Vol. 44 No. 24 · 15 December 2022

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When the Engine Cuts Out

James Meek writes about V1s and V2s falling on London (Letters, 1 December). I am old enough to remember the sound of a V1’s engine cutting out over our house in Ealing. As we sat in our Morrison shelter, my father counted the seconds of silence as the missile glided down. Next day we visited Ealing Broadway and saw the damage; a whole block of shops and houses had gone and there was extensive peripheral damage.

Years later, in Washington DC to film the demonstrations against the Vietnam War, my sound recordist and I went for lunch in a place opposite the Capitol. A group of men was there, including Arthur C. Clarke, whom I had filmed before. He invited us over to his table and introduced us to his companions, senior Nasa executives who were there to celebrate the renewal of their government funding. One of them was Wernher von Braun, the German engineer who had played a big part in developing the V2 before being spirited to the US after the war to work on its rocket programme. With the wine flowing I mentioned my wartime memory of the V1 over Ealing. Von Braun said that I’d been lucky. Fuel had been in short supply at the time – one or two litres less in that missile and I might not be here today. He also said that while the V2 carried the same payload as the V1, it didn’t glide when it ran out of fuel but came straight down fast, thereby making a deep impact and causing an upward, rather than lateral, explosive force. So, the V2 was scientifically superior to the V1, but as a weapon caused far less damage.

Mike Dodds
London W11


David Runciman leaves an important bit out of his summary of George Osborne’s career. Between 2017 and 2020 Osborne was the editor of London’s freesheet, the Evening Standard (LRB, 17 November). If you pass through any London station from the late afternoon onwards you can pick up the Standard. Its content is strong against racism and sexism, while at the same time very focused on the upper reaches of the property market. The paper is owned by Evgeny Lebedev, ennobled in 2020 by Boris Johnson.

Osborne’s time as editor coincided with the intensification of the controversy following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, and the simultaneous campaign by the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party to be rid of their unloved leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The Standard threw itself into both. If you read the Londoner’s Diary at that time, for example, the tittle-tattle about celebrities would be peppered with stabs at Corbyn and his supporters. The editor of that part of the paper from mid-2019 was Ayesha Hazarika, whose chief qualification was her ferocious opposition to Corbyn.

As for Brexit, Osborne steered the Standard into giving tireless support to the People’s Vote campaign. His newspaper career climaxed, of course, with the general election of December 2019. The Standard ran a laudatory interview with Boris Johnson in the run-up. That may seem surprising, if you assume that Osborne would have been keen to avoid boosting the electoral chances of the man who was promising to ‘get Brexit done’. If, though, you are enough of a left-wing conspiracy theorist to assume that the entire People’s Vote campaign was an elaborate scam aimed not at reversing Brexit but at disconcerting and undermining the Corbyn leadership, then there was nothing surprising about it at all.

Howard Medwell
London N18

David Runciman speculates that the queen’s death on 8 September ‘must have had something to do with’ the unhinging of Liz Truss, but doesn’t quite say what. A clue might be found in her response to the formal announcement of the queen’s death. ‘We are all devastated by the news we have just heard from Balmoral,’ she said. ‘The death of Her Majesty the Queen is a huge shock to the nation and to the world.’ As I listened to the radio, I was puzzled at Truss’s remark that we were all in shock at the entirely unsurprising death of a frail 97-year-old woman. But watching the same speech later on TV, I could see that Truss herself certainly was in shock.

Two reasons suggest themselves. On 6 September, at her first formal audience, Truss had curtseyed awkwardly, looking like a nervous teenager. Two days later, the queen died. Perhaps, faced with her fifteenth prime minister, self-modelled on another woman PM she is reputed not to have liked, the queen decided it was finally time to retire in the only way she could allow. Truss, though, may more or less unconsciously have had the thought ‘I killed her,’ and reacted with excessive shock and guilt.

The other possibility is that Truss had been excitedly looking forward to those weekly tête-à-têtes, but then had the rug pulled rudely from under her feet. Two days into her premiership, she was worsted by a frail, elderly stateswoman whose death she almost certainly won’t have wanted fully to contemplate.

Sue Lieberman

For Entertainment Only

It was pleasing to learn from Chloe Aridjis that the Magic Lantern Society is still flourishing (LRB, 3 November). I was born in 1920. My father’s magic lantern was a delightful source of entertainment for us children in the days before wireless etc. As our house was small the only place to set it up was in the hall: my mother hung a white sheet at one end and dad fidgeted with the machine at the other. With no electricity in the house, lighting was by a gas mantle which sat on a small porcelain cradle in the back of the big black box, connected to the nearest gas point by a flexible tube. We used to invite lots of other children to see the show, all of us sitting on the floor.

