Category Archives: Personal

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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Filed under General History, Media, Personal, Travel

The Congenial Richard Dawkins

When I was in my early twenties, I read a book titled something like ‘Why Darwin Is Wrong’. It wasn’t a creationist text, but a popular science-based analysis. I can’t find the volume on abebooks (which doesn’t appear to list anything before 1981), but I recall quite clearly two of its major objections to Darwinian thinking, so far as the author understood it. One, that the notion of ‘The Survival of the Fittest’ (which was actually coined by Herbert Spencer to describe Darwin’s natural selection) was tautological, and thus meaningless, since what was ‘survival’ but another way of saying that an animal was ’fit’?  Two, that if the energies that contributed to survival took place after the animal had passed on its genetic material to its offspring, there would be no mechanism by which more adaptive traits would endure in the species.

I thought at the time that these points had merit, yet I was not completely discouraged from accepting that natural selection was the most plausible explanation for evolution, even though the exact mechanisms by which it occurred were still somewhat mysterious. I was, however, dismayed by another misconception, namely the way that the Theory of Evolution was frequently misrepresented as something purposeful by even the most knowledgeable of experts. I can recall the great David Attenborough, in Life on Earth, explaining certain phenomena in terms such as: “Thus, in order to survive, the bats had to develop radar.” This notion of purpose in Evolution is obviously nonsensical, and I have occasionally had to write to the Science Editor of the New York Times to point out where their journalists mistakenly ascribe this sense of an objective to adaptive changes. After all, did certain winged birds develop their flightlessness in order to make their life less hazardous? And what was the timescale according to which such adaptive changes worked? How long would it take for various initiatives to fail or succeed before the lack of ‘fitness’ wiped out the species? At the same time, as Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch showed, describing the researches of Peter and Rosemary Grant on the Galapagos, small changes in the dimensions of finches’ beaks could rapidly take place in the light of changing climatic conditions and food supply.

Then Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene came along and changed everything, showing that the gene, not the individual organism (as Darwin believed) was the unit of natural selection. I have enjoyed Dawkins’s books since, although I found his first volume of autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder, rather scrappy and chippy. Now I have just finished his sequel, Brief Candle in the Dark. This is a new Dawkins. I think his PR firm must advised him not to be so offensive and controversial, because he positively oozes congeniality, and is nice about nearly everybody, and not nearly as scathing about religion as he used to be. (There must be a social meme in such superstitions that aids the survival of certain groups, a sad but unavoidable truth.) He also turns out to have almost as many friends as did Denis Healey or Lord Weidenfeld, and appears at times unbearably smug. As a curmudgeon myself, maybe I preferred the traditional Dawkins.

He has some fascinating new insights about the evolutionary process. I was interested to see what he had to say about the hot topic of epigenetics (defined in Chambers as the ‘gradual production and organisation of parts’, which is the study of how gene behavior is affected by environmental factors), and how he contrasted it with preformationist thinking (i.e. that, in essence, a homunculus was inside every human embryo). It seemed to me lately that some neo-Lamarckians, interested in promoting the notion of the passing on of acquired characteristics, have latched on to the term of ‘epigenetics’ to assist their cause. A footnote (p 402) from Dawkins is worth citing in full: “Don’t by the way be confused by the fact that the word ‘epigenetics’ has recently been hijacked as a label for a fashionable and over-hyped idea that changes in gene expression (which of course happen all the time during the course of normal embryonic development, otherwise all cells of the body would be the same) can be passed on to future generations. Such transgenerational effects may occasionally happen and it’s a quite interesting, if rather rare, phenomenon. But it’s a shame that, in the popular press, the word ‘epigenetics’ is becoming misused as though cross-generational transmission was a part of the very definition of epigenetics, rather than a rare and interesting anomaly.” Thank you, Professor. Just what I was looking for.

In one area however, I wonder whether Dawkins has got it wrong. I recall, at about the same time that I read the book on Darwin, taking in another work that pointed out how quickly scientists make analogies between the human body and whatever the current state of technology is (i.e. a pump in the 17th c., a clock in the 18th , an engine in the 19th , a computer in the 20th ). I thought that it might have been Arthur Koestler in The Ghost in the Machine, but I can find no trace of it there, and in those pre-spreadsheet days I did not keep track of every book I read. No matter: I think the point is valid. And Dawkins falls into the same easy motion. On page 382, when discussing the possible source of language, he makes the claim that ‘the human brain must possess something equivalent to recursive subroutines’ (an ability for a computer program to call itself and then return to an outer version of itself), a feature he says exists in Algol 60, but not the original IBM Fortran  language he used. Such a feature in human genes, which he calls ‘macro-mutation’ might have come about in a single mutation, and could have been responsible for the ability to create the phenomenon of language syntax. In reducing a complex organic process to a mechanical one, however, I believe Dawkins makes a categorical mistake. A computer program is only an artifact of the entity that he is describing, namely the human brain, which is a far more complex phenomenon than the strings of ones and zeroes that comprise a language compiler. His comparison is therefore merely crude reductionism.

But then Dawkins compounds his error. He goes on to write: “Computer languages either allow recursion or they don’t. There’s no such thing as half-recursion. It’s an all or nothing software trick. And once that trick has been implemented, hierarchically embedded syntax immediately becomes possible and capable of generating indefinitely extended sentences.”  First of all, if it is a design feature, it is not a trick. The trick – if there were one – would be an inherent flaw in the software where recursion did not work properly all the time – either by faulty implementation, or by a deliberate clandestine approach that made aberrant decisions based on some external circumstance or internal control data. After all, we each one of us know now about the Volkswagen Emissions Control Software, which gave false readings when the engine was being tested under laboratory conditions. Similarly, the implementation of a compiler program that claimed to allow recession could disable the function, or cause it not to work properly, depending on, for the instance, the date or time of day, the machine environment, or the particular iteration or count of the software execution.

He thus fails to distinguish between the design statement for a compiler that allows recursion, and the instantiation of that design in code. Moreover, no software is a perfect implementation, which causes the analogy inevitably to stumble. And by hinting at the notion of design in computer languages (what he signifies as the ‘trick’), Dawkins inadvertently undermines his analogy, since that notion of an architect has no role to play in evolutionary development, natural selection being an essentially haphazard process. Too many of his metaphors (for example, the arms-race, p 340; or ‘if we think of natural selection as a sculptor’, p 359) contain this notion of design at work, and thus weaken his whole argument, since the congenial atheist would assuredly deny the role of any ‘Designer’ in the process of language evolution. While many of the mechanisms by which genetic change occurs are still mysterious, that does not mean they are mystical. Following up on this theme, Dawkins later goes on to praise Chomsky’s idea of the language-learning apparatus being genetically implanted in the brain – which also strikes me as a bogus concept, since so many languages have implementations of syntax that are utterly antithetical and incompatible with other schemes. This is the weakest part of Dawkins’s theorizing.

Still, it was all a stimulating and enjoyable read, if you can put up with Dawkins continually reminding you how clever and successful he has been.

P.S. The New York Times informed me, on November 25, that the Saeed Book Bank in Islamabad, Pakistan, sells a thousand copies of Dawkins’s atheist treatise ‘The God Delusion’ each year. Not many people know that.

New Commonplace entries appear here.                                                                                                     (November 30, 2015)

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Filed under Personal, Science, Technology

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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Surveying Lake Tahoe

 

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Several weeks ago, the New York Times published a travel piece about Lake Tahoe, that body of water that straddles the California-Nevada border. The article included an astonishing claim – that the lake contained enough water to cover the whole drought-ridden state of California to a depth of fifteen feet. At the time, I found it hard to believe, but was too busy to perform the research and calculations that would verify or refute this assertion. So I was not surprised when, a couple of weeks ago, the paper issued a correction that stated that the lake would cover the state to a level of fifteen inches, not feet.

