Constance Blackwell (Letters, 15 October 1998) says: ‘It is just as unlikely for an American to say that their country had been wrong as for them to say that they themselves had been wrong.’ In no field is this truer than that of miscarriages of criminal justice. In this country we do attempt to rectify miscarriages, though often twenty years too late, and to this end have established the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which as a court of last resort has already had some stunning successes. In America no such corrective institution exists. Recently two American professors, Hugo Bedau (who teaches philosophy at Tufts) and Michael Radelet (sociology at Florida), published a horrifying book called In Spite of Innocence in which they list four hundred cases since 1900 of executed Americans who they claim were wrongly convicted; apart from Sacco and Vanzetti, for whose convictions Governor Dukakis of Massachusetts granted partial amends, no court has disturbed any of those guilty verdicts.
A good example of this reluctance to admit and then apologise for past mistakes is the case of Richard Hauptmann, electrocuted in 1936 for the kidnapping and murder of the infant son of Charles Lindbergh, the transatlantic flyer. Although he was found to be in possession of marked Lindbergh ransom bills, there was not a scrap of evidence against Hauptmann for kidnapping and murder that was not false or faked. All America had been shocked by the crime, for Lindbergh was their number one hero, with the result that politicians, lawyers, police and the general public were only too ready to discount the lies that passed as evidence in order to find a scapegoat.
My book on the case, The Airman and the Carpenter, was published in the US and Britain in 1985, and the majority of reviews granted that I had made a convincing case for Hauptmann’s innocence. ‘Gripping and horrifying’, the New York Times called it, and Bedau and Radelet included Hauptmann’s name in their survey of the four hundred innocent.
The film rights were bought by Barbara Broccoli (daughter of the producer of the James Bond films), who commissioned William Nicholson (author of the brilliant Shadowlands and the television play Life Story about the discovery of DNA) to write a screenplay based on the book. It was offered to and turned down by every major company in Hollywood, not for lack of merits, which were considerable, but because none of them wished to be associated with the widespread corruption of the case and the reluctance of the American legal system to correct it. It was, however, snapped up by the independent American network production company Home Box Office and screened, with the Irish actor Stephen Rea as Hauptmann and Isabella Rossellini as Mrs Hauptmann, under the title Crime of the Century, which was the name given to it by the press at the time. Once more the majority of critics found that the Governor and legislature of New Jersey had a case to answer; and once again they did nothing.
The latest development in this long-running epic is a book called Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg, a comprehensive account of the airman’s life. Berg tells us that though he would have liked to show Hauptmann’s innocence, he found what he called the weight of evidence against him; in other words, he accepted uncritically the received wisdom that found Hauptmann guilty at the trial and still finds him so today. When I reviewed the book, I posed several questions that Berg had failed to address and which cast doubt on Hauptmann’s guilt. One was the ludicrous prosecution evidence that one rail from the kidnap ladder had come from Hauptmann’s attic: this meant that Hauptmann, never short of lumber in his garage, climbed up the cleats of his linen cupboard (the only way to reach the attic) with chisel and saw, then prised up and stole a plank from his landlord’s flooring, before spending hours planing it down to make it fit. Another was Berg’s failure to comment on photographs which show that the ticks against Hauptmann’s name on the time sheet of a Manhattan apartment block, which prove him to have been working full time on the day of the kidnapping, had been blotted out by the New York City police. Nor does he have any answer to the question why, if Hauptmann was guilty, he found himself unable to accept an offer by the New Jersey Governor and Attorney-General to spare his life in return for a full confession of the part he had played in the crime, however small; and an offer from the New York Evening Journal for his wife, who would otherwise be left destitute, to receive $90,000 after his execution in return for a similar confession.
Berg’s English publishers have stated that the film director Steven Spielberg has bought the film rights of Lindbergh; and I guess that what will concern him most is the principal evidence that led to Hauptmann’s conviction: that of Colonel Lindbergh who, having been assured by the head of the New Jersey state police that there was no doubt that Hauptmann was the right man, swore on oath that two words he had heard Hauptmann utter in the New York District-Attorney’s office – ‘Hey, Doc’ or ‘Hey, Doctor’ – were the same words uttered by the same voice which he had heard in a Bronx cemetery in the dark at a distance of some eighty to a hundred yards, two and a half years before, a claim the New York Times pronounced impossible. And as if that were not enough, when asked by prosecuting counsel if he believed that Hauptmann was guilty of the kidnapping (a question which would never have been allowed in a British court of law) he replied firmly: ‘I do.’ Later the journalist Adela Rogers St John canvassed the trial jury, who told her that Lindbergh’s evidence had been a determining factor in reaching their verdict.
I have written to Mr Spielberg to ask whether, in the scenes that concern Lindbergh’s evidence at Hauptmann’s trial, he intends to follow the received wisdom or, having seen Crime of the Century and read The Airman and the Carpenter, he may prefer the version of events given by those of us who have studied the case in depth and conclude that even on the balance of probabilities the case for Hauptmann’s innocence is overwhelming. In short, will Mr Spielberg, like the feeble Mr Berg, be yet another American who cannot bring himself to admit error or, contrariwise, prove to be the shining exception to the rule?
Professor Barrett (LRB, 30 October 1997 and Letters, 10 December 1998) has been conducting a campaign, unsuccessful thus far, to discredit my translation of the Ancona MS, to which I gave the title The City of Light. Last autumn, he went so far as to call a public meeting at SOAS, entitled ‘The Faking of The City of Light’, to which he did not have the courtesy, or courage, to invite me.
At this meeting I gather that it was alleged by a member of his audience that, inter alia, ‘the Jews’ had a penchant for using Chinese themes and settings for profit, from the writing of Suzie Wong musicals to the confecting, in my case, of bogus, long, detailed, medieval Italo-Hebraic manuscripts of travels to the Orient. (Would that I were so skilful and scholarly, for then I, too, might have become a Sinologist, rather than a benighted – or, in some versions, duped – hoaxer.)
Despite this libellous activity, over which he should begin to take a little more care, Professor Barrett admits that he still has not read my translation in its entirety – an extraordinary admission for a serious scholar – because of undisclosed ‘insoluble problems every time I try’. Perhaps if he could tell us what these ‘insoluble problems’ are, we might all better understand the source of his animus.
Whenever one ground of his objections has been refuted, or found wanting, he has responded by changing tack, retreating on large issues – as over his foolish assertion that there could not have been any Jewish merchants at all in the southern Chinese port of Zaitun, when Jacob of Ancona categorically declares that there were – and advancing on smaller ones. Now Professor Barrett has identified a single word, the name ‘Baiciu’, as the supposed Achilles heel of Jacob’s splendid work.
Barrett claims that ‘Baiciu’ – a transliterated approximation to the name of a medieval rebel who beset southern China and which appears in my translation of Jacob’s text – comes from ‘an 18th-century misreading of an Arabic manuscript’ and is therefore an anachronism. I cannot follow Professor Barrett far down the foxhole into which he has currently retreated. But it is a fact that the Ancona manuscript contains many proper names of Chinese personages transliterated as Jacob of Ancona heard them. Some of them I could neither decipher nor identify, as I admitted in the first edition. Others I identified clearly. Others again I believed I had identified, but sometimes only by imposing a reading on unclear orthography. (That is how translation of an ancient manuscript goes.)
Among the names was one which looked in the MS like ‘Baiciu’ or ‘Banciu’. When searching for corroboration of Jacob’s references (a lengthy and arduous process) I found a ‘Bae-choo’ referred to in James Finn’s The Jews of China (1843), who fitted, closely enough, the sparse details about him in the Ancona MS. I took the view that Jacob’s ‘Baiciu’ or ‘Banciu’ and Finn’s ‘Bae-choo’ were the same person. There are justifiable doubts about the correct spelling of this name and my editorial work here may be in error, but this cannot be ground for arguing, conspiratorially, that ‘something is badly amiss.’
The situation now is this. Wang lian-mao, the secretary-general of China’s Research Association for the History of Chinese Contacts with the Outside World, and curator of the Quanzhou museum (in the former Zaitun), has declared that ‘The City of Light has aroused great interest among historians and scholars in China, particularly in Quanzhou.’ He affirms that ‘most scholars’, basing their opinions on ‘historical facts, especially the culture of Quanzhou, take positive views about its truth’. He has added that ‘somebody who was not actually there [i.e. in Zaitun] could not have recorded things in this way’ (Wan Wei Bao, Beijing, 21 August 1998), and that other information in Jacob’s text ‘cannot but be historical’. Wang has also criticised the inaccuracy of Western scholars’ observations on Sung China during this dispute, some of which are pronounced to be ‘beneath consideration’. In the meantime, Chinese translations of The City of Light are being prepared in Shanghai and Taipei.
Finally, I note that Professor Barrett concedes in his letter that he is ‘no expert on Sino-Jewish contacts, nor on the 13th century’. In which case, he has no business continuing to make ex cathedra pronouncements on both.
Professor Barrett tells us that in his review of David Selbourne’s translation of The City of Light he did not write ‘degrees were unavailable in the 13th century’ in China, as I reported in the Sunday Times on 18 October, merely that ‘some of the degrees mentioned in the text were probably extinct.’ What he actually wrote in his review was this: ‘Jacob mixes with graduates holding degrees in the Chinese classics, in law, in mathematics and calligraphy – a gross anachronism, since such a range of degrees was unavailable in the 13th century.’
My own reference to Barrett’s charge was unfortunately cut in my published article in the Sunday Times. What I wrote was this:
For example, he said that there were no 13th-century Chinese degrees in the classics, law, maths or calligraphy, although Jacob described such graduates in Zaitun. But the definitive reference on this period of Chinese history by Jacques Gernet says, on the contrary, that scholar officials had to pass exams. The most brilliant careers were promised to holders of ‘various kinds of doctorate’ (letters, law, history, rites, classical studies), and there were doctorates of philology, history, ritual, law and exams for military and medical officials. ‘The exam system reached its perfection during the Sung period,’ says Gernet.
In other words, the ‘range’ of degrees Barrett claimed did not exist feature in the account of the period by its foremost scholar. According to Barrett, I used his remark that ‘Jews couldn’t have been living in Zaitun because the port was too obscure to attract foreigners’ out of context; he had merely referred to the ‘error’ in Jacob’s claim that Jews had lived in Zaitun for ‘more than a thousand years’. Again, my article was cut at this point. What I actually wrote was this: ‘Barrett wrote that Jews couldn’t have been living in Zaitun for more than a thousand years, as Jacob suggests, because the port was too obscure to attract foreigners even 500 years earlier. Chinese speakers say the term “a thousand years" does not have a precise mathematical meaning in Chinese, but simply means “a very long time".’
Barrett subsequently told me that according to an Arabic source, Italian Jewish merchants would have been trading with Zaitun, directly or indirectly, for about 400 years by the time Jacob was supposed to have arrived. Yet he now uses this fact to attack Jacob’s ‘staggering’ ignorance of the political environment of the area, given its long history of Jewish trade.
Barrett not only contradicted his original charge, then, but effectively stood it on its head to make a fresh one. He has also retracted the claim in his review that Jacob’s use of the word manci for Chinese people was a ‘startling’ anachronism, since it was an ‘opprobrious’ term used by the Mongols who conquered Zaitun after Jacob’s visit. He has now told me that after ‘the opportunity to reflect further’ he has concluded that manci ‘could have been used by Jewish merchants trading with South China shortly before as well as after the Mongol conquest’.
What is ‘staggering’ is that, by his own admission, Barrett did not even read the book before stating categorically that it was a forgery and that he could show exactly how it had been forged. He told me that – despite his particular area of expertise being medieval Asian religion – he hadn’t realised the book contained as much religious material as it does. This was because, he said, he hadn’t read it through but had looked instead only for its historical references, since he had gained the impression from earlier reviews that the book was a forgery. He had read these reviews, he said, consulted a history of China and an unrelated Chinese manuscript, rushed into the offices of the LRB, got hold of a copy and written his damning review within a week. Why should any of us take seriously a word he says?
If Eric Korn (LRB, 26 November 1998) really wants to track down musical rodents, some sleeve notes can be found in the annual Fortean Studies for 1996. Hesperomys, the prairie mouse of Michigan, was caught warbling on a sitting-room floor in 1871, followed by a blind competitor in Santa Fe who imitated canaries, and another in San Francisco who made a nest in the radio cabinet and drowned out the reception. Any reader still feeling sceptical should contact the BBC, who made a live broadcast of Mickey the singing mouse of Devonport in 1937. All this seems to have been brought to light by Jonathan Downes, zoologist and surrealist. Darwin would have revelled in it.
I recently read A.L. Rowse's All Souls and Appeasement and can only hang my head in shame at J.B. Paul's devastating letter (Letters, 10 December 1998). The explanation, but no excuse, is that I wrote the Sparrow review miles from my books and had no chance to check. I stupidly thought All Souls and Appeasement was fired off during the early Forties … Mea maxima culpa. Rowse's attitude to the appeasers is puzzling in the light of the fact that he courted their support for his wardenship. This is just a blunder on my part and I apologise.
J.B. Paul mentions A.L. Rowse’s ‘very considerable attainments as a historian’. I wonder, though. In a biography of Matthew Arnold, one of Rowse’s own contributions to what Paul unoriginally snipes at as the ‘Eng. Lit. industry’, Rowse praises ‘the good work [the Victorian English] did in the outside world, the impartial administration of justice handed down in India, for example’. This would be a nicely ironic line in a good post-colonial novel, but unfortunately Rowse means it. Admittedly, it takes a certain kind of genius to choose ‘an example’ which so decisively destroys your premise. Perhaps Rowse, with his self-proclaimed working-class roots, is trying to prove his own contention in the same book that ‘the masses were hardly capable of education in any significant sense of the word – only the elect are.’ If we take his word on this, and dismiss as a ‘middle-class illusion’ any suggestion that the ‘working class was given to “ideas"’, then his concern about ‘frittering away of life and time’ (cited by Paul) is misplaced. ‘Misplaced’ because surely nothing better than frittering could be expected of a lad of the soil like Rowse, considering the working classes’ ‘preference for not even reading, but passively imbibing television’.
Ian Gilmour (no known relation) abuses Harold Wilson’s European position (LRB, 10 December 1998). ‘Wilson was at his Wilsonian worst,’ he writes. No doubt Wilson ducked and dived, pushed and pulled. But if he had pulled us out in 1975 would Lord Carrington and Sir Ian have persuaded the Bag Woman to take us back in? We are still in Europe because Wilson converted the Labour Party to being a pro-European Party (that some of the most enthusiastic Europeans left the Party for the wastelands showed the extent of their political acumen). Our European problem is that Ian Gilmour and his pro-European friends in the Tory Party were not deft enough wholly to convert it. Would that they had had a ‘Wilson at his Wilsonian worst’. Black and Murdoch would now be as irrelevant as some of their potty predecessors, the Tory Party might have a dozen more seats and we would be using Euros.
