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Vol. 20 No. 7 · 2 April 1998

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Brief Shining Moments

After all these years, Arthur Schlesinger Jr might be wise to refrain from discussions of the Bay of Pigs fiasco (Letters, 19 March). In 1961 I attended the Harvard International Seminar, under the aegis of Henry Kissinger. One July evening, Schlesinger talked informally about the policies of the Kennedy Administration. The French participant in the Seminar asked politely: ‘Would you care to say something about the Bay of Pigs?’ Tersely, Schlesinger replied: ‘No, because the United States was in no way involved.’ When we broke off for coffee, the Frenchman complained to Kissinger that, while of course lies sometimes had to be told for public purposes, there was no point in repeating such lies on an off-the-record occasion with people sitting on the lawn. Kissinger said: ‘I don’t think you quite understand what it’s like to live in a Great Power.’ It was, I felt, quite a good riposte, but not exactly a contribution to history.

Mervyn Jones
London SW1

The Spoils of Humanitarianism

Karl Maier puts his finger on the ‘central idea’ of the current debate on humanitarian aid (LRB, 19 February): ‘even the best aid workers … can find their intervention damaging the people they are supposed to serve.’ Sometimes this is true, but Maier simplifies the choice to be made by aid agencies as one between saving lives in the short term, and prolonging wars in the long run.

The fundamental purpose of aid is to save lives – an immediate aim, but one without which there is no long-term at all. Despite what Alex de Waal and Michael Maren say, the overall record of humanitarian assistance in recent years has been creditable. However, Maier is right to suggest that civilians caught up in wars deserve protection from violence as much as they need relief. At times, the presence of aid workers offers this. At others, it does not. Indeed, when aid lures civilians in former Zaire out of hiding to be killed, there seems to be a direct conflict between saving lives through relief and seeking to curb violence.

It is perhaps on how aid agencies assess such situations (which are not, as Maier implies, universal) that others will judge whether they are behaving ethically or, as he argues, merely pursuing their own aggrandisement. We should refuse to see humanitarian workers as either the saintly figures of the Eighties or the fallen angels of the Nineties, if we want a more helpful debate on humanitarianism. In the meantime the people who are going without relief because of the collapse in emergency aid since 1994 include the civilians of what Castells calls ‘the fourth world’, those war-torn regions, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, which have fallen off the map of the global economy.

Stewart Wallis
Director, International Division, Oxfam UK

Karl Maier accepts the criticisms levelled by Alex de Waal and Michael Maren against both the aid agencies and the individuals who work for them pretty much without question. In fact, he adds criticisms of his own. He talks of the ‘failures’ of the ‘humanitarian international’ (but later refers to the ‘thousands of lives saved’ in Angola). He talks of the ‘absence … of any guarantee that [food] will reach those who are deemed to need it most’ in North Korea, depicting the problems there as falsified and unauthenticated, in support of the view that humanitarian agencies are self-seeking and stupid. This gives no recognition to the complexity of the situation on the ground, nor to the agencies’ ability, arguably their duty, to make reasonable extrapolations from the available data, which show that there is great food insecurity and distress. International humanitarian agencies work in some of the most complicated and dangerous situations in the world, situations that are not, contrary to what Maier implies in his account of Somalia, all of the agencies’ own making. Many are striving to improve performance. Apart from the Ombudsman project mentioned by Maier, there is also the Sphere project, which has involved the main humanitarian agencies in an attempt to set out a humanitarian claimants’ charter and standards for humanitarian care; the Red Cross and Non-Governmental Organisation Code of Conduct lays out a number of principles for agencies working in relief or development.

What is missing from Maier’s review is a recognition that the many individuals whose lives are drastically affected by droughts, wars, floods etc, have a variety of rights, as human beings – thus the term ‘humanitarian’, which Maier and others are turning into a term of abuse. The UNHCR, for example, is charged with the protection of refugees and the provision of assistance to them under international law. The ICRC is charged under the Geneva Conventions with the protection of civilians in conflict. Other agencies work alongside them in attempting to safeguard the human rights that victims of disaster and conflict are accepted to have. If too many people join the wolves baying for the blood of those who aspire to do this, who will stand up for the rights of those whose lives are at risk, and do so to practical effect?

Finally, there is the accusation that, because they need them to survive, agencies create disasters. There is no shortage of humanitarian need in the world today. But even if that were not the case, it would still be the duty of the international community to maintain the capacity to respond appropriately to the disasters which undoubtedly lie in store. That capacity rests with the ‘humanitarian international’ that Maier gleefully joins de Waal in decrying.

