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Letters

Vol. 27 No. 22 · 17 November 2005

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Snitching

Reading Sheila Fitzpatrick’s creepy account of Pavlik Morozov and the more general reflections on the ethics of snitching with which she ends (LRB, 3 November), I immediately thought of the case currently being tried at the Old Bailey of Parveen Sharif. This Muslim woman, a schoolteacher in Derby, is the sister of one of the two young British Muslims who set off two years ago to become suicide bombers in Israel, supposedly under the orders of Hamas. In the event, her brother, Omar Sharif, didn’t manage for whatever reason to set off his bomb but was later found drowned in the Mediterranean. The bomb exploded by his companion killed three people in a Tel Aviv nightclub. Parveen Sharif was accused of having encouraged her brother to become a terrorist and – this is where Sheila Fitzpatrick’s thoughts about the rights and wrongs of denunciation come in – failing to inform the authorities of his intentions, failing that’s to say to turn in her own brother. She was tried for a first time on these charges, also at the Old Bailey, in August 2004. After a trial lasting nine weeks, the jury failed to reach a verdict; hence the second Old Bailey trial, which began on 6 October.

Not having noticed any press reports on the progress of this second trial since it began, I assumed that if the media had lost interest, which they certainly shouldn’t have, I’d be able to find something on the brave new information highway. Not so, however. There are close on 30,000 websites purportedly having some reference to Parveen Sharif but on none of the ones I had the patience to call up could I find any account of the current court proceedings. Given that the second reading of the government’s proposed new anti-terrorism legislation has just taken place in the House of Commons, one begins to wonder, infected, it may be, by the conspiracy pandemic, whether reports of the case, which we have to assume is still being argued out at the Old Bailey, have been suppressed, since they would be bound to have a very strong bearing on public reactions to the government’s proposals. Could Parveen Sharif be charged, for example, under the new legislation with the weird and unprecedented offence of ‘glorifying’ terrorism, the word ‘glorifying’ itself suggesting that the drafters of the bill have been sitting for too long at the feet of Alastair Campbell, when the old ‘encouraging’, which is what Ms Sharif is specifically accused of having done, is patently sufficient and already enshrined in the statute invoked to bring her to court?

It would be reassuring to be able to read more of the present state of the Old Bailey proceedings, and reassuring, for some of us at least, were Ms Sharif to be cleared of any offence at the end of her retrial.

William Livesey
Manchester

When I lived and worked in Moscow in the mid-1970s, the spirit of Pavlik Morozov, discussed by Sheila Fitzpatrick, was alive and well. Everyone was expected to inform: failure to do so was a crime. But in case Evgeny or Tatiana failed in their duty, there were official informers. Every apartment building had its block sneak – usually a woman – recognisable by the brassard worn on the sleeve of her coat. Intourist hotels had a ‘keeper of the keys’ on every floor who reported on the comings and goings of guests and their visitors. Even in my office, where all the Soviet staff came from UPDK (the KGB equivalent of the Brook Street Bureau), there was no secret about who reported my activities every week (my driver), and who reported on her colleagues (one of the typists).

In the UK, on the other hand, to inform is socially unacceptable, even when serious crimes have been committed, and most information leading to arrests is either motivated by personal animus or comes from paid informers. Here in Kent, with its long history of smuggling, there are many villages where most of the tobacco smoked was, until a recent crackdown, obtainable tax-free. The smugglers were known, but no one thought of dobbing anyone in. Shortly after community officers started foot patrols last year, it was discovered that a significant minority of cars parked on the street (in some towns up to 40 per cent) had neither current licence discs nor insurance cover. Everyone knew about it, but nobody blabbed. The Mafia, it appears, does not have a monopoly on omertà.

Tony Neville
Lydd, Kent

Missed Opportunity

Ian Gilmour is right to point out that the Europhobes have denied the obvious heavyweight, Kenneth Clarke, the chance to lead the Conservative Party and land heavy blows on the Labour administration (LRB, 20 October). Media reports indicate that he has been uninvolved over the last four years and failed to cultivate MPs, particularly the new entry. But the prospect of a selection between a relatively inexperienced right-winger and a totally inexperienced charmer, arbitrated by a membership which, by reason of age, is not representative of the electorate, sends a chill down the spine of anyone who wishes to see the present government faced by a strong and plausible opposition.

John Horsbrugh-Porter
Amersham, Buckinghamshire

Who names this ship?

E.S. Turner comments that the choice of Queen Mary as the name for Cunard’s liner was not universally admired (LRB, 20 October). He doesn’t mention that the name originally chosen and agreed by the board was Victoria. Sir John Brocklebank, as chairman, was required to seek royal approval for the name from King George V, renowned for his brusque manner and embarrassing tendency to jump to conclusions. During his audience with the king, Brocklebank spoke in an ornamental rhetoric suggesting that Cunard would like to name their new ship after one of Britain’s much loved and respected queens. George V interrupted, saying that Her Majesty Queen Mary (his wife) would be delighted and gave immediate approval to use her name. Poor Brocklebank could hardly demur and returned shamefaced to his fellow directors. This episode set a precedent for Cunard’s next leviathan. George VI needed a boost following the Abdication crisis, so the ship was named for his consort, Queen Elizabeth.

John Alpe
Kampar, Malaysia

When I sailed on the Queen Mary to New York in the summer of 1963, we in Tourist Class were confined, for evening entertainment, to a doleful lounge and served drinks at tables by elusive stewards; apparently we weren’t trusted to handle ourselves in a bar. On our first evening at sea, too close to the stand not to overhear, I listened as the leader of the four-piece band (elderly, heavily Brylcreamed tenor sax), who played a couple of sets before scarpering to augment a larger orchestra in First, instructed his new drummer: ‘Remember, First Class it’s brushes; for this lot, use yer sticks!’

Sean Gallagher
London W14

Publicity and Sales

Concerning the five broadcasts that P.G. Wodehouse made on German radio in 1941, Fatema Ahmed says: ‘Wodehouse’s biographers convict him only of exaggerated innocence. This isn’t as far-fetched as it seems’ (LRB, 3 November). Or perhaps it has been fetched too far. In 1941, Harry Flannery, the CBS correspondent in Berlin, interviewed Wodehouse for a radio broadcast to America. It was known then that Wodehouse intended to give talks on German radio. Immediately after the interview, a CBS commentator in New York, Elmer Davis, said: ‘Mr Wodehouse seems to be more fortunate than most of the other Englishmen in his internment camp, whose release would have had less publicity value for the Germans … People who get out of concentration camps, such as Dachau, for instance – well, in the first place, not a great many of them get out, and when they do, they are seldom able to broadcast.’ Wodehouse heard these remarks and, Flannery noted, was ‘lost in thought’ until, leaving the studio, he said: ‘Nasty of him, wasn’t it?’

Later, Wodehouse wondered why people always wanted to know if he was going to talk on German radio. ‘Is there anything wrong with that?’ he asked. Flannery told him no American would do it; the mere fact of being on a German radio programme would be seen as propaganda: ‘We would be aiding the Nazis.’ Wodehouse was not persuaded: ‘I can’t, for the life of me, see what all the fuss is about.’ His last question was: ‘Do you think these broadcasts will hurt the sale of my books in the United States?’ When he made his German broadcasts, the anger in England brought a similar reaction: he wondered whether the English would still buy his books.

Wodehouse was aware of Hitler’s invasion of Russia, of the Blitz, of the U-boat war in the Atlantic. Where does ‘exaggerated innocence’ shade into self-indulgent obliviousness?

Derek Robinson
Bristol

Bertie Wooster often mentions Jeeves’s ability to shimmer in or out of a room without being noticed, and he seems to have pulled this off again in Fatema Ahmed’s review. Jeeves is a looming presence who rivals Mary Poppins in his ability to do almost anything while saying almost nothing. After so many years of patient service, he deserves more than a passing mention.

Nicholas Pole
London NW8

Wodehouse was living, at the outbreak of World War Two, not in the South of France, but in the North, at Le Touquet, which makes it, perhaps, even odder that he was interned.

Will Stevens
Bristol

Lethal Appropriation

Thomas Jones’s resurrection of the long-forgotten 1864 pamphlet by Maurice Joly, Dialogue aux enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu, is timely in ways even more apropos than he suggests (LRB, 20 October). The Dialogue was ostensibly a satire on Louis-Napoleon’s 1851 coup d’état (shortly after its publication Joly was arrested by Louis-Napoleon’s police), but at a deeper level it was concerned with the way autocratic domination is secured in the modern world of ‘democratic’ rule by means of demagogic manipulation of the masses. Machiavelli is given the villain’s role, having provided the rationale for the techniques of domination: Montesquieu’s ideas are the ones by which modern polities should actually be guided. There is a further, more dramatic irony here, pregnant with historical catastrophes to come. As Jones notes, Joly’s pamphlet was extensively plagiarised by the Russian forgers of the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Where Joly had pointed his satirical finger at Louis-Napoleon, the forgers both de-satirised his arguments and displaced them onto the Jews, as the alleged record of a grand Jewish conspiracy to achieve world domination (there are no Jews in Joly’s text). But not only did the forgers adapt Joly’s criticism of the imperial regime to the ends of anti-semitism, they also took from Joly’s description of the methods of demagoguery a set of formulae for a plan of world domination of their own. As Konrad Heiden put it in his biography of Hitler, they found themselves ‘confronted with their own image’. By means of a lethal appropriation, they absorbed what they claimed to expose. Hitler’s man, Alfred Rosenberg, brought the Protocols to Germany.

Christopher Prendergast
Copenhagen

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