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The Housing Disaster

‘Where will we live?’ asks James Meek (LRB, 9 January). The answer is: in low-cost shacks, since we are all precarious now and may lose our jobs at any moment. Around my way the shacks go from tool sheds to a converted pigsty, to a structure made by nailing pallets together, to a yurt imported from Mongolia, to a four-room double-storey house. What these shacks have in common is that they were built in secret without planning permission and without conforming to building regulations. This doesn’t mean they are illegal, but the planning authorities have the power to evict the occupants if they choose to do so. Occasionally shacks are legalised. Most shacks don’t have a lavatory, hot running water or mains electricity. They are structurally safe. Shack-dwellers burn windfall firewood or old pallets. I have lived for more than thirty years in my rural county and have known only one shack to burn down.

The double-storey house, which the owner built, cost £3000, my own shack £2000, the yurt a little more: the tool shed and pigsty cost a few hundred to convert. Materials are bought, or found on Freecycle, or picked up from skips and dumps. Or they are found in nature: my rafters were once ash saplings growing along the railway. The cost of a shack, not counting the land, is about 2 or 3 per cent of the cost of a house.

Often there are no bills to pay. Some shack-dwellers install rainwater tanks and use charcoal for cooking. A shack needs a piece of land to stand on: most are built on small farms, or by young people on their parents’ land or in woodland thickets. Almost all are hidden behind thick – even specially planted – hedges.

Another answer to James Meek’s question is: in caravans. At a guess, perhaps 10 per cent of the people in my area live in shacks or caravans, in the shadows between legality and illegality. Shacks are creative; caravans are not. Shack-building is an education in self-reliance and responsibility. Many shack-dwellers will express their contempt for planning law and for the crowds of officials, and the system of debt – rents and mortgages – which it sustains. Having few expenses, the shack-dweller can be relaxed about work, but also paranoid about secrecy. He does not share the fantastical belief that he can borrow his way to prosperity. Nor, however, does he believe that desertion from the circuits of capital, an individual solution to an individual problem, does anything to address the national problem.

James Clark
Address withheld

James Meek’s analysis of housing and housing policy in Britain clearly shows that if we want to build more than 200,000 new houses a year we cannot rely on the private sector. The two most important lessons we can learn from the history of housing in Britain are, first, that the market always and everywhere fails to provide enough homes of a decent standard at rents the least well off can afford. And, second, that despite this, housing policy has persistently favoured the interests of the better-off. In many cases, most obviously following the introduction of the right to buy council houses in 1980, people have made enormous gains simply by being in the right place at the right time. But the right to buy did nothing for the poor, who saw their chances of securing an affordable council tenancy diminish year by year. Since then successive governments have been wedded to policies designed to maintain high house prices, not least because high values underpin consumer debt and help to boost spending. In addition, as people see the value of their future pension entitlement falling, the wealth stored in their houses provides a degree of reassurance. Homeowners, powerful lobby groups (builders and landowners) and governments all have an interest in maintaining high prices. For these groups, reducing shortages by promoting large-scale building of affordable housing is not a priority, not least because it poses a long-term threat to house prices. There is also a dangerous generational dimension to this, for the people who own the lion’s share of the housing wealth are aged over fifty, and as and when they realise their wealth, it is at the expense of younger people taking on huge long-term mortgages.

Meek’s critique of the bedroom tax is spot-on. Ministers like to point to the unfairness of people under-occupying social housing while there are long waiting lists of families living in overcrowded conditions. The real problem, however, is not under-occupation but inadequate supply, for which politicians, not tenants, should take the blame. It should be pointed out that the tax applies only to tenants in social housing, although levels of under-occupation are known to be far higher in privately owned homes. Indeed, the people who benefited most from the right to buy discounts in the 1980s are also the ones most likely to be in possession of an untaxed spare room or two, while their neighbours who decided not to buy are suffering the tax. They are, in effect, being punished now for not having taken advantage of a subsidy in the past.

