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Vol. 31 No. 16 · 27 August 2009

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Evidence for the Generosity of the Human Spirit

R.W. Johnson concludes, in his gripping account of how he lost a leg in a South African lagoon, that he ‘survived by a fluke’ (LRB, 6 August). The majority of South Africans, among others, might think differently. Johnson drove from his ‘holiday cottage’ to the local doctor in his car. He had access to ‘First World hospital care’ because he had a health insurance policy with the company Discovery Health. When Discovery refused to continue to pay for the care of the learned author, he was, we assume, able to meet the costs with his own money. Then he was able to relax in the knowledge that convalescence could continue back in his ‘beach cottage’, where he could watch dolphins from his bed and dream about the 15th-century landings of Vasco da Gama – about whom Hugh Masekela once wrote a song called, appropriately, ‘Colonial Man’. None of that is a fluke: it’s what money can buy for the privileged few in South Africa, never mind Johnson’s startling claim that ‘everybody’ there has ‘access to First World healthcare’. (When I was the writing fellow at Wits University last year, on a salary high above the average citizen, I could not afford health insurance and regularly took to crossing my fingers.)

Even those of us in the First World might dispute Johnson’s earlier and contradictory claim that ‘First World hospital care’ is what saved him. Like him, I Googled famous people who have contracted necrotising fasciitis. Among the first seven names listed on Wikipedia is David Walton, a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, who died in 2006 despite being admitted to Cheltenham General Hospital. The eighth and final famous name, by the way, is Johnson’s own – miraculously, with a footnote to the LRB article before it was published.

Lara Pawson
London E5

Anonymity or Not

Clancy Martin has done something few people do: written about his experience of Alcoholics Anonymous from within (LRB, 9 July). Unfortunately, his account of the Fellowship (as it is known to its members) is lopsided, as are all that are published. The 11th tradition of AA states: ‘Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio or films.’ AA – and associated groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous – are essentially anarchic self-help groups, retaining autonomy rather than governed from above, yet their traditions hold great sway with long-term members who have achieved recovery from their addictions. We understand that by publicly presenting ourselves as AA members, we can do great damage to the perception of the Fellowship if we relapse, or if we present our own – inevitably partisan – views of the organisation and its programme. Furthermore, if there’s one characteristic that unites people with addictive illness it’s an unwillingness to be told: we’ve been told by everyone – ourselves, our families, our friends, our employers, psychiatrists, doctors, priests – to stop drinking/drugging/gorging/spending/ fornicating. AA doesn’t tell people to stop drinking: it simply suggests that they discover the desire within themselves.

So, if you’ve read a published account of what goes on in AA or the other fellowships it’s because the writer has either not yet absorbed the basic philosophy of the Fellowship – as in Martin’s case – or because he or she is in some way malcontent. My view is that these malcontents are basically alcoholics still in denial of their illness, but there are other ways of recovering from alcoholism (I’m told), and possibly the AA way simply didn’t suit them.

The result, however, is that there is a deficit of accounts of AA written by those for whom its programme has worked. Martin writes of ‘life’s beaten-down and broken, they are afraid, they settle for less, for as little as you ask, for nothing at all if you insist.’ This is what he – a failed felo de se – sees at an AA meeting, unable to grasp, yet, that a self-help group for sufferers from a mental illness is somewhere people go primarily to express negative feelings.

I have been where Martin has been: the spousal abuse, the suicide attempts etc, etc. I was an active alcoholic and addict for more than 20 years and never free from either prescribed neuro-pharmaceuticals or the ministrations of psychotherapists. For a decade now I’ve been free of it all; all – with the help of AA. I am a productive, widely published writer, for whom sobriety, far from diminishing my creativity, has only enhanced it. I have a burgeoning family, which, if not absolutely happy, is not the Oblonskys.

