Vol. 35 No. 11 · 6 June 2013

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Advantage Pyongyang

Richard Lloyd Parry does an estimable job of dissecting two decades of nuclear diplomacy with North Korea but offers only a glimpse of its possible futures (LRB, 9 May). The alternative to propping up the Pyongyang regime is its inevitable collapse followed by reunification of the Korean peninsula. With no need to defend against the North, what would happen to the 28,500 US troops at present in South Korea? (We shouldn’t assume their immediate withdrawal: only now is the British Army of the Rhine coming home, 24 years after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.) What would be the future role of South Korea’s own substantial military? Would an army of a reunited Korea take in the 1.1 million troops now in the North?

If a reunited Korea were to remain an American ally it would add to Chinese fears of encirclement. Since the 1990s, the US and Japan have used the threat of North Korean missiles as a pretext to bolster their co-operation over defence. Beijing regards the real purpose of such moves as containment of China’s growing power. Japan too has much to fear. Historical animosity toward the colonial oppressor is encouraged on both sides of the DMZ. A Gallup poll of South Koreans in 2012 found that Japan was their least favourite country (44 per cent), ahead of China (19 per cent) and North Korea (11.7 per cent). Park Chun-hee, the military dictator assassinated in 1979, whose daughter is the current South Korean president, was stopped by the US from developing nuclear weapons. Japan rarely expresses its apprehension, but a former dean of the Japanese Defence Academy once said at a public symposium that he considered a divided Korea to be in Japan’s national interest.

Lloyd Parry is much too even-handed when he writes that until South Korean democratisation 25 years ago, the peninsula was divided between ‘two dictatorships … evenly matched for ruthlessness and brutality’. I frequently reported from South Korea for the Observer when the former general Chun Doo-hwan was in charge, and compared to North Korea, it seemed an oasis of freedom. So did Communist China. After a week in Pyongyang in 1985 I almost kissed the tarmac when the plane arrived at Beijing.

Peter McGill
Malmesbury, Wiltshire

‘Aggressive, fizzing nonconformity, the diplomatic equivalent of Tourette’s syndrome, is an essential part of North Korea’s nature,’ Richard Lloyd Parry writes. This is a terrible analogy. If you have Tourette’s syndrome, twitching is not something you have any desire to do and it doesn’t serve your interests. Rather, you twitch because it becomes escalatingly uncomfortable to keep from twitching. In contrast, as Lloyd Parry explains, the North Korean government has a strong rational incentive to develop nukes as a deterrent. I don’t know what the diplomatic equivalent of Tourette’s syndrome would be, but it wouldn’t be an action that instrumentally benefits one of the players in a negotiation; it would have to be some action that is noticeable, can’t be stopped, and does no harm to anyone else involved.

Andrew Gelman
New York

A Winter Mind

John Burnside sees the London frost fairs of the 17th century as ‘a surrender of a transient Elysium to crude and unimaginative commerce’ (LRB, 25 April). Frozen or not, the early modern Thames was a working river providing a living to thousands. The Thames watermen who made their living rowing passengers across the river were particularly hard hit during the Little Ice Age as the Thames could be frozen for months at a time, depriving them of their livelihood. John Taylor, the waterman-poet, estimated in 1621 that as many as twenty thousand people were dependent on the watermen’s trade and that collectively they lost more than £20,000 in income during the freeze of that year. It was the watermen, refused poor relief and on the brink of destitution, who first claimed the frozen Thames by selling food and drink on the ice, setting up trading booths made by throwing blankets over frames made from their redundant oars.

Sue Jones
London E8

Alles Ständische

Richard J. Evans’s comment on Jonathan Sperber’s attempt to find a better translation of Marx’s phrase ‘Alles ständische und stehende verdampft,’ usually rendered ‘All that is solid melts into air,’ pinpoints a particular difficulty in translating the German term Stand (LRB, 23 May). Sperber’s preferred version – ‘Everything that firmly exists and all the elements of the society of orders evaporate’ – is, well, frankly hideous. On the other hand it is a lot more accurate than the elegant version it seeks to replace. The words Stand and its adjective ständisch have been variously translated as ‘status’, ‘estate’, ‘estate-type’ and now here as ‘a society of orders’. None of these captures what Marx is talking about here, which is inequality organised on a basis other than class or market. For Marx the problem of the emancipation of the Jews was that it would ‘free’ them only to enter an unequal, class-based world and, in so doing, would dissolve what was distinctive in a Jewish way of life, whatever value you might place on that. Even more than Marx, Max Weber contrasted status-based (ständisch) inequality with market-based divisions. A status group (Stand) has a distinctive way of life, which is regarded in a particular way, and is reflected in legal provisions and even in clothes or diet. An example in our contemporary world might be children: we think of them as fully human yet somehow as a different order of beings from adults, with a different legal position and different preoccupations. To some degree, gender divisions too are ständische differences. For both Marx and Weber what mattered was that the sweeping away of the old order – the ancien regime of, er, ‘social orders’ – is at first experienced as emancipation, only for the reality to dawn that what replaces it are different forms of exploitation and oppression and new social identities grounded solely in market position: in buying or selling labour-power. The German term Stand is first cousin to the English word ‘standing’, and both Marx’s and Weber’s point was that modernity erodes all identities, honour and relationships in the acid of commercial exchange, leaving few of us really happy with where we stand.

