Vol. 41 No. 1 · 3 January 2019

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After Chernobyl

My first job in the Civil Service was testing sheep for radioactivity following the explosion in Chernobyl, which Mike Jay writes about (LRB, 6 December 2018). Because of the patterns of rainfall and the high landscape in the Lake District, the sheep there became radioactive from eating contaminated pasture. Their heads were painted red to show they were unfit to be sold as meat and as a result their market value plummeted. Devon farmers, forever alert to a bargain, bought thousands of the sheep at a knockdown price and transported them south to the lush fields of Devon in the hope that the levels of radioactivity would decline. My job was to go out and test these sheep with a scintillometer. First you had to take a background reading by pressing the probe against your own stomach. Then you tested each sheep in turn by holding the probe against its buttocks and noting the average of three readings. If the average fell below a certain level, the sheep was fit for human consumption and could be sold at market. The heads of these sheep were painted green. This was invariably the outcome after a few weeks of munching Devon grass, and the farmers who had gambled on buying radioactive sheep made a handsome profit, sometimes treating us to a celebratory lunch in a local pub. Not everyone suffered from the disaster in Chernobyl.

David Ford
Hornchurch, Greater London

Can’t Afford to Tell the Truth

Owen Bennett-Jones’s assessment of the World Service contains all the vivid phrasemaking that made him a favourite with World Service audiences over many years – and the scourge of successive generations of BBC senior managers (LRB, 20 December 2018). But his critique relies on a newspaper-cuttings narrative of the World Service and a series of ageing anecdotes in place of evidence. The picture he paints will be unrecognisable to most people working in the World Service in 2019.

In particular he barely mentions that the World Service is undergoing a historic expansion, adding 12 new language services and more than a thousand new staff, many of them in new hub bureaux in Delhi, Lagos and Nairobi. Our commitment to independent and fearless journalism is stronger than ever, whether reporting otherwise inaccessible stories like the conflict in Yemen, or setting up the new investigative TV strand, Africa Eye, whose groundbreaking open-source work on recent killings by armed forces in Cameroon has been widely acclaimed.

While it is true that in the long term, people will primarily gain access to the World Service on digital platforms, audiences for radio and TV are still growing, not shrinking, and that trend is likely to continue for years to come. Meanwhile lavishly state-funded competitors, who wholly lack the BBC’s editorial independence and explicitly set out to ‘shape the conversation’ in their own national interest, make the existence of the World Service more important than ever. The World Service belongs to everyone in the UK, but has a genuinely independent and international outlook, which is why it is consistently rated as the ‘most trusted’ international broadcaster.

Most worrying, this has been a bad year for the safety of journalists worldwide, including those working for the World Service, and the careless remarks Bennett-Jones makes concerning the BBC’s independence will certainly be turned against our staff overseas by governments currently hostile to the BBC – for example, in Iran, Rwanda or Burundi. He should have known better.

Jamie Angus
Director, BBC World Service, London W1

Owen Bennett-Jones writes: To suggest that my citing publicly available and widely discussed information about the BBC’s relationship with the state puts staff at physical risk is ridiculous – a flailing attempt to sidestep scrutiny. It would have been better for the BBC, in using its right to reply, to engage with the issues I have raised. How will it deal with competition from the big new media players? Why does it waste so much money? Why are there so many managers and why are they paid so much? Why isn’t the World Service more reflective of global opinion? What was the impact of the Hutton Inquiry on BBC journalism? How will the BBC respond to the post-truth world? Do the source of, and purpose behind, the World Service’s top-up funds undermine its journalism? And, most important, does the licence fee give the BBC an incentive to stop short of holding politicians to account?


T.J. Clark is perceptive as usual, pointing out in Mantegna’s Presentation of Christ in the Temple, for example, that even Simeon’s beard ‘enacts his tact, his gentleness’ (LRB, 20 December 2018). Nonetheless he follows the fashion in favouring Bellini, who gets three illustrations out of four and most of the comment. He aptly cites Eliot’s poem ‘A Song for Simeon’, which retains Luke’s parenthetical comment to Mary ‘and a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also,’ an idea that Eliot picked up again in ‘this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us’ in ‘Journey of the Magi’. The whole biblical experience must surely have been hard and bitter agony for Joseph, especially as he barely gets a look in on events. Mantegna understands this and presents it for the viewer’s contemplation in his painting. He makes Joseph the central figure in the composition and balances out his humility and deference (marked by the slight drop of his head and the folded-in quality of his garment), and his doggedly protective closeness to the Child, against his shadowed withdrawal and the slightly resentful turn of his glance towards Simeon, which is somewhat stronger than the ‘quizzical misgiving’ Clark allows. The most powerful painting in the exhibition, certainly in terms of originality and psychological penetration, is arguably not Bellini’s The Drunkenness of Noah, which Clark gives its proper due, but Mantegna’s The Descent into Limbo, which registers the agony of Christ in a totally new context, investing it with a moving, hesitant delicacy.

