Radiote Recent Tracks
A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA. By Joshua Kurlantzick. Simon & Schuster, 320 pages; $28.
THE bombing of Laos in the 1960s and early 1970s always used to be referred to as America’s “secret war”. This was not just a mistake or even a misunderstanding: it was a terrible misnomer. For the Laotians who cowered in caves to escape what is considered the heaviest bombardment in history, the campaign was certainly not a secret. America’s involvement was well known in the capital, Vientiane, and covered in the international press. Eventually it became well publicised and was even investigated by Congress. But the “secret” label stuck to America’s war in Laos, in part because of official denials and in part because of public indifference.
At last the secret is out in full. This was brought home during President Barack Obama’s visit to the tiny South-East Asian nation in September, when he pledged more money to remove unexploded American bombs, though without offering any formal apology. For those looking for more, the war’s entire compelling tale can be...Continue reading
ON OCTOBER 31st, the lights on the new concert hall in Hamburg spelled out fertig—“finished”, and the city heaved a sigh of relief. The history of the crazily ambitious project known as the Elbphilharmonie had been chequered. Conceived in 2003 at a projected cost of €77m ($82.3m), it ended up costing ten times that and was completed seven years late. It survived disputes, lawsuits and a parliamentary inquiry. No wonder its architects, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron—creators of Tate Modern and, along with Ai Weiwei and others, of the “bird’s nest” Olympic Stadium in Beijing—feared at one point that the job would destroy their Basel-based firm. In 2011 Barbara Kisseler, Hamburg’s outspoken culture senator, neatly summed up her fellow-citizens’ ambivalence: “The Elbphilharmonie is very dear to us, in both senses of the word.”
The tallest building in town, its roof covered in giant sequins, it sits on the end of a busy wharf and has been likened to a crystal on a rock, a bubble-wrapped ice-cube and a ship under sail. The hull has been constructed from a...Continue reading
The Disappearance of Emile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case. By Michael Rosen. Faber & Faber; 302 pages; £16.99.
EMILE ZOLA came to London in 1893 and was “received like a prince”. Some disapproving bishops and headmasters thought his novels, particularly “La Terre” (“The Earth”), to be corrupting. But with his wife, Alexandrine, he stayed in the Savoy Hotel, met leading literary figures and addressed thousands at banquets at Crystal Palace and the Guildhall. By contrast, when he arrived at Victoria Station in July 1898 he was alone, a fugitive, carrying a nightshirt wrapped in newspaper. In “J’accuse”, his open letter in L’Aurore, a French newspaper, he had attacked the authorities for their shameful anti-Semitic conduct in the political scandal that came to be known as the Dreyfus affair. Found guilty of libel and sentenced to prison, Zola fled to England with no idea of when it might be safe to return.
He was to stay for almost a year, and it is the story of this little-known episode that Michael Rosen tells in...Continue reading
FEW people live to 111. Fewer still leave as big a mark on linguistic lives as Zhou Youguang, who died on January 14th. Mr Zhou was the chief architect of pinyin, the system that the Chinese use to write Mandarin in the roman alphabet.
Pinyin has not, of course, replaced the Chinese characters. Rather, it is used as a gateway to literacy, giving young children a systematic way to learn the sounds of the thousands of characters required to be literate in Chinese. Pinyin is also used by most Chinese people to input Chinese characters into computers: type a word like wo (meaning “I”) and the proper character appears; if several characters share the same sound (which is common in Chinese), users choose from a short menu of these homophonic characters.
In other words, the primary way that the Chinese interact with their language in the digital age is via an alphabet borrowed by Communist China from its ideological enemies in the 1950s. The tale is an odd one. Mao Zedong (who was Mao Tse-tung before pinyin, under the “Wade-Giles” romanisation system) wanted a radical break with old ways after 1949, when the civil war...Continue reading
How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS. By David France. Knopf; 640 pages; $30. Picador; £25.
NEWS of a fatal new disease affecting gay men first broke in 1981. But it took many years and very many deaths before the public noticed. In New York, the plague’s epicentre, a new case of AIDS was soon being diagnosed every day, yet Ed Koch, the mayor, did next to nothing to prevent its spread. According to a new book, “How to Survive a Plague”, the virus had infected 7,700 people in America by 1984 and killed 3,600, yet a question about it at a White House press conference aroused laughter. It was only in 1985, after Rock Hudson, a Hollywood star, was hospitalised with AIDS, that President Ronald Reagan publicly acknowledged the virus. But he did little to help the epidemic’s largely gay victims. In 1987, after nearly 20,000 Americans had died, he quipped: “When it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?”
David France’s masterful account of the epidemic offers plenty of opportunity for outrage. America’s...Continue reading