Jem Thomas

In Gravesend

Iain Sinclair isn’t quite right to say that the Gravesend tourist office has ‘decided to reboot the whole zone as “Gravesham"’ (LRB, 9 May). As Robert Hiscock records in A History of Gravesend (1976), Gravesend and Northfleet were incorporated into Gravesham Borough Council as long ago as 1 April 1974. Hiscock remarks that ‘the name “Gravesham" appears only in the Domesday Book, 1086, and was probably an error of a Norman scribe … It is strange that this clerical error should now have been adopted as the name of the new council.’ In another way it is fitting that the council should have legitimated the sham because the name ‘Gravesend’ has itself long been subject to speculative etymological play, as in Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton’s plague pamphlet of 1604, News from Gravesend: Sent to Nobody: ‘I come not near that Gravesend which takes his beginning in Kent … But the end of those graves do I shoot at.’

Recent years have brought a flourishing of artistic work about Gravesend. In 2007 Steve McQueen made a short film, Gravesend, which traces in reverse the Conradian journey of the mineral coltan, beginning in the hi-tech Thames-side factories where it is processed for use in mobile phones, and ending in Congo, where it is mined. And two books of poetry with the title Gravesend have appeared in the last three years, one by Simon Smith in 2011 (‘The land of rain and sodden trainers./Body processes in the image. Freaks and dreck’), and another by Cole Swensen in 2012:

Gravesend is named for a preacher,
Euphonius Grave by name, who fell off a cliff
one night at just this spot. There are those who say
the waves carried him off, ablaze.

Matthew Sperling
University of Reading

We did it

In 1988, I interviewed Daphne Park for the New Yorker (the profile appeared in the issue of 30 January 1989). The interview was conducted over the course of several days, both in person and by telephone, and as time passed the tone became increasingly intimate. She once told me that one of the things she missed most when her mother died was having someone to brag to a little, and I felt that in some ways I fulfilled that function.

She discussed her posting in the Congo at length (Letters, 11 April and following). Her characterisation of Lumumba’s fate was that he had been ‘murdered’, an odd choice of words if she knew herself to be complicit. I recall clearly her response when I asked who was responsible for his death. She looked at me sharply and said, with an edge of anger (possibly directed at my ignorance): ‘The CIA, of course.’ Of the lack of any intervention on his behalf by the UN she said: ‘The UN force had very curious ground rules concerning non-intervention, which caused me to become disillusioned with the United Nations for ever,’ adding later: ‘Lumumba himself, while at the height of his power, had been beating people up, kidnapping them in public, setting his thugs on people – all under the noses of the UN.’ She spoke of Lumumba’s erratic character and also, with distaste, of the fact that he had been tortured.

All that this proves, of course, is that Daphne Park, a master of inscrutability, may have said one thing to one person, and another thing to someone else. But if she were dissembling in our interview, she was indeed a brilliant actor.

Caroline Alexander
Northeast Harbor, Maine

Complaints about the BL

British Library users such as James Obelkevich, who deplore the current accessibility of the library to the young and eager and pine for the days of narrow exclusivity when tickets were limited to what he calls ‘core users’ need to be reminded how unpleasant the old regime was, and how improved the new management is in most ways (Letters, 23 May). When my first reader’s ticket expired in 1978, just after I had finished my PhD, I went to the BL to renew it. There I was subjected to close interrogation by a young librarian who hissed and snapped at me as he fought every inch of the way against allowing me into the BL again. Although I was a mild and civil supplicant, he was one of those jealous, possessive librarians who resent anyone with the impertinence to order books from their collections or to finger them. Grudgingly, he issued me with a new card. Then, as I moved to leave the room, he danced out from behind his desk, confronted me at the door, and shrieked in my face: ‘Just because you have been allowed a reader’s ticket today, don’t think you will ever be issued with one again.’

Obelkevich complains about bleeping scanners, trilling telephones and murmured conversations between readers and library staff. I have never been disturbed by any of these in the BL, although I am occasionally distracted by the tut-tutting, indignant shushing and petulant slamming down of pencils by neurasthenics trying to enforce the silence of a padded cell.

Richard Davenport-Hines
London W14

Many BL readers apparently find it impossible to turn laptops to ‘mute’ before entering reading rooms; hence, we are bombarded with Microsoft and Apple jinglings, with laptops opening, closing, emailing and so forth. Some readers sniff their way through their researches and – worse – even use fingers as tissues, the fingers then turning the pages in mucous delight.

Peter Cave
London W1

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