Vol. 19 No. 22 · 13 November 1997

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Dangers of Speed

Reading John Kerrigan’s description (LRB, 16 October) of Open Sky, Paul Virilio’s critique of the acceleration of history, aboard an interminable flight from London is enough to make one go ballistic: Virilio simply ignores the impact of energy economics and environmental rhetoric on the declining speed of jet travel. The inauguration in 1958 of a direct commercial service by Boeing 707s from Los Angeles to New York saw flight times of barely four hours. Today this flight takes six. On a recent 747 flight from Britain to Pakistan my portable satellite navigation receiver (GPS) noted an average speed of well under 400 knots – even as Virilio was writing Vitesse et politique in 1977, propeller-driven commercial aircraft were flying this route faster. Popular misperceptions of the effects of supersonic flights on stratospheric chemistry continue to retard the development of aircraft larger, faster and more fuel-efficient than the ageing Concorde.

Russell Seitz
Olin Institute for Strategic Studies

One Night in Bournemouth

‘I was born where the sound of the waves is the sound of tears,’ wrote Radclyffe Hall. And Jean McNicol (LRB, 30 October) observes that ‘this loses something when you discover that her place of birth was Bournemouth.’ Speaking, admittedly, as someone else whose place of birth was Bournemouth, I’d say it gained rather a lot, and I’d be sorry to see the LRB endorsing the facile cinematic view that Gothic clichés about the sea can only be seriously entertained where the coastline is rocky and sparsely inhabited. I’d be surprised if McNicol could name a more melancholy spot than Boscombe in February; it is, after all, where Mary Shelley came to die.

Michael Dobson
London SW15


The peculiarities of the English which Tom Nairn (LRB, 30 October) focuses on in his post-Diana state of the nation analysis are one thing, but as nothing compared to the peculiarities of Nairn. Thirty years ago Nairn might have reminded us that the 1905 Russian Revolution was led by an even less likely figure than Princess Diana, Father Gapon. It is, however, Nairn’s loose usage of the term ‘revolution’ that rankles. A revolution, even the half-revolution that St Just rightly warned of, must actually change something. If the events around Diana’s death had even resulted in the provision of more cash for schools and hospitals, or had stopped Jack Straw mindlessly implementing Tory immigration laws, then I would have been cheering it on. I can agree with Nairn that the millions who mourned Diana were groping for some kind of change. But he should take his thoughts to some of the foot soldiers of the floral revolution before pronouncing further.

Keith Flett
London N17

Tom Nairn makes heavy weather of the situation arising from the death of Princess Diana. Ever since the Winter of Discontent, public affairs had been conducted in an atmosphere of hatred and malice repugnant to ordinary people, and foreign to the way they go about their everyday affairs. This feeling increased their susceptibility to Diana, whom some saw as a victim of the prevailing malice. Subconsciously they were nurturing an incipient love for her, and the shock of her death brought this to the surface, transformed to a love as irrational and powerful as any one person can feel for another. I experienced it myself, and would have laid flowers had I been living in London, though I had taken no special interest in Diana’s life. I had never felt anything like it before, and do not expect to feel anything like it again. It has not changed my social attitude in any way that I can discover.

R.V. Ward
Holwell, Dorset

It was good to see grown men crying in the streets and carrying bunches of flowers. For a week the routine of the country was disturbed, which is always welcome. It is probably wise to stop there and not be lured into further speculation. Nairn, however, is summoned onwards. In a pretty conceit he talks about the crowds ‘electing their first president, without bothering to set up a republic first’. In the rest of Europe the passage from monarchy to republic has generally been cataclysmic, and the odds are that if the British monarchy does go, there will have been hard days of some kind leading up to its departure. It is an irresponsible fantasy to suggest that Diana could open the door to a republican future without anything more than a few million flower petals being ruffled. It is equally a fantasy to believe in the Labour Government’s promises of equality without the hardship of a redistribution of wealth, and I liked what Nairn said about Tony Blair appropriating the charisma of Diana. It is just a pity that he has reinforced a presumption which has been flying around since September, to the effect that Britain can be changed by people feeling differently about themselves.

Leonard Pepper

I don’t know why Peter Ghosh (Letters, 16 October) found it so extraordinary that the Bodleian Library cancelled its usual Saturday-morning hours to mark the funeral of the Princess of Wales – virtually every other Oxford establishment did the same. The Oxfam shop on Cowley Road customarily takes much pride, as thrift shops go, in arrangement and display and has two headless mannequins in the window, which early on that Saturday were garbed in some nondescript but colourful print dresses. By the time of the funeral, however, both mannequins were attired in tasteful black ensembles complete with pearls, one of the necklaces a Diana-style choker.