Among the many uncertainties of life, Richard Evans’s intellectual energy and inexhaustible appetite for pugilism stand out like friendly beacons, but I shall not undertake to unpick all of the confusion and backsliding in his complaints about my review of In Defence of History (Letters, 26 November 1998). I make one general point. My review hinged on two propositions: first, that to understand the nature and conditions of historical study we have to proceed historically, rather than by the invocation of various forms of ahistorical quackery, such as the ahistorical ‘Rankeanism’ purveyed by Evans, or the equally ahistorical procedures of writers such as Hayden White and Frank Ankersmit. Second, that these two apparently opposite forms of thought in fact grew up together in the Sixties and depend on each other today: they have a history of their own, independent of and precedent to the vacuous ‘Post-Modern’ label. If we accept the first proposition, it follows that a proper understanding of how and why we write history is primarily a historiographical endeavour, and as such a subset of the history of ideas.
Anyone interested in establishing whether Evans is competent to pursue an inquiry in this area would do well to consider again the following pronouncement from his book, which I drew attention to in my review. Intellectual historians, Evans writes,
use sources in a different way from most historians: as interpretative vehicles for ideas, not as clues to an exterior reality. Moreover, they work with a very limited number of classic texts, written by a handful of authors, or in other words, in a field where new documentary discoveries have inevitably become extremely rare. Reinterpretation is therefore almost the only option available to them.
The extraordinary incomprehension displayed in this statement makes plain why Evans supposes that the modern history of ideas, as practised by Quentin Skinner and Gareth Stedman Jones, for example, and ‘Post-Modernism’ of the White and Ankersmit variety are essentially one and the same.
Too much significance need not be read into such folly. Perhaps it is just another instance of ‘the marginal, the bizarre, the individual, [and] the small-scale’ of which Evans is lately so enthusiastic a proponent.
St Anne’s College, Oxford
Anand Menon (LRB, 12 November 1998) thinks that the victorious French football supporters’ chant was ‘blanc-black-beur’, while Mat Pires (Letters, 10 December 1998) argues for ‘black-blanc-beur’. I think they are both wrong. The original pun celebrating a successful, multiracial team, ‘les bleus’, was ‘bleu-blanc-noir’, quickly refined to ‘beur-blanc-noir’ – which I think deserves to be definitive. Whether as a chant for streets and stadiums or a slogan for multi-ethnic national unity, this has at least two advantages over Menon’s and Pires’s versions. First, auditory: as a closer variant on the actual sequence of ‘bleu-blanc-rouge’ of the Tricolour, it’s a more logical, and wittier, play on words. Second, lingual: it’s a lot easier to pronounce (even for the French).
Rosalind Krauss (LRB, 12 November 1998) makes some excellent points about the origins of Rebecca Horn's work, but makes no mention of Jean Tinguely. Tinguely's speciality, the introduction of an eccentric element to transform rotation into a lateral movement, is at the basis of most of Horn's mechanically driven pieces. His Hayward show in the early Seventies had a hose pipe ejaculatory piece of this kind on one of the outside terraces, I remember.
Feather-dusters (rotated or jerked up and down) often crown his nouveau-realist pieces; parts of belt-driven machinery and sewing machines are often used. He also made machines that splashed paint around. This particular passage in modern sculpture must surely have been in Rebecca Horn's mind as she made her first moving sculptures.
It seems that Christopher Hitchens (LRB, 26 November 1998), well travelled as he is, does not know the lie of the land when it comes to Brooklyn. He has the ‘loony rebbe’, Menachem Schneerson, living in Brooklyn Heights. This, by any standards, is a howler. The rebbe resided in Crown Heights.
Peter Clarke (LRB, 10 December 1998) manages a lengthy assessment of Thatcherism without once mentioning the miners’ strike of 1984-85. Lest we forget, this strike to save jobs almost stopped Thatcher in her tracks when the dockers came out in sympathy in the summer of 1984. Only the wavering of other trade-union leaders let her off the hook. Thatcherism, which was simply a trendy term for Tory policies to push down wages and improve profits, scored a victory over the miners and then the printers. It did not succeed, however, in crushing organised labour or in restoring the fortunes of British capitalism. The project therefore remains, but whether Blairism will be any more successful in pursuing it seems doubtful.