Vol. 22 No. 11 · 1 June 2000

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Johnson’s Bottom

Unlike Robert Creamer (Letters, 18 May), I do consider myself a practising Catholic. But also unlike him, I have no personal experience of an education at the hands of the Christian Brothers, whom he seeks to exonerate from the criticisms of abuse by R.W. Johnson. However, there is now sufficient evidence amassed in Ireland (following a similar experience in Australia) for the Government to have established a judicial commission to inquire into allegations of sexual and physical abuse by Christian Brothers, among other religious orders, on a scale rarely, if ever, witnessed elsewhere. The inquiry is to consider evidence dating from 1940 to the present day, although the industrial schools, where most of the abuse allegedly took place, were closed in 1971 after a previous, highly critical Government inquiry. (As early as 1940 Fr Thomas Flanagan, the founder of the American Boys’ Town, referred to the industrial schools as ‘Ireland’s concentration camps for children’.) The Christian Brothers ran about half the schools, the other half being in the hands of other orders, mainly the Sisters of Mercy.

The Government’s action, which includes changes in the law and a counselling service costing four million Irish pounds a year, has been prompted in part by the number of clergy who have recently appeared before the courts charged with abuse (2 per cent of Ireland’s clerics have been found guilty). There were, of course, many sisters and brothers teaching in the schools who were motivated only by a true vocation. Why they did not speak out remains to be uncovered, though it is possible that for many, what has been called the ‘learned helplessness’ of their religious training may have made it hard for them to do so.

Terry Philpot
Limpsfield, Surrey

Robert Creamer may be excused his incredulity about the incidence of floggings meted out by the Christian Brothers, but not the sneeriness that goes with it. The ‘strap’ – made of stitched leather, something over a foot long, a couple of inches or so wide and half an inch thick – was standard issue and went with the cassock. I don’t know why Creamer ‘presumes’ that flogging must be delivered to the back or the bum. You got it on the hands, usually four strokes at a time, at my Christian Brothers school in Liverpool in the 1950s. Not all the brothers were enthusiastic or severe floggers, but not even the most good-natured of them would have questioned the use of the strap as an instrument of discipline and a punishment for sin. For some it was the teaching aid of first resort and for others it must have satisfied another need entirely. You’d have been keeping your nose cleaner than I ever could not to be lashed the three or four times a week that R.W. Johnson reports. The single-lesson record was held by a lay teacher of Latin: 140 or so strokes among 26 boys inside 40 minutes. A truly exceptional performance, you might think, but not so exceptional that any notice was taken of it by anybody but us boys.

Julian Roach
Welshpool, Powys

I, too, attended a Christian Brothers school: as a timid swot I was not often beaten. However, some of my classmates were flogged daily. ‘Flogged’ here means struck on the bottom with a chairleg, or struck on the hand with a leather strap. On one notable occasion, the two best maths students in our class were beaten for getting an answer wrong. When we proved to Brother Cyprian that his calculations were incorrect, he called up the other 22 students, and flogged them all as well. This was in the late 1960s.

Douglas Kretzmann
Denver, Colorado

I attended a tiny Roman Catholic school in a country town in the North of England, from 1937 for seven years. Many of us were beaten on the hand several times a week, not usually for specific sins but as a general disciplinary measure. Later in life I wondered whether things really could have been that bad. Then I met an old school friend who had been our teacher's pet, or so I thought. I'd got hardened to the regime but she had been so terrified of school that most mornings she wet her knickers at the prospect of the day ahead.

Gloria Grove-Stephensen
Helmsley, Yorkshire

Robert Creamer seems to have been luckier in his experience of the Christian Brothers than me. All our Christian Brothers carried specially made leather straps with whalebone inside. These were about 18 inches long and were used to inflict a great deal of pain on one's hands (not bottom). In cold weather particularly, the pain could be quite awesome and sometimes one bled. Creamer's reckoning of a hundred strokes a year for me is probably about right. The Brothers were all lower-class Irish from, so to speak, a wife-beating culture and were generally Irish nationalists so you got beaten rather more if your name was Johnson rather than, say, Sheahan. Boys were flogged from the age of eight up and generally in front of the class – which, of course, made it tougher for the boy who cried or, sometimes, involuntarily wet himself. Occasionally the Brothers would strike pupils round the head, though this was not common and on a few occasions I saw boys kidney-punched. (I also had that happen to me.) In my final year a sixth-former who failed to attend a cricket practice was flogged, expelled and forbidden by the headmaster to enter the school to sit his A-levels, a punishment which would have blighted his career if the local mayor hadn't intervened.