Helene Solheim
London N7

The Cat’s Whiskers

Jerry Fodor’s cat (LRB, 30 October) has ‘long whiskers tout court’ – not ‘ “from a perspective" or “relative to a conceptual system" or “immanently" ’. Hence: ‘objectivity is easy.’ But if a former inhabitant of cat-infested Moggieland (where most cats have whiskers well over one metre in length) were to come across Fodor’s cat she might truthfully claim that it has short whiskers. Can Fodor produce the ‘long whiskers’ component of his ‘exiguous ontological apparatus’ to underwrite the ‘objectivity’ of his original ‘tout court’ verdict, or has he unwittingly let the cat out of the bag regarding the ubiquity of relativist presuppositions?

Alan Malachowski
University of East Anglia

Reconstituted Chicken

Arguing for the reality of a continuous progress in science, Philip Kitcher (LRB, 2 October) dismisses as follows what he sees as the hiatus of the Copernican revolution: ‘we can take comfort in the fact that [Ptolemaic] tradition was not particularly successful: thus, if the concern is that an apparently successful scientific tradition can be overthrown by something radically different, the right response is to emphasise the differences between the successes of current sciences and those achieved by medieval astronomers.’ Someone ought to speak up for medieval astronomers. In what sense could Ptolemaic tradition be considered ‘unsuccessful’? It gave very good predictions. It was mathematically deep and elegant. Modern propaganda notwithstanding, it was even economic. Compared to most current science, it must be considered near-perfect. Of course it was wrong, but so are we all. Kitcher is probably unduly impressed by the fact that the Earth moves around the Sun and not vice versa, but this is not a very important feature of the geometry of the solar system (motion is, after all, relative). It is now a commonplace among historians of astronomy that Copernicus was not so different from Ptolemy; nor Tycho Brahe so different from Copernicus, nor Kepler from Tycho Brahe, nor again Newton from Kepler: there is no need to insult the medievals in order to get a proper sense of progress in science.

It is true that during this gradual process the nature of the question has altered. Today, we understand solar theory as a study not so much of the structure of the heavens, but of their workings. Thomas Kuhn was intrigued by such sea-changes, but one can only agree with Kitcher that, however fascinating, such changes in the choice of question leave many continuities in science untouched.

Reviel Netz
Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Martin Amis, Film Star

‘You can tell how good a novel is by the names of its characters,’ Adam Phillips says, referring to Trader Faulkner in Martin Amis’s novel Night Train (LRB, 16 October). Trader Faulkner is (was?) an actor who appeared in the 1965 film version of A High Wind in Jamaica, in which the young Martin Amis also had a part. Sadly, the future novelist’s voice was dubbed by an actress. Is this why he can’t ‘do’ women?

John Black
Pudleston, Herefordshire

First Filipino

It was gratifying to see Benedict Anderson write a political as well as a literary analysis of the latest translation of José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (LRB, 16 October). Although Rizal is not that well known internationally, he has not really been ‘unavailable’ in the Philippines. When the Americans took the country over they found him an ideal hero to promote since he had not – unlike Bonifacio, Mabini, Aguinaldo and others – advocated revolution or independence. The national literature has long been replete with writings by and on Rizal. Like Martin Luther King (but not, say, Jesse Jackson), he was a safe figure for the establishment to celebrate.

As Anderson notes, Rizal wrote mainly in Spanish, for he wished to address his ‘enemies’ as well as his ‘friends’. In the Philippines, unlike Latin America, Spanish never became a language of the people. One reason is that when the Spaniards settled the Philippines, there were already populations with well developed languages and alphabets, and the Spaniards were never more than a small minority. Nor did they establish a public school system (although they did establish universities, and much earlier than the 19th century cited by Anderson – Santo Tomás, founded in 1616, is 25 years older than Harvard), and pedagogically inclined parish priests and native Filipinos taught the catón in the local languages. Spanish, too, was overwhelmingly the language of the (print) media and government, so that the educated and those wishing to read had to know it, much as the Arab intelligentsia in Algeria had to know French. But the real tragedy was the low level of literacy in any language, which the Americans raised when they established a public school system, albeit in English.

Anderson (like Rizal) perhaps makes too much of ethno-racial parallels with Latin America. True, there were ‘peninsulares’ and ‘filipinos’ – people of ‘pure’ Spanish descent born in the Philippines – but the latter were few compared with their Latin American counterparts. There was never a movement of ‘white filipinos’ to secede from Spain. Also unlike most of Latin America, the Philippines was ruled during much of its colonial history through the viceroy in Mexico rather than directly by Spain. Such esoteric distinctions, in any case, were lost on the vaster native population. This is shown by the fact that, as Anderson has noted, by the time Mabini was writing, a mere two years after Rizal’s execution, the ‘old meaning [of “filipino"] had vanished’.

It is interesting to note that although the term ‘mestizo’ has practically the same meaning in the Philippines and Latin America, it denotes someone with part Indian ‘blood’ in the latter, and someone with part Spanish (or Chinese) blood in the former. The definitions are identical but the perspectives are not. The culture of the Philippines is a blend, whereas the Latin American establishment remains Spanish with its native population marginalised.

Ruben Mendez
UN Development Programme

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