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Letters

Vol. 37 No. 23 · 3 December 2015

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Bantu in the Bathroom

Among the many dark places into which Jacqueline Rose unflinchingly throws light is Corinthians 9:27: ‘I beat my body and make it my slave’ (LRB, 19 November). But it isn’t really the case that ‘the line about making my body my slave is not in most translations.’ It is always there in one form or another, very often rendering exactly the key verbs – ‘beat’ (derived from the word’s literal sense: ‘punch under the eye’/‘give a black eye’) and ‘enslave’ – that St Paul uses in the Greek. Jerome translates very directly: ‘castigo corpus meum et in servitudinem redigo’ – ‘I punish my body and reduce it to slavery.’ What some modern translations smuggle in is an added gloss, and the translation Pistorius chose to have tattooed on his back in effect repeats the sense of v. 27 in spelling it out: ‘I bring it under my complete subjection.’ I’m not sure if this quite means that Pistorius was ‘raising the stakes’. St Paul already had them high.

Janet L. Nelson
London SE15

Images of Oscar Pistorius’s tattoo of Corinthians 9:27 reveal that Jacqueline Rose has hobbled her inferences about his character by misquoting a key word: it reads not ‘I execute each stride with intent’ but ‘I execute each strike with intent.’

Iain Bamforth
Strasbourg

Where to Put the Scherzo

Bee Wilson’s discussion of Alma Mahler’s influence on the order of the middle movements in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony underplays the complexity of the case (LRB, 5 November). It is true that Mahler reversed his original order of scherzo-andante at the premiere in May 1906, and thereafter ‘always conducted it andante-scherzo’ – though in fact he only conducted it twice more, the last time in January 1907. Alma is notoriously unreliable, but her account of his agitation at the premiere, when he was clearly troubled by the terrifying power of what he had written, seems entirely convincing.

The symphony was carefully planned with the scherzo placed second, the andante third. The home key of A minor is largely avoided in the second half of the first movement, which ends in a triumphant A major, so the return to A minor in the scherzo comes as a shock, but one that is absolutely necessary to the symphony’s dramatic scheme, as the music should not relax at this point. The right moment for a temporary easing of tension comes when the scherzo has exhausted itself. Mahler has taken similar care in his tonal planning at the end of the beautiful E flat major andante: the finale begins tentatively in the relative minor, C, but soon there is a devastating shift to A minor, which we have not heard since the scherzo. All this subtlety is lost if the movements are reversed.

We do not know if Mahler later expressed a wish to Alma to revert to the original order, which would give her telegram to Mengelberg more authority. But even if he did not, Alma’s instinct that scherzo-andante is the preferable order was, in my view, correct. I believe Mahler’s decision to reverse the order was largely dictated by superstition, like his removal of the third hammer blow in the finale.

David Matthews
London NW11

Corbyn in the Media

Mike Hine cites Robert Peston’s frustration with what he sees as the BBC’s over-dependence on the agendas of certain newspapers as evidence that their proprietors still exercise strong influence (Letters, 19 November). This issue was addressed in Ofcom’s report of December 2010 on News Corp’s bid to buy the part of BSkyB it did not already own. Research submitted by the consultants Perspective tracked the news media sources of stories appearing in four media enterprises – the BBC, Reuters, the Guardian and the Daily Mirror – from June to November 2010. It found that 75 per cent of BBC stories were sourced from news agencies (Reuters, Associated Press and the Press Association); 14 per cent were sourced from the Times, the Telegraph, the Mail, the Sun, the Express and their respective Sundays combined; 8 per cent were sourced from the Guardian, the Mirror, the Observer, the Financial Times, Al Jazeera and Channel 4. By contrast, the BBC itself was the source for 19 per cent of Reuters stories, 26 per cent of those in the Mirror and 27 per cent of those in the Guardian. (That the BBC should be a much stronger contributor to newspaper reporting than newspapers are to its reporting is no surprise given the scale of its journalistic resources.)

Like other TV news broadcasters, BBC TV and radio regularly offer explicit selections of newspaper headlines. Sky News devotes thirty minutes each evening to the following day’s front pages. But simply watching the preceding bulletin – or listening to the rest of the news programme – immediately exposes the difference not just in news agendas, but also tone, between broadcasters and newspapers. All broadcasters are required to comply with the rules relating to accuracy and impartiality. The public sees TV news as far more impartial than biased (72 per cent v. 22 per cent, according to Ofcom), but the reverse with newspapers (36 per cent v. 56 per cent). So all kinds of stories and treatments in newspapers are simply ignored by broadcasters.

A second difference is that broadcasting is a rolling news provider. The fixed front pages of newspapers can only have a fleeting impact on broadcasters. So, for instance, as I write today, leading the news this morning on BBC radio was the latest recommendation from Nice on HRT. The Telegraph also put that story on its front page, but it clearly wasn’t the ‘source’ for the story: that was Whitehall. By lunchtime, World at One had abandoned HRT and led on the EU prime ministers’ conference in Malta (which barely featured on that morning’s front pages). By six o’clock, that had made way for another government announcement, this time on the NHS. By the time the ten o’clock bulletins are broadcast, the next day’s front pages will barely have been available, so have minimal influence on the bulletins’ content: indeed, Valletta was back leading the news, linking to an expanded section on the migrant crisis (as the BBC calls it), followed by the NHS story, then a report from Iraq, and in fifth place coverage of a double suicide bombing in Beirut that claimed 43 lives.

Third, the primary driver of BBC news output is BBC newsgathering. The total ‘wordage’ of a typical 30-minute bulletin is a tiny fraction of that of a newspaper: but each chunk of reportage is the result of an allocation of expensive newsgathering resources. To assign a reporting team simply in response to a story in that morning’s newspapers is quite rare. In tonight’s News at Ten on BBC1, two major packages – from Lesbos and Sinjar – clearly had their genesis long before anyone decided on the next morning’s headlines.

Why does Peston say what he does? Because two of the issues where the BBC’s own regulators (first the governors, then the Trust) concluded the BBC had paid too little attention to public concerns over a lengthy term were Europe and immigration (and latterly the link between them). BBC News executives had disdained the heavily editorialised reporting of these issues in the likes of the Telegraph and the Mail; now, nervous of being criticised again by their overseers, they must take notice – and be seen to have taken notice – of what these papers say. But that is not the same as allowing them to influence the BBC’s news agenda or its treatment of individual stories. BBC news executives read the right-wing newspapers as well as the Guardian: but their output owes very little to either.

By the way, the contrast with Murdoch’s 6.3 per cent and the Mail’s 5.7 per cent was with respect to the BBC’s 60.6 per cent share of all news consumption, not its 75 per cent share of TV news consumption, as cited by Hine.

David Elstein
London SW15

Arab or African?

‘Seven Arab countries – Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, Oman and Qatar – had diplomatic representation in Israel,’ Nathan Thrall writes (LRB, 5 November). To call Mauritania an Arab country is to overlook the 30 per cent of its population who are ‘black Africans’, mainly Wolof, Pulaar and Soninke. There’s nothing Arab about them, which is why strongman Maaouya’s Iraqi Baathist-backed junta tried to wipe them out in the 1980s and 1990s, inspired by Saddam’s going after Kurds further to purify his ‘Arab country’.

The majority of Mauritania’s Arabs are descended from Berbers. Defeated in the 17th century by vastly outnumbered but militarily superior Arab warriors, the Berber-speaking Zawāyā were forced to ‘abandon the sword for the book’: to lay down their arms and serve society as its marabous, or teachers of Islam. In this role they were deceptively servile: they embraced the imposed Arab social order, and created a kind of double-speak. (‘Kiss the hand you fail to cut off,’ says one Zawāyā proverb.) Gradually they came to join, and often to supersede, the Arabs as society’s nobles. The Zawāyā didn’t assimilate to the Arabs as much as swallow them.

The ‘Bidhane’ (literally, ‘white’), as these nobles came to be known, have done a pretty good job of persuading outsiders that they’re not merely ‘arabised’ but Arabs by blood – and the country’s ‘majority’ at that. But most of this ‘Arab majority’ is made up of the Bidhane’s slaves (Abid) and freed slaves (Haratine), most of whom are descendants of black Africans, now in the early stages of political activism.

Using different measurements, Mauritania’s two other majorities are religious (the country is 100 per cent Muslim) and racial (70 per cent of the population is black). The latter figure is most responsible for the Bidhane’s portrayal of the country as Arab: it marginalises non-Arabs, thus reinforcing the cultural divide that has helped keep the black majority from becoming a political one. This is the crux of la question nationale that has plagued Mauritania since it gained independence in 1960 – whether it is an Arab or an African country. Calling the country Arab implies the question has already been answered when it in no way has.

Lee Gillette
Brussels

Memories of the Fog

Harry Watson mentions that the RAF’s ‘first kill of the war’ came on 16 October 1939, when a Spitfire from 603 Squadron (City of Edinburgh) downed a Junkers 88 (Letters, 19 November). In fact the first kill by a plane flying from a UK base occurred on 8 October 1939, five weeks after the declaration of hostilities, when a Dornier 18 flying boat was shot down by a Lockheed Hudson from 224 Squadron. In the action Watson refers to, the downed aircraft was a Heinkel 111 and not a Junkers 88; a second Heinkel 111 was shot down ten minutes later by another Spitfire, this time from 602 Squadron (City of Glasgow).

The crew of the Dornier 18 were not killed but were rescued by a Danish trawler attracted to the downed aircraft by the Hudson that had shot it down. Some things were yet to be learned.

Paul Machon
Market Harborough, Leicestershire

Cross-Generational Vaulting

May I add another evocative example (Letters, 5 November)? Maurice Bowra, the legendary warden of Wadham College, records in his Memories (1966) meeting an old Wadham man, Frederic Harrison, then aged 92. Harrison had gone to Oxford in 1849 and remembered the accession of Queen Victoria when he was seven years old. As an undergraduate, he had met Dr Routh, long in office as president of Magdalen (and reputedly the last man in Oxford to wear a wig), who died in his hundredth year soon afterwards. Routh in turn had met in his boyhood an old lady who when she was young had seen Charles II exercising his spaniels in Magdalen College gardens.

Keith Salway
Lechlade, Gloucestershire

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