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Letters


11 September

I am confused by the LRB subscribers in America who cancelled their subscriptions, and even, in Richard Taruskin’s case (Letters, 29 November 2001), refused to submit their reviews because they perceive a mixture of anti-American, anti-war, leftish bias in the correspondence columns. I, too, perceived a preponderance of letters against the war in Afghanistan, although I do not know if this was editorial policy or simply a matter of ‘proportionality’, to quote a popular word. If it is the latter then the protests are invalid simply because pen to paper would restore the balance. If it is the former, then I have to recognise the editor’s right to favour a particular view, though I am sad to lose a review about the life and works of Shostakovich. I am just old enough to remember the hospitality and tolerance we showed to Joseph Kennedy in the early years of the Second World War, and hope that our American cousins will forgive our democratic trespasses just as we forgave Kennedy, who freely expressed his opposition to ‘our war’.

Geoffrey Bucknell
Bromley, Kent

I imagine the reason some of us subscribe to periodicals like the LRB is precisely so that we might read the viewpoints which differ from the pap available in the general media. It is both interesting and frightening that the response of those correspondents who hated the tone of the 4 October roundtable is to think first of cancelling their subscriptions rather than to ask themselves why we Americans are always so defensive of any critical comment, a defensiveness which is just as reflexive as the anti-Americanism to which we immediately ascribe such criticism. If you are not with us you are against us. None of the roundtable contributors exulted in the 11 September loss of life or property, some perhaps in the loss of amour propre. But we should take their reflections as an opportunity to examine ourselves and our nation’s policies rather than to perpetuate our ignorance of any view ‘outside the approved patriotic hymn sheet’, as Christopher Prendergast put it.

Sameera Hartsough
Munich

I was annoyed by David Simpson’s remark that all, or most, Americans agree that it is wrong ‘to suggest that suicide bombers are not cowards’, and that it is right for the President to call bin Laden ‘the evil one’ (LRB, 15 November 2001). Yes, there has been a weird wave of patriotism here recently, but I don’t think it is fair to lump all Americans in the pro-Bush camp when there is so much disagreement among us concerning this Administration and its actions in relation to recent events. I for one am not ‘comfortable’ with anything the illiterate buffoon from Texas has to say.

And though I liked Simpson’s examination of the practices involving the memories of the dead, I thought one possible view of the New York Times obituaries of those who died in the World Trade Center was overlooked. As Simpson writes, they do indeed diminish the class and station differences among the dead, as they disregard any unhappy elements of the victims’ lives. But do they not also, by showing the smiling faces of the dead alongside anecdotes about kittens and children, serve to add fuel to the fire of hatred towards terrorists (or perhaps more frightening, towards all Arab peoples) that is needed to foster support for the war? I may be an overly cynical person who sees propaganda everywhere, but the New York Times articles are just a small part of the media inundation of images, memories, anecdotes and ‘why you should hate terrorists’ lessons that I have to endure every time I leave my house or make the mistake of turning on the television. I cannot help but feel that someone is trying to tell me how I should feel as an American about 11 September and about our bouncy, frolicking Presidential figurehead. I can think of no worse way to honour the dead than to turn them into tools of propaganda and war.

Lynsay Gott
Lexington, Kentucky

David Simpson refers to the ‘smaller wars’ of the 19th century, one of which he names as ‘the Maori wars (1845-66)’. The normal dating of these wars is 1845-72. By 1863 there were 18,000 British troops in New Zealand. And it is decades since they were called the Maori wars. The naming of battles is the most significant of all forms of memorialisation and rather than naming and blaming the indigenous people who were trying to defend their land and culture, the more neutral ‘New Zealand Wars’ has long been standard usage.

Rod Edmond
Canterbury, Kent

Editor, ‘London Review’ writes: don’t put the blame on David Simpson. ‘Maori wars’ was an unfortunate intervention on our part.


