Letters

Vol. 42 No. 7 · 2 April 2020

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What’s Your Ontology?

Further to Hassan Damluji’s response to Claire Hall, the Athenians and the Thebans were not the only ancient Greeks with a claim – or who advanced a claim – to be autochthonous (Letters, 5 March). The Arcadians did too, indeed their claim is an even better one, based as it is on their Arcado-Cypriot dialect: an earlier form than either the Athenians’ Attic- Ionic or the Thebans’ Boeotian-Aeolic. On the other hand, the Arcadians were dismissed and dissed by Apollo’s oracular priestess at Delphi as mere ‘acorn-eaters’, not much if at all superior culturally to the ‘barbarian’ (non-Greek) and allegedly also autochthonous Carians, with whom Herodotus apparently had close personal connections.

Paul Cartledge
Clare College, Cambridge

The discussion of autochthony brought to mind the Netherlands, where until 2016 a distinction was made at the institutional level between the allochtoon and the autochtoon. ‘Autochtoon’ refers to Dutch-born people. The term immediately raises the question of how birthplace intersects with citizenship. ‘Allochtoon’ is or was a term used to denote immigrants to the Netherlands; officially its meaning was someone who has one or more parents from outside the Netherlands. Unofficially, it became a way for the ‘real Dutch’ to distinguish themselves from the ‘foreigners’, even if those ‘foreigners’ did have Dutch citizenship (in law an individual is Dutch if they have one or more Dutch parents). Since 2016 institutions have stopped using the term.

In some circles ‘allochtoon’ became a codeword to indicate people with Indonesian, Moroccan or Turkish ancestry (i.e. those who ‘looked foreign’ to people who prefer to believe that all Dutch have white skin). Yet it turned out that a large proportion of ‘allochtonen’ were actually of German ancestry. Another distinction was made between ‘Western allochtonen’ and ‘non-Western allochtonen’. However this only made things worse, since the ‘Western allochtonen’ included people from Japan and Indonesia, while ‘non-Western allochtonen’ included people from the Dutch Antilles (fully part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands) and fluent Dutch speakers from Suriname who had moved to the Netherlands in Europe when it was still fully part of the kingdom. Today, King Willem is ‘Western allochtoon’ and Queen Máxima and the children are ‘non-Western allochtoon’.

E.T.C. Dee
Brighton

He Hated Bonnard

Lili Owen Rowlands writes about Françoise Gilot’s book from 1964, Life with Picasso (LRB, 19 March). Gilot, whom I interviewed at her home in New York last year for Harper’s Bazaar, is still working and her memory continues to be needle-sharp. One story she told, not included in the book, details how her first meeting with Matisse came about. In 1946 Gilot was staying and working in Golfe-Juan with the artisan- engraver Louis Fort, a friend of Picasso’s. She was planning to visit the studio of Bonnard at Le Cannet with her friend Pauline Denis. When Picasso heard about this, he took exception. ‘It provoked a great argument between us. Pablo said he hated Bonnard – hated him! – and did not want me to visit. I replied that I could of course do what I liked without his permission, but the argument was heated, and I did in the end decline to go. As a result, when he realised how irrational he had been, he said he would take me to visit his friend Matisse – whose work I liked even more than Bonnard – then living at Villa le Rêve in Vence, a short drive away. I knew it was a sort of trade-off to appease me but I accepted.’

Gilot also published an account of the friendship between the two artists, Matisse and Picasso: A Friendship in Art (1990) which further illuminates the relationship that evolved between all three of them and how much she was admired by Matisse too, as an artist in her own right.

Harriet Griffey
London N19

No Spoilers

‘No spoilers here,’ Colin Burrow writes, reviewing the final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy (LRB, 19 March). You can never be quite sure. When Wolf Hall was being shown on the BBC, I was asked by Radio 4’s Today programme to do a compare and contrast on Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. I finished with the rather trite remark that ‘they both came to the same sticky end.’ Mine was almost the last slot, and once the programme had ended one of the presenters leaned over and told me there had been a complaint. Someone had phoned in to say I had spoiled the ending for her.

Michael Walsh
London N4

Is it OK to have a child?

Meehan Crist carefully measures the extent of a child’s carbon footprint (LRB, 5 March). But in her consideration of various personal or familial prescriptions, she like many others before her omits to mention the rarity, until very recently, of the only child. In the baby boom 1950s and early 1960s, they – OK, we – were anomalous, few and far between.

Bill McKibben’s call for one baby per family unit fails to acknowledge that every only child is a monster, albeit an articulate and well-socialised monster, hypervigilant when it comes to parental moods, driven to excel in order to reap praise and rewards but ever standing in an unhappy, unstable relation to authority and to peers with siblings. What is the mass psychology of a generation, or a nation, of ‘onlies’?

