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Vol. 32 No. 16 · 19 August 2010

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Worth It

Andrew Cockburn states that half a million Iraqi children died as a result of the UN sanctions of the 1990s (LRB, 22 July). This is far-fetched. I was in Iraq with a Unicef/World Health Organisation social damage survey team six months after sanctions began, during the bombing of February 1991. We had brought a 12-truck convoy of relief supplies across the border from Iran. Everywhere we went – Fallujah, Amara, Baghdad, Baqubah – there was evidence of a massive breakdown in health services and a dangerous decline in child nutrition, always the precursor of immune system collapse and the diseases that kill children. But afterwards, and in later surveys, we found nothing approaching the mortality figures given by Cockburn.

Richard Reid

I was surprised that Andrew Cockburn didn’t include the half-century blockade of Cuba by the United States on his list of ineffective sanctions. It is only now, with the partial easing of the blockade, that US influence in Cuba is beginning to reassert itself. Cockburn is only partly correct in describing the sanctions ‘reluctantly levied’ against the South African apartheid regime as effective. The Anti-Apartheid Movement’s activities, including its demand for economic sanctions, undoubtedly helped to raise awareness of apartheid and keep it on the international political agenda. But it never succeeded in persuading governments to impose economic sanctions against South Africa, although the arms embargo and oil sanctions did cause severe economic problems for the regime. It was South Africa’s calamitous financial crisis in 1985 that was the crucial blow to apartheid. An assessment of the balance between risk and profit turned international capitalism (and the US in particular) against South Africa: loans and investment dried up.

Roger Fieldhouse
Thorverton, Devon

All This Blah

Jenny Turner quotes a former RCP supporter saying that ‘LM felt itself to be up against “the very one-sided, anti-Serb stance" of “the liberal media"’ on the matter of Bosnia (LRB, 8 July). Reporters like Maggie O’Kane and Marcus Tanner reported some of the horrors committed against that country, but their editors toed the British government line, which was that there was right and wrong on both sides and the matter was too complex to take a stand. As Jeremy Harding wrote in the LRB of 20 February 2003: ‘Complexity has flattered many vanities, in journalism and politics; in the wars of the former Yugoslavia it was probably more dangerous than oversimplification; and in Bosnia … it became a bogus intellectual siege-engine wheeled out at every opportunity to assail the arguments for intervention.’ Until the gruesome wake-up call of Srebrenica, LM was merely echoing the government-media line.

John Barker
London N16

How Dare You!

Ferdinand Mount neglects to mention Edward Heath’s curious attachment to the Moonies (LRB, 22 July). I first became aware of this during a visit to Seoul in the early 1990s. The Unification Church was holding one of its mass weddings in a stadium built for the Seoul Olympics, while in the Hotel Lotte the cult’s founder, Sun Myung Moon, was chairing one of his many conferences to promote world peace etc. Sitting beside Moon on the podium was Heath. His speech was about meeting Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping in China, and how he brought back the giant pandas to London Zoo. During an intermission, I asked Heath why a former British prime minister was associating with a man who claimed to be the new Messiah, and whose cult was responsible for breaking up families and manufacturing guns. He flew into a rage: ‘How dare you!’ he shouted at me. Heath continued to appear at Moonie conferences, and was also a guest at a birthday bash for Moon. I suppose that money was one motive, though Heath denied this to me.

Peter McGill
Malmesbury, Wiltshire

Isn’t It All Over?

R.W. Johnson did not mention in his Diary about the World Cup Fifa’s role in deciding on the names of three of South Africa’s major cities (LRB, 22 July). Since the first democratic elections in 1994, several towns have dropped their Afrikaans or English names, while others have adopted different names for their municipal authorities. In 2007 Fifa signed an agreement with the World Cup Local Organising Committee which decreed that three of the host cities that had not changed their names would use two names during the World Cup: their official name and the name of their municipality. Bloemfontein would also be called Mangaung, Port Elizabeth would also be Nelson Mandela Bay, and Pretoria would also be Tshwane. These ‘double-barrelled’ names would appear on World Cup tickets. There was no legal basis for this. Pretoria had already been restrained by a court order from using the name Tshwane on signposts, but a judge ruled it could use both names on signposts bearing the World Cup logo since it had signed a binding agreement with Fifa to do so. During the World Cup, the Advertising Standards Authority announced that visitors were complaining that the use of these double-barrelled names was confusing, and two young Afrikaans men were arrested for trying to put up a sign saying ‘Welcome to Pretoria’. They were released after paying a fine of R1000 for parking at the side of the highway.

Elwyn Jenkins
Howick, South Africa

Borges and Bioy

Michael Wood has an exalted view of Bioy Casares (LRB, 8 July). The stories Casares wrote with Borges (though in fact written mostly by Borges) are so inferior to Borges’s own that no one would ever pay them any attention were they not associated with Borges’s name. The anthologies they compiled, the classics they annotated, the series they edited, the screenplays they wrote (and the translations they made, one could add) were mostly the work of Borges. Like the ladies who collaborated with him on many another occasion, and whose names decorate the cover of many a Borges book, Bioy, we can be certain, was acting almost entirely as an amanuensis. I have read the 1600-odd pages of Bioy’s exchanges with Borges, and I can assure Wood that in the ‘(rather cruel) literary conversations’ they had ‘most of the days of their lives’, the ‘extremely witty’ bits come entirely from Borges’s mouth. In all likelihood, before Bioy recorded them, they were less cruel and more witty. As for Wood’s assertion that Bioy was a remarkable novelist, well … de gustibus non est disputandum.

Daniel Waissbein
Lucca, Italy

Michael Wood is correct in spotting the unlikely affinity between a late poem by Borges and the works of Neruda and Vallejo. Perhaps there is a clue to the source of this affinity in Borges’s line, ‘cuando el polvo sea el polvo’, a clear echo of Francisco de Quevedo’s poem ‘Amor constante más allá de la muerte’, whose last line is ‘Polvo serán, mas polvo enamorado’ (‘Dust they will be, but dust that is in love’). Quevedo, despite or maybe because of his relentless bad mood and tendency to settle scores in poems, was an important writer for many 20th-century Latin American ‘social’ poets, Neruda not least, and Quevedian pessimism is nearly impossible to avoid in Vallejo’s early work. Joining the dots to Ben Ehrenreich’s piece about El Salvador (LRB, 24 June), perhaps the most famous poem by Roque Dalton, ‘Después de la bomba atómica’ (‘After the A-Bomb’), simply adds question marks to Quevedo’s line: ‘Polvo serán, mas, ¿polvo enamorado?’

Ben Bollig

Sorts of Success

Stefan Collini notes that Graham Greene became the literary editor of Night and Day, which folded within a year (LRB, 5 August). In fact, Greene was the cause of the magazine’s failure. His review of Wee Willie Winkie, a vehicle for the eight-year-old Shirley Temple, claimed that ‘her admirers – middle-aged men and clergymen – respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.’ ‘Infancy with her is a disguise,’ he went on, ‘her appeal is more secret and more adult … her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry.’ All this caused 20th Century Fox to sue for libel. The judge described Greene’s review as ‘a gross outrage’ and awarded damages of £3500, which led directly to Night and Day’s closure. Temple retired from the movies at the age of 21 and went on to a different sort of success, as State Department chief of protocol and ambassador to Czechoslovakia. (Soon after she left Prague, the country split in two.)

Mark Etherton
London W2

A Sonnet a Minute

Stuart Jay Silverman asks who wrote the one-line sonnet ‘An Aeronaut to His Love’ (Letters, 5 August). It is properly known as ‘An Aeronaut to His Lady’, and was written by Frank Sidgwick (1879-1939). George Starbuck also wrote light verse sonnets, including ‘space-saver’ compressions of Shakespeare’s. The most famous is ‘The Sessions’, which reworks ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought/I summon up remembrance of things past’:


Starbuck also wrote a ‘Sonnet with a different letter at the end of every line’:

O for a muse of fire, a sack of dough,
Or both! O promissory notes of woe!
One time in Santa Fe N.M.
Ol’ Winfield Townley Scott and I … But whoa.

One can exert oneself, ff,
Or architect a heaven like Rimbaud,
Or if that seems, how shall I say, de trop,
One can at least write sonnets, a propos
Of nothing save the do-re-mi-fa-sol
Of poetry itself. Is not the row
Of perfect rhymes, the terminal bon mot,
Obeisance enough to the Great O?

‘Observe,’ said Chairman Mao to Premier Chou,
‘On voyage à Parnasse pour prendre les eaux.
On voyage comme poisson, incog.’

The attentive reader will note that each line begins with the same letter, and that there is only one rhyme. One might feel some mild regret that Starbuck ends one line with the letter ‘o’: the poem would have been more dazzling still had none of the ‘o’-rhymes ended with that letter. In fact he didn’t need to use it, since the so-called ‘sonnet’ actually has 15 lines.

William Flesch
Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts

Youth of Today

These days it would presumably be possible to airlift British forces out of Afghanistan, thus avoiding a disastrous retreat like the one in 1841 described by Philip Hensher, in which ‘almost every member of the British army’ was killed (Letters, 5 August). My resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of all UK forces from Afghanistan, put forward at the recent all-members’ meeting of the Orpington Constituency Labour Party, was defeated by seven votes to six. Those who voted against withdrawal were adaptable young people who, no doubt, have an eye for their own advancement.

Chris Purnell
Orpington, Kent

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