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Letters

Vol. 26 No. 8 · 15 April 2004

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Memories of Baghdad Bob

Daniel Dennett wonders whether other readers of Jerry Fodor’s comments on cognitive neuroscience and consciousness are reminded of Baghdad Bob’s ‘emphatic and even cheerful denials of reality’ during the Iraq war (Letters, 18 March). Fodor’s position reminds me of those who have argued all along that while the outcome of the war was in no doubt, given the amount of money and high technology at our disposal, it would solve nothing. I eagerly await evidence that either they or Fodor are wrong.

Michael Dibdin
Seattle

John Murray Archive

John Sutherland raises some important issues about the proposed purchase of the John Murray Archive by the National Library of Scotland (LRB, 18 March). They reflect similar discussions in other areas of culture and heritage when efforts are made to acquire significant – but expensive – items and collections for the nation. It is sad that his article is compromised by factual errors which could easily have been avoided, together with assumptions and innuendo that bear no relation to reality.

Sutherland’s piece contains too many factual errors to respond to in a letter such as this. These stem from his lack of knowledge of the archive, which he has never visited; nor has he had the benefit of reading the four-volume listing that forms the core of the valuation. Instead he relies solely on a brief summary which the NLS has made widely available, together with a number of press articles. Had he known more about the archive he would appreciate that its scale, complexity and depth are unique: much is of real interest to the public, and many parts are unexplored by researchers. He would also have avoided obvious mistakes, such as the suggestion that the archive includes the pubic hair of Byron’s lover.

Of particular concern are Sutherland’s assertions regarding the role of Bernard Quaritch in the sale. Rather than handling the sale, Quaritch – one of the best known and respected professional valuers in the country – was commissioned by the NLS to provide an independent valuation of the archive following the approach by John Murray. The company is not involved in the sale, which is the subject of direct negotiations between John Murray and the library, and to suggest that it benefits from a ‘handsome’ commission – or any commission – is simply wrong. Sutherland’s disparaging tone regarding the work of the valuer is both ill informed and unprofessional.

The article also seems very much at odds with the strong letter of support that Sutherland himself wrote to the NLS on 16 December 2003, having already been made aware of the valuation figure provided by Quaritch. In the letter he suggested that the archive was extremely important, that the NLS would be the best home for it and that grant-giving bodies should be urged to see the value of this case.

The importance of the archive has been recognised by the many academics who have written to support our proposals, as well as the Scottish Executive, which has committed substantial funds to the Library. We believe that such an archive is best placed in a library dedicated to maximising access to its collections, with the resources to make it widely available through digitisation and exhibitions, and to provide quality research facilities. If we are successful, an extraordinary archive will have been acquired for the public in a way that will secure its future without any ongoing call on public funds, and without the potential controversy of private gain by wealthy individuals.

Martyn Wade
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

John Sutherland’s key objection to the sale of the John Murray archive to the National Library of Scotland is that ‘the sum of money … might … be put to better use.’ How often does a cultural resource as important to Britain’s historical memory as the Murray archive come available? The price is large, no doubt. Is it too large? I do believe – and I believe Sutherland believes – that if this archive left the UK, or, worse yet, were broken up, the loss would be past calculation. If ‘it’s hyperbolic to call it … “a mini-British Library",’ it’s a failure of perspective to call it a ‘plumless pudding’. John Murray has operated across three centuries, and its presence as a dominating cultural force in the 19th century is beyond question. Sutherland argues that ‘the firm’s traditional dislike of fiction and poetry’ diminishes the value of the archive, and he even argues that travel literature, on which it focuses, is ‘not of central importance’. But Sutherland knows very well that travel literature is fundamental to the study of the growth and self-understanding of the British Empire. One of the glories of this archive is precisely in those special interests, such as travel literature, that guided its publishing.

Jerome McGann
University of Virginia, Charlottesville

I was startled to find in the penultimate paragraph of John Sutherland's article a statement claiming that I had $8 million a year to spend on the purchase of archives. One tenth of that sum would be nearer the mark.

Tom Staley
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Austin, Texas

John Sutherland writes: I apologise to Martyn Wade for the errors in my piece. Those which are unfit for publication in the LRB I ask him to send to me personally.

On the ‘commission’ issue. I understand that Quaritch were acting as valuers for the NLS and not as agents for John Murray. I was misled by an article in the Guardian of 28 February, in which its arts correspondent described Quaritch as ‘the London antiquarian booksellers handling the sale’. The description (that Quaritch is ‘handling the sale’) has been repeated in other large-circulation newspapers. Wade says that Quaritch ‘is not involved in the sale’ but did not, as far as I am aware, have any correction printed in the Guardian or elsewhere. Others will have been similarly misled.

I make clear in my article (as I did in a letter solicited by the library) that I regard the NLS as an ideal home for the Murray archive. But I do question the huge amount of public money which will be required to place it there.

Preserving the Owl

In his attack on Amartya Sen, Wilfred Beckerman places too much reliance on the price mechanism (Letters, 18 March). He says that if the supply of any particular material resource begins to fall short of demand at the prevailing price, its price will rise and this will set up a series of feedbacks that will increase supply and reduce demand. Where substitutes and flexibility exist, this is true. But what about oil? Never before has a single commodity become so vital, not only to a single country or continent, but to every aspect of our global economy and its ability to sustain a population of six billion. We now face a situation in which demand is set to outstrip production capacity – which is about to peak and slip into irreversible decline.

Since 1980, 500 billion barrels of oil have been consumed and 300 billion discovered. Last year was the first since the beginning of the Oil Age during which no new discoveries were made. Demand may already have overtaken production, and even extreme optimists predict that production will peak before 2015.

Beckerman does not seem to appreciate that there is no substitute for oil, or indeed for natural gas, which will go into a more sudden and rapid decline perhaps a decade later. If we wait for Beckerman’s price mechanism to act, the effect will be a sudden, worldwide economic and social collapse, described by one oil expert as ‘the greatest discontinuity in human history’.

Aidan Harrison
Morpeth, Northumberland

I find Wilfred Beckerman’s criticism of Amartya Sen totally unwarranted. Left alone, the market will not restore the ozone layer, bring back depleted stocks of fish, conserve our remaining forests or arrest global warming. The employment market, the interest rate and even the exchange rate are considered too important not to be managed through ‘public policy’. Why should the environment and natural resources in general be treated differently?

Salah el Serafy
Arlington, Virginia

Virtue in Cowardice

Jacqueline Rose finds in David Grossman’s writing a record of Israel as a ‘failed state’ (LRB, 18 March). That is an interesting way of describing a state that from 1948 till the present has advanced from poverty to a GDP per capita in the European range, even while its population increased tenfold. Very few states have done better (Ireland, Singapore) and for all their virtues, they would not pretend to compete with Israel in scientific research or overall cultural achievement, however that may be judged. But of course Israel’s greatest accomplishment has been to restore the broken morale of Jews worldwide by winning its wars and battles against all comers – although I do understand that some are repelled by that very thing, seemingly viewing an incapacity to fight, if only to protect oneself from violence, as a positive moral attribute in itself. Such people see great virtue even in plain cowardice. They would no doubt find a weak and defeated and thus non-existent Israel altogether more attractive.

Edward Luttwak
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Spooky

Baden-Powell may have been guilty of dodgy translation, as Thomas Jones says, but he was not guilty of glamorising his African name by claiming that the enemy called him ‘The Wolf’ when his African name really meant ‘hyaena’ (LRB, 4 March). The Sindebele impisi does refer to the spotted hyaena, Crocuta crocuta, but 19th-century writers in English commonly called this animal a wolf. W.C. Baldwin uses both words interchangeably in African Hunting and Adventure (1863), though the later and more scientific F.C. Selous uses only the word ‘hyaena’ in A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa (1881). Impisi seems a good word for a man who skulked around in the dark on spying missions. The spotted hyaena is often seen as spooky, in both senses of the word.

Fay Robertson
Harare

Puce I bloody hates!

Adam Phillips’s reference to Dylan Thomas’s friend the artist Fred Janes brought back memories of youthful cycle rides to Nicholston Hall at Oxwich in the Gower, where Fred and his family lived (LRB, 4 March). I remember Fred telling a story that his sister Mary had once used the word ‘puce’ and that Thomas had exploded: ‘Pink I likes, blue I likes, but puce I bloody hates. Say that again and I’m going to kiss you all over, Mary!’ ‘Puce, puce, puce!’ was her reply. Thomas made a grab for her but she rushed through the crowded room and fled upstairs, Thomas in hot pursuit. Mary’s screams prompted Fred to race to his sister’s rescue. Thomas had her pinioned on the bed and was intent on making good his promise.

Gareth Smith
Byron Bay, New South Wales

Watch the milk

Richard Rorty suggests that if, hypothetically, a major natural disaster were to occur, with the result that thousands of people died, the survivors could expect no fundamental alteration in their country's institutional life to take place (LRB, 1 April). So how, he asks, could it be justified to alter those institutions in order to avert the possibility of terrorist attacks in which thousands of people might die? This is like saying that, since there is no point in crying over spilt milk, there is no point in taking steps to avoid spilling milk.

Gerald Lang
Oxford

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