Vol. 36 No. 1 · 9 January 2014

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Was he or wasn’t he?

In my review of Anthony Sampson’s Mandela: The Authorised Biography in the LRB of 19 August 1999, I criticised the book on the basis that it was perfectly obvious to those of us who knew the struggle in South Africa that Mandela had been a member of the Communist Party. Not that that means one should regard him through some sort of anti-communist lens: there were many things in apartheid South Africa which were far worse than being a communist. And of course, this question had no bearing on Mandela’s great human qualities, his courage, humour and generosity.

I was, however, shocked that someone who had written a 600-page biography about a major public figure should fail to register this fundamental point, which casts a different light on many events in Mandela’s life. Sampson wrote back angrily, pointing out that Mandela had, at his trial, denied being a communist, just as he later denied it in his autobiography. To me this was absurd. Members of the Communist Party were under discipline to deny their membership. Walter Sisulu, Mandela’s closest friend, only revealed his own party membership in the 1990s, having steadfastly denied it throughout his trial and imprisonment, indeed, through his almost fifty years of membership. Sampson died in 2004. One question which has to be faced is whether Mandela lied to Sampson about his party membership or whether Sampson knew the truth but concealed it.

Straight after his death the South African Communist Party proudly announced that Mandela had been a member of its Central Committee at the time he went to jail. Indeed, he never formally resigned from this position, though he clearly drifted away from the party while on Robben Island.

R.W. Johnson
Cape Town

Animal Trials

Michael Grayshott writes that ‘diminished responsibility’ is a ‘partial defence to murder based on the medically hard to define “abnormality of mental functioning"’ (LRB, 5 December 2013). The term ‘mental functioning’, newly and inadvertently coined by Grayshott, would at least be comprehensible. The wording of the Homicide Act (1957), which covers ‘diminished responsibility’ (a phrase that occurs in the contents in a marginal note to the legislation) is far more confused than that. The relevant part of the act actually reads: ‘Where a person kills … he shall not be convicted of murder if he was suffering from such abnormality of mind … as substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his acts.’

There have been many criticisms of this phraseology. How do we define an ‘abnormality of mind’? We don’t: it is not a medical or psychiatric term. The jury ultimately decides case by case. What threshold is implied by that use of ‘substantially’? Worst of all, does ‘mental responsibility’ refer to any entity we understand, other than just plain ‘responsibility’? Also, the act is peculiar in criminal law since ‘diminished responsibility’ must be proved ‘on the balance of probabilities’ (as in civil proceedings) rather than, as is generally the case in criminal proceedings, ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. It is intriguing that although the wording has the ring of something created by committee, the act has resisted revision for more than fifty years.

Christopher Cordess
University of Sheffield

The story of the ‘pig of Falaise,’ formally tried and executed in the late 14th century for the supposed murder of a child, recounted by Michael Grayshott, is an excellent one. Alas, like so many good historical stories, it is also largely and perhaps entirely fictional, as the historian Paul Friedland recently demonstrated in Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France. The sole written source is a book published in 1764, which printed a terse receipt, allegedly from 1386, in which a hangman received payment for executing a pig that had killed a three-month-old child. All the embellishments in Edward Payson Evans’s account – the formal trial and conviction, the crowds, the pig’s costume and so forth – appear to be later, Romantic inventions.

David A. Bell
Princeton, New Jersey

Uncle Joe meets Uncle Sam

The senior Warsaw official quoted by Richard J. Evans who pledged in 1946 to rebuild the city ‘from the foundations’ in a manner faithful to its heritage must have died an unhappy man (LRB, 5 December 2013). Apart from restoring the comparatively small area of the Old Town, Warsaw before the 1980s largely followed the Soviet and Eastern bloc model: there was a central civic building topped by a massively ugly Stalino-phallic tower that, on a foggy night, King Kong might have mistaken for the Empire State. The old tower sits today on a messy pedestrian square and parking area, and a short trip in most directions will get you to those serried ranks of dispiriting Pact-era apartment blocks, some of them brightly painted up. The original ghetto was finally obliterated to make way for them.

Poland is full of talented young architects who would like to do something better for their once war-damaged cities. The foundation structure on which the Warsaw tower stands has the dimensions of many pleasant European museums and state buildings. Without the Uncle Joe Meets Uncle Sam spike, it would be more in keeping with the city’s surviving 18th-century glories, King Poniatowski’s Palace on the Water and Orangery. Predictably, the civil bureaucrats whose egos are served by working in the tower have blocked any professional push to decapitate it.

