Vol. 46 No. 6 · 21 March 2024

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It’s Not Cricket

Ben Walker’s reflections on VAR invite the observation that VAR’s problem is not the technology (which we love to doubt), or the people who operate it (whom we love to demonise), but the relationship between VAR and the on-pitch referee it is supposed to be helping (LRB, 22 February). VAR’s original sin is surely its insistence that the referee remains sovereign. As Walker says, IFAB guidelines state that VAR ‘may assist the referee only in the event of a “clear and obvious error” or “serious missed incident”’, and that ‘it must not be seen to “re-referee” the game.’ This polite fiction has generated a number of problems: it has done nothing to relieve the pressure on refs from players, for whom outrage is a professional obligation; it has elongated games while refs consult the pitch-side monitor; and it has disenfranchised the ticket-holders in the stands, who are the last to know what’s going on.

In cricket, the introduction of technology has been far less disruptive despite the sport’s ostensible traditionalism. This is partly because the tech is used to make judgments that are objective (the Snickometer’s oscilloscope shows unambiguously whether or not the ball hit the edge of the bat) rather than subjective (does that physical coming together of two players constitute a penalty?). But it’s also because by incorporating technology into its decision-making, cricket has straightforwardly abandoned the fiction of on-pitch sovereignty. When there is doubt over a decision, the umpire is not invited to the boundary to participate in a twelve-angle tutorial on his putative folly; he is simply told in-ear whether he was right or wrong, and to confirm or change his decision accordingly. IFAB insists that the football ref remains in charge, yet Sky Sports reported in January that of the 55 times referees had been ‘advised’ to overturn their decisions in the Premier League this season, they had done so 54 times. If football plainly acknowledged that the true authority now lies upstairs in the VAR booth, players would have less incentive to get in the ref’s face, away fans at a midweek match would have a slightly better chance of making the last train home, and the crowd would be privy to the judicial process along with the rest of us.

Simon Skinner

Ferdinand Mount remarks on the ‘triumph of fandom’ in modern sport (LRB, 22 February). It should be added that this is in the context of industrial capitalism, which has created a distinction between player and spectator, while also restricting the playing area to enhance the rights of property holders and the length of the game so as not to disrupt the working day. Even the use of officials has a parallel with the creation of the industrial overseer to train the industrial worker.

As a surviving example of what sport once was and could be again, Ashbourne in Derbyshire is the home of Shrovetide football, played annually over two eight-hour weekdays across a three-mile ‘pitch’ that takes in the town and local farms. Only churchyards and building sites are ‘out of bounds’. There is no distinction between players and spectators, so hundreds of people can be actively involved at any one time. The event is self-policing: there is a shared understanding of when to back off to prevent harm to a player or damage to vehicles, gates etc. When the land and business-owning magistrates tried to ban the game in the late 19th century, it took place nevertheless, the ball surreptitiously thrown from a bedroom window to the waiting crowd, many of whom had been arrested before for playing the game. A banner was at the same time unfurled proclaiming ‘Britons shall never be slaves.’

Bunny Hambleton-Relf
Grandes Roques, Guernsey

Which came first?

I am glad Brian Vickers enjoyed my essay ‘Henry and Hamlet’ (Letters, 7 March). The scholarly points he makes constitute a lucid and patient effort to straighten out the essentially hypothetical and peculiarly contentious context of Shakespeare’s early histories. Since I am not everywhere in agreement with his summary, it is fortunate that these arguments are less a direct response than a valuable addition to my own more critical or literary suggestion: that whichever of the play’s three parts came first, we need to explain why Shakespeare was so interested in Henry VI, this insubstantial late medieval monarch, in order to illuminate some of his later, greater writing.

Barbara Everett

Brian Vickers writes that he was disturbed by Barbara Everett’s scepticism about the validity of current methodologies for identifying ‘authorship, dating and text, style and subject’ in the study of Elizabethan drama, especially where Shakespeare is concerned. But his own certainty in such matters is equally disturbing. To assert of a play (Henry VI Part 1) that it was ‘written a year later’ than the other two parts is troubling, given that we only ever have a terminus ad quem for any play – a ‘date by which’ it must have existed. As Margreta de Grazia and Tiffany Stern have recently urged, following Kevin Gilvary’s Dating Shakespeare’s Plays (2010), it would be better to give a broad range of ‘years within which’, when trying to place a play chronologically, rather than to pinpoint a date of composition. Henry VI Part 1 may have been a response to Parts 2 and 3; but it may have preceded them. Its differences from the old harey the vi may be the result of changes made by Shakespeare to a play by other hands; or they may constitute his revision of his own earlier work. To say that praise of Lord Strange is implied in the portrayal of Lord Talbot, Strange’s ancestor, and that this seems to back the claims made for co-authorship of the proto-play by Strange’s protégés Thomas Kyd and Thomas Nashe, does not rule out a priori that Shakespeare authored the whole play – he too might have been under Strange’s patronage, or bidding for it.