The Court in the Jungle

In his piece on Apocalypse Now Michael Wood (LRB, 13 December 2001) asserts several times that the film loses its way in its last stage. I believe that its allegory (if that is the word) of a brutal, decadent, megalomaniac First World culture laying waste to a vulnerable Third World one is sustained to the very last shot. What happens towards the end? Willard/Marlow has tracked down Kurtz to the jungle hideout where he presides over a hideous parody of pre-industrial society, one given over to human sacrifice – all those dripping scarlet heads on pillars. Kurtz admires the tribespeople because they stop at nothing to defend their way of life and subvert the Americans. Their murderousness is neither greater nor less than that of the invaders with their napalm, machine-guns and high explosives.

The Kurtz court has as its clown the gibbering war photographer (Dennis Hopper), continuously high, infatuated with Kurtz’s imperial and lethal charisma. Kurtz’s contempt for the commando sent to ‘terminate him with extreme prejudice’ (‘an errand boy, sent by a grocer’); Willard’s surfacing wild-eyed from the river, as dirty and near-naked as the jungle dwellers; the huge vermilion firestorm beyond the trees as the bombers arrive to obliterate the rogue colonel and his tribal allies (if that is what happens in the last minute) – surely all this wonderfully sustains Coppola’s vision of the place where all humanity was lost, by everyone.

Against this, Wood argues that the closing phase of the film is a ‘Modernist scrapbook’, weighted down by references to The Waste Land and so on: ‘Everything looks beautiful … the overall effect is rather stately.’ This seems to me to misperceive the film. The shaven, almost nude Brando certainly moves slowly, half turning in the shadows like a planet in eclipse. Beautiful? Deeply sinister. He is a monstrous yellow godhead, a Buddha not blandly pacific but gorged on a death which he admires for its own sake; an uncanny embodiment of lines from Yeats’s ‘The Statues’:

One image crossed the many-headed, sat
Under the tropic shade, grew round and slow,
No Hamlet thin from eating flies, a fat
Dreamer of the Middle Ages. Empty eyeballs know
That knowledge increases unreality, that
Mirror on mirror mirrored is all the show.
When gong and conch declare the hour to bless
Grimalkin crawls to Buddha’s emptiness.

Wood seems to miss this when he assimilates the later Brando to his roles in A Dry White Season, The Score and so on. He should look just one more time at that last half-hour. The ‘beauty’ of the jungle hideout is filthy. The ‘stateliness’ of the pacing feels like the semi-paralysis of people numbed by the onset of ‘a death foretold’. Heat, humidity, bloodshed have induced a ghastly enervation. This godhead is doomed to slaughter no less than the water-buffalo who is simultaneously sacrificed, its neck sliced through. The sick alcoholic sweat of Willard under the fan at the start is echoed in the druggy fever of the photographer at the close. Everything works, every image is a symbol and every symbol amplifies the deep themes. As Wood says, it is a great film: ‘Individual shots are full of things to look at … you can feel the patient care behind every set-up.’ And this holds good to the very end.

David Craig
Burton-in-Kendal


Explosion in Toulouse

I was gloomily unsurprised to learn from Chris Miller (Letters, 29 November 2001) that the UK is even more densely packed with sites stocked with poisons and explosives than is France. The fact that Toulouse is a relatively safe place makes the recent explosion here all the more disturbing. Until 11 September public policy sought to secure aircraft against accidents and sabotage by the prudent, but we now realise that sabotage by the suicidal requires a different approach. Public policy has similarly sought to secure hazardous sites in populated areas against accidents, with considerable success. But it has virtually ignored the possibility of sabotage by either the prudent or the suicidal, and this may also require new thinking: lower limits on the amounts of hazardous materials stocked in urban areas, more dispersal to purpose-built sites away from towns, and so on.