Given that the market will not deliver the numbers of affordable houses that we so urgently need, what can be done? Local authorities, and to a lesser extent, housing associations, have shown in the past that they can operate at the necessary scale. But not-for-profit housing has thrived only when underpinned by taxpayer support in the form of capital grants and subsidised rents. There is little prospect of a return to council housing building. Indeed, cuts in local authority budgets are putting pressure on housing associations to use their own limited resources to support the communities in which they are the landlords. Governments have tended to be suspicious of housing associations, which are neither truly private nor wholly public, and their support for them has been grudging at best. But for all their acknowledged deficiencies, housing associations, or something similar, properly resourced and regulated, are probably the best bet. That and a renewed commitment to provide decent pensions in old age, which would go a long way to reduce the reliance on high property prices, thereby helping younger people who can’t afford them.

Peter Malpass

James Meek says one needs an above average income to buy. In London, the average first-time buyer is in the top 20 per cent of household incomes. Two-thirds of new homes are bought by investors, be they a doctor from Kent dabbling in buy-to-let or a speculator from Kuala Lumpur. Many of the new homes they are buying are on ‘rebuilt’ council estates. The 1200 council homes on the Heygate Estate in Southwark, for example, are to be replaced by 2160 privately owned flats and just 360 that will be rented at lower than market rates. One-bedroom flats start at £310,000, so will be mostly bought up by investors and rented out to the occupants. The problem isn’t just a shortage of supply, it is an economy which encourages people to make buy-to-let their pension plan and a housing system which depends on investors to get homes built.

Tom Chance
London SE20

I must express a reservation concerning James Meek’s apparent acceptance of the notion that council housing is ‘subsidised’ and ‘supported from general taxation on the better-off’. The only ‘subsidy’ is towards the initial investment for new building. In the long run council homes more than pay for themselves. The original building cost is normally recovered within twenty to thirty years.

The total rent that I and the one previous tenant of my 1950s council house have paid far exceeds the potential market value of the house – even in high-priced Cambridge. When I leave, or die, the council has still got the house for someone else to rent, and will still own the land. Being well below market-level rent doesn’t mean they’re subsidised, just that no individual or company is making a profit out of the need for housing.

John Marais

Affected by Gossip

Julian Barnes gets so much right in his essay on Lucian Freud (LRB, 5 December 2013). He is right about Freud’s weaker pictures (the ones where he attempts ‘jokiness’ and it fails to come off), and right to zero in on the conundrum at the heart of the pictures: the tension between the artist’s intense scrutiny and the seemingly incidental importance of achieving a ‘likeness’. But I wonder if he is right to let biography ‘infect’ the pictures in the way that he does. Is he right, more precisely, to be so affected by the gossip about Freud’s sex life, as reported by Geordie Greig, that he lets it change the way he ‘reads’ Freud’s female nudes? In my view the essential thing to say is that Freud’s good paintings are not really there to be ‘read’. They are not that kind of painting. They gain their charge more from what is unknown – including personality and what Barnes calls ‘moral likeness’ – than what is known. They are moving in the way that the nape of a neck can be. (How much moral character is there in a neck?) And they really are, as Freud kept on insisting, concerned with biology, with physical sensation. They try to get at what it is like for a person at a particular age to occupy a body over a certain duration in a specific setting. And so they pay unusually close attention to body parts in ways that few artists before Freud ever attempted. In paying this kind of close and un-neurotic attention, Freud’s naked portraits ‘bypass decorum’, as Robert Hughes once put it, ‘while fiercely preserving respect’.

Barnes goes on to spell out what he means about biography ‘infecting’ the pictures. Having heard the stories about Freud’s alleged sexual sadism, ‘it is hard,’ he writes, ‘not to [look at Freud’s paintings of naked women and] ask oneself: is this the face and body of a woman who has first been buggered into submission and then painted into submission?’ Well, yes. I suppose it is hard. But perhaps it is worth trying. Otherwise, one runs the risk of letting the pictures be infected not so much by biography as by a very crass and unimaginative version of it. One also runs the risk of taking literally everything the artist (talking about his mother) and his drinking buddies (remembering Freud’s boasts about his sex life) said. A good rule of thumb: do not take literally anyone’s comments about his or her mother.

