LRB Cover

Send letters to:

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London WC1A 2HN
letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and work and home telephone numbers.

Letters


Before the Abortion Act

‘I found no one who would talk to me about [abortion] in the time I was preparing this piece,’ Joanna Biggs writes, prompting me to set down my experience in 1966, a year before the Abortion Act was passed (LRB, 17 August). I was a 19-year-old student at Bristol University. A condom broke and I became pregnant. Others in my situation at the time might have paid for an abortion at a private clinic, but my boyfriend and I couldn’t afford that, nor were we inclined to appeal to our parents, who were in the Far East and beyond easy communication.

I knew that I wasn’t ready to have a baby, so I tried jumping off tables (gingerly), taking scalding baths, drinking a lot of whisky. Then a friend gave us the name and number of a midwife in the docks who sometimes provided abortions to dockers’ wives whose husbands refused to use contraception. She was reluctant to get involved with a student, but just as reluctant to refuse. She wasn’t in it for the money. We paid £5 (perhaps the equivalent of £50 now?) which went into a pot to cover legal fees should she ever be arrested. (Private clinics charged, if I remember rightly, something like £200.) She came to the flat three times before the procedure was successful, and each time a lawyer accompanied her; the £5 fee in my case covered all three visits, which took place before the 12-week cut-off point, beyond which she would not go. On no account were we to divulge her name or contact details.

She was both professional and motherly, and the procedure was simple and safe, nothing to do with knitting needles or coat-hangers. She grated carbolic soap into a bowl, added boiling water, and when the mixture was cool enough, used a rubber douche to get it up against the cervix. That was it. The soap irritates the cervix, causing a miscarriage – some ten hours later. She told me to wait until the bleeding started before ringing the university surgery; I would then be taken to hospital, where they would anaesthetise me and perform a D&C (dilation and curettage, to make sure my womb was clear). At eleven weeks – my boyfriend by then back at university – it worked. A flatmate ran to the phone box in her dressing gown in the early hours; a university doctor came, asked me who had done it (clearly knowing that I wouldn’t say) and how, injected me with pethidine against labour pains, and rang for an ambulance. From that moment on, the word abortion was never used, not by the ambulance men (one of whom held my hand in the ambulance, asking about my boyfriend); not by the nurses in Casualty, nor by the orderly who wheeled me to theatre. I was asked how the procedure was done but not made to give a name. When I came to, I was in a ward of older women with a range of obstetric problems; it must have been obvious why I was there but no one criticised, no one even hinted at anything shameful. Everyone was kind. I was lucky.

Elizabeth Gabriel
Settle, Yorkshire

The persistence in Northern Ireland of the provisions of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act regarding abortion is, as Joanna Biggs suggests, an anachronism. But although the Act did prescribe penal servitude for life (which in practice meant twenty years) as the maximum penalty for procuring an abortion, penal servitude was itself abolished in Northern Ireland in 1953 (four years after the rest of the United Kingdom) and replaced in existing statutes by equivalent terms of imprisonment.

Oscar Wilde was not, as Biggs states, imprisoned under the Act. Among its many provisions, it re-enacted a prohibition on ‘buggery’ dating from 1533, which ceased to be a capital offence, carrying instead a maximum life sentence of penal servitude and a ten-year minimum term. Wilde was convicted of gross indecency, an offence created by the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, which, as it didn’t require proof of penetration, was easier to prosecute and for which he received the maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment with hard labour.

Ben Bethell
London SE4


Nudged

Jamie Martin discusses the influence of Kahneman and Tversky’s work concerning the use of heuristics in decision-making (LRB, 27 July). My own PhD research in the late 1970s focused on how women made decisions about childbearing in the light of quantified risks that the foetus might be affected with a chromosomal or Mendelian disease. (These were the days when amniocentesis was a limited test available to only a few.)

The standard thinking at the time was based on an expectation that women would make their decisions on a ‘rational’ basis: they would avoid becoming pregnant, or not, depending on whether the risk was ‘high’ or ‘low’. Clinicians despaired when women did not behave this way: the feeling was that they must be either uneducated about statistics or simply ignorant. I set out to explore how women actually made their choices.

What I learned from the women I interviewed was that all of them knew the probability of particular undesired outcomes, but that this didn’t determine their decisions. Rather, they created ‘scenarios’ for various outcomes, placed themselves in those scenarios (all of which were possible, however improbable some may have been), and made their childbearing decisions according to what they thought they could manage in any given case.

Kahnemann and Tversky’s work not only gave my qualitative research a proper quantitative basis, but by introducing me and others to the ways that real people made decisions, helped bring a nuance to genetic counselling that I hope persists today. Sometimes being ‘irrational’ is the rational way to behave; and some logic is ‘fuzzy’.

