Vol. 42 No. 24 · 17 December 2020

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Operation Dufflebag

Andrew Cockburn cites the airborne delivery of sensors in Vietnam as a failure of military technology (LRB, 3 December). Maybe on a grand scale, but they worked well along the Ho Chi Minh trail near its end where it disgorged infiltrators towards Saigon. I know because I was the intelligence officer for a mechanised infantry battalion on the border with Cambodia. Operation Dufflebag, as it was called, was a game-changer for us.

The fence of airborne transmitters in our area of operations was dropped from a great height in parallel lines a mile or so apart. No jungle canopy could stop them reaching the ground because they were encased in camouflaged bowling balls, their aerials disguised as foot-high blades of grass. The devices gave us the time and direction of any ingress into our area of operations – once the odd plodding water buffalo had been discounted. The result was that our efforts at interdiction, generally at night, were much more precise; no longer did we needlessly lacerate the rubber trees with blanket artillery fire ‘on spec’. And as there was a marked diminution of the risk of large-scale surprise in daylight hours, we could concentrate on keeping the roads between the fields and markets open.

William Beaver

An Anxiety of Its Own

Tobias Gregory points out the moment in As You Like It where Phebe quotes Marlowe’s Hero and Leander (LRB, 19 November). This is one of the very few instances in Shakespeare where he attributes a quotation, albeit in a coded fashion. Phebe addresses the quotation to a ‘Dead Shepherd’, clearly Marlowe, the recently deceased author of ‘The Passionate Shepherd’. Such attributions were rare in the early modern period, when vernacular commonplaces, or quotations, were largely valued for their transferability rather than their sources. Gregory misses this conscious irregularity, as he does the interestingly subversive practices of quotation that Marlowe and Shakespeare, and particularly Shakespeare in relation to Marlowe, developed elsewhere.

The humanist education systems of the time prioritised the kind of commonplacing of which Phebe’s verbatim quotation is an example – an analogy was often made with flower picking. Yet in the 1590s Shakespeare and Marlowe – who were both disillusioned products of such educations, having (luckily for us) failed to obtain the jobs serving the state the system intended and instead ended up as struggling writers – also engage with more wholesale modes of quotation, which tend to analogise texts as bodies. Imagining texts as bodies produces a corresponding anxiety about dismemberment, which makes anonymous humanist quotation a fraught practice. While a flower is a part of a whole meaningful in itself, a dismembered foot is neither aesthetically valuable nor has much to say for itself. This shift in analogy repositions quotation as violence.

The most notable product of this alternative model of quotation is arguably the relationship of Shakespeare’s Richard II (1595) to Marlowe’s Edward II (1593). Shakespeare’s structural quotation of the relationships, themes and characters of Marlowe’s play projects an integrative and unified model of quotation, rather than just plucking verbal flowerings. Here, Shakespeare draws closer to Milton’s similarly radical practice of wholesale imitation rather than commonplacing: a compelling example of how writers innovate while imitating.

Isabelle Stuart
London SW10

Occupy the Court

Commenting on the title of my book, A People’s History of Tennis, Tony Judge states that lawn tennis has never been ‘the people’s sport’ in Britain (Letters, 19 November). I never claimed it was. I was writing about the people who play tennis on public courts and at tennis clubs rather than the top players and champions who are the subject of most books about the sport. That said, there have certainly been many times in its 150-year history when lawn tennis in Britain has been far more popular than its ‘shires and suburbs’ image suggests. Between the wars, for example, people from all backgrounds queued up to play tennis in the public parks of such cities as Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. There were keen tennis sections in industries like mining and the railways, and two dozen active Labour Party tennis clubs. Between 1932 and 1951, there was also the annual British Workers’ Sports Association Tennis Championships, the ‘Workers’ Wimbledon’, predicted by its organisers to become bigger than Wimbledon itself.

It never happened, of course. And lawn tennis today remains (mainly) a middle-class sport, though more lower than upper. But aren’t the estate agents, nurses and teachers I play against in the Middlesex League as much part of ‘the people’ as manual workers, van drivers or warehouse employees? What’s more, tennis has a far better record of involving women than any other major sport – including football, which is often referred to as the true ‘people’s sport’.

David Berry
London N4

Through the Gloom

Colm Tóibín writes about peering through the gloom of Venetian churches at unlit paintings (LRB, 19 November). Peter Kelly, teaching art history to painting students at Leicester Poly in the late 1960s, told the story of visiting a church in Venice when he was a young man and having the same problem. A friendly ancient sacristan came to his aid, standing at the open door with a mirror, shining sunlight onto the painting, explaining: ‘I did this for Signor Ruskin.’

Bob Billington
Cromer, Norfolk

Colm Tóibín refers to the Scuola degli Schiavoni as a ‘small gallery’. It isn’t a gallery. He tells us that Henry James thought it was a ‘shabby little chapel’. It isn’t a chapel either. The room with the Carpaccio panels has an altar and altarpiece and pews. They signify a religious community: still active, one of the devotional and charitable confraternities of laymen originating in late medieval Italy, and known in Venice as scuole. The Scuola degli Schiavoni was founded by Dalmatian traders in 1401, in deference to whom (four centuries later) it was exempted from Napoleon’s suppression of the scuole. Had it been a gallery, or a chapel, it would have been looted in 1806 and the Carpaccios taken to the Louvre or, more likely, scattered.

Henry Spencer

Contested Islands

Thomas Meaney writes that after a period during which ‘the US state was in no position to undertake imperial projects … the first signs of a new American dispensation’ came with Woodrow Wilson’s ‘interventions between 1913 and 1916 in Mexico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic’ (LRB, 5 November). He doesn’t mention the annexation of Hawaii. With the use of sailors and marines from USS Boston ‘to restore order’, the Republic of Hawaii was unilaterally established on 4 July 1894, with President Sanford Dole as Hawaii’s Ian Smith. A revolt was crushed, and Queen Liliuokalani detained in Iolani Palace. After showing some reluctance, President McKinley signed the resolution of annexation on 7 July 1898, and Hawaii was formally declared a Territory in June 1900.

Neville Grant
London SE3

To Produce Good Fruits

In his review of Edgar Degas’s letters edited by Theodore Reff, Julian Barnes succeeds in conveying the artist’s complex personality as well as his pungent way with words (LRB, 19 November). But, presumably following Reff’s translation, he slightly muffs a line from a letter Degas sent from New Orleans to Lorenz Frølich on 27 November 1872. As Barnes has it: ‘If you insist on comparisons, I’ll tell you that to produce good fruits, one must grow them flat against the wall on a trellis.’ What Degas wrote is the following: ‘Si vous aimez les comparaisons à tout prix, je vous dirai que pour produire des bons fruits, il faut se mettre en espalier.’ The translation loses Degas’s emphasis on the idea that the fruit tree being trained is the artist himself. What’s more, the point is not flatness as a form of compression, but rather the artist’s reshaping of himself as an instrument of his art-making. An earlier translation makes this clearer: ‘And, if you want comparisons at all costs, I may tell you that in order to produce good fruit one must line up on an espalier.’ Degas caps this observation with an extraordinary image: ‘On reste là toute sa vie, les bras étendus, la bouche ouverte pour s’assimiler ce qui passe, ce qui est autour de vous et en vivre’: ‘One remains thus all one’s life, arms extended, mouth open, so as to assimilate what is happening, what is around one and to live by it.’

Barry Schwabsky
New York

Election Interference

Vera Tolz writes that Russia’s misinformation campaign in the US ‘wasn’t the first attempt by a foreign state to interfere in elections, but it was the largest known operation of its kind against a Western democracy’. (LRB, 3 December). Perhaps. Back in 1948 the technology was different, but in the newly restored ‘Western democracy’ of Italy there seemed to be a real possibility that an alliance of the Communist Party and Socialist Party might win the general election. The US spent at least ten million dollars on anti-Communist propaganda and support for parties of the right and centre. This was backed up by the Voice of America radio station. The State Department announced that Italians who were known to have voted Communist would be debarred from emigrating to America. American – and British – warships anchored off Italian ports. Compared with America’s role since 1945 in intervening politically around the globe, the Russians are still amateurs.

Ian Birchall
London N9

Against Natural Gas

Tom Stevenson writes that natural gas is ‘the fuel of domestic comfort and cooked meals’ (LRB, 10 September). However, a study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology shows that children in homes with gas stoves have a 42 per cent higher risk of being diagnosed with asthma. Stevenson also states that gas is a relatively clean fossil fuel. On the contrary, natural gas is considered at least as harmful to our climate as coal because methane (the highly potent greenhouse gas that is its chief component) leaks throughout the gas supply chain. Nature reported last year that methane leaks from the oil and gas industry have been underestimated by as much as 40 per cent.

When it comes to geopolitics, for each of the successes Stevenson cherry-picks, there are many other instances of gas creating serious international tensions: look no further than the conflicts between Russia and Ukraine, or the current tensions between Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and countries in the Middle East over the planned EastMed gas pipeline.

From an energy-systems perspective, gas has a very limited role in a decarbonised world. Hydropower and batteries are on the rise and can provide the majority of our storage needs, along with electricity connections with countries rich in renewables. It would be better to look to the future armed with science and smart technology, rather than lauding fuels that do further harm to the climate.

Charlotte Hanson
London E8

Enough of This

Lawrence Rosen informs us that ‘Muslims believe in the power of words’ (LRB, 19 November). Also: ‘Ask most Arabs what they think the opposite of “tyranny” is and they will say not “freedom” but “chaos”.’ Enough of this Orientalist twaddle.

John Chalcraft
London School of Economics

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