SIR: In his glowing review of Shootdown: The Verdict on KAL 007 (LRB, 24 July) Paul Foot comments that since the author’s original article in the Guardian (17 December 1983), R.W. Johnson has ‘enriched’ his story with ‘meticulous research’. In the article Johnson suggested that KAL 007 was used by the CIA because a ‘slow-moving aircraft with high-resolution cameras and electronic surveillance equipment’ can carry out better reconnaissance than a satellite: however, in the book, as Foot notes, he ‘convincingly rejects the notion that KAL 007 carried its own surveillance equipment.’ Similarly, in his article he cites Washington’s ‘consuming interest in the Soviet naval complex around the Sea of Okhotsk and in the new Soviet Typhoon submarine’ as its motivation for initiating such an operation, whilst, in his book, Johnson claims that it was America’s interest in the new radar site at Krasnoyarsk. The only point of congruence in Johnson’s two hypotheses – and that is all they are – is his belief that it was not an accident but a CIA-inspired spying mission. In both cases Johnson makes strenuous efforts to tailor the facts to suit his theory. Yet despite having been obsessed with the issue for three years now, he has failed to produce any direct evidence to substantiate this ‘verdict’.
The central plank of Johnson’s latest theory is that a deliberate incursion into Soviet airspace would activate all the air defence radars on its eastern borders, thus allowing US Intelligence to identify the ‘gap’ which the Krasnoyarsk radar was designed to plug. The desire to find out more about this radar, Foot claims, was because ‘the American far Right’ believed that the new radar system was ‘a clear breach of the SALT 2 disarmament treaty’. It is actually the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty which the radar is alleged, by the US Department of Defense, to have breached. The reason is that it is an ABM radar which is located neither within a 150-km radius of Moscow nor on the periphery of the Soviet Union. Moscow claims that it is simply intended for space tracking and not ballistic missile early warning: a claim hard to substantiate because the radar is not optimised for such a role, would make a negligible contribution to the existing Soviet space-tracking network, and is orientated to cover a gap in the Soviet Union’s ABM coverage on its north-east borders which Washington has known about for years.
The radar at Krasnoyarsk is not a dish, as most people might imagine, but a large fixed phased-array construction pointing in a north-easterly direction. For precisely this reason an intelligence-gathering operation of the type Johnson suggests took place is unnecessary. Moreover, activating short-range tactical Soviet air defence radars would tell the Americans absolutely nothing about the coverage afforded by long-range strategic ABM radars: a fundamental point blurred by both Johnson and Foot.
There are numerous other examples of Johnson twisting facts to suit his scenario. It is therefore highly misleading for the book to be subtitled ‘The Verdict on KAL 007’: not only is all of the evidence presented circumstantial but much of it is also irrelevant. The only verdict which one can reach is that the Soviet Union shot down an unarmed civilian airliner, killing its 269 passengers and crew. Unsubstantiated claims by the Soviet Union and more recently by R.W. Johnson that KAL 007 was engaged in espionage only serve to hide this brutal reality.
R.W. Johnson writes: I have no quarrel with Mr Mercer’s points about the Krasnoyarsk radar being a fixed-position phased-array construction or an alleged violation of the 1972 ABM Treaty – both points made in my book. His repetition of the Reagan Administration’s claim that the radar is an ABM radar is more dubious. As British Intelligence has pointed out, the radar is in the wrong place and facing the wrong way to cover the main ICBM corridor over the North Pole, and is also situated so far inland as to be of very limited utility as an ABM radar against missiles sea-launched from the North Pacific. On the other hand, as British Intelligence has also pointed out, the radar’s construction does seem consistent with what is known of Soviet space-programme plans for the next decade. At the very least, it is unwise to accept the Reagan Administration’s assertions on this point: the Administration has never been willing to discuss these obvious difficulties for its its claim, and has clearly been motivated by a desire to find grounds for getting rid of SALT 2 and for alleging that Soviet violations of the ABM Treaty make it permissible for the US to drive a coach and horses through that treaty, too, with its Star Wars programme.
