Frank Kermode’s review of Glenn Most’s Doubting Thomas (LRB, 5 January) reminded me, perhaps a little inconsequentially, of some curious circumstances relating to The Book of Mormon, and specifically to its validation. Every edition of this sacred text bears the statements of two sets of witnesses, a group of three followed by one of eight (making the surely significant number of eleven), that they had seen the gold plates from which the Book was ‘translated’. Many of these witnesses later apostacised from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but none ever retracted his testimony. Whereas the eight affirmed that they ‘did handle with our hands’, and had ‘hefted’ the plates (Mark Twain appreciated ‘hefted’), the three were apparently not hefters, and said that they had been vouchsafed their vision ‘by the power of God, and not of man’. One of the three confessed: ‘I did not see them as I do that pencil-case, yet I saw them with the eye of faith.’ Hanging on, as I do, to my somewhat revisionist version of Christianity, I often think that it would have been very helpful if the Gospel writers had told us something like that.
Trinity College, Cambridge
It wasn’t the CIA
Bruce Cumings (LRB, 15 December 2005) mentions the late Karl August Wittfogel’s part in a debate in the 1960 inaugural issues of the China Quarterly, of which I was then the editor. It was not, as Cumings states, Wittfogel’s ideas on Oriental despotism that were at issue but rather Benjamin Schwartz’s theory about the originality of Mao’s revolutionary strategy, as laid out in Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao. Wittfogel had long preached his dissenting views and the debate provided an opportunity for Schwartz to refute them for the first time in a public forum to which all China scholars had access, and which would also be accessible to the wider community. Wittfogel’s article attacked the theory as ‘the legend of Maoism’, and Schwartz then countered with a piece entitled ‘The Legend of “The Legend of Maoism”’.
Cumings reminds readers that secret moneys from the CIA (from the Farfield Foundation via the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the parent of the CQ, Encounter and many other magazines) provided part of the funding for the CQ – something I did not know until the public revelations of the late 1960s. His implication is that the CIA was behind the debate, and aimed to rehabilitate Wittfogel and his theories in the eyes of the academic community. I trust that this letter will dispel any such notion. The debate was my idea. It was not about Wittfogel’s theories, which had already received considerable academic scrutiny, but was designed to bring his allegations about Schwartz into the public arena so that they could be rebutted. I made sure that Schwartz, my former teacher, would welcome participating in such a debate before asking Wittfogel to submit his article.
Which 5 per cent?
David Runciman says ‘it has been estimated that only 5 per cent of the action’ in a football match ‘is exclusively subject to the differential skills of the players and the tactics of the team, the rest being shaped by such chance or inconsequential factors as the bounce of the ball’ (LRB, 5 January). We’ve all noticed how much of every game, even at the highest level, takes place in the middle third of the pitch, with the ball pinging between the teams and rarely under control, but even so, the comment is surprising. Such a claim surely depends on some parity of skill: if my Sunday league side turned out against Mourinho’s Chelsea, my guess is we’d be lucky to touch the ball (unless Joe Cole had had one of his big nights out). I’m intrigued how the estimate was made: it can’t be easy to work out what’s down to chance and what isn’t (what seems like a midfield mêlée could be so many potentially excellent passes skilfully intercepted, and so on).
Runciman’s remark did, however, make me reflect on the extent to which players and managers – and even most commentators – admit that chance plays a considerable part in the game, even if not a 95 per cent part. Pundits will often say that a penalty shoot-out is a lottery (especially if England has just lost), and reporters will describe the odd goal as a fluke (a winner off the shin of Chelsea’s Drogba against Arsenal in August springs to mind). But when did you last hear a coach admit, post-match to camera, that his team’s victory was even moderately jammy? Then again I gather it has been estimated that only 5 per cent of players and managers tell the absolute truth to the media.
Blair v. Brown
Ross McKibbin is surely right that Gordon Brown shares the same policy universe as Tony Blair (LRB, 5 January), but he should not assume that Brown will become prime minister. His chances of reaching Number Ten are dwindling rapidly. In December, the Observer reported that Blair’s advisers were arguing that only Blair could defeat a David Cameron-led Conservative Party. In the first week in January, a Times reporter wrote that Number Ten was saying that Blair might give up in 2007 to give Brown two years as prime minister – but that Brown would then lose against Cameron, so Blair should stay. Blair himself told the Sun on 6 January 2005 that he would not be going in 2007, but would hand over power just before the next general election in 2009. He has broken so many promises that it would be foolish to believe this one.
Ross McKibbin asserts that in the present cabinet ‘there is only one former trade unionist’. Ian McCartney was a branch secretary and shop steward in the TGWU. Hilary Benn, Alan Johnson and Peter Hain have all been full-time national trade-union officials (not that Benn or Hain came up through the ranks), Johnson as a general secretary and member of the TUC General Council. John Prescott was a prominent activist in the National Union of Seamen, one of Harold Wilson’s ‘tightly knit group of political men’ during the 1966 national seamen’s strike. McKibbin is unsurprised that the cabinet pursues a right-wing agenda, given that it is drawn from the same narrow social group as the rest of the country’s political elite, but it would have been much more interesting if he had asked why, despite the varied backgrounds of the cabinet and the socialist beliefs that many in the cabinet and the Parliamentary Labour Party no doubt still hold, Labour follows its current track.
Not So Chivalrous
Maurice Keen writes about Geoffroi de Charny’s position as an authority on chivalry (LRB, 15 December 2005). As Jonathan Sumption records in Trial by Fire, in late 1349 Geoffroi hatched a plot to retake Calais from the English. It turned on bribing Aimeric de Pavia, the commander of one of the gate towers, to allow Geoffroi and his accomplices to enter the city at night. Aimeric betrayed Geoffroi to Edward III, and the English were lying in wait; Geoffroi was badly wounded and captured in the fighting that ensued. He was held prisoner in England until he paid a substantial ransom for his freedom in July 1351. When Aimeric fell into his hands a year later Geoffroi took his revenge: he had Aimeric tortured with red-hot irons and dismembered with an axe in front of a large crowd in St Omer.
Most Mizrahim, despite being Arabic in culture and language, would wince at Ilan Pappe’s description of them as ‘Arab Jews’ (LRB, 15 December 2005). Their ancient, now extinct communities predated the Arab Islamic conquest by a thousand years. The Mizrahim do not see themselves as Jewish Arabs, nor do they generally feel victimised by the ‘Ashkenazi’ Zionist establishment. This is not to deny that they are seriously affected by discrimination and poverty. But the Mizrahim, who make up half of the Jewish population, have also managed to reach the highest echelons of society in a single generation. Amir Peretz’s rise to power isn’t a flash in the pan: the foreign minister is a Tunisian Jew and the president an Iranian Jew. Pappe is wrong to suggest that a prerequisite for integration was the adoption of ‘strong anti-Arab positions’ by Mizrahi Jews. Some 600,000 Mizrahim came as penniless refugees from oppressive Arab states and would be the first to understand that under Pappe’s ‘one-state solution’ the Jews would revert to being a persecuted minority in an Arab country.
Backed by Gold
Richard Cummings suggests that Ayn Rand chose her surname because of the link between the South African rand and the gold standard (Letters, 5 January). This is anachronistic: she chose her surname in 1926, a time when South Africa still had the pound as its currency. The rand was introduced in 1961 when South Africa became independent. As for ‘Ayn’, Jeff Britting’s biography indicates that it is a Finnish name.
Michael Wood, commenting on Joan Didion’s Californian heritage, writes of ‘the harsh 19th-century crossing of the Rockies to get to the golden land on the other side’, and later describes Californians as ‘graduates of the Donner Pass’ (LRB, 5 January). At that time, you would have crossed the Rockies to find yourself in what was called the Great American Desert, and would have had to travel west nearly another thousand miles before crossing the Sierras at Donner Pass and dropping finally into California. Didion’s people apparently reached California via the Oregon Territory.
Princeton, New Jersey
Is Jenny Turner the first to mention Ghost clothes in the London Review (LRB, 5 January)? I got married in floppy white Ghost trousers and jacket and emailed a friend to say that my wedding outfit was made of wood. She thought I meant ‘wool’. In fact, most Ghost clothes are made of viscose, which is produced from wood pulp.
What I heard
I heard more than two hundred ‘I heards’ in Eliot Weinberger’s ‘What I Heard about Iraq in 2005’ (LRB, 5 January). I heard truthful statements from the Bush administration that were meant to sound false. I heard falsehoods and rumour-mongerings that were meant to sound true. I heard ‘I heards’ about the wickedness of America until I couldn’t stand the noise any longer, and then I called the LRB and cancelled my subscription.
Like Alan Bennett …
Alan Bennett’s account of his experiences with mice prompts me to share with your readers a brief but true anecdote (LRB, 5 January). A couple of years ago we found ourselves providing living space and food to a colony of house mice. We bought a ‘humane’ trap and successfully removed four or five. The sixth mouse chewed a corner off the heavy-duty plastic box, ate the bait and left. Homebase duly refunded our money. We borrowed a metal trap from a friend. The next morning the trap was sprung, but empty, the bait gone. This happened three times, enough to persuade us that we had a supermouse. And so at last we deployed a Little Nipper, which performed as it should. Various morals are pointed. Had the supermouse possessed merely normal intelligence and agility it could have survived and bred. In the event it became an evolutionary dead end. Less philosophically, the moral of the story is: no one likes a smart arse.
Thorney Hill, Dorset