Is this still credible? After all, Lake Tahoe is the size of a small English county, 191 square miles, something between Rutland and the Isle of Anglesey. California is almost 164,000 square miles, almost double the area of Great Britain. Lake Tahoe must be very deep, right? Well, its average depth is given as 1000 feet (its maximum being 1644 feet), offering it a volume of 36 cubic miles (1000/5280 *191). The multiple of California’s area over Tahoe’s is 858.6 (164,000/191). Spreading Tahoe’s water over the area of California gives 1.164 feet (1000/858.6), or about fourteen inches. So the revised claim is fairly accurate.

So I got to thinking about other freshwater lakes. The largest in North America, Lake Superior, is 31,700 square miles in area, not as deep as Tahoe, but still providing 2903 cubic miles in volume. The greatest in the world in volume is Siberia’s Lake Baikal, which, while only 12,248 square miles in area (one and a half times the area of Wales) contains 5700 cubic miles of water, as its average depth is 2500 feet, with the deepest section reaching over a mile (5387 feet), well above the highest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis. Thus, if the 15-inch claim is correct, the water in Baikal could cover the whole of California to a depth of 200 feet (5700/36 x 1.25). Perhaps President Putin could spare some for those long-suffering Californians? (While in California, one of the books I read was Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. Frazier quotes Dr. Sergei V. Shibaev, director of the Siberian Geophysical Survey at the Russian Academy of Sciences, in downtown Yakutsk, as saying: ‘But all other rivers in Yakutia are extremely pure, with reserves of water for all mankind. There is a deficiency of freshwater on the planet, as is known. We in Yakutia have freshwater here.’)

I thought I should check out Lake Tahoe. As it happened, we travelled to San Jose, California, in June, to visit our son and his family, now consisting of five – wife Lien, Ashley, now three years and eight months, whom regular readers will recall from ‘An American Odyssey’, and the twins, Alexis and Alyssa, whose second birthday we celebrated while we there there. We broke our visit to spend a few days in South Lake Tahoe, a drive of about four hours away from San Jose, and ascended the gondola (a ski-lift in winter) to a height of about 9000 feet, where I was able to take the pictures below. Yes, you could easily fit Rutland into the lake – including Rutland Water, Europe’s largest man-made lake when it was constructed in 1971 – and, with a highpoint of 646 feet, the county would easily be submerged in Lake Tahoe. Truly multum in parvo, as Rutland’s motto goes.

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Lake Tahoe, looking North towards Nevada

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Looking West towards San Francisco

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Julia and I at Lake Tahoe

Meanwhile, Ashley and the twins gave us great pleasure: we hadn’t seen them for eighteen months. After some initial shyness, they took to us very well. It is astonishing to me that Lady Ashley, at that age, could be so facile with an iPad and iPhone. I do not believe such skills are ‘in her blood’ or ‘in her DNA’, as that would mean a magical transfer of genetic material some time between the birthdates of her four grandparents and her arrival on the scene, but she has taken to them with complete confidence. (Her father’s working for Apple, and her mother’s aptitude in the same area, may have something to do with it.) However, I was able to introduce her to some new gadgets – a ‘non-scrollable, foldable, combustible information delivery vehicle’ (commonly known as a ’newspaper’), as well as a ‘single-function photographic device’ (a ‘camera’). Ashley was intrigued by both items, as she had clearly not seen either of them before. I present a few photographs of our visit.

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James, Lien, and the girls at the twins’ 2nd birthday party

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My three grand-daughters and I

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The girls overpowering their father.

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Sylvia and I at Father’s Day Dinner at Morton’s

A few new Commonplace entries for the month, to be found here.     June 30, 2015

 

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Remembering Mr. Popper

In the early 1950s, Mr. Popper travelled each day from Hampstead in North London to Coulsdon, Surrey, where he taught arithmetic at St. Anne’s Preparatory School. I was a pupil of his, and enjoyed the kindly way that he encouraged us to develop facility in the rapid manipulation of numbers. I was only about seven or eight at the time, and did not understand why Mr. Popper spoke with a thick accent. On one occasion, however, my parents invited him and his wife to come to supper: they were always welcoming to new members of staff, and my father (a schoolmaster himself) in particular had an interest in the backgrounds of everybody. I do not now recall whether I witnessed the event myself, or whether my parents told me about it afterwards, but Mr. Popper was so overcome by the occasion that he burst into tears.

My father must have explained that Mr. and Mrs. Popper were Jews, and had suffered so much, that the tranquility of suburban life in 1950s England, compared with what they had lost back in Austria (or was it Czechoslovakia?), and the relatives who had disappeared in the Holocaust, must have suddenly made him distraught. This was the first time I had heard about Jews, and gained some understanding of what happened to them under Hitler. My father did not explain things naturally: as an only child himself, I believe he thought that my brother, sister, and I should discover things ourselves. I remember that he bought me a stamp album, and an envelope full of stamps to be sorted and inserted. There was just one page in the album titled ‘Germany’, and I recall being confused about all the different manifestations of stamps from that country – the German Democratic Republic, the Federal Republic of Germany, the stamps with Hitler on them (denoting the Third Reich), and some even earlier, featuring a heavily whiskered gentleman. How could I sort these out? I did not venture to ask my father, and he did not want to volunteer the information. It was not until some time after, when I discovered a Stanley Gibbons catalogue in the public library, that I understood there were several different countries involved, and I could bring some order to the collection.

I did not think of Jews as a separate group of people then, and have rarely thought so since. Most of the boys at school were somewhat menacing (and the rest probably rather weird), and one treated all of them with suspicion. So long as one avoided the bullies, or those who ridiculed you excessively, you didn’t think twice about where they came from, or what their religion was, or how odd their names were. They were just boys. And people like my parents did not mix much: in the corner of our street were various neighbours with whom they did not socialize: not the Ks, as they were Catholics, or the Ws, since Mr. W worked in advertising, and was not a professional; not the Ls, who came from the North, and were thus provincial; nor the Hs, who lived next door, but turned their noses up at us, as their house was somewhat grander, and they moved in better circles. Thus we mixed solely with my father’s and mother’s old school friends and their offspring, and a few scattered relatives (not many of those either.) Above all, we were cautioned never to mix with anybody who was ‘common’, which might mean poor pronunciation and vulgar talk, inappropriate dress, as well as nasty habits like chewing gum, or reading the Beano or the Dandy, or even getting interested in soccer rather than rugby football. We knew where we belonged. Strange as it may seem, that was how life was in 1950s England – strictly compartmentalized in a fashion that Orwell so neatly described. Yet my parents were very hospitable to Mr. and Mrs. Popper.

I thought of Mr. Popper when recently reading Madeleine Albright’s moving memoir about her roots in Czechoslovakia, Prague Winter, where on the one hand, all the Wilsonian nonsense about self-determination of nations, and, on the other, Hitler’s odious racial theories, came to a head. What on earth was the definition of a Jew at that time? As Albright writes: “According to the laws of the republic, Jews had the right, but not the obligation, to declare Jewish nationality. Roughly one half did, while the remainder identified themselves as Czechoslovak, German, Hungarian, Polish, or other. Although the Jewish population made up less than 1 percent of the country, it accounted for more than a third of capital investment and 10 percent of students at university. It was hardly a monolithic group; the rate of marriage outside the faith was the highest in Central Europe, and there were constant debates about worship obligations, ethics, language, social customs, dietary restrictions, and politics. With Hitler next door, many Jews with relatives living elsewhere used those contacts to emigrate. Several thousand moved to Palestine. Still others sought, often in vain, to obtain visas for travel to the West. Thinking to improve their chances of obtaining passage, some converted to Christianity or obtained forged certificates of baptism – which were readily available from the growing (and ecumenical) anti-fascist underground.”