The Krasnoyarsk radar will not, however, be completed until 1988. In the meantime the growing Soviet Naval presence in the Far East, and in particular the Typhoon submarine base at Petropavlovsk, are of considerably greater interest to the US, as are the Soviet air defence, radar, command, communications, control and intelligence (C3I) systems in the area which provide the necessary and interlocking protective network over and around these key installations. The whole provides a quite natural focus of intense US monitoring, probing and intelligence curiosity. No doubt the discovery in June 1983 that a vast new Soviet radar was being built in the hinterland behind this defence complex was a further spur to such curiosity, but no doubt the US was hungry for more intelligence data about this area anyway. There is also no doubt that the prolonged incursion of KAL 007 into Soviet airspace just three months after the Krasnoyarsk discovery had the effect of producing voluminous and invaluable extra intelligence about every sort of Soviet radar, air defence and C3I system in the area.
Mr Mercer accuses me of ‘tailoring facts to suit my theory’, but then accusingly points out that I have changed my mind over the possibility that KAL 007 might itself have been carrying surveillance equipment. I would have hoped that my willingness to change my mind in the light of further research and reflection was a sign of bona fides rather than the reverse. I have no interest in being wrong about this case and will happily make a public retraction of any point I have made about it if new data can be produced which counter it. The problem at present is that the Reagan Administration is energetically discouraging the search for such new data and is refusing to release the considerable amount of extra information it possesses about the flight of KAL 007.
The facts which Mr Mercer must face are that 007’s pilot fiddled his fuel papers to take on five extra tons of fuel; that he inexplicably left paying cargo behind at Anchorage; that he also left behind notes (reproduced in my book) in which he appears to have been planning the route he actually took (365 miles off his proper course); that he executed at least three navigational turns which could only have been conscious; that he systematically misreported his position at every waypoint, each one a required occasion for a further course-check; that he flew at widely varying speeds quite outside the scheduled speed ‘envelope’; that he mysteriously used the wrong transponder code; that he carried ground-mapping weather radar which would have clearly shown that he was over Soviet territory; that he failed to respond to Soviet radio enquiries or even warning tracers shot past him; that when finally challenged by a Soviet fighter, he falsely informed his ground control that he was carrying out a climb while in fact he was diving; and that in the 56 seconds in which he remained on the air after the plane had been hit by a missile he mysteriously refrained from giving the mandatory Mayday signal. If one adds to all this the fact that 007 was carrying the latest INS (triply redundant computer) navigation system; that 007 set a new world record for deviations off-course by planes carrying such equipment; that there were a number of considerable oddities in 007’s conversation with ground control; and that 007’s pilot was the airline’s best with a reputation as ‘the human computer’, one has a pattern of inexplicable but apparently deliberate behaviour which sits ill with any attempt to argue that KAL 007 was off-course accidentally. In my book I tried to estimate (conservatively) the odds against all these things being accidentally true and gave up when I reached odds of one quintillion (1 followed by 18 zeroes) to one against. If Mr Mercer wishes to argue for an accidental hypothesis he must a. accept those odds against, and b. offer a coherent explanation incorporating all the above facts. It is no good just saying that one prefers a ‘cock-up’ to a ‘conspiracy’ theory. No one, of course, is arguing with Mr Mercer’s final point that KAL 007 was shot down by the USSR or that anything could justify such a brutal act.
I was naturally grateful for Paul Foot’s generous review in the LRB, and particularly for the attention he drew to what amounts to a semi-black-out in reviews of my book. All my previous books received far wider attention than this one, though none was remotely so newsworthy. It is difficult to talk about this without sounding either paranoid or as if one actually has a right to be reviewed, but perhaps I can place the phenomenon in a broader context.
