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Vol. 31 No. 22 · 19 November 2009

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Puck’s Flight

Jonathan Raban’s account of helping my father with fieldwork research on Andrew Marvell (LRB, 5 November) brought back memories of my own experiences in similar endeavours. Pa had a theory that Marvell had married his landlady: he had come across some letters suggesting that Marvell had a niece in Hull, called Alice, recently born (presumably the landlady came from Hull, and his acknowledging her niece would suggest more than a landlady/lodger relationship). He now wrote to the clerics at Hull’s Holy Trinity Church to ask permission to inspect the register of births. He then came to stay with me and family – at that time I was a lecturer in psychology at Hull University. I went with him to the church, where three black-cloaked individuals were waiting for him. They had obviously decided that he was up to no good, and wouldn’t allow us to see the register: instead we had to supply a name, surname and date, whose presence on the register they were prepared to confirm or deny.

This was quite impossible, and we retreated to the university, where we found that there were facsimile copies of all the relevant registers in the Brynmor Jones Library. We were taken to a private room with a large table, and the ledgers were brought out. It was surprisingly easy to flick through searching for an Alice, with a surname of either Popple or Blayde (names still existing in the Hull telephone directory), although the project was not a success. While we were doing this Philip Larkin entered the room on some pretext, and I remember he and my father slowly circling the table, each on his own mission, but without speaking to the other.

I also had a role in researching the background for ‘Puck’s flight’: his theory that in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Puck’s announcement that he had ‘girdled the earth in forty minutes’ was a reference to orbital escape velocity. This involved writing to the then duke of Northumberland to inquire about the possibility that the ninth (‘Wizard’) earl had been involved as a patron, and visiting Syon House with Pa to measure the height of the ceiling in the long gallery. (The relevant experiments to establish the Law of Fall, presumably conducted by Thomas Harriot, would have required a substantial polished ramp down which one would slide ‘frogs’, while timing their descent. The rate of acceleration of a falling object, together with an estimate of the circumference of the Earth, would allow calculation of escape velocity. Harriot was a likely candidate here because of his scientific knowledge, and access to an accurate timepiece.) Again, this project was inconclusive. The duke very kindly wrote back to say that the ninth earl spent most of his time in the Tower of London. Also, the ceiling height at Syon House was quite inadequate. I did however re-create the experiments, using students in the Psychology Department, and we found that it was indeed feasible, using only a metronome as timer, to achieve reasonably accurate estimates.

My father was somewhat driven by his work – John Davenport once remarked to me: ‘Bill is the least idle man I know’ – but he took a perverse pleasure in persisting in these most unlikely projects, particularly when they involved a combination of science and the arts, and provided a legitimate alibi for an outing away from the typewriter. If it involved a walk, and visiting a country house, then all the better.

Jacob Empson
Department of Clinical Psychology, Hull University

William Empson wrote about Puck’s flight in the LRB, 25 October 1979 – the paper’s first issue.

Oh Obama!

David Bromwich writes as if Obama’s main problem were a deluded search for bipartisanship in the face of intransigent Republican rascals – Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, Fox TV and so forth (LRB, 22 October). It might be better to admit that the left has deluded itself into believing that Obama, a nice, eloquent young man from Harvard with no gubernatorial and little legislative experience, has some sort of magic wand, when the truth is that he’s out of his depth. He is, unfortunately, just one more Democrat who campaigned on a promise to change everything about the way Washington works. However popular that theme may be, it is ignorant and naive. The Washington political system has proved to be extremely resilient. You can huff and puff about change and chant ‘Yes we can’ as much as you like but the system will remain resolutely intact. History shows that the politicians who get results are the ones who understand the system best and are the best at making it work for them. LBJ is the classic example.

Similarly, a better sense of realpolitik and less reliance on eloquence would get Obama further in foreign policy. It’s no good just announcing a plan to solve things in the Middle East. The Israel-Palestine conflict is part of a long holy war which can only be managed at best, not solved. Serious advances are usually born of crises, such as the Yom Kippur war. The next opportunity may be an Israeli war with Iran.