A number of people have reproached me privately for putting ideas in the minds of any members of al-Qaida who also happen to be readers of the London Review of Books (I hope the overlap is small). Nobody, however, has interpreted my suggestion that the policies of elected representatives of the citizens of Toulouse may have contributed to the hazards faced by those citizens as belittling the suffering of the victims. If anything it makes things worse. I wonder therefore why the reasonable observation that the policies of elected representatives of the citizens of New York may have contributed to the dangers faced by that city's citizens should be regarded by some of your correspondents as an intrinsic apologia for terrorism. For the foreseeable future the world will contain psychopaths who kill for pleasure, and against whom reasoned argument is no defence. Protecting us from their actions is partly a matter of technology and partly of anticipating the deprivations and resentments that lead otherwise sane human beings to offer the psychopaths military and logistical, rather than psychiatric help.

Paul Seabright
Toulouse

Why didn't Chris Miller tell us in which academic journal we can find a map of hazardous sites in the UK? Do us all a favour and tell us your source.

Elise Godsell
London SW11


Unfair to the Chief Rabbi

Hapoel Tel Aviv’s stunning Uefa Cup victory over Chelsea (followed by an equally impressive third-round win against Lokomotiv Moscow) renders James Francken’s remarks in his Diary (LRB, 1 November 2001) about Israeli clubs’ ‘frequent defeats in early rounds of the Uefa Cup’ rather hollow. Far more serious, however, is his misrepresentation of the position of the Chief Rabbi and the solid support for Israel shared by virtually the entire British Jewish community. Francken’s out of context quotations from a letter written by the Chief Rabbi to the mayor of Jerusalem must be contrasted with the Chief Rabbi’s reputation across the world as one of the leading rabbinic supporters of peace initiatives, whatever the political complexion of the Israeli Government pursuing them. Francken’s reference to ‘Orthodox edicts which forbid prayer’ on the Temple Mount betray an understanding of Judaism that is far removed from reality. The so-called ‘edicts’ are derived from Biblical law and actually forbid presence, not prayer, on part of the former Temple Site.

It is a matter of record that the Chief Rabbi’s formal title is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, an organisation that is entirely separate from the United Synagogue and governed by a body known as the Chief Rabbinate Council. The Chief Rabbi has never claimed to speak ‘for’ any group of Jews. He fulfils the role with which successive Chief Rabbis have been charged by the vast majority of Britain’s Jews – namely, to articulate Judaic principle in its classical form.

Jeremy Newmark
Office of the Chief Rabbi, London N12

As one of the Reform rabbis who put his name to the British Friends of Peace Now advertisement in the Jewish Chronicle mentioned in James Francken’s Diary I read with interest his thoughts on Anglo-Jewry’s dilemmas over support for Israel. I read the Diary in Jerusalem, having left behind a minor kerfuffle – prompted by the ad – between those British rabbis who think that it is important to voice their disquiet over Israel’s occupation, and those who feel that it is more important for Jews not to be seen to be giving support to Israel’s enemies. The views of British rabbis, however, are an irrelevance in Israel. Yes, there will have to be a two-state solution, withdrawal from occupied land, an evacuation of settlements, a redivided Jerusalem and some right of return (and/or financial compensation); but there will also have to be atonement for injustices and a reassessment of the Zionist narrative to rid it of false myths. Are such views an anathema to synagogue-attending Anglo-Jews or do they correspond to congregants’ own convictions? Both, of course: the community is divided. What they agree about are the signs that, following 11 September, Israel’s right to exist is being called into question in a new and insidious way.

Howard Cooper
London N3


Pantheonisation

I can understand why my assertion that Félix Faure, President of the Third Republic from 1895 to 1899, ‘died in the arms of his mistress’ and, a few lines later, that he took the ‘sacraments on his deathbed’ might have made Paul Denman (Letters, 29 November 2001) and possibly other readers want ‘to apply for these sacraments’. What happened is that the President became deathly ill in the company of his mistress whom he was entertaining in his office at the Elysée Palace. (It was said that he took an overdose of stimulants – not implausible for a 58-year-old man in those pre-Viagra days – but this is speculation.) A priest was called and arrived in time to offer the last rites. Then Faure died, perhaps not in Madame Steinheil’s arms but in her presence. So it was almost as good as I said.

