Vol. 30 No. 17 · 11 September 2008

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When the Floods Came

In his article on the Tewkesbury flooding, James Meek falls into a common error when he writes that there are two ways of looking at the likely occurrence of a once in a hundred years flood: that it hasn’t happened for a hundred years, so isn’t going to happen this year either; or that it hasn’t happened for a hundred years, so is long overdue (LRB, 31 July). There is only one way: rivers have no memory, so every year there is a 1 per cent chance of a flood, no matter how many years have passed since the last one. Whether or not you believe this has nothing to do with whether you’re a ‘hardened gambler’. Some people think they should stop flying because they’ve flown so often that the odds of being in a crash are getting shorter, but they should ask themselves what the odds are for some other passenger on their next flight who has never flown before. The odds of being in a plane crash are the same every time you board a plane no matter how many times you have flown before.

John Clayton

James Meek states that ‘Severn Trent plc failed its customers catastrophically for the lack of a £25 million pipeline,’ but given that the chance of an annual flood was 1 per cent, it isn’t clear that spending all that money on a pipeline would have been a wise bet. Long-odds risk analysis is very difficult to implement, because the problem isn’t just a matter of arithmetic. The lottery offers poorer odds than you’d find in any casino, but the contrast between the small stake and the life-changing outcome is so large that it is a defensibly good bet nonetheless; Russian roulette has shorter odds, but losing is catastrophic; house insurance is a long-odds bet we want to lose. A Severn Trent director, a Tewkesbury resident, and a public water utility might well come to different rational conclusions about whether or not an insurance punt was a good idea.

As Meek points out only indirectly, the damage costs are ‘externalities’ for Severn Trent: the company doesn’t bear them. Regulators translate external social costs into financial ones for the private industries they oversee, but they can’t put too many regulations in place without driving the companies away and so undermining the system they are created to curate. Although local authorities include social goods as parts of their goals, they would have difficulty preparing economically for once-a-century events.

In any case, it’s hard to estimate what the real odds of this flood were. As Meek says, the chance of a once in a hundred years event not happening for 137 years is 25 per cent. What that suggests is that it’s more likely than not that the real odds of the Mythe flooding were in fact longer than one in a hundred. High-water records would help with the estimate, but whatever the odds were, one effect of climate change is that they are probably shorter now than they were 137 years ago, and perhaps even becoming short enough to be calculated with a degree of accuracy. Shorter odds would promote floods such as this one from the category of the rationally ignorable to an anticipatable contingency whose compensation costs Ofwat would no longer excuse.

Norman Gray
University of Glasgow

Definitely Welsh

Stefan Collini exaggerates the ‘Englishness’ of Raymond Williams’s early work (LRB, 31 July). Even in the 1950s, Williams was quite aware that he was Welsh and his republican ‘we’ therefore refers to ‘we moderns’, ‘we socialists’, ‘we from the working class’, ‘we who live with the consequences of industrialisation’ and even ‘we British’ – but not, as Collini has it, ‘we in England’. Terry Eagleton described Williams as a ‘British Lukács’, not an English one, and Tony Pinkney as a ‘British Bloch’. Even the Times picked him as the ‘British Sartre’. The reason he could never have been the ‘English Greenblatt’ – a ridiculous conceit of Collini’s – is that Greenblatt was Williams’s student, not the other way round. The problem with Fred Inglis’s biography, which Collini doesn’t seem to appreciate, is that it sees the later Williams as a kind of Richard Hoggart fallen among theoreticians. This is mistaken even as a view of the early work: like it or not, Williams was always more of a Marxist – and more of a theoretician – than Hoggart.

Andrew Milner
Monash University, Melbourne

No he wasn’t

Terry Eagleton spreads the received idea that Adorno was a Jew, and that his Jewishness illuminates the religious dimension to his thought (LRB, 19 June). Adorno, he notes, was ‘part-Jewish’, a ‘Jew’ though not ‘pious’, ‘a Middle European left-wing Jewish intellectual’, one of the ‘emergent Jewish bourgeoisie’ and finally a ‘devout, agnostic Jew’. Adorno was not born, nor did he become, Jewish. His father, Oscar Wiesengrund, converted to Catholicism, and married a Catholic, Maria Calvelli-Adorno. Their son, Theodor, was baptised a Catholic, and raised as one by his mother and her sister. The only people who regarded him as Jewish were some anti-semitic schoolfellows. Even the Nazi authorities classified him as being of ‘half-Jewish descent’. Eagleton is not alone in making rather more of Adorno’s Jewishness than Adorno did. Rudolf Siebert, discussing the significance of the motif of the prohibition against graven images in Adorno’s work, describes him as an ‘unbelieving Jew’, who ‘remained as faithful to this Mosaic prohibition as any pious Jew’. Siebert is right about one thing, though: Adorno was an unbeliever. When Soma Morgenstern asked him if he had been brought up in a God-fearing house, Adorno answered ‘with a deep breath: “Yes, my father is a socialist."’

