Vol. 44 No. 22 · 17 November 2022

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At the Top Table

One of the frustrations of working in the think-tank world is gauging what impact, if any, you may be having on government thinking. The military, intelligence and diplomatic bureaucracies discussed by Tom Stevenson do not always agree with one another, and are at the mercy of ministerial rivalries and parliamentary votes on budgets (LRB, 6 October). And while think tanks certainly share the liberal internationalist outlook that has governed establishment thinking since 1945, it would be a stretch to claim that this results in any uniformity of foreign and defence policy analysis. There may be a certain group-think over Atlanticism, but there are hawks and doves in every debate. Stevenson overlooks the naysayers in area studies and thematic programmes, who form a vocal counterweight to the strategic generalists he quotes. And while the favoured few get to write strategic reviews and advise ministers directly, top-level decision-making depends less on the consensus of an imagined ‘British defence intelligentsia’ than on the whim of the incumbent of Number Ten.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 is a case in point. Contrary to Stevenson’s assertion, a number of think tanks did counsel prudence at the time. The main target of his critique, Lawrence Freedman, was instrumental in securing a private audience in Downing Street for six regional and security experts in late 2002, at which they outlined the likely consequences of removing Saddam Hussein by force. Tony Blair responded to the array of complications presented to him by repeating the mantra that Saddam Hussein was ‘evil’. It was Blair’s Manichean belief system, heavily influenced by his American interlocutors, that would decide the matter, not anything think tanks said about the complexity of Iraq’s internal dynamics or the repercussions for British defence and security interests. Ahead of the invasion, Chatham House published editorials and a multi-authored paper warning of the dangers to regional security, which materialised just as it described over the following years. These were ignored, because they didn’t fit with the analysis required.

In practice, the ‘British defence intelligentsia’ conjured up by Stevenson comprises very few people, who work in the institutions he mentions, but are not entirely representative of their collective output. The wider mission of such bodies as the Royal United Services Institute, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House and the King’s College War Studies group has also been to challenge the received wisdom of official policy and highlight its glaring omissions. Research reports and op-eds are produced as much to stimulate public and parliamentary debate as to comfort fellow travellers or sponsors in the defence and security community. For years now, James Nixey and the Russia-Eurasia Programme at Chatham House have been warning of the dangers of Putin’s Russia, only to be vindicated earlier this year by Russia’s ‘surprise’ invasion of Ukraine. If only the political and security establishment had been listening.

Claire Spencer
London SE23

Dust My Broom

Alex Abramovich suggests that if Robert Johnson had gone to Chicago and recorded for Chess Records ‘we’d probably know where he was buried’ (LRB, 6 October). The most recent evidence would indicate that we do, in fact, know where he ended up. After years of speculation prompted by an ambiguous death certificate and competing claims by small Baptist churches in Mississippi hoping to gain some recognition and support, Johnson’s undertaker, Paul McDonald, was identified, and the detailed records he kept indicate that Johnson was buried at Little Zion Baptist Church in Greenwood, Mississippi. In their biography Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow note the testimony of a woman whose husband helped to dig the grave.

Victor Reus
San Francisco

Alex Abramovich rightly laments the poor quality of Paramount’s recordings of Robert Johnson, caused by the shellac ingredient made from river mud, but an even more basic problem was their inferior ‘electrical recording process’, as touted on their label. It was a well-known joke in the business that the miraculous recording process consisted of nothing more than a lightbulb in the studio.

Jim Carmichael
Greensboro, North Carolina

I was surprised to learn, reading Alex Abramovich’s piece on Robert Johnson, that ‘I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’ may have been ‘written in an open A tuning apparently original to Johnson’. The younger Mississippi bluesman Elmore James (who, as Abramovich notes, reshaped American music with his electrified cover of ‘Dust My Broom’) used an open D or E tuning. Regarding the original ‘Dust My Broom’, experts apparently continue to disagree: Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow say that Johnson used ‘what was probably open E tuning’, while Dave Rubin and Edward Komara conclude (on the basis of ‘trying tuning after tuning’) that he used an original ‘Aadd9 tuning’. The persistent uncertainty adds another dimension to Johnson’s elusiveness.

Tim Barker
New York

On Hoarding

Jon Day’s fascinating Diary about the hoarding impulse had me thinking about world-making and defence (LRB, 8 September). The hoarder creates a material barrier against a threatening environment, behind which they construct a bearable cosmology. Day’s question, following Adam Phillips, feels crucial: who’s labelling the hoard as such? There is a correlation here with much of what is called ‘outsider art’. Its makers often produce ‘total’ works in installation or on paper, vast systems that seem to be attempting a realisation – in the mind at least – of Borges’s principle of 1:1 mapping.

