Vol. 30 No. 4 · 21 February 2008

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Who Is Dennis Rodman?

Jenny Diski says of Dennis Rodman: ‘no, I don’t know who he is either’ (LRB, 24 January). For her, and perhaps others’, information, Dennis Rodman is a very famous American basketball player. He’s hard to miss because he is 6’7" and has a variety of piercings, rings and tattoos. He also dated Madonna (a singer/celebrity) and, in 2006, appeared in Celebrity Big Brother (a TV show). He was the fifth housemate voted out – on the same day as George Galloway, who came fourth (he is the Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green and Bow; ex-Labour, now Respect, now famous also for his imitation of a cat on Big Brother, during which he pretended to lap cream from the hands of Rula Lenska, an actor who used to be married to Dennis Waterman, also an actor). Perhaps Jenny Diski should get out more (or stay in and watch a bit more telly).

Karon Monaghan
London WC1


Terry Castle writes that when Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore were in solitary confinement in the prison on German-occupied Jersey, ‘they found a way to communicate with one another with the help of the slave workers who emptied out the jerrycans used in the cells for toilets’ (LRB, 13 December 2007). The German military authorities in Jersey imprisoned 2600 local people (including my father) for ‘political’ offences – about 7 per cent of the population. One of these was 17-year-old Michael Neil, who was put into solitary confinement on 10 October 1944 for attempting to escape from the island by boat, and later also charged with stealing ammunition. Assigned to solitary confinement in the basement ‘dungeon’, Neil was able to communicate with fellow prisoners through Ron Boucher and Jimmy Thelland, two political prisoners of about his own age, who came round to fill his rusty enamel mug with tasteless soup or coffee. ‘You could hear their laughter all over the prison,’ Neil later remembered. Ron and Jimmy brought messages, telling Neil, among other things, that Cahun and Moore, who were in cells above him, wanted to thank him for his singing. After that, Neil regularly regaled Cahun and Moore – and any other prisoner in earshot – with renditions of songs such as ‘J’attendrai’.

Jenny Chamier Grove
Kew, Surrey

Unfair to Uribe (again)

I agree with James Sanders that the long Colombian democratic tradition does not deserve the easy dismissal it often gets, but I do not agree with much of his analysis of the current Uribe administration (LRB, 24 January). The Colombian government is not a third ‘warring faction’, to be equated with the paramilitaries and the guerrillas: that is just the sort of ‘Anglophone’ commentary that Sanders himself condemns when it comes from Charles Gould in Nostromo. Uribe’s Justice and Peace Law and the demobilising of the paramilitaries may be less than perfect, but since he took office paramilitary murders have been markedly reduced; so too, contrary to what Sanders writes, have paramilitary influence in politics and paramilitary land-grabbing, both of which reached a peak before Uribe was elected president. Uribe is not alone in calling the guerrillas terrorists: few Colombians would understand him not doing so. Sanders’s conclusion that this means not negotiating with guerrillas and ignoring their rights does not follow, and does not properly represent the government’s line or practice; it is currently negotiating with the ELN. Uribe is hardly alone among democratic politicians in attacking his critics. He has a short fuse, particularly with those who accuse him of paramilitary or narco associations in the past. In a country where no secret is kept for long, Uribe’s rivals and enemies have been trying to dig up dirt about him for more than a decade, and have come up with nothing damning. It should take more than the self-serving memoirs of Escobar’s former mistress and one dubious US intelligence report of 1991 to nail him as Escobar’s ‘close personal friend’.

Sanders is certainly right that ‘the appeal of basic security is hard to overestimate.’ It is also hard to overestimate the reluctance of the bien pensant left outside Colombia to give Uribe any credit at all for what he has achieved. The ‘democratic security’ policy is a serious and detailed statement of government aims and methods that deserves more than snide inverted commas. There was no parallel to it in Guatemala, or Argentina, or Peru, when those governments were faced with insurgencies – and remember, if you can, what happened there. Sanders is also wrong in ‘noting’ that ‘the poor and the middle classes’ are rejecting Uribe’s promises. Whether they like it or not, Uribe’s current approval rating after more than five years is 80 per cent, highest in the lower and upper strata of society, with a small dip in the middle. And no, Colombian surveys are not rigged: the politicians and newspapers that commission them do not pay to be fooled. A footnote: Elvia Cortés was not a rancher and she was probably not killed by the FARC.

Malcolm Deas
St Antony’s College, Oxford

How to Read Chinese

Craig Clunas doesn’t mention – it doesn’t necessarily come into his purview – the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci’s attempt, the first, it seems, to Romanise the Chinese language (LRB, 7 February). There have been many since. At the end of the 1950s in Hong Kong, the system commonly used to teach Cantonese to expatriate government officers was invented by Father Thomas O’Melia, and contained such edifying sentences as ‘It is better to build churches than houses.’ O’Melia’s system, like the older Wade-Giles and the more modern Yale systems, used a mixture of consonants and superscripts to denote the tones. However, in the mid-1960s the Barnett-Chao system attempted to simplify the denoting of tones by doing away with superscripts altogether and relying on consonants. This resulted in something that had no phonetic relation to the language at all: simple sentences such as ‘How are you?’ were Romanised as ‘Nree xroo ma?’ rather than the more phonetic ‘Ne ho ma?’ The system didn’t last long.

