Andrew O’Hagan sets out to debunk myths with facts (LRB, 7 June). We have some questions about the facts he presents.
Regarding the Grenfell Action Group, why hold against them the number of complaints they made (‘a barrage of complaints’; ‘they bombarded us’; ‘a long history of objecting to the council’)? Is that not in part what the GAG was there to do? Could what you call ‘obsessive’ behaviour be the activists’ understandable reaction to the difficulty of resisting the council’s decisions, or to a sense of powerlessness in a system that puts profit and capital first?
Activists are said to have ‘loud voices’, while local officials have ‘gentle manners’ and are ‘well-spoken’. Could this be in the ear of the beholder? Were the activists ‘loud’ because they had power? Or because they did not?
We’re told that ‘they seemed to be throwing accusations into the air like confetti at a whore’s wedding.’ Why make that comparison?
Is it so hard to understand why people might feel hatred towards councils (‘people whose disaffection with the council went back years’, ‘so many people who hated councils’), who are the implementers of hated policies?
Of celebrities, O’Hagan writes: ‘Some of them, Adele and Rita Ora, were simply moved and wanted to help’. How does he know this?
Why go after Stormzy? Perhaps he wasn’t cynically taking advantage of people’s pain for personal gain, but rather expressing that pain? Why disregard those who felt that his was a meaningful political statement, or even effective political advocacy?
Why join the right-wing chorus vilifying Lily Allen for drawing attention to our society’s current inequalities? Does the fact that she is wealthy mean that hers must be crocodile tears?
Why keep returning to the high cost of rehousing and compensating victims, if not to imply they should be grateful (‘Her flat cost £1.2 million on the open market’; ‘ended up with a quarter of a million pounds in charity money and leave to remain in the UK’; ‘It cost the council £900,000’)? Why end a paragraph with a survivor’s request for a new pram if not to imply survivors were greedy?
Why risk fuelling tabloid narratives of undeserving fraudsters by writing: ‘Not one activist I met ever wanted to speak about fraudsters in the community, as if injustice were a play with only one actor, the one with the upper-class accent whose wrongs eclipse all others.’ There is no equivalence between these two injustices: to suggest that they are equivalent elides power dynamics.
Why apoliticise? The Grenfell Action Group is ‘political’ (and not in a good way) while Paget-Brown is a Conservative councillor simply because he is ‘deeply interested in the circumstances’ in which he lives. He ‘isn’t everybody’s cup of tea’ and he may have a different ‘opinion about how to improve housing’, but nothing more malign. He certainly doesn’t have an ideology.
The council is passive, neutral or naive: ‘Councils all over the country were victims of serial perversions of safety standards.’ ‘What diligent project manager doesn’t ask for good costings from subcontractors?’
‘It is unreasonable and unjust to accuse people of knowing things they were never expected to know,’ O’Hagan writes. Is it unreasonable or unjust to expect elected politicians to know the consequences of successive governments’ – not to mention their own – policies of privatisation, outsourcing and cost-cutting?
To say that ‘the only people who could have known that the cladding was a potential fire risk were the people whose financial advantage lay in selling it’ is to present a straw man. Why couldn’t the councillors have known that the whole approach they were overseeing would ultimately cause harm? The Grenfell Action Group knew. Even if O’Hagan ‘could find nothing to support the view that these councillors were corrupt or were trying to harm residents’, why must the conclusion be that they were simply neutral actors with no more responsibility than you or I?
Grace Benton and Flora Neve
Andrew O’Hagan does a splendid job of making it clear how tempting it is for central government to blame local councils for things that central government is ultimately responsible for. It is truly astounding that building control was privatised, and that a Labour government in power for 13 years did nothing to reverse such an obviously absurd policy. It is obvious that competition between building regulators for business will lead to the kind of bidding down of safety that has been seen in tower-block cladding, and that was far more responsible for the 72 deaths at Grenfell than anything the local council did or didn’t do.
But it is surprising that O’Hagan didn’t mention another reason it would be absurd for central government to blame a local council: namely, that it is central government which – under successive Labour and coalition and Conservative governments – has systematically starved local government of funding.