Barnes, to his credit, shows himself alert to these risks. I knew Freud towards the end of his life, and was in some sense a young ‘courtier’. I treasured his company and sensed the price of displeasing him. But I am not writing here to defend his character. I am interested, rather, in defending his art, just because I find it so affecting, so tough, so ambitious, so tender.It may seem wilful, but in loving it, I always try to keep in mind something Freud once said to his friend, the critic William Feaver: ‘When you find things very moving the desire to find out more lessens. Rather like when in love with someone you don’t want to meet the parents.’ It may seem a little too convenient, and even morally dubious (surely one should always eventually meet the parents?), but it is also – besides being funny and true – a luxury that art allows us.

Sebastian Smee
Boston, Massachusetts

Thatcher or Williams

Writing about Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher a while back, a permanent secretary at the Ministry of Education who served both described the two as complete opposites of each other (LRB, 19 December 2013). When you entered Williams’s office she would welcome you and be very interested in what you had to say. As you talked she would put her head on one hand, look very hard at you and drink in every word. She could not have been more sympathetic. Thatcher, on the other hand, was never very pleased to see you and when you said, ‘Minister, there’s something I must say,’ she would reply: ‘Do you absolutely have to?’ She would listen with an angry look as you tried to persuade her of the folly of one of her policies and at the end she would shout that it was all rubbish and handbag you.

However, the next day you would notice that Thatcher had accepted some or all of your recommendations and now considered them her own, whereas Williams never altered what she had decided in the first place. She had given you tea and sympathy but had refused to hear a word: Thatcher had given you hell but had allowed your words to percolate through.

R.W. Johnson
Cape Town

UN Nightmare

I heard a story some thirty years ago in Switzerland about a conference in which the speakers had to deliver their sessions in English, French or German with live translation provided for the other two languages (Letters, 9 January). The story goes that as a German speaker grew steadily more impassioned, the English translation suddenly stopped. The seconds ticked by and all over the auditorium the English-speakers began to fiddle with their headphones – to no avail. After what seemed an age, an anguished voice called out: ‘For God’s sake, man, give me a verb.’

Steven Hudson

On the subject of simultaneous interpretation, I once heard Peter Ustinov recount, apparently from a primary source, the arrival in Algiers of the first Chinese ambassador following the end of the Cultural Revolution. Since it was an important moment, the entire diplomatic corps turned out on the tarmac. The UK ambassador delivered a speech of welcome which was relayed to the Chinese envoy by his interpreter. The envoy responded at some length. The interpreter turned to the UK ambassador and said: ‘How about Tuesday?’

Stephen Sedley
London WC1

Another Bad Idea

Francis FitzGibbon is right to highlight the chilling effect that Part Two of the Lobbying Bill would have on charities and campaign groups, but it’s premature to welcome the government’s proposals for a lobbying register which make up Part One of the bill (LRB, 19 December 2013). FitzGibbon writes that a comprehensive register of lobbyists would make ‘ministers more cautious about promoting policies that favour special interests’ or ‘special interest groups more cautious in their dealings with ministers’. Unfortunately, this is not what the government is proposing. The proposed register would only include consultant lobbyists who meet with ministers and permanent secretaries on behalf of their clients. But lobbying hasn’t been conducted like that since the 1990s. The four out of five lobbyists who work in-house would be excluded from the register; of the remaining 20 per cent, only a handful of consultants would meet ministers without their clients present. Much lobbying is done at a lower level, influencing special advisers or the civil servants who work out policy details before the minister gets involved. None of this would be covered by the register.

The register will tell us almost nothing about who’s lobbying, on what, and how much they are spending to lobby. This is the bare minimum level of information required if the public is to understand how lobbying affects politicians’ decisions. As it stands, the proposed register would offer even less transparency than existing voluntary registers. Professional lobbyists will slip through the net, but when ordinary people campaign they will be tied up in complex, ambiguous and time-consuming regulation.

Alexandra Runswick
London NW7

The Invention of Lord Beaconsfield

John Pemble wasn’t quite right in saying that Disraeli ‘chose a title he’d invented as a novelist fifty years before’, though the quotation from Vivian Grey was surely on his mind (LRB, 5 December 2013). George III had earlier invented the title for Edmund Burke.

