Vol. 35 No. 8 · 25 April 2013

Search by issue:

When is a war a world war?

David Runciman claims that the 1914-18 war was a European civil war until the Americans joined in in 1917 when it became a world war (LRB, 21 March). No, it became a world war on 23 August 1914 when Japan joined in as a British ally with its eye on German possessions in China and the Pacific Ocean. The German garrisons in China surrendered to the Japanese navy in November. Two months later Japan made its 21 Demands, which would in effect have made China a Japanese protectorate. Britain objected and Japan backed off. Its navy assumed Allied convoy duties in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, as the Royal Navy was busy elsewhere. France recruited more than a hundred thousand Chinese workers to work in factories and dig trenches in France before China joined the Allies shortly after the US in 1917.

Vic Carroll

We did it

Bernard Porter reminds us that MI6 had responsibility for our ex-colonies after independence and also that many of its dirty secrets may yet remain unrevealed (LRB, 21 March). In 1975, Gough Whitlam’s Labor government was sacked by the queen’s representative in Australia, Governor-General Kerr. The Australian left believed then, and still believes, that the CIA was implicated in some way, but it may be that they’ve only been carrying the can. I was a young philosophy student in Canberra at the time, driving night taxis for spare income. Two weeks before Whitlam was sacked, I picked up a British gentleman from a diplomatic shindig, who, as we drove past the PM’s residence, informed me in perfect detail of everything that was going to happen. Shocked, I asked his name. He replied: ‘I’m not going to tell you my name, young man, but you will remember this night and remember this conversation as long as you live.’

John Stephenson
Leura, Australia

One night in late 2007, at the beginning of a long telephone conversation with Daphne Park about other matters, she told me that Patrice Lumumba was a fine fellow but said and did some crazy things when he smoked too much hashish (Letters, 11 April). She didn’t indicate her involvement in his death. The other matters we discussed concerned her tenure in Lusaka – where, she said, she gained most of her intelligence by holding grand parties on the verandas of a house she rented just outside the city. I had been told that Park – ‘everyone in town knew what she was doing’ – had approached someone with a request that they store arms for the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu), which had split from Zimbabwe’s founding nationalist party, the Zimbabwean African People’s Union (Zapu), and eventually became Zimbabwe’s ruling party. This made sense, given Zapu’s ties with the USSR and evidence of support for Zanu in these years on the part of some British foreign policy-makers. If anyone knows whether Park or any of her compatriots ever did run guns for Zanu, I’d love to hear from them.

David Moore
University of Johannesburg

Is Wagner bad for us?

Nicholas Spice writes that Berlioz, while reviewing Tristan und Isolde positively, ‘privately admitted to being disgusted by the music’ (LRB, 11 April). True, he added private expressions of distaste to the printed score presented to him by Wagner, now in the Bibliothèque nationale. But he never heard, still less reviewed, the opera. He reviewed the prelude, which Wagner conducted at his Paris concert of 1860. Berlioz wrote that it had ‘no theme other than a sort of chromatic moan’, and was ‘filled with dissonant chords, their cruelty further enhanced by long appoggiaturas that replace the note that belongs to the harmony’. This public expression of disgust was reprinted in his essay collection A Travers Chants (1862) well before the first performance of Tristan.

Julian Rushton
University of Leeds

I learned a lot from the article by Nicholas Spice and, as a result, I may finally allow myself to listen to, and like, Wagner’s music. Mr Spice should know, though, that a trapeze artist – swinging on a fixed length of cord, attached to a fixed point – will describe the arc of a circle, not a parabola. The parabola is for the guy shot from a cannon.

Ed Morman

Who are these guys?

I’m a prose guy
Never liked poetry, too circuitous
Then you sucked me in with Charles Simic’s elegant prose
Turns out he’s a poet laureate, who knew?
Bought his book of poetry
Isn’t that the point?
Now you throw Frederick Seidel at me
Put him in right after Fantin-Latour
How could I miss him?
Philip Roth and Mussolini and fucking
Not to mention Kennedy and Nixon and state murder
Who are these guys?
I’m 67 years old
Live in the forests of Northern Michigan
Nice to meet somebody new
Thank you

Jack Kurtz
Frederic, Michigan

Afraid of the Nurses

Those who might hope to improve the NHS, and are in a position to do so, should bear in mind, as Paul Taylor points out, that it was the cruelty and callous attitudes of the nursing staff that caused the MidStaffs scandal to break (LRB, 11 April). The suspicion must be that fear of the powerful nursing lobby and the health service unions, along with the ingrained myth of the saintliness of nurses, caused Robert Francis to duck the real problem in his report.

