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Vol. 21 No. 21 · 28 October 1999

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Poncy Linguists

Alan Bennett refers to a defining moment in his life when, in the closing days of his National Service, he was ordered to clean a urinal with his bare hands at the Intelligence Corps Depot at Maresfield (LRB, 30 September). I trudged the same route as Bennett a few years later on the way back to normal life from the Army Russian Course, and found myself having to perform the same ritual cleansing, with the minor saving grace that I was given a razor-blade with which to work and the major inconvenience that my work was disturbed halfway through by the Commanding Officer insouciantly using the next stall.

It would be interesting to know if this was some special rite of passage reserved by the Corps’s drill sergeants for ‘those poncy linguists’ who tended to look down on the common soldiery, or a more widely practised military chore. I am preparing a history of the National Service Russian Course and any light your readers can shed on this ordeal by water or any other arcane experiences of the Corps or the Course they can share with me would be appreciated.

Geoffrey Elliott
Villa Cliff
32 Knapton Estates Road
Smiths FLO8 Bermuda

Unreliable Friend

R.W. Johnson originally claimed that the African National Congress had ‘an overwhelming majority’ on the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Now (LRB, 19 August) he says ‘it is held to be quite uncontroversially true among lawyers here that the Government can count on the sympathies of a large majority’ of the Court’s members. That statement is equally false. It would be treated with derision by South African lawyers. In the few years of its existence the Constitutional Court has decided major cases against the wishes of the Government and the ANC.

For example: 1. In 1995 the Court held unconstitutional a decree by President Mandela providing for local elections in the Western Cape Province. The Court held that only Parliament had power to do so. President Mandela called Parliament back into session to pass the needed legislation.

2. In 1996 the Court considered whether the proposed final South African Constitution met, as required, principles set out in the interim charter. Most political parties urged the Court not to certify the draft; the ANC indicated that it favoured certification. The Court held that nine provisions did not comply with the principles, and the text had to be redrafted and adopted anew.

3. In 1998 the ANC challenged a KwaZulu-Natal provincial statute establishing local councils. The Court unanimously dismissed the challenge.

Johnson sought to explain away the fact that a number of judges on the Constitutional Court had originally been appointed to other courts during the apartheid years and hence could not have been supporters of the ANC. ‘Some judges,’ he wrote, ‘noticing which way the wind was blowing, had worked hard to ingratiate themselves in advance with the new regime.’ That is a contemptible defamation of those few judges who had the courage to try to breathe some humanity into the application of cruel racist laws.

Anthony Lewis
Boston, Massachusetts

R.W. Johnson attacks Anthony Sampson for being inaccurate about South Africa because he lives elsewhere. Yet Johnson, a South African resident, states that during apartheid Indians didn’t ‘have to worry about pass laws or curfews or learning English or the thousand and one other handicaps that beset Africans’. They did. They could not cross a provincial border without obtaining a permit in advance. They were subject to educational, residential and business segregation. They had indeed to learn English, which was not the mother tongue of many of them. Unlike Africans, they were not even allowed in the Orange Free State.

V.M. Hunt
Parktown, South Africa

R.W. Johnson claims that the fact that he lives in South Africa puts him in a superior position to those who live outside the country. This is a very dubious proposition. In 1957, the then President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, invited F.M. Bourret as a special guest to the Independence celebrations. She had written, according to Nkrumah, ‘the best history of Ghana’ (The Gold Coast: A Survey of the Gold Coast and British Togoland, 1919-51). Mother Bourret was then living in an enclosed convent in California, and her excellent book was the result of an outstanding mind combined with the resources of the Hoover Library. It is not necessary to live in a country in order to understand it; it may even be a handicap.

David Brokensha
Fish Hoek, South Africa

R.W. Johnson is right in saying that the Nuremberg Trials were a flawed exercise. They were better than nothing, however: after all, Germany became fully denazified. But after the collapse of Communism there were no Nuremberg Trials of those evil regimes. As a result, we have contemporary Russia, that post-totalitarian mutant.

I also agree with Johnson’s statement that some ANC leaders in the past ‘had multiple paymasters’. I personally have had encounters with a few of them. Western intelligence services made great efforts to know ‘what was going on inside the ANC’, but the KGB had all the information on a direct line from the CPSA. The KGB cultivated contacts in the national liberation movements mainly in order to have agents in the future Governments of South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique.

Oleg Gordievsky
London WC2


Apropos of my recent Donegal Diary, I’m grateful to John Torrance for his close reading of Clare’s poem ‘To the Snipe’ (Letters, 14 October), but I disagree with Carol Rumens’s letter in the same issue, in which she says that my view of Larkin’s response to Ulster is not borne out by the poems or the letters. I recollect that somewhere he made a passing joke about being a Unionist, and I think his uncollected poem ‘The March Past’, which he wrote in Belfast in 1951, wraps itself ecstatically in the Union Jack. In that poem Larkin listens to loud martial music and this produces:

a sudden flock of visions:

Honeycombs of heroic separations,
Pure marchings, pure apparitions.