Mike Mosher
Bay City, Michigan

Meehan Crist argues that ‘it is impossible to put an upper limit on how many people are too many for the planet’. Writing in 1964, the physicist John Fremlin put the figure at 60,000,000,000,000,000. He arrived at this by balancing the energy received from the Sun with the total heat emission of the Earth and its vast number of inhabitants. In Fremlin’s scenario, all wildlife has died and the oceans have boiled away. Every square metre of the Earth’s surface is home to 120 naked people, living in towers two thousand storeys high. They eat synthesised food piped to their living quarters and are discouraged from any heat-producing exercise. If the population were to grow any larger, people would be cooked to death by their own body heat. It’s an appalling prospect, but Fremlin finds a silver lining. Anyone living in such conditions would be in close proximity to ten million people with whom they could interact. What’s more, you ‘could expect some ten million Shakespeares and rather more Beatles to be alive at any one time’, and ‘a good range of television entertainment should be available.’

Peter Kemp
King’s College London

How to Be a Liar

I wonder if John Ruskin’s comment in Modern Painters has a place in Colin Burrow’s analysis: ‘The essence of lying is in deception, not in words’ (LRB, 20 February). ‘A lie may be told in silence,’ he continues, ‘by equivocation, by the accent on a syllable, by a glance of the eye attaching a peculiar significance to a sentence; but all of these kinds of lies are worse and baser by many degrees than a lie plainly worded.’

Scott Herrick
Rio Rancho, New Mexico

At DFID

I enjoyed Chris Mullin’s account of the triumphs and travails of the Department for International Development (LRB, 19 March). He raises the prospect that DFID’s sensible strictures on the use of development aid could increasingly be circumvented by channelling aid budgets through the rather more freewheeling CDC Group. However, his history of that organisation isn’t entirely accurate; indeed, the truth is even more troubling than his account suggests. CDC was not established in 1948 as the ‘Commonwealth Development Corporation’ with a remit ‘to promote investment in former British colonies’. In fact, its first incarnation was the Colonial Development Corporation (the name change came in 1963), and its remit was to fund development projects in colonial possessions in accordance with the political and economic priorities of the metropole. In its early years, the overwhelming preoccupation was with dollar earnings for the sterling area, and the CDC pursued damaging, monocultural export projects which often made little sense beyond the ledgers of London’s balance sheet. Even the Economist wondered whether the principal remit of the CDC was not ‘exploiting the colonies’. Some of these schemes were spectacular failures, such as the enormous Gambia poultry concern which had produced zero eggs and many millions of dead chickens by the time it was abandoned in 1951. The CDC’s early attempts to bend colonial and Commonwealth development projects around metropolitan policy interests are a further warning against a return to such practices in international development aid.

Alistair Kefford
University of Leicester

Conrad and Hardy

Anne Carson’s intriguing poem ‘1 x 30’ envisages, among many other things, Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad attending a dinner party together in 1907 (LRB, 5 March). In my recent book Hardy, Conrad and the Senses, I mention that Hardy and Conrad met only three times, at dinner parties held in 1903, 1907 and 1920. A conjectured fourth meeting in 1917 has them sheltering from a Zeppelin attack, along with John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett, in J.M. Barrie’s flat in Adelphi Terrace, where they were later joined by George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. ‘We just heard a little pop in the distance,’ Hardy told Virginia Woolf when she interviewed him in 1926. ‘The searchlights were beautiful. I thought if a bomb now were to fall on this flat how many writers would be lost.’

The evidence for Conrad’s presence is dubious, though accepted by some scholars. It rests entirely on the recollection of William Lyon Phelps, in his autobiography of 1939, of what Barrie told him. ‘Suddenly a tremendous bomb fell from the sky and exploded on the pavement very close to their apartment,’ Phelps writes, which conflicts with Hardy’s account. Conrad’s letters do not record the visit. ‘Later in the evening,’ Bennett ends his journal entry for Wednesday, 25 July 1917, ‘Barrie brought along both Shaw and the Wellses by phone … The spectacle of Wells and GBS talking firmly and strongly about the war, in their comparative youth, in front of this aged, fatigued and silent man – incomparably their superior as a creative artist – was very striking.’ It is scarcely credible that if Conrad had been present, Bennett would not have mentioned him – he revered Conrad.

Although Galsworthy said that Conrad liked Hardy’s poetry, the few recorded comments each writer made about the other are nicely poised between praise and disparagement. Hardy said to Hamlin Garland in 1923 that Conrad was ‘a great writer, a very great writer, but he is not English in any sense’; while in 1908 Conrad complained to Galsworthy about ‘something in me that is unsympathetic to the general public – because the novels of Hardy, for instance, are generally tragic enough and gloomily written too – and yet they have sold in their time and are selling to the present day. Foreignness I suppose.’ Hardy declined to write an article for the commemorative issue of La Nouvelle Revue française devoted to Conrad on his death in 1924. It would seem hard to find two contemporary great writers less inclined to acknowledge each other directly. In the extraordinary list of literary figures who visited Hardy at Max Gate provided by Mark Ford in his excellent Thomas Hardy: Half a Londoner, Conrad is conspicuous by his absence.

Hugh Epstein
Twickenham

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