Last year a charming short film called Warszawa, 1935 was screened in the lower building, taking its audience on a virtual aerial swoop over a CGI reconstruction of Warsaw in that year. It showed a city with many lovely boulevards allowing long sightlines – such boulevards still exist in the picturesque town of Zamosc, in eastern Poland – which the postwar authorities sometimes went out of their way to ruin by deliberately building office blocks across them. To proceed today along Sienkiewicz Street, named after Poland’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, you have to make a depressing passage under one of these before you reach a parking lot and a monument to Napoleon. The Gestapo HQ and torture site have been left intact and, as a museum, are now part of the Ministry of National Education building.

There are uplifting things about the city: statues everywhere of thinkers and artists, a new museum of the History of Polish Jews, whose exterior colours at night subtly suggest a prayer shawl. Catholic churches have plaques not only for saints but for poets and novelists. In Warsaw you find yourself yearning, I think forgivably, not for pragmatic urban realism but for the rise of some new architectural genius who would at last repair the work of those lamentable town-planning anti-talents, Hitler and Stalin.

John Stephenson
Leura, Australia

Movie Star Killed by Nazis in Nevada

Michael Wood observes that the star of Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, Carole Lombard, ‘died in a plane crash before the film opened, and if we know this fact it’s hard to keep it out of our minds as we watch her’ (LRB, 5 December 2013). In the recently published My Lunches with Orson, a set of transcribed recordings of conversations between Orson Welles and Henry Jaglom, Welles claims that Lombard’s plane was machine-gunned as it climbed over the Potosi Mountain in Nevada. The plane ‘was full of big-time American physicists, shot down by the Nazis. She was one of the only civilians on the plane. The plane was filled with bullet holes … No one wanted to admit that we had people in the middle of America who could shoot down a plane for the Nazis. Because then everybody would start denouncing anybody with a German grandmother. Which Roosevelt was very worried about.’

Thus it seems that Carole Lombard, an actress from Indiana who had been playing a Polish actress working against the Nazis, was killed by Nazi agents for having inadvertently played a physicist.

Benjamin Letzler

What a Rhinoceros Is Made of

James C. Scott refers to ‘rhinoceros ivory’ as one of the commodities traded historically in response to the needs of the Chinese luxury market (LRB, 21 November 2013). Rhinoceros horns, however, are not made of ivory. While elephant tusks are attached to the animal’s skull and are made of bone, rhinoceros horns are excrescences of keratin – the same protein found in human hair and fingernails – and are not part of the skull. Unfortunately for the rhinoceros, this material is highly prized in Asian markets.

Shirley Brooks
Cape Town

UN Nightmare

Like Chris Sansom’s story about translators, mine too is possibly apocryphal (Letters, 19 December 2013). A friend of a friend was the personal staff officer (PSO) to an air marshal. The great man was told, at short notice, to address a Nato meeting. He said he’d use the speech he’d delivered recently at the RAF Staff College. The PSO pointed out that it contained a joke about cricket which only the Brits would understand. He was assured that all would be well. When he got to Brussels, the PSO took a copy of the speech to the instantaneous translators. They agreed that the joke was impossible, but said they knew how to cope. When the air marshal approached the difficult section, the delegates heard in their headphones: ‘The air marshal is about to tell a joke. It is about cricket. It cannot be translated. In the interests of Nato solidarity, please laugh when we say – “Laugh."’ On the way back to London, the air marshal said: ‘Didn’t the joke go well. I told you it would.’

Clive Rainbow
Speen, Buckinghamshire

Winning, or rather losing

Benjamin Markovits suggests that big-league American sports practise a kind of socialism in the form of salary caps, the draft process and so on (LRB, 7 November 2013). But this elides one critical difference between American and European sporting systems which makes European sports look much more egalitarian. In the UK, as elsewhere in Europe, it is at least theoretically possible for a top club, if it performs poorly, to play its next season in a lower league. There is no American equivalent to promotion and relegation. There are no lower leagues of any real import except in baseball, but even in that sport, there is no mechanism for a minor league team to play so well that it gets into the major leagues, any more than it is plausible that the Yankees will one day drop down. American professional sports also lack the equivalent of the FA Cup, a tournament which pits all the teams from all the leagues against each other. The closest US equivalent is March Madness, a competition that takes place at college level.

Jannie Armstrong

Leave the barons alone

Glen Newey’s injection of a negative reference to ‘press barons’ into his review of Jeremy Waldron’s book on hate speech seems puzzling (LRB, 5 December 2013). The barons he cites as hounders of Private Eye – Maxwell, Rowland and the Barclays – were notoriously litigious long before they acquired national newspapers. Actually, as far as Private Eye is concerned, Rowland was best known for offering to bankroll the Eye’s efforts to fend off James Goldsmith, whose name is missing from Newey’s list despite his being the Eye’s most vindictive adversary. Of course, over the decades, the Eye’s preferred baronial target has been Rupert Murdoch, who is famous for never suing, however inaccurate Eye stories might be.

David Elstein
London SW15

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