Martin Shaw indulges in wishful thinking when he claims that ‘non-violent action has consistently been more effective than violent action in achieving change’ (Letters, 16 December 2021). The Democratic Republic of Vietnam was formed as a result of the defeat of the French colonialists and pro-French Vietnamese forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. It was the 1968 Tet Offensive that turned American public opinion substantially against the Vietnam War and marked the beginning of the US withdrawal. It wasn’t non-violent action that led to the fall of Saigon and the Americans’ panicked flight in 1975. A similar story could be told about China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Algeria. The majority of anti-colonial revolts in the period following the Second World War succeeded through force of arms, with mass protests playing only a subsidiary role. As documented in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement and the subsequent peace process, it was armed struggle by the IRA that brought the Brits to the negotiating table.
It used to be the case that the proponents of exclusively non-violent direct action would contend that armed struggle led only to top-down change, with no deepening of democratic institutions. If Shaw wants to contend that, as a result of the ‘unarmed direct action of mass movements’, South Africa is now a substantially equal and democratic society, I wish him luck. It looks to me as if the leading forces in the liberation struggle – the ANC and SACP – left too much of the South African apartheid state untouched, and simply took up roles within it. In any case, the fundamental problem with non-violent direct action is that it is only ever conducted by one side – and never the winning one.
Writing before the impressive victory of Gabriel Boric in Chile’s elections, Michael Chessum refers to the ‘embarrassment’ felt by Boric’s supporters when the Chilean Communist Party welcomed Daniel Ortega’s re-election in Nicaragua, ‘given Ortega’s ruthless repression of the opposition’ (LRB, 16 December 2021). This requires some disentangling.
Following the lead of the Biden administration, most of the mainstream media, including in Latin America, have dismissed November’s poll in Nicaragua as a ‘sham’ because of the arrest of rival candidates. Yet none of those arrested was being formally considered as a candidate; several weren’t even members of a political party. More important, all have been charged with criminal acts that could have resulted in arrest had they been committed in the UK or the US. One set of charges relates to the receipt of large sums of money from the US government for ‘democracy promotion’, which many regard as a euphemism for regime change. Several of those arrested had approached the US administration, or appeared at international forums such as the Organisation of American States, demanding economic sanctions and even military intervention against their own country. Some were involved in the violent destabilisation of Nicaragua in 2018, which resulted in many people being killed. One of those arrested, Medardo Mairena, had been convicted of orchestrating an armed attack on a rural police station in July 2018 which left four police officers dead: as part of the post-coup reconciliation process, he and others had been released from prison under a conditional amnesty.
Given the political violence in Nicaragua in the recent past, many feared a recurrence in the run-up to the election and either welcomed or were indifferent to the arrests. On polling day, no one was surprised when the public ignored opposition demands that they abstain from voting, and there was a 66 per cent turnout. Ortega, with 75 per cent of the vote, defeated five rivals. Arguably, a key reason for his victory was the government’s successful drive to reduce poverty and invest in public services since it took power in 2007. As Chessum points out, this is a challenge that now faces Boric.
Boric joins Xiomara Castro in Honduras as a left-wing leader cleanly elected in a recent election, who for the time being is probably immune from US destabilisation attempts. But, as every Latin American knows, this immunity will not last long. He might at some point need the support of other progressive governments in the region, even those he currently wants to keep at arm’s length.
Eyal Weizman discusses the influence of postmodern theory on the IDF’s tactics (LRB, 16 December 2021). It is ironic that even as the IDF profess their philosophical modernity when conducting urban operations they more often reprise the techniques of ancient and medieval siege warfare. Indeed, with its extensive system of walls and strongpoints, Israel itself increasingly resembles the hyper-militarised Crusader states of the 12th and 13th century, when more than 160 Frankish castles, forts and citadels dominated the area that now comprises Lebanon and Israel.
University of Warwick
‘Everything depends upon the execution,’ Julian Barnes cites Flaubert as saying (LRB, 16 December 2021). ‘The story of a louse can be as beautiful as the story of Alexander the Great.’ This reminded me of Robert Burns’s poem, ‘To a Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church’. Over the years I have wondered less about the louse, and more about the line where he scolds the louse: ‘But Miss’s fine Lunardi, fye!’ An Italian name for a bonnet in Scotland, how come?