Thomas Laqueur
Berkeley

A contemporary cartoon shows the priest arriving at the Elysée Palace to administer the last rites to Félix Faure. ‘Le Président a-t-il encore sa connaissance?’ the priest asks. ‘Non, elle vient de sortir par l’escalier de service,’ an usher answers. Connaissance could then also mean an ‘occasional lover’.

Roger Stuveras
New York


Posterity’s Malice

I am not sure from Trevor Kerslake's letter (Letters, 13 December 2001) who is supposed to be both malicious and ignorant, but for the record my book is only concerned with the legalities of the use of compulsory labour for minor communal works, such as road building and porterage, in British colonial territories. I am sorry if the rather light-hearted passage quoted in Conor Gearty's review has been taken to suggest that colonial officials, in organising such works, were bad people. That is not a view I put forward, and Mr Kerslake may have been misled by relying on a book review rather than on the book itself. And, incidentally, although I do not know the dates of his service in Nigeria, we may well have both been working there at the same time.

A.W.B. Simpson
Wingham, Kent


Pike and Musket

In 1838 the rejection by Parliament of the Charter organised by the London Working Men’s Association was met by bitter disappointment in Wales, and ‘physical force Chartism’ gained the upper hand. In November 1839 over five thousand armed Chartists led by John Frost, a former mayor of Newport, marched from the industrial centres in the Valleys in an attempt to capture Newport, in the hope, ultimately, of triggering a revolution that would put into effect the Chartist aim of political democracy. A combination of bad timing, bad weather, betrayal and confusion led to the defeat of the rising. The Chartists were ambushed in Newport by Government troops, and an unknown number were killed in an attack on the Westgate Hotel. Miles Taylor doesn’t discuss any of this in his review of The Chartist Movement in Britain 1838-50 (LRB, 29 November 2001), but in South Wales Chartism was a pike and musket question as well as a ‘knife and fork question’.

John Owen
Caerphilly


Unfair to Brian Bosworth

It is somewhat curious that having denounced the science of source criticism James Davidson devotes the lion’s share of his essay on Alexander scholarship (LRB, 1 November 2001) to a long survey of the sources, a survey that is very conservative, so Jurassic in fact that it might have been extracted from my own ‘very tired-looking’ commentary on Arrian. He reaches the unsurprising conclusion that knowledge of Alexander is gained from secondary texts and that we need to know everything we can about them. I agree. I agree, too, that there are more useful things to do with Alexander than source criticism, and there is little in the book I coedited that does not address wider problems. I did give an analysis of sources in the introduction, but only to set the scene – exactly as Davidson does himself. Unfortunately, he is easily misled, inevitably so, given that his reading of the book is so superficial. I am excoriated for hailing the late, corrupt Metz Epitome as ‘the single most important contribution to the source criticism of Alexander’s reign’. I did no such thing. I noted that the Metz Epitome was one of a number of sources which have a common original, the historian Cleitarchus (who wrote a decade after Alexander’s death). It is the identification of the common tradition which is the important contribution, as my text makes clear.

I have no quarrel with new directions of research, or the asking of new questions, but when (as Davidson insists) the sources are so complex, the enquiry must be based on an accurate representation of what data there are. Here Davidson is himself sadly deficient. He sees the greatest blind spot among historians of Alexander as love, and in particular homoeroticism. This is hardly novel. It is over forty years since Badian wrote his seminal article on Alexander’s relationship with the eunuch Bagoas, proving that Alexander was bisexual, and like most of his contemporaries could find love or sexual satisfaction with male or female. Davidson takes this further, insisting that Alexander was ‘bonkers about boys’. The quotation is from Athenaeus of Naucratis, who wrote half a millennium after Alexander, and it is backed up by a sequence of anecdotes, which, if anything, show him rather restrained in his sexual contacts with boys. And, when Davidson discusses the function of the royal pages, he gives a list of duties taken from the Roman historian, Curtius Rufus: they brought him his mistresses and horses, and shared his table. Curtius stops there, but Davidson adds gratuitously: ‘and his bed, surrounding the King with a cushion of trusted muscle’. There is not a hint of this in Curtius. Alexander may have had sexual relations with the pages (they did between themselves), but nothing even hints at it.

