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Letters

Vol. 29 No. 11 · 7 June 2007

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Sergio Vieira de Mello

With the exception of Sergio Vieira de Mello, those cited in Perry Anderson’s article on the UN are still alive and can answer his charges themselves (LRB, 10 May). Not so Vieira de Mello, for whom we worked at the time in question as, respectively, executive assistant and senior adviser. Anderson correctly says that Vieira de Mello was ‘reluctant to go’ to Iraq early in the summer of 2003 as the special representative of the UN secretary-general. ‘But an audience was arranged with Bush,’ Anderson claims, ‘and Annan dispatched him.’ We do not believe such an arm-twisting meeting ever took place. It would have to have been very secretive indeed. There was a meeting with Bush just before the American invasion. We both attended it (and subsequent meetings that week with Condoleezza Rice, Richard Armitage and others) and at no point was a role for Sergio as a special representative discussed.

Anderson describes Sergio’s job in Baghdad as being ‘to create a network of collaborators for the occupation’. This is maybe more a question of interpretation than of fact. But that was certainly not the role Sergio (or the rest of us) intended to play. His main activity before his death was broadening the political discussion both within Iraq – partly by bringing in parties the occupying power couldn’t or wouldn’t talk to – and abroad by extending it to include the states neighbouring Iraq. In all these endeavours, Sergio was motivated by a desire to ensure that Iraqis had a meaningful say, rather than a purely symbolic role, in determining the future of their country. He was also striving to bring about an early end to the occupation, which he had described on the record as untenable. Curiously, having demeaned UN efforts in Iraq, Anderson seems to acknowledge the importance of the organisation’s work when he describes Sergio’s murder – 21 other UN colleagues and associates were also killed that day – as being ‘politically the most effective single strike of the war’. But this is a grudging admission, wrapped up as it is in the callous suggestion that Sergio’s work in Iraq ‘inevitably’ made him a target for killing.

Jonathan Prentice and Scott Malcomson
Geneva and Brooklyn

Perry Anderson’s analysis of the career of Kofi Annan is also a melancholy indictment of those who preceded Annan in that now almost meaningless post: Trygve Lie, Dag Hammarskjöld and Kurt Waldheim in particular. Anderson doesn’t mention the charges made against Hammarskjöld’s UN on the grounds of its shameful complicity in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, by Conor Cruise O’Brien, who had been Hammarskjöld’s special representative. O’Brien’s To Katanga and Back is a masterly and unusually frank account of Hammarskjöld’s abysmal failure to protect a democratically elected leader. But Hammarskjöld, a distinguished economist and scholar, was only a faulty would-be saint; Lie, Annan and Waldheim demeaned the office they held.

K. Vela Velupillai
Girton College, Cambridge

Naive or Not?

W.G. Runciman suggests that Tony Blair’s greatest crime – the crime from which all the others stem – has been his unprecedented ‘naivety’ (LRB, 24 May). Blair should be so lucky, to be thought of thus. Naivety is charming, schoolboyish, winning. What Runciman doesn’t seem to accept is that Blair’s naivety is the product of painstaking political engineering. ‘Well’, ‘you know’, the fake glottal stop the mimics have had, like him, to swallow: every phrase, every mannerism, has been designed to make voters know his ordinariness, to feel that he’s an ordinary man facing ‘difficult choices’, just like them. He was naive, he wanted people to think, but who isn’t? It’s a tough world out there, and that means tough decisions. He didn’t know what he was letting himself in for – but who would, given the keys to Number Ten?

But Blair knew exactly what he wanted to do once in power, and he knew how to do it. ‘Reform’ – of health, education, transport – meant getting private money in on the act, which private money was very happy to do; and it meant removing public services from government and local government control so that Downing Street could no longer be blamed for their failings. Runciman claims that Blair had next to no knowledge of the ‘central institutions of British society’. That is the way he had to make it seem. Since he knew ‘nothing’, he could try anything on, and solicit the kind of ‘blue skies thinking’ that is used in management as a blind to disguise the very purposeful thinking that has already been done – generally with the aim of paying fewer people money. Naive it isn’t.

Brian Lynch
Newcastle

Saving the World

I had only just finished reading Andrew O’Hagan’s account of his day and night excursions with the binmen, when I happened to read, in a more sensationalist publication, that the body of the late Earl of Shaftesbury, the victim of a spectacularly seedy murder or manslaughter on the Côte d’Azur, had been discovered, months after the event, at what was described as a ‘well-known fly-tipping’ site outside Nice (LRB, 24 May). It struck me as a not very imaginative or prudent means of disposing of the evidence, since you’d have thought that the local municipality might get round fairly regularly to cleaning up what are well known to be fly-tipping sites. Though, having said that, I have to admit that the municipalities where I live don’t ever seem to get round to it, if the junk I come across on my woodland and other rambles is anything to go by. You find collections of car parts, what might once have been described as white goods and heaven knows what else in corners of the landscape sufficiently inaccessible to make you wonder whether the people who have been dumping them there weren’t playing some sort of children’s game rather than merely disposing of things free of charge. I could but compare, reading O’Hagan, what I presume to be the mentality of these sylvan polluters, along with their less enterprising cousins, who merely drop their mess out of the car window as they drive along the lanes, with the impossibly high-minded Freegans who have managed to find a spiritual dimension in feeding off leftovers. There are far more fly-tippers than Freegans, however, and I don’t think the way to tackle the waste problem, let alone solve it, is to evangelise on an anti-greed ticket. Swingeing fines would be more like it.

Hamish Ford
Midhurst, Sussex

Andrew O’Hagan’s piece left me wondering about Alf and Martin’s van. If they don’t use money, how do they pay for road tax, insurance, an MOT, not to mention fuel, as they drive ‘up and down the country’? How old is the van? How polluting is it? O’Hagan says it smells of diesel, so it clearly doesn’t run on unleaded fuel. It’s all very well for them to say they love their fellow man, but what happens if they’re involved in an accident? And how did they come by the van in the first place? I very much doubt they fished it out of a bin behind a Somerfield supermarket. And then what about the leaflets they distribute? Presumably most of them are immediately thrown away by their reluctant recipients, and almost certainly not into a recycling bin, if into any bin at all. Basking in their haloes of righteousness, the Freegans appear oblivious of the contradictions inherent in their lifestyle. As O’Hagan suggests, their activities are only an extreme example of the kind of minor do-gooding that gives a warm glow to Guardian readers and boosts David Cameron’s standing in the opinion polls. But for all their wishful thinking and good intentions, like Les the Brent binman, they won’t be ‘saving the world today’. Indeed, the individual recycler’s belief that he is saving the planet may do more harm than good, since it acts as a barrier to real and necessary structural change by allowing governments and corporations to offload their responsibilities onto voters and ‘consumers’ while the world goes to hell in a dustcart.

George Adams
Salisbury

Andrew O’Hagan writes that ‘urban waste is growing by 3.2 per cent a year – faster than GDP’, as if that were a meaningful comparison. I’m very pleased to say that neither urban waste nor GDP is growing as fast as the courgettes in my garden, which have increased by approximately 100 per cent in the last week.

Martin Sanderson
Ipswich

What Happened in Kansas

Sadakat Kadri says that John Brown’s ‘previous expedition against a Kansas slave-owning settlement had ended in five deaths’ (LRB, 24 May). But it wasn’t an expedition (with its military overtones) and the ‘settlement’ wasn’t a town, just a remote scattering of houses. The people who lived there, like many in Kansas, were pro-slavery, but that didn’t make them slave-owners. Brown, accompanied by five of his sons, arrived late at night and attacked three isolated families, hacking the men to death with broadswords. (He got his sons to do this.) As for Harpers Ferry: the first man to die there was Hayward Shepherd, a railroad baggage-master, shot by Brown’s sentries. He was a free negro.

Derek Robinson
Bristol

Wrong Commandment

Michael Dobson says that ‘public breaches of the Seventh Commandment’ were outlawed in 1606 by MPs worried about actors ‘taking the name of the Lord in vain’ (LRB, 10 May). The Seventh Commandment (Exodus 20.14 and Deuteronomy 5.18) forbids adultery; the Commandment referred to is the Third (Exodus 20.7 and Deuteronomy 5.11).

Raymond Aronson
Tel Aviv

Just Good Friends

Hermione Lee writes that Virginia Woolf’s words ‘Chloe liked Olivia’ in A Room of One’s Own have been ‘milked for lesbian potential by successive generations of feminist writers and readers’ although ‘“Chloe liked Olivia" could refer to friendship or unromantic professional companionship just as well as to romantic love’ (LRB, 24 May). In the draft of Woolf’s manuscript, from March 1929, she writes that after reading the words ‘Chloe liked Olivia’ in a novel,

there flashed into my mind the inevitable policeman; the summons; the order to attend the court; the dreary waiting; the Magistrate coming in with a little bow; the glass of water; the counsel for the prosecution; for the defence; the verdict; this book is … obscene; & flames rising, perhaps on Tower Hill, as they consumed … masses of … paper.

Just for being friends?

Helen Wright
London SE1

Drums and Fifes

John Moisson is almost right, but not quite, about drummers, fifers and bandsmen in the Household Division (Letters, 8 March). In British infantry regiments, the members of the Corps of Drums are combatants, whereas bandsmen are musicians and non-combatants. So, bandsmen do not have the rank of ‘drummer’. What’s more, ‘drummers’ also include buglers. I’m sure these distinctions are matters of complete indifference to your readers.

Richard Tewkesbury
Nyon, Switzerland

In Dublin

James Joyce got it right, Colm Tóibín didn’t (LRB, 5 April). The Dublin chemist’s shop is Sweny’s, not ‘Sweney’s’; the last chemist in the line, Frederick William Sweny, was my great-grandmother’s cousin.

Ken Cooke
Mornington, Australia

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