R.W. Johnson


‘In a way one regrets the loss’ of the ‘day to day business transaction’ of ‘insuring against too protracted a stay in purgatory’, Frank Kermode says in his piece about images of Christ (LRB, 27 April). At the end of the 1970s my family and I were staying at a modest hotel on the Italian Riviera. Our bedroom was unremarkable except for a little holy picture card placed in one window. This promised 40 days’ indulgence from purgatory for anyone who said the prayer (overleaf) for the conversion of heretics. I don’t know whether the chambermaid knew that I was an Anglican clergyman, but I still have a wonderful picture of a devout girl clocking up 40 days out of purgatory every time she made our double bed.

Alfred Jowett

Frank Kermode is quite right to question whether the ‘indefatigable’ Neil MacGregor achieved a valid compromise between the Christian and the humanist viewpoint in the Seeing Salvation exhibition at the National Gallery. He concludes that ‘there is a fundamental difference between the kinds of devotion each side is prepared to offer.’ That humanism, or rationalism, is supposed to imply devotion of any kind demands justification. What was plain about the exhibition was that sponsorship from religious organisations effectively banished any seriously sceptical tone from the display.

Anthony Beck
London SW6

Whites Only

Julia Gasper’s argument (Letters, 13 April) that Gandhi could not have opposed apartheid because it had not been invented is irrelevant. There was institutional racial discrimination and Gandhi himself was a victim of it. My accusation, or ‘sly attempt to discredit him’, as Gasper puts it, is not, as she says, that he did not criticise this prototype apartheid but that by trying to persuade Indians to join the war against the Zulus so that they would be given white status he attempted to collude with it.

Julian Burgess
Forncett St Peter, Norfolk

Getting Brainier

Jerry Coyne (LRB, 27 April) berates Matt Ridley for ‘genetic determinism’ and much else besides, including his interesting idea of selecting one gene from every chromosome for attention (thus setting himself up for Coyne’s criticism that he has structured his book eccentrically and organised it bizarrely). Coyne then selects the ‘Intelligence’ chapter for special criticism. If we are to believe Coyne, Ridley dismisses environmental influences or subsumes them in the genome. In fact, here and in other chapters, Ridley emphasises ‘the reality of genes and environments: a maze of complicated interactions between them, not a one-directional determinism’. Ridley ends his chapter by pointing out that the Flynn effect – the observation that IQ is increasing in all countries by an average of 3 points a decade – argues strongly against the simple genetic determination of IQ suggested by the high correlation of IQ in identical twins.

It is clear that the genome project is unique in modern science. For the first time we have a megascience project that is not driven in secret by military considerations, as were the programmes that produced ballistic missiles, atomic weapons and the electronic computer, for example. It is vital that we inform ourselves as thoroughly as possible about this work and its implications. The last sentence of the review by Steven Shapin that follows Coyne’s makes this point well: ‘one of the best resources we have … is rich, detailed and disinterested reporting from the field.’

Kevan Martin
Institute of Neuroinformatics, Zurich

Russell’s Record

Bernard Wasserstein (LRB, 13 April) appears to be surprised that there are four references to Lord John Russell in the index to David Vital’s A People Apart: The Jews in Europe 1789-1939. Yet the mention of Russell is surely justified by his leadership of the campaign to secure political rights for non-Anglican minorities. It was Russell who in 1828 initiated the freeing of Dissenters from political disabilities by defeating Wellington’s Government in the House of Commons on the question and forcing it to legislate. Catholic emancipation was achieved in the following year. However, these changes made the Jews worse off, as the Government ill-advisedly accepted a backbench amendment in the House of Lords that oaths should be sworn ‘upon the true faith of a Christian’. In 1833-34, the Commons passed a measure to take these words out of the oath, but this was rejected by the Lords.

The matter became urgent in 1847 when Baron de Rothschild was elected to the House of Commons. Russell introduced a Jewish Relief Bill which was passed by the Commons but rejected by the Lords, a process that was repeated on several occasions over the succeeding 11 years. Rothschild was allowed to sit in a part of the Chamber technically outside the House, but was not permitted to speak or vote. In 1851 a second Jewish MP, David Salomons, was elected, and he was disinclined to show the same patience as Rothschild. Eventually the Lords grudgingly accepted a compromise whereby each House could decide for itself whether to admit Jews. The Commons did so in 1858, but the Lords excluded them for a further eight years.

Geoffrey Lock
Lower Broadheath, Worcestershire

Shit, Christ, phone Cher

In his review of Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein, Christopher Hitchens (LRB, 27 April) writes that Allan Bloom ‘never recovered from the moment when black students produced guns to amplify their demands’. What actually happened was that black students at Cornell University occupied the student union in the course of a quarrel with the university administration. Some time later they smuggled in guns for self-defence after threats of violent retaliation from fraternity boys and local rednecks. The weapons made a fine show when the students left the building after negotiating an agreement with the university, but that is the only time they were seen. Later the same day, a black student leader broadcast a statement threatening that certain individuals would soon die like dogs in the gutter. This prompted some professors and administrators, along with their families, to seek shelter in local hotels. It gave rise to a hysteria from which Bloom for one, as Hitchens rightly notes, never recovered. To most students, however (I was one), the idea that these individuals or their academic freedom were seriously threatened seemed absurd. The student who made the broadcast threats subsequently became a big man on Wall Street and a trustee of the university.

