Vol. 37 No. 14 · 16 July 2015

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What a Person Is

Galen Strawson makes one small error (LRB, 18 June). R2-D2 was never allowed into the cantina in Star Wars: he and his fellow droid were ejected at the door with the shout ‘We don’t serve their kind here.’ Perhaps even bartenders running cantinas in galaxies far far away have a view on what a ‘person’ is.

David Gilchrist
London SW2

Is he Vietnamese?

Sadakat Kadri writes that the removal of citizenship as a penalty for disloyalty has rarely been used in Britain (LRB, 18 June). There is, in fact, a long and extensive history of denaturalisation for ‘disloyalty’, which is dismayingly overlooked in the current debate. Between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, Britain, like virtually every other country in the world, stripped (birthright) citizenship from women who married foreign men. The practice, which operated under British law from 1870 to 1949, applied without exception or discretion, and affected probably millions of women. While denaturalisation was not styled as a ‘penalty’ (although many women experienced it as such), foreign marriage was represented as a type of disallegiance or, at least, a transfer of allegiance. The assumption was that an ‘out-marrying’ woman would acquire the citizenship of her husband, but no inquiry was made into whether or not this happened. Increasingly, statelessness among married women was the result. In the 1920s, the international community became concerned about escalating marital statelessness. It was a central topic at the League of Nations codification of laws conference in 1930, which produced the Hague Convention on Nationality, a section of which proscribed marital denaturalisation in cases where it led to statelessness. Marital denaturalisation, however, was not otherwise internationally repudiated until the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Nationality of Married Women in 1957. The effect of citizenship-stripping, rendering women aliens in their own country and making them vulnerable to the uncertain laws of other countries was often drastic. Its history illustrates not only Hannah Arendt’s ‘right to have rights’ aphorism, but her observation that loss of citizenship means ‘the loss of home and political status … identical with expulsion from humanity altogether’.

Helen Irving
University of Sydney

Race, God and Family

I’m intrigued by Dan Hancox’s freewheeling account of my book Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936 (LRB, 2 July). He says I ‘point out’ that Picasso was ‘content to live and work in Spain under Franco’. I don’t: he wasn’t and didn’t. Franco himself, Hancox claims, ‘wrote some of the programme notes’ for the 1960 National Fine Arts Exhibition (a biennial event, by the way, not, as he implies, a one-off). It would be fascinating to see them. He grumbles that I don’t comment on a decision taken by the PP government when the book, first published in September 2013, was already in press. That decision was part of the PP’s dismissal of plans for Franco’s burial place that had been adopted in 2011 by the PSOE. Hancox seems not to have noticed that I support the key proposal on pages 65 and 278.

All this has the merit of being consistent with the attitudes to evidence of Spain’s campaign for ‘historical memory’ at its most amnesiac. A main argument of my book is that it makes no sense to complain that things have been forgotten while ignoring cultural deposits in which they are recorded. It’s positively harmful to encourage such negligence by suggesting, as Hancox and a few others do, that if the records are in some way ‘elite’ there’s no need to bother with them.

As for the idea that today’s Spain is a continuation of the dictatorship by other means, I’m reminded of a story a Russian writer told me about attending a literary congress on human rights with Harold Pinter in the mid-1980s. Abuses, each more hideous than the last, were recounted by people living under some of the worst regimes then in existence. Pinter’s turn came. Thatcher’s Britain was very similar, he explained.

Jeremy Treglown
Ditchley, Oxfordshire

At Waterloo

Having taken in Rosemary’s Hill’s excellent account of antiquarianism following the Battle of Waterloo, readers of the LRB might eagerly turn to book a stay at Hougoumont; a week in January 2016 – earliest availability – will set them back £945 (LRB, 2 July). They would be advised first to take a look at the watercolour by Denis Dighton (1791-1827) currently on loan to the Wellington exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. In this dismal scene the location of the burial pit that Hill speculates on is clearly visible. Indeed, naked corpses are being emptied into it while their equipment lies in a heap nearby. Their uniforms have already disappeared, presumably for recycling in Europe’s vast second-hand clothing markets. The whole scene is blood-spattered in a way that is prosaic and unmelodramatic but perhaps discouraging to many would-be holidaymakers.

Marcia Pointon
Courtauld Institute of Art, London WC2

Watch yourself

The arrest of Brian Reader, of the Hatton Garden heist, reminds Andrew O’Hagan of his grandfather’s larcenous career (LRB, 4 June). ‘While the nation hates terrorists and paedophiles,’ he writes, ‘it rather likes thieves.’ Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) offers a clue as to why that may be the case.

Chief Inspector Heat of the London Special Crimes Department, ‘principal expert in anarchist procedure’, encounters in his perambulations the nihilist Professor, an ‘unwholesome-looking little moral agent of destruction’, who wears on his person a thick glass flask containing an explosive substance that he will detonate (and thereby kill dozens of Londoners who happen to be in his vicinity) if the police attempt to lay hands on him. Heat has no illusions that such potential terrorists can be treated like criminals. In his eyes, criminals have the same mind and instincts as policemen. ‘Both recognise the same conventions,’ Conrad writes, ‘and have a working knowledge of each other’s methods and of the routine of their respective trades.’ They are products of the same machine: ‘One classed as useful and the other as noxious, they take the machine for granted in different ways.’ Thus, ‘the world of thieves – sane, without morbid ideals, working by routine, respectful of constituted authorities, free from all taint of hate and despair.’ Not so the anarchist terrorists, none of whom had ‘half the spunk of this or that burglar he had known. Not half – not one tenth.’

Elizabeth Powers
New York


No, it isn’t ‘spurious’, as James Fanning suggests, to claim that Luke 19.27 is part of the preceding parable of the ten minas (Letters, 2 July). In fact, it’s the conventional reading, signalled in contemporary English translations with an apparatus of nested single and double quote-marks. These are of course interpretative, but even in the King James Version, which stays closer to the punctuationless original Greek, it’s perfectly clear that ‘those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them’ in verse 27 are the citizens of verse 14, unambiguously within the embedded parable narrative, who say ‘we will not have this man to reign over us.’ Verse 27 plainly completes the arc of the embedded story. I agree that it’s very odd that verse 26, just before it, appears to step halfway out of the he/they dialogue of the parable into an I/you statement – ‘For I say unto you, that unto every one which hath shall be given’ – which does indeed lead a detachable existence thereafter as a direct maxim of Jesus’s own. But then he seems to have been, as we peer at him through the multiple screens of text, a remarkably slippery and complicated storyteller, up there with Kafka in his nuanced layering of implication. His parables tend to leak, disturbingly. For me, the decisive factor in not reading this one as bloodstained zealotry is that it is followed immediately in Luke by his arrival in Jerusalem, and his orchestration of a deliberately paradoxical and impractical bid for a throne, carefully arranged so that unlike all the other rebellions against Roman rule, it should produce a body-count of exactly one, himself. I wonder if it is our desire to stick him with the bill for the later bloodshed of Christian history, and Christian-Jewish relations, that creates the present urge to Dalekify him.

Francis Spufford
Goldsmiths, University of London


Ian Penman is probably right to say that in the mid-1940s ‘vocalists had little real power: they were smiley, yes-sir emblems over the arch of touring big bands’ (LRB, 2 July). Sinatra was no yes-sir emblem, though Penman hardly does justice to the way the singer said ‘No’ – if not in thunder, then in deed. In 1943, as Martin Smith notes in When Ol’ Blue Eyes Was a Red, Sinatra had himself photographed holding the hand of the black singer Hazel Scott, ‘an active member of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement and an open supporter of the Communist Party’. And two years later, when he appeared in a ten-minute film, The House I Live In, his singing of the title song in what Smith calls ‘a classic of the Popular Front era’ put his ‘commitment to the anti-racist cause on the map’. The song, incidentally, was written by Abel Meeropol, the composer of ‘Strange Fruit’, who with his wife would later look after the orphaned sons of the Rosenbergs. Some of those who adored Sinatra in that period of his life would surely have done so at least partly because of his radicalism. As for the ‘old standard “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore"’, which Penman quotes Gore Vidal as saying was his Rosebud moment, it was a) new in the 1940s and b) written by Duke Ellington and Bob Russell.

John Lucas
Beeston, Nottingham

#lower than vermin

Doing some research in the Conservative Party archive recently, I came across a file relating to the ‘Vermin Clubs’ that sprang up in the wake of Bevan’s remarks, cited by Owen Hatherley (LRB, 7 May). Within a few weeks of the speech many thousands of Tories had joined these clubs, under the leadership of ‘Chief Rat’, J. Robson Armstrong. Central Office was embarrassed by the clubs and kept its distance, although it recognised the propaganda value. The head of public relations, Colin Mann, claimed: ‘There is no doubt that Mr Bevan’s notorious speech has done lasting harm to the Socialist party and we are always interested to learn of ways in which the memory of this colossal faux-pas is being kept alive.’

David Swift
London SE17

Nothing to Do with Cushions

Jenny Diski describes her face as having become ‘cushionoid’, ‘rounder and fatter at the bottom’, as a result of the steroids she has been prescribed (LRB, 2 July). Sadly, the word has nothing to do with cushions: it’s ‘cushingoid’ as in Cushing’s syndrome.

Michael Robertson
Augsburg, Germany

He slept throughout

Michael Hofmann’s opening quotation from a poem by Robert Lowell in his review of Seamus Heaney brought me back to a memorable night in Kilkenny in 1975 when Lowell and Heaney read together (LRB, 4 June). The night was memorable not just for that reason but also because sitting in the front row was the Soviet ambassador to Ireland, who slept noisily throughout. He had attended a concert of Shostakovich’s music in St Canice’s Cathedral earlier in the evening; Shostakovich had died only days earlier. Much mirth was caused by Lowell’s stream of scathing comments on the ambassador’s evident love of poetry, capitalist poetry especially.

Anthony Candon
Castlebar, County Mayo

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