Vol. 45 No. 18 · 21 September 2023

Search by issue:

To Turn One’s Plate

Tom Stevenson’s survey of diplomacy’s ‘smell of flintlock … and a certain glamour’ called to mind my stint at the end of the 1980s as English editor and language dogsbody at a Japanese embassy to a kingdom I shall leave nameless (LRB, 10 August). My editorial high point was to give the nod, on the death of Emperor Hirohito, to a notice for release to the newspapers, carefully worded by my counterpart at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, avoiding any mention of the cancer that killed Hirohito and with scant mention of the Second World War. I let it pass without correction. On other occasions there was business to do with seating arrangements, clowns for the royal children and a fracas about a driver taking a leak at the side of the road.

I was hauled up only once by the first secretary, over my letter-writing protocol. I had referred to both His Majesty and His Imperial Majesty in the opening sentence of a missive. A diplomatic faux pas: it might seem one-upmanship. ‘And besides,’ the first secretary admitted po-faced, ‘we don’t have an empire [slight pause] any more.’ I looked at the model of a Japanese fighter plane swinging from a mobile above his desk, stayed mum and juggled the words a bit. Both emperor and king are dead. Long live diplomacy.

Padraig Rooney
Cerbère, France

Certain Women

It is certainly the case, as Colin Kidd suggests in his piece about Catharine Macaulay, that the Cambridge School approach to the history of political thought has led to a more general openness to non-canonical figures, including certain women, among scholars in that subdiscipline (LRB, 7 September). (Kidd doesn’t mention that Macaulay is only the fifth woman among the more than 120 authors in the Cambridge Texts series, or that another 18th-century British historian, Adam Ferguson, got his volume in 1996.) But it’s worth noting that many women historians didn’t need the Cambridge School to tell them that figures like Macaulay deserved to be taken seriously in the history of political thought.

Kidd himself mentions that it was Bridget Hill’s biography from 1992 which brought Macaulay ‘back into focus’. Hill, like several other 20th-century women scholars who historicised women’s ideas, was a feminist and (until 1957) a communist. She published (with her husband, Christopher) her first essay on Macaulay in 1966, the same year Quentin Skinner’s first methodological article appeared. The essay made clear that Macaulay’s historical writings should be read as a political intervention. In the 1980s, before the Cambridge Texts series existed, Hill produced an edition of Mary Astell’s writing and an anthology of writing by and about 18th-century women. The final chapter was devoted to ‘protest’.

Sophie Smith

Woke Capital

Laleh Khalili gives a misleading characterisation of our book The Key Man (LRB, 7 September). We have no issue with Arif Naqvi’s stated ambition to help end poverty. The problem, which we set out in painstaking detail, is that what Naqvi actually did was very different from what he said he was doing. We do not believe, as Khalili says we do, that Abraaj’s takeover of Karachi Electric is ‘evidence of efficient management’. We reveal that Abraaj’s planned sale of Karachi Electric involved attempted bribery. We report the lengths to which Irfan Ali, a determined Pakistani civil servant, went to ensure that the terms of the proposed sale of the company were properly disclosed to the government, to protect the public interest. We strongly disagree with Khalili’s assertion that ‘Naqvi’s only real crime, as Clark and Louch see it, is that he hoodwinked honest investors.’ We report the criminal charges made against Naqvi.

We do not ‘praise Naqvi’s investment in health infrastructure in Africa’. On the contrary, one of the main themes of The Key Man is the way this investment went so badly wrong for patients in Africa and Asia, and for investors in the fund. One of us submitted a paper about Abraaj to a parliamentary inquiry into the effectiveness of UK aid in combating extreme poverty and recently spoke on an Oxfam podcast about the ways in which private healthcare investments in Africa and Asia hurt the poor. We wrote in The Key Man that it would have been better if Naqvi had ‘never mentioned the plight of the poor, because the loss of trust and sense of betrayal he left as his legacy have damaged the cause he championed.’ For the avoidance of doubt, we believe that access to healthcare is a universal human right. We do not, as Khalili asserts, see healthcare as a ‘profit-making commodity’.

A substantial part of Khalili’s article repeats factual information which we worked hard to gather for The Key Man. We are glad that our efforts to provide accurate, well-sourced information about Abraaj have been helpful to readers, including Khalili.

Simon Clark & Will Louch
Lewes, East Sussex & Nayland Suffolk

Not Fair

In proposing random selection to solve the problem of entrance to elite institutions, Donald Gillies has company across the globe (Letters, 7 September). The policy was twice adopted by Japan’s Ministry of Education in the 1920s and 1930s in an attempt to tackle the problem of ‘exam hell’ among aspiring secondary school entrants. Advocates argued that after admitting the best and failing the worst applicants, random selection was the fairest and most efficient way to select among the mass of middling candidates. In his recent book The Tyranny of Merit, Michael Sandel makes much the same argument in seeking a cure for the ills caused by contemporary educational competition.