Martin divides disease theories of alcoholism into the ‘possession’ and the ‘tragic’, and characterises the view of AA as the latter. In fact, AA members’ views of what alcoholism is are entirely various. In my experience, most in long-term sobriety drop the inquiry altogether: we understand that our decision to recover through the Twelve Steps was an existential one, and the steps provide the praxis for psychic and spiritual growth. I hope that Martin will come to understand that the Twelve Steps are not some grim codification, but an evolutionary methodology; just as I hope that he will be able to put down all the other nostrums that are being peddled to him as ‘cures’ for his illness. Clearly, he is far from incapable of self-honesty, so recovery is his for the asking. The greatest irony of all, though, is that if he does get better, we will never hear about it.


Clancy Martin, in seeking to control his alcohol problem, has encountered the spurious definitions and therapeutic theories that bewilder the problem drinker who wants to regain his health. AA, in particular, alienates the intelligent sufferer with its crypto-religious dogma. That ‘alcoholism’ is an incurable disease (ergo if you are cured you weren’t alcoholic) is tautological and unprovable; its assertion of the necessity for permanent abstention is similarly specious. AA merely exchanges one delusional state for another. The pattern of sustained alcohol abuse that presages established dependency has profound and complex effects on the drinker; it disrupts emotional and social development, behaviour patterns, digestion, blood sugar regulation and causes tissue damage, including to the heart, liver and brain. Whether the drinker abstains or moderates, probably through a pattern of relapses of diminishing severity, it can take several years to recover physically and grow up psychologically. Much of what he gradually realises about himself is sickening. He must forgive himself relapses and go on. Neither magic pills nor cult faiths can replace those hard yards, but anti-depressants can help, as can psychotherapy. I would also recommend getting a dog, an allotment and a subscription to the LRB.

Chris King
Chagford, Devon

Droit d’ingérence

Christopher Caldwell fails to make clear the opposition of the French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner to the US invasion of Iraq (LRB, 9 July). Kouchner had long decried the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and often berated the international community for not coming together to remove the dictator, but he opposed the American invasion, favouring instead a multilateral, United Nations-led effort. Kouchner co-authored a ‘manifesto’ in early February 2003 entitled ‘Ni la guerre ni Saddam’ and published in Le Monde, in which he argued that the ‘solution to Saddam will take time’, and that the UN should call a conference to put more international pressure on Saddam. In a 2007 interview on American National Public Radio with Renée Montagne, he again made his position clear. ‘Don’t make any mistake. I didn’t support your invasion in Iraq.’

Alan Koenig
Woodside, New York

Torture by Music

Adam Shatz hammers another nail into the coffin of American military ethics in his discussion of torture by music, but he fails to mention the domestic noise pollution that is responsible for a large share of modern cultural anomie (LRB, 23 July). I started noticing this in the early 1980s, when Pachelbel’s Canon was piped into our local snooty fine foods emporium at Christmas due to the success of George Winston’s idiotic version of the melody. Pachelbel lite was followed by anything by Mozart, and then by Albinoni’s Adagio, which had lain dormant in popular consciousness since it was used for the soundtrack of Last Year at Marienbad (1961). I have had to consciously restrain myself from screaming in airports when I have been delayed for hours and forced to listen to the vicious prattle of CNN. We ban smoking and peanut dust in public places, but not junk noise. Shatz’s case for the military’s use of music as torture is pretty weak if the civilian population is subjected to the same kind of noise in order to make passive consumers ‘happy’.

James Carmichael
University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Acoustic weapons don’t always rely on the aggressive projection of sound. Before the development of Radio Direction Finding into effective radar, sound detectors were used at Dover during the First World War in an attempt to pick up the distant drone of approaching Zeppelins. The half-hemisphere erected at Fan Bay was 15 feet in diameter and held a microphone at its centre through which the operator could detect range and direction before alerting fighter command. At best, these gigantic ears could detect invaders 20 miles away, an advantage soon made obsolete by the increasing speed of aircraft. Several sound detectors remain, however, including three eerie monoliths at Denge in Kent.

