Vol. 21 No. 19 · 30 September 1999

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Unreliable Friend

In his savage review of Anthony Sampson’s Mandela: The Authorised Biography, R.W. Johnson displayed a contempt for the present Government of South Africa and a hatred of the African National Congress that may have surprised some readers (LRB, 19 August). It was not surprising to those familiar with Mr Johnson’s writings.

As an example, the Times published in December 1996 a supposed news report by Mr Johnson. He wrote that the Constitutional Court of South Africa, in finding that the country’s new Constitution met the legal tests laid down for it, had ‘bent the knee to the ANC leadership’. Mr Johnson added that the ANC ‘has an overwhelming majority’ in the Court. A week later the Times published a letter from Sydney Kentridge (now Sir Sydney), a great South African lawyer who has more recently become a leading figure at the English Bar. Of Mr Johnson’s statement that the ANC had ‘an overwhelming majority’ in the Court, Mr Kentridge wrote: ‘This is simply false.’ He pointed out, among other things, that six of the 11 members of the Court had been judges of the Supreme Court of South Africa appointed by the previous, National Party Government. As for bending the knee, Mr Kentridge said: ‘a less subservient court … would be hard to find.’

That Mr Johnson would write falsely about matters so easily checkable says all that needs to be said.

Anthony Lewis
Boston, Massachusetts

R.W. Johnson writes: I began my review of Sampson’s Mandela by pointing out that one is always being ‘put right’ about South Africa by people who have chosen not to live here and that if you puncture their distant moral certainties you get a roar of rage. This turns out to have been exactly right. I choose to live here, just as Messrs Sampson and Kentridge chose to leave. Can no one else see the absurdity of sitting in London or Wiltshire and always knowing better about this place than those of us who face its daily realities?

Anthony Lewis is quite wrong in all respects. I don’t hate the Government here – I said in my review how it was impossible not to sympathise with Mbeki and what a lovable figure Mandela is – nor the ANC: indeed, I am on my way, as I write, to give them a briefing at their headquarters, a place I have visited on a number of occasions to provide free help and advice just as I do for the Pan Africanist Congress, the Inkatha Freedom Party, Bantu Holomisa’s United Democratic Movement and so on. Political parties are not hateful things. What I do very much dislike is party hegemony and the Orwellian rewriting of history it involves.

Lewis is also wrong about the Constitutional Court. Sydney Kentridge (now Sir Sydney) was, I’m afraid, quite misleading on the subject. Of the 11 members of the Court, ten were appointed by President Mandela and one by President Mbeki. To make these appointments, both men had, perforce, to choose from among a judiciary mainly appointed by their predecessors, but it was not difficult to find ANC supporters among their ranks, partly because the bench – though the Nationalists tried to stuff it with their lackeys – was never homogeneous and partly because some judges, noticing which way the wind was blowing, had worked hard to ingratiate themselves in advance with the new regime. As for the current balance on the Court, I think it is held to be quite uncontroversially true among lawyers here that the Government can count on the sympathies of a large majority of its members and it is certainly keen to keep things that way. This is not surprising: it’s what every American President from FDR to Reagan has done with appointments to the Supreme Court. The same thing happens around the world, though judges everywhere hate to admit it. I would have expected Anthony Lewis to know that.

Anthony Sampson says he did not quote Mandela approvingly on the subject of the British roasting babies in Kenya, but only to show how Mandela was ‘becoming more attached to the rhetoric of Marxist anti-colonialism’ (Letters, 16 September). Yet the passage about roasting babies is introduced with the remark – which I take to be applauding – that Mandela’s first major speech as President of the Transvaal ANC managed to ‘link the South African struggle to others in Africa’. But in any case, Marxist anti-colonialism was no bad thing and certainly didn’t oblige one to invent nonsense.

Sampson also says that he could not find any trace of Mandela having made handwritten copies of Stalin’s writings. He should have looked at page 190 of his own book: ‘the most apparently incriminating notes were 62 pages on a writing pad about Communism, in Mandela’s handwriting. They were in four parts, including one on Stalin’s The Foundations of Leninism.’ Mandela accepted authorship in court.

Sampson believes that my review was really all about whether Mandela was ever in the Party. If he’d read it properly he would have seen both that I don’t really think it such a big deal whether anyone was once in the Party or not, and also that I agree that by the time Mandela stood up in the Rivonia trial in 1963 he could tell the perfect truth about not being a Party member. Actually this was not the nub of my review at all. What I found disappointing about Sampson’s book was that a great deal of research had been thoroughly spoilt by his accepting and parroting the ANC/SACP party line on hundreds of issues. This is, of course, the new orthodoxy here but that doesn’t make it true. What I find particularly perplexing is the fact that when I lived in England Sampson was somewhat to the right of me – SDP (when that was flavour of the month) to my Labour – whereas when he comes out here he takes the ANC/SACP line. it’s as if he wants to be on the side of the fashionable, conventional wisdom wherever he is. My own beliefs do not change with geography.