With the advent of the telegraph and the opening up of trade with China, there was a need to be able to transcribe Chinese characters into a telegraphic form. Thus the Chinese Commercial/Telegraphic Code came into being in both Cantonese and Mandarin Romanisation. The code was numerical and based on the number of strokes that made up a given Chinese character. The book, which became invaluable to government and business alike, was, oddly, issued by the Special Branch of the Royal Hong Kong Police.

Things would have been much easier had Matteo Ricci and his successors succeeded in Christianising China. In Vietnam, Father Alexandre de Rhodes’s Romanisation, coupled with the Vietnamese antagonism towards the Chinese, replaced Han Chinese writing completely and became the country’s national writing system.

Robert Steele
Dunblane, Perthshire

Last Days of Weimar

I am puzzled by Eric Hobsbawm’s claim that ‘the prospect of stopping Hitler’s rise by a comprehensive anti-Fascist union’ was ‘unreal’ (LRB, 24 January). Hobsbawm undoubtedly understands the scope and limits of ‘counterfactual’ history far better than I do, but it seems to me that the combined strengths of the Social Democrats and the Communists – electorally, industrially and in street mobilisation – would have been adequate to block Hitler’s rise. Certainly the Social Democrat leaders were treacherous and murderous, but the Communist line of describing Social Democrats as ‘social fascists’ undermined any possibility of unity. Hobsbawm must surely recognise that his former comrades bear a large part of the responsibility for the tragic defeat of 1933.

Ian Birchall
London N9

Eric Hobsbawm refers to many well-known figures in literature, the arts and science whose work placed Weimar Germany ‘at the centre of modernity and Western thought’. A striking omission, as in many discussions of Weimar culture, is any mention of the pre-eminence of German research of that period in psychological as well as physical science, a pre-eminence that was shattered by Nazism and the Second World War. Whether or not Weimar’s political destruction by the Nazis was inevitable, there was nothing inevitable about the way in which the dominance of Gestalt theory and related anti-positivist approaches in the early interwar period was superseded by behaviourism. This was a consequence, not of a clash of paradigms within the academy, but of the destruction of Frankfurt’s world-renowned research programme and the persecution and flight of its leading representatives. Max Wertheimer found refuge, along with Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, at the New School for Social Research in New York. They were Jewish, as were Kurt Koffka and Kurt Lewin, who also emigrated to the United States. Wolfgang Köhler, not Jewish, was forced to emigrate after defending his senior Jewish colleagues and junior colleagues accused of Communist sympathies. None of these scientists, in contrast to some émigré German physicists, ever had access to research resources in the US equivalent to those they had lost in Germany. German psychology of the 1930s prefigured many ideas current in modern cognitive science. The Nazis, having destroyed it, went on to refashion the discipline around eugenics and ‘race science’.

Chris Sinha
Havant, Hampshire

Eric Hobsbawm writes: To show that everybody underestimated Hitler before his appointment as chancellor of Germany 75 years ago, even his announced victims, I chose to quote the title of an editorial by Leopold Schwarzschild to the effect that, in the words of your correspondent Andreas Wesemann, ‘Hitler would be neutralised if he had to share responsibility for German economic and foreign policy’ (Letters, 7 February). I did so deliberately, since Schwarzschild was a Jew, deeply opposed to the Nazis and an intelligent and well-informed observer of the political scene. The argument that this was a less suicidal proposition because written after the Prussian elections of April 1932, when the Nazis scored 36.3 per cent of the votes and not (as I mistakenly wrote) the national elections three months later, when they scored 37.4, will not hold water. Hitler could certainly have been stopped in 1932 though not by ‘the basic democratic institutions of the republic’. Indeed, he was blocked by the right in the summer of 1932. But in January 1933 the nationalists and reactionaries may well have been encouraged by the Nazis’ electoral setback in November 1932 in their own suicidal belief that Hitler could be controlled as part of a coalition government of the right. They were mistaken.

Ian Birchall will agree that the Comintern’s lunatic thesis about the ‘social fascism’ of social democracy demonstrates that gross underestimate of the Nazis I noted in my piece. But, even if both sides had been ready for it, which they were not, it may be doubted whether in 1930-32 a common front of Communists and Social Democrats could actually have mobilised sufficient support, let alone force, to stop Hitler coming to power.

What’s a Translator to Do?

Daniel Soar writes sceptically about publishers – they moan – and Arts Council funding, particularly of literary translation (LRB, 7 February). Some 1700 people have signed the petition ‘Don’t Let Dedalus Die’. That said, there is no doubt that there is a climate of indifference and ignorance surrounding literary translation in Britain. Given this situation, who will pay the translators? Very often, it will be the organisation set up in the source-language country to promote its national literature. I have more or less been living off the money paid by the Estonian Cultural Endowment for the past few years. The funding works like this: the publisher pays for editing, printing and marketing, but the promotional organisation pays the translator directly. All that’s needed is proof of a contract. Once that is signed, the translator receives the first instalment. Then, when the book reaches the bookshops, the translator is paid the second tranche. This system relieves the publisher of some of the cost, and safeguards the translator’s fee against publishers who might be tempted to invent spurious ‘expenses’.

I like this set-up, and charge slightly more than the ‘industry recommended’ £80 per one thousand words translated, not least because I always add an introduction. What does rankle is that the Translators’ Association, a subgroup of the Society of Authors, is not allowed to set a professional rate, as this would be deemed to constitute a cartel. And another thing: the sum of £80 (before tax!) represents about half an average literary translator’s day’s work. Some envious people, thanks to pocket calculator extrapolations, have worked out that the average wage of a literary translator is princely. Perhaps they don’t realise that those of us who work full time and freelance often have huge gaps between one book and the next.

Eric Dickens
Blaricum, Netherlands

The Future under Cameron

David Runciman suggests, but describes as ‘seemingly far-fetched’, a scenario in which the next UK election produces a hung parliament, with David Cameron as prime minister proposing Scottish independence (LRB, 7 February). In fact this situation is perfectly possible, because of the significant blocks of nationalist MPs. It was, after all, the results of the two 1974 elections that helped to put devolution on the agenda. The two major parties will not be negotiating just with the Liberal Democrats but also with the nationalists, and the latter will be interested in any deal that may be done over electoral reform.

Michael Hill
Queen Mary, University of London

Jackson’s Tinsel

It would be playing into the obviously overbusy hands of Derek Jackson, whose biography was reviewed so entertainingly by Ferdinand Mount (LRB, 7 February), to say I owe my existence to him, but there is a link. In the spring of 1942, when Jackson was trialling the tinfoil strips that would confuse enemy radar and save the lives of so many bomber crews, my father turned 17 and joined up before he was called up. He became the wireless operator in a Halifax bomber (Mount mentions the Lancaster and if there is one thing my father gets crusty about it is the latter’s cachet over the Halifax, much as the Spitfire is favoured over the Hurricane) and one of my first memories of him talking about the war was his enthusiasm for Jackson’s tinfoil. Indeed, he brought a few reels with him on being demobbed and in those austerity years after the war used to tear it up into strips with which to decorate the Christmas tree.

Martin Ward

Ferdinand Mount seems to imply that the Germans never used the ‘Window’ anti-radar device in raids on this country. But I remember vividly, as a teenager living in North London during the smaller blitz of 1942-43, going out into the playing-fields behind our Muswell Hill house and collecting the shining tinfoil strips which lay scattered over the tennis courts and cricket pitches, along with the pieces of shrapnel much prized by schoolboys.

Ted McFadyen
Hove, East Sussex

Having Fun with Auden

In his review of Volume III of The Complete Works of W.H. Auden Frank Kermode refers to the young Auden fancying ‘himself as qualified to lay down the law to an awed class’ and claims that ‘when compelled into it he disliked the life of the schoolmaster’ (LRB, 7 February). There is, however, ample evidence from the vivid memories of many of his former pupils at the Down’s School, Colwall, where he taught from 1932 to 1935 and for a short time in 1936, that they were far from awed: he always preferred an atmosphere of informality and taught through classroom games, with actions as well as words. Indeed it was the boys there who gave him the nickname of Uncle Wiz. A number of his pupils from those days became lifelong friends, notably the designer Michael Yates, who recalled his classes as ‘in turn traditional, original or a plain riot of fun’.

He himself referred to these years as among the happiest of his life, even if he chose schoolteaching faute de mieux. It was hard to earn a living as a writer in the 1930s. While there he had a major experience of what he subsequently realised was Christian love one summer evening with a group of his colleagues. This was the subject of his poem ‘Out on the lawn I lie in bed’, written at the time and dedicated to the school’s inspirational headmaster, Geoffrey Hoyland. Benjamin Britten went to stay with him in Colwall several times and joined in the life of the school, as did Louis MacNeice, who later sent his son there. John Masefield and his wife also came to see him and the school was impressed: the poet laureate! Auden also founded and edited the school’s literary magazine, the Badger, in which he published some of his own work and to which he occasionally contributed new poems for the rest of his life.

Hugh Wright

Smarty Boots

Henry Siegman writes that the US and Israeli peace process ‘following the break between Fatah and Hamas has not produced anything other than empty rhetoric and emptier promises’ (LRB, 7 February). If the rhetoric is ‘empty’, how can the promises be more empty?

Natalie Matter
Cape Town

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