William Vesterman
New Brunswick, New Jersey

In Jenin

I write on behalf of friends and colleagues of Juliano Mer Khamis to respond to Adam Shatz’s article about Juliano and the Freedom Theatre (LRB, 21 November 2013).

Shatz writes that ‘ex-comrades’ of Zacharia Zubeidi, one of the co-founders of the Freedom Theatre, claimed he had channelled money from the theatre ‘to his own real estate investments’. We reject this claim. Since its inception the Freedom Theatre has had a rigid financial control system, based on international auditing standards. Shatz goes on to make other serious accusations against Zubeidi that call his character and motives into question. As with all people in the public eye, there are many conflicting views about Zubeidi. We feel that Shatz chose to give voice only to those who want to discredit him.

The murder of Juliano remains unsolved, yet Shatz claims he ‘was not killed by an Israeli bullet’. He states that the perpetrator was probably from the Jenin camp, because an outsider would not be able to navigate its mazelike streets. Yet Israel’s intelligence capabilities in the Occupied Territories are well documented. In September alone, Israeli forces killed three people in the camp and injured several more. Shatz’s claim fuels speculation when the only known fact is that Juliano’s killer has not been captured.

Jonatan Stanczak
Jenin, West Bank

Animal Trials

Christopher Cordess’s criticism of the definition of ‘diminished responsibility’ (the partial defence to murder) in the Homicide Act 1957 – in particular, its use of the pseudo-medical term ‘abnormality of mind’ – is well taken (Letters, 9 January). He does however give me too much credit in claiming that I have inadvertently coined a workable alternative. My reference to ‘abnormality of mental functioning’ is actually taken from section 52 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which repealed and replaced the 1957 definition. Crucially, it is now necessary to show that the ‘abnormality’ arose from a ‘recognised medical condition’. Of course, this is the sort of ‘clarification’ that lawyers pray for (it will not have escaped their attention that the World Health Organisation recognises ‘suspiciousness’ and ‘anger’, for example, as being two such conditions), but it does at least attempt to corral the defence into territory that would not leave the modern medical practitioner entirely bewildered.

Michael Grayshott
London SE3

Nicholas Humphrey’s amusing story of the trial of the Virgin Mary in Hawarden in 946 AD is, sadly, just a story, not history (Letters, 19 December 2013). For there to be a ‘Lady of the Castle’ in Hawarden, there must be a castle. But no castle is known anywhere in the British Isles in 946 or for a century later. A handful of castles were built by Edward the Confessor’s Norman favourites during his reign (1042-66), but the main era of castle-building in England began after the Norman Conquest in 1066. About five hundred castles had been built by 1100, though the evidence is either archaeological or from later documents: fewer than fifty are recorded in the Domesday Book (1086).

John Moore
University of Bristol

Bzzz …

Roger Gregory may well refer to ancient rights of swarm collection but the Court of Appeal decided such rights in 1939 (Letters, 21 November 2013). The case can be found in Beekeeping and the Law: Swarms and Neighbours (1993) by David Frimston and David Smith. An issue before the court was to decide on the correct meaning of Blackstone’s Commentaries when discussing ferae naturae, and bees in particular. The passage stated: ‘Though a swarm lights upon my tree, I have no more property in them till I have hived them … and therefore if another hives them, he shall be their proprietor.’ Blackstone goes on to say that a swarm that flies out from my hive is mine so long as I have the power to pursue it. L.J. Goddard holds that ‘the power to pursue’ does not extend to pursuing the swarm that has rested on the land of another. The ratio of the case: ‘Bees are ferae naturae but when hived they become the qualified property of the person who hives them. The owner of a swarm of bees has no legal right to follow the bees on another man’s land. When a swarm of bees settles on another person’s land, the former owner of the bees loses his right in them, which again become ferae naturae.’

