Stalinist justice

The Guardian recently carried a brief obituary of Marian Fagan, widow of Otto Sling (1912-1952), one of the accused in the show trials that took place in the CzechoSlovak Republic (CSR) in 1950-1952 while under Communist rule.    The obituary is written by their son, Karel Schling.   Sling had been a communist party official, and was one of the 11 (of the 14) defendants executed.  Fagan and her sons also spent time in prison as part of the investigations.  The show trials were arranged at Stalin’s behest and took place throughout Eastern Europe, with the partial exception of Poland.    The lead defendant in the Czech trials was Rudolf Slánsky, a Deputy Prime Minister who until shortly before his arrest had been Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC).

Apparently, the CSR President Clement Gottwald had initially resisted Soviet pressure to arrest Slánsky, especially because the two men were personally very close from their time in exile in Moscow.   Only when threatened with arrest and deposition himself did Gottwald agree to order Slánsky’s arrest, while still delaying the execution of the arrest warrent.    Sadly, an attempt by Czech emigre anti-communist intelligence organization Okapi to smear leading communist party officials by falsely associating them with western intelligence agencies resulted in an unsolicited letter being sent to Slánsky offering to help him to flee westwards (Lukes 1999), and this letter was then used as evidence for the Soviet allegations of treason against Slansky, forcing Gottwald’s hand.  This false letter appears to have been sent without prior knowledge or consent of western intelligence agencies.

The dialogue of the show trial was scripted beforehand by Soviet advisors to the Czech intelligence agency, the StB.  At least some of the accused had been promised lenient sentences if they followed the scripts provided to them, but these promises were broken.    To ensure that none of the accused spoke off-script (as had happened, for instance, in similar trials in Hungary), the trials were even rehearsed.   However, due either to independence of spirit or to memory lapses (the accused had been held in solitary confinement and tortured in other ways), not all the accused always followed their scripts: at times, defendants answered questions that had yet to be asked, for example. Because the trials were being broadcast live to the nation, the judges of the court – unable or unwilling to improvise responses – adjourned the trial proceedings immediately these off-script statements occurred.

Among those falsely arrested and convicted were some who were not even communists or ones not of long standing, including the economist Rudolf Margolius, Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade at the time of his arrest.  Margolius only met his alleged fellow-conspirator, Rudolf Slánsky, at the trial itself.    Despite a promise of a lenient sentence in exchange for following the trial script, Margolius was executed, along with 10 of his 13 co-accused.  Three were sentenced to life imprisonment.

The injustice of this trial and the sentences imposed are not lessened by the observation that Rudolf Slánsky may also have ordered the trial if his and Gottwald’s positions had been reversed, or that others, such as Sling, had been brutal Stalinists when in power themselves.   An innocent victim is still innocent even if he may, in some alternative universe, not be a victim.    According to Lukes (1999), Czech StB agents were appalled by the torture used by their counterparts in Hungary and Poland.   However, what strikes me as very interesting is that the Polish communist party leadership managed to mostly resist Stalin’s pressure to hold show trials and executions in this period, a subject deserving of another post.

Last month also saw the death of Sir Charles Mackerras, US-born, Australian-educated, British conductor and leading champion of Czech music.

UPDATE (2011-09-11):  An explanation for Polish recalcitrance is provided by Stewart Steven, who argued that the post-war Eastern European show trials were the result of a sophisticated and cunning US intelligence operation, called Splinter Factor and using a Polish double-agent, to create suspicions between pro-Moscow and nationalist communists across the region. As with any writings on intelligence, the truth is hard to determine:  there may or may not have been such a US intelligence operation with this goal prior to the trials; if it had existed, it may or may not have been important or catalytic in the creation of the trials; indeed, the publication of a claim of the existence of such an operation 20 years after the trials themselves may itself have been part of some later intelligence operation, and unconnected with the earlier events.


An interesting obituary of Marian Sling in The Independent is here.  If nothing else, it shows that the petty vindictiveness of the stalinists who ran the CSR in the 1950s was not shared by ordinary citizens.

My prior salute to Czech reform communist Zdenek Mlynar is here.  Other posts in this series of heroes are here.


Igor Lukes [1999]:  The Rudolf Slánsky affair:  new evidence. Slavic Review, 58 (1): 160-187.

Heda Margolius Kovaly [1997]: Under a Cruel Star:  A Life in Prague 1941-1968.   New York, USA:  Holmes and Meier.

Ivan Margolius [2006]:  Reflections of Prague:  Journeys Through the 20th Century. Chichester, England:  Wiley.  The Margolius family website is here.

Stewart Steven [1974]:  Operation Splinter Factor.  Panther (Granada, edition published 1976).

Five minutes of freedom

Jane Gregory, speaking in 2004, on the necessary conditions for a public sphere:

To qualify as a public, a group of people needs four characteristics. First, it should be open to all and any: there are no entry qualifications. Secondly, the people must come together freely. But it is not enough to simply hang out – sheep do that. The third characteristic is common action. Sheep sometimes all point in the same direction and eat grass, but they still do not qualify as a public, because they lack the fourth characteristic, which is speech. To qualify as a public, a group must be made up of people who have come together freely, and their common action is determined through speech: that is, through discussion, the group determines a course of action which it then follows. When this happens, it creates a public sphere.