As it is, here we are with Guantánamo Bay still in operation, the Afghan war likely to go on and get bigger, no progress at all in the Middle East, US unemployment over 10 per cent and healthcare perhaps already doomed. The collapse in Obama’s ratings suggests he could well lose the mid-term elections. And of course Jimmy Carter is right: some of that visceral reaction is bound to be racist. Hard to see how it could be otherwise.

It’s extraordinary how the Democrats keep on doing this. Jimmy Carter started it by ‘running against Washington’ – an understandable stance after Watergate – but all it really meant was that he made a hopeless hash out of relations with Congress and his legislation got nowhere. Remember his energy independence bill which he declared to be MEOW (the moral equivalent of war)? It got absolutely nowhere. It was the same with Clinton. Imagine being stupid enough to start off affronting all manner of powerful pressure groups by making gays in the military the first issue you tackle. Or being even more stupid in putting your wife in charge of health reform. If he wanted to do that, fine, but he would have had to do what JFK did with Bobby, make him a fully accountable cabinet member with the advice and consent of the Senate. To hand such a key area of reform to his wife and for her to remain an unaccountable private citizen was ludicrous.

The common factor, of course, was that both Carter and Clinton were Southern governors of smallish states in which the governor gets his budget through and then uses his patronage to do whatever he wants, utterly dominating the state legislature. Both seemed to imagine that being president wouldn’t be very different and that you could use cronies for everything. Obama’s own background as a community worker and campaigner isn’t any more appropriate, and giving foreign affairs over to Bill Clinton’s wife may not have been clever: thus far her diplomatic abilities don’t appear much greater than they were in healthcare reform. I fear a great disappointment is in the making.

R.W. Johnson
Cape Town

Wash Your Hands

Jenny Diski’s entertaining review of Adrian Bingham’s Family Newspapers? (LRB, 8 October) reminded me of a story I heard at the Cambridge University Medical Society in about 1955. The speaker was Charles Hill, who was at various times a general practitioner, the ‘radio doctor’, secretary of the British Medical Association, postmaster-general and chairman of the Independent Television Authority. During the Second World War there were various public health campaigns, one of which was a newspaper advertisement: ‘Always wash your hands after using the WC.’ This was turned down by only two journals. The News of the World said that its readers would not tolerate anything so disgusting. The editor of the Times said that his readers always washed their hands.

Gabriel Laszlo

Green Go Home

I am Mexican, and lived in Mexico for 29 years, but I never heard anyone use the term ‘gringo’ to refer to anyone other than US citizens. In the third volume of Historia, tradiciones y leyendas de calles de México (1999) Artemio de Valle-Arizpe writes that the word ‘gringo’ first appeared in Mexico after the incursion of General Winfield Scott in September 1847. De Valle-Arizpe describes an ‘unhappy’ and ‘abominable’ song that Scott’s troops sang incessantly, and which began with the words ‘Green Grow’. The Mexican historian tells how the locals, not knowing English, interpreted the song’s first words as ‘gringo’. I grew up seeing graffiti that read ‘Green Go Home’ next to a cartoon of Uncle Sam.

The ‘authorities’ Malcolm Deas alludes to (Letters, 22 October) may be Barbara and David Mikkelson, who themselves refer to Hugh Rawson’s Devious Derivations (1994), where Rawson cites the Diccionario Castellano de Málaga (1877), which defines ‘gringo’ as ‘any foreigner who speaks a language other than Spanish’. The Mikkelsons then make a giant leap of logic and assume that the term has to come from griego because in Spain they allegedly say está en griego (‘it’s in Greek’) when they don’t understand something. This idiom is completely unknown in Mexico – we say ‘it’s in Chinese.’

Ernesto Priego
University College London

The Framing of al-Megrahi

There are aspects of the case Gareth Peirce makes about Lockerbie and the questionable culpability of al-Megrahi that don’t seem quite water-tight to me (LRB, 24 September). ‘Invaded’, ‘occupied’: these are two words she uses to describe the country around Lockerbie immediately after the bombing of Pan Am 103. Since the scene of the crash covered 850 square miles and was scoured by hundreds of volunteers and army personnel, it isn’t surprising that there were quite a few foreigners in the fields and forests near Lockerbie after the crash. The manufacturers of the plane, for example (in this case, Boeing), and of its engines (Pratt & Whitney), would be there as a matter of routine. An airplane crash isn’t a crime scene until a crime has been declared, and it wasn’t until 29 December that the crash investigators had sufficient evidence to say that the plane had been brought down by a bomb.

More troubling is the account Peirce gives of how the suitcase got on the plane. ‘Since the trial,’ she writes, ‘evidence new to the defence but known from the start to the police has surfaced of a break-in at Heathrow in the hours before the disaster.’ But for someone to enter Terminal Three, break a padlock, walk carrying a case to the place where the luggage for a specific flight would be stored (and to know exactly where that was), to then retrace his steps and to walk out through doors manned by security guards, all without raising any suspicion, seems implausible. Introducing a case containing a bomb into the luggage system at Heathrow would have required impeccable inside knowledge of operations at the airport. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, the group originally suspected of making the bomb, would have needed to acquire such knowledge from a group or individual who not only knew Heathrow inside out but could also smuggle in a case. Which group, if any, would have had such access? Would any such group have been prepared to share its knowledge with those who ordered and made the bomb?

Peirce also says Iran Air and Pan Am had neighbouring hangars at Heathrow, one factor among others pointing to Iran as the more likely sponsor of the bombing. In fact, neither Iran Air nor Pan Am had hangars at Heathrow. Pan Am did have one until 1980, but it was razed to make way for Terminal 4.

Inigo Thomas
London NW1

In 1995 I was part of a group of anarcho-libertarians involved in one of the many campaigns against the Criminal Justice Act of the previous year. We had met on the free-festival circuit and subsequently opened a restaurant to provide us with a focal point for our activities. The restaurant was situated in an art gallery in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. The gallery was run, quite coincidentally, by the benighted rump of the Revolutionary Communist Party. The Rev Coms didn’t like us and we didn’t like them. They mistrusted the organic, decentralised nature of our single-issue opposition to the Act; we viewed their gentleman-farmer threads with suspicion and as neither identifiably Communist nor especially revolutionary.

Only once did we come together in the spirit of anti-establishment collaboration. In 1995 the writer-director Allan Francovich’s film about the Lockerbie bombing – The Maltese Double Cross – had just been presented to the House of Commons by the indefatigable MP Tam Dalyell. In it, doubt was cast on any Libyan connection to the bombing; implicated instead was the Syrian-backed Hizbullah. Most damning was the claim of CIA foreknowledge of the plot. In a co-promotion, the restaurant and the Rev Coms gave the film its first public showing. The following day we arrived at the restaurant to discover that the premises had been broken into. There was no sign of forced entry. Our till was untouched. Downstairs, in the basement where the Rev Coms lurked, every single disc and hard drive had been wiped clean of data.

Charlie Hill

Compliments of Sorts

I’m amused that where I wrote ‘people’, James Wood seems to have read ‘reviewers in the mainstream American press’ (Letters, 5 November). But to accept that narrow definition, and to answer his question (when has anyone complained that Pynchon’s characters aren’t proper, ‘sympathetic’ characters?): Michiko Kakutani said of Against the Day in the New York Times that ‘because these people are so flimsily delineated, their efforts to connect feel merely sentimental and contrived.’ And Laura Miller on said: ‘This is the stuff of tragedy, but since the people it sort of happens to are flimsy constructions, we don’t experience it as tragic.’ So there you go.

Thomas Jones
Orvieto, Italy

Still Together

I want you to know that, in honour of your (and our) 30th anniversary (and the opening of the on-line archive), I yesterday took all my 700 issues of the LRB to my local recycling centre. It was hard to let go of the crumbling yellowed pages of the very first issue that arrived snuggled up in my copy of the New York Review of Books. And I had to look just once more at the magnificent black and white photo portraits that adorned the covers in the 1980s. Though your physical presence no longer moulders quietly in my attic, your intellectual presence continues to enliven my living-room. Still together after all these years!

Renee Slater

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