The poet is then overcome by a ‘blind’:

Astonishing remorse for things now ended:
That of themselves were also rich and
(But unsupported broke, and were not
mended) -

Rather like Molly Bloom in Gibraltar, Larkin would seem to have warmed to the sight of marching soldiers in Ulster.

Tom Paulin
Hertford College, Oxford

Ten Seconds to Inject

Macneil of Barra’s second letter consequent on Mark Greenberg’s review of John Leslie’s The End of the World (Letters, 30 September) serves not only to confuse an old issue, but also to confuse a fresh one. Greenberg’s reply to Macneil of Barra’s first letter was not, pace Macneil, at all misleading. Part of his refutation of the Doomsday Argument requires an understanding of the base-rate fallacy. Greenberg makes a true statement about probabilities, which he illustrates using the medical test example; the sole aim is to demonstrate the fallacy to a wider readership, which it does.

Macneil’s first letter not only assumed the base-rate fallacy, but also introduced a red herring in the form of outcomes: ‘death’, ‘cure’ and so on. These are important to the individual, but they do not affect the probability of a positive test result, or the probability of that result being correct. Doctors’ decisions about whether tests should be offered, and patients’ decisions about accepting or declining an offered test, are legitimate objects of academic enquiry, but they do not affect the underlying probabilities: they are superstructure.

In his second letter, Macneil, in hot pursuit of his own red herrings, asserts that no ‘sensible’ medical practitioner would use a test with ‘accuracy’ (meaning true-given-positive) much less than 50 per cent. This is simply not true. For many existing and proposed medical screening programmes, the great majority of test results called ‘positive’ turn out to be false, on further investigation. For example, in one breast cancer screening programme (62,000 women), only 10 per cent of positive results proved true on biopsy. In another such programme (1000 women), more than 25 per cent of positive results were proved true. By contrast, a test for coeliac disease (a gut problem) had a true-given-positive rate of only 3 per cent. All three tests had roughly similar specificity (over 95 per cent) and sensitivity (around 80 per cent); the key difference lay not in the ‘quality’ of the tests, but in the fraction of the tested populations having the disease; respectively: 3, 15 and 1 per thousand. That is, in the base rate. Furthermore, for many tests, if more than 50 per cent of positives were proved true it is likely that the criteria for ‘positive’ would be weakened, in order to ensure fewer false negatives: that is, to increase the sensitivity, as opposed to the specificity. Equivalently in many examples, a test set to yield few false positives may fail to identify enough of the cases it is supposed to find.

‘Sensible’ decisions by practitioners about offering a test depend on its cost and the various outcomes, as well as specificity and sensitivity. Sensible decisions by patients about accepting an offered test depend on their own individual criteria. And decisions become harder when tests are risky. After a positive faecal occult blood test, well-known for its inaccuracy, you may be offered the chance to undergo an invasive test, a possible consequence of which is death. A pregnant woman may be tested for Down’s Syndrome in the foetus, using serum alpha-foetoprotein level and a scan. If the criteria for ‘positive’ are set so as to detect 75 per cent of those affected, then more than 97 per cent of ‘positive’ results will be false positives. All these women must then choose to accept or decline risky amniocentesis for confirmation. Such decisions are not easy, which makes it all the more important to think clearly about the probabilities.

Of course, all this is irrelevant to Greenberg’s original refutation of the Doomsday Argument. But it gives the following extract from the preface to the 1717 (first) edition of Abraham De Moivre’s book The Doctrine of Chances an even stronger contemporary relevance:

some of the Problems about Chance having a great appearance of Simplicity, the Mind is easily drawn into a belief, that their Solution may be attained by the meer Strength of natural good Sense; which generally proving otherwise, and the Mistakes occasioned thereby being not infrequent, ’tis presumed that a Book of this Kind, which teaches to distinguish Truth from what seems so nearly to resemble it, will be looked on as a help to good Reasoning.

David Stirzaker
St John’s College, Oxford

Hurrah for ‘Encounter’

Edward Said (LRB, 30 September) ignores the fact that Encounter, even if it was subsidised by the CIA, enriched the cultural life of this country, and no doubt others, from the Fifties to the Eighties to an unrivalled degree. The breadth and depth of its coverage of politics, literature, film and theatre were unique. It had plenty of left-wing contributors, and it was a wonderful read.

The Marshall Plan, pace Said, succeeded in salvaging much of Europe from wartime devastation. The Soviet Union managed to delay the recovery of Eastern Europe by half a century; in the end, mercifully, it failed. Heaven knows, the CIA made many appalling mistakes in many parts of the world. Subsidising Encounter was emphatically not one of them.

John Jolliffe
Shepton Mallet, Somerset

Don’t go

In his review of Benita Eisler’s new biography of Byron (LRB, 16 September), Thomas Jones refers to the poet’s three weeks with his new wife at ‘Seaham on the Yorkshire coast’. I recommend he doesn’t pay a visit. Actually in Co. Durham, the house is now an old people’s home and not at all what any devotee of Byron would want it to be like.