There is no public sphere in a totalitarian regime – for there, there is insufficient freedom of action; and difference is not tolerated. So there are strong links between the idea of a public sphere and democracy.”

I would add that most totalitarian states often force their citizens to participate in public events, thus violating two basic human rights:  the right not to associate and the right not to listen.

I am reminded of a moment of courage on 25 August 1968, when seven Soviet citizens, shestidesiatniki (people of the 60s), staged a brave public protest at Lobnoye Mesto in Red Square, Moscow, at the military invasion of Czechoslovakia by forces of the Warsaw Pact.   The seven (and one baby) were:  Konstantin Babitsky (mathematician and linguist), Larisa Bogoraz (linguist, then married to Yuli Daniel), Vadim Delone (also written “Delaunay”, language student and poet), Vladimir Dremlyuga (construction worker), Victor Fainberg (mathematician), Natalia Gorbanevskaya (poet, with baby), and Pavel Litvinov (mathematics teacher, and grandson of Stalin’s foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov).  The protest lasted only long enough for the 7 adults to unwrap banners and to surprise onlookers.  The protesters were soon set-upon and beaten by “bystanders” – plain clothes police, male and female – who  then bundled them into vehicles of the state security organs.  Ms Gorbanevskaya and baby were later released, and Fainberg declared insane and sent to an asylum.

The other five faced trial later in 1968, and were each found guilty.   They were sent either to internal exile or to prison (Delone and Dremlyuga) for 1-3 years; Dremlyuga was given additional time while in prison, and ended up serving 6 years.  At his trial, Delone said that the prison sentence of almost three years was worth the “five minutes of freedom” he had experienced during the protest.

Delone (born 1947) was a member of a prominent intellectual family, great-great-great-grandson of a French doctor, Pierre Delaunay, who had resettled in Russia after Napoleon’s defeat.   Delone was the great-grandson of a professor of physics, Nikolai Borisovich Delone (grandson of Pierre Delaunay), and grandson of a more prominent mathematician, Boris Nikolaevich Delaunay (1890-1980), and son of physicist Nikolai Delone (1926-2008).  In 1907, at the age of 17, Boris N. Delaunay organized the first gliding circle in Kiev, with his friend Igor Sikorski, who was later famous for his helicopters.   B. N. Delaunay was also a composer and artist as a young man, of sufficient talent that he could easily have pursued these careers.   In addition, he was one of the outstanding mountaineers of the USSR, and a mountain and other features near Mount Belukha in the Altai range are named for him.

Boris N. Delaunay was primarily a geometer – although he also contributed to number theory and to algebra – and invented Delaunay triangulation.  He was a co-organizer of the first Soviet Mathematics Olympiad, a mathematics competition for high-school students, in 1934.   One of his students was Aleksandr D. Alexandrov (1912-1999), founder of the Leningrad School of Geometry (which studies the differential geometry of curvature in manifolds, and the geometry of space-time).   Vadim Delone also showed mathematical promise and was selected to attend Moskovskaya Srednyaya Fiz Mat Shkola #2, Moscow Central Special High School No. 2 for Physics and Mathematics (now the Lyceum “Second School”). This school, established in 1958 for mathematically-gifted teenagers, was famously liberal and tolerant of dissent. (Indeed, so much so that in 1971-72, well after Delone had left, the school was purged by the CPSU.  See Hedrick Smith’s 1975 account here.  Other special schools in Moscow focused on mathematics are #57 and #179. In London, in 2014, King’s College London established a free school, King’s Maths School, modelled on FizMatShkola #2.)  Vadim Delone lived with Alexandrov when, serving out a one-year suspended sentence which required him to leave Moscow, he studied at university in Novosibirsk, Siberia.   At some risk to his own academic career, Alexandrov twice bravely visited Vadim Delone while he was in prison.

Delone’s wife, Irina Belgorodkaya, was also active in dissident circles, being arrested both in 1969 and again in 1973, and was sentenced to prison terms each time.  She was the daughter of a senior KGB official.  After his release in 1971 and hers in 1975, Delone and his wife emigrated to France in 1975, and he continued to write poetry.   In 1983, at the age of just 35, he died of cardiac arrest.   Given his youth, and the long lives of his father and grandfather, one has to wonder if this event was the dark work of an organ of Soviet state security.  According to then-KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov’s report to the Central Committee of the CPSU on the Moscow Seven’s protest in September 1968, Delone was the key link between the community of dissident poets and writers on the one hand, and that of mathematicians and physicists on the other.    Andropov even alleges that physicist Andrei Sakharov’s support for dissident activities was due to Delone’s personal persuasion, and that Delone lived from a so-called private fund, money from voluntary tithes paid by writers and scientists to support dissidents.   (Sharing of incomes in this way sounds suspiciously like socialism, which the state in the USSR always determined to maintain a monopoly of.)  That Andropov reported on this protest to the Central Committee, and less than a month after the event, indicates the seriousness with which this particular group of dissidents was viewed by the authorities.  That the childen of the nomenklatura, the intelligentsia, and even the KGB should be involved in these activities no doubt added to the concern.  If the KGB actually believed the statements Andropov made about Delone to the Central Committee, they would certainly have strong motivation to arrange his early death.

