Vol. 45 No. 5 · 2 March 2023

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Guano to Guns

I have a postscript to add to Laleh Khalili’s piece about island outposts (LRB, 16 February). In early 1966 the frigate HMS Berwick was deployed in the Indian Ocean on Beira patrol (Security Council Resolution 221 had called on the UK ‘to prevent, by the use of force if necessary, the arrival at Beira of vessels reasonably believed to be carrying oil destined for Southern Rhodesia’). I was the navigating officer. At one point, we passed close by Diego Garcia. Some days later, we received a classified signal asking if we had found the size of the atoll on the chart to be correct, which I think we did.

Reports of the return visit of the islanders last year prompted me to refresh my memory. A UK Hydrographic Office researcher found mention of a classified letter from the US government in December 1965 inquiring when the Royal Navy intended to resurvey the area. This took place in 1967. The results show only minor changes to the chart of Diego Garcia that we used, but the signal we received suggests that the US may have had some doubts about the size of the island, with our passage providing an opportunity for verification. I have a faint memory that we were asked to confirm that the atoll was neither half nor twice the size on the chart, but the researcher could find no unclassified record of that signal in the Hydrographic Office.

Nicholas Morris
Cupar, Fife

The Boneman

Michael Wood, writing about Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, cites Romeo’s reaction on seeing Juliet’s apparently dead body (LRB, 2 February):

Shall I believe
That unsubstantial death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in the dark to be his paramour?

Wood compares the scene to Gothic novels, but the more appropriate reference is to the Renaissance topos of ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’. As Karl Guthke pointed out in The Gender of Death (1999), while Death is feminine in other languages, its masculine gender in German allowed artists to imagine the ‘boneman’ as bridegroom, seducer, rapist.

In Dürer’s engraving The Ravisher (c.1495), Death pulls the struggling woman towards his lap, her dress stretching tautly to show her vulnerability. In that engraving Death has a human body, but a pen-and-ink sketch by Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, Death and the Maiden (1517), shows his gaunt body turning into a skeleton, with pieces of skin and clothes still stuck to it, forcing his hand up her dress as she tries to prevent him. Hans Sebald Beham’s engraving Death and the Lascivious Couple (1529) shows Death with a human body topped with a skull, standing behind a naked couple. The woman has one hand in the man’s hair, the other on his flaccid penis; Death already has an erection. John Astington has suggested that Death, aroused by the couple’s lascivious embrace, ‘is about to claim them both’, while pointing out a connection with Romeo and Juliet. When the Nurse wishes Mercutio ‘good morning’ he corrects her, ‘for the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon’. The vigorous 16th-century trade in prints and engravings undoubtedly included London.

Brian Vickers
London NW6

Laboratory Works

Gill Partington’s piece on ‘laboratory’ works makes a reference to Borges’s ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ (LRB, 16 February). In 2015 the Argentine artist and author Fabio Kacero staged a performance piece titled ‘Fabio Kacero, Author of Jorge Luis Borges, Author of Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote’. He had learned Borges’s distinctive, spidery handwriting and wrote out the tale in public, also offering to sign works with his version of Borges’s signature.

The Borges estate hasn’t always looked kindly on experiments with his legacy. Pablo Katchadjian, also known for his work Martín Fierro in Alphabetical Order, was sued in 2011 for his short story ‘El Aleph engordado’ (‘The Fattened Aleph’), which added five thousand words to Borges’s original, fattening it up. In 2011, Agustín Fernández Mallo was obliged by the Borges estate to withdraw his El hacedor (de Borges) Remake, another playful variant on creative literary citation.

Ben Bollig
St Catherine’s College, Oxford


James Wolcott’s entertaining article on Rudy Giuliani is, remarkably, too complimentary (LRB, 16 February). Wolcott accepts Andrew Kirtzman’s dubious assertion that Giuliani brought down crime in New York because his ‘broken windows’ strategy worked. The theory behind the strategy has been around since the early 1980s, but despite its popularity, there is simply no base of evidence to demonstrate that it is effective. As criminologists have been saying for years, the causes of crime are highly complex; the many factors influencing crime rates include, for example, trends in unemployment, movements of population and police recording practices. Indeed, claims that crime rates have fallen typically rely on the quality of police statistics, something we need to be very cautious about. (This doesn’t apply just in the US: in 2014 the UK Statistics Authority stripped England and Wales’s police statistics of their gold standard because of their unreliability.) But while we can’t be certain why crime rates fall, what we do know is that a ‘broken windows’ strategy has a highly discriminatory impact. The targeting and overpolicing of ‘hot’ areas leads to higher arrest and charge rates for Black and minority ethnic people and is part and parcel of the systemic discrimination of the criminal justice process. The policy was far from a triumph for Giuliani, but was undoubtedly in keeping with his strategy of stoking racial antagonism.

Kate Leader
University of York

It should be noted that as well as being a shameless self-promoter, Rudy Giuliani was also an autocrat. He made up laws about traffic, about the police, about jaywalking, about whatever he wanted to. The ACLU and other organisations would sue, and two years later a court would overturn them. Of 32 such fiats 30 were overturned in court. Rudy may have made New York more palatable to out-of-towners, but to New Yorkers he was a blight on the city.

Joanna Cole
New York


In her review of Donna Krolik Hollenberg’s Winged Words, Maureen McLane gives an inaccurate impression of the marriage between H.D. and Richard Aldington (LRB, 2 February). In 1915, she writes, ‘H.D. suffers a stillbirth and retreats from sex; Aldington begins an affair. In 1916, he enlists (though both he and H.D. were appalled by the war); while on leave he takes up with another woman, someone H.D. is sheltering in their home.’

From the time of their wedding in 1913, Aldington and H.D. had agreed to conduct what would now be called an ‘open marriage’, but there is no indication that either of them had an affair before May 1916. H.D.’s baby was stillborn on the night of 20 May 1915; Aldington’s first extramarital affair, with Flo Fallas, began a year later in May 1916, at the same time he enlisted (a choice forced on him when the January 1916 Military Service Act was extended to include the conscription of married men). His second affair, with Dorothy ‘Arabella’ Yorke, began in late November or December 1917. He was indeed on leave at the time, but H.D. wasn’t ‘sheltering’ Yorke ‘in their home’; she had lent her rented flat in Mecklenburgh Square to Yorke while she herself moved into lodgings in Lichfield to be near Aldington, who was in camp on an officer training course. When H.D. returned to London, Yorke moved into another flat upstairs. By April 1918, H.D. had begun her own affair with Cecil Gray, who would be the father of her daughter Perdita, born in March 1919.

Elizabeth Vandiver
Tacoma, Washington

Unfair to Paper

Michael Kulikowski complains about the lowly status of numismatics in contemporary academia (LRB, 2 February). There’s certainly truth in that. He doesn’t mention, though, that there are hierarchies even among numismatists, and many of them, focused on classical Greek and Roman coins, look down on paper numismatics. Yet old money isn’t just old coins but old banknotes too.

Paper money first joined metal money in seventh-century China, but didn’t really feature in the West until well into the 17th century. Kulikowski writes that banknotes were standardised in Britain in the 1850s, but in fact England, Scotland and Ireland each have distinct histories in this respect. The 1844 Banking Act did provide a framework leading to the eventual note-issuing monopoly of the Bank of England, but the equivalent Acts in Scotland and Ireland preserved the multiplicity of commercial note-issuing banks we still see today. An earlier Act in 1826 allowed Scottish and Irish banks to continue to issue £1 notes, whereas in England citizens had to make do with gold sovereigns, at least until 1914.

Jonathan Callaway
London SW15

When the Engine Cuts Out

David Elstein disputes James Meek’s claim that V1s and V2s together totally destroyed nearly 30,000 houses in the London area, damaging some 1.25 million more, and suggests that the true figures are very much lower, at 12,000 and 120,000 respectively (Letters, 16 February). I have memories of this ‘second Blitz’ – I was three years old in London in 1944 – and was part of the resulting widespread evacuation of children to the Midlands for a short period.

It should be noted that the four categories of house damage used by Elstein do not accord with the six official categories used in the London County Council Architects’ Department’s survey of London bomb damage between 1939 and 1945, which was published in 2005 by the London Topographical Society and the London Metropolitan Archives. The lowest level of damage used by Elstein is ‘slightly damaged’, where the LCC’s fifth and sixth categories are ‘general blast damage – not structural’ and ‘blast damage, minor in nature’.

When in 2006 I had central heating installed in my house in Streatham, South London, the engineer, who had worked all over London for many years, told me that the brickwork in half of all London’s houses, including mine, was ‘rotten’ as a result of the shockwaves from bomb blasts during the war. This damage wasn’t visible to the eye but became apparent when drilling through the walls. As it happens, two V1s had exploded between 200 and 300 feet from the house in July and August 1944, in addition to three high-explosive bombs which had hit between 150 and 270 feet away in September, October and November 1940. Yet none of the houses in my road was recorded as being at all damaged. If the heating engineer was correct, then all the figures quoted for damage from V1s, V2s and other bombs must be severe underestimates.

Tudor Wright
London SW2

No Words

Leah Broad cites Debussy’s Nocturnes (1899) as an example Bartók missed when he asserted that Delius was the first composer to use a wordless chorus (LRB, 19 January). That’s an apt symphonic precedent, but had Bartók worked as an opera critic like Leoš Janáček, he might have thought of the wordless storm scene chorus Verdi deployed in Rigoletto (1851), on which Janáček drew for the fatally beckoning sounds of the Volga in Káťa Kabanová seventy years later.

David Shengold
New York

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