Vol. 24 No. 2 · 14 January 2002

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11 September

I am a US reader who has not cancelled my subscription. Instead I am savouring my LRB as I let the subscription run out. I will miss articles which show me why Italo Svevo or Thomas Gray are writers I should care about; I will miss Jenny Diski. But after reading the correspondence on 11 September, I am clearer about why I need to let the LRB go. There is a certain class of person here in the US who feels more sophisticated when being out-snobbed by, for example, the waiter in an arty restaurant, or the clerk in a bookstore. He or she at least knows enough to know that they are being patronised. The sophistication may rub off and next time they won’t be caught unaware of this good wine year in Portugal or that important new poet. This is a class of person I wish to leave off being. As various LRB writers castigated us boorish and politically isolated Americans while lower Manhattan smouldered on through the Fall, I began to see that they were serving the same function as the in-the-know waiters and clerks. They were so convincing that even the guy from the Midwest who at first threatened to come and ‘rub your faces in a pile of dog shit’ was moved to apologise for his outburst. I wish he’d stuck to his point. Because his point really was that we don’t need you to do our thinking for us. Americans reacted diversely to 11 September and continue to debate. People in Bloomington, Indiana think as well and as critically as people in Oxford. A respectful transatlantic dialogue would have been nice, but instead the LRB gave us (mainly) the old that-was-a-good-year-in-Portugal-you-stupid-idiot snobbery, dressed up as political thought. If Europeans continually need to reiterate their cultural superiority to themselves, perhaps in order to forget that they are as bought into the global capitalist machine as we are, I need not pay for it any longer.

Paul Genova
Portland, Maine

J.D.A. Wiseman (Letters, 15 November 2001) claims that ‘Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts has supported anti-British terrorists for the last three decades.’ This is a pack of lies. For the last three decades Senator Kennedy has consistently and forcefully opposed IRA violence. In the summer 1973 issue of Foreign Policy he wrote: ‘The violence and terror must be ended. I condemn the brutality in Northern Ireland. I condemn the violence of the IRA … I condemn the flow of arms or any funds for arms from the United States or any other country to Northern Ireland.’ In 1976 he joined Governor Hugh Carey of New York, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and Congressman Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts in a St Patrick’s Day statement calling for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. In a passage aimed directly at Noraid, the organisation that raises money in the US for the IRA, the four Irish-American leaders exhorted American citizens ‘to renounce any action that promotes the current violence or provides support or encouragement for organisations engaged in violence’. On St Patrick’s Day 1977, they said: ‘We appeal to all those organisations engaged in violence to renounce their campaigns of death and destruction and return to the path of life and peace.’ The next year Senator Kennedy called on Irish America not to support in deeds, words or funds any terrorist organisation. And so on, through the long and bloody years. ‘I unequivocally condemn today’s IRA bombing in Manchester,’ he said on 15 June 1996. In July 1996, he said: ‘I unequivocally condemn those involved in violence. I hold no brief for the IRA, and the vast majority of Americans don’t either.’ June 1997: ‘I am sickened and outraged by today’s murders by the IRA.’

It is true enough that Senator Kennedy has not faithfully followed the British Foreign Office line on Ireland, if this is a cardinal sin. His views have closely paralleled those of his friend of many years, John Hume, the former leader of the SDLP. Senator Kennedy supported a US visa for Gerry Adams against Foreign Office wishes; it is generally agreed today that the visa led to the IRA ceasefire and the Good Friday accords. More recently, Senator Kennedy has called on the IRA and all paramilitary groups to decommission their weapons and execute the Good Friday programme. It is appalling to represent Senator Kennedy as in any way a champion of violence. He knows intimately what violence means.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr
New York

The first act of terrorism against the international community horrific enough to prompt a military alliance to strike against the state supporting the terrorists was arguably the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of missionaries, including their wives and children, and thousands of Chinese converts. The diplomatic community in Peking was besieged until a force composed of troops from eight nations came to its relief, meting out a retribution that involved yet more thousands of civilian casualties among the Chinese population. No Western observer ever condoned the excesses of the Boxers, but one or two diplomats among the besieged, such as Sir Robert Hart and the Austrian Arthur von Rosthorn, acknowledged the role of imperialism in helping to provoke the horror. In Britain Wilfred Scawen Blunt wrote that the Chinese ‘have risen, and are, very properly, knocking the foreign vermin on the head’.

T.H. Barrett
Shepreth, Hertfordshire

Thinking Man

The tale of Barry Hannah pulling a gun on a class of writing students, repeated by Christopher Tayler (LRB, 29 November 2001), is entirely fictional, according to Richard Hugo, poet about town and gown in a minor Montana college:

Pull a rod on students, a good part of them probably female – not so! The truth, then. One afternoon in Alabama Barry, whilst cruising about the countryside in his ragtop, spied a country tavern that looked very interesting. After many a round with his fellow thespians, Barry exited to find that the skies had opened and that, the ragtop's top being down, the vehicle's floorboards were filled to the seat covers. Barry did then but what any thinking man would have considered expedient in similar circumstances. He whipped out his .45, blew holes in the flooded floorboards, which promptly drained, sending the good fellow sensibly tooling on his merry way.