Brian Bosworth
University of Western Australia, Crawley


What about Gruinard?

In his piece about anthrax, Hugh Pennington (LRB, 29 November 2001) doesn’t mention Gruinard, a small island in the West Highlands where bombs containing anthrax spores were detonated in 1942 and 1943 as part of a British research programme set up in response to fears that the Germans were developing biological weapons. In 1986 the island was decontaminated by spraying with 5 per cent formaldehyde. A flock of 40 sheep then grazed on the island for several months with no ill effects.

It took the authorities more than twenty years to admit, under public and media pressure, what had happened in this ‘remote’ location – only half a mile off the mainland of Wester Ross, but far enough from Whitehall – and a further twenty before decontamination could be carried out. The Defence Estimates Statement 1996 listed among Non-Statutory Liabilities: ‘Indemnity given in relation to the disposal of Gruinard Island in the event of claims arising from the outbreak of specific strains of anthrax on the island. Value unquantifiable.’

Liz Willis
London W7


A Golden Zep

It would seem, from E.S. Turner’s review of Douglas Botting’s book on the Graf Zeppelin (LRB, 15 November 2001), that he is unaware of recent research that shows the cause of the Hindenburg disaster to have been the ignition of the highly flammable coating on the outside of the ship’s fabric, a coating not applied, if I remember rightly, to the Graf Zeppelin. This coating rapidly propagated flames the length of the vessel, burning into the gas-bags and setting fire to the hydrogen within; but the destruction of the gas-bags would have led just as surely to the loss of their contents, and hence of the ship, if they had been filled with helium.

Hydrogen, while readily flammable, is not, I believe, particularly explosive: certainly not as explosive as petrol, and there is no more (and no less) reason to write of ‘hydrogen-filled dirigibles being potential flying-bombs’ than there is to write similarly of kerosene-filled airliners or petrol-filled road tankers.

But all this is by the by. What we really want to know is what was Mr Turner doing on the Queen Mary’s maiden voyage? Had he paid for a passage? Or was he a journalist on a freebie? What class did he travel? May we have an account of the trip? Indeed, in the absence of Mr Bennett’s diaries this year (‘nothing much has happened’), perhaps the LRB could fill its blank pages with Mr Turner’s reminiscences of the 1930s generally.

J.F. Darycott
Staines, Middlesex

E.S. Turner wrote that Hugo Eckener wanted the Hindenburg to be filled with helium instead of hydrogen, but American law strictly forbade its export. ‘Germany could presumably have produced helium,’ Turner continues, ‘had the will been there.’ The only place helium was produced economically in the quantities the German zeppelins required was America, from wells in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Helium can be extracted from the atmosphere, but it only occurs in the amount of one part in 200,000. In Dr Eckener’s time you couldn’t get blood from a turnip, and you couldn’t get helium from any place but the United States of America.

Jerome Shipman
Potomac, Maryland


Shame!

I'm sorry that my remarks about Indiana University caused offence to Richard Maxwell and Roderick Jacobs (Letters, 13 December 2001), and hasten to correct their assumption that they are based on ignorant prejudice. I used to work there.

Michael Dobson
University of Surrey, Roehampton


The Wolfenden Myth

Why does P.N. Furbank (LRB, 29 November 2001) perpetuate the myth that the Wolfenden Report was a watershed after which a more tolerant era began? The response to the Wolfenden Report of 1957 was its total rejection by the House of Commons in 1960 by a vote of 213 to 99. Homosexual conduct was not decriminalised until 1967, and by then Wolfenden had only marginal relevance. The depth of the continuing resistance was shown, however, by the fact that Leo Abse, the backbench sponsor of the Bill, was able to put through the Report Stage with only one vote in hand.

Andrew Ross
London W4