We had only a couple of dozen slides, many of them of black and white cartoons such as one would see in Punch. But the children’s favourite was a set of colour slides of two fat men trying to move a huge empty barrel and getting into all sorts of scrapes, rather like the early Laurel and Hardy films. By the time I reached my teens cinemas were becoming more popular and talkies were all the rage, so our magic lantern lapsed into retirement. It was eventually sold to a man who said he was going to convert it so it could be used with electricity.

Dennis Lack
Mapleton, Queensland

The long, tedious months of sunlessness in the Arctic necessitated the organisation of a wide spectrum of amusements onboard the vessels seeking to find the Franklin expedition. On Friday, 14 January 1853, on HMS Intrepid, the ‘Soirées fantastiques’ began with ‘feats of legerdemain’, followed by glees, comic recitations and songs, and concluded with ‘Phantasmagorial Illustrations, appropriately described’. As Chloe Aridjis points out, full darkness is required for the magic lantern to work. This was evidently not a problem in the far north from November until early March.

Irene Makaryk

At the Top Table

Claire Spencer protests against the idea that there is ‘any uniformity of foreign and defence policy analysis’ in the British foreign policy establishment, even while admitting that the ‘liberal internationalist outlook’ is gospel and that there is ‘a certain group-think over Atlanticism’ (Letters, 17 November). Such is the uniformity: Tom Stevenson’s argument wasn’t that there is no debate among the foreign policy elite, but that fidelity to Atlanticism is the sine qua non of participation.

It is this non-negotiable commitment to being Washington’s subaltern, hardened this year by Keir Starmer’s ban on any criticism of Nato in the Labour Party, that accounts for the narrowness of the British foreign policy discussion. Arguing merely over what form British subordination to the grand strategy of the United States should take won’t ever make for much of a debate. As if to prove this point, Spencer’s clinching example of diversity of thought among British defence intellectuals – and their capacity to challenge the official ‘received wisdom’ – is that the experts at Chatham House have been arguing ‘for years’ that the West must face down Putin. That such stock hawkishness is supposed to count as dissent speaks for itself.

Ed McNally
New College, Oxford

On Hoarding

In his Diary on hoarding, Jon Day refers to ‘the Collyer twins, Homer and Langley, who lived in a brownstone in New York in the 1940s’ (LRB, 8 September). It hardly matters, but the brothers weren’t twins: they were born four years apart. Their father was a bit eccentric. He worked as a gynaecologist at Bellevue, and occasionally at City Hospital on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island). To get there, he sometimes paddled a canoe down the East River from Harlem; on the return trip he would paddle over to Manhattan, then carry the canoe back home: a healthy walk of four miles or so, but quite a schlep with a canoe. At one time, children who neglected to tidy their rooms were warned that they might end up like the Collyer brothers.

Allen Schill
Turin, Italy

Qualified Success

John Kerrigan refers to the ‘success of Sinn Féin in the May elections’ (LRB, 20 October). The extent of this success was that Sinn Féin became the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, so that its leader, Michelle O’Neill, was promoted from deputy first minister to first minister. But this was only because its main challenger, the Democratic Unionist Party, lost three of its 28 seats while Sinn Féin managed to hang on to 27, the same number it won in the previous election. Taken together, the two Irish nationalist parties (Sinn Féin and the SDLP) emerged with four seats fewer (down from 39 to 35) and with a slightly smaller percentage of the votes cast. The recent census did not show ‘a Catholic majority’, as Kerrigan claims: Catholics accounted for 45.7 per cent of the population. This census also showed 29.1 per cent identifying as ‘Irish only’. It is hard to see from these figures how a ‘united Ireland’ can be imminent.

C.J. Woods
Celbridge, County Kildare

Basement Beats

Francis Gooding does well to emphasise that J Dilla’s rhythmic style was not about ‘error’, quite the contrary (LRB, 20 October). I’m not so persuaded, though, by his claim that ‘almost every notable development in popular music has been built on an innovation in rhythm.’ Twentieth-century pop fizzed with innovations that were largely timbral and had little to do with new rhythms. Notable examples include the Hammond organ, the electric guitar, acid house basslines and autotune. To my mind the common factor is when a new technology meets an unmet musical itch, as with J Dilla and his MPC3000.

Dan Stowell
Tilburg University, Netherlands

Quite Nice Actually

Rosemary Hill refers to the gradual disappearance in the 19th century of ‘French service’ – all dishes set on the table at once – and its replacement by the serving of courses in stages, or ‘Russian service’ (LRB, 17 November). That wasn’t the first time such a change had occurred. The companion volume in Robert Latham and William Matthews’s definitive edition of Pepys’s diary states that in Pepys’s day all or most of the food would be put on the table at once. The practice of serving a succession of courses was gradually coming in during the period of the diary, but was only adopted in the Pepys household for grand occasions.

Rob Wills
Brisbane, Queensland

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