This confusion is echoed in a message sent by the British ambassador in Prague to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, on February 15, 1939: “I was informed that there is a difference of opinion between German and Czecho-Slovak Governments on the interpretation of expression ‘person of non-German Volkszugehörigkeit’ [translated here as ‘race-participation’] in article 3 of optional [sic] Agreement insofar as it applies to Sudeten Jews. Germans contend that it applies to Jews of every description. Czechs contend that it applies only to those Jews whose mother-tongue is Czech, in other words that the majority of Sudeten Jews, whose mother tongue is German, are not entitled to opt for Czecho-Slovakia. The matter is to be referred to mixed commission provided for in article 13 of Agreement. I have thought it well to bring foregoing to you though the point is perhaps academic as even if Sudeten German Jews are allowed to opt they will be threatened with losing their citizenship under decree No. 15 – see my dispatch No 54.”

It is difficult for a reasonably enlightened citizen of a pluralist democracy in 2015 to imagine that politicians seventy-five years ago seriously thought about, and discussed, people in this manner. But they did. And some still do: the New York Times (echoing the absurd U.S. Census Bureau) can think of people solely in terms of pseudo-racial categories. Moreover, in the past couple of weeks, I have read the obituaries of three persons in the New York Times who touched this Jewish question: Peter Gay (the historian), Elisabeth Bing (the childbirth expert), and Anne Meara (the comic actress). The families of both Gay and Bing, growing up in Germany, did not realize they were Jewish until Hitler declared them so. Anne Meara was born a Catholic, but converted to Judaism a few years after marrying her Jewish husband, Jerry Stiller. I also recall Victor Rothschild, an agnostic, requiring his fiancée, Barbara Hutchinson, to convert to Judaism in order to please his own grandmother, as Jewishness is carried only matrilineally, and Grandma would have died on the spot if she thought her grandson was marrying outside the faith. What nonsense!

That is why the terms ’Jew’, ‘Gentile’, ‘Semite’, ‘co-religionist’ all have no meaning for me. I suspect I have ‘Jewish’ ancestors somewhere, but who cares? To confirm this point, Albright concludes her study of Nazi and Communist oppression of Czechoslovakia with some words from the great Jan Masaryk, half-American son of the country’s founder and someone far too level-headed to be a successful politician. They were addressed to his companion, Marcia Davenport, in 1947:

“You’re no more full-blooded what you think you are than I am. I must be Jewish somewhere, though the presentable story doesn’t say so. And you? How the hell do you know who you are?

I don’t.

And neither does anyone else who comes as far back as he can tell, from the parts of Europe that were the battlegrounds of the Napoleonic years. You think you have no Czech ancestry. You’re wrong. Some forefather of yours came through there as a conscript in the Russian armies, and if he didn’t leave a souvenir on some local slečna, then it was the other way round and some Czech in the Austrian army had a bit of fun with some pretty girl in Galicia whom they married off to your great-grandfather. You’re like everybody else whose people fled to America in the eighties and nineties – all the villages and synagogues with the family records were burnt up in the pogroms. Nobody knows anything . . . As for the nobility with  . . .  their thousand-year genealogies, there you get into the fun-and-games department  . .  My father was the son of a Slovak coachman and a Moravian housemaid, who were serfs. I can’t prove what the blood of their parents was and neither can anyone else.”

How right Masaryk was! Sadly, the great humanist met his reward the following year by being defenestrated by Stalin’s creatures, in one of their shabby attempts to stage-manage a suicide. The reasonableness of him and his kind could not avert the horrors of Hitler or Stalin. We all too loosely use the term ‘inhumanity’ to describe behaviours that are plainly human in origin. The pain and suffering of Mr. Popper and his relatives were indeed very real, and I dedicate this piece to their memory.

(As I was completing this piece, I read a searing and very positive review of Nikolaus Wachsmann’s history of the Nazi concentration camps, KL, in the Times Literary Supplement of May 22. Jane Caplan writes: “Behind the numbing totals that are the stock-in-trade of Nazi history lie the individuals whose suffering is incapable of calculation.” Indeed.)

A small set of Commonplace entries for the month can be found here.         (May 31, 2015)

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Richie Benaud – My Part In His Success

“So. Farewell

Then Richie Benaud,

Unbeaten Australian

Captain and much-loved

TV commentator.

 

Dust to

Dust.  Ashes to

Ashes.”

So began E. J. Thribb’s moving eulogy to Richie Benaud in Private Eye. I was saddened to read of the death of that most urbane and modest of cricket commentators, who seemed to be a permanent part of ‘Test Match Special’ each time I returned to the UK. It was forty years ago this summer that I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting to the great man, at an occasion which may have been forgotten by all other participants, if any of them are still around. It was an event that deserves a mention in the archives of the Summer Game.

My fellow slow-bowler in the Old Whitgiftians Cricket Eleven, Bob Horn, had invited me to substitute for him in a team of ‘Cricketer Cup’ players designated to play a team of Internationals. (The Cricketer Cup was sponsored by the Cricketer magazine, and was a knock-out tournament between independent schools that was played each year.) Believe it or not, this match had been arranged to celebrate the millennium of the Little Missenden Parish Church, in Buckinghamshire (all very Wodehousian). Why this particular church deserved such recognition, I have no idea, but Wikipedia confirms that the Saxon foundations of the establishment were shown to have been laid in AD 975, which confirms that the match must have been played in the summer of 1975. Now Bob Horn had an excellent pedigree: he was in Holy Orders, editor of the Church Times, an Oxford man, who played frequently for Surrey IIs. And I? Well, I was a complete unknown quantity, having, after an undistinguished cricket career at Whitgift School, and then blossoming somewhat at Christ Church, Oxford, made my way up from the Old Whitgiftian Fourth XI to a regular place in the First XI. But Bob must have had confidence in me to recommend to E. W. (‘Jim’) Swanton of the Daily Telegraph, the non-playing captain of the Cricketer Cup team, that I would be a worthy substitute for him. I did have to telephone Jim – at his house in Broadstairs, I recall – to gain his approval, and receive instructions as to how to proceed to the game.

Now description of such events could rapidly fall into Tinniswoodian farce.  (‘What possible interest can it be to know that E. W. Swanton wears maroon corduroy underpants and has in his study the complete collection of the records of Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas?’ – Tales From A  Long Room, p 76) But Mr Swanton was kind and inviting (though I did hear ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret?’ playing softly in the background), and put my mind at ease about the challenge ahead. Thus, a couple of weeks later, on a beautiful June day, I took a day off work, and drove up to Amersham to check out the cricket ground early. There was no one around, so I parked my 1969 Hillman Imp carefully behind a large oak-tree, and waited for everyone to arrive. When they did, everyone seemed to know everyone else – except me. There were Lords with their Ladies, and distinguished cricketers, including the Test Players Tony Lewis and Richie Benaud. I swore I espied Lord Lundy in the background: he must surely have returned from ‘governing New South Wales’, and had no doubt encountered Richie Benaud there, and plucked him out of obscurity. I suspect some of the aristocrats had never consorted with anyone in trade before, but no one asked me what I did (or even spoke to me for a while, as far as I recall), and admitting that, for a living, I administered databases in Wigmore Street would probably not have been a good conversation-starter.

I don’t recall much about the match, except that the Cricketer team batted first, and did not do very well. I went in Number 9, and notched up a few runs, but the highlight of my innings was playing a maiden over from Benaud. Benaud was fresh from his triumph at Old Trafford just fourteen years earlier, where a remarkable spell of 6-70 (including the bowling of my Old Whitgiftian captain at that time, Raman Subba Row, for 49) won the Ashes for Australia [see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOLY6k1vq3A] .  He threw everything he could at me – leg-breaks, flippers, googlies, doosras, and one or two other concoctions I could not name, all in the space of six balls, yet could not dismiss me, as I refrained from trying to hoick him over mid-wicket, and kept my castle clean. I don’t think he was ever the same again, and soon abandoned the playing of the game to concentrate on his career in broadcasting.

Before lunch the great Jim (cryptonym ‘Gloria’) Swanton had addressed us in the changing-room: ‘We’ll wear our blazers, shall we?’, assuming that each would have brought his I Zingari or Free Foresters tribal uniform with him. Of course, I had no blazer, and that made me stand out as well. Anyway, I did get a bowl later, and Peter Marson (then one of the cricket reporters on the Daily Telegraph) turned down an absolutely cast-iron LBW appeal by me and the wicket-keeper, and the All-Stars won by about eight wickets. Afterwards, we listened to many highly amusing anecdotes about M.C.C. tours from Tony Lewis, while Benaud was the sole celebrity who chatted to me. We discussed bowling (I suggested that he was too square-on, and should raise his left shoulder a bit), and sundry other matters, including, if I remember correctly, Clive James’s use of metaphor and allegory. A charming man. I leave the final words for Peter Tinniswood, from The Brigadier Down Under, pp 12-13:

“Dear, dear Richie.

What a welcome he gave me when I left intelligence in his dinky little pigeon hole that I was staying at the same hotel as he.

He has literally showered me with courtesies and considerations.

I must be the only man privileged to have seen him ‘at his toilet’ as he bathes himself in asses’ milk and sprinkles his exquisite body with that rarest of rare perfumes, Essence of Sproat.

He showed me also his superb and dazzling wardrobe, which is under the personal and constant supervision of the Keeper of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Dame Zandra Rhodes, second son of the immortal Wilfred.

But the highest honour of all was when he allowed me to attend the midnight devotions of Australian cricketers round the hotel consecrated barbecue.

Words cannot describe the ecstacy [sic] that overcame me as I listened to the ravishing plainsong of Rodney Marsh and the stirring tones of that finest of all evangelical preachers, the Rev. Dennis Lillee, as he launched into his celebrated sermon.

‘Take heed, all ye unbelievers  . . . . “ [We regret that we have to cut this extract short, as this is  a family-oriented blog.  Chief Webmaster, Coldspur Enterprises.]

The normal set of Commonplace entries added for the month.         (April 30, 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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Turing and Cripps (and later update)

In our first visit to the movies for several years, Sylvia and I went to see The Imitation Game a few days ago. (What was the last film we went to see: Lawrence of Arabia? Brief Encounter?? I forget.) We enjoyed it very much: I could forgive most of the liberties taken with history, although the decision to introduce the spy John Cairncross in a case of double-blackmail, with the claim that MI6 had installed him deliberately so that he could leak secrets to the Russians, was palpably absurd and unnecessary. I have a special enthusiasm for Alan Turing, as readers of this site will recall from my posting here at the end of last November, and Sylvia was better able to understand the links between crosswords, cryptography and espionage that occupy the dark side of my character.

Yet you may not have noticed a brief annotation I made in July 2012, when I commented that the Times had published, on the exact centenary of Turing’s birth (June 26, 2012) a Listener Crossword Puzzle (’SUM’ – geddit?) that celebrated his achievements in imagining a universal computing machine. I was a little muted about this event, because the puzzle contained a blatant error, about which I am still sorely embarrassed. Both the Puzzle Editor and I had overlooked a tiny calculation error in the encoding of one of the answers.

