Friday, May 20, 2011

Three Lists from the LRB

Ordered by brevity:

1. Neal Ascherson on the "intelligent, leftish" types who went on delegations to China in the 1950s:
Weird as abroad often turned out to be, they were determined to find it familiar, recognisable, lovable. This must be the explanation for the funniest element in Wright’s story: everywhere was just like England, if you looked hard enough.

Stanley Spencer explained to Zhou that China was like Cookham. The Ming Tombs reminded him of the village of Wangford, where he had married his first wife. Morgan Phillips found that Beijing was much like Bedford. The physician Derrick James noted that Prague, visited on the way to Beijing, resembled Maidstone. Hugh Casson compared Moscow to Manchester a hundred years earlier; the great scientist Joseph Needham mystifyingly thought that Kunming was a bit like the vicarage at Duxford near Cambridge; the artist Paul Hogarth wrote that travelling from Beijing to Shanghai was much the same as going from Sheffield to Manchester. More perilously, the delegates tried to demystify the Chinese present by equating it with brave bits of the English past. The rural co-operatives were like the Rochdale Pioneers, the People’s Liberation Army was like Cromwell’s Roundheads.

2. Keith Thomas, reviewing a book about holy places in 17th century England:
In the 17th century the parson-poet George Herbert lamented that it was very difficult to get country folk to see God’s hand in the workings of nature. They thought that crops grew because of their own efforts, not divine providence. They knew the landscape around them in intimate detail but, for them, its associations were primarily connected with their own labours and those of their predecessors. [...] Topographical traditions were not just about saints and monks. More usually, they related to kings and queens, armies and battles, or folk heroes like Robin Hood, Guy of Warwick and, above all, King Arthur, to whom, according to the Elizabethan historian William Camden, ‘the common sort ascribe whatever is ancient or strange’. Cairns, cromlechs and barrows were believed to be memorials to ancient princes or tombs of great men slain in battle, usually against the Danes. Ruins were indiscriminatingly regarded as the work of Oliver Cromwell.

(Btw the pun on "reformation" has rarely been used so well as in the title of this book, The Reformation of the Landscape. I do not know if there is a specific term for this trick of using the direct, etymological sense of a compound word that has drifted away in meaning -- a sort of exposing of the etymological joints, as in the popular example "at-one-ment.")

3. Terry Eagleton on the Dublin theatrical scene:
In the years when the Gate and the Abbey were the two main theatres in Dublin, the former was run by a gay couple while the latter was noted for staging traditional Irish plays. The theatres were known as Sodom and Begorrah.

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