Vol. 20 No. 8 · 16 April 1998

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Gangster Rap

Hilary Mantel’s review of Giles Foden’s The Last King of Scotland (LRB, 19 March) reminded me of a strange apparition some twenty-five years ago in my garden, an acre of roughly cultivated vegetables, flowers and fruit trees set amid a profusion of long grass, nettles and those flowers we define as ‘wild’, whose existence depends on a benign neglect of ‘proper’ horticulture. It is situated on the western side of a Chiltern hill, topped by beech woods and overlooking a valley village which, at that time, looked much as it had two hundred years earlier. It was in this Gethsemane that, early one fine morning, I came across some startling resurrections: a group of about twenty men and women or, more accurately, boys and girls, all uniformly tall and extremely elegant, with magnificent aristocratic black faces and dressed from head to foot in immaculate white robes. They were in deep grass, moving slowly and gracefully, but huddling together. I said ‘Hello’ to them with an air of amused bonhomie, but they turned to stare at me silently with a mixture of timidity and what seemed to me slight menace, so that I thought it best to leave them to look after themselves.

I did, in fact, know that my sister’s husband was due to accompany a group of Ugandan dancers from Heathrow Airport to their London hotel, but not that they had been refused lodging as no proper finance had been arranged, and so had been driven late the evening before to my father’s house adjoining mine, where they had slept in armchairs and old mattresses on the floor. They left that morning and were never seen again. Some weeks later it was reported in the newspapers that Idi Amin had established bases ‘deep in the Heart of the English Shires’, where he would be given warm hospitality at any time and from which he would start his liberation of the Home Counties.

Joseph Nuttgens
High Wycombe, Bucks

Brief Shining Moments

Neither Henry Kissinger nor I have any recollection of the remarks attributed to us by Mervyn Jones (Letters, 2 April). Nor do they make any sense. They lack even surface plausibility. Why, three months after the Bay of Pigs, by which time everyone knew of the CIA role, would I deny that the United States was in any way involved? (I might add that I had strongly opposed the operation.) Why would Henry Kissinger, then a young Harvard don with no experience as a government official, talk as if he were a world-weary national security adviser? The next time Mervyn Jones goes around attributing statements allegedly made nearly forty years ago, he should try to make them credible.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr
New York

Battle of Algiers

Olivier Todd’s review of my book, The Memory of Resistance: French Opposition to the Algerian War 1954-62 (LRB, 19 March), confirms the extent to which this period is still an open wound in France. Poke in it and the result is acrimony and anger. For example, Todd’s view that resisters to the Algerian War were a ragbag of crackpots whose effect was negligible is simply untrue. The trial of the Jeanson network in September 1960 forced the Left to take a more combative stance against the war. Above all, it inspired the 27 October anti-war demonstration in Paris organised by the French students which, despite opposition from the Communist Party, brought together twenty thousand people, thus highlighting the link between the Algerian War and the gauchisme of May 1968. Todd’s notion that resistance to the Algerian War achieved nothing of lasting value is similarly untrue. Yes, for a long time the war was a taboo subject, but now everybody knows about torture just as everybody knows about the Battle of Algiers. In large part this knowledge is due to those like Pierre Vidal-Naquet who have fought for the subject to be put on the school curriculum. Todd accuses me of being too close to my subject. What about his own intellectual hero, Albert Camus: he might have been a left-wing liberal, but in saying in 1957 that he loved his mother (i.e. French Algeria) before justice did he not sanction the deaths of thousands on thousands of Algerians?

Martin Evans
University of Portsmouth

A Bottle of Bad Slivovic

In the spring of 1944 I was in the Belgrade house of a most friendly Serb. Suddenly he asked for the box of matches that I had in my hand, wrote something on one side and handed it back to me. On it was written a number: ‘1,600,000.’ He asked me to give him back the matchbox, then turned it over and wrote something on the other side. It was a similar number and I asked him what it all signified. He stood up, saying: ‘1,600,000 was the population of Serbia when the Turks defeated Tsar Lazar at Kosovo in 1389; 1,640,000 was the population of England at that same time.’

Obviously I was failing to grasp the current application of those 14th-century figures, so Bogdan Petrovic added: ‘If the Battle of Kosovo had gone otherwise it would have been I, Bogdan Petrovic, who would be in England today visiting you in your misery to offer you help. You would be standing up saying: “Gospodin Petrovic, pray be you seated, I am shamed, I have nothing to offer you except the end of this bottle of very bad whisky." Instead it is I, Bogdan Petrovic, who, in my own country, must say: “Gospodin Pukovnik, be you welcome under my roof, pray help my children to find work and deign to accept what is left of this bottle of very bad slivovic."’ Had the Serbs won the Battle of Kosovo, and had England failed to win at Agincourt, Serbia might well have become a major medieval kingdom and outshone a Britain not yet Great.