The last two months have seen the publication of Count Tolstoy’s The Minister and the Massacre (which made serious allegations about Harold Macmillan’s role in the handing over to the Communist authorities of 70,000 Cossacks and Yugoslavs in 1945), Chris Mullin’s Error of Judgment, which suggested that the wrong men had been jailed for the Birmingham pub bombings and that there had been a massive police cover-up, and my own book on the KAL 007 tragedy. All three books had major and uncomfortable implications for our rulers. Consider what happened to them in the broadcasting media alone. Count Tolstoy was invited to appear on four BBC programmes and actually recorded an interview for the Radio 4 Today programme. The Today interview was scrapped and all the other programmes dropped. Mr Mullin recorded interviews about his book both with BBC TV and with the Today programme. Both interviews were then scrapped. In my own case, interviews were arranged both for BBC TV and the Today programme. Both interviews were scrapped only hours beforehand. The result was a complete BBC black-out on all three books. Count Tolstoy has announced that he will refuse to pay his licence fee to what he now regards as a government propaganda organisation and will go to jail if necessary to publicise his protest. For my part, I was, I must admit, less surprised. Seven years of unremitting Thatcherite pressure have taken their toll of the BBC, as of much of the written press. The sort of gross intervention seen over the Real Lives programme is unnecessary now. Self-censorship is thoroughly institutionalised – with the normal ‘technical’ excuses: we had to drop your interview because we had an item about Zola Budd, or the Palace corgis. Day-to-day excuses: but these three books deal with explosive allegations about events in 1945, 1973 and 1983 respectively. They were still news the day after the interviews of apparently superior importance with Zola Budd or the Palace corgis. And the day after that …
There is little point in mincing words. Too many of my former pupils have left current affairs broadcasting, complaining bitterly of political interference, pressure, and protective self-censorship, to leave me in much doubt as to what is going on. The BBC is now experiencing what happened to French broadcasting in the Sixties under de Gaulle, when it became part of I’Etat UDR (the UDR being the Gaullist Party). It is important to say that the French media, even then, remained greatly superior to Pravda or Radio Moscow, but the pattern is familiar: an authoritarian government of the Right in power, more than willing to use its elbows ruthlessly. A few examples – Dick Francis’s sacking, the Real Lives imbroglio – make the point. The many good people who remain learn to live within the new rules, to persuade themselves that they alone stand between the outright rule of propagandist hacks. They give the necessary ‘technical’ excuses, and wax indignant when these are queried. Guilty conscience, as ever, synthesises indignation and anyway such people are ‘corporation loyal’. In the end, French TV reached the situation where the classic documentary on resistance and collaboration, Le Chagrin et la Pitie, was shown on cinema and TV screens around the world, winning a host of international awards, but could not be shown on French TV screens. Only in 1981, after Mitterrand came to power, were French viewers allowed to see this crowning glory of French documentary TV production. Happily, we are not all the way to this position yet. In seven years Mrs Thatcher has achieved infinitely more in terms of media control than any government before hers, but the French Right had a whole 23 years. The signs are clear, though.
SIR: Frank Kermode’s ‘pregnant’ simile in his review of Martin Amis’s The Moronic Inferno (LRB, 24 July) is rather muddled, isn’t it? ‘It’s like having a baby without knowing you’re pregnant: no nausea, no check-ups, just the bother of getting the layette together in a hurry. Alas, such pregnancies are usually of the phantom variety …’ Alas for Frank Kermode, they are not! He is linking together two completely different things.
A woman who has a baby without knowing she is pregnant undoubtedly has a baby in the end, but, as far as physical awareness goes, has no pregnancy. On the other hand, a phantom pregnancy is all pregnancy and no baby at the end. I once had a most distressing encounter with a phantomly pregnant woman and so can speak from some experience. We had both, for some months, been attending the ante-natal clinic of a well-known London maternity hospital and were at the six-months stage when the encounter happened. This was many years ago (the result of my own pregnancy at that time is now the father of my four grandchildren), and in those days one was given a rather more extensive examination at the six-months stage than one had been subjected to hitherto. This examination resulted in the discovery of the woman’s non-pregnant state. However, at that time she looked far more pregnant than I did, and her preparations for the phantom baby’s arrival were far more advanced than were my own: she even had the pram and cot ready, and was, naturally, extremely upset at being told there was to be no baby. I found the encounter distressing partly because of a natural sympathy with the woman’s distress, but also, in some degree, because of the frightening insight it gave me into the terrible powers of the subconscious mind. It was brought home to me, with unforgettable emphasis, that this can produce in us physical symptoms and manifestations for which there are, in reality, no physical reasons or necessities. In this particular case, the manifestations were palpable enough to deceive not only the unhappy woman herself but her GP, who would have referred her to the maternity hospital, and the doctors and nurses with whom she came into contact during the several months that passed before the true state of things was revealed.
