Vol. 23 No. 13 · 5 July 2001

Search by issue:

People in Glasshouses

In his careful account of global warming (LRB, 21 June), Murray Sayle is keen to tell us how deeply we’re involved in ‘hydrocarbon civilisation’ but loath to advise us what to do, or not to do, about it. That’s shrewd of him, but you can’t help wondering what steps, in the absence of anything very encouraging from governments, ordinary citizens could take to minimise their contribution to environmental damage. Sayle ‘breathes as little as possible’. But a bigger question – for Sayle, and most of us – would be how often and extensively we travel. Prosperous people take mobility for granted; for many poorer people it’s an aspiration. And for travel, read travel in haste. No good planning a fortnight in the Bahamas unless you can get there in a matter of hours.

Travel, in this context, isn’t confined to our own movement. We can send things great distances in our stead – but could we live with the possibility of a signed affidavit in a FedEx pack taking a month to deliver rather than a day? We can also require things to come to us. As we do every time we slice an avocado or flip a tiger prawn in chilli oil or broach a bottle of New World wine – goodies that have racked up thousands of ‘food miles’ before they hit the spot. Could we bear a life with seasonal, local produce on our tables and nothing more?

In the absence of guidance from Sayle, perhaps we have to gear up for a life of sitting tight, with the central heating switched off, on a diet of turnips, marrows and elderflower wine. But it will take a bit of preparation and it’s not a welcome prospect. It may also be that those people living on turnips will become impatient, quite quickly, with those who fly around the world a lot, drive gas-guzzling vehicles, barbecue large quadrupeds and factory chickens, put fairy lights on their Christmas trees and heat their swimming-pools. There are signs that this impatience is already on the rise, even among intermittent or merely prospective turnip-eaters.

Sayle doesn’t talk about protest. But it’s an interesting question what form it will take as it gathers momentum. The many threats to the environment (global and regional) look set to produce widespread revulsion and anxiety of the sort occasioned by the nuclear arms race, but the stone-casters of CND and END were very obviously without sin, while those of us who decide to protest about environmental degradation will be prey to a moral ‘greenhouse effect’ of our own, along the proverbial lines of ‘people in glasshouses’ etc. Unless, that is, we’re already down at the allotment.

Nick Ainsley
London W11

Murray Sayle writes: I gave no advice on what we should or should not do about the spread of hydrocarbon civilisation because I have none to give. Nick Ainsley rightly says that we in affluent Europe, North America and Australia could cut our energy use and therefore our carbon dioxide emissions by more frugal habits, and such measures could make a token contribution, even if they meant switching from Australian to French or, even more abstemiously, to British wine. But such self-denial would not get anywhere near the heart of the problem, which was spotted early on by the hard heads in the US Senate. India and China want nothing to do with cuts, mandatory or voluntary, in their present carbon emissions. What entitles us ask a third of the human race to slow or halt the same fossil-fuel-based industrialisation that we have been boasting about for two hundred years, and calling ‘progress’? Is it remotely possible that we would accept Indian or Chinese living standards, to set them an example? Even if we suggested splitting the difference, simple arithmetic shows that by the time they reach half the present North American or European levels of per-head carbon dioxide emission, China and India will between them emit 45 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year, more than double what the world emits now. And Indonesia, Pakistan and Africa wait in line. Growing our own vegetables is fine, but we should not think it really addresses the hardest problem of our time. If only I had a ready answer.

Keep your nose clean

Writing about Labour’s proposal in its Criminal Justice White Paper that defendants’ past convictions should be revealed to juries, John Upton (LRB, 21 June) fails to mention the Jury Observation Fallacy. According to this, if a jury finds someone not guilty on the evidence presented in court – in other words, without taking previous convictions into account – the fact that this defendant has previous convictions for similar crimes usually makes it more, not less, probable that he or she is indeed innocent of this particular crime. This is because, when a crime is committed, the police quite reasonably go out and feel the collars of those with previous convictions for similar crimes. They therefore tend to fish in a highly non-representative pool, rather than picking suspects from the general population. This tips the probabilities in the defendant’s favour to an extent that is not outweighed by the likelihood of a certain fraction of past offenders becoming recidivists. If the defendant is considered innocent on the facts of the case, then his past convictions should be seen as evidence not so much of guilt as of the failures of police procedure.

Adrian Bowyer
University of Bath

In touching on the Government’s proposals, as outlined in their White Paper, concerning the use of expert assessors, rather than empanelled jurors, to decide cases such as serious fraud, John Upton is quick to warn against their dangers but strangely reluctant to spell out their advantages. He refers to ‘the complexity of fact and law that arises in such trials’ as though complexity of fact and complexity of law were somehow on a par. To the average member of a jury I guess the articles of the law involved in a trial will always be complex, and imperfectly understood however adept the judge may be in spelling them out. Complexity of fact is another matter, since the facts of a case are what a jury is at least presumed capable of understanding. In a case of financial malfeasance of the kind so regularly reported – and simplified – in the media, there must be little or no chance of a jury, or any significant proportion of it, understanding the details of the alleged offence. Quite apart from the technicalities involved, the sheer quantity of evidence, as frequently made visible these days by news film of box after box of it being portered into the courts, can only militate against a lay person following what has gone on. (Should a radical government not also be planning to reduce the quantity of admissible evidence in trials, and thus the soporific length of the proceedings?)

