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Letters

Vol. 18 No. 9 · 9 May 1996

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Judges and Ministers

Anthony Lester (LRB, 18 April) referred to my ‘more recent material’ to support my thesis that a white, male, Oxbridge-educated judicial élite is not to be trusted to decide the questions that would arise if we had a modern Bill of Rights. His contrary thesis is that the senior judiciary and their case law have ‘changed beyond recognition over the past thirty years’ and that they are to be trusted.

Let us look then at their record on freedom of expression, without which other rights can so easily be suppressed or ignored. As presumably the most recent years are the most relevant, we can limit ourselves to the period since 1980.

In British Steel Corporation v. Granada Television (1980) the Law Lords ruled mat journalists’ sources must be revealed. In Schering Chemicals (1981) the Court of Appeal injuncted the showing of a film on Thames Television. In Home Office v. Harman (1982) the Law Lords held the legal officer of the National Council for Civil Liberties to be in contempt of court for showing a journalist material that had already been disclosed in open court. In Defence Secretary v. Guardian Newspapers (1984) the Court of Appeal ordered the disclosure of journalists’ sources about the date when Cruise missiles were to be delivered at Greenham Common, leading to the arrest and imprisonment of Sarah Tisdall. The Law Lords upheld the order. There followed the Spy-catcher saga (1987) and the refusal of the Law Lords to lift the injunction on publication although the book was readily available in this country. In 1986-7 the BBC programmes Out of Court, The Secret Society, Rough Justice and My Country Right or Wrong were the subject of judicial injunction or criticism. Finally, in the most blatant invasion of free speech this century, the Law Lords upheld the Court of Appeal’s refusal to review the Home Secretary’s decision to ban from the BBC and independent broadcasting words spoken by representatives of legitimate political organisations in Northern Ireland: ex parte Brind (1991).

John Griffith
Emeritus Professor of Public Law

Seeing Things

Hilda Bernstein and Gillian Slovo (Letters, 18 April) make a number of criticisms of my review of Slovo: The Unfinished Biography.

1. The story about ‘Joe and Ruth riding around in a limousine with a black chauffeur’ in Swaziland. Having rechecked my sources I must confess to error on this point. Quite right, Joe was not there, although the rest of the Slovo family, together with the black-chauffeured limo, was. I apologise for this bad mistake.

2. I am taken to task for saying that there was a fly-past by Impala jets at the Slovo funeral. This information was taken from an eyewitness account of the funeral on p.197 of the Unfinished Biography.

3. Slovo’s flight into exile. Here, if anything, I was too kind: it seems pretty certain that he left the country against the Party’s express orders – as indeed did quite a few other leading Communists (as Hilda Bernstein can attest). Inevitably, a great deal of autobiographical revision then took place in exile in London. It is arguable that the point behind the shameful treatment of David Kitson was that he had refused to flee – and that he had had a major ideological difference with Slovo, who had used his position to prevent the Kitson view being put, despite strong support for Kitson from his Party cell. Kitson was then caught, given the usual statue torture, still refused to testify against his friends and served 20 years in jail – by the end he was being guarded by warders who had not been born when his sentence started. When Kitson finally arrived in London in 1985 he was thus an implicit threat to all those who had jumped ship. As by far the most senior resistance fighter to re-emerge from jail, with a record of heroic sacrifice none could match, he might plausibly have been a leadership candidate. Those who had fled accordingly turned on him and drove him out. I applaud Gillian Slovo for having voted against this disgraceful act.

4. There are strong indications that the Party decision to hound Kitson out was actually taken in the first week after his release, perhaps even before he touched down in London. Slovo was certainly in London when Kitson arrived (the two men met) and he was far too senior a figure in the Party not to have been part of such a major decision. Also, given their early ideological disagreement, Slovo would have had most to lose from Kitson being restored to his old seniority in the movement.

