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Letters


History Lesson

Michael Byers writes (LRB, 21 February): ‘By the end of the 19th century, the US had turned its attentions abroad. Its seizure of Cuba in 1898 provoked the Spanish-American War, which gave it control of Hawaii, the Philippines and the Panama Canal Zone.’ The second sentence contains three substantial historical errors. The Spanish-American War was not caused by a US seizure of Cuba, but resulted from the US decision to intervene in the ongoing Cuban insurrection against Spain. The US did not then ‘seize Cuba’, though it occupied the island temporarily and for long after exercised a degree of suzerainty in Cuban affairs. The only major Caribbean territory taken by the US was Puerto Rico. Hawaii, previously independent, was finally acquired by the US by a treaty of annexation signed in July 1898, during the course of the Spanish-American War but not directly related to it. The Panama Canal Zone was granted to the US by the infant republic of Panama, newly seceded from Colombia with the aid of some high-handed US encouragement and protection, in November 1903, five years after the Spanish-American War had ended. These are all signs of the expansion of US power at the turn of the century before last, an imperialist time in which it is as well to remember that the US was something of a doubting laggard – but they are three distinct episodes.

Malcolm Deas
St Antony’s College, Oxford


Could you give me directions to the British Museum?

Peter Green's discussion of ancient maps (LRB, 21 February) reminded me of an anarcho-tourist grouping from the late 1960s with which I was briefly involved. The idea behind Scramble! (the title was suggested by its Scottish founding member, the concrete poet and printmaker Greg Ross) was that tourism was a function of capitalist control whose systems had to be subverted. Not only that, but the corporate city with its directions and signposts was an expression of chartered space which had to be broken down. Not content with pointing visitors to London in wrong directions, Scramble! produced deliberately confusing maps. These might be made of bread or of toothpicks inserted into assemblages of steel wool and masticated paper. The most effective at outright confusion were simply maps of cities different from those we happened to be in at the time. Thus a visit to Paris would require a plan of Istanbul. With these tactics we attempted to deprogramme ourselves of the urban knowledge that any city-dweller or casual visitor would deem essential. We failed, needless to say, but had a lot of fun baffling ourselves as well as tourists.

Piotr Jozefow
London W11

Peter Green finds fault with Ptolemy for rejecting ‘both Eratosthenes’ near-accurate calculation of the Earth’s circumference and, worse, Aristarchus’ theory of a heliocentric universe in favour of the old … geocentric worldview supported by Aristotle.’ But Eratosthenes wasn’t trying to measure the circumference of the Earth, any more than Aristarchus, in On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and the Moon, was trying to measure the sizes and distances of the Sun and the Moon. Eratosthenes and Aristarchus were Platonists, following the strictures of the Republic that the beautiful but imperfect heavens should be left alone, and the mind turned to pursuing hypotheses: in general, that the world is modelled on a rational paradigm; in particular, that this involves circles and spheres. Astronomy in this mould becomes a branch of pure mathematics, the study of spheres in motion. If you want to exhibit a general method (e.g. to find the circumference of the Earth given two points on the same meridian a given distance apart etc), in the absence of symbolic algebra, in particular lacking the notion of the (algebraic) formula, the only technique available is to work it through with dummy values, and get a dummy result – which proves that you could get the true result by inserting true values. Ptolemy would have had to have been a dummy himself to take Eratosthenes’ dummy (if fortuitously accurate) result seriously.

Paul Pritchard
Crumlin, Gwent


Wow!

Stuart Hood is wrong in his speculation that János Almásy (there is no ‘von’) is the officer who figured in The English Patient (Letters, 7 February). He has mistaken János for his much more famous brother Ladislaus, who indeed gave the British some trouble in the Middle East, succeeding as he did in transporting two German spies well to the south of the North African front through the Sahara to Assiut in Egypt. There they took the train to Cairo, but were found out very soon afterwards. Ladislaus Almásy (1895-1951) had already made a name for himself in geographical circles as the discoverer of an oasis (Zarzura) in the Sahara with remarkable specimens of primitive art. Hood makes another mistake: Almásy’s Zarzura lies in the Libyan Desert, not in the Western.

J.R. Evenhuis
Scheveningen


What MPs Read

Robert FitzGerald doesn’t say on what he bases his opinion that The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was written ‘for the coffee tables of the dissenting middle classes’ (Letters, 7 March). Could it be a misreading of the book’s preface, which is addressed to prospective publishers?

Tressell came from the working class; he spent much of his time in Britain unemployed and on the tramp until he ended up in the Royal Liverpool Infirmary, where he died just as he planned to emigrate to Canada. The characters in his book are working-class; the situations are working-class. In asserting the book’s limited influence, Stefan Collini fails to take into account that the publication of the book, five years after Tressell’s death, coincided with the outbreak of the First World War. Between the wars, it did get the audience it deserved. For example, new labourers on the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool would be given copies of some of the book’s chapters so that they could be educated in the thieving ways of their employers.

Given that Tressell’s aim, like that of Owen, his protagonist, was to alert his fellow workers to the injustice of their working conditions, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the book was written for the working class. Indeed, it has been cited as a factor in Labour’s victory in 1945.

David Rose
Liverpool


Astérix Redux

There are other important elements in the continuing popularity in France of the Gaulish village and its stand against the Roman Empire besides those Mary Beard suggests (LRB, 21 February). Astérix le Gaulois was published in 1961. The world of Astérix is that of an unchangingly homogeneous native culture rooted in the terrain of France: the antithesis of the disturbingly heterogeneous Roman world with its intrusive languages, food and customs. (All the Astérix books except one end with a banquet of appropriately Gaulish food, consumed by the villagers under the starry sky back home: what better way to depict the internalisation of a common culture?) In 1962 Algeria achieved Independence. In the years since then, France has had to face the usual post-colonial challenges, in particular how to accommodate the arrival of immigrants. French Government responses have included laws stipulating which forenames are suitably French, and forbidding Muslim girls from wearing the hejab in school. At the same time, it is impossible to pretend that French is still the world's second language, as it was in the 19th and early 20th century. A part of France that remains forever Gaulish? How reassuring.

Lucia Nixon
Magdalen College, Oxford

Nicholas Lezard's point about the more contemporary resonances of Astérix, and Robert Livingston's remarks about Ranger (Letters, 7 March), remind me of the cartoon strip Union Jack Jackson, which ran in the UK comic Battle (rival to the more famous Warlord) in the mid-1970s. Jackson was a British soldier in American uniform in the Pacific, a resourceful tea-drinking hero too busy killing Japs and too loved by the Yanks to be returned to his unit. A North American version was published in the late 1970s in War! comic. There Jackson became a cowardly deserter sponging off the martial generosity of Uncle Sam, a man who betrayed his comrades and never paid his gambling debts. In the original his friendship with Dan O'Bannon, a black soldier, was a unique example of inter-racial mateyness in British war comics; in the American version, Jackson was a white supremacist who would have been more at home in SS uniform. Dan remained, almost to the end, dutifully long-suffering, shrugging off insults that shocked white GIs, yet regularly retrieving the incompetent Englishman from death or capture by the Japanese. It is easy to see this treatment as an extreme attempt to shift blame for the US treatment of black soldiers in the war; the final instalment, with Jackson garotted by O'Bannon on the shores of Iwo Jima, could be read as a back-dated paean to the more militant forms of Black Power. The comic, which ceased publication after three years, was written and illustrated by Luke Besant, a Québecois nationalist who lived nearly all his life in Chicago. His other experiments in Anglophobia included an extended pornographic cartoon of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, an early (and banned) example of the graphic novel.

Yukio Ioki
Vancouver


On the Move

The New Zealand timber houses written about by Peter Campbell (LRB, 21 February) are skilfully and reliably constructed. After Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin (Australia) in 1974, the only buildings left standing were ones constructed by a New Zealand company with expertise in interlocking timber frames. Wellington’s old and new timber homes are individually designed for their ‘sections’ (plots of land). Many New Zealand folk move house (‘shift’ – or ‘shuft’, to be phonetically accurate) frequently. But we keep and restore our old ‘villas’ (1890-1920), and as Campbell commented, often ‘relocate’ them in more suitable surroundings. We have even moved large old timber hotels; in Wellington, a relatively new modern hotel was cut in half, ‘relocated’ across a city street and ‘rejoined’ to make space for the new Museum of New Zealand.

Robin Insull
Wellington


Mischief-Making

A ‘decent history of British culture in the second half of the 20th century’ such as Jonathan Rée wishes for (Letters, 7 March) is sorely needed to account for and counter the Orwellian onslaught of management speak that enfeebled British cultural institutions towards the end of that period and continues to do so. What such a history would particularly need to convey in relation to higher education is the paradigm shift brought about since 1992 by the increasing influence of the spivs in suits (a.k.a. managers). Since managers neither teach nor produce anything, in a bizarre echo of Maoist extremes, they are frighteningly free endlessly to change (modernise/adapt/seize new opportunities/respond to changing horizons etc) and enforce on academics an increasingly disempowering concern with process rather than product. it’s grimly symptomatic of the changes that Rée’s review of Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment (LRB, 14 January) has elicited no response in your letters column. Instead a reference to his upcoming redundancy in the two-line contributor’s note has led to a series of lively, though defensive and embattled, managerial exchanges between academics who would formerly have been fighting on the same side.

Jim Cook
Stoke on Trent