It turns out that a young man, Vincenzo Lunardi, originally of Lucca, who had come to England as secretary to the ambassador for the Kingdom of Naples, was the first person in England to make an untethered ascent in a balloon. He was not the first in Britain, however, since James Tytler had made an untethered ascent in a hot-air balloon a month earlier in Edinburgh. By contrast, Lunardi’s balloon was filled with hydrogen. His ascent took place on 15 September 1784 in London, in the presence of a huge crowd that included the Prince of Wales. He duplicated his feat many times in various locations in England and Scotland, and came to be known as the ‘Daredevil Aeronaut’. A new fashion in ladies’ clothing struck up: there were Lunardi skirts with images of balloons on them, and large, balloon-shaped hats, nearly two feet high, called ‘Lunardis’.
San Diego, California
A passage from Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom is criticised by Emily Witt for using the passive voice (LRB, 16 December 2021). But in fact the active voice is used throughout the section quoted. What is meant by Witt is that the pronoun ‘I’ is avoided, so Nelson’s responsibility for the views presented is dodged. A term such as ‘impersonal’, rather than ‘passive voice’, might have been chosen. The passage is given here:
These works led many to feel as though white artists (and institutions) could use a little (or a lot) more insight and accountability, and less unthinking, uncaring freedom, especially as the latter coincides all too well with the logic of white supremacy, with all its ignorance, impunity and carelessness …
Now the passage begun in the passive voice: ‘Many were led by these works to feel that more insight could be used by white artists …’ So continued, the passage could have been written entirely in the passive voice, like this letter.
I enjoyed Matthew Bevis’s piece on Charlotte Mew, prompted by my recent biography and selection of Mew’s poetry and prose (LRB, 16 December 2021). In it, he mentions his admiration for the colour provided by Penelope Fitzgerald’s ‘way with details’ and cites her assertions that ‘Mew liked to swear in both French and English and that she enjoyed the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’. These are indeed nice details, but they are also fabrications – two of too many in Fitzgerald’s Charlotte Mew and Her Friends.
The question of how much facts matter in a biography was posed by the daughter of Edith Chick, one of Mew’s closest friends. When Fitzgerald’s book appeared, she wrote:
Of course I first looked at what was said about the Chicks, in spite of their relative unimportance to the story. But every mention of them is fantastically wrong! I don’t know whether to be more amazed at the idea of my aunt Elsie marrying my father or that of my aunt Margaret being the oldest of the family and a bacteriologist! Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The trouble is that if the only facts one knows about are incorrect, it raises doubts about the more important ones. Maybe the book should carry a Government Health Warning – ‘A novelist’s imagination can seriously damage the truth’!
In deference to Fitzgerald and her fine gifts as a novelist, I made the decision early on to downplay the degree to which she riffs on her personal idea of Charlotte Mew and her character while omitting to provide details of most of her sources. But some of the errors are more serious than others. Mew’s father, Fred, gets a particularly raw deal. One of Fitzgerald’s chapters ends with Fred insisting that his youngest daughter, Freda, be sent back to his native Isle of Wight after presenting with schizophrenia-type symptoms. In reality, Fred had been dead for some time when Freda first showed signs of mental illness (in January 1899, not in the early 1890s as Fitzgerald suggests, when she would have been pre-pubescent), and was not around to assert himself on this or any other matter.
Mew ought to be remembered as more than the quirky loner depicted in Fitzgerald’s book and elsewhere, a mere bit player in the (largely male) literary drama of her day.
Curry Mallet, Somerset
Erin Maglaque writes that in Utopia Thomas More is first introduced to Raphael Hythlodaeus on the docks at Antwerp (LRB, 16 December 2021). In fact, the encounter takes place just outside the city’s imposing Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady). On 28 May 2015, to coincide with the quincentenary of the first publication of Utopia, a large commemorative stone was unveiled on the Handschoenmarkt (Glove Market), next to the cathedral. The inscription on the stone, which is now placed between the cobbles, is in six languages, including Arabic and Chinese. In English, it reads: ‘Thomas More tells us that this is where, in 1515, he met the traveller who told him about Utopia.’
Rosemary Hill describes Rose Macaulay’s use of the term ‘hanger’, referring to a ‘curving wood’ seen from Wheatham Hill, as ‘arcane’ (LRB, 16 December 2021). Actually it’s quite accurate. It means not just a hillside but a wooded escarpment and would have been so called by Gilbert White and W.H. Hudson. Today Wheatham Hill is the high point of the East Hampshire Hangers Special Area of Conservation. For a more arcane use of the term you might go to A.E. Housman’s ‘On Wenlock Edge’, where the gale blows ‘through holt and hanger’. I doubt the term was ever common in Shropshire.
Alan Bennett asks how long spiders live (LRB, 6 January). The life-cycle of a male spider in the UK is between twelve and eighteen months; the life-cycle of a female spider is longer, about two or three years. However, an Australian trapdoor spider is said to have lived for 43 years.
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