R.W. Johnson

Frigged and Frigged

Good to see the verb ‘frig’, which is becoming neglected in the general emancipation of the other f-word, used to effect by Germaine Greer (LRB, 16 September): ‘Most scholars are still loth to give up their frigged-out version of Rochester.’

Being cognate with ‘prick’, ‘frig’ suggests – very nicely in Germaine Greer’s sentence – both masturbation and any other form of footling exercise. When I lived in the backwoods in Canada I heard an elderly lady remark to her pastor: ‘I’ve just frigged and frigged at my knitting all day.’

Sean Haldane
Balsall Common
West Midlands

The First Mr Paisley

Tom Coryate left a tantalising trace on his travels to Asia that Charles Nicholl (LRB, 2 September) doesn’t mention. He took a vast quantity of notes wherever he went, very few of which have survived. We do know, however, that in February 1615 he left a great bundle of his writings at Isfahan. They were too heavy to be carried further: ‘his notes are already too great for Portage,’ Sir Thomas Roe, the British Ambassador wrote, ‘some left at Aleppo, some at Hispan – enough to make any stationer an alderman who shall but serve the Printer with Paper’. These papers don’t seem ever to have reached England, but they have left one faint footprint in Persia. The Isfahan factory records of 1619 – after Coryate’s death – note in the course of a dispute between factors that one George Strachan brought ‘certayne bookes’ with him ‘out of ENGLAND, or got since by the death of some that could not carrye them to Heaven’. It is pleasant to imagine that, forgotten in a corner of the loft of a mosque in Isfahan there lurks an Odcombian Malahide chest. Very appropriately, the care of Coryate’s posterity passed, if the reference is indeed to his papers, from one Strachan to another: Michael Strachan is the author of the only, and definitive, modern biography of Coryate.

Charles Nicholl, in his excellent account, underplays the extraordinary drama of Coryate’s meeting with Sir Robert Sherley. Picture the scene: Coryate striding across the desert, the only European in a caravan crossing the wild borderlands of Persia and Afghanistan, and the first ever known to have made the journey. Suddenly, ‘about the middle of the way, betwixt Spahan and Lahore’, a party approaches from the opposite direction. In the middle ride Sherley and his wife on elephants, ‘so gallantly furnished with all necessities for the travailes that it was a great comfort unto me to see them in such a florishing estate’. The two Englishmen, Coryate the madcap traveller and Sherley the turbaned renegade English Ambassador of Shah Abbas to James I, meet with astounding improbability, travelling in opposite directions deep in the deserts of Central Asia. And what does Sherley do? Insouciantly, he produces copies of Coryate’s two books ‘neatly kept’ from his luggage. His carrying them is itself no mean feat – the Crudities alone must weigh ten pounds.

Coryate was, up to a point, extraordinary in his time in taking alien cultures more or less seriously. But he was firmly and intolerantly Christian, and aggressively Protestant – as befitted the son of an Oxford-educated Somerset parson. He was no run-of-the-mill hippy, nor yet an early anthropologist: more a kind of itinerant Ian Paisley.

Martin Rose
Kraainem, Belgium

Edward Terry in A Voyage to East India recounts a private demonstration by Coryate against Islam during his Indian travels. It seems he was sick of hearing ‘their devout Mullahs five times every day ascend unto the tops of those high turrets, whence they proclaim: “La Alla illa Alla, Mahomet Resul-Alla" (there is no God but one God and Mahomet the messenger of God), so one day he climbed to a high place opposite the mosque and shouted back, “La Alla illa Alla, Hasaret Eesa Benalla" (there is no God but one God and the Lord Christ, the Son of God) and further added that Mahomet was an impostor.’

Coryate’s travels and his life might well have been brought to a premature conclusion as a result, ‘but he was here taken for a madman and so let alone’.

Peter Coghill
London NW2

A State of One’s Own

I’ll be surprised if, a few years from now, there are many traces in Kosovo of Serbs ever having lived there. Jeremy Harding’s article (LRB, 19 August) makes this plain. ‘Of course the monasteries and churches should be cared for,’ Noel Malcolm exclaimed in a recent op-ed piece, in which he called for independence, but I don’t think the Kosovo Albanians are listening. As for me, I hope a few of the beautiful frescoes and icons are preserved because they are, indeed, great works of art. So far some fifty churches and monasteries have been destroyed or badly damaged without Malcolm raising a squawk, so I guess everything is as it should be.

In the long run, Serbia’s loss of Kosovo was inevitable, not because Serbs don’t have any historical rights there, but because Albanians outnumbered them ten to one. A more rational and humane policy could have ensured the preservation of the cultural heritage and some kind of protection for the minority. Too late. What has always been terrifying about Milosevic is his obvious enjoyment in setting neighbour against neighbour and watching the resulting hatred boil over into a homicidal orgy. What we have now is all the unhappy people, Serbs and Albanians, in what Harding describes as a ‘rebalkanised Balkans’, who did not deserve to have their lives so completely ruined or their relatives buried in a mass grave.

Charles Simic
Strafford, New Hampshire

It’s the Plunge that Counts

Richard Boston
Reading, Berkshire

That Nice Mr Barak

I can't help wishing that Avi Shlaim's article (LRB, 16 September) on Ehud Barak had mentioned Vanunu, who is now entering his 13th year of imprisonment for exposing Israel's nuclear programme. I hope the Prime Minister's policy of peace and reconciliation with the Arabs will allow him to show clemency towards Vanunu.

Sylvia Elias
London SW3

Ghosts in the Upper House

In his examination of the problematic future of the Law Lords, Stephen Sedley refers to the ghost of a Jacobean judge walking the corridors of the Upper House (LRB, 16 September). In fact, the ghost is quite a bit older than he realises: it was Ralph de Hengham, Chief Justice of Common Pleas under Edward I, who at the beginning of the 14th century, crushed an impudent lawyer with the retort ‘do not gloss the statute; we understand it better than you do, for we made it.’ Even then, it would appear that senior judges were regularly summoned to Parliament: indeed, one of the prime functions of Parliament was to serve, in effect, as a final court of appeal – the Law Lords have a very long pedigree.

Andy King
Durham University

Ten Seconds to Inject

Mark Greenberg was right to correct my reasoning (Letters, 19 August). Nonetheless, he is misleading, for he pays too little attention to Paul Taylor's point about correct populations. Greenberg's high-quality test – 1 per cent false positives, no false negatives – will begin to be more than 50 per cent accurate only as the incidence of the disease in the population currently being tested begins to exceed 1 in a 100. Thus no sensible practitioners would use the test where the incidence in their patient populations remained the same as that in Greenberg's general population, 1 in 10,000.

Macneil of Barra

B-Movie Assertion

In his review of Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear (LRB, 19 August), Michael Rogin seems to commend the author for honouring the great goat-sucking vampire rumoured to be on the prowl in the San Fernando Valley, in Davis’s own words, as ‘simultaneously an avatar of poor people’s deepest fears and an exuberant tongue-in-cheek emblem of Latino cultural populism’. As a Latino of five decades’ standing, I would like to know what cultural populism is. Also, how and why the famed chupacabras became an emblem of it, and an exuberant one to boot. I ask this, I allow, with my tongue in one of my cheeks. Further along, Rogin writes: ‘Los Angeles will not be the first city in the Northern Hemisphere infested with African killer bees (that honour has already fallen to Mexico City).’ I suspect that to make such a B-movie assertion Mr Rogin has himself become infested with the imagination of disaster he so decries.

By the way, were those bees on the cover of the same issue Mexican-African?

Héctor Manjarrez
Mexico City

Holloway’s Sanatorium

John Welch (LRB, 2 September) was clearly a patient in Thomas Holloway's sanatorium at Virginia Water (closed in 1981, and now an expensive housing complex). Holloway, a self-made millionaire whose father had been an innkeeper, did not found it, as Welch supposes, for the well-off. Inspired by Lord Shaftesbury, he designed its eclectic Gothic splendours for the struggling middle classes: tradesmen, small professional people, and even students who had crammed themselves into nervous breakdowns – all those who could not enter the pauper asylums, but would have found the asylums of the wealthy ruinously expensive. So, too, when founding his equally magnificent college for women nearby, he planned for those excluded by the institutions of the day.

Samuel Barnish
Royal Holloway, University of London


Arguably the best known Belgian author over the last few decades has been Hugo Claus. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize (whether deservedly so is a different matter) and is the author of a book called The Sorrow of Belgium. The title belies Mary-Kay Wilmers's statement that Belgian authors are not interested in their country (LRB, 29 July). I wouldn't read it as an endorsement of Wilmers's feelings about Brussels, but rather as an indication that Belgian authors dabble in questions of cultural identity quite a bit.

Hilde De Weerdt
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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