Paul Usherwood
Newcastle upon Tyne

The Problems of Chinese History

Jasper Becker, reviewing The Origins of the Cultural Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar (LRB, 29 July), tells us much about the problems of writing Chinese history but fails to acknowledge that MacFarquhar tells us a great deal, despite the obstacles. At the end of his review Becker says MacFarquhar makes it clear that ‘many terrible things which came to the attention of the world during the Cultural Revolution had started long before.’ Quite. But Becker fails to outline what MacFarquhar actually says and instead tells us about his own experiences in China during a period that has no relevance to MacFarquhar’s subject. In his survey of the book, he simply paraphrases MacFarquhar. It is therefore puzzling to read in Becker’s article that ‘Chinese politics was and is impenetrable.’

Jonathan Mirsky
London W11

No Forgiveness

James Wood’s review of Garry Wills’s Saint Augustine (LRB, 30 September) gets some things wrong. First, what Wood calls the ‘wicked idea’ that ‘all humans are sinners at birth because of something Adam did in Eden’ is not Augustinian in origin. In the Second Book of Esdras (a first-century Jewish text), Ezra complains to God: ‘You … laid … one commandment’ on Adam ‘but he transgressed it, and immediately you appointed death for him and for his descendants … Thus the disease became permanent; and the law was in the hearts of the people; but what was good departed, and the evil remained.’

Second, the sin of Adam, as both Esdras and Augustine represent it, is not ‘physically transmitted to all his descendants through sex’, but through heredity. Human beings ‘sinned’ in Adam in just the same way that Levi ‘gave tithes’ to Melchisedek, ‘while he was still in the loins’ of Abraham ‘his ancestor’. Disordered concupiscence was a result, but not the medium, of original sin.

Third, Newman was not ‘devoured by his apprehension of hereditary evil’. Christians do indeed have great difficulty in explaining what Newman calls the ‘defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin’, but atheists cannot deal with them at all. (‘There is no forgiveness of sins’ – George Eliot.) The doctrine of the fall was a relief to Newman: it explained evil and opened the way to the Atonement. ‘Man had rebelled against his Maker,’ he wrote in Apologia. ‘It was this that caused the divine interposition: and the first act of the divinely accredited messenger must be to proclaim it.’

Finally – the lady penitents of Wood’s Durham childhood: if you deny that we are all sinners, you are in danger of dividing people into sheep and goats, publicans and pharisees, maiden-ladies and militias. The alternative is to claim that we are not really free at all (in spite of what Wood says, free will cannot be rationed), which does away with the problem of judging others, but also makes it impossible for anyone to see God.

William Myers
Leicester University

Anyone for Gulli-Danda?

I was born and grew up in a remote corner of South-East Italy, a few kilometres from Otranto. The region is traditionally linked to Greece and the Balkans (there are still Greek-speaking communities in the province), but I didn’t think of India as part of its cultural heritage. One of my fondest memories, however, is of playing ‘gulli-danda’ in the streets as a ten-year-old in the early Sixties. The game was called mazza e pizzarieddhu in our local dialect, though it’s called lippa in Italian (nizza is preferred in Rome; pandolo in Venice).

Pasquale Montagna

Abolish everything!

Andrew Hussey’s article on the Situationists and Guy Debord (LRB, 2 September) was marred by some curious errors. Debord defined the potlatch as a ‘sumptuary gift’ (‘cadeau somptuaire’), not a ‘sumptuous gift’. it’s also difficult to see why Hussey turns Debord’s ‘entraîne un repli défensif’ into ‘seems to lead to a defensive withdrawal’. Hussey’s history seems shaky. I believe the word ‘situationist’ was coined by Debord, not Constant Nieuwenhuis; Debord first used it in January 1956. It was not Debord who showed the journal Potlatch to Asger Jorn, but Enrico Baj; Jorn sought Debord out on the strength of it.

Lastly, Hussey relates the Situationists’ ‘psychogeographic’ wanderings to their critique of the ‘spectacle’. In fact, the generalisation of the concept of the spectacle dates from Debord’s encounter with the group Socialisme ou Barbarie in 1960; this was also the last year in which the theory of psychogeography or the practice of ‘drifting’ played any significant part in the Situationists’ work. In effect the spectacle displaced the drift.

Phil Edwards

Our Mistakes

Discussing the ambiguous ending of J.M. Coetzee's Foe (LRB, 14 October), I say that the character Friday ‘remains an obstacle in the text, refusing to yield his meaning until, in a bold gesture, Coetzee intervenes in the narrative in his capacity as author and effectively divests himself of the authority to tell Friday’s story’. Crucially, Coetzee actually does speak in propria persona at this moment in the novel. In the published version of my review, though, the passage is attributed to Susan Barton.

Elizabeth Lowry
Witney, Oxfordshire

In an otherwise excellent review of Indian Voices of the Great War (LRB, 2 September) John Bayley defines ‘jemadar’ as a junior NCO. In fact the grade of jemadar is very similar to that of lieutenant.

Thomas Ingram
Fairfax, Virginia

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