Frank Kermode is right to complain that you need both hands to keep open the new edition of Housman’s letters (LRB, 5 July). ‘Yet there was a time when Oxford editions were a pleasure to use,’ he says. In the UK that was up to about 1970, when hot-melt glueing began to displace the cold glueing that had been used in industrial bookbinding. Cold glueing, which leaves a thin and almost invisible layer of water-based glue, allows the book to stay open by itself; hot-melt (a thicker, whiter layer of polymer glue) doesn’t. Cold glue seems to have disappeared from UK and North American book production, for reasons of economic rationalisation. It is still available, however, on the Continent and in the Far East. But this is evidently too far away for Oxford University Press.
‘There is no sense that the British were at this stage thinking of establishing a state or a new political order,’ Charles Tripp writes of Mesopotamia during the First World War, ‘even though the chief political officer, Sir Percy Cox, tends to pop up after any substantial town is taken’ (LRB, 5 July). But Janet Wallach’s biography of Gertrude Bell, Desert Queen, makes clear that Bell, who wrote the 1919 handbook on the tribes of Iraq which is mentioned by Tripp, frequently discussed with Cox the new political order which should be put into place after the war. The manoeuvring to form a new ‘Iraq’ out of the old ‘Mesopotamia’ started almost as soon as the war itself.
Charles Tripp writes: In 1914 Gertrude Bell, far from thinking about how ‘Iraq’ might emerge from ‘Mesopotamia’, was in France with the Red Cross. She didn’t go to work at the Arab Bureau on Middle Eastern affairs in Cairo until late 1915, and arrived in Basra in March 1916. Bell and Cox were mainly concerned with the administration of the areas occupied by British forces and with schemes to subvert the Arab populations behind Ottoman lines. When T.E. Lawrence visited in April 1916 he persuaded Bell that Mesopotamia was ‘part of Arabia … indissolubly connected’ to the larger ‘Arab question’. But it wasn’t until after the fall of Baghdad in 1917 and, more particularly, after the 1918 Armistice that Bell and the others started to think seriously about turning the three occupied Ottoman provinces into a unitary state, later to be called Iraq.
I was left unsure whether John Lanchester thought that the banning of the computer game Manhunt 2 by the British Board of Film Classification was a good thing. It had, he writes, ‘probably headed off a moral panic’ (LRB, 19 July). Should we take this to mean that we’d all be better off if we didn’t have to live through so many moral panics? At the other end of his ‘Short Cuts’, when he reports on another computer game which has bullying in a school as its theme, Lanchester seems more hospitable to the prospect of a moral panic, since ‘there’s nothing funny or clever about the idea of bullying as the basis of a video game.’ But there’s nothing funny or clever about the unrestrained sadism involved in Manhunt 2, or the large number of similar games. The objection to moral panics, subsumed as it invariably is in a much wider objection to the baser elements in the media that adopt and foment them, is that they reduce serious behavioural issues to banner headlines. The issue where violent computer games are concerned is what connections there might be between virtual and real behaviour. What we’ve yet to hear in the current context is the argument long ago advanced in defence of pornography, that if you get your kicks in the virtual dimension you won’t be going out looking for them in the real one. I wonder if that’s an argument Lanchester would hold to.
William Wootten’s piece on Alun Lewis prompts me to make public a conversation I had with the late Bernard Gutteridge, who served with Lewis in Burma and was a hundred yards away when Lewis shot himself in the latrines, the day before they were due to go into action (LRB, 5 July). In July 1979 I interviewed Gutteridge for a World Service programme about Second World War poetry. Beforehand he told me that Lewis had killed himself. He said that Lewis was being bullied by a senior officer. Gutteridge said I was only the second person he had told this, the first being John Lehmann. This part of our conversation was not recorded and I later wrote to Gutteridge to ask him to confirm what he had told me, but he didn’t reply.
I was the spokesman for the UN special representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and did all the press briefings after the bombing of our headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August 2003. I think Perry Anderson is too hard on Vieira de Mello, and not hard enough on those in the UN responsible for sending more than five hundred staff members into the midst of a conflict they could do little to help (LRB, 10 May). Aside from the murderers themselves, the responsibility for the death of Sergio and 21 of his colleagues lies with the permanent member states of the Security Council and with Kofi Annan, all of whom were keen to make amends for the UN’s refusal to authorise the invasion of Iraq.