My friend, a good Serbian Orthodox Christian, was of a culture continuous with that of the Byzantine Empire. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution had not touched him. He was quite free of any trace of 19th-century social thinking. His intellectual strength lay in his pride, in his Orthodox Serbian birthright. He was no Pan-Slav – the Russians had showed their unreliability by failing to back Serbia in the Balkan wars. It is not without reason that Kosovo, as Misha Glenny (LRB, 2 April) knows, haunts Serbian thinking: the Great War was triggered on its anniversary (Vidovdan) by the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo. Moreover, Tsar Lazar, who fell at Kosovo, has a long-standing habit, which persisted even into this last war, of appearing in the dawn sky over great battlefields. We had better stop fumbling: the Serbs, whom neither Tito nor the Nazis managed to change, will not abandon their ways just because we argue with them to give the world a spontaneous display of pragmatic Protestant democracy.

K.W.C. Sinclair-Loutit
Rabat, Morocco


Timothy Garton Ash (LRB, 19 March) points out how thin is the line dividing the denouncer of an individual to the state in a dictatorship and the whistle-blower in a democracy. In a recent Bundestag debate on ways to improve the efficiency of income tax collection in Germany, it was stated that the US Internal Revenue Service has a policy of openly encouraging individuals to inform on people they suspect of tax evasion, and that monetary rewards are promised in the event of the case going to prosecution. It was thought that this scheme might be useful in Germany, where tax-dodging is widespread; but the idea was quashed on the grounds that the results in the US are very meagre – ‘people denouncing their golf partners if they have an unpleasant golfing weekend’ – and are not nearly compensation enough for the encouragement of an informers’ society. A really effective informers’ society, it seems to me, needs a certain social discipline, such as that in Nazi Germany or the DDR. When such discipline is lacking, chaos results.

J. Elfenbein
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität

Re-reading the Zonnets

Tom Paulin said that Yeats wrote two sonnets (LRB, 22 January). Richard Poole cited one more (Letters, 19 February). But what about ‘A Crazed Girl’, surely one of the greatest sonnets ever written?

W.W. Aylward
San Jose, California

Something the ketamine brought in

In his review of Ian Penman’s Vital Signs (LRB, 19 March), Iain Sinclair quotes from a piece I wrote concerning ketamine, and mentions that it was published in a magazine called Entropy – although the aptly named Entropy so ineptly transcribed and edited the piece as to completely ruin it. Sinclair then attributes the neologism ‘post-acoustic’ to me, although the term I use is ‘psycho-acoustic’, as when I describe the ‘voices’ encountered on ketamine as ‘gossiping psycho-acoustic gremlins’. Evidently I have now also encountered intertextual gremlins.

John Hannon

Why the ‘LRB’? Why anything?

Derek Parfit’s tour de force (LRB, 5 February) raises basic philosophical problems about the role that explanations can legitimately play. Parfit assumes that the notion of an explanation is sufficiently clear and uniform, that philosophical analysis will show when an explanation is needed and how to evaluate different candidates, and that the criteria apply across the board: from everyday facts to scientific conjectures of varying generality. This however is doubtful. ‘Explanation’ is an umbrella term covering an assortment of loosely related notions (explanations in physics, mathematical explanations, elucidations, clarifications, what have you). There is a danger of philosophical illusion in treating them as species of one generic concept.

Let me substantiate this by a particular objection to Parfit’s arguments. Parfit distinguishes those extremely unlikely events that do not require explanation from those that do. His example: a thousand people, I among them, face death. Only one person can be rescued and that person will be chosen by lottery. If I win (with odds 1 in 1000) and my life is saved, the fact requires no explanation. ‘Someone had to win, and why not me?’ In the second scenario I am sentenced to death, but the sentence will be remitted if the gaoler draws the longest straw out of a thousand. The longest straw is drawn and my life is saved. This, Parfit argues, is something special that requires an explanation. Appealing to coincidence won’t do. We will be right to conclude that it is much more likely that the draw was rigged. Sounds convincing. But is it? And how far can this line of thought be pushed?

Imagine a third scenario. As in the first, there are a thousand doomed people, one of whom, chosen by lottery, will survive. If I happen to win, no explanation is required. But let the lottery be implemented as follows. Going over the alphabetical list of the thousand people, an official draws, against each name, a straw from an initial bundle of a thousand straws. The winner is the person against whose name the long straw (1 in 1000) is drawn. Once this happens, the draws are discontinued. I am the first on the list and the first try succeeds. Exactly as in the second scenario, I am saved by a single draw of the longest straw out of a thousand, with no other draws taking place. The intention, to be sure, was to carry on in the event of failure. Why should this intention matter? Say I had lost, and the lottery continued. Again, why should this counterfactual reasoning make a difference? Counterfactuals are usually invoked in causal explanations: ‘Had John not slammed on the brakes, the car would not have swerved,’ showing that the slamming was the cause of the swerving. But in our case causality works in the other direction: from my winning to the termination of the lottery. It does not explain my winning. And it is not clear why it should obviate the need for explanation. And if there is no need here, why should there be one in Parfit’s second scenario?

Haim Gaifman
Columbia University, New York

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