5. That Solly Smith, for years the head of the ANC in London, should have been allowed to return to become head of an ANC branch in the Free State after 1990 is not amazing for the physical fact of return – after all, the ANC and SACP were not then in government and it was de Klerk’s decision as to whom to let back into the country at the time. What was amazing was that the Party later announced that it had discovered Smith was a police spy as far back as 1987 – with the implication that his treachery went back years before then; that it had then kept this fact entirely secret while watching Smith re-attain senior office; and that it only finally revealed the truth at the time of Smith’s mysterious death.

R.W. Johnson
Johannesburg

Something Happened

Jerry Fodor (LRB, 18 April) writes: ‘It is one thing to show that evolution might have been mostly adaptation; it is another thing to show that it actually was.’ It is not hard to understand why Richard Dawkins’s book addressed the first of these propositions. The heaviest stone thrown at Darwinism (and still being thrown by those who should know better) has always been that life on earth could not have evolved that way. As Fodor concedes: it could. As for the second proposition, it is one thing to assert that evolution might have occurred in some quite different way; it is another thing to suggest what that other way could possibly have been. So far no credible alternative has come to light.

The argument from Chomsky is ill-conceived. The hard-wired mechanism programming children’s acquisition of language is like the hard-wired mechanism helping a spider to spin its web. The decision to call it an endogenous constraint rather than an adaptation is purely arbitrary, and does not obviate the need to explain how it arose. The spider web parallel is instructive. Although the child’s vocalising appears to be a miraculous one-off, in the case of the spider’s web, the bee’s honeycomb and the weaverbird’s nest, there are plenty of extant intermediate examples of species in which these abilities have only partially evolved. Saying that there are ‘hidden’ constraints hints at a non-existent special dimension of mystery. No Darwinist has ever denied that there are rigorous limits to what biological forms are possible. There could never be a yard-long insect or a walking tree; the reasons for these impossibilities and countless lesser ones are perfectly well understood.

Punctuated equilibrium has nothing to do with hidden constraints. Originally it was offered as a counteraction to Lyell’s belief in a gradual and uniform rate of evolution. The rate is not uniform. Big jumps in the fossil records of some species simply indicate that the process of natural selection temporarily speeded up, because the environment to which a species had become well adapted suddenly changed. What is ‘embarrassing’ about that? The cause could have been a drought, a flood, a plague, a comet – or it could have been something very small, like a mutated virus which decimated the animals’ chief predators or main competitors or staple food source. ‘Saltation’ is little more than a way of saying: ‘At this point something happened.’ When Fodor cites the naive objection to adaptionism, he implies that there is a non-naive one. The anti-adaptationists have made it clear what it is they are against. The debate will become much more productive when they explain what it is they are for.

Elaine Morgan
Mountain Ash, Mid Glamorgan

‘Ode to the Nightjar’

The worst aspect of Newbury’s bypass is that it fails to bypass Snelsmore Common, where nightjars flourish. Nightjars have been identified as being among our birds with the greatest need for conservation. Were nightingales rather than nightjars the birds at risk, lovers of Keats in high places might well have prevented the new road jeopardising their habitat. The nocturnal voice of the nightjar has been likened to the sound of a poorly lubricated sewing-machine; but the neglected Wallace Nichols has written for the bird, and deserves to be read now. His ‘Ode to the Nightjar’ ends:

So how may I be sure
Thy raw note seem not pure
To some ear not my own, O jarring bird?
Thou, too, hast beauty; thou, too, ecstasy!
It is our ears are rude and not thy note;
Untutored in thy foreign scale are we,
Who have the lark’s by rote;
But now I guess things never sung by lark
And, doubting thy dark strain, doubt death’s, more dark! –
Doubt sorrow, doubt despair, doubt human wrong;
Since even in thee resides
Such music as abides,
May not mere be, through all life’s discord, song?

What hope for the obscure little snail that is similarly rare and threatened by the bulldozers? Alas for poor Vertigo moulinsiana, with no song, however discordant, nor any poet to elicit our compassion.