Paul Romney
Baltimore, Maryland

Do they drink the oil?

Richard Gott’s optimism regarding Hugo Chávez’s statesmanship is naive at best (LRB, 17 February). Corruption has indeed been endemic in Venezuela, but Gott’s exaggerations render his assumption that Chávez’s Government is likely to be honest even more suspect. Chávez’s ‘most intimate political advisers’, Luis Miquilena (President of the Congresillo) and José Vicente Rangel (Chancellor), are already involved in corruption scandals. Miquilena has been accused by the Attorney General of being a major shareholder in the company which printed Chávez’s new ‘Bolivarian’ constitution. Rangel confessed to giving diplomatic posts to Chávez’s cronies but claimed that it was only reprehensible to ask for favours, not to grant them. Chávez himself has now been accused of corruption by the lieutenant-colonels who joined him during the failed 1992 coup. Gott, like Chávez, describes this coup as a ‘rebellion’. Euphemisms like this abound in Gott’s article, as do many textbook examples of the fallacy of mere assertion. Backed by virtually no evidence, Gott asserts that Venezuela’s recent democratic past was spurious: there was only one real political party (Acción Democrática) – the other major party (COPEI) ‘was allowed on occasion to win elections’. Gott never tells us why it was important (and how it was possible) to ‘keep up the pretence that Venezuela was a democracy’. Nor does he say why he credits Chávez with the ‘significant success’ of securing, ‘with a little help from his partners in Opec’, an increase in international oil prices.

Leo Zaibert
University of Wisconsin, Parkside


I challenged Roger Hardy to substantiate his charge – in his review of John Cooley’s Unholy Wars – that Israel ‘helped arm and train’ the Afghan Mujahidin. In his response (Letters, 13 April), Hardy muddies the water by offering no proof of his original charge but instead substantiating a radically different claim: that weaponry originally captured by Israel and turned over to the CIA was later recycled by the CIA to the Mujahidin. Hardy was also careless in his assumption that the online search I conducted was a ‘trawling of the Internet’, which he characterises as ‘lazy’. The search was of the professional news database Nexis and in fact made no use of Internet search engines or even the Internet itself.

Myron Kaplan
Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America
Boston, Massachusetts

On Paper

Matthew Battles (LRB, 13 April) is wrong to credit Gutenberg with the invention of print. He refined a number of existing processes to produce the flat-bed printing press, employing reusable type that dominated printing until the 19th century. Battles somehow equates the arrival of the printing press with the demise of vellum as a writing medium, but the introduction of paper production into Europe through North Africa in the 12th and 13th centuries had a lot more to do with its passing. The printing press created a far greater demand for writing material than previously existed, but the use of paper was already growing by the mid-15th century.

Charley Seavey
University of Arizona

The Two of Us

C.K. Stead’s skewering of Paul Theroux (LRB, 27 April) was most enjoyable, but while he’s right about most of where Theroux goes wrong, he is wrong about one particular. ‘An American would say “on the English faculty",’ says Stead, detecting an unidiomatic turn of phrase in the mouth of a New Zealand native. But as a US citizen by birth and a university faculty member (‘college teacher’, we would more likely say) since 1976, I can attest that no American academic would ever say such a thing. ‘I’m in the English department’ almost certainly would be the way to put it.

Given the nature of Theroux’s attack on Naipaul, perhaps I should disclose my own relationship to Stead here: I met him once, many years ago, when I was a student and he was lecturing, and I’ve since followed and enjoyed his writing. However, I have no intention of writing a book about the two of us.

F.S. Schwarzbach
Hudson, Ohio

Bennett Notebook

John Ross (Letters, 13 April) tells us his ‘Round John Virgin’ mondegreen is a ‘true story’ about a child’s drawing in a Melbourne school last Christmas. My wife heard the same story as a child in Massachusetts, and I heard it while growing up in the West of England. Is Claremont, Australia really that far behind the times?

Michael Brookes
Forest Hills, New York


I do indeed believe, as Linda Alcott suggests, that ‘a speaker’s location is epistemologically salient,’ but so is the location of the text. Could you reclaim those lines of Sage on Moi (LRB, 18 May) which are apparently located underneath an over-expansive advertisement?

Catherine Conybeare
University of Manchester

Editor, ‘London Review’ writes: They are (with apologies) as follows:

a) … who brings the bad news’, and Moi has …

b) … are lots more where they came from, Moi …

c) … argues that this sort of pattern is endemic in …

Editor, ‘London Review’

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