A recent instance was The Spider Is the Clock, a collaborative exhibition by Pa Muhammed Gaye and Umama Hamido at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery in Greenwich. Gaye, homeless and stateless in the UK for two decades, produced remarkable biro works of dizzying density which he photocopied and circulated. This wasn’t a hoarding by volume, but rather by intensity – and grinding repetition – of experience. Gaye calls his works ‘stress art’. He drew with discarded pens from betting shops, which he gathered over the years. He and the betting-shop regulars had in common their vulnerability, marginalisation and exposure to risk. The difference in Gaye’s case is that he came through.

Gareth Evans
London E8

Van Diemen’s Land

John Kerrigan, in his article on Irishness and depictions of it, mentions the transportation to Bermuda in 1848 of the ‘militant nationalist John Mitchel’ (LRB, 20 October). In Bermuda, Mitchel was held on a hulk, and was soon retransported to the convict colony of Van Diemen’s Land (present-day Tasmania) to join the other exiled Young Irish rebels, whose leader was the MP William Smith O’Brien. Smith O’Brien was held at penal stations, though in congenial conditions and with servants. The other seven prominent exiles were kept in different police districts on the island (which was the size of Ireland) and forbidden to meet. Yet they seemed to have enjoyed considerable freedom. Two of them, Kevin O’Doherty and Thomas Meagher, used to dine together at a table set up by the local innkeeper at the midpoint of a bridge over the river that divided their respective districts. The glamorous Meagher even married, in captivity, Catherine Bennett, the daughter of a freed convict.

Mitchel was housed on an estate called Nant, three miles out of Bothwell in the Central Highlands of Tasmania. I spent a year at Nant when I was a child in 1958, and much more time later on. The ‘big house’ there is one of the beautiful mansions, Georgian in style (but built mainly in the Victorian era), that dot the Midlands of Tasmania, the grasslands usurped from their Aboriginal occupants. Mitchel, of course, did not live in the ‘big house’ but in a weatherboard cottage.

The Australian historian Henry Reynolds has written that if you arrived at Van Diemen’s Land with sufficient capital, the government would give you the land and the (convict) labour to work it. All you had to do was plug the sheep into the extensive grasslands conveniently created through generations of fire-stick farming by the Aboriginal people and watch your investment mature. But first you had to get rid of the Aboriginal people. In this process, the Irish were rarely the landholders, more often the convict shepherds and – in the 1820s and 1930s – not the colonels but the footsoldiers and casualties of the guerrilla Black War that destroyed traditional Aboriginal society on the island.

One-third of all convicts sent to Australia were Irish. But they didn’t stay in Tasmania. When gold was discovered in Victoria, on the Australian mainland, in 1851, they left in droves and established a strong presence in the Catholic Church and, eventually, the Labor Party. And in the police. The outlaw Ned Kelly (whose father had been a convict in Tasmania), his gang and the troopers he killed at Stringybark Creek were mostly Irish.

Having successfully escaped Tasmania, Meagher and Mitchel arrived in New York to a hero’s welcome. Mitchel and his wife, Jane, went south and, after a period living as proto-hippies (to Jane’s great discomfort), he became the editor of the Savannah Times and, as Kerrigan mentions, a supporter of the Confederacy in the Civil War. Meagher, by contrast, rejected the low-born Catherine after she joined him in New York. She had lost their first child and, although she was pregnant with a second, Meagher packed her off to Ireland and never saw the child, or her, again. Catherine died in Ireland two years later. He remarried into money, became a success at the bar and raised a regiment of New York Irish to fight, with varied success, for the Union in the Civil War.

James Parker
Premaydena, Tasmania

Harmony of Discordant Canons

Whether or not the Decretum traditionally ascribed to Gratian (and recently shown to be the work of at least two compilers) qualifies as a ‘dictionary of quotations’, as David Lupher suggests, it was not the first compilation of its type (Letters, 3 November). Though undoubtedly more sophisticated in construction, it shared much of its quoted material with earlier works such as Anselm of Lucca’s Collection in Thirteen Books of around 1080 and the slightly later anonymous Panormia (previously ascribed to Ivo of Chartres). There was an even longer tradition of gathering extracted legal sources in Roman law, extending as far back as the Codex Theodosianus (438) and the even earlier collections of the 290s. In both Roman and canon law collections, however, there can be found small sections of single sentence extracts called rules of law, which can be more plausibly linked to later dictionaries of quotations.

Andrew Lewis
Camelford, Cornwall

Better than It Sounds

Mark Twain did indeed attend the Bayreuth Festival in the early 1890s, as Roger Smith says (Letters, 6 October). He recorded his impressions of Parsifal in ‘At the Shrine of Saint Wagner’ in 1891:

The entire overture, long as it was, was played to a dark house with the curtain down. It was exquisite; it was delicious. But straightway thereafter, of course, came the singing, and it does seem to me that nothing can make a Wagner opera absolutely perfect and satisfactory to the untutored but to leave out the vocal parts. I wish I could see a Wagner opera done in pantomime once.

J. Cohn
Brookline, Massachusetts

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