John Godfrey
London NW5

Job Not Wanted

Elaine Showalter does not respond to gratuitously malicious letters, but as her husband I do not feel bound by such constraints. Since Elizabeth Spencer (Letters, 18 April) has chosen to publish her unfounded and scurrilous opinion that the only reason for praising Marge Garber and Skip Gates is to get a job at Harvard, I would feel remiss if I did not publish some relevant facts. First, Elaine has admired and praised the work of both Marge and Skip from well before either one was hired by Harvard, or indeed before either one had earned the epithet ‘fashionable’. Second, Elaine was offered a job at Harvard and turned it down in favour of Princeton. At the time, I tried to reassure her about her decision by saying that Harvard was not paradise; although she would find many brilliant and wonderful colleagues there, she would not escape the venomous, petty-minded, spiteful, envious, infantile, invidious back-biting that is to be found, alas, throughout the academic world. She has finally conceded that I was right.

English Showalter
Princeton, New Jersey

Point of Substance

In his generous review of my Shakespeare at Work (LRB, 7 March) Frank Kermode challenges the opinion that ‘And that’s true too,’ in reply to the famous ‘Ripeness is all,’ ought not to be counted among Shakespeare’s second thoughts in King Lear. The criticism is misdirected. What Kermode is questioning here is Peter Blayney’s view, not mine. I think the correction is worth making since this is a point of substance – one of very few over which Kermode seeks to join issue with me.

John Jones
Merton College, Oxford

Declinism

The key to David Edgerton’s method of critical attack lies in his use of the weasel word ‘implicitly’ (Letters, 4 April). For, as he well knows, The Lost Victory neither specifically nor generally contends that in the late Forties Britain was poorer than Germany and other major Continental nations, innovated less, spent more on welfare, or exported fewer manufactures. And since the narrative of The Lost Victory ends in June 1950, it certainly makes no such contentions in regard to ‘the Fifties and beyond’. Hence his cunning employment of ‘implicitly’ in order to accuse me of believing absurdities which I do not believe. What The Lost Victory does argue is that in 1945-50 Britain muffed a unique opportunity to modernise herself as an industrial economy (thanks to American dollars) while her trade rivals were still on their backs or convalescent; and muffed it for reasons evident from the contemporary Whitehall records.

Correlli Barnett
Churchill College, Cambridge

Grizzled Veterans

Nicolas Tredell (Letters, 21 March) reproaches Terry Eagleton for alleged failure to venture out ‘in any sustained way into the wider and more difficult world of non-Oxbridge higher and further education’. Eagleton has done better than that: he has written plays which, broadcast by the BBC, have given listening pleasure and food for thought to many who have had neither cause nor inclination to enter the arcane world of Post-Modernist literary-critical debate.

S.S. Prawer
The Queen’s College, Oxford

Swipe at Bly

W.R. Ammons’s use of the title Garbage for his most recent collection, reviewed by Ian Sansom (LRB, 7 March), probably takes a swipe at Robert Bly. In his latest book, Meditations on the Insatiable Soul, Bly addresses a poem to the late James Wright in which he includes the observation: ‘Ammons is still writing garbage.’

Pete Smith
Pinantan Lake, British Columbia

Mistakes

Abridgment of my piece on ‘The Sense of the Self’ (LRB, 18 April) produced an error. The sentence ‘The ordinary notion of what a subject of experience is seems pretty clear: it is being one and being self-conscious’ is multiply false. For one thing, self-consciousness is not a necessary condition of being a subject of experience: anything that can feel pain is a subject of experience. The most generous reading of the sentence leaves it partly false and partly tautologous. It should read: ‘What is a subject of experience? The ordinary notion seems pretty clear: independently of any metaphysical commitments, each of us has a very good idea of what a subject of experience is just in being one and being self-conscious.’

Galen Strawson
Jesus College, Oxford

Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey does not appear in his new novel, Golden Ocean (LRB, ). Here, the hero accompanies Anson on his circumnavigation of 1740-44: the expedition returned laden with treasure captured from Spanish ships in the Pacific.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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