Law, society and morality

Jonathan Sumption makes a persuasive case for understanding the development of law in evolutionary terms in his review of my The Rule of Laws (March 25). Laws as we now know them, he argues, arose in Europe to satisfy the need for security, which a law-based state can provide, along with a stable system of land tenure. These imperatives would, sooner or later, have led to similar developments elsewhere, he suggests, even without the dynamics of European colonialism. These new forms pushed aside old laws shaped by religious and traditional concerns.

I am very grateful for this generous and thought-provoking review, but, if I may take the opportunity for some general reflections (which Sumption feels the book lacks), I would like to ask whether this is fair to the many sophisticated and long- lived legal systems that pre-dated the rise of Europe. Mesopotamian rulers, 4,000 years ago, promised justice to their citizens and endeavoured to create laws that would constrain future rulers. Roman citizens were concerned about debt more than land tenure, and the republican assembly regularly sat in settlement on corrupt officials. Religious legal scholars, whether Jewish, Hindu or Islamic, sought to guide individuals along a divinely ordained path and poured out volumes of philosophical reflection. Chinese imperial dynasties for over two millennia controlled vast empires, but discipline, not security, was their legal imperative; Chinese laws of property were woefully unsophisticated and the emperors always resisted being subjected to the rule of law.

If there is a single thread that unites these cases, it is that laws set out a vision of how an articulate class thinks its society should be. Now, that vision is a democratic nation state, which aims to provide security, pursue economic progress and safeguard the rule of law. But modern China is hardly an enthusiastic supporter of the rule of law, and Islamic legal scholars still command followings by the million. We need to understand what law has been and done in the past if we are to understand what challenges the global legal order faces today. An evolutionary account, however elegantly expressed, cannot capture this diversity of human intentions.

Fernanda Pirie
Center for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford

Academic book prices

Sir Brian Vickers is absolutely right to draw attention to the exorbitant cost of many academic books (Letters, March 25). As he notes, the cost of the new Oxford University Press edition of Francis Bacon is now so high as to put its volumes beyond the reach of any but the largest libraries, and of all independent scholars. Volume XIII on the Instauratio Magna, for example, includes three texts never before published, as well as a wealth of new research and analysis. It is currently listed by OUP at £327.50, with no electronic edition available.

But there is a deeper issue. What is the point of university presses if they only focus on new sales to the richest customers, and do not make scholarly works available over time at sensible prices and online for the widest possible readership? Why do they enjoy their very considerable inherited privileges and current tax advantages, generating tens of millions of pounds in profit, if they are not interested to serve this important public good?

Jesse Norman
House of Commons, London SW1

Sylvia Townsend Warner

It is splendid news that Michael Alec Rose has created an opera from Lolly Willowes, which by the sound of it would have delighted Sylvia Townsend Warner (Letters, March 18); but this is not, as he claims, the first opera to be based on one of her novels. In the late 1930s the American composer Paul Nordoff created an opera from Mr Fortune’s Maggot, and on June 4, 1937, Warner wrote to him giving him retrospective permission for this, and advising him to get in touch with her American publisher to avoid any hitches in performance. She seems to have heard a version of the opera by Nordoff (who became her close friend) while she was in New York in the summer of 1939, for her letter of June 21, 1939, returning “your copy of Mr Fortune with an inscription”, thanks him warmly: “I wish I could convey half the pleasure and excitement your music gave me… It was a wonderful evening, and one that I shall never forget” (Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner ed. William Maxwell, 1982, pp. 44-45 and 53-54).

The opera Warner listened to in 1939 must have been a private performance with a piano score. (No orchestral score of Mr Fortune’s Maggot has survived.) Mr Rose’s Lolly Willowes is certainly the first such opera to have been publicly performed, and as chairman of the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society, I offer him my warm congratulations. I hope that his Lolly Willowes will be performed in England before too long.

Janet Montefiore
Canterbury, Kent

Concrete poetry in the TLS

It may be true that concrete “went down like a lead poetry balloon with British readers” (Jeremy Noel-Tod’s review of Concrete Poetry: A 21st-century anthologyApril 1), but in 1964 the TLS gave it serious consideration in two issues devoted to what it called “the new avant-garde”, a movement whose origins the deputy editor, John Willett, traced back to the French republican belief that art and politics were part of “a single glorious human advance”, and whose time, in the countercultural 1960s, seemed to have come round again. One of the most striking elements of the edition of August 6 was a double-page collage by Richard Hamilton that featured a poem by Edwin Morgan, consisting of twenty-six one-line anagrams of the twenty-six letters of “The Times Literary Supplement “,” a series of photographs of Emmett Williams giving a public reading of Mauriac’s The Son of Manand “three cards for hospital events”.