Brian Cheadle
Woodcote, Oxfordshire

Here was a plague

Colin Brewer, responding to Tom Crewe’s essay on HIV/Aids, puts forward a ‘likely explanation’ for ‘Edinburgh’s unique epidemic’ – namely, the high incidence of HIV among Edinburgh’s intravenous drug users (IDUs) from the 1980s onwards (Letters, 25 October 2018). He suggests that a cohort of unknowingly HIV-positive American gay men attended or took part in the Edinburgh Festival (popular with Americans and with ‘sexual minorities … over-represented in the arts’) and there encountered Edinburgh’s canny IDUs, who were ‘driven to do things they would prefer not to do’ in service of their addictions, including having sex with men for money.

This has uncomfortable echoes of some of the themes Crewe explores in his thoughtful essay, such as how the identification of a so-called Patient Zero helped some historians of the Aids crisis to cast it in the mould of a morality play, with victims sharing varying degrees of guilt and innocence (LRB, 27 September 2018). The problem with Brewer’s explanation is that his insularity leads him into error. He says that epidemiologists were puzzled by Edinburgh’s ‘unique epidemic’, and that ‘no other British city’ shared Edinburgh’s high incidence of HIV among IDUs. That’s incorrect. Dublin may not be a British city, but Ireland is part of the British Isles and Dublin’s IDUs had rates of HIV as high as those in Edinburgh from the 1980s onwards. I lived in Dublin in the 1970s and 1980s and I don’t think we were such a popular destination for gay Americans.

John O’Dowd

In Whose Interest?

The Marshall Plan was doubtless a great and necessary contribution to the economic recovery of parts of Western Europe after the Second World War, but as Thomas Meaney makes clear, its main purpose, from the point of view of the US government, was to preserve the market dominance achieved by US industry during the war (LRB, 6 December 2018). Yet some part of the myth is retained by Meaney. The US was not ‘trying to infuse $13 billions’ worth of capital into Europe’. It was finding buyers for US goods and ensuring that when such goods were shipped the exporters would receive full payment for them in hard currency.

After the war all the major industrial countries in Europe put in place similar schemes to promote their own export industries. Export credit agencies were established, issuing guarantees to exporters that payments from buyers in economies short of hard currency would be covered. The economic benefit of these orders was felt immediately, but in many cases the hard currency was not forthcoming and the agencies’ guarantees had to be made good. As a result, large nominal debts appeared, owed by the Third World to the Developed World, which were repeatedly rescheduled through the Paris Club, and eventually forgiven. In fact there had never been any genuine expectation that these debts would be repaid. Under the Marshall Plan, by contrast, the importing economies recovered quickly.

Euan Macdonald
Isle of Skye

Uses of King Arthur

‘Legends of King Arthur have remained deep-rooted in popular imagination,’ Tom Shippey writes (LRB, 20 December 2018). He takes most of his examples from the 20th century, and doesn’t mention the fascinating ideological use of the King Arthur legend for the purpose of legitimising British colonial conquest and dominion in the late 16th century. A key figure setting this process in political motion was Dr John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s court mathematician and geographer since her accession in 1558. Dee had studied at Louvain under the Dutchman Jemme Reinerszoon, born in the Friesian seaport of Dokkum in 1508. Better known as Dr Gemma Frisius, this polymath was a major figure in the development of global geography. One of Frisius’s students (and collaborators) was the Flemish cartographer Geert de Kremer, who became famous as Mercator. The young Mercator had previously studied in ’s-Hertogenbosch, at the time a cosmopolitan cultural centre.

Located in what is now North Brabant in the Netherlands, ’s-Hertogenbosch is also associated with Jacobus Cnoyen, author of Itinerarium, a travel book, now lost but influential in the 16th and 17th centuries. Cnoyen not only described his own voyages but incorporated old narratives, including stories about King Arthur’s legendary seafaring voyages and conquests. The Antwerp book trader and geographer Abraham Ortels (Ortelius) owned a copy. He loaned it to Mercator, who used it for his map of 1569 detailing (largely imaginary) Arctic geography.

As Mercator explained, Cnoyen’s Itinerarium ‘makes some citations from the Gesta of Arthur of Britain’, but, significantly, ‘the greater and most important part he [Cnoyen] learned from a certain priest at the court of the king of Norway in 1364.’ In 1577, Mercator dispatched a letter to his friend Dee in which he had transcribed relevant parts of Cnoyen’s book identifying King Arthur as an ancient conquering ruler. Dee was an active promoter of British colonial exploration and expansion; he is thought to have been the first to deploy the term ‘British Empire’. He translated and abbreviated Mercator’s transcription, and incorporated it in his treatise Brytanici Imperii Limites (1578).

Soon afterwards, Dee’s fellow Brits expanded on his book, among them Richard Hakluyt, author of Principall Navigations. Hakluyt’s first volume portrays King Arthur as the brave and devout British conqueror of multiple ‘wild and savage’ peoples inhabiting Ireland, the Scottish Isles, Iceland, Greenland, Scandinavia, Lapland, ‘and many other Islands beyond Norway, even under the North Pole’.

Harald Prins
Kansas State University

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