I was an elected city councillor between 2004 and 2011. During that period, we had to implement painful cuts every year, to everything from support for local charities to local sports grounds. This process has of course continued, in fact accelerated, under official ‘austerity’. But it started long before then. If anything was less than perfect in the local council’s oversight of Grenfell – whether a lack of sufficient scrutiny of insulation beforehand, or a paucity of emergency management in the aftermath, or what have you – the buck stops with those who have systematically pulled the plug on local government resourcing.
For central government, defunding local government is the most convenient way to save money. Not only can the expropriated money be used to serve any other item on the central government agenda, whether expanding the NHS (Labour) or paying off the deficit (Conservative), but emasculated local government can then be made the scapegoat whenever something – such as Grenfell – goes horribly wrong.
I’m not sure when I last read a piece of journalism so thought-provoking, and also rather shaming. We should all be more careful how we construct our symbols. My office is in the big glass building next to the Shard. I’m on the 16th floor. I have one of the most privileged views in all of London. I can see Hampstead Heath and Wembley in one direction, and could throw a pencil into the Tower of London if only the window could be opened. The morning after the fire, Borough Market, beneath my feet, was still a closed-off crime scene, and in the distance the appalling drift of smoke from the tower. London felt very complicated, fragile. Anger wherever you looked. Everyone, myself included, desperate for narratives to make sense of it all. Of course I plunged headlong into the main narratives that Andrew O’Hagan reminds us of, which were being constructed even before the fire was out. They suited the general drift of my political beliefs. Also, the threading of this tragedy with the inappropriate and guilty thrill that it might bring down Theresa May (whose pathetic and self-serving response of joining in the council hissing is very revealing, as O’Hagan shows us).
The story O’Hagan tells isn’t the one I expected, or in a way the one I thought I wanted, yet the part of it that concerns the aftermath comes as something of a relief. There are good people in the world, whose politics may not be my politics, but who are trying desperately to do the right thing. The piece is a welcome and necessary examination of civic England: well-meaning people, sometimes failing, but trying to do the right thing for the communities they serve.
And then of course those who perished in the fire and the families who lived in the tower. The touches of detail O’Hagan gives about individual lives, brushed with his evident respect and fondness for the people he talked to, is powerful and overwhelming to read. ‘The Tower’ is an investigation, but it is also a quiet and dignified memorial to good lives destroyed. The little girl Jessica: we know her aunt, she works at the school where my children go. How I needed that description of the sturdy tree next to her grave.
It is clear that the residents of Grenfell Tower were the victims of a firestorm that could have affected any one of hundreds of lethally clad residential buildings in Britain. The fire was the result of a perfect neoliberal storm of self-regulation, privatisation and cuts. So, Andrew O’Hagan asks, who’s to blame? Who’s guilty? Not the decent chaps heading up the local council, he seems to answer. Rather, everyone who ever voted for Thatcher and Blair.
Maybe that’s right. But his question is wrong. It isn’t a matter of guilt, but of responsibility. Perhaps the council was scapegoated but the council was also responsible – just like numerous other local authorities – for wrapping the tower in plastic and aluminium. And when a democratically elected body is responsible for 72 deaths, it must go. Not only is this the responsible thing to do, it also helps to protect frontline workers from the stain of blame.
I would like to commend Andrew O’Hagan on putting together such a balanced piece. It has made a refreshing change from some of the rubbish presented as fact by various organisations. I teach Health and Safety to various groups and I have found that the public have taken as fact that the council were heartless and uncaring. It is extremely difficult to introduce any balance to the discussions that arise when the topic is modern fire safety controls. I think it would be useful to distribute the article as a study piece, which is what I plan to do.
I live in the community local to Grenfell Tower, and personally knew a number of people who died in the fire. I am a teacher, and some of them were children I taught. Ours is a community saturated with grief and trauma; many of us are nowhere near recovery. Andrew O’Hagan’s article ‘The Tower’ contains much that could be seen as damaging to the credibility of our community at a time when it is essential that our voices are heard, not least in the public inquiry which has just started. ‘The Tower’ also makes highly distressing reading for people who have been directly affected by the fire, and some of them will find its inaccuracies offensive.