Many on Vieira de Mello’s staff in Baghdad were worried that he would be seen to be supporting the occupation because of his high-profile efforts to persuade prominent Iraqis to join the US-appointed Governing Council. I pointed out to him that there was particular concern that members of the council were being chosen on the basis of their ethnic group (the US hoped to win Shia support for the occupation by disenfranchising the Sunni Arabs). After the Governing Council was established, Sergio no longer had a meaningful role. Paul Bremer, the US proconsul, ignored him, and there wasn’t anything Sergio could do about it: no special representative in UN history had been given such a subservient mandate.
Before Scott Malcomson makes poor James Traub delete any reference to the late Sergio Vieira de Mello’s second meeting with George Bush from future editions of his book, he might do a bit more fact-checking (Letters, 5 July). I was told about this meeting a few months after Vieira de Mello’s death by Shashi Tharoor, a novelist and UN hierarch. The occasion was a public discussion in Berlin in September 2003. Tharoor and I had vigorously debated the UN’s role and he had put up a robust defence of the institution. At the lunch that followed I asked him why Sergio, an intelligent man, had agreed to conduct the clean-up operation in Baghdad. Tharoor was blunt: ‘I’m afraid it was a combination of arm-twisting and flattery. Bush called him into the White House and appealed to his vanity. The poor man agreed to go.’ Traub is not the only source for the second meeting after all.
In his review of Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible, Robert Alter claims that Psalm 104 reads like the work of an individual ‘master’, and so undermines Karel van der Toorn’s contention that the Hebrew Bible was produced by a group of scribes rather than a series of gifted individuals (LRB, 19 July). There is an equally strong case for arguing that this psalm supports Toorn’s thesis. Most scholars now accept that it is based on an Egyptian hymn to the sun dating from the time of Akhenaten (1352-36 BCE). If an individual Hebrew scribe was involved, it was as compiler and redactor of a much older poem.
Ian Mortimer says that ‘no one has yet demonstrated a fault’ in his argument for Edward II’s survival (Letters, 5 July). I had thought my review of his book The Perfect King had demonstrated a series of them. I am at a loss to understand why it is illegitimate to consider what possible motive Roger Mortimer had for faking Edward’s death, especially as I was responding to Ian Mortimer’s own suggestion that the aim was in some way to trap Edward III. Ian Mortimer persists in quoting only the second half of Lord Berkeley’s statement to Parliament in 1330. As I said in my review, when the sentence is quoted in full, by far the most natural reading of ‘he did not know about that death’ is that he did not know Edward had been murdered, not that he didn’t know he was dead. Ian Mortimer suggests that the body could not have been identified because its face would have been covered in the embalming process. But Adam Murimouth says that many abbots, priors, knights and burgesses of Bristol and Gloucester viewed the body. The whole point of this exercise was to prove that Edward II was dead. The embalming is irrelevant: the evidence Ian Mortimer himself cites for Richard II shows that it was perfectly possible to remove any cloth covering the face. The problem with the viewing of Edward II was that this proof was only available to a local audience, and there were soon rumours that Edward was still alive. But this does not mean they were true, any more than they were true in the case of Richard II. Mortimer urges anyone with doubts to read his ‘peer-refereed’ article on the subject in English Historical Review. I have an article coming out in EHR myself. I assume this means that the editor and referees think it is worth publishing. I do not assume everyone will agree with my conclusions.
King’s College London
Hugh Pennington’s soothing words about the non-extinction of species do not square with my own experience of my three and a half acres in Tuscany (LRB, 10 May). In 1970, when I first came here, long green grass snakes slithered away as one walked the forest paths; the last one I saw in recent years was taking refuge in my greenhouse. On my terrace in the 1970s I would kill as many as six vipers in a season; there are none now. My dog was seldom without a hedgehog in his mouth (I would throw them over the cliff to save them from dying of fright); there are none now. Small wild orchids, mauve, terracotta and creamy white, appeared in drifts in late spring; there are none now. Beautiful large green lizards were plentiful; there are none now, although smaller brown ones have multiplied. I could go on, and on.
In his piece about Saudi Arabia, Tariq Ali asserts that the ‘tombs of the Prophet and his wives’ are in Mecca (LRB, 19 July). The tomb of the Prophet and the graves of most of his wives are in Medina. Ali also says that bandar means ‘monkey’ in most South Asian languages, ignoring the fact that in one major South Asian language, Urdu, it has its Persian meaning of ‘port’ or ‘haven’.
Bandar Seri Bagawan, Brunei
According to Scott Sherman, Hemingway saved Herbert Matthews from death in a rowing boat collision (LRB, 5 July). Who was the oarsman – Popeye?
On reading Colin Burrow (LRB, 21 June):
Hamlet was not long
For this world – but six hundred
Pages in pb.