Abby Lippman
Montreal

Jamie Martin mentions that judges ‘are much less likely to grant parole when they’re hungry than just after they’ve eaten’. This example is often called on to do the heavy lifting in arguments against the reliability of rationality in decision-making. The hypothesis ‘hungry judge = harsh judge’ was introduced by Shai Danziger in his paper ‘Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions’ (2011). But the effect he observed was orders of magnitude too great to be plausibly explained by the hunger hypothesis. Effects this large, if they were real, would be repeated across all professions – pilots, surgeons and firefighters would be similarly affected. The reality is that the results Danziger recorded were probably caused by structural factors masked to those not professionally involved. It may be, for example, that the court cases were ordered such that there was an apparent correlation. There’s no good evidence that bringing your judge elevenses will spare you a prison sentence.

Robin Garner
London SE5


Rabbits Addressed by a Stoat

Stefan Collini writes about the presence of scholars in internment camps during the Second World War (LRB, 13 July). On 20 May 1940 my father, Erwin Rothbarth, wrote from the Aliens Internment Camp in Huyton, Merseyside:

I am enjoying highly intellectual company. On the second day we formed a university. There are courses on maths, physics, law, economics, languages. The boys are nice, sensible and cheerful.

‘The boys’ included the statistician Claus Moser, then 17, who was released later in the summer in time to begin his degree at the London School of Economics in September 1940.

On 6 June my father writes:

We are a large number of people living within a fairly small radius in unfinished council houses. There is a certain amount of autonomy in our administration and we are free to walk about and visit our friends … The food is good but not quite sufficient especially for boys between 16 and 20 … Moreover it is lacking in protein, fats and carbohydrates, but as most of the underlying difficulties seem temporary we don’t worry over much. To compensate for all that there is the free and easy comradeship of a large number of people all far above the average in moral and intellectual qualities.

And the day after:

Our food has greatly improved and we now get 2800 calories per day … the quality of the cooking is very high – our own mainly Austrian cooks are working miracles … Our main worry is our utter isolation from the outside world. We are not allowed any papers, periodicals etc and are not allowed to listen to BBC news.

On 12 June:

Could you send me fruit, halibut oil capsules, sandals, underwear, two shirts, Courant’s Differential Calculus Vol. 2, Courant-Hilbert’s Mathematische Physik.

His next letter was written six days later from the Central Promenade Camp in Douglas on the Isle of Man, where he remained until his release at the end of August. He is distinctive, it appears from the Fifth Report of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (1946), as one of two men registered with the society (the other was Flying Officer H.O. Ziegler) who died on active service, as a private in the Suffolk Regiment.

The report classifies as ‘academic refugees’ the 2541 scholars and scientists who registered with the society in the period 1939-45. I rather doubt my father would have accepted that classification. When he came to England in 1933 he was 19 years old, having completed his first year studying law at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, his home town. My mother used to claim that he had read Mein Kampf and believed Hitler meant what he said. But it is anyway clear that my father had decided to abandon his legal studies and study economics instead, and that the best place to do that was at the LSE.

Hanna Holborn Gray is right to draw attention to the generosity of the US academic community and its attraction for younger academics (Letters, 17 August). Her comments are borne out by the Society’s Fifth Report, which states: ‘The great majority of the scholars registered with us who have found employment abroad are in the United States. We know of 624 placed there.’ The number remaining in the UK is given as 601, with the caveat that the figure is ‘probably excessive’ because it almost certainly includes people intending to return to their home countries.

Tom Rivers
London N7


The Liveliness of the Dead

The appearance in the same issue of John Lanchester’s article on Facebook and Marina Warner’s review of Thomas Laqueur’s The Work of the Dead had me reflecting on a new sort of mourning that social media has brought about (LRB, 17 August). My father has been dead for six years, but his Facebook profile has gone on existing. I have occasionally visited it. People have continued to post there, often on his birthday, saying things like, ‘Hope you’re having a ball up there.’ Such posts are public acts; others ‘like’ them or add comments in support.

It can be unnerving to receive an automated social media notification reminding you to wish happy birthday to a dead person. I have imagined what it would be like if I knew my dad’s password and logged onto his profile. I suppose there would be messages from old schoolfriends who haven’t heard he has died, but also invitations to play Candy Crush and advertising targeted on the basis of the ‘likes’ he registered when he was still alive. His ashes were scattered in the garden of my parents’ house, which my mother will probably sell next year; after that, his Facebook profile may be the only place left to go when I’m feeling mawkish and want to ‘visit’ him.