Howard Gilbert
Colchester, Essex

Bunting and Biography

The old man in August Kleinzahler’s beautiful poem ‘The Bench’ is the poet Basil Bunting, the location Victoria, British Columbia, during Bunting’s disastrous winter at the University of Victoria in 1971-72 (LRB, 9 January). After a spectacular falling out with Robin Skelton, Bunting was left isolated, lonely and bitter, but Kleinzahler shows him keeping his eye on the horizon. Bunting’s preference was for the big picture but he also had a keen appreciation of the absurd and he would have relished some of the eccentricities in Michael Hofmann’s review of my Life of Bunting in the same issue. I am still trying to work out what an ‘exfoliated, whiskery’ biography might look like, and whether or not I have written one, and whether or not it is a good thing if I have; and I’m sure that Bunting would have found the comparison of the poet to Tintin as bewildering as I do. It’s not for me to quibble with Hofmann’s interpretations but I should correct the impression he may have left that Bunting’s relationship with biography was straightforward, because it wasn’t.

Hofmann writes that mine is the first ‘proper’ biography of Bunting but that I add little to his understanding of its subject beyond that provided by Victoria Forde, Richard Caddel and Carroll Terrell. He doesn’t mention Keith Alldritt’s The Poet as Spy: The Life and Wild Times of Basil Bunting, which was published in 1998. Forde and Terrell did include biographical chapters in their studies of the poet, and a clue to the strengths and weaknesses of Basil Bunting: A Northern Life by Caddel and Anthony Flowers, which is just 64 pages long and heavily illustrated, is embedded in its subtitle. Alldritt’s was in fact the first ‘proper’ biography but it is so heavily marbled with rumour and speculation that it is almost worthless. It was reading Alldritt’s book (which if anything damaged Bunting’s reputation) that stung me into writing A Strong Song Tows Us.

More important, Hofmann writes that that I pay ‘lip service to Bunting’s personal opposition to biography’ and that I go ‘so far as to borrow the five parts of Briggflatts’ for my narrative structure. That often expressed objection is, however, compromised by Bunting’s full participation in the publication of Jonathan Williams’s Descant on Rawthey’s Madrigal, which told his story up to the mid-1960s, by his biographical introduction to the poems of Joseph Skipsey in 1976, in which he confesses to having sought out Skipsey’s surviving relatives for their memories, and by the fact that the subtitle of Briggflatts itself is ‘An Autobiography’. Bunting was not above using biography in pursuit of what he saw as a good cause. He did this because he recognised that the way to interest people in the work of a neglected poet is to tell his story. My ‘borrowing’ from Briggflatts was intended as a courtesy and recognition of Bunting’s ambiguous relationship with biography. Hofmann doesn’t seem to be too comfortable around ambiguity. He chides me for not telling readers whether Bunting was arrested in Paris in 1923 for biting a policeman’s nose or for kicking him in the pants. Nobody knows, and as the gritty wanderer of ‘The Bench’ would have been the first to insist, it really doesn’t matter.

Richard Burton

Michael Hofmann seems to doubt that Basil Bunting was industrious enough to submit an article on Spanish politics to the Spectator while stuck on Tenerife. Bunting’s lucid and energetic piece appeared in the number dated 24 July 1936. He had two further pieces in the Spectator on 18 and 25 September 1936, both of them book reviews about exploration and travel.

Edward Mendelson
New York

On My Bike

In the editing of my 2013 Diary, one entry was lost (LRB, 9 January). Because it is of interest and some personal concern I reinstate it here:

6 April. Were there a suitable forum I would put in my own word for Dennis Stevenson, currently being pilloried with his colleagues for the collapse of HBOS. In the early 1990s when I was a trustee of the National Gallery Stevenson was a trustee of the Tate and must have seen me arriving at one or other of those institutions on my bike. I had no helmet in those days really because it made me look such a twerp. However one day a car arrived at the house and the chauffeur knocked at the door with a box so light I thought it could only be an orchid. It turned out to be a white crash helmet with a note from Dennis Stevenson saying how his son (with no helmet) had been knocked off his bike and suffered epilepsy as a result, though happily not permanently. Since then if he saw anyone he knew without a helmet he bought them one. So in this particular instance I won’t be joining in the howls of indignation.

Alan Bennett
London NW1

I am surely not the only reader to note that Alan Bennett’s enthusiasm for Yorkshire has led to him appropriating one of Shropshire’s finest churches for his native county. The Tong which has the collection of superb Vernon monuments is eight miles east of Telford and close to the M54, nowhere near the M62. There is a Tong church in Yorkshire, between Bradford and Leeds, but it has – according to Pevsner – no monuments of note.

Edward Parry
Newtown, Powys

Regardless of how he now views himself, Alan Bennett is – or was in Nina Stibbe’s day – a competent handyman, at least according to Alan Bennett. This is his diary entry for 1 October 1983, taken from his book Writing Home:

I mend a puncture on my bike. I get pleasure out of being able to do simple, practical jobs – replacing a fuse, changing a wheel, jump-starting the car – because these are not accomplishments generally associated with a temperament like mine. I tend to put sexual intercourse in this category too.

Paul Barnes
Nailsea, Somerset

The Logic of Nuremberg

Richard J. Evans is right to point out that the Nazis’ toughening of the law against homosexual offences (Paragraph 175) on 28 June 1935 removed the burden on state prosecutors of having to prove penetrative sex, requiring mere ‘indecency’ for a conviction (Letters, 19 December 2013). A 1942 legal commentary on Paragraph 175 noted: ‘Indecency with another man is committed by someone who uses the body of the other man as a means for the arousal or satisfaction of sexual desire.’ So now simply arousal, not the completion of a sexual act, was all the police were required to claim. And beyond that: ‘It is not necessary for a physical touch to have occurred, or even to have been intended.’ I know of one case in which a German soldier was cruising in the street, and made promising eye contact with another man. As they walked past each other, he brushed against the stranger, who turned out to be a plain-clothes SS man. The soldier was immediately arrested, convicted and sent to prison for a year. In cases where the prosecutor could link the accused’s sexual history to at least three partners, he was deemed to be a habitual criminal and, when he had served his prison sentence, transferred to a concentration camp indefinitely.

It has often been claimed by historians that the Allies (especially the Americans), when they liberated the concentration camps, insisted on transferring the pink-triangle inmates to German prisons as sex criminals. That isn’t true. But the Allies in 1945 did not, as Evans suggests, annul the tougher Nazi version of Paragraph 175. Allied Control Council Law No. 1, signed on 20 September 1945 and headed ‘Repealing of Nazi Laws’, was not a blanket provision. It withdrew certain specified laws, plus a number of ordinances (mainly dealing with the Jews). The only section of the criminal code it dealt with was the amendment of April 1934 concerning treason and the notorious People’s Court. The Control Council Law No. 11 of 30 January 1946 (‘Repealing of Certain Provisions of the German Criminal Law’), and Control Council Law No. 55 of 20 June 1947 (‘Repeal of Certain Provisions of Criminal Legislation’), scrapped several dozen unsavoury provisions. But there was no mention of Paragraph 175, even though Law No. 11 revoked nine other sections of the criminal code that had been amended by the Nazis as part of the same bundle in September 1935. Law No. 55 revoked the death sentence for (heterosexual) sex offenders but remained silent about homosexuals.

In mid-1946 the Allies issued a draft of a new German criminal code, based on the version that had been in effect before the Nazi seizure of power, but it was never adopted. The two German states were founded in 1949. In the interim the practice of the courts in the different occupation zones varied considerably. Some districts like Düsseldorf insisted that the 1935 amendment did no more than promote the original purpose of the law, ‘to protect the health and purity of the life of the people from endangerment by indecency between men’. The West German government adopted the Nazi version of Paragraph 175 into its criminal code in 1949.

There was no amendment of Paragraph 175 in 1959 or 1965, as Evans claims. Various official committees of inquiry composed of lawyers had called for its repeal in 1950, 1951 and 1955. Yet in 1957 the Federal Constitutional Court turned down an appeal for its annulment, citing the moral benefits of the paragraph. The court admitted that medical science might be about to prove that homosexuality was an ‘inescapable physical-psychological deformity’, in which case it would be inappropriate to pass moral judgment on its victims, but matters had not yet gone that far. One of the problems was that there were no ‘definitive external characteristics’ of homosexuality that made it possible to distinguish easily between serious and minor cases. Homosexual acts took many different, often overlapping forms, but the ‘moral sensibility’ rejecting them was a constant. Already in the 19th century the intent of the law had been to curb these practices, and the Nazi amendment simply helped in this regard by tightening the law. Decriminalising homosexual relations between adult men over the age of 21 would probably lead to a ‘heavy proliferation of homosexuality’ that would represent a danger for Germany’s youth. In the three years from 1957 to 1959 more than ten thousand convictions for homosexual offences were handed down, a thousand more than in the entire 14 years of the Weimar Republic.