Peter Cave
University of Manchester

Conventional Language

Tom Hickman says that the objection to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) isn’t to its text, but to the way it has been interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights (LRB, 7 September). But there are problems with the text too. I have worked both inside and outside the UK government helping to draft, implement and research legislation that is compliant with the ECHR. Article 5 of the convention, the right to liberty and security, allows for people to be deprived of their liberty on a number of grounds, including being ‘of unsound mind, alcoholics, or drug addicts, or vagrants’. Not only are these terms old-fashioned (the ECHR was drafted in 1950), the concept of an ‘unsound mind’ doesn’t map easily onto modern psychiatric diagnoses.

The convention has also caused complexities in the law, especially in England and Wales, where both the Mental Health Act 1983 and the Mental Capacity Act 2005 can be used to deprive a person of ‘unsound mind’ of their liberty. The Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (part of the MCA) are widely considered cumbersome and overly bureaucratic, but the government recently decided to postpone indefinitely implementing changes to them.

What’s more, the term ‘unsound mind’ is not consistent with the language used in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the UK signed in 2007. The values of the UNCRPD are rooted in a social model of disability. It avoids medical diagnoses or labels because these can be discriminatory, and Article 12 asserts equal recognition in law for persons with disabilities. As well as containing protective and prohibitive rights (virtually the sole focus of the ECHR), the UNCRPD also contains positive rights to services and support to participate in society.

Toby Williamson
London SE19

Preaching to the Animals

Mary Wellesley mentions Stanley Spencer’s painting St Francis and the Birds (LRB, 27 July). Maurice Collis, in his 1962 biography of Spencer, notes that the painting was inspired by the artist’s memory of his father going to the open-air larder at the side of their home in Cookham to fetch food for the ducks and hens. His father’s trousers had been stolen and for a while he wandered about the village in his dressing gown.

Roger Morsley-Smith
London W4

Kropotkin’s Last Years

Greg Afinogenov tells a fanciful tale concerning Lenin’s treatment of Kropotkin between 1918 and 1921 (LRB, 4 May). Lenin, he writes, ‘admired Kropotkin’ and ensured that he ‘could live out his declining years in comfort in his dacha outside Moscow. When Kropotkin died in February 1921, dozens of anarchists were released from Moscow’s prisons to attend the lavish funeral.’ Kropotkin’s daughter, Alexandra, painted a different picture in a talk – of which there is a summation – she gave on 9 May 1961 at a memorial marking the fortieth anniversary of her father’s death:

The Bolsheviks wanted to make political capital out of Kropotkin’s popularity. In public they seemed to do everything possible to make him comfortable. Behind this hypocritical façade they filled his last days with harassments and bitterness. They held back the foreign papers that were sent to him and censored his mail. To obtain the slightest thing, Alexandra had to wade through miles of red tape and fill out reams of forms and questionnaires.

Alexandra and her mother did not want a government funeral and insisted Kropotkin be buried in the family plot. The Bolsheviks wanted to inter the body under the Kremlin wall, but Alexandra told them her father’s bones would never be mixed with the remains of scoundrels who were drowning the revolution in the blood of the Russian people.

Alexandra promised her dying father that she would try to free the imprisoned anarchists and other revolutionaries. She threatened to expose the phonies [Bolsheviks] to the delegation of foreign newsmen who attended the funeral. She told the leaders of the Bolsheviks that if they tried to monopolise the funeral, she would throw all the government wreaths into the mud. Her efforts, along with those of many others, forced the commissars to relent. They released a few anarchists, who attended the funeral and who were later put back in prison.

Thousands of people marched in the funeral procession. As the cortège passed the Butyrskaya prison, the prisoners waved [the prison cells had barred windows facing the streets] while singing the Anarchist Funeral March.

Kropotkin died in a small village called Dmitrov, where his family was driven after their apartments in Moscow were ‘requisitioned’. In March 1920, when Emma Goldman visited, she found the 77-year-old living in one barely heated room with his entire family. Provisions depended on what they could grow in their garden (a cow provided milk), plus donations sent by anarchist comrades.

As for the ‘lavish funeral’, which Afinogenov implies was Lenin’s doing, it was organised by a committee of anarchist-syndicalists and anarchist-communists, who arranged for Kropotkin’s body to lie in state for public viewing in the Hall of Columns of the House of Unions in Moscow. Their only request to the government was that all anarchists held in prison be freed to attend the funeral. This was met with evasion right up to the last moment, when the Cheka brought a few dozen prisoners to the Hall of Columns and selected seven for release (only after a group of students volunteered to take their place should the prisoners fail to return). Tens of thousands of mourners accompanied Kropotkin to his final resting place, and the coffin was carried part of the way by the emaciated anarchists ‘on leave’.

Allan Antliff
Victoria, British Columbia

In Need of a Rule

David Morgan, writing from Salisbury, worries about the formation of adjectives from the names of people and places (Letters, 7 September). As a Sarumian, he should appreciate that there are no rules.

Jon Prawer
London SW4

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences