To the best of my understanding Timur Leng – Tamburlaine the Great – could not have engaged, as Tariq Ali says he did (LRB, 7 February), in any kind of negotiations with the ‘foolish and vain’ Caliph of Baghdad in 1401, as the last Caliph had been kicked to death wrapped inside a carpet by the invading army of the Mongols of Hulegu in 1258. (This apparently was a compliment to the Caliph: the Mongols refused to spill royal blood directly.) In Timur’s time the city was under the control of the Jalayrids. Furthermore, it’s unlikely that ‘a whole culture perished’ in Timur’s action against Baghdad. Baghdad had already been in cultural decline for a considerable time: indeed, the illustrated texts and skilled metalwork of the 11th and 12th centuries, once attributed to the courts and markets of Baghdad, are now being reassigned to the jazira under Ayyubid and Zengid patronage. From 1092 themajor concern of the Sultan of Baghdad was the exhaustion of the treasury brought about by the constant ‘buying off’ of emirs during the civil wars. Bundari describes how the Sultan Muhammad lacked funds even for his emirs’ daily beer allowance.
There is one ‘Oil War’ that Ali has missed out: the Iran-Iraq conflict. The duration and the cost of this war, both material and human, are surely noteworthy. Its omission and the sensationalising of the 1099 Crusader sack of Jerusalem – a routine three-day medieval sack, totally acceptable by the standards of the day in a citadel resisting occupation – show Ali to be a historian with an agenda. This is surely a concern for a journal already under attack for perceived bias from many of its readers.
What planet is T. Chertsey living on when he says that monazite sands could be a source of helium (Letters, 7 February)? Monazite is extremely radioactive, having principle radionuclides from the thorium-232 series. Thankfully, where monazite does occur in beach sand (in places such as Australia, Brazil, India and China), it does so in such small quantities as not to affect the local populations adversely. Harvesting the sand in sufficient quantities to produce enough helium to fill a flotilla of air balloons would require more radiation suits than any army now could muster, let alone the Army in prewar Germany.
Airship engineering and the availability of helium were rather more advanced in the 1930s than some of your correspondents may have realised. Extraction of small amounts of helium from monazite sand was underway in Australia before the end of the First World War, but the compressors were not powerful enough to produce the quantities required by rigid dirigibles (the capacity of the modified R101 was 5,508,500 cubic feet). In 1929 RMS Hororata left Fremantle with 23,000 tons of sifted monazite – enough for three R101 round trips to Karachi – bound ultimately for the airship works at Cardington. There a refinery was under construction, intended to become fully operational by 1937. The Hororata docked in Southampton three weeks after the destruction of the (hydrogen-filled) R101 in France. Rather than send the load back to Australia or begin the costly extraction of the gas, the sand was used as landfill in Thanet, among other locations. In the late 1930s another role presented itself: as a filling for sandbags. Those with memories of the war or National Service may recall a slight bronze tint to the sand in some bags which left a reddish stain on the fingers. My father, a chemist with the Ministry of Supply, recalled a rumour that this was because the sand had been brought from military execution grounds. The area of the Tanami Desert in Western Australia where monazite sand occurs is now under the administration of the Karlantijpa North Aboriginal Land Authority.
Let's get this straight. Helium can indeed be obtained from the liquefaction of natural gas, but, despite what T. Chertsey thinks, this doesn't mean that helium itself is liquefied. It is, rather, a product of the liquefaction process – if you boil salt water to get the salt, the salt itself doesn't boil away. So the liquefaction of helium doesn't come into the argument at all: they haven't yet started to fill air balloons with liquid helium.
In his review of Robert Mack’s biography of Thomas Gray, John Mullan (LRB, 13 December 2001) discusses Mack’s treatment of Gray’s ‘likely homosexuality’. Neither Mack not Mullan appears to have read Gray’s passionate, grovellingly devoted letters to his homosexual friend Horace Walpole. This is Gray to Walpole:
Bear I was born, and bear, I believe, I’m likely to remain; consequently a little ungainly in my fondness, but I’ll be bold to say, you shan’t in a hurry meet with a more loving poor animal, than Your faithful creature, Bruin.
Walpole took Gray on a tour of France and Italy then abandoned him in Reggio, after he had caught up with his preferred lover, the handsome, athletic Ninth Earl of Lincoln. Later a conscience-stricken Walpole published Gray’s poems as a peace offering, but in a scandalously naughty edition with a headpiece by Richard Bentley of boys with bare bottoms sporting on the playing fields of Gray, Walpole and Lincoln’s Eton. In Mullan’s slow, dreamy review of Mack’s slow, dreamy biography there is no mention of this cheerful, dramatic love life. Why the discretion?
University of Bristol
Contrary to the impression given by Terence Hawkes in his review of Terry Eagleton’s The Gatekeeper (LRB, 7 February), the memoir makes no attempt to chart the history of literary studies in the last half-century. Hawkes’s own sketch of this history is bizarre. His polemic against the nefarious alliance of Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot culminates in an account of ‘The Critic as Artist’, Oscar Wilde’s ‘astonishing reply’ to Arnold, which for Hawkes is a ‘call to the academic barricades’. Curious, then, that the passages Hawkes quotes from the witty Oscar are nothing but a tub-thumping repetition of Arnold’s own pleas for the function of criticism.
As a young man I was thoroughly captivated by Steve McQueen’s performances, and even thought of him as a role model. It was therefore disconcerting to discover later that he was something of a creep, as Miranda Carter reminds us (LRB, 14 January). I still have a degree of residual affection for his performances, but not in the films he made at the height of his fame. Even Bullitt with its wildass auto antics hasn’t aged that well. As Carter observes, it is the ‘series of characterisations’ in Papillon, Junior Bonner and The Getaway that still work. And the ‘supposedly lovable idiot’ of Soldier in the Rain was very nicely modified in the underrated and relatively unknown The Reivers, where McQueen’s innocent exuberance is on display in a rollicking comic turn. Still, it is hard for me to resist his Virgil Hilts in The Great Escape: the sadness in his eyes as Archie Ives is shot trying to climb the fence; his isolation from the British officers throughout; and his eternal gesture of defiance as he is led, yet again, to the solitary confinement of the Cooler.
Boone, North Carolina
Gabrielle Parker has every right to correct you on a technicality connected with Jonathan Rée’s impending departure from Middlesex University (Letters, 7 February), but the rest of her letter misrepresents the situation. The philosophy team was informed last summer that the equivalent of 3.5 full-time posts in the subject were redundant because of falling student numbers, and apart from Jonathan Rée, who negotiated a leaving package independently, two other members of that team have been ousted from Professor Parker’s School into a Restructuring Department, where they face a choice between redundancy and redeployment to other subject areas. This seems to have slipped Professor Parker’s mind when she wrote that ‘the rest of this distinguished team’ will continue to teach philosophy at Middlesex. Those of us who have ‘chosen’ voluntary redundancy in a parallel situation in other subjects can hardly be said to be leaving of our own accord.
What MPs Read
I was surprised not to see any mention of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in Stefan Collini's review of Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (LRB, 13 December 2001), and wondered whether it was an omission on the part of the reviewer, or the author, or both. Until New Labour's post-1997 ascendancy it was regularly first or second on lists of the most influential, or even transforming, books Labour MPs had read.
University of Warwick
R.T. Murphy probably knows, but other readers of his review of Marius Jansen’s The Making of Modern Japan (LRB, 3 January) might not, that E.H. Norman, whose work on Japan he cites so admiringly, was Canada’s Ambassador to Egypt in 1957, when he jumped off a roof in Cairo. What drove him to suicide? Harassment by the US Senate for being a ‘security risk’. This despite the Prime Minister’s affirmation of confidence in him. We seem to be reliving those times all over again.
Bernard Porter says that Churchill believed he should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize rather than the Literature one, and that, not being able to attend the ceremony, he wrote a letter to the Nobel Prize committee with a barbed comment about Sweden's neutrality (LRB, 14 January). Unlikely. Unlike the other Nobel Prizes, the Peace Prize is administered by Norway.
Paul Genova seems to believe that the writers who contributed to your 4 October issue are mainly Europeans who ‘continually need to reiterate their cultural superiority’ (Letters, 14 January). Did he miss Denis McQuail’s letter of 29 November, noting that ‘out of the 29 pieces, 14 were datelined in the US, 11 in Europe and four elsewhere’? Rereading those from the US, it is clear that 12 of these writers are US citizens. He also says that ‘people in Bloomington, Indiana think as well and as critically as people in Oxford’ – as you no doubt agreed by printing the letter of 13 December from Paul Hillier of Indiana University.
Paul Genova, poor chap, has been out-snobbed by a waiter under false pretences. He should know (as this American reader does) that there has never been a good year for Portuguese wine. Despite your leftist tendencies, I intend to keep my subscription going.