I was approached on O’Hagan’s behalf, around October 2017, by a researcher who talked to me about O’Hagan’s intentions with regard to a book he was writing. I agreed to be interviewed. The interview was recorded, my understanding being that the recording was for the purpose of transcripts only. I also met with O’Hagan, who gave me various assurances, the most important being that the book was going to be about the lives of the people who died in the tower, not about their deaths. It was to be a sensitive and respectful tribute, exploring what life was like in the tower and the local area prior to the fire. I was told that there might be some commentary on the background of social injustice in the area and problems with housing. I was assured that O’Hagan and his team were attempting to contact families and friends of people who lived and died in the tower, that people were not being unnecessarily pressured, but that he wanted to ensure that everyone who might want to contribute had been offered the opportunity. I was told that if people did not want to contribute their wishes would be respected. I was assured that truth and accuracy were the first priority. I felt reassured by the fact that at least two people who lived locally were on O’Hagan’s team.
I received a message from O’Hagan, relayed via text by one of his researchers on 7 November 2017, in which he said: ‘I’m asking the community to help me as they only can, to defy years of prejudice and censorship and corruption in local and national government, and let me tell the truth of Grenfell going back years.’ I was also assured verbally that before the book came out, relatives of the dead who had contributed would be approached to make sure they were happy with what had been written. I have no idea if this has happened in the case of ‘The Tower’: I did not know there would be an article in the London Review of Books.
I think it is important to note that I was not consulted by the researchers or by O’Hagan himself about my own experience of having been a resident of Kensington and Chelsea all my life, or about my experiences or opinions of the local council. Yet I see that O’Hagan did spend a significant amount of time with Rock Feilding-Mellen’s family and other council figures. If the researchers were collecting information from bereaved local people only about the lives of the people lost and not asking them directly about their experiences of the council, but meanwhile speaking in detail with figures in local government, then the account cannot be balanced, as the information on issues of local government have only been explored on one side. And that is the side O’Hagan appears to strongly favour.
The version of ‘The Tower’ published on the LRB website originally included a video of me speaking, with the caption ‘Melanie Coles describes Fethia Hassan’s last day.’ I did not give my consent for the video to be posted publicly. The act of posting this video was dishonest. I feel I was not just misled, but lied to.
In the article itself, O’Hagan describes Fethia’s teacher (that was me) recounting a memory from the day leading up to the fire. He writes that Fethia was upset about losing a white flower from her shoe. ‘It would be there the next day,’ O’Hagan writes. ‘“Fethia gets herself all churned up about such things, but it will all be fine,” her teacher said to herself as she closed her classroom for the day and made her way home.’ I do not know how much poetic licence is ‘allowed’ in an account like this, but to me, if you put something in quote marks, the implication is that this is what the person actually said, or at least said that they were thinking. But I did not say ‘Fethia gets herself all churned up about such things,’ nor did I say that I thought it. I do not think I have ever used the term ‘churned up’ about anything. It seems like a minor thing, but if a small detail like this is fictionalised, how can we, as readers, feel sure that other, more significant quotes are not also fictionalised? Many of these quotes may include details that are far from trivial (there is a criminal investigation and a public inquiry going on). O’Hagan is being irresponsible. Also, the use of quotes (I think) has the powerful effect of giving an insight into the character of the person quoted. So it needs to be accurate.
A little earlier in the article there is a reference to the Maxilla Children’s Centre, ‘a nursery [Fethia] attended’, and where I was ‘one of the workers’. This is another inaccuracy. Maxilla Children’s Centre, which I did work at, closed years ago. Fethia never attended there. She attended Golborne and Maxilla Children’s Centre, where I taught her at the time of her death. This may seem unimportant, but someone who knew the local history and politics of the area would be aware of the significance of the difference between Maxilla, and Golborne and Maxilla. Either O’Hagan has not been thorough enough in his research, or he has been careless. [This detail has been corrected in the online version of ‘The Tower’.]
Is this piece of writing to be perceived as fictional or factual? Of course it must be factual, these are real events, and highly sensitive ones; emotions are still raw, people are still traumatised, this has had a massive impact on our lives. I think that the fictionalisation of words and events is morally highly questionable, especially given the timing of the article’s publication. If a small detail is questionable, what else in here cannot be relied on?
O’Hagan has reached various conclusions, interpretations based on his ‘research’, which are presented as factual when they are opinions. I personally do not agree with his conclusions. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but it must be presented as such. I originally gave my consent to O’Hagan to use my words on the basis of a very different premise. He stated his intentions to me and he has clearly been dishonest. I want my contribution to his work withdrawn. I would like an apology from O’Hagan, for myself and more importantly for the Grenfell community, and a statement from him explaining his actions to the people who feel he has let them down.
Andrew O’Hagan writes: I understand Melanie Coles’s position. In a story of some 60,000 words, she appears only for a few sentences, and she wants to take them back, and right herself with the Grenfell community. It doesn’t matter that the sentences are benign, that they show her to have been a caring teacher, and that she gave us that material willingly. She now wants to censor it, and censure me for having taken delivery of them with a friendly face. There are complicated freedoms involved, of speech, certainly, but also to do with the freedoms we give away when we share images and evidence with reporters. I wish that I’d shown Melanie more clearly how I wanted to render what she told me. I know I said I would, but I ran out of time. So, that’s my fault.
Melanie gave two interviews. I have transcripts and detailed notes of what was said in them. She told the story of Fethia Hassan and the loss of the flower from the front of the little girl’s white leather shoe. Here is what Melanie said in her first interview: ‘Her last morning with us, she was out in the garden with me, determined to learn this routine so that she would be there at the front and at some point the shoes she was wearing … she had these little white leather shoes with like a little … flower on the front of them, and one of the flowers came off and she made such a fuss about it, I remember I had to keep it in my pocket today, and then she goes Oh can you fix it and I was like I can’t fix it, and she was really good at making things as well, so she had the idea of going to try and get some glue from the DT table and some Sellotape, and I was like It can’t be done – she would get a bee in her bonnet… I’ll keep it safe and give it to mummy and maybe mummy or daddy can fix it – and anyway, she’d gone home at the end of the day and I realised this little flower was in my pocket, so I put it on her peg … that little flower that was … that’s one of the last things that she touched … I couldn’t sleep thinking about it and the next morning I went and I looked and it was still there.’
Melanie came to our research office near Trellick Tower the day after that first interview, on 26 October 2017 at 2 p.m., accompanied by a friend of hers called Sue Duggins. I don’t want to print everything we discussed at that interview, because some of it is sensitive to the families we talked about (which is why I left it out of the piece). The detailed notes on the conversation capture everything of relevance. Here are a few exchanges to give the flavour of that conversation. We were speaking for the record: this was not a private conversation. ‘I want to go into Rania’s life,’ I said.
‘That’s important to me,’ Melanie replied. We spoke about a man called Mr Sebbar and Melanie speculated about the reasons he might have stayed put in the tower. I didn’t print it because it was speculation. Melanie read aloud from a family website run by a relative of Rania’s and about to be closed down. (I thought I’d better not use it if the website was being closed.) Melanie went on to speak about ‘family problems’ and reported that Rania’s husband said people should stop publishing photographs of his dead wife and children. Sue told us she had worked at a nursery on Portobello Road; she also did fundraising. We talked about the number of dead and some people inflating the number. Sue said: ‘It’s almost as if people want the figure to be really really high to make it worse. It can’t get any worse.’
I asked Melanie to tell us about the children’s lives. She brought out some material and started reading from it. ‘I’ll give you a little taster now,’ she said. ‘I won’t leave this with you.’ It was a book she made for Mehdi El Wahabi’s family. She told us about being a teacher at Golborne and Maxilla and that Mehdi was there. ‘You wipe the bottoms and the tears,’ Melanie said. ‘All nurseries make a profile book of what children have been up to.’ She said she had notes like this on her computer at home. (Again, I did not use this, feeling it was within the domain of privacy for the families and would probably fall under local authority confidentiality rules.) Melanie read from the notes about Mehdi coming to the table to make a … giraffe, my notes say with a question mark. ‘He loved sticky tape.’ When she spoke about Fethia she said it was pronounced ‘Feh-tee-ah’, ‘like feta cheese’. Bev, one of our researchers, asked: ‘Can we make a note of this?’
Speaking of Fethia’s father, she said many things. I’m not going to transcribe them here. But I didn’t use any of them, despite their being very evocative. Under one comment, I wrote: ‘She didn’t say “off the record” but I think too private. Ask him?’
Melanie: ‘I want to bring them to life for you. I’m not supposed to have this book but …’ Sue talked about another child, Amaya. Then Melanie started to talk about the Rasoul family. She and I walked to the chart on the wall and looked to see which flat they were in. Bev the researcher and Sue continued talking at the table. Melanie mentioned Fethia again and the flower falling off the shoe. ‘She was thinking about how worried F. had been about it – last time she saw her, at end of day she found it, put it on peg and [when] she [was] going home she left the class and thought how little Fethia was worried and all funny about it but she’d be all right …’ When Melanie said this I remember her moving her hands in front of her stomach, like people do when they mean like butterflies or being churned up. When we returned to the table Bev was saying: ‘Some people are going to need help for years.’ Melanie said she was seeing Mohammed’s sister-in-law that afternoon and would try to persuade her to speak to us. After some more discussion the interview came to an end.
Most of it I didn’t use, and the little white shoe material from both interviews formed the single sentence in my story, about Melanie thinking Fethia had been churned up about losing the flower and that it would be all right. She told us that was what she was thinking and I felt ‘churned up’ was the exactly right rendering of Melanie’s movement of her hands, along with ‘bee in her bonnet’, ‘making a fuss’ and ‘worried’. I also thought it a little more sensitive, given that Fethia had died. It’s all there in the notes. The main point was to show how her teacher really cared for her and it gave the reader an image of genuine loss. I can’t say any more than that. I think I made the right decision.
I’m sorry Melanie now wishes all this away and feels angry, but I never gave her to understand that she would be able to control the story’s conclusions. I will of course leave her out of any future version.
What I wrote was intended as a tribute to the people who died and their relatives who survived and I find it hard to understand those who see my motives quite differently. The problem, for them, is not that I didn’t show compassion to the victims, but that I also showed compassion for the accused, and that fact alone makes them want to withdraw everything they said to me when I initially talked to them. I think it’s a shame but I understand it. Again, there are those who spoke to me because they thought I’d write something nice about them, which I did, but they assumed I wouldn’t be writing anything nice about the people they hated, and now they want to disavow their involvement with the project and smear me. In the last week, I have received some of the most generous responses of my writing life, and, at the same time, I have been subject to terrible slanders on social media. This was one of the subjects of my piece, and it is not a surprise to see it become manifest in the response.
In reply to Grace Benton and Flora Neve, I would say simply that people can have their own opinions but they can’t have their own facts. Benton and Neve are right to defend the Grenfell Action Group: their basic mission was an admirable one, to protect the rights of tenants. But in my analysis their hatred of the Tories overshadowed their ability to bring about change. They spoke very effectively (and still do) to their supporters, but they couldn’t build relationships with the other side, so it was an echo chamber, and a festival of Them and Us. It didn’t help the residents. I can’t agree with you that Lily Allen’s intervention, or Stormzy’s, were about ‘drawing attention to our society’s current inequalities’. They were selling misinformation to millions of young people with no regard for the facts. This may be normal in the era of Twitter, but assertions are not evidence, and my story is just one writer’s response to nearly a full year’s worth of universal media agreement.
Anthony Wilks writes: I made the video to which Melanie Coles refers in her letter, as well as the film, ‘Grenfell: The End of an Experiment?’, which the LRB put online at the same time as Andrew O’Hagan’s piece. Throughout the process of recording interviews for the film, I made sure that the people I filmed had full knowledge of the purpose of the filming. In Melanie Coles’s case, a researcher set up the video interview, stating in writing that it would be for use on the LRB website but that if Melanie preferred not to be filmed, that was no problem. Melanie replied by text, saying that she didn’t mind being filmed so long as she knew what the film was for. At the interview itself, I explained the purpose of the film again, before turning on the camera. Despite all this, when ‘The Tower’ was published on the LRB website along with the video clip and Melanie issued her complaint, out of respect for her wishes we removed the clip from the site. In this, and throughout this project, we have gone beyond what we were legally required to do.
No Two-State Solution
Henry Siegman exposes the hypocrisy of blaming Palestinians for (largely symbolic) violence triggered by life under a violent regime, highlighting Israel’s increasingly repulsive attempts to excuse their wanton killing of non-violent protesters by citing the threat of ‘terrorism’ (LRB, 24 May). Yet I don’t believe Siegman himself believes what his essay suggests: that Prime Minister Netanyahu and his right-wing compatriots somehow ‘killed’ the two-state solution. In fact, a two-state solution has never existed in Palestine and can never exist there. Its futile quest only furthers the mass human suffering and crimes against humanity playing out so bloodily in Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank.
As Siegman would probably agree, the ‘failure’ of the two-state solution can be attributed to a fatal interplay of geography with ideology. The geographic factor was always obvious: the British Mandate for Palestine, as delineated in 1922 by the League of Nations, was always too small, too densely inhabited and too thoroughly integrated as a social system to allow any partition to succeed without complete economic union. Seeking a solution to rising violence on both sides, in 1936 the British Peel Commission spent a week in the country and became the sole significant authority to recommend the partition of Palestine into two states. But the follow-up Royal Woodhead Commission, charged with establishing how partition could be implemented, reported after a three-month countrywide survey that it couldn’t succeed for the Arab sector unless the borders between the two states created no barriers whatever to the movement of people and goods. The United Nations General Assembly ‘partition resolution’ accepted this analysis in recommending not simply two states but ‘two states in economic union’.
Yet economic union was always precluded by the ideology of political Zionism and its vision of a ‘Jewish and democratic state’. By definition, the formation of such a state requires confining any non-Jewish population to a politically debilitated minority. This essential precondition drove the Zionist policy to ethnically cleanse Palestine in 1948, bequeathing to the world the thorniest of ‘final status’ issues, the Palestinian refugee problem. Israel must also prevent those Arabs who remained within Israel from ever gaining sufficient electoral clout to challenge Israel’s Jewish ‘character’: hence laws banning Palestinian immigration, limiting Palestinian residence and prohibiting any political party from challenging Jewish statehood. Israel must also preclude open borders with the Palestinian territories, because the free interplay of Arab and Jewish populations would threaten Jewish-Arab miscegenation and ultimately break down all social logics of segregation. Israelis brazenly refer to this as the ‘demographic threat’.
Israel’s approach to a two-state solution therefore remains guided by this conundrum: no truly sovereign Palestinian state can flourish without open borders with Israel, yet open borders would pose an existential threat to Jewish statehood. Hence Israel cannot allow such a state to form. What Israel has agreed to accept is a Palestinian Bantustan: something called a ‘state’ but lacking true sovereignty, geographically fragmented into cantons, subject to Israel’s plenary power, its popular politics turned inward to seek rights from a leadership that rules only on condition that it serve Israel’s security interests. Israeli policies denying the vote to 300,000-plus Palestinian ‘residents’ of Jerusalem and rejecting the return of some six million Palestinian refugees are components of a grand strategy to preclude any electoral threat to Jewish statehood.
Taken as a whole this system matches the international legal definition of apartheid with sobering precision: maintaining racial ‘reserves and ghettos’; denying Palestinians their right to nationality; restricting Palestinian movement, education, work, residence, and the right to leave and return to their country – even banning mixed marriages. Most crucial to a finding of apartheid, these ‘inhuman acts’ are the result not of decisions by Netanyahu or any Israel leadership, but of the doctrine of Jewish statehood and the associated domination and oppression of Palestinians required to secure it.
Apartheid is not ended by partition. As in South Africa, this conflict will not be solved by carving a densely populated land into two states, but by confronting and ending the racist doctrine that comprises the only justification for them. This prospect is anathema to those who still see Jewish statehood through the romantic lens of national liberation or the biblical lens of the Millennium. But dancing around it can only leave diplomacy foundering in perplexity that a sovereign Palestinian state never appears, while the Palestinian death count continues to climb.