Max Crawford
Livingston, Montana

Assault on Knowledge

Edward Said’s ironic piece (LRB, 3 January) was of course less about Israel’s own security than about its systematic efforts to destroy the basis for a Palestinian state. These efforts are directed not only at Palestinian men and women, their institutions, their homes, their land and their buildings, but perhaps even more crucially, at the very ‘idea’ of Palestine. In this respect, it is worth highlighting the significance of the Israeli Army’s invasion in early December of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) in Ramallah – which Said mentions in passing, recalling a similar assault in 1982 when ‘the same Army under the same commander entered West Beirut and carted off documents and files from the Palestinian Research Centre, before flattening the structure.’

This time 25 armed members of the Israel Defence Forces entered the building at night by force, broke doors and sabotaged equipment and computers, emptied filing cabinets, seized or destroyed files and documents, and scrawled in Hebrew across a printout: ‘I want to screw your mother.’ The PCBS, founded in September 1993 and supported largely by European donors, was a major source of data for the Palestinian Authority, for development and aid agencies, and for international and local academics researching a range of economic and social issues. The IDF spokesperson declared that the raid was part of ‘the fight against terror’. But it was really an assault on a unique body of knowledge and information relating to Palestine; an attempt to destroy the basis for the creation of a future, hitherto only imagined community. Perhaps, as an academic, I am particularly outraged at this assault on a centre of information and learning, but I also see it as a misguided, and ultimately futile, attempt to destroy an ‘idea’ and a belief in an alternative future, much as the burning of books was once used as a method of suppressing ‘heresies’.

David Seddon
University of East Anglia

In the piece in which he writes about his friend Ibrahim Abu-Lughod (LRB, 13 December 2001) Edward Said recalls as an undergraduate at Princeton lamenting ‘the Zionist presence’ there. In apparently wishing it away, he appears as morally unsavoury as some Jews in Israel who would like nothing better than to be rid of ‘the Arab presence’. This doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.

J. Behar
San Diego, California

Perfectly Fair to Van der Post

Adam Kuper (LRB, 3 January) provides a much-needed critical view of Laurens van der Post, famous writer, friend of royalty, international authority on all manner of subjects, and dreadful liar. I first became aware of his disregard for the truth when I read Lost World of the Kalahari after living for two years among !Kung Bushmen hunter-gatherers. Perhaps the deepest disappointment was reading his account of some Bushman women who learn through ESP that their men, far away, have killed a large antelope, and in celebration of the meal they will soon eat, begin singing a song named after this antelope. They also explain the reason for their joy to Van der Post's interpreter, a man I know quite well. I remember reading this account several times, trying hard to believe it and conjuring different scenarios that might justify what Van der Post said. But nothing about that scene was real. It simply could not have happened. First of all, Bushmen don't experience ESP in this manner (although they sometimes feel that they receive messages through dreams), and second, the music associated with that kind of antelope would not be sung on such an occasion because it pertains to menstruation.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Peterborough, New Hampshire

How much of a serf was a serf?

In her review of Aleksandr Nikitenko’s Up from Serfdom (LRB, 29 November 2001) Catherine Merridale says that serfs in 19th-century Russia were ‘little more than slaves – they followed their own trade but nothing they earned belonged to them.’ This misrepresents a crucial historical point. The majority of serfs worked on the land, and after rendering their dues could dispose of any surplus as they wished. Many others sought urban employment as artisans, messengers or whatever, and were allowed to spend or invest any profits, employ other serfs and in some cases become very rich. In this and some other respects serfdom was remote from slavery.

Robin Milner-Gulland
University of Sussex

What about Gruinard?

Liz Willis (Letters, 3 January) mentions the 1986 decontamination of the anthrax-infected island of Gruinard. There were two problems with this operation: only a part of the island was treated and treatment does not always lead to a cure. Photographs taken in 1942 and 1943 when the island was originally infected show T-shaped sprays about twelve feet high with nozzles along the crossbars and sheep tethered downwind. The sprays were prototypes intended for use on aircraft. Bombs weighing 100 pounds were also dropped from planes. These probably contained a liquid suspension of anthrax spores similar to that used in the sprays. It is said that one hundred trillion spores were released and these would have multiplied at least millions of times in the infected animals. In 1943 there was an outbreak of anthrax on the mainland, about five miles from the huge Atlantic convoy harbour codenamed ‘Port A’ in Loch Ewe. Porton Down, in other words, almost killed off a good part of the Naval forces that were holding onto the North Atlantic by their frozen fingertips. The spraying and bombings at Gruinard were stopped.

In the late 1980s, less than 10 per cent of the island was treated with formaldehyde and to a depth of only 150 mm. Margaret Thatcher’s ministers let people assume that treatment meant cure but Porton Down subsequently found active bacteria below 150 mm and, of course, on parts of the island that had not been treated. They decided it was not possible to disinfect the island and gave up trying. This is why the Defence Estimates carry an indemnity to cover an outbreak of anthrax on Gruinard.