Tim Johnson
New York

All My Own Work

In her review of The Marvellous Hairy Girls by Merry Wiesner-Hanks, Cathy Gere describes in great detail the history of the ‘hairy’ Gonzalez family who lived in France and Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries (LRB, 23 July). She then complains that, ‘given the amount of detective work involved in locating all the evidence about the family, it seems a pity to leave it to the reader to assemble the jigsaw puzzle.’ This ‘detective work’ was not done by Wiesner-Hanks, as suggested by the reviewer, but by me. I spent almost 20 years in European archives researching the historical facts about the family that Gere mentions in her review. The first results of this research were published in a paper in Annales: Economies, Sociétés, Civilisations in 1985 and the full story in my book, Der wilde Mann von Teneriffa. Die wundersame Geschichte des Pedro Gonzalez und seiner Kinder (2004), which is also available in Italian and Spanish but not yet in English.

Roberto Zapperi


In his excellent piece about Frederick Seidel, Michael Robbins claims that ‘only Stevens and Ashbery, among American poets, have settled into old age with comparably candy-coloured gifts intact’ (LRB, 6 August). While not altogether sure what constitutes ‘candy-coloured’ in this instance, I have to protest. Charles Wright (born in 1935) is one year older than Seidel; Charles Simic (1938) a mere two years younger. Both continue to publish work that is at least as vital, challenging and possibly just as candy-coloured as that of the author of Ooga-Booga.

John Burnside
St Andrews

In the Bag

Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes: ‘No one would now say, as Orwell did late in 1945, that the left was “strongly committed to support the Jews against the Arabs"’ (LRB, 6 August). One exception is Peter Mandelson, who, delivering the keynote speech at the annual Balfour Declaration dinner of the Israel Britain and the Commonwealth Society on 11 November 2001, boasted that his grandfather Herbert Morrison, on his first visit to Palestine in 1935, had smuggled weapons for the Stern Gang: ‘I’m only slightly embarrassed to say that my grandfather played some part, unwittingly, in furnishing the armed struggle with weapons brought unknowingly by him from London.’ That ‘unknowingly’ is the smuggling equivalent to ‘the dog ate my homework.’

Desmond Logan
London SW1


Rosemarie Bodenheimer observes our perplexity that Gissing could twice marry obviously unsuitable women (‘unsuitable’ for the reasons she accurately adduces), and concludes that one wonders about Gissing’s ‘soundness of mind’ in repeating such self-destructive practices in romantic relationships (LRB, 9 July). Surely there are enough examples, far and near, ancient and modern, among the educated as well as the less so, of serial mismatching in personal relationships, to encourage us to be a little more temperate in our judgment. Gissing was a real individual in several ways – some unfortunate – but in this matter I doubt he can be classified as uniquely unsound in mind or action.

Eric Hunter
Providence, Rhode Island

Dauphin not Darnley

Michael Dobson errs in stating that the first husband of Mary Queen of Scots was Lord Darnley (LRB, 6 August). She was married first to the dauphin of France, who became François II on the death of his father, Henri II. One can enjoy speculating on the possible effect on the political map of the countries we inhabit, had he lived.

Mary Anne Macdonald
Berneray, Outer Hebrides


The delicious Israeli version of @ is strudel: the rolled-up Viennese apple tart served (with a dollop of vanilla ice cream) in the coffee shops on Tel Aviv’s Ben Yehuda ‘Strasse’, by the descendants of the German and Austrian immigrants who came here in the 1930s (Letters, 9 July and Letters, 23 July, Letters, 6 August).

Raymond Aronson
Tel Aviv

The Hungarian addition to the menagerie conjured up by the @ symbol is kukac, meaning ‘grub’ or ‘maggot’.

Les Filotas
Ottawa, Canada

The symbol @ is called snabel-a by Swedish speakers in Sweden and Finland. Snabel is the Swedish word for ‘elephant’s trunk’.

Evert Vedung
Uppsala, Sweden

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