Hugh MacDiarmid said concrete poems could not be called poetry “any more than mud pies can be called architecture”, but Morgan defended their playfulness on the grounds that all poetry is ludic to a degree. The computational linguist Margaret Masterman went further, hoping that the “indefinitely large number of variants of any type of combination of words” of which computers were capable (Morgan’s poem “The Computer’s First Christmas Card” also appeared in this edition) might allow us to study “the complexity of poetic pattern which intuitively we all feel to exist if only we were able to grasp it”.

Less seriously, perhaps, many of the lines in Morgan’s “TLS” poem – “THEY SLIT RARE TIME SUPPLEMENT”, “HAMLET ENEMY-PITIER SPLUTTERS”, “SALTPETER TEETHES IN RIMY LUMP” – sound like Times crossword clues: and you can’t get much more establishment than that.

Andrew McCulloch
Marple Bridge, Greater Manchester

Osip Mandelstam

Benjamin Paloff’s excellent review of Peter France’s new translations of Osip Mandelstam (March 18) is astute, concise and very useful. But when he states that France’s is “the first edition that consistently reflects the sound, sense – and resistance to sense – of Mandelstam’s poems”, I think he may have missed David McDuff’s translations from 1973 (Osip Mandelstam: Selected poems; Rivers Press, FSG). McDuff’s versions also strike the right balance between Mandelstam’s sonorous, soaring, delicate diction and his sharp directness – his streetwise, reportorial witness.

Paloff contends that France’s translations reflect well “how consistently Mandelstam’s verse pushes back against the affirming mythology that has grown up around his political dictatorship: that of the endurance of the poetic word against death and decay”. This is a subtle critical contention – and it is certainly worthwhile, always, to probe beneath the clichés that have built up over decades around Mandelstam and other embattled eastern European poets. Paloff is right to emphasize the critical limitations of looking to this poet for easy “answers [or] reassurances”. There is indeed such a powerful cry of anguish, extremity and suffering running in different keys all through his work. Yet I think Mandelstam’s high Pushkinian literary ethos, his absolute commitment to the “Fourth Estate” of the literary word, is fully embodied in the intellectual hilarity, the moral/political bravery and the ultimate confidence in the rooted, Dantesque power of poetry that his poems intotone and radiate. There is a steadfast trill of Beethovian joy, and a majestic organ-tone of, which bursts forth repeatedly: triumph and I think this was clearly heard by Nadezhda Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, who preserved his work, and also by many readers around the world , who are charmed and transfixed by these hymns from the depths of the twentieth-century furnace.

Henry Gold
Minneapolis MN

Cowper’s shopping list

Norma Clarke may well be correct to say in her review (March 25) that William Cowper berated female “shoppers” for badgering shop assistants, but he was not loath to shop for fashionable items and leave the badgering to others. In a letter to Samuel Rose on June 5, 1789, he commands his correspondent: “You must buy for me, if you please, a cuckoo-clock, and now I will tell you where they are sold… They are sold, I am Informed, at more houses than one, in that narrow part of Holborn which leads into Broad St Giles’s. It seems they are well-going clocks, and cheap, which are the two best recommendations of any clock. They are made in Germany.” On June 20 he acknowledged receipt of his clock, “which arrived perfectly safe, and goes well, to the amusement and amazement of all who hear it.”

John Stevenson
Down St Mary, Devon


I was interested to read Peter Conn’s letter (April 1) drawing attention to Henry James’s remarks on the lost Suffolk port of Dunwich. The letter implies a century’s contrast between “a place of neat gardens and a fine pub” (as described by Nat Segnit in his review, March 18), and the absence that James purported to find a century ago. In fact, there is little difference between the physical appearance of the present-day Dunwich and what James would have seen – one church ruin resited, but otherwise a collection of the same pleasant cottages along what was the medieval road out of town, including a Victorian parish church. James was right to meditate on the town lost to the sea, but the present-day visitor can look forward to enjoying much the same visual experience that he did. I wonder whether James would have availed himself of the one major addition: an excellent fish-and-chip shop beside the beach. I thoroughly recommend it,

Diarmaid MacCulloch

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