Vol. 25 No. 13 · 10 July 2003

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Strange Brew

In the days before she ‘entered the world of tea buffery’, Jenny Diski tells us (LRB, 19 June), her preferred kind of tea was hot, strong and syrupy. She compares it to ‘Jewish opium’. You can tell she drank it long, like most of us. I’d like to recommend the even stronger short tea (a kind of Muslim speed) found in some of the less civilised countries we may soon be obliged to subdue because of the threat they pose to us, if not now then within, say, 45 minutes of your having read this letter. Mauritania, for instance, where green tea is rendered through prolonged boiling with mint and sugar into a bittersweet viscous substance – the equivalent of a ristretto coffee – which is said to quench the thirst and keep the drinker awake. A real tea buff should get down to Nouakchott before we declare pre-emptive war in that part of the Muslim world.

Marjorie Enders
Richmond, Surrey

Eloquent Silence

Pace James Hamilton-Paterson (LRB, 19 June), I doubt Joseph Roth did get it right when he said that people from the remote German forests typically spoke in ‘half sentences and stunted sounds’ because of their poverty. They were refugees in Berlin around 1920 and were probably laconic because they were stunned by gruelling ordeals and their arrival in a wholly unknown place. When I stayed at the Relax Inn in Winnipeg in the summer of 1988, the hotel rooms and nearby streets were full of speechless Native Americans. The worst forest fires on record had driven them from their home grounds and they had been given temporary accommodation in the city centre. At breakfast they often ate nothing; one evening I saw a man in his seventies staring numbly at an untouched knickerbocker glory. Ten days later the fires had burned out and I shared a railway buffet car with dozens of Cree and Swampy Cree travelling north from Thomson to Hudson Bay. Relieved to be going home, they chattered almost continuously. To assume the inarticulacy of a people is almost always wrong.

David Craig

The Cowbells of Kitale

It was not just the Masai and the Suk (Pokot) who were cleared from their ancestral lands in Kenya: the same fate befell the Kikuyu people. In 1953, nearly twenty years after the Selwyn case about which Patrick Collinson writes (LRB, 5 June), Jomo Kenyatta, the Kikuyu leader and future president of Kenya, was tried near Kitale, charged with having organised the Mau Mau insurgency. My parents, visiting from Uganda, attended the proceedings. The anthropologist Lewis Leakey acted, for a time, as interpreter. A fluent Swahili speaker, Leakey had been giving talks to the white settlers about the Kikuyu people, and my mother was appalled by what he told her about the white farmers’ ignorance of their African employees and African culture – this less than a decade before independence.

Sarah Hutton
Middlesex University

Patrick Collinson must have been writing before the new Government of Moi Kibaki made primary school education free in Kenya: the children living in the Selwyns’ former farmstead are now no longer ‘too poor’ to go to school.

S. Daniel
Gilhoc, France

Reactionary Danger

I don’t know why Ian Birchall (Letters, 5 June) thinks I was being ‘dismissive’ in calling Victor Serge’s muffled deviations from the Comintern line on Germany ‘ultra-leftist’ – nothing wrong with that in my view. But he is right to qualify the tendency. Serge, I wrote, had been sent by the Comintern to analyse the German Revolution, but what follows – ‘which he did often, from an ultra-left perspective’ – should have read ‘which he did, often from an ultra-left perspective’. And Birchall of all people should agree, since he writes, in his introduction to the texts collected in Witness to the German Revolution: ‘It is also possible to detect a certain ultra-leftism in Serge’s account, perhaps deriving from his anarchist past, but also reflecting a continuing weakness of the German revolutionary tradition.’

Birchall’s second claim, that Serge retained faith in the working class to the end, I would dispute more strongly. Of course he ‘still saw himself as an active member of the anti-Stalinist Left’, but this does not mean he still regarded the working class as the anointed agent of historical change. In November 1944 he wrote in his diary: ‘The events of 1917-18 cannot repeat themselves at the end of this war. The old opposition between socialist revolution and capitalist reaction has been replaced by a civil war between Stalinist totalitarianism and democratic socialism. Conservatism and neo-Fascisms are the beneficiaries of this tragedy.’ Such an analysis recurs in many of Serge’s political writings, even before the war, as well as in the late fiction. Note, by contrast, the consistency of his scepticism towards social democracy.

Lorna Scott Fox

Key Image

Andrew O’Hagan’s piece about the Peter Saville show at the Design Museum was illustrated by the cover image of New Order’s ‘True Faith’ (LRB, 19 June). O’Hagan didn’t mention that the photograph was by Trevor Key, who was also responsible in 1973 for the album cover of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.

Garth Eaglesfield
Richmond, Surrey

She, He, She

Michael Dibdin (Letters, 19 June) should be aware that female accountants have often had to contend with a good deal more than ‘laddish ridicule’ in their struggle for equal footing with their male counterparts. This female accountant applauds Donald Mackenzie’s choice of gender for his hypothetical ethnoaccountant (LRB, 22 May). He is also right to call for more research into the processes that give rise to the all-important numbers that accountancy generates, and into the social consequences of the decisions based on those numbers. This type of research is, however, difficult for accounting academics to undertake and get published, especially in the US.

Laura Spira
Oxford Brookes University

Do your homework

In my letter about Slavoj Žižek’s essay on biogenetics (Letters, 19 June), editorial changes inadvertently caused me to say something I didn’t say (and which is not true), effectively reinforcing one of Žižek’s inaccurate claims: ‘In Huntington’s chorea, the existence of a “typographical error" tells us that we will definitely develop the disease.’ While the genetic correlation for Huntington’s is far higher than for Alzheimer’s, it is not absolutely predictive. In fact, the research to which Žižek alludes found a minority of subjects who have the relevant genetic glitch yet remain asymptomatic at an advanced age, including one 95-year-old man.

Roger Lancaster
Fairfax, Virginia

Aids and the Polio Vaccine

David Seddon (Letters, 5 June) wants to know how Ghislane Courtois knew the titre of the vaccine used in the Ruzizi mass vaccination trial in 1958. The titration was done in Philadelphia and Courtois was told to dilute the material sixty-fold in order to reach the desired dose. Paul Osterrieth (Letters, 8 May) is correct in stating that the titre could not be ascertained in Stanleyville.

Stanley Plotkin
Doylestown, Pennsylvania

Paul Osterrieth, Stanley Plotkin and Hilary Koprowski (Letters, 8 May), all of whom were intimately involved with the trials of the CHAT polio vaccine in Central Africa, continue to insist that this vaccine was never prepared in chimpanzee cells, and thus to deny any connection between the CHAT vaccination of about a million Africans in 1957-60 and the emergence of Aids in the same towns and villages between ten and twenty years later.

Osterrieth dismisses the memories of African technicians by saying that one was a ‘low-level employee’, while the testimony of the other ‘isn’t of any value’. He adds that he has already denied these claims in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. In that article, he contradicted some of his own previous statements (concerning, for instance, to which American institutions he sent chimpanzee kidneys), while remaining tight-lipped about other crucial details. He insisted that CHAT vaccine was never handled in his virology department at the Laboratoire Médical de Stanleyville (LMS), and that it ‘could not have been prepared’ there. Numerous witnesses from North America, Europe and Africa (not just the two I cited) disagree with Osterrieth on these two points, and some state that he prepared the vaccine himself.

But in which cells? Plotkin says that baboon kidneys were used for tissue culture, but the LMS annual reports record only a relatively tiny quantity of cells cultured from (at most) two baboons in 1958. Plotkin claims that ‘when chimpanzees were used’ for any work, this was ‘readily acknowledged’. In the annual reports, however, references to the CHAT testing programme and the vaccination trials are obscure and minimal, and there is no information as to what activities necessitated the use of more than four hundred chimpanzees between 1956 and 1960. Several witnesses recall that Osterrieth handled tissue, cells and sera from chimpanzees throughout this period.

Finally, Plotkin complains that most of what I claim to be early Aids cases from Africa are unconfirmed. Nine of my 39 cases were confirmed serologically; the others were diagnosed as probable Aids cases by experienced Africa-based physicians. For both the full series and the subset of confirmed cases, the statistical correlations with the CHAT vaccination sites are highly significant.

Edward Hooper
Bridgwater, Somerset

Pick of the Pops

Michael Wood (LRB, 5 June) is right that ‘Personality’, indeed not a lovely song, dates from the 1950s. It had a very curious Dutch translation. ‘’Cause you’ve got personality’ became: ‘Je bent zo leuk in je spijkerbroek’ (‘You’re so smart in your blue jeans’).

Jan van Luxemburg
Haarlem, Netherlands

Short Memory

In his Short Cuts about the invasion of Iraq (LRB, 19 June), John Sturrock writes: ‘What has tended to go unsaid is that if these weapons did exist, they posed, most obviously, a threat exclusively to the not so distant Israel.’ Sturrock has a very short memory. It was only a decade ago that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait and subsequently unleashed missiles against Saudi Arabia as well as Israel.

George Kramer

Armageddon Now

I am less sure than John Sutherland that Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind is a ‘rip-off’ of Stephen King’s ‘The Langoliers’ (LRB, 5 June). The idea of passengers disappearing mid-flight has been in the air for some time. In Millennium (1984) John Varley portrayed a genetically ravaged human race raiding doomed planes for spare parts. Varley may or may not have been inspired by the Troughton-era ‘Doctor Who and the Faceless Ones’ (1967).

Marc Hudson

Perhaps if the entire Christian Right were ‘instantaneously teleported into Heaven’, as John Sutherland puts it, the rest of us might avoid Armageddon. Roll on the end times!

Rachel Foxley

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