteers in the International Brigade, who fought in Spain from 1936 to 1939. I and a number of other descendants of volunteers are currently struggling with the bureaucracy of embassies and consulates. Our fathers (or, in a few cases, mothers) were ostracised by the UK government during the Spanish Civil War: their citizenship wasn’t revoked but joining the fighting in Spain was declared illegal.

These stories always have twists and turns. My father was a member of the International Brigade (as was his brother, who was killed at Brunete in July 1937). But he had also married, in 1933, a Jewish German girl who was an active communist, in order to secure her from Nazi persecution. She too served with the International Brigade in Spain and eventually, when her marriage to my father ended, went to live in the GDR.

Colin Carritt
Woodstock, Oxfordshire


Colm Tóibín writes that the early editions of Ulysses were notorious for their textual errors (LRB, 7 September). In the early 1980s, reading the ‘Ithaca’ section of my 1969 Bodley Head edition, I puzzled over ‘a sting inflicted 2 weeks and 3 days previously (23 May 1904) by a bee’, which would date Bloomsday to 9 June 1904. I wrote to Bodley Head, who suggested that ‘it was Joyce’s own mistake, and not that of the compositor, though, oddly enough, four lines lower down a correction was made – from “10 October 1903” to “17 October 1903” – and I just wonder whether Joyce told someone to advance the date in that paragraph by a week and they altered the wrong one.’ I never did hear if the Joyce estate decided to amend the date, but I’ll look forward to buying my own copy of the Annotations once I’ve saved up enough pocket money.

John Glenday
Carnoustie, Angus

Invite the Footman

Colin Kidd, writing about Catharine Macaulay, rightly argues for the importance of ‘contextualism’ in understanding the debates of the day (LRB, 7 September). We should bear that in mind when thinking about the encounter between Samuel Johnson and Macaulay, where Johnson said that if she was a true egalitarian she should ask her footman to dinner. ‘Johnson’s boorishness was more conspicuous than Macaulay’s supposed hypocrisy,’ Kidd writes, but Johnson was fairly consistent in his despair and amusement at liberal hypocrisy, and his full remarks in this case are interesting: ‘Your levellers wish to level down as far as themselves, but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves.’ That’s not so different from his repugnance towards the cloaking of slavery in liberal rhetoric, where the ‘loudest yelps for liberty’ came from the slave-owning Americans. Johnson himself had no problem dining with servants (and of course a main beneficiary of his will was a servant, Francis Barber). One wonders why Macaulay didn’t accept his excellent idea of dining with the footman?

John Mullen
London N4

More than Enough

Ferdinand Mount compares David Carpenter’s lengthy treatment of the first forty years of the reign of Henry III with that of Sir Maurice Powicke, who in The 13th Century, 1216-1307 (1953) ‘devotes little more than a hundred of his eight hundred pages to those first four decades’ (LRB, 21 September). The implication is that Powicke didn’t find this period very interesting, but in fact he had covered the years between 1216 and 1258 in more than 350 pages (out of 700) in King Henry III and the Lord Edward, published six years before. He gave a summary treatment in the later book because he didn’t want to repeat himself.

Graham A. Loud
University of Leeds

Bored Spies

Matt Foot, writing about undercover policing, mentions the surveillance on his father, Paul Foot (LRB, 29 June). I once drove Paul to a speaking engagement in Madison, Wisconsin. He told me that the police had spied on him throughout his career. The spies tapping his phone must have had such a boring time, he speculated, with something close to sympathy. He wondered if they ever tired of hearing him make the case for socialism. Perhaps some of them were persuaded, I said.

Bill Roberts

In Need of a Rule

David Aneurin Morgan writes that he is ‘anxious to avoid such mistakes as ‘Birminghamesque’ (Letters, 7 September). Never fear. The word he wants has long been in use. It’s ‘Brummagem’.

David L. Book
Monterey, California


Lucy Wooding writes about Susan Rose’s Henry VIII and the Merchants, 188 pages long and priced at £85 (LRB, 10 August). Was the publisher, Bloomsbury, printing on vellum?

Celina Fox
Great Chishill, Cambridgeshire

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