James Finlayson
University of Sussex

Obama Myopia

Your ‘disappointed’ correspondent Jane Elliott is pelting apples and oranges (Letters, 14 August). Of course, as she points out, American women have not achieved wage parity with men. But I was talking about the kind of people who vote in primaries, a fraction of the population. Among them, younger women in urban areas are better educated – thus more likely to vote – and now earn more than younger men. Older women tended to see the primary race along gender lines; younger women were deciding between two candidates and they preferred Obama. This does not mean, as Elliott strangely claims I assert, that they ‘do not see the election of a woman president as a significant achievement,’ or that, for them, feminist goals have become ‘out of date’. Rather, given their own accomplishments and potential, they did not consider Clinton as the last best hope. Perhaps they’d like to see as president someone – like nearly all the current women governors and members of Congress – whose career is not inextricable from that of her husband.

Eliot Weinberger
New York

The Ukrainian Question

Dan Jacobson writes that before the First World War the Habsburg Empire was challenged on one side by ‘a cluster of embryonic nations’ and, on the other, by ‘those European countries – Russia, Britain, France, even Serbia and Poland, with Germany always the most forceful among them – that prided themselves on an “accomplished" sense of national consciousness’ (LRB, 14 August). Had he read Timothy Snyder’s book more carefully, Jacobson would have known that in 1914 there was no independent country called Poland. In the Great War some Poles fought for their independence on the side of Austria and Germany against the Russian Empire, while others fought for Poland on the side of the Western allies and Russia.

Jacobson fails to see the value of Snyder’s novel approach. The book is much more than the story of a minor and odd member of the Habsburg family. Snyder uses the life of Wilhelm von Habsburg, the ‘Red Prince’, who chose to become a Ukrainian, and the lives of his brother and father, who became Poles, to show how the Polish Question and the less well-known Ukrainian Question were problems not only for Vienna but also for St Petersburg. He connects the political processes in the Habsburg and Romanov monarchies and their successor states, and makes clear that the Ukrainian problem cannot be understood historically only as an internal problem for Russia.

Roman Szporluk
Cambridge, Massachusetts


David Simpson’s review of Heonik Kwon’s Ghosts of War in Vietnam brought to mind something I heard in that country just a few weeks ago (LRB, 14 August). Confronted by a motorcyclist speeding the wrong way towards us on an otherwise empty motorway, our driver – unsurprised – remarked: ‘She must love bananas.’ Bananas, it seems, are a traditional offering at shrines to the dead (beside the phony dollar bills, I presume).

Terence Eccles
London NW6

Where to Put the Jug

Hilary Mantel’s lament for the NHS amplifies a rising note in popular comment on British hospitals: the incapacity and rudeness of so many nurses (LRB, 14 August). A corollary is appreciation for a new phenomenon, the conscientious and communicative hospital doctor. These views disorientate us, given the long-standing stereotype that nurses are the under-remunerated angels of the ward, while doctors merely sweep through, grunting in Latin and cursing Nye Bevan between rounds of golf. One feature of my own recent experience in hospital gives further cause for alarm to the Daily Mail reader whom Mantel invokes, and perhaps reinforces her intuition that the problem has a wider, cultural basis. The best nurses – the routinely attentive and kindly ones, those with the vocational skill to recognise that not only is a jug of water best placed within your sight and reach, but that you might well need help to drink from it – were, with few exceptions, foreign. Perhaps the progressive soul might be consoled that some of those parked in hospital corridors will be disabused of their casual racism by the frequent superiority of these nurses.

Simon Skinner

Proper Worksop

Jonathan Raban writes that Neil Entwistle said ‘coom’ for ‘come (LRB, 14 August). That can’t be right; if it were, how would Raban represent the common pronunciations of ‘spoof’ or ‘spook’ or the Welsh ‘cwm’, which are quite distinct from the proper Worksop ‘cum’? It’s a solecism of supercilious Southerners to suppose that anyone anywhere in the British Isles has ever pronounced ‘fucking’ as ‘fooking’. Southerners say ‘facking’ and the Irish say ‘fecking’, but let us draw our vowels from the finer source.

Michael Haslam
Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

Jonathan Raban suggests that the Colt .22 revolver used as the murder weapon in the Entwistle case was the ‘legendary instrument of masculine power’ used by John Wayne and others in Westerns. Not so. That was the much more devastating Colt .45. Having fired one of these, once, many years ago, I can assure him the trigger was no ‘gentle squeeze’: the weapon kicked like a horse, and I can still hear the report singing in my ears.

Damian Grant
Villeneuve d’Ascq, France

No Picnic

Slavoj Žižek quotes an untitled poem by Radovan Karadzic, identified by its dedication, ‘For Izlet Sarajlic’ (LRB, 14 August). The late Izet Sarajlic is a famous Bosnian poet, who was, incidentally, injured during the siege of Sarajevo by a shell fired by Karadzic’s army. Izet is a very common name among Bosnian Muslims; izlet means ‘picnic’ in the countries of the former Yugoslavia.

Muharem Bazdulj

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