William Morrice
Rochester, Kent

Austen and Edgeworth

Marilyn Butler may be right (LRB, 5 March) in connecting Lady Susan with Maria Edgeworth and suggesting that it is not a work of around 1794, as generally supposed, but dates from some time after May 1809. The problem with her suggestion is that Lady Susan is a novel in letters, a form which Jane Austen had already abandoned in converting the epistolary ‘Elinor & Marianne’ into Sense and Sensibility, a process which (according to the family biographies) began in November 1797 and may have been repeated in revising ‘First Impressions’ into Pride and Prejudice. Having given up this somewhat dated form of narration, why would Austen return to it, for this one occasion only, some years later? It does not seem a likely progression: Lady Susan’s obvious stylistic affinity is with Jane Austen’s other epistolary work of the 1790s.

Brian Southam
London NW11


Woad, according to F.M.L. Thompson in his review of Joan Thirsk’s Alternative Agriculture (LRB, 5 March), has a ‘long history as the supreme dark-blue natural dye, more subtle if more expensive than indigo and prized for US Army and police uniforms long after the introduction of chemical dyes’. The ‘woad’ vat used for the dyeing of uniforms was actually made with indigo: woad was added simply to assist the fermentation process. In fact the supreme blue dye is unquestionably indigo (strictly speaking, ‘indigotin’), which is extracted from several plant species but most famously from Indigofera tinctoria. Woad plants produce the same blue indigotin, but in far smaller quantities than the tropical plants. When woad was the only available source of (indigo) blue dye in medieval Europe (imported Indian indigo was so expensive it was used only as paint pigment), it was widely used. But once colonial trade took off in the 17th century, woad was doomed, as the desperate producers realised. Indigo from tropical plants was soon being imported in vast quantities from both the East and West Indies at competitive prices. As Thompson says, woad failed to make a ‘convincing comeback’ in the 1879-1939 recession: by then, British planters in India were sending thousands of tons of indigo annually to England, and synthetic indigo was also appearing on the scene.

Why should woad’s introduction as a crop grown widely in the 16th century (due to inflated prices of French woad, not Italian as stated in the review, but not in Thirsk) put paid to the Boadicea ‘myth’ when there is firm evidence that woad was already growing in England in the Iron Age?

Jenny Balfour-Paul
Exeter University

Hugging the Original

Many translators must have been as elated as I was by Tim Parks’s piece (LRB, 19 February). What one had thought irrelevant for the wide audience, i.e. the mind-squeezing that goes with that humble but necessary activity, was brought to centre-stage. I hope this may only be the beginning of a trend for, if so, I am sitting on a gold mine. In the past few decades I have translated into Italian about forty books of fiction, letters, essays and poetry. While Parks was busy with Roberto Calasso’s 527-page Ka, I ‘did’ Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa – about three thousand – and I drank almost no coffee at all. I never thought that an account of how this was achieved could be of any interest to anyone, but now I know better. I am ready to capitalise. While I was hitting the keys of my typewriters and, later, of my computers, my daughters did lots of things besides going through school – one even got married! And I worked in all kinds of weather (yes, even snow – in Edinburgh, when I translated E.A. Abbott’s Flatland, 1965, I believe). And of course I, too, was occasionally beset by doubts and second thoughts, hit on brilliant solutions for tricky passages, and later discarded these for even better ones. In fact, I could offer details of what happened while I was writing this letter. The phone rang twice, and once I had to change the paper in the fax machine.

Masolino d’Amico

In a blissful piece on his translation into English from Italian, Tim Parks plays with and around the word iva. He ‘presumes it’s Sanskrit’. And it may be. But it is also Russian (actually, all-Slavic) for a willow. It might, of course, get there from Sanskrit.

Val Lyubarsky

Gangster Rap

I am sorry that my novel about Idi Amin, The Last King of Scotland, failed to generate Hilary Mantel’s excitement (LRB, 19 March). That can’t be helped, or corrected. What can be corrected is wild misquotation, especially in the light of the reviewer’s suggestion of her own alternative ‘proper formulation’ for some dialogue in the book. Mantel reports the narrator’s estimation of Amin’s ‘jaunty sophistry, his brilliant tongue’. The proper formulation, at least in so far as what exists on the page is concerned, is ‘his gangster sophistry, his miraculous tongue’.

Giles Foden
London N1

Saffy’s World

Paul Whittaker (Letters, 5 March) asks: ‘Is there anywhere in the world, apart from Britain, that could develop a hereditary aristocracy of radicalism?’ The immediate answer is that there is no such thing in Britain, since no one gets a prominent position in any radical organisation here through parentage. There have been a few examples of dynastic activity, but here, as elsewhere, the normal pattern is for children in radical families to take different paths from their parents. In the case of Natasha Walter, she has radical ancestry going back several generations in several directions, but far from any kind of hereditary aristocracy, there is rather a fortuitous concourse of liberals, socialists, anarchists, communists, pacifists, ethicists, humanists, feminists etc. This is a frequent and decent phenomenon which deserves something better than a sneer.

Nicolas Walter
London N1

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