I write as a retired consultant anxious to understand what has led to the debasement of the NHS. To me it seems that the major factors have been largely futile re-organisations of the NHS; the hugely costly purchaser/provider split (no evidence of benefit so far); the imposition of a ridiculous dead-weight of management; the increasing de-professionalising of nurses and doctors; the willy nilly introduction of targets; and the sudden supply of a huge tranche of extra money to the NHS by Gordon Brown without any apparent plan to employ it sensibly (which enabled many problems to be shelved, but not solved, and further entrenched inefficiencies and poor productivity).

As a junior doctor in the 1960s, I was aware of the great differences between the teaching and larger general hospitals, on the one hand, and the smaller and poorer peripheral units and large mental and long-stay hospitals, on the other. While there were of course some skiving doctors, a few nasty nurses, and some sour faces around in the first group, the general impression was of mostly cheerful people trying quite hard to do their best for the patients and enjoying their relationships with their colleagues. In the second group there was often a gulf between the medical and other staff but stability was provided by the mature and experienced nursing sisters who dominated their wards and departments.

Taylor’s suggestion that doctors haven’t played their part in management is a half-truth. Many have, and found it a bruising and futile experience; typically the managers advance their original ideas in meetings, take little notice of informed advice, decline to record alternative views or dissent in minutes, and when everything goes wrong turn to the doctors and say: ‘but you were at the meetings when this was discussed.’ People who are decent and sensible in private life go about their work with almost habitual mendacity and duplicity, surviving in office largely by avoiding necessary battles with the health unions and by cynical exploitation of the public’s seemingly inexhaustible store of goodwill towards the NHS.

John Kirkham
London SW1

After Leveson

Isn’t it sufficient, Stephen Sedley asks, that victims of defamation receive compensation, not punitive damages (LRB, 11 April)? It seems to me that he overlooks the need to incentivise people to undertake the risk of bringing a defamation suit. They might, if they lose, suffer financial hardship because your system – I’m a US trial lawyer – requires losers to pay their opponents’ fees. Even if they win, they may obtain only nominal damages because proving the financial value of reputational damage in court is close to impossible. Moreover, the entire process of litigation may serve to publicise further the defamatory remarks. In short, a defamation plaintiff has much to lose. If one wants to encourage meritorious defamation suits in order to deter reckless newspapers and television outlets, why not offer financial encouragement?

Neil Mullin
Montclair, New Jersey

Hard, not penal

Terry Eagleton makes a common error in confusing hard labour with penal servitude (LRB, 7 March). When Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton were tried in 1871, those whom English courts sentenced to imprisonment – normally with, though sometimes without, hard labour – were consigned to jails run by local or county assizes. Sentences served in these institutions were often as short as a week or two, and never exceeded two years. Sentences of penal servitude had a five-year minimum (three years before 1864, and again after 1891). Park’s brother could not, therefore, have been sentenced to a year’s penal servitude; the sentence he served at Coldbath Fields, a jail run by the Middlesex magistracy, would have been imprisonment with hard labour.

Penal servitude was served in central government convict prisons: nine months’ ‘separate’ (solitary) confinement at either Millbank or Pentonville was followed by transfer to one of several ‘public works’ prisons, built from the mid-1850s to accommodate prisoners who would once have been transported. While the infirm (and the savvy) were sent to Dartmoor to reclaim land or to work indoors as tailors and shoemakers, at Chatham, Portland and Portsmouth prisoners laboured for the Admiralty and the War Office building and maintaining coastal defences. Those found guilty of the crime of sodomy could expect exceedingly harsh punishment, as Eagleton notes – 20 years’ penal servitude, or even life, was not uncommon – and they would indeed have worked alongside rapists and murderers. Unproductive labour was confined to local and county jails, and these prisoners would not, as Eagleton asserts, have walked a treadmill or operated a crank. Labour at a public works prison, though quite possibly less soul-destroying than the treadmill, was if anything more arduous, and if the reports of convict prison medical officers are anything to go by, far more hazardous.

Local and county prisons were brought under central government control in 1877, but remained distinct from convict prisons until both penal servitude and hard labour were formally abolished in 1948.

Ben Bethell
London SE4

However flawed

Michael Grayshott seems to enjoy deriding the residual hereditary element in the House of Lords and the peculiarities involved in the election of those 92 hereditary peers (LRB, 7 March). Surely what is even more astonishing is that, however flawed the process, the 92 hereditary peers are the only elected component in the United Kingdom’s upper house – in contrast to almost 700 peers in the chamber who are there by the grace of Downing Street.

Harshan Kumarasingham

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences