Vol. 29 No. 17 · 6 September 2007

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Decolonisation Disasters

It is a pity that Bernard Porter helps perpetuate the myth that the 1948 killings of Malayan Chinese rubber tappers by British soldiers were covered up, and that the affair can be compared to My Lai (LRB, 2 August). As the Reuters correspondent in Kuala Lumpur in the 1960s I was delegated to do the on-the-spot research for an Observer story about what happened at Batang Kali. I discovered there had been no deliberate cover-up, although the British media had overlooked the story, probably because they were more concerned about the ‘Communist threat’.

The killings were reported at the time, although only briefly, and as far as I could find, only in a local Chinese-language newspaper. However, that report provided me with the information I needed twenty years later to find survivors and eyewitnesses. They told me that a British patrol, of Scots Greys I believe, looking for Communist ‘bandits’ had rounded up a group of Chinese rubber tappers. Some of them – scared or guilty, we’ll never know – panicked and ran. The soldiers shot and killed or wounded several. Afterwards, several soldiers were court-martialled and disciplined.

The Communist guerrillas the soldiers were chasing were led by Chin Peng, whom Porter mentions in passing. During the war, Chin Peng had fought the Japanese alongside British special forces smuggled into Malaya, and because of this was taken to London to march in the Victory Parade and given the OBE. A couple of years later the award was taken away when, as secretary-general of the banned Malayan Communist Party, he started an insurrection that was to last fifteen years. For a long time after that, Chin Peng, whose real name was Ong Boon Hua, hid out in southern Thailand. In July, now in his eighties, he petitioned a Malaysian court, claiming his right to citizenship.

Colin Bickler
City University, London EC1

Bernard Porter corrects the familiar story that the guns in Singapore could only point out to sea, and couldn’t be turned round to face the Japanese land invasion. My father was responsible for the installation of the shore batteries, which he handed over to the navy before returning to Vickers Armstrong in Barrow-in-Furness. He told me that when he arrived back in Barrow telegrams awaited him asking how the mountings could be modified so that the guns could be trained inland. These cables were soon followed by others, asking how the guns could be most quickly and permanently disabled. My father’s photographs of the installations are on permanent loan to the Liddle Collection of the Brotherton Library in the University of Leeds.

Jerome Satterthwaite
Millbrook, Cornwall

Shadowy Practice

John Foot’s account of the rendition of Abu Omar from Italy to Egypt appeared just as the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee reported back to the prime minister on Britain’s involvement in this shadowy practice (LRB, 2 August). Despite evidence that British officials were behind the rendition to Guantánamo Bay of two UK residents, Jamil al-Banna and Bisher al-Rawi, the ISC was content that the intelligence agencies ‘could not have foreseen’ that ‘despite the Security Service prohibiting any action being taken as a result of its intelligence’ the US would send the men to Guantánamo Bay, where al-Banna still awaits release. Planes known to have been used by the CIA for renditions have on numerous occasions refuelled at UK airports, including Prestwick, and the Council of Europe’s investigation into rendition has revealed that there was a Nato-wide ‘no questions’ policy about the US use of European airspace for kidnap operations. Britain should hold an independent inquiry – the ISC reports to the prime minister, who also appoints its members, and so cannot be regarded as independent – with the aim of finding out how far Britain has been sucked into collaborating with these gross human rights abuses.

Kate Allen
Amnesty International UK, London EC2


Having started out a few months ago, at a moment when the balance of my mind must have been disturbed, to read the taped political memoirs of the seldom likeable David Blunkett, I hasten now to pass on my thanks to John Lanchester for having laid to rest in me any temptation I might otherwise have felt to buy a copy of the Diaries of the never at any time likeable Alastair Campbell (LRB, 16 August). It’s clear from what Lanchester reports that Campbell is a good deal more entertaining than Blunkett, whose gift for anecdote, if he has one, was kept well out of sight in the parts of his book I managed to get through. But, old-fashioned as I am, I’m bound to ask myself whether I would be ready to let Campbell off the hook on which he should quite certainly be impaled simply because he’s capable of coming up with more or less funny stories like the one Lanchester quotes about the England-Germany football match in 1996. Actually, I find the cynical single-mindedness on display there, with Campbell feeling able to support Germany on the grounds that if England won the game, the sitting Major government would reap some eventual electoral benefit, decidedly ugly, presupposing as it does that the electorate is sufficiently addled in its wits to confuse the fortunes of the national football team with the competence of a government. The episode bears out all too well just how structurally flawed our democracy now is, as Lanchester describes with gruesome accuracy at the start of his review. The flip and self-serving mindset that can envisage voting intentions as deriving from football scores is a tabloid one, bred in the likes of Campbell during their time as red-top journalists, and the decision of a Labour prime minister to go along with it so enthusiastically, as Blair did, displays as corrupting a political attitude as I can imagine any political leader being guilty of.

Richard Jones

Tut, tut

Gabriel Egan, writing about the new RSC Shakespeare, refers to ‘the quarto’s chiasmic “Tut, tut, grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle"’ (Letters, 16 August). This is incorrect on two counts. ‘Chiasmic’ is the adjective from ‘chiasma’, a term used in cytology and anatomy. Egan means ‘chiastic’, the adjective from the rhetorical term ‘chiasmus’. But this is not an example of chiasmus, which requires the second of two parallel phrases to be in the reverse order, as in ‘he came in triumph and in defeat departs’. To be chiastic the quotation he gives would need to be ‘grace me no grace, nor no uncle uncle me.’

Stephen Edgar

Before Hillary

Linda Colley writes that ‘it was only in 1978 … that the first female senator was elected rather than appointed’ (LRB, 16 August). She is in error. The first elected woman senator was Hattie Wyatt Caraway, elected in 1932 after being appointed to the Senate. She was re-elected in 1932 and 1938. There have been others, too, including Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith, elected to the Senate in 1948.

Seth Wigderson
Brunswick, Maine

Linda Colley writes that, in their biography of Hillary Clinton, Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta accurately describe Clinton’s first book, It Takes a Village, as ‘designed to be hypoallergenic in every way’. The book is certainly earnest and pandering, but its insistence that government has a role in the raising of American children – and that US tax-payers should support the kind of child-development programmes that Europeans take for granted – was not uncontroversial. During his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 1996, Bob Dole declared: ‘I am here to tell you, it does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family to raise a child.’

Jessica Han
Bethesda, Maryland

Our Man

Shashi Tharoor protests too much (Letters, 16 August). My recollection of our conversation is unchanged, perhaps because I have no desire to become the secretary-general of the UN.

Tariq Ali

First Word

In his review of the movie version of The Simpsons, Michael Wood says that at the end of the credits Maggie pops up to say her first ever word: ‘sequel’ (LRB, 16 August). In fact, Maggie has talked before, speaking the line, ‘This is indeed a disturbing universe,’ in a sonorous baritone in ‘Treehouse of Horror V’. In ‘Treehouse of Horror IX’, she says: ‘Very well, I’ll drive! Ha ha ha! I need blood!’ Both these episodes – Halloween specials – are predated by ‘Lisa’s First Word’ (1992), in which Maggie says ‘Daddy’ at the end of the show. Nobody is around to hear.

Tim Johnson
London W12

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