The Ministry of Justice ignored all calls for repeal, and included the 1935 version of the law in its drafts for a revised criminal code in 1959. Changes of government meant that neither this nor subsequent drafts in 1960 and 1962 ever became law. The gloss to the 1962 draft reaffirmed that Paragraph 175 was a useful deterrent, adding that those committing homosexual acts were ‘overwhelmingly persons who were not acting from an innate disposition’ but had been seduced or were sexually jaded. Calling on history to support its case, the ministry used familiar Nazi racial terminology, insisting that when homosexuality had grown unchecked in a country, it had led to the ‘degeneration of the race [Entartung des Volkes] and the collapse of its moral strength’. Using an example cited by Adolf Hitler and subsequently by Himmler, the ministry painted an alarming picture of homosexuals’ ‘methodical recruitment of homosexually predisposed fellow workers’ which would have the effect of corroding public institutions like the police and army. Perhaps to forestall this nightmare, in 1965 all civil servants and government employees found guilty of homosexual offences were to be dismissed.

Reforms did come at the end of the decade. The communist German Democratic Republic, pretending to be more liberal than the West, decriminalised homosexual relations between consenting adults over the age of 18 in 1968. The following year the Federal Republic amended Paragraph 175 to permit consensual relations between those over 21. In 1973 the age of consent for homosexual relations was lowered to 18 (though it was 14 for heterosexual acts). Yet still the paragraph remained on the books.

Shortly before the regime collapsed in 1989, East Germany decriminalised homosexual relations altogether. Following unification in 1990, Germany had to reconcile the two former countries’ criminal codes. In 1994 Paragraph 175 was rescinded, and in May 2002 the German parliament voted to overturn all convictions for homosexual offences handed down during the Third Reich. Few men on whom such sentences had been imposed were still alive.

Geoffrey Giles
University of Florida, Gainesville

Was he or wasn’t he?

Stephen Smith says that it matters that Mandela became a communist in 1960 (LRB, 9 January). This, as R.W. Johnson notes in a letter in the same issue, has now been confirmed by the South African Communist Party. In my recent book Young Man with a Red Tie: A Memoir of Mandela and the Failed Revolution 1960-63, I revealed that Mandela participated in the secret conference of the underground party in December 1960 at which the resolution to prepare for armed struggle was unanimously passed. It is entirely credible that Mandela was then co-opted onto the central committee to work closely with Joe Slovo, Walter Sisulu and others in establishing Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC.

The significant issue is whether Mandela was ever ideologically committed to the Leninist ideal of a two-stage national democratic and socialist revolution, espoused by the Communist Party in ‘The Road to South African Freedom’, the programme adopted at another secret conference in October 1962, by which time Mandela was in jail awaiting trial on charges of inciting an unlawful stay-at-home against the declaration of a white republic. I was his legal adviser during that trial, in which he refused to recognise the authority of a white court. Dressed in traditional African gear, he wanted to be seen as the embodiment of African nationalism in order to counter the claim of the rival Pan-Africanist Congress that they were the true patriots. He had been alarmed on a recent visit to other African countries to find that the ANC was viewed not as a genuine African organisation but as being under the control of white communists.

From my discussions with him both during the trial and before that as one of his underground support team, I concluded that he was never committed to the CP’s aim of a socialist South Africa, laying the foundations for a classless communist society. He was, and remained, an African nationalist whose aim was a non-racial democratic South Africa. However, as Smith points out, he was a remarkable and courageous politician, who saw great practical advantages in working closely with the communists.

Bob Hepple

Dyed, Not Died

Marina Warner refers to Conan Doyle’s story ‘Silver Blaze’, ‘in which a guard dog fails to bark when a racehorse is killed’ (LRB, 19 December 2013). This is a shocking blasphemy. Silver Blaze was snatched away, not snuffed out – dyed, not died – and ran and won his race in the end.

Michael Lang
Chevy Chase, Maryland