Expert assessors are used in other countries without apparently resulting in injustice and will surely be introduced here, if not immediately then eventually. Moreover, I don’t see why experts chosen from the specific field of an offence – bankers in Upton’s example – should be disbarred, as if they were bound to be prejudiced. I see no obvious reason why they should be.

John Stow

Section 78 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 may well have made it more difficult to frame a suspect, as John Upton claims, but it is not really true that it ‘makes illegally obtained evidence … inadmissible’. Relevant but illegally obtained evidence other than confessions – for example, documents and objects – may still be admitted at the discretion of the judge. The words of Justice Crompton in R. v. Leatham (1861) – ‘It matters not how you get it; if you steal it even, it would be admissible in evidence’ – still hold good.

Upton believes that the White Paper’s call for the codification of the criminal law is an example of the Government’s desire to ‘limit the discretionary powers of the judiciary’. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 was itself in some respects a piece of codification. Before it, confessions obtained by oppression and unlawful inducements were inadmissible because of judge-made law. With the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, this was incorporated into statute. It would surely be a good thing to have the law precisely stated in one place rather than in a mass of case law. A ‘core criminal code’ would help make the law accessible to the public, which Dicey regarded as one of the key features of the rule of law.

Chris Purnell
Pratt’s Bottom, Kent


There’s an amusing mistake in the second paragraph of my review of The Golden Age by Gore Vidal (LRB, 21 June). What got printed as ‘his father, Romley, claims’ was a mishearing of my telephone emendation ‘his father, wrongly, claims’. Oh well.

Zachary Leader
London NW6


Psychoanalysts have an unworthy and justly despised habit of countering attacks on their theories with the riposte that all objections are just evidence of ‘resistance’: whoever attacks psychoanalysis shows he is afraid of its truth. Still, if they were to pin this one on Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, they might for once have a point. His attack on Juliet Mitchell’s book (LRB, 24 May) has a vehemence about it that makes one wonder what his problem is.

Two aspects of psychoanalysis get Borch-Jacobsen’s goat. First, that it changes its mind about what makes human beings ill. Second, that it claims objective status for illnesses that are just the product of suggestion: patients tailor their illnesses to please their analysts; they present symptoms that will fit the prevailing psychoanalytic theories. Why shouldn’t psychoanalysts change their minds? Sociologists, animal behaviourists and historians do. We don’t rubbish ornithology because it changes its mind about aspects of the life of the stormy petrel, or criminology for fielding different explanations for delinquency, or history because it offers competing theories about the origins of the First World War. So what’s wrong with psychoanalysts disagreeing about the relative importance of mummy/daddy and little sister/little brother?

As for the fashionable idea that mental suffering mimics trends in psychoanalytic theory, tell that to an eight-year-old silently in the grip of acute obsessional anxiety. I remember what that was like – and, incidentally, the symptoms of a child who has never even heard of therapy will not alter if he subsequently enters analysis. As Dr Johnson said: ‘Life must be seen before it can be known.’

Daniel Eisenstein
London NW3

The Baader-Meinhof Gang

In his angry letter, Robert Storr (Letters, 21 June) takes issue with being described as editor rather than author of Gerhard Richter: ‘October 18, 1977’. This error was introduced by the LRB. Storr points out that roughly half his book is given over to the rise and fall of the Baader-Meinhof Group and the other half to Richter’s paintings and the aesthetic problems they raise. The same is true of my review, which he claims fails to provide a ‘careful examination’ of Richter’s work.

Peter Wollen
London W2


Lytton Strachey wrote a brilliant, error-laden essay on the Muggletonians in 1924. He wondered if any were still alive. If they were, he said, it was because in England heretics were tortured ‘not to death, oh no! – but to some extent’. J.L. Nelson (LRB, 7 June) argues that, ‘without systematic persecution’, the Cathars too might have ‘survived in a twilight zone and faded away unnoticed, like the last of the Muggletonians’. ‘Historians of Catharism,’ she writes, ‘face huge problems of evidence.’ But this is not a problem for historians of Muggletonianism, now that the sect’s archive has been deposited in the British Library. I am working on a history of the sect from its origins in 1652 to the death of the last Muggletonian in 1979. Three hundred years is a long time to survive, even in a ‘twilight zone’, and we now have access to information that might help us account for it.

William Lamont
University of Sussex

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences