Vol. 31 No. 4 · 26 February 2009

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All Too Human

Glen Newey contends that it is acceptable to mould international law to fit executive policy if the law in question is unclear (LRB, 29 January). It is not: the function of lawyers is not simply to provide ‘legal cover’. International law as it governs torture is in any case sufficiently clear and precise. Indeed, following the publication of Philippe Sands’s book and shortly before Barack Obama took office, Susan Crawford, the senior Bush administration official charged with deciding whether to bring Guantánamo detainees to trial, confirmed that Mohammed al-Qahtani (the subject of Sands’s book) had been tortured (according to the definition of ‘torture’ under international law) and that all charges against him had therefore been dropped. Her specific admission that he had been tortured (not merely ‘mistreated’) has significant implications. It means there is a medical and legal definition of torture which the Bush administration was eventually forced to accept and which it admits was not adhered to in al-Qahtani’s case.

Crawford’s acceptance that the charges against al-Qahtani were dropped because he was tortured means he (and others who were tortured) can never be prosecuted. And it means that those who were responsible for or complicit in such torture are criminally liable. So, if it were to emerge that any of the senior lawyers and policy-makers in Sands’s book took steps to circumvent any legal advice that would have stopped torture in any Guantánamo detainee’s case – by short-circuiting the normal decision-making processes, for example – that could be evidence that they had conspired together and were complicit in any resulting mistreatment.

Alex Bailin
Matrix, London WC1

Intrigued by the phrase ‘thumbscrew and fescue’ in Glen Newey’s article on the human or inhuman nature of torture, I looked it up. How can a type of grass used for bowling greens be used to hurt people?

Phil Poole
London N19

Those Innocent Israelis …

Adam Shatz is to be congratulated for admitting his infatuation with Obama, but it leads him into some dangerously wishful thinking, particularly when it comes to US Middle East policy (LRB, 12 February). Obama has made a ‘beguiling’ overture to Tehran, but his promise to extend the olive branch to Iran if it ‘unclenched its fist’ carries a hint of the usual American conditions on dialogue. It is apparently Iran, not the US, whose fist is clenched in this image, and it is up to Iran (but not Israel) to renounce its nuclear programme and end its support of resistance groups in Palestine and Lebanon if it is to be removed from the ‘axis of evil’. Obama’s much heralded praise of the Saudi peace initiative was followed by a speech at the State Department on 22 January in which he urged the Arab states to normalise relations with Israel immediately, unilaterally – the only card the Arabs have in their hands to force an Israeli withdrawal from occupied land. On Israel-Palestine, Obama has sounded no different from his predecessors, deploring ‘the terror of rocket fire aimed at innocent Israelis’ and insisting that Israelis ‘will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side’: the usual cant, but delivered more eloquently. Now that the Israeli people have voted decisively against what they call ‘sacrifices’ and others call international law, we’ll see how serious Obama is about pursuing a peace settlement in Israel-Palestine.

Lionel Goldfarb

Let me guess

When coming into college and seeing the flag at half-mast, Maurice Bowra said to the porter: ‘Don’t tell me. Let me guess.’ Surely a brilliant remark? Or looking up at the New Bodleian building opposite Wadham, adorned with strange squiggly motifs: ‘Lambs’-tails from Shakespeare?’ When thwarted in a committee by a don named Baker: ‘I’ve met my Bakerloo.’ When Warden Sumner’s coffin was carried into All Souls Chapel: ‘Sumner is icumen in.’ And when Sumner was succeeded by Warden Sparrow: ‘One Sparrow doesn’t make a Sumner.’ Or of Hugo Dyson: ‘The life and death of the party.’

Not only do the dozens of Bowra-isms still have the capacity to make me laugh. They somehow imply a whole attitude to life which Stefan Collini might find tiresome, but which seems admirable to others (LRB, 12 February). Bowra was of the generation that had been through the trenches. They did not wear their hearts on their sleeves. I met him perhaps six times in the last 18 months of his life when he was an old man. The obvious thing about him, which is actually a very unusual quality, was his fondness for the young. As he explained what was good about Yeats, Rilke or Tennyson, you went away yearning to know them by heart. He was generous with time and drink. Isn’t this what university teachers at their best are for? He promoted the interests of those he admired and his sympathies were broad. Some might not think it was a good thing to have given Terry Eagleton a fellowship, but the fact that Bowra did so – ‘Very good thing, very good thing, Pope John Marxist’ – suggests someone unlike Collini’s narrow ‘snob’.

A.N. Wilson
London NW1

Anyone for tyrannicide?

Simon Blackburn suggests that Wittgenstein was furious with Norman Malcolm for appealing to the idea of a ‘British national character’ in arguing that Britain’s wartime leaders would not have been able to countenance the idea of assassinating Hitler (LRB, 29 January). As Malcolm relates the story in his memoir, he and Wittgenstein saw a reference to just such a plot on a newspaper placard in 1939. ‘It would not surprise me at all if it were true,’ Wittgenstein remarked. What annoyed him, as Malcolm explained to me in Tromsø in 1987, was not Malcolm’s appeal to national character – that notion, anathema to classical positivists, didn’t disturb him at all, as Blackburn points out it shouldn’t have – but his gullibility in believing tyrannicide to be beyond Britain’s wartime leaders.

Allan Janik
Innsbruck, Austria

Simon Blackburn remarks that some commentators on Wittgenstein’s Tractatus ‘have taken [its] framing remarks very seriously’. On the face of it, that sounds like a good thing. Isn’t it wise to try to take seriously what an author says about the purpose and nature of their writings? Blackburn suggests that doing so amounts to treating ‘the bulk of the Tractatus [as] some kind of Aunt Sally, written merely as something to be jeered at’. That is a grotesque distortion of the efforts of those of us who have been reading the Tractatus for years, frame, body, warts and all. When one takes the frame seriously, one can see the point in the progressive elucidations in the body of the work: namely, to inhabit the physiognomy of philosophical delusion, which inhabits us so deeply that it would be irresponsible to pretend that one can get outside it and jeer at it.

Rupert Read
University of East Anglia

Darwin at Auction

Peter Campbell suggests that a page from the manuscript of The Origin of Species was ‘preserved because it was used as scrap paper by one of his children’ (LRB, 29 January). What it was preserved from, however, was not – as he implies – destruction, but from being given away to a visitor. Such pages turn up every five years or so in auction sales, obligingly embellished by Darwin with running titles and signatures – which says something about his fame during his lifetime, and about his compliant attitude to it.

Thomas Venning
Christie’s, London SW1

I prefer black

Paul Myerscough writes of chess that ‘the players draw for the white pieces’ (LRB, 29 January). In fact in professional play – or even in club play – that isn’t really the case. There is often a draw at the start of a tournament to determine who will have white in the opening game (and black in the second and so on), but since the players are expected to play an equal number of games, any advantage is negated. Drawing for colours in the sense we know from casual play – a pawn in either hand, the other player chooses – simply doesn’t happen. There would be no reason for it.

Myerscough says that the difference between white and black is an ‘enormous advantage between two players of similar ability’. Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘enormous’. According to Jonathan Rowson in Chess for Zebras, white scores about 56 per cent at all levels of competitive chess, from world-class down to the lowest level of club player. Is that an ‘enormous’ advantage? Certainly black wins plenty of games and some players – I’m one of them – have a preference for black.

One situation in which the advantage might prove enormous would be a single game at a very high level when one player would be happy with a draw: an example would be the last world championship match when Kramnik was two down with two to play and had the black pieces. In that situation at that level it’s very hard to make anything of the game (and Kramnik didn’t, really). Other than that, black has a decent chance to play for a win.

Justin Horton
Huesca, Spain

Justin Horton writes: As printed, my letter states that before a chess tournament, players draw to see who has white in the first game, and that they will play an equal number of games with white and black. But this is true only of a match, a one-against-one encounter. In a tournament (an all-play-all) there will normally be an odd number of games, so all players will have an extra game with white or with black, If we're discussing the relative advantage of having white, the distinction is important.

Paul Myerscough says that he likes to play poker with ‘players who let superstition cloud their reasoning’. That’s not the only way to get an edge. I’m an infrequent player, but when I do sit down to a game, I like to play with a group of men who let chauvinism cloud their reasoning.

Lara Pawson
London E5

Prosaic Licence

Sarah Howe, reviewing Robert Edric’s novel about Ivor Gurney, In Zodiac Light, points out that Edric ‘sometimes gives in too readily to the demands of fiction’ (LRB, 4 December 2008). Two-thirds of Gurney’s work remains unpublished, and little has been written about the last 15 years of his life, which he spent in asylums. The danger of commingling fact and fiction without being clear as to which is which, particularly in the case of a writer whose biographical details and work are largely not in the public domain, undoes much of the work of academics attempting to dismantle the myths surrounding Gurney.

By borrowing from Gurney’s poem ‘In Flaxley Wood’ for his title, Edric closely associates his novel with Gurney. Yet he counters the association with a disclaimer: ‘This book is a work of fiction and, except in the case of historical fact, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.’ As Howe points out, there are obvious parallels with Pat Barker’s Regeneration, which is based on Owen and Sassoon’s stay at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh. But not only does Barker not change the fundamental facts of the poets’ stories, she also adds a note listing her sources. Edric claims to have written a work of fiction, but his book is steeped in fact – and some of these ‘facts’ are simply wrong, while others have been altered to suit his purpose. More damaging is Edric’s representation of Gurney as having completely lost his musical powers in the asylum. What Edric fancifully imagines as ‘trailing lines of words and notes’ were regularly played in the asylum by Vaughan Williams and other musicians.

Kate Kennedy
Clare Hall, Cambridge

Gaggingly Photogenic

Michael Wood is quite wrong in suggesting that Slumdog Millionaire is uncertain of its intentions, when its intention to make money is all too clear (LRB, 12 February). It does so by giving the rags-to-riches formula an exotic spin, and manages to be at once garish, extremely violent, gaggingly photogenic, too loud, sentimental and exploitative.

Malcolm Ross
Totnes, Devon

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