Vol. 44 No. 13 · 7 July 2022

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Nothing Like an Alibi

Fara Dabhoiwala finds it strange that ‘Julian the Black’ didn’t testify in court when he was tried on a capital charge in 1724 (LRB, 23 June). It would have been stranger if he had done so, for until the Criminal Evidence Act 1898 was passed, accused individuals tried in England and Wales could not testify in their own defence. They were limited to cross-examining prosecution witnesses and making an unsworn statement, on which they themselves could not be cross-examined, from the dock.

They could, however, call witnesses to give evidence of their good character and reputation, or factual evidence indicative of their innocence – classically an alibi. Mr Weller senior, although he wasn’t too clear about the difference between the civil lawsuit brought against Mr Pickwick for breach of promise of marriage and a felony trial at the Old Bailey, was well aware of how to use the rules of evidence:

I s’pose he’ll want to call some witnesses to speak to his character, or p’raps to prove an alleybi … I’ve got some friends as ’ll do either for him, but my adwice ’ud be this here – never mind the character, and stick to the alleybi. Nothing like a alleybi, Sammy, nothing.

Although the exclusionary rule continued to be doggedly supported on the ground that to abandon it would put the accused’s immortal soul in jeopardy by inviting him to lie on oath, the attorney general in 1898 asserted to the Parliament which finally lifted the rule: ‘No innocent man will shrink from giving evidence.’

Poor Julian, forbidden by law to testify in his own defence, is unlikely to have had either character evidence or alibi witnesses to help him.

Stephen Sedley
Dorney, Buckinghamshire

On Not Naming Names

Reading Thomas Meaney’s review of my book Free, I was surprised to find several false claims that have circulated on private social media accounts in Albania: that I supported ‘the razing of the National Theatre’ in Tirana in 2020, that the prime minister, Edi Rama, ‘hosted’ my book launch, and that I sit on a committee for higher education which Rama ‘convened’ (LRB, 23 June). I have never expressed views on the theatre project. The book launch was organised by my Albanian publisher, who rented the venue and issued the invitations. It was attended by activists, artists, diplomats and politicians, all in a private capacity. The higher education board is an independent body. And though green cities in general are surely a good thing, I cannot recall supporting Albanian ‘government stunts, such as planting more trees’.

Meaney claims that the sale of my family’s coastal property enabled me ‘to live and study in Italy’. My undergraduate studies were covered entirely by a modest university scholarship. My doctoral studies were funded by the Italian Foreign Ministry, supplemented by occasional work as a translator since I was also supporting my family in Tirana at the time.

Meaney suggests that Free received a hostile reception in Albania but fails to mention that the book won the Lumo Skëndo prize, the most important award in Albania for works of non-fiction. I am accused of ignoring critics yet have regularly addressed their concerns in interviews, with the exception of those who tried to police the memory of an eleven-year-old. Meaney says the book caters to Western tastes but overlooks the fact that it was a number one bestseller in Albania and has been reviewed favourably in several Eastern European countries.

Meaney says that I am ‘reticent about naming names’ in my analysis of Albanian politics. Although I visit the country regularly, I can boast neither his self-confidence nor the in-depth knowledge required to pass judgment on day to day issues. I believe that robust debate is possible without ‘naming names’ – the formulation has a sinister ring to those familiar with communist spies. Democratic politics needs critique, not inquisition. Having spoken regularly in public on the problems of the Albanian socialists, I see no need to go after individuals or engage in character assassination.

Lea Ypi
London W3

Bad Origins

When I was a history undergraduate twenty years ago, I studied with the late J.W. Smit, a great historian who published very little, for, he said, ‘I have my piano, and my gin.’ In his lectures on the origins of capitalism, Smit spoke of the history of sociology, beginning with Auguste Comte, who gave us the word ‘sociology’ (Smit chuckled over the term’s absurdity, combining as it did the Latin socio- with the Greek -logy).

William Davies doesn’t mention Comte at all (LRB, 9 June). He constructs a dichotomy between a discredited sociology of aspiration and hope (‘from the outset over-invested in a lofty vision of modernity, which can in retrospect appear deeply parochial’) and a coming discipline based on an acceptance of ‘the predictability of the long-term future’, which would require that sociologists ‘master a different conceptual framework, focused on legacies, inheritances and responsibilities’.

The science of ‘the predictability of the long-term future’ is, on the one hand, science fiction: Isaac Asimov’s ‘psychohistory’. On the other, it is simply the positivism of Comte, who divided the history of science into three stages: the theological, ‘in which free play is given to spontaneous fictions admitting of no proof’; the metaphysical, ‘characterised by the prevalence of personified abstractions or entities’ (including, for Comte, abstract ideals of human rights, which had been introduced by, and died with, the regimes of the French Revolution and Napoleon); and, finally, the positive stage, ‘based on an exact view of the real facts of the case’.

Today Comte, whose writings were often laughably wrong (he claimed, for instance, that scientists could never determine the chemical composition of stars), is neglected. Those who would revive his ideas, under whatever name they like, should recall only that European thinkers spent a century liberating themselves from the stupidity of that school. Even John Stuart Mill, who admired many of Comte’s ideas, wrote that he proposed ‘a despotism of society over the individual, surpassing anything contemplated in the political ideal of the most rigid disciplinarian among the ancient philosophers’.

Benjamin Letzler
Mödling, Austria

William Davies writes that Alexis de Tocqueville ‘paid little attention to the French colonisation of Algeria’. In fact, Tocqueville was regarded as the National Assembly’s leading expert on Algeria and made two visits to the country in 1841 and 1846, during the army’s counterinsurgency against a rebellion led by the Emir Abdel-Kader. He was also an impassioned advocate for Algeria’s violent colonisation. In his 1841 report on Algeria, he wrote: ‘I believe that the right of war authorises us to ravage the country and that we must do it, either by destroying harvests during the harvest season, or year-round by making those rapid incursions called razzias, whose purpose is to seize men or herds.’ While many of his fellow liberals ‘find it wrong that we burn harvests, that we empty silos, and finally that we seize unarmed men, women and children’, he felt that ‘these, in my view, are unfortunate necessities, but ones to which any people who want to wage war on the Arabs are obliged to submit.’ He advocated total war to defeat the insurrection, followed by the creation of a settler-colony, because ‘until we have a European population in Algeria, we shall never establish ourselves there [in Africa] but shall remain camped on the African coast. Colonisation and war, therefore, must proceed together.’ His brazen imperialism went hand in hand with his liberalism.

Adam Shatz
New York

She bore no grudges

Richard Shone gives a charming picture of the ballerina Lydia Lopokova in old age (LRB, 23 June). He also notes the tension that still existed between Lydia and her neighbours at Charleston decades after her marriage to Maynard Keynes, but says that for Duncan Grant at least, ‘Lydia was a delightful fact of life.’ Grant was certainly less grudging in his attitude to Lydia than many of his Bloomsbury contemporaries. Henrietta Garnett recalled that her grandmother, Grant’s companion Vanessa Bell, rarely saw Lydia and undercut any praise of her with a ‘superior laugh’ which made clear that Lydia was not their ‘type’. Grant himself had described the Keynes-Lopokova marriage as a ‘hard fact to bear’, but may have found it easier to accept after Keynes settled an annuity on him (the marriage meant he was displaced as Keynes’s heir). Lydia’s own generosity of spirit easily matched her husband’s and Grant’s. When, in her later life, the Impressionist masterpieces at Tilton were sent to King’s College, Cambridge, she chose to replace them with works by Bell, Grant and other Bloomsbury figures. She bore no grudges, commenting: ‘The effect is most pleasing, in fact one or two I prefer to the old ones.’

E.J. Barnes

Me, Me, Me

Miranda Carter’s history of Desert Island Discs brought back memories of castaways’ amusing music choices (LRB, 9 June). My own favourite is William Walton’s selection from April 1982, which included two works by William Walton. When asked which disc he would choose if he could keep only one, he said the Violin Concerto in B minor by William Walton – in preference to, inter alia, Mozart’s Piano Concerto 23 in A major. Needless to say, Roy Plomley’s courtesy to his guest remained impeccable throughout.

Sharon Footerman
London NW4


In her piece on Judy Chicago, Jo Applin writes that the only ‘visual record’ of Womanhouse is ‘Johanna Demetrakas’s 1974 documentary, along with a few grainy photographs’ (LRB, 9 June). In fact there is a second documentary about Womanhouse. The director Lynne Littman made Womanhouse Is Not a Home for the Los Angeles public television station KCET in 1972. The film disappeared from view for many years, but became more accessible when the Academy Film Archive acquired Littman’s collected works.

Sasha Archibald
Portland, Oregon

No Future

Robin Bunce and Paul Field make a persuasive case that Darcus Howe was ‘the real radical’ of the Silver Jubilee protests in 1977 (LRB, 9 June). But it isn’t the case that ‘none of those involved’ in the Sex Pistols’ performance of ‘God Save the Queen’ on a boat on the Thames faced criminal charges. Eleven attendees – including Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood – were arrested during a heavy-handed police raid on the Queen Elizabeth, detained overnight in cells at Bow Street and charged with obstruction and threatening behaviour (the same charges that were levelled against Howe). McLaren’s denunciation of the police as ‘fucking fascist pigs’ during the raid earned him, according to one onlooker, ‘the worst beating I’ve ever seen … OK, he was asking for it, but what they did to him was shocking. There were ten coppers kicking the shit out of him.’

Paul Gorman
London SE1

Care with Commas

I think it may have been helpful had a comma been omitted from the following sentence in Deborah Friedell’s piece on Norma McCorvey: ‘Amicus briefs supporting Roe were also filed by Margaret Mead, a former Miss America, and religious groups, including Episcopalians, Jews and the United Church of Christ’ (LRB, 23 June).

David Lowry
London E17

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