But the main cause for concern is the solid conviction that stylistics in its current state can give certainty as to authorship. The quarrels between Vickers and Gary Taylor on the subject are notorious. Vickers has in the past ascribed Shakespeare’s A Lover’s Complaint to John Davies of Hereford, but Marina Tarlinskaja has undermined that claim. As Joseph Rudman has said, stylistics should be a last resort, not a foundational hermeneutic. Everett has elsewhere expressed her scepticism towards the vogue for new attributions, highlighting the potential for parody and imitation in a group of such ‘theatrical’ writers. And the whole question of the reliability of the database from which Shakespeare’s style is extrapolated is, it seems to me, never properly posed. What about the Shakespearean apocrypha? Should some, or none, or all be added to his oeuvre? Should the deeply Shakespearean Thomas of Woodstock be added, as a precursor of Richard II? Different answers will yield different conceptions of what ‘Shakespeare’s style’ is. Everett is right not to accept these ‘certainties’.

Penny McCarthy
London SE3

Apostle of Apostles

Marina Warner writes about several portraits of Mary Magdalene with writing instruments in hand by a French artist from the early 16th century, the Master of the Female Half-Lengths, ‘surely some of the earliest depictions of a woman writing’ (LRB, 22 February). Dating from more than five hundred years before that, on the Lakshmana temple in Khajuraho in central India, there is a sculpture of a woman seen from behind in the act of writing a letter, generally identified as an Apsara, or celestial nymph. And from first-century Pompeii, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, there is a fresco of a woman with a wax tablet and stylus, popularly known as ‘Sappho’.

Peter Bisschop
Leiden University

Jane M. Card writes that illustrations of Mary Magdalene preaching are ‘rare not least because of St Paul’s injunctions against women preaching’ (Letters, 7 March). In fact the injunctions come from the later Church. Paul commends to the Romans ‘our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae’ (Romans 16:1), and includes almost as many women as men among his personal greetings. For Paul it was normal for women to ‘prophesy’ and pray. He thought they should keep their heads covered when doing so (I Corinthians 11:5). The contradiction in the same epistle – ‘Let your women keep silence in the churches’ (I Corinthians 14:34) – is a later interpolation designed to deny female participation.

Robert Johnstone
Richmond, Surrey


Richard J. Evans takes the popularity of doner kebabs and currywurst in Germany to be a sign of a ‘new era of multiculturalism’ that began with reunification (LRB, 7 March). Currywurst was in fact created in 1949 by Herta Heuwer in her kiosk in the Kantstrasse in Berlin. When she tried to register the sauce, called Chillup, her claim was disputed by a cook in Hamburg, who insisted that she had concocted it in 1947 from curry powder given to her by an American soldier.

Martin Kitchen
Vancouver, British Columbia

In Surrey Quays

Owen Hatherley’s tour of postwar Scandinavian architecture in Britain would have been considerably longer had he included the 2444 flatpacked timber houses which were prefabricated in Sweden and quickly erected across rural Britain following the Second World War (LRB, 8 February). They are pretty and humane. The deal was initially brokered for the Ministry of Works by Cyril Sjöström during the war. Unfortunately the first shipment was seized by a U-boat. The admirable Prefab Museum has been documenting them, and estimates that around two thousand survive. One pair of the bungalow type in Auckley, near Doncaster, is listed, but examples of other types deserve to be protected, not least an attractive group in Stinchcombe, Gloucestershire, which are currently under threat of demolition.

Otto Saumarez-Smith
University of Warwick

Give your mom a gun

Geoff Mann states that the .223 ammunition used by most AR-15s contains ‘a bullet 0.223 inches in diameter’ (LRB, 7 March). The diameter is in fact .224 inches, the error no doubt owed to the misleading naming practices for rifle calibres: the .218 Bee, the .219 Zipper, the .220 Swift, the .221 Fireball, the .222 Remington, the .223 Remington, the .224 Valkyrie and the .225 Winchester all fire the same size bullet, .224 inches in diameter.

Vernon Shetley
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Origins of the Gay Novel

Tom Crewe remarks that Zola ‘did not write a novel about a gay man’ (LRB, 8 February). Actually, he did. Paris (1898) has Hyacinthe Duvillard, a young minor aristocrat in hopeful correspondence with a London counterpart, for whom read Lord Alfred Douglas. He is described as a languid parasite of ‘appetites without scruple’, one of a group of decadents professing ‘the worst philosophical and social ideas, running always to extremes, by turns collectivist, individualist, anarchist, pessimist, symbolist, even sodomist’. Worst of all for the pro-natalist Zola, he finds women and fertility loathsome, aspiring to a sterile aesthetic purity. Paris also features Silviane, an actress whose innocent image conceals some unspecified ‘monstrous perversity’, strongly hinted to be lesbianism. There is, sadly, no modern English translation of Zola’s Belle Époque blockbuster, though it is the only one of his novels with a happy ending. Perhaps his publishers didn’t want to spoil the brand.

Robert Poole
Sale, Cheshire

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