In June 1944 the chance of war has made a young British officer part of an Italian resistance formation. When an Allied arms drop is signalled he is in charge of its reception. Arriving at the dropping zone he meets a group of Italians led by his second in command, an Italian officer, who takes him aside and says that there is a man too many in the group – a man unknown to anyone. The British officer interrogates the man – he is in his late teens – who is unable to explain his presence. It would be impossible to keep a prisoner secure. The drop is imminent. The British officer consults with his Italian colleague who says: You are in command here. The British officer says the man has to be got rid of. He is duly shot.
Having been that officer, I am still worried by the ‘case’, which seems to me more difficult to deal with than an imaginary one concerning the ‘sacrifice’ of an orphaned infant, discussed by Stephen Mulhall (LRB, 22 August).
Don’t worry about the trees
As a commercial timber grower, I make it my harmless and possibly hopeless business to protest at the lazy repetition of clichés bewailing the felling of trees to print books etc. Christopher Tayler commits this insidious misdemeanour in your 22 August issue: ‘by now, the reader might be wondering how de Botton reconciles his gratitude to the trees with the acreage felled to print this stuff.’ I grow trees precisely in order that they may be turned into something useful – paper, pallets, houses. Tayler might as well mourn the passing of fields of wheat going to make bread.
I have read several reviews of Catherine Millet's book, ranging from the shocked to the pretentious, and none of them, including Jenny Diski's (LRB, 25 July), even suggests the possibility that her narrative of multiple joyless sexual encounters might be fictional. Are the reviewers being naive, or am I?
Jenny Diski writes: I was under the impression that I had suggested that Catherine Millet’s book might be fictional. In my review I certainly queried whether Catherine M. was one and the same person as the author, Catherine Millet, and I expressed some doubt about the vast number of sexual encounters and her responses to them. Perhaps I wasn’t doubtful enough: but J.G. Ballard was. Offering his choice of summer reading in the Guardian, he enclosed the word ‘memoir’ in inverted commas and asked: ‘Is this the most original novel of the year?’ I am told that others, especially in France, have also suggested that the book might be more fictional than fact. But although I would like to believe in such stamina and dogged application, I’m not sure it matters much – fiction and non-fiction being largely publishers’ categories. I recall my ex-husband worrying that his mother might read my first novel (dealing with a sado-masochistic relationship). I supposed he was worried that she’d assume that he and I practised all the exotic sexual stuff I wrote about. ‘No,’ he said, ‘that wouldn’t cross her mind. What will shock her is the fact that I’m married to someone who can think it.’
Unlike R.W. Johnson (LRB, 8 August), I am not surprised that Peter Hennessy and Percy Cradock should write their respective histories of the nuclear age without mentioning the ‘nuclear winter’. The idea that the world might freeze in the darkness following a nuclear explosion was advertised as hard science, but in fact had no basis except as an outcome produced by a one-dimensional computer model. A programmer had effectively switched off the sun in his climate model as if it were a light bulb, and then allowed the program to run on for 40 consecutive dayless nights. More serious efforts at modelling the motion and transport of the weather were soon to generate more subtle scenarios than the apocalyptic original, which was judged, in Foreign Affairs in 1986, to be of ‘vanishingly low probability’. In 1991, the Kuwait oil fires were seized on by the proponents of the theory of nuclear winter as a means of testing their hypothesis. Here at last was a set of fires as massive and extensive as any that might be generated by nuclear missiles. Carl Sagan predicted that a sooty plume would ascend into the stratosphere, overshadow South Asia, and cause the monsoon to fail, dooming millions to famine. It didn’t happen.
Bruce Kent (Letters, 22 August) quotes the United States Strategic Bombing Survey of 1946 as saying that Japan would likely have surrendered ‘prior to December 1945’ even without the use of atomic weapons or Russia entering the war. But the Survey also predicted that a continuation of the conventional bombing campaign would have escalated from the July 1945 total of 42,700 tonnes of bombs dropped to 115,000 tonnes a month. Given that over 800,000 Japanese had already been killed in the nine months of bombing up to July 1945 it is arguable that the atomic weapons killed fewer people than would have died in another four or five months’ conventional bombing. A further argument in favour of using the Bomb was the avoidance of Allied casualties that would otherwise have resulted from a continuation of the war.
Caught Unawares in a Bog
Can Richard Fortey (LRB, 23 May), or anyone in the know, please explain how the body of a mammoth (as distinct from its skeleton) was preserved? First, why is there a body at all, why wasn’t it consumed by scavengers shortly after the animal died? Perhaps it was inaccessible, ‘caught unawares in a bog’ where it would then be ‘preserved by the permafrost … frozen in time’. But if it sank in a bog, how would it find itself in the permafrost? Perhaps the bog froze in winter; but if so, presumably it would have thawed the following summer? I know that bodies have been preserved in (unfrozen) bogs – in Denmark, for example – but I thought that they emerged dried out, not with their meat ‘dark and marbled, like properly hung beef’. Furthermore, if these bodies are found in permafrost today, but sank in bogs in the Ice Age (despite the fact that sea levels were lower and Siberia’s climate drier than it is now), that would suggest that today’s temperatures are lower than in the Ice Age, which doesn’t sound right.
‘Rot seems to proceed with indecent haste on the defrosted giants.’ So it seems that the mammoth must be inaccessible at time of death, preserved perhaps anaerobically at first but without drying out, and that it must end up in permafrost despite the fact that we don’t presently live in an Ice Age. I see that Richard Fortey is listed as Professor in the Public Understanding of Science. I have hopes.
Was Thomas Gray a ‘Cambridge don’, as Robert Crawford suggests (LRB, 25 July)? My understanding is that, as a perpetual ‘fellow commoner’, he was at most a ‘demi-don’ who paid extra fees for the dubious privilege of dining and residing with real Cambridge dons.
Ian Glynn ends his review of Mark Honigsbaum’s The Fever Trail (LRB, 25 July) with the claim that, owing to global warming, the malaria problem is ‘likely to grow worse and to spread to more temperate areas’. Most people, even in the United States, seem to have forgotten that malaria was once endemic throughout much of this temperate country. My grandmother remembered it as a plague on her riverside farm town in southern Idaho, and it was a scourge of the central Midwest – Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, Kansas – in the 1850s. The promise of a territory free from malaria was one of the major incentives for settlement in northern states such as Minnesota. Idaho, and probably most other states, still have mosquitoes capable of carrying malaria. Heroic measures, and DDT, wiped out the disease for a few generations, but given global warming and the power of diseases to evolve beyond the reach of current treatments, we’d do well to remember that malaria is a disease that was beaten back here, not a disease that has not yet been known.
Fear and Trembling on Mars
How James Hamilton-Paterson (LRB, 22 August) can devote a long article to the place of Mars in human imagination and mention Ray Bradbury alone among all the writers who have used the tantalising planet as an intellectual playground is mystifying. Bradbury, far from being ‘optimistic’ in his attitude towards space travel, was in fact a technophobe with a yearning for pastoral innocence. Several of his best-known stories deplore the threat to human values posed by scientific advances. Television in particular he saw as destructive of book-based culture – a theme taken to its extreme in Fahrenheit 451, where books are actively sought out and burned. A propagandist for planetary colonisation would hardly call his space-fleet The Silver Locusts. This haunting work, though notionally concerned with attempts at intrusive human settlement on Mars, is pervaded by a sense of solitude and loss, particularly with regard to the fragile and doomed Martians.
Deep, Deeper, Deepest
Robin Holloway’s piece on Tovey (LRB, 8 August) is so good that it seems churlish to enter a footnote on the matter of Innigkeit, rendered by Holloway as ‘inwardness’. But ‘inward’ is innerlich. Innig is surely better rendered by either ‘deep’ or ‘intimate’, depending on context. This might be a quibble if it weren’t that practical musical instances turn on it. Beethoven’s mit innigster Empfindung is ‘with deepest feeling’. And Schumann’s innig is asking the pianist to play intimately. This is not to deny ‘inwardness’ as a quality in some German music. But Innigkeit is something else.
In addition to those pointed out already (Letters, 22 August), Slavoj Žižek’s article on Lenin (LRB, 25 July) contains a number of other howlers. For example, the Bolsheviks’ Decree on Peace was not a ‘new politics that bypassed the state’, but a case of the Bolsheviks following the example of the Jacobins’ (and Girondins’) quite similar declarations, addressed to the peoples of Europe during the French Revolution. Also, while no doubt the Bolsheviks did re-enact the events of October 1917 on 7 November 1920, by no stretch of the imagination was ‘Petrograd … under siege in 1920’. By the time the third anniversary of ‘Red October’ took place, Bolshevik troops were fighting Polish forces in what is today Western Ukraine and Belarus. A further irony is that by November 1920, formerly revolutionary Petrograd was fast on its way to dissatisfaction with the Revolution – the Kronstadt Rebellion would take place the following year.
On a personal note, I can’t agree with Žižek that kasha is ‘tasteless’.
All Mouth and …
Sorry, Brian Tilbury (Letters, 25 July). In Texas they say ‘big hat, no cattle’, not ‘all hat and no cattle’. Close but no cigar!
The Dublin expression is ‘no bell on your bike and your knickers at half mast’.