Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


LETTERS TO THE LONDON REVIEW of Books are no less insightful and erudite than the editorial matter of this wonderfully British publication. Here are tidbits gleaned from LRB, January 19, 2023. I’m abridging them here with omission of the kind writers’ names. 

Dicky Bird Society. “Before the Plumage League and the Society for the Protection of Birds, mentioned by Katherine Rundell, children were active in campaigning against the use of bird feathers and skins in women’s hats (LRB, 3 November 2022)…. This began with the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle’s Dicky Bird Society in 1876; within five years the club had fifty thousand members, each of whom signed a promise ‘to be kind to all living things, to protect them to the utmost of my power, to feed the birds in the winter time, and never to take or destroy a nest. I also promise to get as many boys and girls as possible to join the Dicky Bird Society.” 

What sweet, dear thoughts.

Editor William Adams, using the pen-name Uncle Toby, founded the Dicky Bird Society. Image from BBC: A History of the World.

Magic Lanterns. “In the 1950s, when the contents of country houses and villas that had been requisitioned during the war were being auctioned off, my father would regularly come home with purchases from a nearby second-hand shop, whose proprietor he knew only as ‘the old lady.’ ”

“One such acquisition was a magic lantern with several wooden boxes of slides. In contrast… it was lit by neither electricity nor by gas but by a row of oil-fed wicks. My father closed the dining-room curtains and lit the burners, and we had a magic show. When daylight was let in again, a substantial area of the ceiling was black with soot. My father managed to mollify my mother by replacing the burners with a light bulb.”

Image from “The Savoyards, Phantasmagorias, and One of my Favorite Broadway Musicals.”

“In spite of some breakages and losses over the years, the magic lantern with its bulb and considerable number of slides is still in the family. One slide has a cockney visitor to the zoo standing by a cage with a sign saying ‘Man-eating tiger’ and asking the keeper, ‘Ere, guvnor, when’s the man a-goin’ to eat the tiger.” 

Rarely was ignorance of a hyphen more comedic.

When the Engine Cuts Out. “Another reader (Letters, 1 December 2022) writes about the way a V-1 engine cut shortly before it detonated, giving those below a few moments’ warning. As I remember it, the key sonic characteristic of the V-2 was that it plunged to earth so fast that the sound of its dive was heard only after it exploded…. It occurs to me that, now nearly 81, I am probably in the youngest cohort of people who can remember the war.”

Daunting. An LRB author wrote “I can well understand why a reader (Letters, 5 January) was puzzled by my assertion that in 1960 Oxford and Cambridge ‘abandoned Latin as an entrance requirement.’ Nonetheless, both universities did, after much controversy, take this decision in May 1960. The key word is ‘requirement’: until 1960 no student could matriculate at Oxford without a qualification in Latin; after 1960 they could, and most applicants in the sciences did so. Colleges could, of course, still decide to set a Latin paper as part of the selection process for certain subjects, especially for arts applicants.”

Curiously, this was about the time mathematicians replaced Q.E.D. (“Quod Erat Demonstrandum,” “which was to be demonstrated”) with a simple ∎. In a sense, it said “I think this suffices.”

LRB Letters certainly get each issue off to a good start. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023

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