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Vol. 29 No. 5 · 8 March 2007

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In Time of Famine

Towards the end of his dismal account of what it’s currently like to travel through its famished landscape, R.W. Johnson writes: ‘A great deal depends on whether what is happening in Zimbabwe can be termed “genocide", as many people believe it can, for in that case the UN is obliged to act’ (LRB, 22 February). Then, having deemed intervention of some kind to be ‘necessary’, in view of the widespread homelessness and starvation in the country that Mugabe’s bizarre and vicious policies have brought about, he asks which member state might actually raise the Zimbabwean issue at the UN. By the end of the article, we’re left with little or no expectation that any member state at all is going to show willing – and Johnson might have pointed out that, even if Zimbabwe did get onto the agenda in New York and the issue of intervention went as far as the Security Council, the Chinese, busy now, as he reports them to be, signing up the Mugabe regime in their own global economic interest, would use their veto to prevent any action being taken.

There’s a parallel to be drawn between the Zimbabwe case and that of Iraq. During the many years that Sadam Hussein remained all too successfully in power, he was open to the charge of acting genocidally, given that the victims of his violence were so predominantly members of a religious group opposed to the religious group he himself represented. I don’t recall that at any time during his foul dictatorship there was international agitation for his removal on those grounds by means of an armed UN intervention. By the time there was an armed intervention in Iraq, the worst of the genocide was long past, which makes the attempt to dress up the US invasion post hoc as a humanitarian act look pretty sick.

In the same way, given that genocide must be seen to be genocide right from the start, and not a label conveniently stuck on a regime later, once patience with it has become exhausted, it would be no good claiming that Mugabe’s behaviour has only gradually become genocidal and that it’s taken time to be recognised as such. His behaviour has surely got worse, but it hasn’t got different. The fact is that arguments over whether what is going on in Zimbabwe counts as a ‘genocide’ or not are just one more red herring, well fitted to swim with the populous shoal of those slithery creatures we’ve become so used to in the last years. It turns out to be a great pity that there is anything called a Convention on Genocide at all, given the endless possibilities for inaction, expediency and downright mendacity certain to attend on any debate on whether this case or that counts as an example of it. It’s not clear to most of us that those whom Mugabe wants to eliminate, if not physically then economically, are other than his political opponents – that’s to say, those who either already have voted against him or might do so in future. By no stretch of my imagination can I see that as constituting genocide, since the unfortunates in question aren’t a ‘national, ethnic, racial or religious group’, as per the Convention’s stipulation. Speculation as to whether or not the UN might be able legally to intervene in Zimbabwe is a blind, ensuring that nothing very much is being done from outside that country to bring a degree of political pressure on Mugabe which even someone as far gone in senile megalomania as he appears to be can’t stand up to. Johnson is right, alas, to suggest that our prime minister, who has done nothing useful at all in respect of sorting out Mugabe, will ‘end his term with a … self-serving expression of regret’; but then perhaps Blair can but feel admiration for a political leader who contrives to hold onto office way beyond the moment when he becomes patently unfit to exercise it.

Neal Hodge
London N1

Oh well then, forget it

Reading Patrick Collinson’s informative essay in the last issue (LRB, 22 February), I wondered if he remembered a Past and Present conference on popular religion we both attended in 1966. From the floor at one session, Lawrence Stone, in a high state of excitement, asked if England ever had a university don creating a popular religion. A voice at the back shouted out: ‘Wyclif.’ Stone looked stricken, said, ‘Oh well then, forget it,’ and sat down.

William Lamont
Lewes, East Sussex

Because it’s pink

George Hornby and Jeremy Harte describe cases in which colours seem to have immediate physical effects, contrary to the claim I defend in my book The Objective Eye: namely, that an object’s colour (unlike its shape) can affect what happens only as a consequence of being seen (Letters, 22 February). In this respect, I argue, colour is like beauty. Beauty can change the course of history but only as a result of being perceived.

Hornby mentions dark objects heating up more in the sun than pale ones, and photosynthesis, which he says ‘depends on the plant’s colour’. And Harte mentions a miniature vane in a glass bulb which is turned by sunlight (a Crookes radiometer). None of these examples proves the point. The first relies on the assumption that it is the darker colour of an object that causes it to heat up more, whereas in fact the colour and the change in temperature both have the same cause: the absorption of light. The second example relies on the assumption that an object’s colour is the same property as its ability to absorb and reflect light. But this cannot be right, because abilities are not visible in the way that colours are – any more than probabilities, possibilities or necessities are. The third example is similar to the first.

These cases are interesting – I discuss similar ones in the book – because they show how difficult it is to understand colours. Vision is inconceivable without them, but it is hard to explain exactly how they are related to our perceptions and to the objects we perceive.

John Hyman

At the Movies

Discussing Kurosawa, Michael Wood neglects to mention that Yojimbo is a treatment of Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest (LRB, 22 February). His claim that ‘Yojimbo already is a Western’ is only partly accurate. Red Harvest takes place in Montana, to be sure, but it is the dingy, smoky, copper-mining Montana of the 1920s. Toshiro Mifune is the best representation yet put on film of Hammett’s protagonist, the nameless operative from the Continental Detective Agency, who was also featured in many of Hammett’s short stories.

Gerald Carpenter
Sequim, Washington

Michael Wood puts coyotes in Morocco, where the goatherds’ problem must have been the common jackal (LRB, 25 January). There are no coyotes east of Boston and its hinterlands.

D.E. Steward
Princeton, New Jersey

About the Getty

I hesitate to prolong the aftermath of Nicholas Penny’s entertaining but essentially trivialising review of The Sight of Death (LRB, 4 January). However, Michael Williams’s passionate defence of T.J. Clark perhaps merits an observation (Letters, 22 February). Clark is by no means the first person to record and evaluate changes in the appearance of paintings determined by varying qualities of light and different viewing positions. The most distinguished example of scholarship grounded in this kind of discipline that I know is Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall’s Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence (1994). Of The Institution of the Rosary in the Gesuati, Venice, for example, they write: ‘The picture in a sense is a number of different pictures and would be hard to exhaust, but it is noticeable that it looks better in the morning, when the lighting from both sides is at its more complex and paradoxical, not in the afternoon, when the simpler and fully licensed west light source gives its plain reading.’ The authors’ memorable account of Tiepolo’s great ceiling in the Treppenhaus of the Prince-Bishop’s Palace at Wurzburg is a historical analysis predicated on looking over time:

Take, for instance, light near absolute zero – a grey December late afternoon with the very minimum light intensity for the paintings to be made out at all. These are not bad viewing conditions in the Treppenhaus, just special conditions. Indeed, Tiepolo kept for such a moment a special effect, not normally available. What happens is that heaven comes into its own.

Marcia Pointon
University of Manchester

A Doll’s Apartment

Watching a rerun of The Apartment just after reading Martin Puchner’s piece on Ibsen, I was struck by the parallels between Billy Wilder’s film and A Doll’s House (LRB, 8 February). Both dramas feature a living space and take place over the Christmas period; both are concerned with the hypocrisy of supposedly respectable marriage in a bourgeois world; and both present suicide as an ill-advised way out of a cosily miserable existence. Ibsen is subverting the tradition of 19th-century melodrama; Wilder is doing the same for Hollywood romantic comedy.

Ibsen presents women who appear to be simply wives, mothers, nannies, but turn out to be wage-earners making difficult choices to keep their families off the breadline. Wilder presents the opposite: women who have jobs but whose real power lies in their sexual attractiveness to men with better jobs. Wilder’s insurance company, Consolidated Life, is an unremittingly sexist world: all its executives are male; all its women are either secretaries, switchboard operators or – if they can’t spell – lift operators. Torvald’s bank in A Doll’s House seems positively progressive by comparison: the plot hinges on the same job being sought by a man and a woman; the woman gets it, and the two of them fall implausibly in love. That scenario is almost commonplace in more recent Hollywood comedies, but it would be unthinkable in the world of The Apartment.

Tim Allen

Drums and Fifes

Barbara Taylor remarks on John Barrell’s reference to John Lewis, who appears in the sources sometimes as a drummer, sometimes as a fifer (LRB, 8 February). It seems that the Household Division’s Corps of Drums comprises both drummers and fifers, so that a bandsman has the rank of ‘drummer’ even though he plays the fife – which may explain the confusion.

John Moisson
Ilminster, Somerset


Bede did not start as a seven-year-old oblate at St Paul’s, Jarrow, as stated by Tom Shippey (LRB, 22 February), because it had not then been built. Bede was probably born in 673 or 674, and the Jarrow church was not dedicated until 685, when he was about 12. He would have started his monastic life some eight miles away at the first section of the monastery to be built, which was St Peter’s, Monkwearmouth.

Barrie Lees
Bentworth, Hampshire


I was amused by your retort to Tanja Jeffreys’s letter questioning your decision to provide a glossary for Russian words but not for German (Letters, 8 February). So anyone can look up German words in a dictionary can they? You seem to be unfamiliar with the great frustrations entailed by the often compound nature of German words with prefixes and prepositions attached to them. With most other European languages, if you are reading a text and meet an unfamiliar word you can look it up in its alphabetical place in the dictionary. If it is a German text there is a very good chance you will not find the word where you had hoped and you will have to deconstruct it, identify its core, look that up and then reassemble the compound word and hope to be able to figure out what it all means.

Tom O’Hagan

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