Johnnie Bicket
London N7

John Lanchester’s mention of Flaubert’s disparagement of trains that ‘merely permit more people to move about, meet and be stupid’ recalls Matthew Arnold’s similarly technophobic characterisation of the Atlantic telegraph, in the mouth of his character Arminius in Friendship’s Garland (1871): ‘that great rope, with a Philistine at each end of it talking inutilities!’ Often, when I start to tap out my inutile 140 characters on Twitter, this phrase comes uneasily to mind.

Nicholas Murray
Presteigne, Powys


The Meeting of the Waters

John Barrell’s piece on Thomas Moore’s ‘The Meeting of the Waters’ led me to dig out some old song books to remind myself of the tune (LRB, 27 July). I found three versions: in A major in the 1905 National Song Book (inherited from my mother); in A flat in the New National and Folk Song Book, Part II (1939), which used to belong to my Mayo-born mother-in-law; and in G in the News Chronicle Song Book (no date). What I found striking was that only the News Chronicle collection included the final verse, the one that begins ‘Sweet Vale of Avoca!’ In the two ‘national’ collections the Irish location, which is alluded to only in that verse, is eliminated and the waters could have been meeting anywhere.

John Davies
Cardiff

John Barrell says he isn’t sure when ‘The Meeting of the Waters’ ‘died out of the popular and school repertoires in Britain’, noting its appearance as a national song in the 1920s and its inclusion in 1937 in the Souvenir Coronation Songbook. The song was part of my primary school music repertoire in the home counties in the early 1960s. It appears in the last edition of Boosey & Hawkes’s New National Song Book (1958), and also in the BBC’s Singing Together collection of 1958.

Ruth Evans
St Louis, Missouri


Heligoland

I have a musical footnote to add to Neal Ascherson’s review of Jan Rüger’s Heligoland (LRB, 17 August). In his discussion of the cultural responses to the island as a romantic image and political symbol, Rüger cites Anton Bruckner’s last completed composition, Helgoland (1893), which was commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wiener Mannergesang-Verein. This secular cantata’s patriotic character made it very popular at the time, harmonising with the nationalist Zeitgeist. It was premiered in the presence of the Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph. But Rüger claims it is German in its national association; the Austrian composer, he asserts, ‘saw himself as part of a German nation’. He defines this as ‘a “tribal” idea of Germanic nationhood’, which Bruckner shared with Wagner, and concludes that ‘the monumental character of the work and its evocation of an ethnically defined Germanness was to ensure its popularity with leading Nazis a generation later.’ But the text of Helgoland was by August Silberstein, an Austrian poet who also happened to be Jewish, which would surely have prevented the composition’s performance during the Third Reich. Hitler did appropriate Bruckner’s genius with his usual sentimental fervour, and it was a 1942 recording of the Adagio from his Seventh Symphony, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, which was played before the radio announcement of Hitler’s death in Germany on 1 May 1945. This unfortunate association damaged Bruckner’s reputation more than the strangely embarrassing nationalism of Helgoland.

Stephen Pickles
Oxford


Doubtful Thomas

‘Particularly revealing about Raphael’s working method and his ideals,’ Charles Hope writes, ‘is a remarkable group of drawings for an engraving, The Massacre of the Innocents, in which all the protagonists interact in strangely balletic poses. The result is entirely artificial and seems wilfully eccentric, but at the time must have appeared an astonishing display of virtuosity’ (LRB, 27 July). This is true enough, and has been said before, if not quite so negatively. But it takes no account of the desperate woman at dead centre who hurtles towards us, clutching her baby. The frieze-like ‘dance of death’ around Raphael’s mother and baby suggests time is suspended and she is trying to burst her way out of this fast-enveloping nightmare. We, towards whom she runs, are implicated as helpless/indifferent bystanders.

This is an extraordinarily powerful innovation; I can recall no prior example of a central figure in a painting or print running directly towards the viewer. An antique statue of Hypnos (sleep) – then considered a Mercury – does so, but was probably meant to be flying; the startled old man at the centre of Michelangelo’s inspirational Battle of Cascina lunges, rather than runs, forward, his legs hidden and his path blocked by two men.

Raphael was evidently fascinated by advancing central figures: Plato in The School of Athens seems to stride towards us (and so too does the flanking Aristotle, even though his feet are in a standing position). Raphael’s three advancing figures – Plato, Aristotle and the mother with baby – influenced the three marching strikers (two men, one woman with baby) at the forefront of Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s great protest picture The Fourth Estate (1901), which he considered a proletarian School of Athens.

James Hall
London SW12

The caption for a portrait by Raphael in the Ashmolean describes it as a ‘study for the head of an apostle (possible St Thomas) in the “Transfiguration”’. According to Mark, Chapter 9, three apostles witnessed the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John. The drawing could be of any of them, or possibly of Moses or Elijah, who were both there. It could not, even possibly, depict Thomas.

