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Vol. 27 No. 13 · 7 July 2005

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Tell me where I’m wrong

I have one or two things to say in response to David Elstein’s letter regarding Bernard Porter’s review of Britain’s Gulag by Caroline Elkins (Letters, 2 June). I was a British district officer in Kikuyuland for half the period of the Emergency and directly witnessed some of the events about which Elkins writes. Forty years ago I wrote, with Carl Rosberg, The Myth of ‘Mau Mau’: Nationalism in Kenya, the first revision of the British colonial government’s official history of Mau Mau, as expressed in the Corfield Report of 1960.

Elkins had to go to extreme lengths to research the history of detention in Kenya because the British colonial government, on the eve of decolonisation, and with the imminent advent of African ministers in senior cabinet positions, deliberately and comprehensively destroyed much of the documentation related to the detention camps and barbed-wire villages. As acting district commissioner in Nyeri, I received orders to destroy all files remotely linked to Mau Mau, and I was aware that other officers received and carried out similar orders. In the years immediately after the Emergency, when I was conducting research, it was already clear that there were enormous gaps in the archival record.

Elkins’s use of the demographic data – her comparison of the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru population figures, taken as a whole – is perfectly sound. The British colonial government levelled its counter-insurgency policies against the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru, three closely related ethnic groups who speak the same Kikuyu language. In the documents still available one will find constant reference to the ‘Kikuyu, Embu and Meru’, the ‘K.E.M.’, or even simply the ‘Kikuyu’, which was often used, and is still, as a shorthand way of referring to the three groups as a whole during the Emergency. To disaggregate them when making a demographic comparison would misrepresent the nature of the war. Analysing the demographic figures for the groups separately would in any case be difficult to do with any accuracy: there have never been precise figures for the different ethnic groups in the camps, nor do we know how many Embu were counted as Kikuyu in the 1962 census.

Elkins argues that the demographic figures, when read alongside the empirical data, are suggestive. As she rightly points out, we will never know precisely how many Africans died during the war, but we can use the remaining historical evidence to make informed revisions of the official death figures. Those preferred by both the colonial government and most scholars appear to be based on the estimates at the end of the Corfield Report, which probably originated from military sources. Today they are unacceptable, excluding as they do the complex network of non-military, semi-official and private bodies associated with the anti-Mau Mau struggle. These, as the episode at the Ruthagathi Post revealed, often acted outside the law.

Elstein also questions Elkins’s figures for the number of detainees held in the detention camps. He approves as accurate David Anderson’s daily average figure of 70,000 for December 1954. But what Elkins and others have pointed out is that, as a daily average figure, this does not take into account the intake and release rates of the detainees. Indeed, in his recent book Anderson concurs with Elkins that the actual number of detainees in the camps was ‘at least 150,000 Kikuyu, perhaps even more’.

John Nottingham

Indisputably Us

Patrick Wright’s dazzling survey of camouflage (LRB, 23 June) leaves the peaceable Hardy Blechman looking rather mottled. The association of artists with a range of early 20th-century camouflage projects suggests how preoccupied they were – and on the whole how fruitfully – with militarism. Whether for or against a war, you were likely to think of yourself as part of a warrior tradition, assaulting entrenched attitudes of the mind and the eye. Disruptive pattern material was just right for that.

To take the view, as Blechman seems to do, that if we all go about in green and khaki wave-pattern designs, we’ll somehow undermine or redistribute militarism past the point of its coherence is like saying that if we put our hands over our eyes no one will see us. Though maybe it’s part of the perversity of camouflage – and its older sister espionage – that in the right circumstances hiding one’s eyes so as to be hidden might just amount to a form of disguise.

The company Natural Gear, a US producer of top-of-the-range camouflage for the game-hunter, is deeply sceptical about artists’ designs. Its own colour-schemes are ‘photographically derived’, because photography mimics ‘nature’. Artists, on the other hand, tend to overegg the pudding and stick a lot of clutter on the crust. Natural Gear is a dogged opponent of ‘shelf-appeal’. ‘Sticks-and-leaves’ decor is far too busy, they argue, and draws the nervous attention of browsers, who soon get the hang of it. Chiaroscuro, too, is a bit of a joke to the educated buck at either end of the telescopic sight: light and shadow occur naturally and shouldn’t be written in. The outfit’s divine, and if it’s clever too, the prey will go down. (For $14.99, Natural Gear offers a navy-blue T-shirt with the logo ‘Show your true colours’ superimposed on the American flag.)

To the non-combatant, aerial camouflage has a more puzzling history than ground-level hide-and-seek. At first sight, it’s a mysterious encounter between conspicuousness (the honest-to-god insignia) and inconspicuousness (the not-quite-convincing patterns, such as green and khaki and pale blues on the undercarriage). But it may be more simple. ‘At close quarters, we’re indisputably us,’ the camouflaged fighter-bomber seems to announce. ‘But from further away we might as well be you.’ Where anger, ideology and rival accounts of injustice give definition to belligerents, camouflage does the opposite, though they’re all accessories of waging war and maybe only Hardy Blechman knows which of them isn’t also a fashion accessory.

In August 1936, Paul Véniel, a pilot in the España squadron, went down to Valencia to pick up a Phalangist plane, a Junkers F132, which had made a belly-landing on the beach and fallen into Loyalist hands. The aircraft was redone in Republican colours and Véniel flew off for Barcelona. At some point, he came under fire from his own anti-aircraft guns and before he got on the ground again, he realised that the crews in Valencia must have failed to attend to the undercarriage. Playing hard to see was not the problem here so much as forgetting to say who you weren’t. (The España squadron was put together by André Malraux, a master of dazzle and disruptive patterns.)

Andy Lyall

Obligations to Pragmatism

David Simpson commends the force of Jacqueline Rose’s arguments ‘not only in and for Israel but beyond’ (LRB, 23 June). It might indeed be useful to extend debates around nationalism to the rest of the globe. At the very least, we should be ready to acknowledge that the best efforts of socialists, pacifists and others over the past two centuries have established neither international institutions able to replace the nation-state nor forms of international thinking which replace nationalism’s brutalities and raisons d’état.

The winding-up of Western colonialism, the disintegration of the former Eastern Bloc, the current impasse of the European Union and the low morale of the United Nations offer very little hope that we might see the end of national political units, no matter how tiny or unviable they may be. There is little point in aspiring towards a political solution in the Middle East which would not be considered workable in, say, the former Yugoslavia. There may be a case for applying psychoanalysis to the problem, but it will not supply solutions in the short term.

The best prospect for Israel-Palestine, and the most we can realistically hope for, would be a modest range of practical measures: agreed frontiers, agreed financial compensation, a cease-fire. If the ideologues on both sides wish to preserve their purity by saying that such a truce could only be observed for 50 years, that would give two generations time to become habituated to peace and a degree of economic security which they would be reluctant to surrender. To propose more ambitious goals for the immediate future may make some people feel good about themselves; the growing pile of corpses will feel nothing at all. If the course of 20th-century politics has taught us anything at all, it is that intellectuals have obligations to pragmatism.

Anne Summers
London Metropolitan University

Mrs and Mrs

James Davidson’s generous review of Alan Bray (LRB, 2 June) put me in mind of the way that, ages ago now, we used to shock first-year anthropology students with the idea that marriage in most societies was a practical affair involving not love and sex, but a ‘bundle of rights’. These were rights to property, to status, to children, to membership of groups, occasionally to sex – but marriage was never about love. Love was associated with the family and friendship rituals such as blood brotherhood and compradazgo (co-godparenthood). In recent generations, Western societies have shifted to be more like the Nzema of Ghana or the Bangwa of Cameroon, who legitimise same-sex marriage. Because fathering children is the best way of demonstrating status and wealth among the Bangwa, men marry as many women as possible to have as many children as possible. A woman’s only means of achieving a similar status is to marry a woman herself and ‘father’ her own children by the use of sperm donors; in this way ‘queen mothers’ can have many wives and ‘father’ many children. A male child or an impotent older man, usually a chief, may marry child-producing women and become the father of the children born to the women, thereby accumulating wealth. The biological father has no rights: there is total reproductive privacy.

Robert Brain
Leura, New South Wales

Typographical Tangle

In his review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel, Wyatt Mason says that a story in which a nine-year-old boy wanders around post-9/11 New York City on his own for eight months, knocking on the door of anyone whose surname is Black in order to enquire about a key he found in a blue vase on the top shelf of his dead father’s study, is kind of unconvincing (LRB, 2 June). But he doesn’t explain why. A friend of mine told me that the most wonderful thing about the book is its account of the nature and sensation of fear, that its every page is loaded with the real anxiety a real boy might feel, and that this anxiety is held at bay only by his semi-autistic and brilliantly inventive imagination. My friend was almost exactly wrong. Foer’s novel is extremely clever and incredibly manipulative, its aim being to create a reassuring, attractive, and entirely false fictional territory in which a perfect father is remembered by a perfect boy who walks through a perfect city peopled with such fabulous creatures as a 102-year-old with a card index of everyone he’s ever met, and a polymathic tour guide who refuses ever to leave the Empire State Building. The problem isn’t that the real New York City isn’t anything like this cartoonish, Lovely Bones-influenced rerendering of a moody Austerish landscape. The problem is that this isn’t fiction at all, but dolled-up schmaltz.

What’s more, the dolling-up, which Mason has the good grace to overlook (although by not mentioning it he’s doing more of a service to Foer than to readers), is of an especially grating kind: words crossed out and rewritten in ‘handwriting’, in many coloured inks, blank pages, cutesy illustrations, a whole bunch of lines printed on top of one another. It’s an effort to cut through this irritating typographical tangle to the novel beneath: an effort that only a reader as committed and generous as Mason would consider worth making.

Carla O’Keefe
Hoboken, New Jersey

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