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Letters

Vol. 22 No. 12 · 22 June 2000

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Going Not Guilty

Bernard Porter (LRB, 1 June) backs up the suggestion made by K.D. Ewing and C.A. Gearty in The Struggle for Civil Liberties that judges in the years covered by their book – 1914-45 – had an ‘obvious political bias’ against the Left. But it was not just the Left which was the object of repressive measures supported by the courts. Only one political party was closed down during this period: the British Union of Fascists. Its leader and many of its members were detained without trial, and it was proscribed. With hardly a dissenting voice the judges backed the authorities.

During the First World War around 160 citizens were detained in mainland Britain without charge or trial. Destruction of records means that not a great deal is known about them, but it is clear that their detention was motivated by fears of potential disloyalty, not by their membership of either left-wing or right-wing political groups. The legality of their detention was challenged in the courts and the judges upheld the system. Between 1916 and the establishment of the Irish Free State, there were thousands of detentions – and with rare exceptions the courts upheld them, too. Locking up Irish nationalists had nothing to do with stopping socialism, but that did not deter the judiciary. The simplest and most convincing explanation is that the judges consistently and indeed enthusiastically backed the authorities, whoever they were after.

As for the repressive activities of the executive, Porter’s claim that ‘extreme right-wing opinions never attracted the same level of repression’ as those of the Left is not easy to reconcile with the abundant evidence as to what happened during the Second World War. Only one regular member of the Communist Party and a very few former members of the Labour Party are known to have been detained without trial. Over seven hundred of Mosley’s followers were detained, as well as about six hundred harmless Anglo-Italians. Harassing the Left in the 1920s and 1930s was peanuts in comparison.

A.W.B. Simpson
Wingham, Kent

Bernard Porter is right to comment that if governments decide that they need new repressive laws they bide their time, wait for (or create) a ‘national panic’, then, ‘lying through their teeth, insist that the legislation is very mild’ and in the best interests of the public. This is the way New Labour has eroded legal aid provision. The justification is that solicitors and barristers can afford to do the work for nothing, although it is put less crudely than that. In referring to ‘fat cats’, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, a high earner when he himself was at the Bar, created the impression in the public mind that all lawyers were as he was. He must know, however, that to become wealthy while undertaking legal aid for the generality of clients is impossible.

That John Upton is no longer in practice no doubt accounts for an error he makes in the same issue when discussing what happens if a client reveals to counsel that he is guilty. After making sure that the man really is guilty of the crime he confesses to (some misunderstand the nature of the crime alleged against them), counsel must tell his client a) that he can no longer make any suggestion of his client’s innocence in cross-examination, although he may properly test the prosecution evidence to see if it proves guilt; and b) that he cannot allow the accused to go into the witness box, since he will no doubt protest his innocence. Provided the client is content with such restricted representation, counsel may continue to represent the accused. In the course of thirty years I have experienced this situation only once.

Stanley Best
Chairman, British Legal Association
Broadwoodkelly, Devon

Sweet Enough

E.S. Turner’s review of An Inkeeper’s Diary by John Fothergill (LRB, 27 April) reminded me of a story my mother used to tell. In the late 1920s she lived for a year in Oxford. Sunday lunch at the Spreadeagle in Thame with undergraduate friends was, no doubt, a good introduction to one aspect of English life for an Australian girl. On one occasion when pudding was ordered, my mother asked for sugar. While she waited for it to be brought, Mr Fothergill approached the table, and saw her untouched plate.

‘Is there something wrong with the pudding, Madam?’

‘Thank you, but I’m just waiting for some sugar.’

‘I think you will find it sweet enough.’

‘Oh, but I like the grit.’

‘Madam, I shall bring you some sand.’

Jonathan Persse
Burrawang, New South Wales

Combative

David Sylvester (LRB, 18 May) said that he liked the New York Museum of Modern Art’s thematic installation, ModernStarts, on which I worked. I shall, therefore, take advantage of his goodwill to say that there were a few things in his article, mainly devoted to Tate Britain, I wish that he had put differently.

1. Sylvester allows the interpretation that ‘thematic’, unlike ‘chronological’ installations offer unexpected and provocative juxtapositions. Since the former sort of installation is less familiar than the latter, its juxtapositions are likely to be unexpected and, therefore, provocative. But Sylvester allows, more than this, that ‘thematic’ and ‘chronological’ are, effectively, synecdoches for analogous oppositions that regulate the practice of installing art in museums and galleries – understanding/delight; schoolchildren and tourists/artists and critics; easy/ demanding; anti-narrative/narrative; subjective interpretation/objective reality, and so on. His own brilliant record as a curator and installer of exhibitions suggests that, on reflection, he would not want to allow this inference.

2. In support of the ‘chronological’ installation, he says that ‘chronology is not a tool of art-historical interpretation which can be used at one moment, discarded at another. it’s an objective reality, built into the fabric of the work.’ But he tells how a curator ‘placed all the pictures in precise date order, ignoring the fact that 1912, say, provided different contexts in Paris, Munich and Moscow’. ‘Chronological’, in other words, is not being used to mean ‘in precise date order’ but, rather, what the term ‘historical’ is usually taken to mean. However, ‘the artist’s awareness’ of chronology, Sylvester says, means that ‘he’s conscious of … his location in history.’ Thus, ‘chronology’ describes the objective reality and ‘history’ the subjective interpretation, and it is, in fact, a ‘historical’ installation that he recommends.

3. A truly chronological installation, like that created by the aforementioned curator, may claim that it simply records the ‘objective reality’. (It would be a pointless claim, but never mind that.) A historical installation, however, cannot possibly make that claim if ‘history’ is the subjective interpretation of ‘chronology’. More than that: insofar as a historical installation records a subjective interpretation, it is a specialised sort of ‘thematic’ installation, one organised according to historical themes. The familiarity of historical installations merely disguises the fact that they too comprise sets of juxtapositions put together to elucidate subjective interpretations of the objective reality of the works of art. Thus, Sylvester describes how he began to put together a Magritte exhibition to elucidate general formal themes then changed his mind and put it together to elucidate the theme of period style. Doing that did not, of course, guarantee that roast beef and grilled sole would not be served up together; it merely guaranteed that the colours and textures of whatever was served up together would be more or less the same. The metaphors are Sylvester’s and tell us that creating an installation requires, among other things, the exercise of taste.

4. Sylvester says: ‘The primary criterion of Modernism was that a work of art must affirm its existence as an object and that subject-matter was incidental to its proper purpose.’ Then, skilfully avoiding the suggestion that Baudelaire thought that Delacroix’s paintings were objects, he speaks of Magritte, whose ‘ambition was to create remarkable images’. But Modernism, although a selective term, is not a voluntary one, and even Sylvester cannot award Magritte a leave of absence for the purpose of helping an argument. One has to conclude that Sylvester adopted a clearly unsupportable idea in order to explain an extremely acute observation, that Minimal art and the appearance of thematic installations have a causal relationship. His explanation is that the hypostatisation of objecthood created the backlash called subject-matter. But, insofar as a work of art is thought to affirm its existence as an object, may it not be thought to require an installation? It is not, in fact, thinking of works of art as no more than objects that makes you ask for more. Installation has always required art but, obviously, could not be confused with installation art until installation art had been invented.

The conceptual hybrid known as the ‘Artist’s Choice’ exhibition unquestionably added to the confusion by bringing into the museum artists’ installations composed of works of art in the collection of that museum. It would not be surprising if a curator were to emulate this spirit of experimentation, if only to demonstrate that curators have been making choices all along. Indeed, I think that it is safe to say that we should expect to see more of curatorial installation art in the future, and audience installation art, too, certainly in a virtual dimension. I also think that the more experimental the installation the greater the risks and, therefore, the greater the demands on the expertise, taste and good sense of the curator. What I don’t think is that the ‘thematic’ installation itself is to blame for Sylvester’s despair. (On which subject: the LRB cover announcement that he was despairing hardly catches the mood that we continue to find in his writing. Combative, more like.)

John Elderfield
New York

David Sylvester writes: I am extremely grateful to John Elderfield for his criticisms (both of my text and of the LRB cover announcement). Nevertheless, I don’t think I can accept two of the claims made in his third point. He proposes that a historical installation is ‘a specialised sort of “thematic" installation, one organised according to historical themes’; he goes on to talk about ‘the theme of period style’. This seems to me a sleight of hand. The ‘themes’ in the displays under discussion are all themes abstracted from life, e.g., ‘War’ and ‘Seasons and Moments’. But all of a sudden Elderfield starts using ‘themes’ as a synonym for ‘criteria in ordering works of art’. It is as if, in a debate on medical matters, he were lumping together ailments and treatments.

Second, he speaks about my putting pictures by Magritte in an order designed to ‘elucidate’ certain themes in the work. I don’t think I was trying to elucidate them, I was using them, as I said, ‘to tell a sort of story’: I was playing around with them in the hope of creating drama, humour, surprise. Perhaps I was attempting elucidation when I settled for putting the works in a historical arrangement.

David Sylvester

Hocus-Pocus

For anyone who does not understand hypnosis, its craziness is certainly unfathomable. Adam Phillips (LRB, 18 May) writes: ‘When Freud abrogates hypnosis as a therapeutic technique, psychoanalysis is born, and the 19th century begins to see sense, where previously there had only been the hocus-pocus of suggestion.’ First, Freud did not abrogate hypnosis as a therapeutic technique. He abjured it, when he found that he did not have the ability to hypnotise some of his patients. Secondly, analysis was not born when Freud gave up hypnosis. It was born when Josef Breuer discovered that hysterical symptoms are induced by a repressed thought. Thirdly, there was no ‘hocus-pocus of suggestion’ when Breuer (and Freud after him) used hypnosis to carry out analysis, which is the opposite of suggestion. In suggestion you put an idea into a person’s mind. In analysis you only seek to get out an idea, which is already in the person’s mind.

Peter Breuer
Westcliff-on-Sea
Essex

Giddy Mitten

I’m not sure why David Trotter makes such a thing of not knowing what a ‘giddy mitten’ is, at the end of his piece on Ford Madox Ford (LRB, 1 June). My 1998 Chambers dictionary has ‘get the mitten’ as meaning ‘to be dismissed, especially as a suitor’. The ‘giddy’ is there for emphasis, as in ‘the giddy limit’.

Conrad Cork
Leicester

Southern Africa’s Land Wars

From 1954 to 1972, I worked intermittently on Natal farms which were propped up by fixed prices and subsidies. They employed large numbers of men and produced food. Mechanisation swept away the men; the free market has swept away the food. Natal farms have been turned over to forestry, craft holidays, pony-trekking, race-horses, even, as R.W. Johnson (LRB, 1 June) reports from Zimbabwe, flowers. All over the world the free market ruins commercial food production on marginal land.

The men who worked on the farms are back, or rather, a new generation is back, armed with the AKs which are the dragon's teeth sown by apartheid in its last-gasp adventures. It is their firepower which will decide who owns what in Natal. The ANC Government is impotent, the police – after heavy casualties – have lost their appetite for war, and white farmers cannot sustain the costs of fortification and patrol.

An African chief is required to protect his people. A white farmer who sacks his employees has failed in his responsibilities. Those duties have been assumed by warlords who run cattle for status, sell cannabis for cash and organise subsistence farming.

David Potter
Bunwell, Norfolk

The Albatross of Racism

In discussing Bartolomé de Las Casas’s stand against the enslavement of Indian peoples in Latin America, Immanuel Wallerstein (LRB, 18 May) might have mentioned that it was Las Casas who suggested recourse to African ‘labour’ instead.

Wilhelm Schmid
Sarajevo

Smelly

According to Iain Sinclair (LRB, 1 June), Bill Drummond bought a Richard Long print because the title – A Smell of Sulphur in the Wind – brought back ‘the taste of Corby and the steel mills, air you could cut like a cake’. In fact, being a New Town, the steelworks were built to the east, so the prevailing winds carried the stench away to rural Weldon and Oundle. In Corby the smells were of cut grass and creosote, wet pavements, washing on the line, chip shops – the smells of any provincial town, miles from Sinclair’s imagining.

Andrew Cowan
Norwich

Do they drink the oil?

Leo Zaibert (Letters, 1 June) accuses me of naivety and optimism, because I wrote positively about the Venezuelan Government of Hugo Chávez. It is safer, of course, to greet every new development in Latin America with cynicism. For the moment, however, Chávez's project appears to be the most interesting development in Latin America for many years. He has staked his reputation on rooting out the corruption in Venezuelan society. The accusations mentioned by Zaibert against Luís Miquilena, his chief civilian adviser, are under investigation, and it remains to be seen whether they are true. Since I wrote my article, Chávez has shown a preference for his civilian entourage over his old friends in the military. This has much to do with the decision of some former colonels to form an opposition – something the old and discredited political parties cannot do.

Chávez's decision effectively to rejoin Opec and not to cheat on the quota system – the strategy of the previous Government – was the principal cause of last year's rise in oil price, a fact the organisation recognised when it chose Ali Rodríguez, the Venezuelan oil minister and a former guerrilla, as its new president.

Richard Gott
London W11

Johnson’s Bottom

Conspicuously absent from Robert Creamer’s defence of the Christian Brothers (Letters, 18 May) was any indication of the continent on which he and his sons went to school. Perhaps they were fortunate enough not to go to schools run in England by the Irish Christian Brothers. My experience at one of them between 1949 and 1954 was pretty close to R.W. Johnson’s. It may be true that we were not ‘flogged’ in the dictionary definition of that term, but that is what we called the frequent beatings we received. I was once so badly hurt for passing a jar of jam to my younger brother that I had to be examined by a doctor.

Michael Brookes
Forest Hills, New York

The headmaster of my primary school in South Wales got his comeuppance when a boy fainted after being caned. His mother arrived at the school, brandishing a kitchen knife. Fifty years later I can still picture Mrs Hurford chasing Mr Sluman round and round the cloakroom.

John Pook
Mouans Sartoux, France

Mistakes

The translation of The Birds reviewed by David Wheatley (LRB, 18 May) was done by Richard Martin and myself, rather than by myself alone.

Paul Muldoon
Princeton, New Jersey

Immanuel Wallerstein’s piece (LRB, 18 May) contained a number of errors in the German. In the first column on page 11, ‘der andere Österreich’ should have read ‘dem anderen Österreich’. In the third column ‘Der Mitte’ should have been ‘der Mitte’. And on page 12, ‘Gastarbeitern’ should have read ‘Gastarbeiter’. On the first column of page 13, ‘Wir sind Menschen, Christlichen Österreicher’ should have read ‘Wir sind Menschen, christliche Österreicher.’ We are grateful to the readers who pointed out these mistakes and apologise for our failure to spot them.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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