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Letters

Vol. 21 No. 3 · 4 February 1999

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What killed Lord Cottenham?

Michael Byers is incorrect when he writes of the Law Lords: ‘never before had one of them been accused of the appearance of bias’ (LRB, 21 January). During 1852 in the case of Dimes v. The Grand Junction Canal Company, the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Cottenham, had a decree in favour of the Grand Junction Canal Company reversed by the House of Lords on the grounds that he was a shareholder in the company. As in the Hoffmann judgment, no one suggested that Cottenham had been in any way influenced by his financial interest in the canal company and, indeed, the evidence showed he had actually forgotten the existence of his shareholding. Nevertheless in a severe speech Lord Campbell said: ‘this will be a lesson to all inferior tribunals to take care that not only in their decrees they are not influenced by their personal interest, but to avoid the appearance of labouring under such an influence.’

Atlay in The Victorian Chancellors added a cruel footnote to the affair: ‘Long before the judgment was given Lord Cottenham had not only quitted the Woolsack, but had left behind him the troubles of this transitory life; it was a common belief that Dimes had killed Lord Cottenham.’

Although I have every sympathy with Lord Hoffmann’s judgment, the point of Dimes is a principle of natural justice – that no one shall act as a judge in his own cause. The Law Lords in Pinochet were merely acting in accordance with precedent and not modifying the British Constitution as argued by Michael Byers.

Peter Coghill
London NW2

Who owns John Sutherland?

I am grateful to those who wrote in the last issue with corrections and additional information, following my article on copyright in the previous issue. The paper, judging by what it printed, received a large postbag on the subject. It is noteworthy that no representative of Guardian Newspapers, Times Supplements, Reed Elsevier or Chadwyck-Healey has responded. The fact that the Guardian reprinted the piece in their ‘Editor’ supplement may, however, be construed as an oblique response of some kind.

I shall receive 80 per cent of the reprint fee for that piece, which is, I understand, the LRB’s standard rate. Recent experience at the TLS indicates that they give 50 per cent. The Guardian adamantly hands over zilch – at least to me. The last piece of mine sold on by the Sunday Telegraph yielded 100 per cent. Clearly, where I’m concerned these paymasters stump up whatever they happen to decide is the going rate. Given the fact that minimum per-word payments to contributors in these papers are all more or less NUJ-standardised, could not some convention be agreed on normal rates for reprinting? Fifty per cent seems about right to me; but I (thank God) do not have to live by my pen.

John Sutherland
University College London

Highway Robbery

If Paul Foot finds my book on Stagecoach so politically unacceptable (LRB, 7 January), how come his comrades at Socialist Worker reprinted large chunks of it (without permission, of course)?

Christian Wolmar
London N19

Russell knew better

If only, Garret FitzGerald sighed, people like Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell had been as clear-sighted as Patrick McCartan, who reported from Russia in 1921 that ‘though they claim that the present government is a dictatorship of the proletariat it is nothing of the kind. It is a dictatorship of the Communist Party’ (LRB, 21 January). FitzGerald is quite right to say that about Shaw, the Webbs and many others but Russell would have required no lectures from the perceptive Mr McCartan. Having been in Russia a year before him, he wrote in his book The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism: ‘I am compelled to reject Bolshevism for two reasons: first because I believe that the price mankind must pay to achieve communism by Bolshevik means to be too terrible; and secondly because, even after paying the price, I do not believe the result would be what the Bolsheviks profess to desire.’ Caroline Moorehead says in her biography of Russell that he wrote to Colette at the time: ‘I loathed the Bolsheviks and their regime. I think there is less liberty in modern Russia than has ever existed anywhere before.’

Keith Kyle
London NW3

The Engine Room

Bernard Crick made me out to be more charitable in my account of John Lehmann than I intended (Letters, 21 January). I should have put: ‘He wasn’t an intellectual, neither was he original, but he did have an editor’s instinct for the latest thing.’ Certainly intellectuals don’t have to be original. ‘All shuffle there, all cough in ink’ and it’s a thousand times truer now than it was in Yeats’s day.

Penelope Fitzgerald
London N6

Our European Problem

Why does Ian Gilmour choose France for comparison with the United States when discussing per capita income differences (LRB, 10 December 1998)? Wouldn’t it make as much sense to pick, say, Albania, or the UK, except that these would sit less well with Gilmour’s argument that European incomes do not fall far below those in the US? And even the French comparison is tendentious. It holds up only so long as the comparison is made at market exchange rates. Such comparisons are useless, which is why development specialists employ rates that adjust for differences in domestic price levels – so-called ‘purchasing power parity’ rates of exchange. If you do that for France and the United States, the difference reverses rather dramatically, which is why I suppose Gilmour doesn’t bother to. If you make the relevant comparison, broadly speaking, say, Western Europe v. what are sometimes called ‘Western offshoots’ (the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), the 1992 difference (according to Angus Maddison’s study for the OECD) is $20,850 for the Western offshoots v. $17,387 for Western Europe.