Now, in my more thoughtful moments, I reflect on the phenomenon of ‘deliberate’ errors introduced as a means of communicating to the receiver that something is wrong. When the Nazis turned round captured SOE agents, dropped by parachute into the Netherlands in WWII, the radio operators ignored the lack of messages that would have confirmed they were safe, because SOE staff in London did not want to believe that their efforts had been sabotaged. Thus the famous Englandspiel, in which several agents died. A similar mistake happened when the CIA tried to infiltrate agents into Albania in the late 1940s and early 1950s. (See Operation Valuable Fiend, by Albert Lulushi.) And I have always wondered whether Kim Philby’s identification of the Secret Intelligence Service as MI5 (instead of the correct MI6) in My Secret War (p 32) represented a plaintive cry to his old mates that they should recognize that the whole memoir was being ghosted – or, at least, controlled  – by the KGB. Lastly, when I noticed in the National Archive at Kew that a Report on the Communist Party written by the MI5 officer Jane Sissmore in 1935 was titled ‘Investigation by SS into Activities of the CPGB and Indentification [sic] of its Members 1935’, it occurred to me that this very capable and literate person may have inserted that error to indicate that she was very unhappy about compiling such a report. So maybe the error I made could be interpreted as saying ‘I am a Prisoner in a Listener Crossword Construction Factory and Cannot Get Out’. No, it was just a really clumsy boner.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

One of the books I read in January was Tony Judt’s Ill Fares The Land. It was rather sad. Sad, because Tony Judt, who must have been a delightful man, died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, at the age of 52, in 2010. But also sad, because the book is an elegy to the decline of The Left and all its aspirations, at the same time betraying all the hopeless impracticality of the so-called social-democrat Left. (I have never been a member of The Left.) It is as if Judt and his kin think that we can all have secure jobs, and nice houses, and travel to work in environmentally-friendly transport, and enjoy free childcare and expert healthcare until we retire and enjoy safe inflation-proof pensions – all without having to worry about the sordid business of actually creating any wealth. The book is scattered with a number of unexplained clichéd terms: ‘social democracy’, ‘market failure’, ‘financial stability’, ‘social market’, ‘rational market management’, ‘endemic inequality’, ‘social justice’, and is liberally strewn with a host of semi-rhetorical questions suggesting that ‘we’ have to do something. It appears to emphasise the role of the nation-state, but says hardly anything about the European Community. Etc. etc.

I think I shall have to return to this subject next month. I am no economist, but I don’t think that matters, as economists disagree about all this stuff anyway. All I know is that I hope my financial portfolio does not hold any Greek debt. When I ponder over the question of how those poor Hellenes are going to pay back their 240 billion Euro debt, I think of Keynes and The Economic Consequences of the Peace, and what he said about economic slavery. (Is there a deliberate mistake here?) So, as an educational antidote to the maunderings of The Left, I borrowed David Stockman’s The Great Deformation; The Corruption of Capitalism in America from the Public Library, but, after reading one chapter, I decided life was too short for me to read 700 pages on economics, and took it back. And maybe we need Sir Stafford Cripps to remind us what Austerity really means. He was the authentic ‘Left’.

The normal set of Commonplace items appears for the month here.  (January 31, 2015)

I don’t normally add late notes to my monthly post, but an odd thing happened today. I was reading in the New York Times about Podemos, the left-wing Spanish Political party, and a march it was holding in Madrid. Podemos’s leader, Pablo Iglesias, was accusing Prime Minster Rajoy of ‘wanting to humiliate our country with this scam they call austerity’. (Heigh-ho . . .) Furthermore, Rubén Aguilar, a Spanish telecom technician, was described as waving a Greek flag ‘out of solidarity’, and was quoted as saying: ‘We’re better off economically than our Greek friends, but we share their determinatiom to put the interests of people back ahead of economic goals like debt repayment.’ Yet this hardly inflammatory paragraph does not appear in the on-line version of the piece! What is going on? Is it now not allowed to suggest that debts to the EU and central banks may not be repaid?

I have sent a message to the Public Editor at the NYT to find out what is going on. (February 1, 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)

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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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