Vol. 23 No. 17 · 6 September 2001

Search by issue:

‘I say,’ exclaimed Horace

Writing about the history of bombing (LRB, 23 August), Patrick Wright makes much of ‘the fictions and mythologies of warfare’ – the ‘fantasies of air-enforced dominion’ which gleefully envisaged the wiping out of the Yellow Peril, the African Peril and any other peril which required a dose of terror from the skies. These gruesome imaginings are not, Wright insists, merely ‘secondary reflections’ of something in society – racial stereotyping, for instance. They are always ‘intrinsic to the reality they shape and help to drive’. In other words, they prepared the public for the various bombardments and annihilations which took place in the name of empire, and possibly for Bomber Harris himself.

Can it really be the case that Garitt Serviss’s Edison’s Conquest of Mars, one of the yarns cited by Wright, ‘in which a plane equipped with a weapon called the Disintegrator renders the Martians helpless’, blazed a trail for anything other than whoops of schoolboy excitement? The next time I see an SF flick in which a jump-suited spaceship commander activates his defensive forcefield, or the like, should I muse on the alarming parallel of the Strategic Defense Initiative? If a James Bond caper has a Middle Eastern terrorist as the arch villain (though they are careful who they choose these days), is it an indication of the parameters of Britain’s foreign policy? doesn’t Terry Eagleton have something to say in the same issue of the London Review about ‘otherness’ not being the ‘most fertile of intellectual furrows’?

The best-known example of ‘future war’ fiction is The Invasion of 1910 by William Tufnell Le Queux, a rich slice of scaremongering which was a sensational success when published in 1906. Le Queux went on to become a self-styled ‘Master of Mystery’, though the biggest mystery about him was how to pronounce his name – I think it’s ‘Le Cue’, though I’ve heard it, rather gratingly, as ‘Le Quex’. He was, incidentally, well up on aviation, though ground forces are the thing in The Invasion of 1910, as ill-prepared Brits are caught out by the marauding Hun. ‘Desperate Fighting in Essex’ is the heading of one chapter. But I would venture that Le Queux’s notoriety says as much about Lord Northcliffe’s instinct for circulation-boosting schlock – the novel was serialised in the Daily Mail – as it does about contemporary perceptions of military possibility. The book was widely recognised for the nonsense it was; sceptics queued up to ridicule it. P.G. Wodehouse, for example, published The Swoop! Or How Clarence Saved England: A Tale of the Great Invasion (1909):

‘I say,’ exclaimed Horace, who sat nearest the window, ‘there are two rummy-looking chaps coming to the front door, wearing a sort of fancy dress!’

‘It must be the Germans,’ said Reggie.

A.A. Milne composed for Punch an account of ‘The Secret Army Aeroplane’ in the all too imitable Le Queux style. And Heath Robinson submitted a series of drawings to the Sketch showing the devilish skill of German spies who had inveigled their way into Britain disguised as tourists, door-to-door salesmen and even classical statues at the British Museum.

Wright says we should inspect the ‘cultural moment’ but, in this case, that has to mean more than earnest, if rather loose, ideas about the preparation of the population for the war ahead. Besides, like many of the prophecies of war around at the time, The Invasion of 1910 missed the point: the great invasion myth turned out to be just that.

Rupert Forbes

It's surprising that, surveying forwards and back the ideology of serial bombardment, neither Patrick Wright nor, apparently, the principal author under review, Sven Lindqvist, mentions H.G. Wells – for British readers at least, by far the best-known projector in fiction of what hatches when the various machines drop their eggs. It seems odd to leave out, for instance, the early War in the Air (Wells in his Little Man phase) or The World Set Free, just pre-World War One, which introduced the atomic bomb as ultimate world liberator. It's a huge subject, the way that wishful fantasies realise themselves in actual scientific-technological achievement.

Christopher Small
Isle of Lismore

On the Button

Helen Cooper (LRB, 9 August) suggests that we have inherited ‘the alphabetical index … and buttons’ from the Middle Ages. A better dating for buttons would be the Middle Bronze Age, or even earlier (say, 2500 BC), to judge by the evidence from a number of prehistoric burials where clothing perished but stone, jet and bone buttons survived.

John Coles
Thorverton, Devon

The Better View

In his discussion of John Pilger’s exhibition Reporting the World at the Barbican (LRB, 23 August), Jeremy Harding describes John Garrett’s shot of a hall of people listening to an Enoch Powell speech in Wolverhampton in 1970: ‘his rapt audience all incline to the right under the prevailing wind of oratory. A strong gust, one imagines, will deck the lot of them.’ The members of the audience who are indeed leaning to the right are those sitting on the aisle, who are straining to see more than the neck of the person in front. A few rows back, a formidable lady in horn-rimmed specs can be seen, against the odds, inclining to the left – which, from where she is sitting, gives her the better view. These people are clearly more than an obedient flock. The trouble with the best-known images of photojournalism is that they tend to become emblems of events of significant historical moment, and it isn’t easy to keep a sense of perspective when faced with them. Pilger’s caption for a 1991 photograph by Steve Cox reads: ‘An East Timorese boy watches Indonesian troops pass through the streets of Dili. These demonstrations by the occupiers were frequent and meant to intimidate.’ Oddly, the boy in the foreground isn’t watching the soldiers behind him, but staring into the photographer’s lens. The distortions and flattened perspectives that come with the presence of the camera, and with the images that result, aren’t corrected by journalism of the Pilger brand, which indeed means to sweep away all before it in its single-minded oratory.

Nick Potter

The picture of people attending an Enoch Powell meeting raises an interesting question. How different would a picture of people attending an Iain Duncan Smith rally today look? Can it be true that Tories always look old, however young they are?

Keith Flett
London N17


Mary Beard rebukes Anthony Everitt for ‘some nasty howlers in the Latin’ (LRB, 23 August) but misleads readers on the question of the nastiest Latin howler currently flooding the Internet. The use of dummy Latin for layout tests is known in the trade as ‘greeking’. Strictly speaking, Beard is right to say that ‘since the 18th century the first paragraphs of In Catilinam I have been regularly used as the trial text for specimens of typesetting (and now of web pages).’ More popular, however, is a Latin jabberwocky that begins ‘lorem ipsum dolor sit amet’, which is also Ciceronian in descent. Even the Microsoft website has an explanatory note on this ‘greek’ text, clearing up the confusion over what it means (nothing) and where it originated (in Cicero). The first infelicity of many can be traced back to H. Rackham’s 1931 Loeb edition, in which a page begins with ‘lorem’ because the preceding page ends with ‘do-’.

Chris Morrissey
Simon Fraser University

Kuhnian Raindance

Steve Fuller (Letters, 23 August) rejects my suggestion that we should try to figure out whether Thomas Kuhn's account of science is correct, on the grounds that Kuhn's work is difficult to interpret and he changed his mind. I think both the difficulty and the change are often exaggerated, but it doesn't really matter. In my review, I presented a common interpretation of Kuhn, according to which he offered an account of science that is deep, challenging and potentially very enlightening. Fuller may be worried about whether that account is truly Kuhn's, but that is irrelevant to the question of whether it is true.

Peter Lipton
University of Cambridge

As a former student of Thomas Kuhn, I would like to correct a common misunderstanding of his philosophy of science that is perpetuated in Peter Lipton’s review of his posthumous publication (LRB, 19 July). It is widely believed that Kuhn believed that theoretical ‘anomalies’ trigger crises, paradigm shifts or scientific revolutions. Although it is trivially true that during theoretical crises anomalies are implicated, it is more significantly true that anomalies are also present during long periods of normal research and do not provoke crises. Kuhn emphasised that while such anomalies, or ‘counterinstances’, occur frequently, paradigm shifts occur rarely. In Kuhn’s view what we, in retrospect, see as destructive anomalies, contemporary scientists, immersed in an apparently successful research tradition, count among the ‘puzzles’ that guide the programme of research. And even when an anomaly is implicated in a crisis, the result is not always a paradigm shift. Kuhn drew attention to two other possibilities: ‘sometimes normal science ultimately proves able to handle the crisis-provoking problem despite the despair of those who have seen it as the end of an existing paradigm’; or, if the anomaly is exceptionally intractable, it is ‘set aside for a future generation with more developed tools’.

What kinds of anomaly occasionally ‘evoke crisis’? Kuhn’s less than satisfactory answer was that a crisis-provoking anomaly ‘must determine the timing of breakdown’. And elsewhere he wrote that putting together the ‘internal approach’ and the ‘external approach’ in the study of the history of science ‘is perhaps the greatest challenge now faced by the profession, and there are increasing signs of a response’. To Kuhn’s dismay this response included the radical contention that science only reflects social and political interests and never makes contact with nature or reality. During the last years of his life Kuhn distanced himself from this ‘absurd’ claim – ‘deconstruction gone mad’.

Harold Dorn
Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey

Lefter than thou

Without wanting to get into a game of lefter than thou, I’m still looking for that ‘centre’ Terry Eagleton says I’m politically to the right of in his review of my book, God, Gulliver and Genocide (LRB, 23 August). Is it to be found among the post-colonial censors whose diatribes I’m correctly portrayed as disliking, and which I described as comparable to the old-style ‘dismal colonial discourses they purport to replace’?

Claude Rawson
Yale University

On the Grèklu Ridge

Tim Salmon (LRB, 21 June) claims that the arrival of Italian troops on the Grèklu ridge in the Pindus drew Greece into the Second World War. On 28 October 1940 Greece rejected Italy's ultimatum – to allow Italian troops to occupy Greece peacefully, or be attacked – and then repulsed the invasion forces, which came via occupied Albania. The Italians occupied rural Greece only after the defeat of the Greek forces by the Germans in April 1941. Incidentally, the Communist-led army that fought the Government forces in the Civil War of 1947-49 was called the Democratic Army of Greece.

Salmon also writes of the Cypriot War of Independence. The struggle waged in 1955-59 by Eoka was for the union of Cyprus with Greece. The fact that Britain, Greece and Turkey imposed independence on Cyprus in 1960 is another matter.

Peter Mackridge
St Cross College, Oxford

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences