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440-1234

Cheli Durán writes that after being attacked by her husband in New York City in 1965 she dialled 911 (LRB, 18 July). If she did, she wouldn’t have reached the New York Police Department. The 911 system began in the United States in 1968, as recommended by the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. Britain’s 999 system was by then thirty years old. New York City did introduce a single number for the emergency services in November 1964. It was 440-1234. Durán may have found that number on the phone itself, as the NYPD had distributed small decals announcing it. These worked so well that the operators were deluged with about four thousand calls per day. Two-thirds of them were deemed frivolous, though callers did ask important non-emergency questions, like how to get to the Coney Island Aquarium.

Stuart Schrader
New York


Commotion in Moscow

Sheila Fitzpatrick’s review of Eleonory Gilburd’s book about the ‘Soviet Lives of Western Culture’ brought back very happy memories of my participation, aged 24, in the 1957 Moscow Youth Festival (LRB, 1 August). For me, it opened up a new world of Russian culture. I learned the language and, just as important, became lifelong friends with a family from Leningrad. Fitzpatrick writes that the KGB set up surveillance on locals who established questionably close ties with foreigners during the festival, but that was not my experience. My monthly correspondence with Leningrad throughout the communist period, and my annual visits from 1974 onwards, were never interfered with. Remarkably, exchanges of books, often by post, took place without loss; even Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four arrived safely, and was quickly translated into Russian and circulated by samizdat (possibly, this was in 1958, the first such translation).

Norman Rimmell
Darley Dale, Derbyshire


Please don’t shoot us

In his review of my book Saint Patrick Retold Diarmaid MacCulloch is critical of two things in particular: the querying of a fifth-century date for Patrick and the contention that his captivity, as well as his escape from it, may not have happened exactly as he told it, or at all (LRB, 1 August).

I was surprised to learn from the review that I endorse a fourth-century (rather than fifth-century) Patrick. I was just as surprised by the lengths that MacCulloch went to in order to demolish this hypothesis, which I never make. What I do say, in the course of an exposé of the historiography on Patrick’s dates, is that a certain linguistic argument (made by another historian) for rejecting a fourth-century date is insecure. One may therefore accept a fourth-century date for Patrick, but one may equally accept a later date. I have no dog in this fight, hence I conclude noncommittally: ‘All this suggests a date for Patrick during the Roman occupation of Britain (perhaps even in the fourth century) or not too long after.’

In his portrayal of my discussion of Patrick’s tale of enslavement, MacCulloch deliberately caricatures my argument. But more disappointing is the fact that he chides me for daring to relate Patrick’s frustration that his own story of captivity was not universally believed. What would MacCulloch have me do instead? Be a good hagiographer and gloss over this detail in silence? Neither I, nor any earlier historian who noted this, or Patrick himself, is guilty of what MacCulloch calls ‘postmodern enthusiasm for doubt’. We are all just messengers: please don’t shoot us.

True, I do go on to speculate about the reasons Patrick’s antagonists doubted his version of events. But what MacCulloch doesn’t say is that I do so cautiously, making clear that I am speculating. ‘In reading Patrick contextually,’ I say towards the end of the book, ‘we have seen that it is necessary to have recourse to a certain degree of speculation in order to connect events from his own life with events and phenomena from the history of contemporary Britain and Ireland.’ Show me a biographer who doesn’t do this. To essentialise the book as a simple-minded exercise in promoting a fixed idea isn’t fair, all the more so since the alternative narrative to Patrick’s captivity is debated in just a handful of the book’s 277 pages.

Although MacCulloch disapproves of speculation, he is oddly comfortable with anachronism, which he advises me to adopt. He says that I should interpret the story of Patrick’s escape from captivity in light of the perilous journeys of refugees who attempt to cross into Europe every day, and he also says that I should interpret British or Romano-British country residences by analogy with 20th-century holiday homes: ‘Many a “Balmoral” arose in the 20th-century avenues of London’s Metroland.’ Anachronism is a strange thing to demand of a historian. Late antiquity was very unlike the 20th or the 21st century, which is the reason historians, like me, devote much of their time to researching the differences rather than embracing anachronistic platitudes. This challenge is, in fact, what the book is about.

Roy Flechner
University College Dublin

Diarmaid MacCulloch writes: It is rarely a judicious choice for an author to respond to a review. I am happy to recommend Dr Flechner’s book to readers, so that they can make their own judgment on his comments.


Universal Basic Income

John Lanchester makes a powerful case for economic redistribution from the rich to the poor and an equally strong case for giving all citizens a sufficient income to maintain a dignified life (LRB, 18 July). Care must be taken, when instituting a Universal Basic Income, not to achieve the latter at the expense of the former. If a UBI is paid for out of general taxation, then its cost will be borne disproportionately by the poor, who contribute a much higher proportion of their income to taxes like VAT. What’s more, it runs the risk of subsidising skinflint employers who pay wages below the cost of subsistence (as family tax credits and universal credit currently do in the UK). The only way a UBI can be redistributive is if it is paid for by taxes on employers and the rich; in the UK case this could be by means of corporation tax, employers’ national insurance contributions or a higher rate of income tax on top earnings. Otherwise it becomes a mechanism for redistribution among the poor while letting employers and shareholders off scot free.

Ursula Huws
London N16

John Lanchester discusses right-wing and left-wing versions of Universal Basic Income, and concludes that it is currently the only progressive big idea on the table. This may be the case in Europe, but in India, it is very much an idea of the right. The proposal for UBI in the government’s economic survey of 2017, for example, viewed cash transfers as replacing a host of existing schemes and benefits for the poor, and explicitly rejected the idea of UBI as a transfer from the rich to the poor. There was no mention, by any of the political parties proposing UBI, of any form of progressive taxation for resource mobilisation. Cash transfers are likely to be the beginning of a slippery slope towards a minimal state. In India, where millions of people are malnourished, illiterate or poorly educated, and liable to die of avoidable diseases, UBI is not a progressive alternative.

Madhura Swaminathan
Indian Statistical Institute, Bangalore


Pakistan’s Bomb

In his review of Hassan Abbas’s book Pakistan’s Nuclear Bomb, Owen Bennett-Jones refers to A.Q. Khan as the country’s ‘leading nuclear scientist’ (LRB, 18 July). Khan is a metallurgist, not a nuclear engineer or physicist. Two men in particular were responsible for building Pakistan’s bomb. One was Munir Khan, a nuclear engineer who worked at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and was in 1972 appointed by Pakistan’s president at the time, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to head the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission and lead the bomb programme. The other was the distinguished nuclear theorist Riazuddin, who was Pakistan’s Oppenheimer. He led the team that designed Pakistan’s first bomb.

A.Q. Khan did play a significant role in the programme. (I wrote about him in the LRB of 2 September 2004.) He stole the blueprints for a uranium enrichment plant in Almelo in the Netherlands and successfully built such a plant at Kahuta, which produced enough enriched uranium to use in the first test of Pakistan’s weapon in 1998. He then sold the details of the plant, as Bennett-Jones recounts, to Iran, Libya and North Korea. But, as I wrote in the LRB of 19 June 2008, North Korea’s reactor at Yongbyon was modelled on the British Magnox reactors, the first of which, Calder Hall, was intended to produce plutonium for military use. So, in the event, North Korea used plutonium rather than enriched uranium for its weapons and made them without help from Pakistan. North Korea currently manufactures the isotopes lithium-6 and tritium, which are needed for H-bombs, not A-bombs – its weapons are now appreciably more advanced than Pakistan’s.

Norman Dombey
University of Sussex, Brighton


Our Alien Planet

Francis Gooding refers to ‘ozone destroying hydrogen sulphide produced by … anaerobic green sulphur bacteria’ (LRB, 1 August). Green sulphur bacteria actually oxidise hydrogen sulphide to sulphur and are therefore, if anything, responsible for ‘detoxifying’ this nasty gas, which is produced in oxygen-depleted (‘anoxic’) sediments by bacteria that decompose organic matter deposited in those sediments.

The real sulphide-producing ‘culprits’ are the sulphidogenic or sulphate-reducing bacteria found in marine sediments. They reduce the sulphate ions found in all seawater to hydrogen sulphide as part of the complex natural microbial processes that break down organic matter in sediments. These natural processes are accelerated when humans cause concentrations of organic matter, as in sewage, to increase in coastal waters.

John Robinson
London E12


The Final Act

In his review of Michael Cotey Morgan’s book The Final Act, about the Helsinki Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), Andrew Preston writes that ‘previous histories have portrayed the Final Act as a quid pro quo in which the West accepted Soviet national borders in exchange for Soviet recognition of human rights … Morgan calls the notion of an exchange of Eastern borders for Western values a “myth”’ (LRB, 20 June). For those of us in the Carter administration, where I had the lead on the National Security Council staff for implementing the Helsinki Final Act in the US government, it was understood that there was a trade-off. But I saw it as having a useful benefit. By in effect ratifying Yalta (which had always been a reflection of the reality on the ground at the end of the Second World War), the Final Act meant that the Soviets lost their argument that the US, in particular, was still bent on what in the 1950s had been called ‘roll-back’. That idea, which the US never had any intention of trying to implement, no doubt strengthened Moscow’s resolve to use force to stop the contagion of Hungary in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968. Indeed, it can be argued that the far more measured Soviet response to the threat to communist rule in Poland in 1980 came about because the Final Act had removed the concern – whether legitimate or used merely for propaganda purposes – that there might be a defection from the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact’s area of dominance. In fact, without the communists understanding what was happening, the Final Act helped produce a gradual weakening of cohesion within the Soviet bloc.

The big Western achievement at Helsinki, of course, was Basket III, with its human rights and communications provisions. As noted by Morgan and Preston, these became major factors in the progressive hollowing out of communist ideology and hence rule. In my view at the time, this made CSCE far more important than the talks on Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions. One of my tasks in the Carter White House was to build on the human rights provisions, despite the State Department’s concerns. I also ensured the administration’s acceptance of the US Helsinki Commission, only briefly noted by Morgan. By emphasising Basket III, it helped to reconcile US critics, especially in Congress, to Helsinki’s realpolitik provisions, which, as I’ve said, actually worked against the Soviet Union’s desire to retain control. What’s more, the Helsinki Commission was jointly owned by both Congress and the executive branch, the only such formal arrangement in US history.

The term ‘basket’ actually originated with the chief US delegate, George Vest, who saw the need for some means of sorting through proposals in different areas of activity. He visited a local market and returned with three peach baskets, which he labelled I, II and III, for different categories, into which delegates could deposit their proposals.

Robert Hunter
Washington DC


On W.S. Graham

Seamus Perry doesn’t mention that one of W.S. Graham’s greatest champions was Harold Pinter (LRB, 18 July). Pinter’s correspondence with Graham, now at the British Library, reveals that he supported Graham and his wife, Nessie, for many years. He did so directly, and indirectly through letters to the Royal Literary Fund urging them to do more for Graham. He pestered publishers such as Faber to ensure that Graham’s work wasn’t remaindered, and encouraged the Greville Press, then jointly run by Tony Astbury and Geoffrey Godbert, to publish pamphlets containing Graham’s poems. He arranged readings by Graham at the Poetry Society and the National Theatre, and read his poems on TV.

After Graham’s death in 1986 Pinter continued to publicise his work. He urged Methuen to collaborate with the Greville Press to publish 100 Poems by 100 Poets, which contained Graham’s work and was dedicated to his memory. He pushed for an edition of Graham’s letters, eventually published by Carcanet in 1999 under the title The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters. ‘His song is unique and his work an inspiration,’ Pinter wrote in a blurb on the back cover. Antonia Fraser recalls in Must You Go (2010) that in April 2002, shortly after Pinter’s cancer diagnosis, they went to Torquay. During lunch in a country pub – ‘Harold’s favourite thing’ – they disagreed about a line in Graham’s poem ‘I Leave This at Your Ear’: ‘Was it the “shining sea” as I thought, or the “silent” sea as in Harold’s version?’ ‘Harold is always right about these things,’ she adds, ‘which doesn’t stop me gamely arguing. So when at dinner he pronounced, “It’s actually the speaking sea,” it was a touching demonstration of his weakness, that he had forgotten one of his favourite lines.’

William Baker
DeKalb, Illinois

While I am very pleased to see W.S. Graham getting the sort of attention he failed to receive for much of his life, I am puzzled by the characterisation of him as ‘menacing’, ‘deeply pugnacious’ etc. Perhaps he was like that with interviewers, but I never knew him to be other than exuberantly kind and welcoming; even his threats to knock people’s blocks off, when I witnessed them, were more playful than aggressive. A good example of his customary tone comes through in the following letter, written in September 1970; I had visited him in Cornwall before heading off to British Columbia to chair a university art department there. As it doesn’t appear in his Collected Letters, it may be of some interest, and it certainly captures the spirit of the man as I knew him:

Dear Norman,

It was an afternoon and evening I’ll remember. You were no more under the drink than anybody else. Anyhow, to meet you is always a rare kind of pleasure and I don’t know how you’d have to behave to be bad in my book … If you have time amid your busyness of departure send us some last word from you. Reply, Trogspeare, reply … Go out and gobble old Canada up. You should do well. You carry your utensils with you to the moose-hunt over the ice-whiskered rivers and dollared prairies. I presume you have your sacred bow and arrows of the strongest medecins [sic] with you for the tribes of the anti-art Nations. I will be with you in spirit as you will still be here. OK OK, Norman, for now cheerio. The light is going and Nessie has soup going which tweaks my nose to orgasms. Love. Write. Sydney. x

Norman Toynton
Sidestrand, Norfolk

W.S. Graham’s ‘The Nightfishing’, Seamus Perry writes, ‘is based on Graham’s experience of joining a crew out looking for herring in the thick of night, though putting it that way recalls the well-intentioned reviewer in the Naval Chronicle who noted Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” as a contribution to “naval literature”’. I could not help recalling the following masterpiece of the genre, published by John Julius Norwich in The Illustrated Christmas Cracker (2002) under the heading ‘A book review from the American magazine Field and Stream, November 1959’:

Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley’s Lover has just been reissued by Grove Press, and this fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper.

Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour these sidelights on the management of a Midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion, the book cannot take the place of J.R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeper.

Glyn Thompson
Appleby-in-Westmorland, Cumbria