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Vol. 39 No. 23 · 30 November 2017

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The Church in Polish Politics

Neal Ascherson writes that in the years following the fall of communism in Poland in 1989 the political influence of the Catholic Church ‘seemed to be waning’, only then to be restored (LRB, 19 October). In fact there was no waning. It was in those years that the Church strengthened its position and secured it for the decades to come. As early as May 1989, after the Round Table talks between the government and opposition groups but before the first democratic elections, the outgoing communist parliament passed a law concerning ‘the relation of the state to the Catholic Church’. On the basis of that document more than 65,000 hectares of land, confiscated by the postwar regime, were restored to the Church, along with 490 buildings; on top of that, some 140 million Polish złoty (roughly 33.5 million euros) was paid in compensation for property that wasn’t returned. The same law also confirmed the Catholic Church’s ownership of Orthodox and Protestant church buildings handed over to it by the communist government.

In 1990, the teaching of religion was reintroduced in all state schools. In theory this means any denomination chosen by a student or their parents, but Catholicism is usually the only religion that can supply the numbers needed to form a class, except in some largely Orthodox communities in the east of the country and Lutheran ones in Silesia. Students who don’t take religion are offered a subject called Ethics. (A European Court of Human Rights judgment in 2010 was necessary for this alternative to be made available in all schools.) State schools take three days off for ‘retreat’ during Lent; nine-year-olds go to first communion with their class. The Polish state pays the salaries of some 14,000 teachers of religion, as well as those of army, police and hospital chaplains.

In 1991, the first Catholic radio stations were licensed and began broadcasting, among them Radio Maryja, which went on to be criticised for airing anti-Semitic comments. The first Catholic TV station, TV Niepokalanów, licensed since 1997, enjoys the same tax breaks as public television. In 1993, one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in Europe was passed in Poland, banning abortion except when the pregnancy results from rape or endangers the woman’s life or health, or when the foetus is seriously malformed.

At the time these concessions to the Catholic Church were made, some political leaders welcomed them; others may have been worried, but chose not to jeopardise their chances of re-election by opposing a Church still led by the widely idolised John Paul II. Some may have felt it would be churlish to act against an organisation which not so long before had helped them and their families when they were political prisoners. So it is only now that we are beginning to grasp the full impact of the advantages granted to the Church after 1989. To take one example: in a recent opinion poll on abortion, the younger the respondent, the less likely they were to favour a liberalised law. A total ban on abortion had greatest support among 18-24-year-olds. Today’s young people all went to school after 1989. Many will have been shown anti-abortion films such as The Silent Scream, not in religion lessons, but in ‘Education for Family Life’ – the curriculum and textbooks for which, while not officially supervised by the Church, are strongly conservative in outlook.

The disturbing rise of Polish nationalism, which Ascherson describes so well, also has a religious angle to it. On 11 November, participants in the nationalist/fascist (depending on who you’re talking to) ‘independence march’ in Warsaw carried banners declaring ‘White Europe’ and ‘Death to the Enemies of the Motherland’, as well as ‘We Want God’. The latter is a line from a religious song that sees the presence of God in every aspect of life. I am not suggesting the Catholic Church endorses fascists; but it has certainly made big steps towards granting the wishes on those banners.

Marta Umińska


Gavin Francis is doubtful of claims that the full moon has an effect on human behaviour (LRB, 2 November). But while it is true that some studies have found no correlation, a number of others have done so. A German study from 2000 recorded a rise in binge-drinking ‘during the five-day full moon cycle’. Another, of inmates at a jail in Leeds in 1998, noticed a rise in violent incidents around the full moon. A doctor in Bournemouth claimed A&E calls went up by 3 per cent. A Swiss study from 2013 showed that sleep patterns were disturbed even when the subjects were unaware there was a full moon: ‘Volunteers spent 30 per cent less time in deep sleep, took five minutes longer to fall asleep, and slept for twenty minutes less.’

In 2007, the inspector responsible for co-ordinating policing in the so-called ‘marble’ area of Brighton, where the busiest clubs and pubs are located, compiled a graph showing an increase in violence around the time of the full moon. ‘The number of disturbances recorded increased significantly,’ he reported. ‘If you speak to ambulance staff, they will tell you exactly the same.’ He ordered Sussex Police to deploy extra officers at such times. (They no longer do so.) I live in the ‘marble’ area, and can confirm that it is often unnecessary to look out of the window to find out if there’s a full moon, especially at weekends. Ambient levels of noise – shouting, yelling, boom-cars, bongo-drumming, bottle-chucking, emergency sirens – increase noticeably.

Laurens van der Post, a wartime captive of the Japanese, recorded that he and his fellow prisoners dreaded full moons, which drew ‘a far tide of mythological frenzy’ in their captors’ blood. ‘Seven days, three days before and three days after and the day of the full moon itself, were always our days of greatest danger,’ he recalled, when sadistic beatings and beheadings tended to occur.

Graham Chainey

A Bit like Belgium

Patrick McGuinness recalls the train journey between Brussels and Luxembourg, which I take regularly on European Court of Justice business (LRB, 2 November). On a weekday afternoon the train is usually jam-packed with commuters until it disgorges most of them in Namur. The train then lumbers on through the beautiful Ardennes landscape with a handful of passengers in each coach. Between Ciney and Arlon the train stops at such godforsaken stations as Marloie, McGuinness’s Libramont and Marbehan, where virtually no one gets either off or on. A Belgian colleague of mine confessed to never having heard of these places. (The majority of Belgians are addicted to their cars, so this didn’t come as a surprise.) McGuinness recalls the station names being given in both Flemish and French, but that isn’t so any longer. This part of Belgium is robustly Francophone and I have never seen the names given in Flemish. The journey to Luxembourg takes almost three hours, plenty of time for going over cases, discussing hearings with colleagues or just admiring the landscape. A doubtless inefficient but civilised way to travel, a bit like Belgium itself.

Johan Enegren
Danderyd, Sweden

The Liveliness of the Dead

Marina Warner’s explanation of a myrrhoblyte allows one to read with slightly less alarm Aubrey’s brief life of John Colet, dean of St Paul’s and founder of St Paul’s School (Letters, 2 November):

After the Conflagration (his Monument being broken) somebody made a little hole towards the upper edge of his Coffin, which… was full of a liquor which conserved the body. Mr Wyld and Ralph Greatorex tasted it and ’twas of a kind of insipid tast, something of an ironish tast … This was a strange rare way of conserving a Corps: perhaps it was a Pickle, as for Beefe, whose saltness in so many years the Lead [of the coffin] might sweeten and render insipid.

Not content with just a taste, these intrepid members of the Royal Society also probed the body with a stick: it felt like ‘boyld Brawne’.

Andrew Livingston

The IRA and the ANC

In his review of Malachi O’Doherty’s biography of Gerry Adams, Owen Bennett-Jones puts the IRA on an equal moral footing with the ANC in South Africa in terms of the legitimacy of their respective armed struggles (LRB, 16 November). As a nationalist brought up in Belfast who is married to a South African, I want to explain why that is wrong. The ANC in South Africa was not permitted to contest elections before 1994, but it was clearly supported by the majority of the population – its landslide victory in the first democratic election in 1994 proved that. Also, the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 showed that its Gandhian campaign of non-violence up to that point had been futile. The switch to armed struggle was legitimate and fulfilled the just war criterion of being a last resort. Neither condition applies to the IRA. The IRA’s political wing, Sinn Féin, was able to contest elections both North and South any time it wanted, but never got the support of a majority even of the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland until it abandoned violence, never mind the support of a majority of voters in Ireland as a whole. Moreover, precisely because Sinn Féin was free to contest elections, the armed struggle was not a last resort for them.

Willy McCourt
London SE4


Philip Jacobson is right to say that my review of Ronald Hutton’s The Witch omits any reference to maleficent penis-snatching, but there is a faint allusion (Letters, 16 November). I mention that the infamous witch-hunting text the Malleus Maleficarum was meant to be funny. Perhaps its best-known joke was that medieval witches stole penises and kept them like pets in a nest and fed them oats. The largest belonged to a priest. I’m not sure anyone really believed this idea, or that it ever formed the substance of a criminal trial. The most plausible explanation is that it originated as an amusing story, whether Heinrich Kramer, the author of the Malleus, realised it or not. As Hans Peter Broedel writes in The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft (2003), ‘much of the evidence for this practice was found in a tradition of bawdy, rustic joking, which the inquisitors lamentably misunderstood.’ Like a lot of good jokes, this one played on an anxiety, in this case belonging to the fragile male ego and what frightens it most: impotence.

Malcolm Gaskill

A Pound a Glimpse

Daniel Smith writes that by the start of the 20th century, most people with epilepsy were no longer held in asylums (LRB, 16 November). For Londoners that wasn’t always the case. In 1896 London County Council acquired the large Horton Manor estate, in Epsom, to fulfil its duties under the Lunacy Act, and built five asylums. The third of them, Ewell Epileptic Colony, opened in 1904 with 315 patients. It was war rather than enlightenment that made it possible for its epileptic patients to go out into the world: in 1918 the premises were taken over as a war hospital that treated ‘neurasthenia’ in returning soldiers.

Ruth Valentine
London N15

What Is Great about Ourselves

David Goodhart claims that ‘spending on social security today as a proportion of GDP is almost twice what it was … in the mid-1970s’ (Letters, 19 October). That is simply incorrect. With some ups and downs over the years, largely reflecting the economic cycle, spending has been fairly steady at around 12 per cent of GDP, but is now falling, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. Most other European countries spend a much higher share than we do. Half of our total is spent on pensions and benefits for the elderly; since state pensions are protected, that proportion is rising. Who, then, is suffering the squeeze on social security? Working-age people, including the disabled, already beset by job insecurity, low wages, poor conditions and zero-hour contracts.

Colin Quinney
Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

Great Scott

It was disappointing to read Richard Wilson’s assertion that Elisabeth Scott was not responsible for the design of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (LRB, 4 May and Letters, 17 August). Attribution is always a difficult matter, especially in a collaborative discipline. But it is also true that someone must have the starting idea (not necessarily the architect: it could be a client or a collaborator) and that women designers are disproportionately disregarded when it comes to receiving credit for their work.

Whatever the gossip at the time may have been, Scott herself said that she ‘spent two months creating the building in my mind. I used to go for long tramps in the country, the hillier the better. And then I worked it out on paper in about six weeks.’ She then worked, as Gavin Stamp noted (Letters, 1 June), with Alison Sleigh and J.C. Shepherd to complete the drawings required for what was a major international competition (in which all entries were anonymous). When she was short-listed, she again played the lead role in developing the design. Amanda Minett records in her dissertation about Scott: ‘She worked most weekends on it until about a month before the submission date, when she worked 12 to 14 hours a day preparing the final entry.’ Once she had won the competition, she joined forces with an established office, which could give her the technical support that was needed to bring a major project to fruition.

Elizabeth Darling, Oxford Brookes University<br />Lynne Walker, Institute of Historical Research, London WC1

Trump’s Republic

Adam Shatz rightly asks whether Donald Trump is a racist (LRB, 7 September). But where racists feel superior to particular categories of people Trump is something far worse: he imagines himself superior to absolutely everyone. In America, however, there is no ‘legitimate’ cultural vessel into which this claim can be poured: we do not recognise prophets who must be obeyed or technocrats to whom we must submit without question. Instead, when the true narcissist arises he can only draw on the expressive channels that are available, which in this case are along the lines of gender, class, race and so on. Thus, we all bear some responsibility for Trump’s creation: so long as we think that Trump or anyone else is only better than some of us we will not understand how the distorted status our culture has accorded him will go on working to the detriment of all of us.

Lawrence Rosen
Princeton, New Jersey


Andy Beckett remarks that Birmingham was ‘one of the few British cities to vote in favour of Brexit’ (LRB, 2 November). That seems an odd way to put it when it was joined in recording a majority Leave vote by Sunderland, Sheffield, Swansea, Hull, Bradford, Wolverhampton, Southampton, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Coventry, Nottingham, Derby, Gloucester, Stoke, Preston, Lancaster and Peterborough.

Phil Thompson
London SE4

Andy Beckett writes that Clair Wills’s book shares with the British state and media a tendency ‘to treat white immigrants from rich countries as invisible’. When my wife, firmly in this category, went to Luton a few years ago to sit her written immigration exam the staff had to be dissuaded from their assumption that she was there to invigilate.

Chris Yates
Ampthill, Bedfordshire

The Flight to Dunkirk

Like Jonathan Raban’s father my father was reticent about his time in France in 1940 (LRB, 5 October). A bank clerk who’d joined up in 1939, he was a lieutenant in the Royal Tank Regiment. In one story he did tell, he thought he’d been smart by hiding his tank behind a haystack, and watched entranced as it shrank remorselessly under the German gunfire wrecking his squadron’s attack. Several days later and tankless he found himself, in the interests of Anglo-French unity and morale, marching back and forth along a riverbank beside a fearless French major, trying unobtrusively to keep leeside of the bullets from across the river. The misery of endless retreat was compounded by seeing other French officers treating their men like dirt, or just abandoning them. In his regiment it was ‘first the tanks, then the men … then yourself’. And worse, under orders to deny them to the enemy, he had to shoot six beautiful Shire horses.

He never got to Dunkirk though. The left hook of the panzers crashing through to Calais bounced him westward and he ended up in Brest, filthy and sick at heart. Back in England he found himself sitting on the South Downs practising with wooden rifles, waiting for the invasion. No one doubted that German armaments and technical ingenuity would sort out the Channel. Then he heard Churchill’s counterfactuals and it was as if he was alive again. Three months later he was in a troopship bound for Egypt, and five years with the 8th Army in North Africa and Italy.

Trevor Turner
London N1

The Freud We Need

I read Frederick Crews’s letter with an increasing sense of the imperative to rush out and buy a copy of his book (Letters, 2 November). Can we look forward to more book adverts masquerading as letters in future? If so I may write to you more often.

Paul Griseri
La Genetouze, France

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