Category Archives: Media

Misdefending The Realm

 

“Which are we, Carruthers – workers, peasants or intellectuals?”

‘Misdefending the Realm’ was published by the University of Buckingham Press on October 26, and is available in the UK, as they say, ‘at all good booksellers’. But in case there are no booksellers at all left in your area, you can see it listed at amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=misdefending+the+realm ). It will be published in the USA next spring.  I have prepared a page dedicated to coverage of the book at  ‘Misdefending the Realm’  .

Here follows the blurb:

“When, early in 1940, an important Soviet defector provided hints to Britain’s Intelligence about spies within the country’s institutions, MI5’s report was intercepted by a Soviet agent in the Home Office. She alerted her sometime lover, Isaiah Berlin, and Berlin’s friend, Guy Burgess, whereupon the pair initiated a rapid counter-attack. Burgess contrived a mission for the two of them to visit the Soviet Union, which was then an ally of Nazi Germany, in order to alert his bosses of the threat, and protect the infamous ‘Cambridge Spies’. The story of this extraordinary escapade, hitherto ignored by the historians, lies at the heart of a thorough and scholarly exposé of MI5’s constitutional inability to resist communist infiltration of Britain’s corridors of power, and its later attempt to cover up its negligence.

Guy Burgess’s involvement in intelligence during WWII has been conveniently airbrushed out of existence in the official histories, and the activities of his collaborator, Isaiah Berlin, disclosed in the latter’s Letters, have been strangely ignored by historians. Yet Burgess, fortified by the generous view of Marxism emanating from Oxbridge, contrived to effect a change in culture in MI5, whereby the established expert in communist counter-espionage was sidelined, and Burgess’s cronies were recruited into the Security Service itself. Using the threat of a Nazi Fifth Column as a diversion, Burgess succeeded in minimising the communist threat, and placing Red sympathizers elsewhere in government.

The outcome of this strategy was far-reaching. When the Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler’s troops in June 1941, Churchill declared his support for Stalin in defeating the Nazi aggressor. But British policy-makers had all too quickly forgotten that the Communists would still be an enduring threat when the war was won, and appeasement of Hitler was quickly replaced by an appeasement of Stalin. Moreover, an indulgence towards communist scientists meant that the atom secrets shared by the US and the UK were betrayed. When this espionage was detected, MI5’s officers engaged in an extensive cover-up to conceal their misdeeds.

Exploiting recently declassified material and a broad range of historical and biographical sources, Antony Percy reveals that MI5 showed an embarrassing lack of leadership, discipline, and tradecraft in its mission of ‘Defending the Realm’.”

One day I might write a blog about the process of seeing a project like this come to fruition, but now is not the time. Instead I wanted to introduce readers to a sample of the cartoons that I selected to illustrate the period under the book’s microscope, that between the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 and Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941. (The sketch I selected for the frontispiece appears above.)

Ever since I first set eyes on Osbert Lancaster’s precise illustrations of architectural patterns, accompanied by their witty and ironic commentaries, I have been an enthusiast of the cartoonist and architectural critic. In another universe, I might have claimed that his influence propelled me into a career in theatrical design, but, alas (though at no great loss for the world of drama), all it did was to confirm me as a perpetual fan of his work. My father had acquired a few of Lancaster’s volumes, and I particularly recall how, before the age of ten, I pored over Homes, Sweet Homes & From Pillar to Post (combined later in one volume as Here, of All Places, with additions describing American structures), as well as There’ll Always be a Drayneflete, with their precise draughtsmanship, all too-human and familiar caricatures of citizens in history, and their satirical, but not malicious, commentaries. (Of course I was too young at the time to appreciate the texts.) The books displayed a sense of the unique continuity of habitation on the British Isles – unique, because of the lack of invasion over the centuries  ̶  which brought history alive for me.  The first date that a schoolboy in the 1950s would learn was 1066, and I can recall as a child regretting that I would not be around to enjoy the millennium of that occasion. There must have been something about the durability of certain things among monumental change that captured my imagination, and a strong aspect of that element can be found in Misdefending the Realm.

Lancaster wrote some entertaining memoirs as well (All Done From Memory and With an Eye to the Future), which are liberally sprinkled with his drawings. For those readers unfamiliar with him, you can also read about him in his Wikipedia entry at (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osbert_Lancaster). One fact I recently learned is that his second wife, Anne Scott-James (with whom he collaborated on the equally delightful Pleasure Garden), was the mother of the historian Max Hastings, whose books on WWII I have especially enjoyed. (I have read The Secret War, Retribution, and Armageddon this year. Hastings sadly did not have a good relationship with his mother, who died aged 96 only a few years ago.) As for Osbert, to gain a sense of the man, readers may want to listen to his second Desert Island Discs interview, by Roy Plomley (see https://player.fm/series/desert-island-discs-archive-1976-1980-44534/sir-osbert-lancaster). The subject’s understated but very patrician demeanour, and his aristocratic pronunciation of such words as ‘Alas’, suggest that the whole performance could have been a parody executed by Peter Sellers or Peter Cook.

‘Which are we, Carruthers . . .?’ is one of Lancaster’s most famous pocket cartoons. Lancaster was responsible for the success of the genre of ‘pocket cartoon’ after convincing his art editor at the Daily Express to publish such in the newspaper, as part of Tom Driberg’s column, early in 1939. The feature ran for the best part of forty years, interrupted primarily by Lancaster’s commitments abroad. Thus he provided a very topical commentary on many of the events that occurred in the time that interested me. As I declare when introducing Lancaster’s cartoons among other illustrations (I also use several Punch cartoons from the same period): “He skillfully lampooned authority figures during World War II, but never maliciously, and his insights into the ironies and absurdities with which the war was sometimes engaged brought entertaining relief to persons in all walks of life.”

I love this particular cartoon, which appeared in the Daily Express on July 18th, 1941, at the end of the period on which my study concentrates, because it suggests so much in such simple lines. Who are these blimpish and aristocratic characters, no doubt enjoying a tiffin in their London club? They have presumably been told that the Russians are now our allies, and that they had better acquaint themselves with the principles of Marxism, and learn more about the workers’ paradise over which Stalin prevails. It all appears to be something of a shock to the system for these two gentlemen, yet their confusion underlies the nonsense of the Marxist dialectic.

‘Carruthers’ is a poignant name, as it appears most famously in Erskine Childers’ Riddle of the Sands, where Carruthers is a Foreign Office member who goes sleuthing over German skulduggery in the Baltic Sea before the First World War. Ever since then, the name ‘Carruthers’ has epitomised that doughty and loyal comrade that any intrepid wayfarer would want to be accompanied by, as in the way that Times obituaries used, not so very long ago, to describe such men: ‘someone you would want to go tiger-shooting with’. Yet this Carruthers does not look like a tiger-shooter, or even an SIS spy. He looks more Wodehousian, perhaps a rather dim-witted younger son of an earl, and his territory is probably more Lord’s and Ascot, with a trip to the grouse-moors in August, than the coasts of the Baltic.

These two are supremely ‘superfluous men’, as Turgenev might have identified them, although they probably lack the artistic talent that was characteristic of the Russian novelist’s grouping. Lancaster’s caption wryly suggests that these fellows are not intellectuals. The pair of clubmen might well have been encountered in Boodle’s, or the Beefsteak, perhaps, of which club Lancaster himself was a member.  Lenin and Stalin would certainly have considered them parasites, ‘former people’, and they would have been on the list as members of the class enemy to be exterminated as soon as possible, as indeed such people were treated in Poland and the Baltic States. They are clearly bemused by the radical division of the world found in Life in the U.S.S.R. Yet their simple question drives at the heart of simplistic class-based Marxian analysis.

That same Marxism, which grabbed so many intelligent persons’ fascination at this time – something that endures seventy-five years later, despite all its nonsense  ̶  should surely by then have been shown as bankrupt. In my book, I describe how much damage the young Isaiah Berlin caused in his effervescent biography of Karl Marx, which gave an utter and undeserved respectability to the studying of Marxism, while gaining the eager approbation of such as Freddie Ayer and Guy Burgess. By 1940, it should have been obvious that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was a cruel nightmare, with Stalin, as a power-mad ex-peasant, ruling over a prison-camp more horrible than anything Hitler had yet prepared. Yet even MI5 fell victim to the appeal of ‘intellectual Marxism’. When the German general von Paulus was captured at Stalingrad, his interrogators tried to impress upon him the doctrines of the new world of communism. “You should know that Germany’s workers and peasants are among the most prominent supporters of Hitler”, he replied. Even Churchill hailed the Soviet Union as a ‘peace-loving nation’ in June 1941, and Roosevelt was to fall even more sharply under the delusion that Stalin was a man of peace.

What was different about Britain was that buffers like these two were tolerated. Even if they were on the way out, there was no reason that they should have to be eliminated through a bloody slaughter. Lenin is said to have abandoned hope of a revolution in Britain when he read about strikers playing soccer with policemen: class war would never reach the destructive depths into which it sank in Russia after the Communist takeover. And that is one of the points in my book: that liberal democracy in the Britain of the 1930s was certainly flawed, with the aristocrats in control, and position of power excluded from those without the proper background or standing. It did not have enough confidence in its structure and institutions to resist Fascism resolutely, and the Communists took advantage of that fact to propagandise the British, and cause the monstrosities of Stalin’s penal colonies, famines, purges and executions to be overlooked. Stalin ended up enjoying a massive intelligence superiority over the British and the Americans at Yalta. Yet the UK was eventually able to evolve into the more democratic and more fair country of Attlee’s administration, the days of imperialism were clearly over, and the realm was still worth defending.

For the endpaper of the book, I used the following cartoon, published just after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 23rd, 1941. That is all the caption says.

It reminds me so much of a famous photograph of a gathering of communists during the Spanish Civil War, dated February 5, 1937. Could this not have been a caricature drawn by Lancaster?

 

Here we see the ice-cold demeanour of the French apparatchik, Maurice Thorez, the flamboyancy of the street bully in the leather-jacket, Antonio Mije, and the pious gaze skywards in the beatific pose of Francisco Antón (who eerily looks rather like the young Osbert Lancaster). They epitomise all the ghastly aspects of the Soviet totalitarian machine, the efficiency, the cruelty, and the self-righteousness. ‘What an absolute shower!’, as Terry-Thomas might have called them. Thus I can see this set piece as a tableau vivant by Lancaster himself, akin to his famous sketch of John Betjeman and others performing the madrigal ‘Sumer is icumen in’.

 

“A musical evening laid on for the Uffington Women’s Institute by Penelope Betjeman. At the piano: Lord Berners; back row: Adrian Bishop, Karen Lancaster and Osbert on the flute, Penelope, seated, playing ‘a strange instrument resembling a zither’; standing at the front, Maurice Bowra and John Betjeman.” [source: Cartoons and Coronets]

In my book, I use a total of ten of Lancaster’s cartoons, each one representing the theme of a single chapter, or pair of chapters. I gained copyright permission from the Daily Express owners, yet strangely the institution could not offer me images of the originals themselves, even in its fee-based archive on the Web. Nor is the Lancaster Archive of any use. I relied on my own collection of cartoon books. For readers who may be interested in pursuing this historical side-alley more extensively, they may want to investigate the following.

The richest guide to the work of Lancaster is probably Cartoons and Coronets, introduced and selected by James Knox, and designed to coincide with the exhibition of the artist’s work at the Wallace Collection, 2008-2009. The Essential Osbert Lancaster, a 1998 compilation, selected and introduced by Edward Lucie-Smith, contains an excellent introduction to Lancaster’s life and offers a rich representation of his graphic and literary work. Lancaster provided an illuminating foreword to his 1961 compilation of pocket cartoons, from 1939 to that year, titled Signs of the Times, which offers a solid selection of his wartime sketches. The Penguin Osbert Lancaster (1964) is a thinner and unannotated selection, including excerpts from Homes, Sweet Homes and From Pillar to Post. Earlier, Penguin also offered a fine glimpse into his wartime work in Osbert Lancaster Cartoons (1945).

And then there are the (mainly) yearly selections, all of which (apart from the very rare first 1940 publication) I have in my possession. They are worth inspecting for Lancaster’s Forewords alone. Many of the captions appear very laboured now (compared, say with Marc Boxer’s Stringalongs), and the references are often recondite, but the cartoons still represent a fascinating social commentary. Here they are:

Pocket Cartoons (1940)

New Pocket Cartoons (1941)

Further Pocket Cartoons (1942)

More Pocket Cartoons (1943)

Assorted Sizes (1944)

More and More Productions (1948)

A Pocketful of Cartoons (1949)

Lady Littlehampton and Friends (1952)

Studies from the Life (1954)

Tableaux Vivants (1955)

Private Views (1956)

The Year of the Comet (1957)

Etudes (1958)

Mixed Notices (1963)

Graffiti (1964)

A Few Quick Tricks (1965)

Fasten Your Safety Belts (1966)

Temporary Diversions (1968)

Recorded Live (1970)

Meaningful Confrontation (1971)

Theatre in the Flat (1972)

Liquid Assets (1975)

The Social Contract (1977)

Ominous Cracks (1979)

My book also contains a few cartoons from Punch, likewise culled from my ‘Pick of Punch’ albums from the years 1940 to 1942. (Permission for use was also gained from the copyright-holder.) But, if you want to see any more, you will have to buy the book. You will also be treated to three Affinity Charts, which show the complex relationships that existed between various groups when war broke out, as well as a Biographical Index of almost three hundred persons who feature in the work. Enjoy!

The regular set of new Commonplace entries appears here.

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Web Woes

Last January, I received an email purporting to come from my bank. It looked legitimate: it had a clean logo, in the right colours, but it contained a predictable spelling mistake, and did not originate from a valid bank email address. Yet I was concerned how the sender had obtained the fact that I was a customer of the bank, and gained possession of my email address. Had there been a serious security breach? Having occasionally received spoof emails from other institutions, which I forwarded to the address they gave for reporting such, and subsequently received grateful acknowledgments, I did the same with this one. I looked up the address to which such suspected spoofs should be sent (abuse@  . .  .) , and waited for a response.

And waited. And waited. I lingered a couple of days, and then sent another message to that address, inquiring whether the mailbox was being monitored, and requesting a reply. There was still no response, or even an acknowledgment. That was depressing, and utterly unsatisfactory. I thus went to the website again, trying to find a manager responsible for email fraud. The website was singularly unhelpful: it did not allow any chatroom discussion of security topics, and I entered a hopeless loop of going back to being invited to send further emails to the given ‘abuse’ email address. The bank provided no lists of executives to contact, no bank head office address to write to, only a couple of telephone numbers, neither of which looked suitable for my problem.

I tried one of the numbers, and after going through security checks, I spoke to someone (in Ohio or Iowa, I believe). She could not help me, but agreed to forward me to someone who could. I was thus transferred to a number in Atlanta, where I again introduced myself and my problem, and went through security checks. That person also decided that he was not in the office that could help me, but knew which section was responsible, and transferred me to another number.

I waited about twenty minutes before someone accepted my call. I again described my problem, and went through the same security checks. I was then told that that office was responsible for ATM security, but not for possible spoofing breaches. When I described my frustration to her, she said that she did not know what the policy was, but it was maybe unrealistic of me to expect any response from the Abuse department. I replied that these days it was very easy to set up an automated email reply system that would at least confirm that a customer’s message had been received, and indicate what kind of action was being taken, and added that it seemed to me that the Bank did not look as if it took reports of spoofing attacks, and possible security breaches, very seriously. She assured me that that was not so, and agreed to track down the Abuse Department. I was then left hanging on the telephone for another five minutes.

When she returned, she gave me the name and address of a ‘Resolutions Services and Support’ office, but no telephone number, no name of an executive responsible, and could not explain why that was not so. When I asked her what I should do next if I sent a letter to that office, and received no reply, she encouraged me to write ‘Response Required’, to ensure that I did receive a reply. This I did. But I was not hopeful.

Fifteen years ago, when the Web started to become a useful communications mechanism, corporate websites were full of data about organisation, functions, executives, addresses, telephone numbers, etc. Nowadays, it seems that their prime purpose is to provide a blatant marketing presence, and to make it extremely difficult for the inquiring customer (or prospective customer) to identify a department or person he or she might wish to contact. In addition, we have the blitz of customised advertisements: I cannot bring up the BBC website to check the cricket scores, or surf to a news site to ascertain Kim Kardashian’s views on this year’s Man Booker Prize nominations, without waiting for half a minute while dopey high-resolution advertisements for car dealerships half an hour away, that I am never going to visit, are loaded. Somebody, somewhere, is paying for all this, and will one day work out that it is all a waste.

After composing a letter, and sending it to the address given, I had one last try at finding a real person’s telephone number. Eventually I found one, in the Public Relations department. I called it, and left a message describing my problem (it was a Saturday), thinking I had done all I could. And then, out of the blue, a couple of hours later, I received a very polite telephone call from a Bank employee, who said that he was the Executive in charge of Security. His friend in the PR department had picked up my message, and alerted him to it.

As we discussed my problem, Mr. Watkins (not his real name) apologised, but said that, owing to the vast amount of spear-phishing emails that the Bank received these days, it had decided not to acknowledge any messages received from its customers, as it only encouraged more traffic that could overwhelm the system, and he started to brief me on the security challenges that any bank of its size has to counter in 2017. I responded that that might be so, but in that case why did the Bank simply not include some text to indicate that it inspected every genuine message that came through to its hotline, but that it would probably not respond individually to every item? Would that not provide for a better management of customer expectations?

At this stage, Mr. Watkins started to give me another little lesson about technology, at which point I decided to explain my credentials. While I am no longer au fait with all the issues to do with website maintenance and data security, I was one of the two executives who launched the Gartner Group’s Security product back in 1999. When I described my background, Mr. Watkins became even more amenable, and we moved on to a new plane. He seemed very proud of the fact that the Bank spends millions and millions of dollars each year on security. He essentially agreed with my recommendations, gave me his telephone number, and encouraged me to stay in touch while he investigated the problem.

Over the next few weeks, Mr Watkins was jauntily positive. There had been meetings, attended by database administrators, web designers, lawyers, security experts, public relations people – even manicurists, for all I know. It was important that everyone had buy-in to this significant portal of the bank’s business, and every detail had to be examined. And then, early in March, he proudly told me that the new functions had been implemented.

But they hadn’t. There are two entries to the bank system – a public one, and a subsequent secure sign-on that leads to a private area where customers can maintain their accounts. The Bank had attempted to fix the public ‘help’ area, where they had incorporated the text I suggested (although they made an egregious spelling mistake in doing so, spelling ‘fraudulently’ as ‘frauduleny’), but they had not touched the private zone. When I pointed this out to Mr Watkins, he was incredulous, and eventually I had to send him screenshots to prove that those spaces existed. I gently pointed out to him that it was as if the Bank’s executives had never tried to log on to their system as retail customers. He was suitably chastened, and promised to get back to me. More meetings with lawyers and psychotherapists, no doubt.

Nothing happened for a while. I continued to perform my on-line banking, and regularly checked the ‘Help’ section of the secure banking site to see whether it had been fixed. On March 20, Mr Watkins wrote to me as follows: “I’m writing as a brief status update to let you know that the changes you’ve identified below are scheduled to be implemented within the next 2 – 3 weeks.  In addition, I’ve had our team perform a comprehensive review of all of our web pages to ensure as much consistency as possible.  I will update you again once the necessary changes are complete.”

I waited again. No update from Mr Watkins, so six weeks later, on May 2, I emailed him again, pointing out that the unqualified advice still sat there, unimproved, in the private area, but did confirm that the rubric in what was called the Security Center was now clean and (reasonably) correct. (It had new spelling problems: ‘out’ for ‘our’, but no matter  . . .) I gave him the url of the offending area. Because of some personal issues, he had to hand my message over to his personal assistant to work on. He was under the impression he had already informed me about the changes the Bank had made.

I had to start again with Christine (not her real name). After she sent me an email informing me that the changes had been made, and how I should report suspicious emails, I had to explain to her that there was a discrepancy between the two zones, and I informed her of the fresh spelling problem. “Thank you for the feedback,” she replied. “We are currently working with our teams to review and will keep you posted.” More teams, more confusion. Less chance of a correct fix. I remembered Charles Wang of Computer Associates, who said once that, when a programming project started to drag, he would take a person off the team, so that it would run faster.

Another few weeks passed by. On May 25, I emailed Christine, and copied in Mr. Watkins, asking where things stood, only to receive the following reply from Mr Watkins. “I’ve tasked the multiple teams involved in producing and delivering these web pages to pull together a broad effort to reconcile all content.  These teams are currently researching what this will involve and we plan to meet back with them to discuss their assessments during the week of June 12. Please rest assured that there are no idle hands involved in this work but given the significant size and complexity of this effort, I’m focused on a) updating any current pages while b) ensuring the proper controls are in place to ensure ongoing alignment and consistency.”

Well, ‘resting’ I probably was, but ‘assured’ did not exactly describe my composure. I waited again. And then, on June 21, I learned from Christine that a new executive had been brought in to ‘address the issue going forward’ (as opposed to ‘going backward’, I suppose). I was invited to join a conference call, so that my concerns could be addressed. I declined, however. I did not need a conference call, and I instead carefully pointed out again that, while the problem had been fixed in the Privacy and Security Center, the text had not been incorporated in the private area, for which I provided the link again. All that Christine did was to provide me with instructions on how I should use the Bank’s web-page to report problems (as if it were not supposed to be self-explanatory by now).

I took one final stab at explaining the problem, pointing out how badly designed the whole website was, with its circular paths and inconsistent terminology, and I provided an explicit analysis of the problems with the Bank’s customer interface. I expressed my amazement that Bank officers could not identify the anomalies in the system, and fix them. I copied the message to Mr. Watkins.

On July 1, a new communicant appeared – probably not the executive brought in by Mr Watkins, as he introduced himself as being ‘on the team that oversees the on-line banking platform’. Arthur (again, not his real name) kindly provided me with a long explanation of all the changes that the Bank was introducing, including not just my recommendations, but many other improvements, as well. I thanked him, and promised to keep my eye open.

Well, it is now July 25, as I write, and the same old text appears under ‘Report Fraud’ in the private banking section, with no indication that messages will not be acknowledged. A simple change that I could have implemented on my own website in under five minutes (literally) still baffles the combined expertise of the Bank after seven months. Is this a record? Banks complain that they are stifled by regulation, but if they cannot even manage changes of this magnitude off their own bat, what hope is there for them? Is this story not an example of corporate incompetence and internal bureaucracy gone mad?

*                   *                  *                      *                      *                      *

The second incident concerns a recruitment at my old Oxford college, Christ Church (an institution, I hasten to add, for the benefit of my American readers, that is not actually the equivalent of Oral Roberts University, despite its name). The Hilary Term issue of the college magazine proudly announced that Christ Church was welcoming Sir Tim Berners-Lee as a Research Student and member of the Governing Body, with a mission to ‘grow Computer Science at Christ Church’. For those readers who might not know about Sir Tim’s remarkable achievements, I point you to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Berners-Lee. He is known as the ‘inventor’ of the World Wide Web, and director of the World Wide Web Consortium, and took his degree at Queen’s College, Oxford. As a retired information technologist, I admire and applaud his achievements.

Yet some things that Sir Tim wrote in this promotional piece in Christ Church Matters puzzled and disturbed me. He characterised ‘several connected initiatives’ in which he has been involved for some time as Open Data, Open Standards, and Human Rights on Web. As an expert in data management for some decades (I was a data and database administrator in the 1970s, have experienced several generations of data-base management systems, was the lead analyst and product director for Strategic Data Management at the Gartner Group for a decade, and successfully forecast how the market would evolve), I believe I understand fairly well the issues regarding data security and data sharing. I found Sir Tim’s pronouncements about Open Data naïve and erroneous, and his thoughts on the role of Open Standards confusing, and maybe misplaced. But what really provoked me was what he wrote about Human Rights on the Web. “We have a duty to ensure that the Web serves humanity, and all of humanity”, he wrote, adding, somewhat rhetorically, about the concerns of the Foundation: “Is it [the Web] open, non-discriminatory, private and available to all, including minorities and women? Is it a propagating medium for truth and understanding, or more so for untruth and discord? Can these parameters be changed?”

Now I regard such questions as reasonably interesting, although I’m not sure what ‘minorities’ he was referring to (philatelists? Zoroastrians?), or why ‘women’ should come at the end of his list of concerns. But how could computer science be sensitive to such transitory social labels, or the gender of its users? Quite simply, what he proposes is either outside the realm of computer science, or lacking any toehold in what computer science has already generated about issues of data management (for instance, in the works of Sir Tim’s outstanding forbear, Edgar Codd, another Oxford man, an alumnus of Exeter College, and also a winner of the Turing Award). I found his pronouncements about serving humanity simply arrogant and pompous. Accordingly, early last March, I wrote a letter to the editor of Christ Church Matters, and to the Dean (whom I met last year, as my blog reported), which ran as follows:

“Am I the only reader of Christ Church Matters to be somewhat surprised, even alarmed, at the expressed rationale behind the new computer science initiative? The achievements of Sir Tim Berners-Lee are spectacular, and I have no doubt his intentions are honourable, but do the goals that he espouses not tread on the space of social advocacy, even corporate mission, rather than scientific investigation?

For example, the notions of ‘web-based data’, ‘Open Data’ and that ‘we [= who?] have a duty to ensure that the Web serves humanity, and all of humanity’ are certainly controversial. Data are not exclusively managed by web applications, but frequently shared. Indeed, it is a principle of good database design (a topic frequently overlooked in university computer science courses) that data be implemented for potential shared use, irrespective of delivery vehicle. There is thus no such entity as ‘Web-based data’. Professor Wooldridge’s statement that ‘when Governments generate data, there is huge potential value of that data is made freely available and open for all to use’ provokes enormous questions of privacy and security. To assume (as does Sir Tim) that ‘we’ can be confident enough to know how ‘all of humanity can be served’ has a dangerously utopian ring to it. Etc., etc.

The point is that technology is neutral: it can be used for good, or for ill, effect, and people will even disagree what those two outcomes mean. How is ‘all of humanity’ served when Islamic fanaticists can exploit web-based encrypted information-sharing applications to exchange plans for terror? Who benefits when private medical data is presumably made available for ‘all to use’? When is data private and when open? It is all very well for Sir Tim to assert that that his main motivation is ‘the personal empowerment of people and groups’ (is that phrase not both tautological and self-contradictory?), but that is a belief derived from his own sense of mission, not from a perspective of scientific inquiry.

Maybe these matters have already been discussed, and have been resolved. If so, I think it would be desirable to have them explained publicly. I believe those helping to fund such initiatives should be made aware that the boundary between science and evangelism appears to have shifted considerably.”

My letter was kindly acknowledged by the Dean, with a promise of follow-up, but I have heard nothing more. I suspect that I am seen as a minor irritant, getting in the way of some serious boosting of the college reputation, or maybe hindering access to vital government funding. But the question remains. There are researchers into computer science, and there are commercial enterprises. They frequently enjoy a symbiotic relationship, but there comes a time when enterprise have to make risks and decisions that go beyond what consortia and standards-groups can achieve. Ironically, Sir Tim’s statements about benefitting humanity sound uncannily like those of Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, who also has evangelical designs on improving the world. But the rest of us should be very wary of anybody who claims that omniscience to know how ‘humanity’ is best served, and who appears to be unaware of the Law of Unintended Consequences. And computer scientists should not start dabbling in evangelism.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

Regular readers of this website will recall my reference to The Trinity Six, by Charles Cumming, in my March blog. Since then, I have read his first Thomas Kell novel, A Foreign Country, and this month, the follow-up A Colder War (published in 2014), both of which I recommend. (Although I do not understand why we need to know every time Thomas Kell lights up a cigarette, or that he throws the butt of one into the Bosporus.) But my point here is to describe how unmistakably set in time these thrillers are – not so much by the political climate, although Iranian nuclear secrets and rebellious Turkish journalists give one a sense of that  ̶  but more by the use of technology. For the narrative is densely imbued with BlackBerries, iPhones, Facebook, TripAdvisor, SIM cards, SMS and O2 services  ̶  but not the dark Web, Snapchat or Twitter (or even Sir Tim’s Open Data initiative). Will it make the book soon seem dreadfully outdated, or will it be praised for its verisimilitude?

The pivot of the plot is indeed one such technological matter. (Spoiler Alert.) In what appeared to me as a very obvious mistake by the hero, an unencrypted text message leads to the eventual betrayal. And one other passage caught my eye  ̶  for a different reason. Cumming writes, about a surveillance operation at Harrod’s: “While most of the members of the team were using earpieces and concealed microphones, Amos had been given an antediluvian Nokia of the sort favored by grandparents and lonely widowers. Kell had banked on the phone giving plausible cover.”

I recognized that scene. Three or four years ago, I went into a branch of my bank to pay in a cheque (it may have been a check). The cheerful spirit behind the counter asked me whether I knew that I could pay in checks via my cell-phone (or mobile, as it would be known in the UK). Without saying a word, I then solemnly produced my venerated Motorola C155, manufactured ca. 2005, reliable, rugged, and not very handsome, and showed it to the woman. She then let out an enormous giggle, as if to draw the attention of her co-workers to this antediluvian instrument. As can be seen, it looks more like the shoebox phone from Get Smart (the 1960 TV series, not the 2008 movie).

But it did its job – just made and received phonecalls. My carrier forced me to replace it a couple of years ago, but, my fingers are too stubby for the keypad on the new thin model, and I never use my phone to access the Web. Enough woes in that. I miss my C155  ̶  ‘as favored by grandparents’.

*                            *                      *                      *                      *

Another saga started. In May, I had received a letter from History Today, inviting me to renew my subscription on-line. “Renewing your subscription couldn’t be easier”, it boasted.   I thus logged on to its website, but was frustrated in my attempts. I sent an email to the publisher, listing my failures. I explained that the system did not recognise that I was in the USA, did not allow me to enter my subscription reference, and quoted a sterling fee rather than the $99 mentioned in the letter. And when I signed on to my account, it gave me no option to renew, just to upgrade to access to the archive.  I received a prompt reply, which merely stated that the website had been going through some maintenance, but that once this were completed, I should be able to renew my subscription on-line.

I held off for a while, and then received another letter in the mail, which again proclaimed that ‘renewing your subscription couldn’t be easier’. It offered a price of $79, which I interpreted as a special offer, maybe making amends for the earlier technical problems. I thus logged on afresh, and made the renewal, but did notice that the confirmation came through with a charge against my US dollar credit card for £99. An obvious mistake, no doubt to be cleared up simply. I sent an email pointing out the error. After a couple of days, I had received no response apart from an email confirming my renewal, and encouraging me to contact the sender (the third name in as many messages) if I had any problems. I thus sent off another email, pointing out the discrepancy between the amount specified in the invitation letter, and somewhat impatiently requested a credit to be made against my credit card.

Yet another name replied, with the following message: “Thank you for your recent email.
I can confirm the reason they are different amounts and different currency is because it has been converted from USD to Pounds. So it will always show what we have received as payment here is England rather than the amount you paid is Dollars. If there is anything else that I can help you with please don’t hesitate to contact me.”

So, as the month wound down, I sent another message, pointing out that a fee of $79 would convert to £61, not £99. I am awaiting their reply. It is possible, I suppose, that they mistakenly took the exchange rate as 1.31 pounds to the dollar, rather than vice versa, although the letter lists the optimal online archive upgrade as a more accurate £30/$45. We shall see. If e-business speeds are predictable, I shall probably be able to provide an update to this transaction in January 2018.

The next episode of Sonia’s Radio will appear at the end of August. This month’s new Commonplace entries appear here.

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Refugees and Liberators

In the summer of 1967, at the age of twenty, I spent a few weeks with a German family in Hesse. They were very hospitable to their young English guest, although I believe the parents may have taken advantage of his naivety. The father of the household had survived the Russian Front, which was no mean achievement, and he was understandably rather dour and uncommunicative about the whole experience. His wife, however, tried to propagandise me, claiming that they (i.e. German citizens in general) knew nothing about the concentration camps, and that they believed that they were some kind of ‘holiday camp’ where the Jews were being sent. (I cannot recall her exact words in German, but that was the distinct impression she left with me.) She also made some cryptic remarks about ‘Mittel-Deutschland’ and ‘Ost-Deutschland’, which I vaguely thought at the time must refer respectively to what was then the German Democratic Republic, and the land within the 1937 borders of the German Reich that had been given to Poland after the Potsdam Conference. I was too shy (or too polite) to challenge her on what appeared to be a nostalgic wish that the old boundaries might be restored at some stage. (The Federal Republic of Germany had not at that time even recognized the German Democratic Republic.)

I thought of this Frau when I read a recent New York Times piece titled The Displaced, in its Magazine of November 8, by one Jake Silverstein, which was designed to highlight the fact that nearly 60 million people had been displaced since World War II, and that half of them were children. It was supposed to be an innovative article, using some kind of 3-D technology, an app, and some cardboard Google glasses (none of which I experimented with), but the introductory comments caught my eye. The article reproduced a famous photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, visible at http://www.magnumphotos.com/image/PAR35432.html , but several aspects of the way this photograph was introduced seemed questionable to me. Silverstein describes the picture as follows:  “ . . . a girl of about ten  . .  is standing behind an enormous pile of belongings, which have been rightly packed for a long journey. . . . Both [the girl and her younger brother] look directly at the photographer, who took this picture at Dessau, as scores of Germans displaced during World War II began returning home.” Under the photograph runs the description: “A camp in Dessau, Germany, in April 1945, for displaced people liberated by Soviet troops”.

What is going on here? These phrases provoked so many questions in my mind that I hardly knew where to begin. A camp set up in April, 1945, when the war was not over until May 8? Germans displaced in World War II – by whom, I wonder? Did Germans not cause massive displacements themselves? Returning home? From where? What was their ‘home’, and why were they not ‘at home’ beforehand? And those Soviet troops ‘liberating’ German territories? If they were true ‘liberators’, were the Soviets really encouraging ‘displaced’ people to return to their natural habitat? So perhaps these people weren’t German, after all, as the caption suggested? And might they in fact have been running away in fear from the Soviets, whose reputation for murder, rape and pillage made them, for some, an even more obnoxious threat than the Nazis? For these were, indeed very confused – and confusing – times.

I posed such questions to the Public Editor at the New York Times, as it seemed to me that the paper’s editors must have considered these questions. If they had not, this was surely an example of careless journalism – laziness and superficiality. And I thought the matter important as the episode was being used as a banner for a brand new publishing exercise. Yet, after one perfunctory acknowledgment, the Times has gone silent, and ignored my messages. It presumably either thinks its statements are defensible, or that the whole issue is completely unimportant. I thus decided to document it all myself. I thought the best way of approaching the topic was to attempt to answer those journalistic standbys: What? When? Where? Why? How? Who?

What:

That the photograph shows refugees of some sort, there is little doubt. Yet they do not possess any air of desperation: they look healthy and calm, and do not appear to have been abused.  They are surely not Prisoners of War, or slave laborers. Members of the group in the middle distance are smiling, and the size and volume of the possessions strewn on the street suggests that they have made their way to the camp with some form of transport, perhaps a horse-driven cart, or a man-pulled barrow. They have surely not travelled far, but how can Silverstein know that they are preparing for a ‘long journey’? Is the location really a camp? It is difficult to say. The atmosphere is very different from that of most of the other photographs in this group that refer to the Dessau camp, but the texts of the latter appear very unreliable, indicating, for example, families of healthy-looking Soviet ‘refugees’ who are about to return to their homeland. How Soviet families, for example, were allowed to find refuge from the Soviet Union in the German Reich, and yet apparently flourish, is a question that is deeply inexplicable, one which Magnum superficially brushes aside. And clearly, not all images in the set are taken inside the camp, even though they are captioned as such.

That the Central European problem of Displaced Persons (DPs) was massive is unquestioned. The historian Michael Jones has reported that the number of DPs that the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) had to deal with increased from 350,000 at the end of March 1945 to over 2 million by early May.

When:

The date of April 1945 must be wrong. It appears that Silverstein just plucked it from the website where the photograph appears, without thinking. The caption for it supplied by Magnum runs as follows: ‘Dessau. A transit camp was located between the American and Soviet zones organized for refugees, POWs, STO’s (Forced Labourers), displaced persons, returning from the Eastern Front of Germany that had been liberated by the Soviet Army.’ Since the surrender document created for the Germans was not signed until May 8, it would have been very unlikely for refugee camps to have been set up in April so close to the combat zone, what with fierce fighting still continuing in the neighborhood. Dessau is about fifty miles downstream from Torgau, also on the Elbe, renowned for the certainly staged encounter between US and Soviet troops on the Elbe, which did not take place until April 25. It occurred after a US officer had met a Soviet counterpart on the west side of the Elbe, at Leckwitz, which is about halfway between Torgau and Dresden. Hitler committed suicide on April 29, but the fighting was still intense: between April 16 and May 8, Soviet casualties were over 350,000, of which 100,000 were killed. At that time, there were about 250,000 German soldiers in the zone between the approaching GB-US and Soviet lines. A desperate attempt by German troops and civilians, fleeing from the Soviet forces, to cross the Elbe at Tangermünde, about sixty miles north of Dessau, started on May 6, thus showing that the area was in turmoil right up until the surrender was signed (in Rheims on May 7, and ratified in Berlin the following day).

In fact, an explanation below another photograph expands the time-period: it says that ‘Cartier-Bresson . .  took the photo between 21 April and 2 July 1945, between the American occupation of the city and the arrival of their Russian replacements’. This latter date is certainly a more reliable, yet still dubious, pointer to the time: the US forces vacated Dessau some time in July. Magnum does the cause of scholarly research no favors, however, by assigning the same erroneous caption to all forty-one photographs it displays in this album.

Where:

Whereas the boundaries of the occupied zones (Soviet, US, GB, and France) had been set at the Yalta Conference in February, both British and US forces actually advanced up to 200 miles (to the ‘Line of Contact’) inside what was legally the Soviet zone, and did not withdraw until early July 1945. Thus Dessau, which is situated just south of the River Elbe, and west of the River Mulde, was well inside the Soviet Zone of Occupation.  Yet the Magnum captions again distort the facts:  by stating that the transit camp ‘was located between the American and Soviet zones’, they suggest that Dessau was the permanent boundary, and misrepresent the coordinates of the American zone. Moreover, Magnum encourages this view by captioning photographs of refugees crossing the Elbe as follows: ‘The river deviding [sic] the Soviet and American sectors. Refugees making way to refugee camps’, and ‘A pontoon bridge between the border zone crossing of refugees. The river was the line dividing Soviet and American sectors’. Unfortunately, this was the impression many refugees had at the time – that by crossing the Elbe they would reach the safety of the American zone, when in fact Dessau was just about to be ceded to the Soviets.

That there was a camp at Dessau is plausibly confirmed by other sources: it may have been set up on the grounds of an existing Nazi concentration camp. ‘Working for the Enemy’ claims that ‘The Dessau camp is listed by the Red Cross International Tracing Service as having existed from November 1944 until 11 April 1945, with an inmate population of about 340’, suggesting it was dismantled just before the Americans arrived. It cites witnesses who state that a ‘death march’ out of Dessau started around April 11, as Allied troops approached it from all sides. The SS wanted to deliver the inmates to the International Red Cross in Prague. No doubt the same camp facilities were eventually used by the Americans – and then the Soviets.

Why?:

The emphasis in the New York Times article is on ‘displacement’, more specifically on ‘scores [sic!] of Germans displaced during World War II’ who ‘began returning home’, with the suggestion that such people had been ‘liberated by Soviet troops’. This vague assertion is not helped by the Magnum rubric, which describes the refugees as ‘political prisoners, POW’s, STO’s (Forced Labourers), displaced persons, returning from the Eastern front of Germany’. Since the photographs include images of ‘Soviet and Ukrainian refugees awaiting repatriation to their homeland’, one might well ask why such persons had ‘returned’ from the Eastern Front. It is palpable nonsense. Yet, examining the single photograph used by Silverstein, one might pose other penetrating questions. If the refugees are indeed German, why had they been displaced, and by whom? Hitler’s policy of Germanization of the lands bordering the Reich involved resettlement of German citizens from the homeland into vanquished territories, but also involved the recall of remote German communities (such as in the Ukraine and the Baltic States). At the same time, Hitler imported thousands of foreign captives to work as slave laborers within the Reich: they had certainly been ‘displaced’ and wanted to return home, whether it was to France, Poland, Ukraine or even the Soviet Union. It was a very messy time. As Christopher Snyder has written in Bloodlands: “German men went abroad and killed millions of ‘subhumans’, only to import millions of other ‘subhumans’ to do the work in Germany that the German men would have been doing themselves – had they not been abroad killing ‘subhumans’.”

But to speak of the Germans in terms suggesting that they were the primary victims of displacement is an insult to all the other groups of non-Germans who suffered far greater privations, not least, of course, the six million Jews who lost their lives, and thus had no chance of returning ‘home’, wherever that was. Certainly, many Germans suffered when the terms of the Yalta agreements were executed, with Soviet and Polish troops taking their revenge on Nazi massacres and destruction by murdering and abusing Germans in such areas as Silesia or Pomerania, which needed to be cleaned out to make room for Poles whose eastern boundaries had been ceded to the Soviet Union. After Hitler’s death, however, his successor, Admiral Dönitz, used radio broadcasts to warn the German nation that the primary menace was the Bolsheviks, with the result that Nazi armies in the East continued hopelessly to fight the Soviet forces, in an effort to give an opportunity for thousands of civilians (and soldiers) to flee towards the West.

Dönitz specifically intended to drive a wedge between the Western Powers and the Soviet Union, believing that the democracies would come to the realization that Bolshevism was the enduring foe that they would sooner or later need to turn against. At the same time he encouraged a massive exodus of German citizens from their homes in the east, whether their domiciles had been destroyed or not. In fact, the Germans recognizably stalled for time over the process of signing the surrender document, in the hope of allowing more refugees and troops to escape the Russians. Thus to talk of such as ‘displaced persons’ (DPs) returning ‘home’ would be a gross distortion.

A few weeks later, when the Potsdam conference was over in August 1945, the Oder-Neisse line that delineated the new western border of Poland was solidified. The Soviet troops prepared for these new boundaries as they advanced. As Antony Beevor writes, in The Second World War: “As Stalin had intended, ethnic cleansing was pursued with a vengeance. Troops from the 1st and 2nd Polish Armies forced Germans from their houses to push them across the Oder. The first to go were those on pre-1944 Polish territory. Some had lived there for generations, others were the Volksdeutsch beneficiaries of the Nazis’ own ethnic cleansing in 1940. Packed into cattle wagons, they were taken westwards and robbed of their few belongings on the way. A similar fate awaited those who had stayed behind or returned to Pomerania and Silesia, which now fell within the new Polish borders. In East Prussia, only 193,000 Germans were left out of a population of 2.2 million.” It is thus very difficult to judge why and how any group of such German refugees could be said to have been ‘displaced’ in the sense of casualties of war. And it would not appear that the refugees in Silverstein’s photograph had undergone such stern privations.

How?:

Were such people indeed being ‘liberated’, as the captions claim? The term ‘Liberators’ originated in the Yalta agreement, where Declaration II stated that the leaders of the Allies ‘jointly declare their mutual agreement to concert during the temporary period of instability in liberated Europe the policies of their three Governments in assisting the peoples liberated from the domination of Nazi Germany and the peoples of the former Axis satellite states of Europe to solve by democratic means their pressing political and economic problems.’ For reasons of political unity, it was incumbent to consider all victorious powers as ‘Liberators’, rather than ‘Occupiers’, but two major problems ensued. First, it suggested that Germans themselves needed ‘liberating’ from Nazi oppression (rather than being complicit agents in the brutality), and second, it assumed that Communist totalitarianism was indeed a force for freedom. As the Oxford Companion to World War II states: “The German advance into the Baltic States in 1941 was welcome to the extent that it put an end to the murderous occupation of the previous year. Yet it brought terrible impositions and murderous policies of its own. Similarly, the western advance of the Soviet armies in 1944-5 was welcome to the extent that it put an end to the murderous German occupation of the previous years; yet it brought reprisals and totalitarian policies that were no less vicious than those it removed. Liberations that did not liberate are not worthy of the name.”

Juozas Lukša, a CIA-trained Lithuanian resistance fighter, makes a similar point from the benefit of direct experience, cited by Edward Lucas in his book Deception: “In 1940, the Russians had come marching into our land to ‘liberate’ us from ‘capitalist and Fascist exploiters.’ In 1941, the Germans had marched in after them and thereby ‘liberated’ us from ‘Bolshevik bondage’. And now, the Russians were back again – this time to ‘liberate’ us from ‘the tyranny of Nazi hangmen’. But since we still recalled how they had gone about ‘liberating’ us the last time, we didn’t think we had any cause to rejoice.”

What is unarguable is that millions of ethnic Germans outside the new borders were persecuted, with as many as 100,000 killed arbitrarily, and with thousands committing suicide rather than falling prey to the vengeful and pillaging Soviets. Germans living in the Czech Sudetenland (which had been appropriated by Germany in October 1938, as part of the Munich agreement) before the war) were given only a few minutes to pack and flee. Hundreds died en route from Poland and Czechoslovakia. And many more who found themselves in the Soviet zone tried desperately to reach the zones of the Western democracies – which is probably what the Magnum photographs show.

Who?:

So can the group illustrated by the New York Times be identified with any confidence? Interestingly, the Magnum Archive includes another photograph of the threesome, presumably taken very soon after the first, visible at http://www.magnumphotos.com/image/PAR227694.html. Here the railway is in view, and one can also detect that a third child is lying on the bundle of possessions. While the young girl strikes a defiant posture, the expressions on the faces of the background group (is one of them wearing an army uniform?) suggest that they are in good spirits, and are expecting a train to take them away soon, probably westwards. Given the pictures of returning Ukrainians and Russians, however, one cannot be absolutely sure that they are not going eastwards. Again, their condition, and the size of their bundle of possessions, indicate they have not suffered much, and have probably not travelled far, and were not expelled in haste, to reach Dessau. But many of the other Magnum photographs are enigmatic. The image at http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2K1HRG547X4I claims to show Belgian and French forced labourers, who, again, look remarkably fit. Moreover, they are carrying a poster of Stalin. Another image, at http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2TYRYDYQFCXU, purportedly shows ‘a Soviet child, who was deported with his parents, returning to his homeland’. The child incongruously is carrying an umbrella. What in fact happened was that all Soviet citizens returning from captivity in Germany were either murdered, sent to the GULAG, or ostracized. An umbrella would not have helped them. Cartier-Bresson was a Communist sympathizer, and many of the photographs have a propaganda feel.

One inescapable conclusion from the photographs and the historical accounts of the time (including the horrifying escapes at Tangermünde, which can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YDN9lcS6tI ) is that most of the ‘displaced’ persons who thought that they would reach a safe haven after reaching the western side of the Elbe were probably unaware of the boundaries agreed at Yalta, and were soon to be horribly disillusioned, as the Western powers had to cede the territory to the Soviets. How many of them, as native Germans, succeeded in escaping from the Soviets to the real American, British or French zones 100 miles away or more would be a story well worth investigating.

Conclusions:

Apart from the obvious fact that one should be very careful in reproducing, or citing, information on the Internet, the publication of this piece by the New York Times indicates to me that its journalism can occasionally be amateurish, and its editorial supervision inadequate. The paper claims that ‘we observe the Newsroom Integrity Statement, promulgated in 1999, which deals with such rudimentary professional practices as the importance of checking facts, the exactness of quotations, the integrity of photographs and our distaste for anonymous sourcing.’ So what happened here, with the casual reliance on a third-party source, and no apparent fact-checking? Moreover, the reaction of the office of the Public Editor has, frankly, been deplorable. It should either acknowledge there was a problem, and admit it publically, or inform me that it thinks the information was correct, and that my complaint is thus rejected. Certainly, if a message that children are always innocent victims in times of hardship and privation was intended to be communicated, the piece transmitted it. But I doubt whether that proposition would ever be contested by anybody.

For an established newspaper reporter, however, lazily to select a photograph which he thought might dramatise his case, and unthinkingly use the descriptive text provided by a website that has clearly been influenced by propaganda, without performing any of the slightest checks of fact verification, or investigating the political and military environment in which the photograph was taken, is simply unacceptable. The issue of refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers, and the righteousness of their respective causes, and what they are escaping from, and how they might be liberated, is obviously very topical. (The week that this item was posted, the New York Times reported that the city of Ramadi had been ‘liberated’ by Iraqi government troops, but suggested at the same time that some citizens might prefer life under Daesh.) If the newspaper wanted to make a pertinent case about the plight of such displaced persons, however, a far more careful exploration of the context was necessary to give guidance on reasons, identities, victims, oppressors, homelands, statuses, etc., instead of making a shallow and factitious emotional appeal to its readership. The irony of ‘Refugees’ trying to escape from their ‘Liberators’ has been lost on the New York Times. Yet the newspaper seems to think nothing is awry.

⃰            ⃰            ⃰            ⃰⃰            ⃰            ⃰            ⃰            ⃰            ⃰            ⃰

(Since I wrote this piece, I have learned that Jake Silverstein is in fact the Editor-in-Chief of the New York Times Magazine. The current issue of the Magazine indicates he has at least twenty persons with the word ‘editor’ in their job title. But who edits the editor-in-chief?)