Richard Salvucci
San Antonio, Texas

Celtic v. Rangers

In his diary W.G. Runciman (LRB, 10 December 1998) mentions his conversation with Alastair Reid, a Clydesider, who said how conscious he had always been of all the various and varied divisions and disagreements in Scottish society. Doubtless we are supposed to infer from this that Scotland is somehow unfit to be a nation. My sister – like me, Clydeside-born and bred – thinks that Scotland could not be an independent country because of the antipathy that exists between Celtic and Rangers fans. Where does this idea come from that people in sovereign states all have to agree with each other? I can't imagine what countries Runciman, Reid and my sister have in mind when they make everyone agreeing with everyone else a condition for nationhood.

Tom O’Hagan
Luxembourg

Sonic Boom

One aspect of the Sokal and Bricmont affair was not raised in the LRB correspondence (Letters, 29 October 1998): namely, the authors’ scientific competence. They state, rightly, that ‘Goedel’s theorem is an inexhaustible source of intellectual abuses’. Unfortunately, they themselves suffer from ‘Goedelitis’. Their ‘explanation’ – ‘Goedel’s first theorem exhibits a proposition that is neither provable nor refutable in the given system, provided that this system is consistent’ – is simply wrong. An essential property – namely, the existence of a proof-checking algorithm – is omitted. Without this proviso the whole edifice falls to pieces essentially in the same way it did when Kristeva replaced ‘consistency’ by ‘inconsistency’ in Goedel’s second theorem: sometimes consistency cannot be proved within the system, but an inconsistent system can prove its own inconsistency. The omission is not accidental: it reappears later in the book. Finally, the authors’ ‘expert’ judgment dismisses any impact of Goedel’s theory on the development of artificial intelligence, the theory of randomness, the philosophy of mathematics or the understanding of Escher’s art (to name only a few areas): ‘Metatheorems in mathematical logic, such as Goedel’s theorem … have … very little impact on the bulk of mathematical research and almost no impact on the natural sciences.’

C.S. Calude
Auckland, New Zealand

Bennett-Biz

Alan Bennett (LRB, 21 January) does not think that Anna Akhmatova’s experience of life was sufficiently Kafkaesque. Even with his elementary Russian (and the help of a dictionary) he ought to be able to read her introduction to Requiem – poems out of the worst period of Stalin’s purges. In it she describes how for 17 months she stood in the queue outside a Leningrad prison and how one day a woman whispered in her ear (as she says, ‘in those days every one spoke in whispers’): ‘Is this something you can write about?’ To which she replied: ‘I can.’ He ought certainly to be able to read the crystalline verses (in the very simplest of Russian) which follow and run:

This woman is sick
This woman is alone
Husband in the grave, son in prison.
Pray for me.

Stuart Hood
Brighton

‘Kong Hamsun’

Where is the evidence that Knut Hamsun was ‘Céline’s great influence’, as James Wood asserts (LRB, 26 November 1998)? Céline scholars, certainly, seem unaware of this: in three volumes of biography Gibault doesn’t mention Hamsun once; Alméras fleetingly evokes a ship in Guignol’s Band, the Kong Hamsun; while Godard concedes that the Norwegian’s habit of novelising his own experience puts him among ‘romanciers avec lesquels Céline n’est pas sans quelque rapport, sur un plan ou sur un autre’: hardly a ‘great influence’. Céline treated practically all his contemporaries with contempt; his only open admiration was for his friend Paul Morand and for Henri Barbusse, whose Le Feu recounts the misery of the Great War, in which Céline was wounded. If James Wood is trying to say that both writers were anti-semitic, sympathised with the Nazis, and were prosecuted after the war, then he should say so, rather than inventing a literary influence in its place.

Mat Pires
Paris

Looking for Dr Jekyll

I had a brief flirtation with Heidegger, going from Dasein to Wer weist in no time at all. Finding my ardour unreciprocated and my German unintelligible, I turned to American politics, which makes deconstruction and phenomenology seem compelling, lucid and inviting.

Long had I wandered in the realms of Hyde
diverted by those cobwebs of white hair
which lend hypocrisy an honest air,
which cloak the faction statesmanship's denied.
Most scoundrels hang their infamies outside:
Bob Barr in heat, or skulking in his lair,
the unlamented Faircloth, who would wear
his petty meanness on his face with pride.
Not so this anti-paragon whose file
reveals a man who thought some lies allowed.
So, Ollie North was pardoned with a smile.
Not so our Mr Hyde, who must be proud
to know he once defended in high style
Crane's statutory rape to please a crowd.*

* Daniel Crane, Republican Representative from Illinois.

Stuart Silverman
Hot Springs, Arizona

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