Frank Conley
Folkestone, Kent


Brexit Blues

Sionaidh Douglas-Scott confused me by advising that the EU (Withdrawal) Bill will transfer ‘all relevant EU law into British law – perhaps the greatest ever legal transplant in the UK’ (LRB, 17 August). I have always thought that European legislation was codified into British law by a mechanism under Section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972, which uses statutory instruments of secondary legislation to bring EU law onto the UK statute book. I therefore struggle to understand the need for any great effort in transferring EU law into British law since it is there already.

I contacted Daniel Greenberg, a former parliamentary counsel, who told me that in his view the difficulty presented is around the repeal of the 1972 Act, which would remove the transposition mechanism and thus void everything passed onto the statute book from Brussels since the UK’s accession. Even if that is so, surely it is remiss not simply to include in the EU Withdrawal Bill a clause which states: ‘All EU law passed as secondary legislation in the UK Parliament up to and including the date of departure is unaffected by the passing of this bill.’

As with so much surrounding Brexit, for which both the civil service and the government seem so woefully unprepared, even constitutional experts seem to be a bit overwhelmed by the detail. Are we overcomplicating it?

Oliver Lewis
London SE8


Against Independence

Musab Younis’s review of my book, Freedom Time, is an instance of the reductive understanding of decolonisation that the work of Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire calls into question (LRB, 29 June). Contrary to his assertions, I never simply defend as correct their plan to transform imperial France into a post-national federation. Nor do I reject anti-colonial nationalism as such or treat federalism as a ‘grail’. Rather, I seek to make Senghor and Césaire’s imperfect programme intelligible as a radical response to the challenges of colonial freedom. And I reject the methodological nationalism that leads critics like Younis to dismiss them as imperial apologists because they weren’t revolutionary nationalists.

Younis mistakenly characterises Senghor and Césaire as advocating colonial integration into the French state. But I explain that they sought to explode the republic by creating a transcontinental association of self-governing communities that would be federated within differential unities. This new polity – socialist, democratic and multiracial – would abolish colonialism and supersede the national state. It would disconnect citizenship from ethnicity, turn Europe inside out, and create the basis for an alternative global order.

Both realist and utopian, this programme was certainly not, as Younis suggests, characterised by naivety about French racism and colonialism. It proceeded from the belief that, given global capitalism and imperial politics, de-linking from the West was impossible; mere legal separation would not eliminate relations of socio-economic and geopolitical dependence. Senghor and Césaire thus sought to democratise the transcontinental intersections that imperialism had produced. They also reasoned that European wealth and power was built on colonial resources and labour. They refused to be transformed into foreigners asking for charity from, or the right to enter, a state that already belonged to them, and them to it. They also rejected any attempt to subsume their peoples into the existing republic as non-self-governing minorities unable to protect their distinctive forms of life.

Senghor and Césaire believed that if decolonisation did not also revolutionise social relations in European metropoles, it could never create real freedom. They hoped to overcome the alienating forces that were diminishing human life not only in the global South but also in the West.

Finally, Younis asserts that Senghor and Césaire’s plan was unlikely to be implemented or risked being appropriated by reactionaries. But movements for real political change are always risky, their projects provisional, the danger of appropriation ever present; outcomes are never determined in advance and the chances of success are always minuscule. Given the inability of state sovereignty to ground popular democracy in the world today, it is imperative to invent new forms of self-determination and internationalism that can avoid the pitfalls of parochial nationalism and neoliberal imperialism. Too many anti-imperialists, like Younis, cling to the statist and culturalist pieties that helped bring us to the present impasse. I try to think with Senghor and Césaire about their predicament in order to differently illuminate our own.

Gary Wilder
City University of New York


Intermittently Chavista

Malcolm Deas’s intemperate letter gives an unfair account of Greg Grandin’s relatively even-handed account of Venezuela’s impossibly polarised politics (Letters, 27 July). Indeed in his fury Deas fails to note the one big omission that does reveal Grandin’s bias: the Congressional election of 2015 in which the opposition won 109 seats and the government only 55. Despite the result, the government has overridden or ignored Congressional decisions, sometimes via rulings of the Supreme Court, whose members are all recognised government nominees and supporters. The government denounces its opponents as agents of imperialism; the opposition uses its big majority in attempts to unseat the president by whatever means possible.

Grandin’s division of the opposition into moderates and ultras may be right in theory, but in practice there is no middle ground. The opposition no doubt includes people who, were they to come to power, would undertake a Pinochet-style clean-out of Chavistas from the state. That prospect makes the incumbents resist compromise ever more fiercely, but they have other motives too, some of them ideological. The power of anti-Americanism in Latin America cannot be underestimated: it erodes reason and closes down debate. The call for new elections is made only in desperation; in the current circumstances an election campaign with an agreed result is not a feasible prospect.

David Lehmann
Manchester