Sources:

Working for the Enemy edited by Billstein, Fings, Kugler and Levis

The Oxford Companion to World War II

The Times Atlas of the Second World War

Bloodlands by Christopher Snyder

The Second World War by Antony Beevor

The End by Ian Kershaw

No Simple Victory by Norman Davies

Armageddon by Max Hastings

The Second World War by Martin Gilbert

After Hitler: The Last Ten Days of World War II in Europe, by Michael Jones

Deception: The Untold Story of East-West Espionage Today by Edward Lucas

(December 31, 2015)

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The Undercover Egghead

The September issue of History Today contains my article on Isaiah Berlin, titled ‘The Undercover Egghead’. (see http://www.historytoday.com/antony-percy/isaiah-berlin-undercover-egghead )  Regular readers will recall that this was the subject of a seminar I led at Buckingham University almost two years ago, and that I had been struggling with the editor of the magazine to get it published after a premature announcement he made last September. Under the terms of my copyright agreement with the magazine, I am allowed to post it the piece on my personal website, but the software I use to maintain my website sadly does not permit the importation of documents of this size.  Readers who are interested, but are unable to find a copy of the magazine, can contact me at antonypercy@aol.com for the PDF.

I am pleased with the outcome. I like the artwork. A few errors crept in (for instance, the dating of the photograph of Berlin: he died in 1997), but nothing else significant, I think. I would update the text a little if I re-wrote it now, as I have discovered new facts about my subject, but I did not want to provoke any further delays, and my latest findings will find their place in my thesis, to be completed shortly.

I shall be very interested in the response. Already, I have heard of fascination by Berlin-watchers who had suspected something was not quite right with the great man, but hadn’t been able to put a complete picture together. Maybe the picture will never be complete, but I think my research shows that a more comprehensive biography of Berlin is required, something more piercing and more analytical than Michael Ignatieff’s homage of 1998.

I want to express here my thanks to Henry Hardy, Berlin’s chief editor, amanuensis and curator of the Berlin flame (see  http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/ ). While not always understanding my methods, and sometimes being out of sympathy with what he calls my ‘conspiracy-mongering’ approach, Henry has always been extraordinarily helpful in responding to my inquiries, and has graciously allowed me access to some texts that have not been published. It may be a fortunate coincidence that the fourth and final volume of Berlin’s Letters is being published next month: I hope that the publicity surrounding that event, and the appearance of my piece, is mutually beneficial. Henry invited me to the launch party for the volume, but I could not justify the trans-Atlantic journey.

Berlin’s stature as a dignified spokesperson for personal liberties must remain questionable, and I believe the research process will continue, as new observers and historians add their own perspectives, and offer the fruits of their research. Was Berlin an ‘agent of influence’ for the Soviets? My conclusion is that he was probably persuaded, through the threat of harm to his relatives in the Soviet Union, into providing some information to them, but I can’t help concluding that his encouragement of the respectability of Marxist study, as revealed in his 1939 book on Marx, was his own endeavour, although probably encouraged by his friend Guy Burgess. I leave the rest for my thesis.

Meanwhile, a renowned Sovietologist died this month – Robert Conquest. (A few years ago, after reading a couple of his works – ‘Reflections on a Ravaged Century’, and ‘the Dragons of Expectation’  ̶   I wrote a long letter to him in Palo Alto, posing some questions that arose from my reading, since I was about to set out to that area to visit our son. I hoped to meet him, and shake his hand. He did reply, but did not answer my questions, and said he was too busy to see me.) What caught my eye from the obituaries of this great man – who educated the western world about Stalin’s crimes in books such as The Great Terror  ̶  was the fact that he had been for a short time a member of the Communist Party. Now part of the research for my doctoral thesis has involved the analysis of why British Intelligence was not able to detect Soviet spies in its midst, even with the help of hints of identification from the Soviet defector, Walter Krivitsky. Since Moscow was very particular about the commitment of its spies – and their couriers as well  ̶  candidates would have had to show a fierce dedication to Communist principles and rigour before they were recruited. But this did not have to involve membership of the Communist Party: in fact it was preferable if the agents were never associated with the CP, as it made them less traceable. It is nevertheless a fact that each agent must have undergone a period when he (or she) demonstrated openly strong leftist sympathies – Blunt, Burgess, Philby, Cairncross, Maclean, Long, etc. etc.  ̶  before their recruitment was approved by Moscow Centre. They all had such a phase, mainly in Cambridge University clubs, Maclean even confessing to his selection board for a diplomatic career, in a bold moment of semi-candour, that he had not completely shed such beliefs. On the other hand, Jenifer Hart was a secret member of the Party. Yet MI5 had enough to go on to vet all these people.

So what about those who did join the CP, if only for a short time? Denis Healey (b. 1917, still going strong) was one notorious example who lasted a lot longer. He joined in 1937, but stayed there for a few years, seeing out the Nazi-Soviet pact, and not resigning until after the fall of France in 1940 (why then, o beetle-browed one?). He was still rambling on about ‘revolution’ after the war, yet turned out to be a respectable middle-of-the-road politician. (My professor has hinted to me that Healey was actually employed by MI6 all this time, which might just be plausible, I suppose, although the cover seems to have been taken a bit too far.) Was Robert Conquest’s flirtation just a youthful fling, after which he became disillusioned? But then he was recruited by MI6, and went to Bulgaria. How did they know it was just a fling? Or had he joined the CP with MI6 guidance? That would appear unlikely, as his cover would then have been blown for any undercover intelligence operation overseas. It all just shows what a careful methodology has to be applied by counter-intelligence officers trying to determine a suspect’s true beliefs and motivations. I wish I had had the chance to question Dr Conquest about it all before he died.

The usual set of Commonplace items can be found here. (August 31, 2015)

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Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Media, Politics

Magna Carta and Pluralism

“Magna Carta has everything going for it to be venerated in the United States. It is old, it is English, and, because no one has actually read the text, it is easy to invoke for current needs.”                                                                                                      (Tom Ginsburg, in NYT, June 15)

Regular readers will recall my old Oxford pal (indeed the only Oxford pal with whom I stay in regular contact), Derek Taylor. Whenever I am in the UK, I try to look him up at the Old Stables in Stow-on-the-Wold, although, if he hears I am coming over, he does sometimes abscond sharply to his retreat in Spain. Derek has now published a second book, titled ‘Magna Carta in Twenty Places’, which appeared in the UK in time for the octingentenary, and in the USA at the beginning of July.

If history is arguably all about sex, power, wealth and religion, I would assert that we pupils got short shrift in 1950s Britain. Sex was obviously a taboo subject, and religion was only slightly less shy-making, as I suspect the masters were probably a bit embarrassed about all the absurd Catholic-Protestant clashes that endured through the centuries. Moreover, they had to be sensitive to the fact that the religion of their charges could have been all over the map, even though Whitgift School had been founded by an Archbishop of Canterbury, and – quite correctly – such beliefs should have remained a private affair. (I remain amazed, however, that so many obviously smart and educated persons, encouraging their pupils to think inquiringly, should have accepted all the superstitions and mumbo-jumbo of religion so unquestioningly.) Thus my recollection of History was a set of dreary topics that did not string together, with major wars interspersed with boring descriptions of devices that peasants used to till the land. ‘One damn thing after another’, as Arnold Toynbee said of history, but I always wanted to know how things had arrived at where the current textbook started off, and what motivated all the agents in the drama. No wonder my mind wandered, wondering whether the rain would interfere with cricket practice.

Derek obviously had a great teacher, and, what’s more, unlike me, he paid attention. He dedicates his work to Stan Revill, who must have been a marvellous man to learn from. Derek brings the evolution of the Magna Carta alive by visiting twenty places, from The Wash to Washington, D.C., from Acre to Angoulême, that either affected its creation, or were influenced by its reality – and myth. He starts off in fine and typical style with a wonderful inspection of Ernest Normand’s iconic depiction of the scene at Runnymede, which ‘represents the classic myth of “bad” King John, the “upright” barons, and Magna Carta as the “birth of democracy”. He has a deep knowledge of the time, and the leading actors, and brings a journalist’s keen eye for today’s physical world to bridge the realities of life eight hundred years ago with the often forgetful world of the 21st century, equally dissonant in so many ways, but in a very different manner.

Magna Carta had been mythologised, and misunderstood, according to Derek, but he reminds us that it does represent the rule of law, and the assertion that even despots should be subject to it. It’s a strong lesson to citizens of the UK and the USA in particular that we should be grateful that we have term limits, and impeachment processes, and regular elections that give us a chance ‘to throw the current lot out’, as opposed to so many other countries around the globe. (Isn’t that what President Obama has been saying this week in Africa? Although his address to the ‘Muslim World’ a couple of years ago made the same Cameronian mistake, as Western pluralism should be inclusive of Muslims, like anyone else.) I am not competent to judge Derek’s historical analysis: from my reading of the July 2015 issue of History Today, a special edition on the Magna Carta, I would say his opinion of King John is a little more indulgent than that of Sean McGlynn’s, while his textual analysis is more incisive. Derek’s version of America’s adoption of the Carta’s symbolic value is close to Alexander Lock’s interpretation. But Derek’s narrative is much livelier. (A third piece in the magazine, by Graham Seel, head of history at St. Paul’s School, explores a canvas by Charles Sims of King John at Runnymede that hangs in St. Stephen’s Hall. Derek does not mention this work, but it provides a fascinating contrast to Normand’s more familiar and romantic creation. It would be an absorbing exercise to compare the two.)

Derek writes with tremendous verve, and has a fine ear for well-balanced sentences. He has been slightly let down by his publisher, who sadly did not ensure that the legend on his map corresponds to the chapter titles identifying the places, and I would have liked to see a bibliography. No doubt these issues will be addressed in the forthcoming paperback edition. (Every reviewer has to find at least one quibble.) Never mind. Derek’s is a fine accomplishment. His book is a wonderfully entertaining account for anybody – especially those whose impression of the Charter may have been coloured by romanticised schoolboy lessons or by pious hyperbole from politicians. Please take a look at http://www.derekjtaylorbooks.com/ and order your copy.

I have been taking a particular interest in Britain’s form of liberal democracy recently, as part of my doctoral thesis addresses the question of why it was not strong enough in the 1930s to provide a coherent and vigorous philosophical antidote to the twin horrors of totalitarian Fascism and Communism. (For the time being, I shall leave my analysis for the thesis.) Thus I was intrigued by David Cameron’s recent pronouncements about promoting ‘British values’ in the face of Muslim extremism. I can’t help feeling that Cameron is still caught up in all the misguided multi-cultural jargon of the Jenkinsite 1970s, what with his references to the ‘Muslim community’ and ‘Muslim leaders’. For the essence of a modern pluralist society is that we should not compartmentalize – and thus stereotype   ̶  large groups of individuals into separate ‘communities’ , nor should we look for self-appointed ‘leaders’ to represent their interests. I am an atheist, but I am not a member of the ‘atheist community’ [I think you mean the ‘AHAA community’, namely Atheists, Heretics, Apostates and Agnostics. Ed.], and I do not look to ‘atheist leaders’ to represent my interests. I have an MP, or a senator, or a representative to do that for me, and I know he or she will not share all my beliefs, but it is his or her job to speak for all his or her constituents. And what about those members of a ‘community’ who ‘intermarry’, or reject the faith they were brought up in? They will feel marginalized and lost. Moreover, is it not true that some of those ‘leaders’ are the ones responsible for the mayhem, as the government of Tunisia is finding as it tries to clean up the mosques of radical influences?

I also noticed that an imam from Leeds told the BBC that he found Cameron’s speech redolent of ‘us versus them’ thinking, and I believe he is right, in that respect, at least. Religious beliefs should be a private affair: the secular laws of the land should apply to everyone (no tolerance of local shariah law, or Jewish courts, or Christian prayers at civil events, for example) and we should recognize the fast-growing trend of an increasing proportion of the population (in the UK and in the USA) defining themselves as religious non-believers, as well as more and more citizens who are offspring of so-called ‘mixed marriages’ (a term I deplore). Such persons are left out of these dim and depressing artificial sociological categories. Cameron needs some fresh advisors, and some fresh advice. Dismantle the Ministry for Communities! Stop stereotyping! Don’t listen to self-appointed ‘Leaders’! Respect Individual Rights, not Group Rights! Coldspur has Spoken!

The normal set of Commonplace items are available for inspection here. (July 31, 2015)

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Isaiah Berlin – Too Hot To Handle?

Regular readers will recall that, in October 2013, I held a seminar at Buckingham University, delivering an address titled ‘Isaiah Berlin: The Undercover Egghead’. (see septemberspooks). This was an account of Berlin’s activities during WWII and after in the field of intelligence, enterprises that he severely downplayed when interviewed by his biographer, Michael Ignatieff. Soon afterwards, I wrote up my speech in article form, and sought to have it published, identifying ‘History Today’ as the most suitable outlet.

I have learned by now that the publishing world works in a most mysterious way, but, after a few months, and occasional prodding, I was delighted to learn that the editor, Paul Lay, had accepted the article for publication. I worked with his Picture Editor, and we selected a number of photographs, as well as a cartoon from Punch, for which copyright fees were paid. Then things went silent. I was surprised that no final copy was sent to me for review. However, in the September issue of the magazine, the text that appears in this image confirmed that my piece was due to appear in the October issue.

'The Undercover Egghead" is on its way!

‘The Undercover Egghead” is on its way!

The October issue came out in mid-September, but my article was not there. I questioned Paul Lay by email, but he was evasive. As it happened, I had planned a visit to the UK in October, primarily to get my degree upgraded from a M. Phil. to a D. Phil, and my supervisor had encouraged me to use the forthcoming publication as support for my case. So I informed Lay that I would be in London, and would like to meet him to discuss it. The meeting took place; I learned that the Picture Editor had suddenly retired (without informing me); Lay himself had had concerns about the controversial nature of my piece, since ‘current history’ was a sensitive topic. (He had apparently been burned by a recent article on the Shroud of Turin, and did not want any repeat). He said that he had to pass the article to another Berlin expert for review; that expert had had one or two questions about unreferenced claims I made, but, once those were cleared up, he expected he would be able to publish in the December/January timeframe. On my return to the USA, I gave him the references he wanted, and all seemed fine.

Nothing has happened since. In January, my friend Henry Hardy (who was Berlin’s chief editor at the OUP, until he recently retired) inquired of Lay when the piece would come out, and Lay indicated March. It did not appear in March, or April. A further inquiry has gone unanswered. It is all a mystery. Is Berlin too hot to handle? Did he become so much of a ‘national treasure’ that any criticism of him is off limits? Are my revelations about the indiscretions of MI5 and MI6, and Berlin’s plotting with the Soviet spy Guy Burgess too uncomfortable for the Establishment? The censorship cannot be purely out of concern over the sensitivities of Lady Berlin, as that extraordinary lady died in August 2014 (aged 99). It is all very bewildering.

But the research continues. My degree was successfully upgraded, I discovered critical new facts at the National Archives in Kew, and I plan to complete my thesis later this summer. But should I expect to be stopped at Immigration (‘just a few routine inquiries, sir’) if I were to make a return visit to the UK?

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

In one of those intriguing juxtapositions, I read in the New York Times about a week ago of two events: the death of Lee Kuan Yew, and the re-burial of Richard III. According to his obituary, in 2007, the former prime minister of Singapore said: “To understand Singapore and why it is what it is, you’ve got to start off with the fact that it’s not supposed to exist and cannot exist. To begin with, we don’t have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors: a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny. So, history is a long time. I’ve done my bit.” Well, the United Kingdom no longer has a ‘homogeneous population’ (but did it ever? what on earth could that mean, what with Celts, Danes, Normans, Huguenots, Jews, etc. etc.?), I am highly suspicious of claims about a single ‘common culture’, and I think it’s a bit capricious to talk about ‘common destiny’. But the UK does have a well-illustrated history and a strong sense of continuity, and I suspect it is that which drew so many people out for the parade and ceremony in Leicester. One does not have to be an ardent royalist, or a member of the Church of England, to recognize that there is something moving in being able to watch the body of a king who died over 500 years ago being carried through a city’s streets for a proper burial. Richard III was not a nice man, and his diabolical nature was impressed upon me (and maybe on many others) by Shakespeare, and by the account of the Princes and the Tower in Our Island Story. (I have very vivid memories of seeing, on a wet 1955 Thursday in Crowborough, Sussex, the film version of Shakespeare’s play, where Lawrence Olivier squirmed like an insect as he acted out the king’s death at Bosworth Field.) As reinforcement of that notion, I have also just read, in Nicola Lacey’s biography of the jurisprudential expert, Herbert Hart, that Hart considered Margaret Thatcher ‘the worst head of Government since Richard III’, an assertion that probably tells us more about Herbert Hart than it does about Lady Thatcher. The revisionists are already working on Richard: we shall probably soon learn that he liked to dandle young children on his knee (like Stalin), and spent most of his time quietly basket-weaving, and giving away his possessions to the poor.

The usual set of Commonplace entries: mostly about nationalism and communism. (Commonplace)

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‘All The News That’s Not Fit To Archive’

We relational database people are well-organized, methodical. We like analysis and business rules, strong notions of identity , the use of sets and non-significant keys, normalized designs and value-based links, precise versioning and time-stamps, and careful promotion of systems into production, with secure fall-back procedures. All that is tech-talk, but it means something in the real world. (One of the first articles I had published, back in 1980, in Datamation, was titled ‘The Importance of Good Relations’, which showed the link between solid database design and flexible business practices.)

Yet the Web has changed all this. When I first developed my website, under Microsoft’s FrontPage, there was some semblance of a test environment and a production environment. I would develop the site on my computer, and when I was ready, and had made sure all the links were defined, and pointed to real pages, I would upload the whole kit and caboodle to the host site, where the new system would replace the old, giving me the option of importing all pages that had changed (but admittedly with no easy fall-back to the previous version). No more. I now use something called WordPress, which I invoke on a remote server. It allows me to compose and save drafts of individual pages, but it is otherwise tightly integrated with the production system. If I promote a new page, it goes live immediately, and if I change it again ten seconds later, the page is immediately replaced, with the previous one lost for ever. (Unless it found its path to some entity called the Wayback Machine, which is described in a fascinating article by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker of January 26, 2015, titled The Cobweb: Can the Internet be archived?)

I mention all this in connection with my last plaint from the January blog, about the New York Times, and its practice of making changes to its electronic versions of articles after they have been published in the printed version (or the late printed version, since that happens, too. We in North Carolina get an earlier version than the people up in New York, for example.) The reason this concerns me is primarily one of research integrity, since there is no longer a ‘paper of record’ on which historians can rely. I made this point in an email to the Public Editor, whose office eventually acknowledged my inquiry, promised to look into it, but then withdrew in silence. So, after a couple of weeks, I checked out the paper’s Statement of Standards and Ethics, and wrote to the Vice-President of Corporate Communications. The essence of my message ran as follows:

“For there is a vital question to be answered: ‘What is the paper of record?’ Your slogan on the first page of the printed edition is still ‘All The News That’s Fit To Print’, but apparently some of that news is Not Fit To Archive. What happens when historians attempt to use the paper for research purposes? Do they have to keep separate clippings files, since the electronic version is unreliable, and has been purified in some way for later consumption? Is there an active policy under way here that should affect your Ethics statement? How are decisions made to ‘improve’ the content of articles that have already appeared in the printed edition? Why are these not considered ‘Corrections’ that would normally be posted in the relevant section? How often does this happen?”

I received a prompt response, but it was all very dismissive and casual:

“The change you noticed was simply the result of normal editing, which takes place constantly for news stories, both between print editions and for successive online versions. In this case, additional information (including crowd estimates) was added to the story between the early print edition and the final print edition, which meant something had to be cut for the story to fit in the same space. In most cases, the final print version is the one that remains permanently on nytimes.com, though in some cases a story continues to be updated or revised online even after the final print edition.”

So I countered as follows:

“But I must state that I think that you (and I am not sure who ‘you’ are in this case) are being far too casual about this policy, simply treating the process as ‘normal editing’. Is there an audit trail? Do you keep all versions? What changes are allowed to be made after the final print version? Why cannot the on-line version (which has no size constraints) include all the text? Is there any period of limitation after which no further amendments can be made? How do you plan to explain this policy to readers, whose ‘trust’ you say you value so much?