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Listen to Women
Enrico Fermi ‘colossally misunderstood the results of his own neutron experiments’, according to David Schwartz, quoted in Steven Shapin’s review (LRB, 24 May). This must qualify as one of the most fortuitous scientific misunderstandings in history. Had Fermi realised in 1934 that he had split the uranium nucleus, fascist Italy and Germany might have been the first countries to produce a nuclear weapon. Fortunately, it wasn’t until late 1938 that Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann showed that the debris of Fermi’s experiments contained nuclei with around half the mass of a uranium nucleus. By that time most of the quantum physicists who could have exploited the discovery had emigrated from Germany. Fermi himself was one of the last to flee.
Why did it take so long to show that Fermi’s debris contained a known nucleus lighter than uranium, and not the new heavier nucleus that Fermi hoped he had produced? Misogyny is one possible reason, as I discuss in my book, The Burning Answer: A User’s Guide to the Solar Revolution, in the 1930s, science was even more male-dominated than it is today. The first person to suggest the correct answer, and two of the leading experts in the analysis of the nuclear debris, were women. Their work appears to have been discounted by many male researchers, including the Nobel Prize committee. As early as 1934, Ida Noddack proposed that ‘when heavy nuclei are bombarded with neutrons the nuclei in question might break into a number of larger pieces.’ Lise Meitner, who was Hahn’s assistant before Strassmann, at first disagreed with another expert, Irène Joliot-Curie, daughter of Marie Curie, who favoured Ida Noddack’s interpretation. Strassmann eventually persuaded Hahn to re-analyse his data on Fermi’s nuclear debris and they found evidence for a lighter nucleus. Meitner, by then safe in Sweden, realised that Noddack and Joliot-Curie were right, produced a model for how the nucleus split and coined the name ‘fission’. Yet Hahn was the sole recipient of the Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of fission.
Imperial College London
That was the year that was
Laurie Taylor recalls with nostalgia ‘the 1968 call for international revolution’, and notes the objection of one of his comrades to the Eurocentrism of the reference to ‘Paris, London, Rome, Berlin’, suggesting that ‘Paris, London, on to Cairo’ might be more appropriate (Letters, 7 June, LRB, 24 May). Perhaps he was thinking of the protests against the regime involving thousands of students and workers in February 1968 in Alexandria and Cairo, where the uprising resulted in two deaths and hundreds of injuries and arrests. Nasser felt obliged to give a major speech in response, which (in the aftermath of the June 1967 defeat by Israel) was exceptionally conciliatory, and to issue a manifesto promising the restoration of civil liberties, greater parliamentary independence from the executive, and a campaign to rid the government of corrupt elements. A public referendum approved the proposed measures in May 1968, and elections were held for the Supreme Executive Committee. Hailed at the time as marking an important political change, the manifesto promises remained largely unfulfilled.
Further student unrest broke out in Egypt in mid-November 1968 following the announcement of a new education law. The uprising began with protests by high-school students in Mansoura, who were soon joined by university students and others, including peasants and workers. Clashes with the police led to four deaths and numerous injuries on both sides. News of the events in Mansoura reached Alexandria University, where leaders of the student movement launched massive protests in sympathy and also clashed with police forces, as a result of which some fifty policemen and thirty students were injured.
When the governor of Alexandria went to the university to confront the students, they held him inside the faculty until the arrested student leaders were released. The next day, the National Assembly discussed the problem of the new law. This provoked a strike by workers in Alexandria in sympathy with the students, as well as further large-scale demonstrations which ended in clashes with the police, this time resulting in 16 deaths, substantial damage to buildings and vehicles and nearly five hundred arrests. A sit-in staged subsequently by the students came to end through a combination of lack of food and drink (it was Ramadan), cuts to campus electricity and a threat by the governor to evacuate the building by force. Those who were arrested during the sit-in were sent for trial, but ultimately no trials were held. After three months of detention, most of the students were released but their leaders were sent for military service.
There hasn’t been much mention, in the commemorations of 1968, of the international dimension beyond Europe and North America. Other major incidents during 1968, in which student protest engaged with wider social and political issues, drew in other social forces in sympathy and support, and provoked a major response on the part of the state and the security forces, took place in several other countries in Africa, including Tunisia, Senegal, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa, as well as Mexico and Brazil.