Bill Gilmour

Unfair to Brian Bosworth

Oh dear. ‘Easily misled’ and ‘sadly deficient’ in representation of data, Brian Bosworth (Letters, 3 January) says of me. I see now that a footnote hailing a singular and most important ‘discovery’ referred to the scholarly consensus, over the ‘last two centuries’, ‘that there is a common tradition’, ‘plausibly ascribed to Cleitarchus of Alexandria’, ‘used selectively and in different ways by a large proportion of our extant sources’, of which the medieval Metz Epitome of the Alexander Romance is merely one example. But since Bosworth uses this elderly consensus to grant himself new licence to mine the credulous Epitome in particular for ‘unique and authentic data’, including an otherwise unattested son, born to Alexander by Rhoxane in the Punjab – ‘there is no obvious reason for the invention of a fictitious son’ – I hope he will understand my confusion as to exactly what has been discovered and my reasons for thinking it time for the text-combers to call it a day. Perhaps I wasn’t misled enough by Bosworth’s momentary bout of circumspection.

Bosworth then decides that Curtius was the source for my claim that Macedonian kings sometimes slept with their young bodyguards, but, finding no hint of sex there, accuses me of ‘misrepresenting’ an author I hadn’t cited, triumphantly exposing an error he had himself interpolated into my text. Had he read a little further he would have noticed I was adducing, rather, the sex scandals which surrounded the deaths of Alexander’s predecessors, referred to by Aristotle, among others.

My complaint about the book coedited by Bosworth was that students of Alexander were confusing knowledge of the wood with knowledge of its trees. Bosworth responded with a barrage of ligneous matter. Worth a try, I guess, but, in future, he should leave creative fault-finding to the car-mechanics. Letting the experts set their own standards, discover their own discoveries, measure their own advances and crown their own achievements would make for a quieter life, but Alexander is too important a figure for that to be an option. More, not less, impertinence is what the field urgently requires.

James Davidson
London NW3

‘O quel cul t’as’

James Wolcott (LRB, 13 December 2001) claims that the title of Kenneth Tynan’s Oh! Calcutta comes from a surrealist painting. I do not know of one called Oh! Calcutta, although Duchamp did one called LHOOQ – that is, ‘Elle a chaud au cul.’ Oh! Calcutta comes from ‘O quel cul t’as.’

Alan O’Brien
Mitcham, Surrey

Explosion in Toulouse

The map – showing the approximate locations of the 1100 or so UK hazardous installations subject to statutory controls – which Paul Seabright, together with many readers of his piece on the ‘Explosion in Toulouse’ (LRB, 1 November 2001), wishes to examine can be found in an article by Walker, Mooney and Pratts in Applied Geography (2000), Vol. 20, pp. 199-234. This map has a large scale (1.5 cm = 100 km) and collates information already in the public domain.

Chris Miller

A Golden Zep

Responding to my review of Dr Eckener’s Dream Machine, J.F. Darycott (Letters, 3 January) refers to recent research suggesting that the cause of the Hindenburg disaster was the highly flammable coating on the ship’s fabric which resulted in a rapid spread of flames along its length. Douglas Botting, the book’s author, mentions this theory, and gives ‘discharges of an electrostatic nature’ as the initiating agent. I may well have over-simplified in saying that the Hindenburg’s nemesis was static electricity. Whether a hydrogen-filled airship was any more of a flying bomb than a kerosene-filled airliner I leave your readers to ponder. Happy air miles!

All this is by the by, J.F. Darycott continues, and then asks, reasonably enough: ‘What was Mr Turner doing on the Queen Mary’s maiden voyage? Had he paid for a passage? What class did he travel?’ In 1936, the year of that voyage, I was on the editorial staff of the Glasgow Evening Times, which contributed towards my tourist-class fare, in return for coverage of what was an important occasion for the Clyde. I had visited New York the year before on my annual holiday (four days amid the skyscrapers, 14 days getting there and back) and had romantic reasons for returning. On the Queen Mary there were scores of more favoured reporters, all as far as I know travelling first class. The passenger list contained entries like ‘Miss Frances Day, and chauffeur’ and ‘The Rt Hon. Lord Inverclyde, and manservant’. In Tourist we dressed for dinner, though this was not our usual custom. Occasionally I slipped along into First, until the entry points were blocked. The voyage was quite uneventful; no stowaways, no icebergs. I made other crossings, notably on German and Italian liners, often returning near-broke and compelled to freelance furiously, not to mention sub-editing football reports on Saturday nights. Those well-fed journeys could be dismayingly dull; possibly the people in Third had more fun. Even Alan Bennett might have been hard put to knock a diary out of life on an ocean greyhound, though I like to picture him as the sole first-class passenger – as occasionally happened on the less popular lines – with a restaurant, a film show and a lifeboat all to himself.

E.S. Turner
Richmond, Surrey

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