I have never been able to feel myself absolutely certain of anything since that time.
Frank Kermode writes: I had a feeling that all was not well with my obstetrical trope, and am grateful to Mrs Simon for explaining how it miscarried.
SIR: David Norbrook (Letters, 24 July) makes some baffling assumptions about my theoretical assumptions – though they closely resemble those of a Times journalist who asked me, a couple of weeks ago, why I thought poetry and politics were divided by a thick partition. Were that the case, I countered, I would hardly have commissioned the Faber Book of Political Verse, would I? On the other hand, I don’t believe that every work of art is necessarily political. If I did, I would hardly have commissioned the Faber Book of Political Verse. It would have been enough to commission the Faber Book of Verse.
But my theoretical assumptions, especially those invented for me by Mr Norbrook, are neither here nor there. In my original letter, I stated clearly where I stood – unpersuaded. This was a polite way of saying that I thought Mr Norbrook hadn’t argued very well. Judging from the way his case has been mended, he agrees with me. Beelzebub has been dropped entirely. Formerly, he was a monarchist ‘working to erode a collective spirit in favour of giving supreme power to one charismatic leader’. In his place, there is now a sensible admission that there are ‘tensions and contradictions’ in Paradise Lost. A reference, I take it, to the way Beelzebub ‘can at times sound republican’.
Similarly, Mr Norbrook no longer suggests that Milton’s portrayal of God would be improved by the addition of ‘conventional courtly theatricality’. Instead, the portrayal would be given ‘more immediate imaginative impact, not by adding monarchical paraphernalia, but by subtracting the analytic passages, making God a figure more of mysterious imperial will than of rational law’. However, Milton chose not to do this because, according to Mr Norbrook, it would have been ‘inconsistent’ with his politics. More obviously, the elimination of analytic passages would have been ‘inconsistent’ with Milton’s theological aim – to ‘justify the ways of God to men’. No analysis means no justification.
But David Norbrook rests his entire case on Milton’s use of blank verse, rather than on direct topical allusions, since the latter are used inconsistently by Milton. I am pleased we agree that the ‘actual status’ of blank verse is neutral. Mr Norbrook, however, attaches an important qualification – the need to establish ‘full meanings’ by looking at the context. I thought I had done precisely that – just as certainly as I never mentioned E.M.W. Tillyard, whom Mr Norbrook wishes on me as an ally. The context I referred to is Milton’s 1668 note on ‘The Verse’. There Milton gives a perfectly adequate reason for disliking rhyme. He argues that rhyme vexes, hinders and constrains poets ‘to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse than else they would have exprest them’. For this reason (‘not without cause therefore’) some Italian and Spanish poets have rejected rhyme. In this context, Milton makes no mention of the respective Italian and Spanish political situations. David Norbrook is prepared to concede ‘internal, linguistic explanations of metrical changes’ of the kind volunteered here by Milton, but he insists that there are also ‘extrinsic factors’ at work. Apparently, Derek Attridge’s ‘meticulous study’ of Renaissance prosody has shown that ‘internal, linguistic explanations’ are inadequate to explain metrical changes in Renaissance prosody.
This may be so. However, we are not discussing Renaissance prosody in general, but Milton’s blank verse and the entirely adequate explanation he gives for adopting it. Necessarily, David Norbrook widens the context and his letter is a justifiable boast that his context is bigger than my context. Very few people could match Mr Norbrook’s context. But it is also more nebulous. It stretches eruditely from Old English alliterative verse, via Dante, Castiglione, Denham, Dryden, Marvell, Goldsmith, Dr Johnson, to Blake and Shelley. And then still further, to an as yet unwritten history of rhyme in relation to political ideology, not to mention another crucial, convincing, but alas unwritten, ‘full semantic history of the relations in the period between literary and political senses of the words “reformation", “restoration", “revolution" and “imitation" ’. I find it hard to argue on all these fronts, but particularly hard to contain those fronts which are non-existent. One follows this vast chain of argument only to discover that it is stapled to a promise. Or two promises. Or nothing. Or everything. In this ‘context’, it scarcely matters, because it isn’t a context at all. It is a theory.
Mr Norbrook has some ingenious interpretations, over-ingenious in the case of Samson Agonistes, but his chain, two and a half columns long, touches on Milton at only one demonstrable point. He attaches it to Milton’s phrase, ‘an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to Heroic Poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming’ – a phrase conceivably politically motivated, but perhaps only an instance of local bravado, a rhetorical flourish, a republican twitch, without a political aesthetic behind it. The chain is attached to an ambiguity – and, without it, you remove every supporting comment he has to make about Milton’s note.
Normally, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that Mr Norbrook had erected a vast set of assumptions on insufficient, faintly wonky evidence – had I not recently had an unfortunate experience in these very columns. There, I described Milton’s 1668 note as, in its entirety, aesthetic, not political. Which it is. On the basis of this, Mr Norbrook has decided that I am a New Critic who denies poetry is political. I am, in fact, the editor who commissioned the Faber Book of Political Verse. Which brings me once more to the ‘actual status’ of blank verse.
Its essential neutrality is unaffected by how people regard it – just as I am not made a New Critic because Mr Norbrook chooses to regard me in that light. There is an objective reality which is unaffected by misinterpretation. To call the very metre of Paradise Lost assertively republican simplifies a clear ambiguity and then compounds Milton’s (possible) wishful thinking. The correct position is to say that the blank verse is neutral – however Milton may, or may not, have regarded it.
SIR: Andrew Gurr begins his paragraph on my book Such is my love: A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (LRB, 6 February) by remarking the difficulty that arises when ‘fact is called upon to sustain interpretation,’ and accumulated ‘interpretation’ is used to support the ‘assumed fact’. Then he tries to make my readings of Shakespeare’s Sonnets exemplify this circularity. First I am supposed to assume that Annabel Patterson’s theory of the hermeneutics of censorship ‘justifies’ the readings. That theory is in no way applicable, however, for I say nothing at all about censorship – the idea is pure projection. Then I am supposed to have ‘faith’ in the ‘ “fact" ’ of the ‘poet’s homosexuality’. I establish rather, the poet’s bisexuality – one would never know from the review that his affair with the dark lady is considered at length – by proceeding not on faith but through reason to reach the conclusion inductively, and, far from presupposing ‘belief’ in my readers, seeking to convince them by the weight of copious evidence drawn from a text whose canonicity is an accepted fact nowhere put in question.
While failing utterly to make his charge of circularity stick, Professor Gurr dreams up an ‘interpretation’ of my book that has little relevance to what in fact is said. The effort to bring his comment on it into line with the rest of his argument was ill-conceived. Throughout he plays fast and loose with the term ‘fact’, does little better with ‘interpretation’, and is confused, confusing and naive about the difficult relationship between the two.
At one point he seems to subvert the very idea of interpretation, finding in the ‘Shakespeare canon … a complex polyvalency, a flexibility of word and signification in which interpretation flourishes mightily’ but where – to him ironically – ‘the insurmountable complexity of the question makes answers pointless.’ In that case all interpretative criticism should be worthless. It is a position that he does not consistently maintain. He neither provides nor can be depended on to follow coherent literary discourse, and he was well-advised in the case of his own book to shun a topic of criticism and instead to compile a compendium of the known historical facts of the Shakespearean theatre.
Gurr does, though, introduce a semblance of fact at the end of the paragraph, if only for the purpose of distortion. He quotes my explication of a line of Sonnet 33 apart from its contexts, which consist not only of the analysis of Sonnets 33-35, wherein the young man’s ‘sensual fault’ is at issue, but also of the demonstration in an earlier chapter of the sonneteer’s frequent use of words of homoerotic reference. Ben Jonson rightly took exception to being quoted ‘by pieces (which was an excellent way of malice), as if any man’s context might not seem dangerous, and offensive, if that which was knit to what went before were defrauded of his beginning’. This passage from Timber, which Patterson cites, articulates a ploy of censorship utilised by the reviewer. He is intent on dismissing the book and focuses on but one of its aspects: on its exposition of the sexual nature of the love between the poet and the friend. He obviously would conserve, by any means whatsoever, the professoriate’s traditional negation of homoeroticism in the Sonnets.
SIR: May I comment on A.J. Ayer’s piece about the World Cup (LRB, 24 July)? There is no green card in football: there are only yellow and red cards. The yellow card signifies that a player has had his name taken for a foul and serves as a warning that, if he fouls again, he will be shown the red card and dismissed from the field. A sufficiently bad foul, of course, warrants no warning, and the player is shown the red card and sent off, as happened to a Uruguayan in the game against Scotland. In the England v. Argentina game, Peter Reid was substituted by Waddle (not Barnes) and this hardly constituted a gamble on Bobby Robson’s part, as the Everton player began the game carrying an injury, and was then further disabled by a kick from Batista. Barnes came on later in the game for Steven (not Stephen). The ludicrous penalty shoot-out (and dreadful refereeing) put out two fine sides in Spain and the Soviet Union.
Those of us who support Northern teams and saw players like George Best, Jimmy Johnstone, Alex Young and Duncan McKenzie remain unimpressed by Hoddle’s ‘imaginative skills’. We are not surprised by his ‘apathy’. A.J. Ayer, being a Tottenham supporter, will know that Londoners call this condition ‘having no bottle’.
A.J. Ayer writes: ‘Stephen’ for ‘Steven’ was careless and I apologise. I know that Waddle came onto the field before Barnes, and I thought I remembered that Steven left it before Reid. If I was mistaken, it was no doubt because Waddle took on Steven’s role. Hoddle is certainly no cruncher, but I do not admit that he lacks courage. As for Mr Smith’s list of Northern artists, I would say, having taken an interest in professional soccer for 65 years, that George Best is the only one I would rank with Danny Blanchflower or Tommy Harmer, or with several who played for London teams other than Spurs, such as Fulham’s Johnny Haynes. Lest it be thought that my long attachment to Tottenham has perverted my judgment, let me add that I doubt if any team, whether in London or the North, has been as good as the best Arsenal sides of the Thirties.
SIR: I should like to thank you for a temperate reply to what may have seemed a somewhat intemperate letter (Letters, 24 July). I am also grateful to Anthony Thwaite for revealing the source of the article in question, although his Japanese leaves a little to be desired (Eigo Seinen means ‘English Youth’, not ‘English Studies’). The explanation of your motives does, however, raise some interesting questions. The document was indeed ‘instructive’: it told us that the Japanese are not only interested in selling us electronic equipment but are fascinated by our culture and are willing to invest tremendous time and effort in an attempt to understand us. (That these two facts might actually be connected is something that British industry and commerce has yet to fully comprehend.) The Japanese even read the LRB! They know about post-structuralism and semiotics and can even pop in ‘piss off’ in the original in the secure knowledge that it will either be understood or carefully looked up.
The point at issue, however, is this: a knowledge of their knowledge seems to be rather uncomfortable for us to accept on its own terms; it can only be absorbed by leaving it safely untranslated and thus transforming it into ‘a kind of collage or art object’. A nice gesture, and I appreciated it, I really did: but I wonder if the gesture itself does not reveal an underlying inability or unwillingness to grapple with the fact that a text like this might actually have some meaning? I know it looks like barbed-wire but from what he wrote I would judge Professor Takahashi to be not only extremely well-informed (he refers with more than a little insouciance to what the ‘other Terry’ might think of all this) but quite a stylist in his own right. Is it not slightly insulting to take something of this calibre and play with it? Your ‘Rising Sun’ bit in particular had us all racking our brains, but now I find it to be no more than a schoolboy joke teetering on the brink of tasteless-ness. I wonder if there is really any difference between what you have done and the young lady I once observed in the Tokyo underground with a tee-shirt covered in what looked like English! Closer inspection revealed the word ‘Tampax’ beautifully printed all across her back. A real little objet d’art it was.
Downing College, Cambridge
The misnaming of the publication in which the material appeared was due to a production error and owed nothing at all to any deplorable tendency to see foreigners as funny.
Editor, ‘London Review’