I am sure you must be aware of the current debate that is being carried on in the world of academic research, where annotations to URLs in serious articles often turn out to be dead links instead of reliable sources. A Times ‘page’ no longer has a unique and durable identity, which I believe is an important issue.

I look forward to some deeper explanation of this policy in the newspaper.”

Well, maybe I should get out more. As Sylvia would suggest to me: “You clearly need something better to do.”  But I maintain that it is an important problem, not just concerning journalistic integrity, and getting the story right the first time, and not correcting quotations that the speaker wanted to withdraw (which we are told goes on).  It is more to do with what is known as ‘content drift’ and ‘reference rot’. As Jill Lepore’s article states: “. . .a 2013 survey of law- and policy-related publications found that, at the end of six years, nearly fifty per cent of the URLs cited in those publications no longer worked. According to a 2014 study conducted at Harvard Law School, ‘more than 70% of the URLs within the Harvard Law Review and other journals, and 50% of the URLs within United States Supreme Court opinions, do not link to the original cited information.” A more subtle problem is that the links may work, but the content may have changed  ̶  may have been edited, corrected, improved, revised, or sanitised. For researchers like me, this can be very annoying, as books these days frequently cite URLs rather than printed sources in their references, and when those pages do not exist, one feels cheated, and may also wonder whether they have been modified. The academic process has been debased. If one has text in the New York Times that is no longer on the archive, does it still exist? Is it still valid? Do I really have to maintain my clippings files, as opposed to an index of URLs? (To make her point, the Times Vice-President had to send me a scan of the two printed versions of the relevant page in question.)

We shall see. I haven’t received a follow-up to my second inquiry yet. Either the Times doesn’t believe it is an issue, or the managers there are having a big debate about the topic, which they don’t currently wish to share. I’ll provide an update if I do hear anything.

The normal set of Commonplace Updates this month. (February 28, 2015)

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Cleeseana

Back in 1980, snowed in at the Holiday Inn in Norwalk, Connecticut, I wrote a letter to the Editor of the Spectator. Its TV critic, Richard Ingrams, had come under fire from certain subscribers, as he insisted on watching programmes on an old black-and-white set, and clearly was not enamoured of the medium, showing insufficient respect to some of its transitory ‘stars’. I came to his defence, since I enjoyed his columns, and I asserted that he treated television with the importance it deserved, adding that in only one way was Mr. Ingrams seriously at fault, and that was in his ‘peculiar blindness to the talents of John Cleese.’ The magazine published my letter with the heading ‘A Cleese Fan’.

And a Cleese fan I have stayed. But when I read American reviews of his recent memoir, I wondered whether I should bother to read it. They were not very flattering. One opinion, however (in the Sunday New York Times Book Review) did catch my eye, because it repeated Cleese’s claim that, in order to write good comedy sketches, you had to steal ideas. I wanted to read more, so I encouraged my daughter to purchase a copy of ‘So, Anyway . . .’ (for that is how the book is unimaginatively titled) for my birthday, and have since read it.

It is quite good – uproariously funny in some places  ̶  but I can understand why it might not be considered a winner in the USA. Cleese is fascinating in his story of growing up in 1940s and 1950s Britain, and he tells his anecdotes with that kind of ironic self-deprecating, absurdist touch that, I suppose, is very English. I would think his account would engross anyone who grew up at roughly the same time in the same sort of middle-class suburban environment. I can well imagine, however, that it might not go down too well with the good burghers of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (It did receive a positive review in the Times Literary Supplement of December 12, which arrived in Southport, NC only a couple of days ago.)

Cleese is funnier when he is not quoting sketches that he co-wrote with his many comedic partners. Indeed, what he describes as ‘one of the ten best sketches I have written in my entire life’ (p 288) to me seems flat and repetitive. If he had one flaw, it was to hammer on one particular note a little too long, in my humble [since when? Ed.] opinion, and lose the element of surprise. One got the message, and wanted him to move on. His better sketches were when he slowly exaggerated one warped aspect of a subject’s character.

But to return to the ‘stealing’. Perhaps the most famous is the ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch (At Last the 1948 Show, 1967), which is a direct steal from Stephen Leacock’s ‘Self Made Men’ (Literary Lapses, 1910), as was revealed on Nigel Rees’s Quote-Unquote website and newsletter a few years ago. Over the years, I have sporadically made a note of incidents in literature and memoirs that rang a bell for me as a possible source of Cleese sketches or ideas, as expressed in anything from Monty Python to Basil Fawlty. Unfortunately, I didn’t write all these down, but my electronic files show the following:

1) ‘Two-Sheds’ Jackson (Monty Python, Episode 1: ‘Whither Canada?’: Arthur Jackson is a famous composer: his interviewer tries to establish how he gained the nickname ‘Two-Sheds’ Jackson, and shows more interest in the provenance of the sheds than in his interviewee’s musical career.)

* “As Berle noted in his diary, the only dubious information the British had succeeded in digging up was an old newspaper clipping reporting that he had ‘twin bath tubs’ in his house, which had long earned him the absurd nickname Two Bathtubs Berle.” (from Jennet Conant’s The Irregulars, Chapter 8)

2) ‘I’m so sorry I made a mistake’ (Fawlty Towers, The Wedding Party, where Basil responds to Sybil’s suggestion that he retrieve the banished members of the wedding party by telling them he ‘made a mistake’ with ‘Oh brilliant. Is that what made Britain great? “I’m sorry I made a mistake.”’)

* “One day I asked him a question [Keynes] about the British economy and his answer turned out in due course to be wrong. ‘Why’, I asked Maynard, ‘did you tell me ten days ago that we would not go off the gold standard when in fact we now have?’ His answer was characteristic and an example to all, whether savants, politicians, civil servants or ordinary folk. ‘Victor,’ he said. ‘I made a mistake.’”                  (Lord Rothschild, Meditations of a Broomstick, p 19)

3) ‘The Cat Lives!’ (Fawlty Towers, Basil the Rat, where Basil is slow to realize that, if the cat has not been poisoned, the slice of veal it started to eat is fit for human consumption. ‘Hooray! Hooray! The cat lives! The cat lives! Long live the cat!  What are we going to do?”)

* A slice of ham was tested on cat at medical research Council by MI5 (BI (c) before being given to Churchill.                                        (from Elusive Rothschild, by Kenneth Rose, p 74)

4) The Spanish Inquisition, Fang and the ‘Comfy Chair’ (Monty Python, Episode Fifteen: the ‘dear old lady’ who refuses to confess to the heinous sin of heresy, has to face the ultimate torture – ‘the comfy chair’. ‘You will stay in the comfy chair until lunchtime, with only a cup of coffee at eleven  . . .”)

* “’Sit on the sofa,’ he [Trent] advised. ‘The chairs are a job lot bought at the sale after the suppression of the Holy Inquisition in Spain.” (from Chapter IX of Trent’s Last Case, by E. C. Bentley)

Were these conscious or unconscious ‘borrowings’ on Cleese’s behalf? I think we should be told, and I should like to know before he ‘joins the choir invisible’ (which I trust will not be for a long while yet). Maybe someone who knows him can ask him. (I tried to contact him via his website once, but it did not encourage email access.)

As a coda, I have also noted some intriguing echoes of ‘the comfy chair’ in the creations of the MacSpaunday (and related) poets, which I recorded in my Commonplace Book back in 2010:

“And now I relapse to sleep, to dream, perhaps and reaction

Where I shall play the gangster or the sheikh,

Kill for the love of killing, make the world my sofa,

Unzip the women and insult the meek.” (from Louis Macneice’s Autumn Journal, III)

 

“You above all who have come to the far end, victims

Of a run-down machine, who can bear it no longer;

Whether in easy chairs chafing at impotence

Or against hunger, bullies and spies preserving

The nerve for action, the spark of indignation – …”

(from C. Day Lewis’s The Magnetic Mountain, 32)

 

“Come with us, if you can, and, if not, go to hell

With your comfy chairs, your talk about the police,

Your doll wife, your cowardly life, your newspaper, your interests in the East,

You, there, who are so patriotic, you liar, you beast!”                       (from Rex Warner’s Hymn)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

My three grand-daughters (aged 3, 1 and 1) were imaginative and tasteful enough to buy me a copy of ‘Great Maps’ for Christmas, a beautiful coffee-table book  with ‘Smithsonian’ on the cover, which should have granted it the Golden Seal of Quality. Hence I was dismayed, when turning to page 47, to see that Al-Sharif Al-Idrisi’s remarkable world map of 1154 (now residing in the Bodleian) is described as ‘Entertainment for He Who Longs to Travel the  World’. This phrase appears three times on the page: it is not accidental.

Am I the last person on this earth who finds this ugly? For it should be ‘Entertainment for Him Who Longs to Travel the World’. (The pronoun goes with ‘for’, not with ‘who’.) A recent article in the Spectator predicted that the accusative case in the English language would soon disappear, and this is an excellent example of how it will happen. Some phrases take on a life of their own (e.g. ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’, ‘you and I’) with the result that one reads such abominations as this, and ‘between you and I’. A related ugliness is the inappropriate use of ‘myself’ instead of ‘me’: so many even educated writers and speakers of English have become utterly confused about the distinction between ‘I’ and ‘me’ that they nearly always deploy ‘myself’ instead. In ‘So, Anyway  . . .’, John Cleese overall does very well in this respect, using ‘me’ correctly countless time, but even he fails towards the end (p 365), when he writes: ‘like Graham and I’. (Ugh! ’Like’ is a preposition, Cleese! Don’t you remember the lessons from ‘Romanes eunt domus’, in The Life of Brian?)

I have written to the editor of ‘Great Maps’, inquiring how such a gross mistake could have passed the watchful eyes of so many writers and editors. I am not hopeful of a reply.

A very happy and syntactically pure 2015 to all my readers! The usual Commonplace updates occur, with December’s in their special file.                                                                                              (December 31, 2014)

 

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