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Vol. 29 No. 12 · 21 June 2007

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Jesus Bug

W.G. Runciman’s backbench source for the image of Blair as a water spider is a couple of consonants and a whole zoological phylum adrift (LRB, 24 May). Water spiders don’t run about on the surface: they live underwater, where they spin a bell-shaped web among submerged vegetation. They stock it with bubbles of air carefully collected from the surface, enabling them to bide their time in wait for prey. So the metaphor actually suits Brown better than Blair. The creature that skits here and there on the surface is the water strider (an insect not an arachnid), but this is a name that might be misconstrued as a compliment. Luckily, water striders are also commonly known as pond skaters, and even Jesus bugs.

Andrew Sugden

Saving the World

Although Andrew O’Hagan doesn’t mention them, dead human bodies are also technically waste, and for the past 150 years have been subject to much the same regulatory frameworks and strategies for disposal (LRB, 24 May). Burial and cremation are simply different terms for landfill and incineration, similarly enacted beyond the city limits where disposal creates less anxiety and less environmental harm.

In the early 20th century town planners were among the most fervent advocates of cremation, fearing that towns and cities would eventually be surrounded by a ‘white belt’ of cemetery land, separating town from country. Some 61 per cent of public open space in the London Borough of Newham is still made up of cemetery land (as is much of Queens seen from the A Train that goes from Manhattan out to Kennedy Airport). Cremation saved the day but at some psychic cost, as well as contributing to the ‘toxic canopy’ that O’Hagan describes.

As with the removal of all other waste, public opinion and professional expertise are turning against incineration, though cremation still accounts for some 70 per cent of disposals in the UK. The Department for Constitutional Affairs recently established a working party to draw up guidelines and forms of accreditation for the growing number of ‘green’, ‘natural’ or ‘woodland’ burial sites (the terms are confusingly interchangeable), where bodies are disposed of with minimal environmental damage. The owners and managers of a number of these sites claim that they will be returned to publicly accessible woodland within three or four generations, leaving no trace of former use. This is the zero waste option.

However, ecological burial marks a major shift in public attitudes. Most cultures have traditionally regarded burial places as hallowed ground in perpetuity, places of permanent memorialisation and public ritual. The question which then arises, as O’Hagan reminds us in regard to waste in general, is how to commemorate an absence? A number of urbanists and landscape architects are currently puzzling how best to create places of public inscription and memory in contemporary towns and cities: a presence of the dead at ‘the table of the living’ when those who are to be remembered are not only located elsewhere but have effectively been recycled.

Ken Worpole
London N4

Our Man

The two letters from – recently departed – Anglo-American functionaries of the UN (Edward Mortimer, Letters, 24 May, and Jonathan Prentice and Scott Malcomson, Letters, 7 June) are good illustrations of the characterisation of it in the article of which they complain. Mortimer pretends to think that any documented criticism of either Annan or himself is a mere conspiracy theory. Neither the term ‘conspiracy’, nor any analogue to it, appears in what I wrote, which makes it clear that the American grip on the UN – the UK as its liege – is historical and structural. Not that it would be difficult to use another language. Here is how James Traub and Stanley Meisler, biographers who vie to outdo each other in admiration for Annan, describe the way he became secretary-general. Traub: ‘By the fall of 1995, leading White House and State Department officials were convinced that Boutros-Ghali could not be permitted to serve a second term. A small group began working on a plan, dubbed Operation Orient Express, to oust him; in order to keep the plot secret, nothing was committed to paper for months.’ Meisler: ‘In early 1996 Albright formed a small group of conspirators to help her get rid of Boutros-Ghali. The cabal comprised James Rubin and two members of the National Security Council, Richard Clarke and Michael Sheehan.’

No doubt Mortimer’s materialisation as amanuensis for Annan was equally transparent, but it was his role in New York, not how he got there, with which I was concerned. Readers can take his assurance that he was merely an inconspicuous ‘middle-ranking adviser’ in the same spirit as his puzzlement as to ‘why exactly Cotecna continued to pay Kojo’ – Annan’s son – ‘substantial “non-compete" fees for five years after he ceased working for them’. It is good, however, to see Mortimer back in the pages of the Financial Times. There, after explaining that it might be ‘unfair’ that Paul Wolfowitz should have to step down as head of the World Bank, he urged Bush to appoint Blair as its new president: a ‘larger-than-life’ leader ‘still at the height of his powers’, who is ‘well known’ for his ‘strong interest’ in the ‘welfare of the world’s poor’. The slums of Basra must be disappointed that this ‘imaginative proposal’, as Mortimer described his idea, came to nothing.

Inadvertently, Prentice and Malcomson’s letter sheds further light on the workings of the UN under Kofi Annan. For it appears that Sergio Vieira’s own closest assistants were kept in the dark about his dealings prior to setting off for Baghdad. The meeting between an initially resistant Vieira and George Bush, of which they doubt the existence, is recorded by Traub. For UN cover in Iraq, the administration, Traub writes,

wanted Vieira de Mello, whom US officials had worked with in trouble spots all over the world. Condoleezza Rice asked him to come to see her at the White House, and after pressing him to take the job, she brought him across the hall to see President Bush, who repeated the request. Vieira de Mello relented. Annan asked him to serve as his special representative for six months. Vieira de Mello offered three months, tops. They compromised at four. The special representative reached Baghdad on 1 June.

As for what Vieira proceeded to do when he got there, Traub could not be more explicit: ‘Over the course of six weeks, he persuaded reluctant leadership figures to identify themselves with the American regime.’ If his assistants were unaware even of who picked him for the job, it is little surprise they remain bemused about what it amounted to. Scott Malcomson, predictably enough a journalist for the New York Times, evidently put his reporter’s instincts aside while on secondment.

Perry Anderson
Los Angeles

Stanley in Bumbireh

As the author of Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer, I am responding to Paul Landau’s assertion (Letters, 24 May) that Bernard Porter, in his review of the book, was wrong to have been convinced by me that Stanley was not as bad as he has been painted. To try to prove his point, Landau gives an account of Stanley’s two visits to the island of Bumbireh that lacks context and is misleading.

Stanley did not arrive on his first visit to Bumbireh ‘outfitted with Mutesa of Buganda’s bearers and canoes’, as stated by Landau, but with 11 starving African (Wangwana) oarsmen in one storm-battered open boat. Though Stanley spotted armed men near the shore on Bumbireh, hunger obliged him to risk landing and trying to buy food. His boat was rapidly surrounded by spearmen and carried up the beach. For several hours Stanley and his men expected to be killed, until Chief Shekka told them they could depart in peace if they handed over their trade goods. This they did, only to be robbed of their oars. Believing that Stanley could not leave, the islanders relaxed their vigilance, and he and his men managed to launch their boat and paddle away, using the bottom boards. Stanley fired buckshot at his pursuers to stop them grabbing the sides of his boat. None of these facts about Stanley’s first visit to the island is mentioned by Landau, who makes it sound as if he fired on the islanders for no reason at all.

Far from wishing to return to punish Bumbireh, as Mr Landau claims, Stanley wanted to bring his main expedition – then camped on the southern shores of Lake Victoria – back to Buganda overland, and never again to go anywhere near the island. But the two paramount chiefs of the mainland territory opposite Bumbireh would not allow him to cross their land. This was not primarily due to his behaviour. Arab-Swahili slave traders had reached Lake Victoria twenty years earlier and had found African rulers (including Mutesa) willing to sell men and women to them. The atmosphere around the lake had subsequently become poisoned with suspicion between tribes and with hatred of strangers. Stanley therefore had to buy canoes to transport his main expedition across the lake. But the only vessels he could purchase were rotten, and started to sink in a storm soon after he had launched them. He abandoned his plan to cross the middle of the lake. Instead, he realised he would have to sail through the strait between Bumbireh and the shore, risking simultaneous attack by canoes from the island and from the shore.

In an attempt to neutralise the islanders, Stanley captured Bumbireh’s chief by a ruse and made his unopposed passage through the strait a condition for his release. But he also urgently needed to buy food for his expedition, which had been increased by a large contingent of Bugandans sent by their king to protect him. To see whether the islanders would be willing to allow him peaceful passage, Stanley and the Bugandans sent a delegation to Bumbireh to buy food. The islanders killed the delegation’s leader and severely wounded six other men, some of whom later died. Stanley was now persuaded that a pre-emptive attack on Bumbireh was needed if he and his men were to have any chance of passing through the strait unharmed. ‘We went into the heart of Africa self-invited,’ wrote Stanley, ‘therein lies our fault. But it was not so grave that our lives should be forfeited.’ After his attack on the island, Stanley prevented the Bugandans from landing and carrying out a general massacre. That Stanley really did prevent it is confirmed by his companion Frank Pocock in his diary.

Instead of mentioning any of these background facts (all of which are laid out with sources in my book), Landau chose instead to rely entirely on one of Stanley’s least reliable despatches to the New York Herald, which, like so much of his journalism, is full of exaggeration. By selecting such spiced up passages (written with newspaper sales in mind), and ignoring other sources, it is never hard to misrepresent Stanley.

Tim Jeal
London NW3

I’ll leave the truth of the Bumbireh episode to others to determine. All I want to add is that both Tim Jeal and Paul Landau are mistaken in inferring that I was persuaded by the former’s defence of Stanley. Rereading the original article, I think it’s plain that I was generally sceptical of Jeal’s approach.

Bernard Porter


Mark Greif states that when Disney was designing Disneyland, he sent assistants to Henry Ford’s Deerfield Village (LRB, 7 June). The correct name is Greenfield Village.

Elliot Feldman
Delray Beach, Florida

We shamefully forgot to mention the translators of Primo Levi’s A Tranquil Star at the top of Elizabeth Lowry’s review (LRB, 7 June). They are: Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli.

Editors, ‘London Review’

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