Several of the Moscow Seven were honoured in August 2008 by the Government of the Czech Republic, but as far as I am aware, no honour or recognition has yet been given them by the Soviet or Russian Governments.   Although my gesture will likely have little impact on the world, I salute their courage here.

I have translated a poem of Delone’s here.   An index to posts on The Matherati is here.


M. V. Ammosov [2009]:  Nikolai Borisovich Delone in my Life.  Laser Physics, 19 (8): 1488-1490.

Yuri Andropov [1968]: The Demonstration in Red Square Against the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia. Report to the Central Committee of the CPSU, 1968-09-20. See below.

N. P. Dolbilin [2011]: Boris Nikolaevich Delone (Delaunay): Life and Work. Proceedings of the Steklov Institute of Mathematics, 275: 1-14.  Published in Russian in Trudy Matematicheskogo Instituta imeni V. A. Steklov, 2011, 275:  7-21.  Pre-print here.

Jane Gregory [2004]:  Subtle signs that divide the public from the privateThe Independent, 2004-05-20.
Hedrick Smith [1975]:  The Russians.  Crown.  pp. 211-213.


Andropov Reoport to the Central Committee of the CPSU on the protests in Red Square. (20 September 1968)
In characterizing the political views of the participants of the group, in particular DELONE, our source notes that the latter, “calling himself a bitter opponent of Soviet authority, fiercely detests communists, the communist ideology, and is entirely in agreement with the views of Djilas. In analyzing the activities . . . of the group, he (DELONE) explained that they do not have a definite program or charter, as in a formally organized political opposition, but they are all of the common opinion that our society is not developing normally, that it lacks freedom of speech and press, that a harsh censorship is operating, that it is impossible to express one’s opinions and thoughts, that democratic liberties are repressed. The activity of this group and its propaganda have developed mainly within a circle of writers, poets, but it is also enveloping a broad circle of people working in the sphere of mathematics and physics. They have conducted agitation among many scholars with the objective of inducing them to sign letters, protests, and declarations that have been compiled by the more active participants in this kind of activity, Petr IAKIR and Pavel LITVINOV. These people are the core around which the above group has been formed . . .. IAKIR and LITVINOV were the most active agents in the so-called “samizdat.”
This same source, in noting the condition of the arrested DELONE in this group, declared: “DELONE . . . has access to a circle of prominent scientists, academicians, who regarded him as one of their own, and in that way he served . . . to link the group with the scientific community, having influence on the latter and conducting active propaganda among them. Among his acquaintances he named academician Sakharov, who was initially cautious and distrustful of the activities of IAKIR, LITVINOV, and their group; he wavered in his position and judgments, but gradually, under the influence of DELONE’s explanations, he began to sign various documents of the group. . . ; [he also named] LEONTOVICH, whose views coincide with those of the group. In DELONE’s words, many of the educated community share their views, but are cautious, fearful of losing their jobs and being expelled from the party.” . . . [more details on DELONE]

Agents’ reports indicate that the participants of the group, LITVINOV, DREMLIUGA, AND DELONE, have not been engaged in useful labor for an extended period, and have used the means of the so-called “private fund,” which their group created from the contributions of individual representatives in the creative intelligentsia and scientists.
The prisoner DELONE told our source: “We are assisted by monetary funds from the intelligentsia, highly paid academicians, writers, who share the views of the Iakir-Litvinov group . . . [Sic] We have the right to demand money, [because] we are the functionaries, while they share our views, [but] fear for their skins, so let them support us with money.”

Vale: Don Day

This post is to mark the passing on of Don Day (1924-2010), former member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly (the so-called “Bearpit”, roughest of Australia’s 15 parliamentary assemblies) and former NSW Labor Minister.   I knew Don when he was my local MLA in the 1970s and 1980s, when he won a seat in what was normally ultra-safe Country Party (now National Party) country – first, the electorate of Casino, and then, Clarence.  Indeed, he was for a time the only Labor MLA in the 450 miles of the state north of Newcastle.  His win was repeated several times, and his seat was crucial to Neville Wran’s surprise 1-seat majority in May 1976, returning Labor to power in NSW after 11 years in opposition, and after a searing loss in the Federal elections of December 1975.

In his role as Minister for Primary Industries and Decentralisation, Don was instrumental in saving rural industries throughout NSW.   Far North Coast dairy farmers were finally allowed to sell milk to Sydney households, for example, breaking the quota system, a protectionist economic racket which favoured only a minority of dairy farmers and which was typical of the crony-capitalist policies of the Country Party.  Similarly, his actions saved the NSW sugar industry from closure.   NSW Labor’s rural policies were (and still are) better for the majority of people in the bush than those of the bush’s self-proclaimed champions.

Like many Labor representatives of his generation, Don Day had fought during WW II, serving in the RAAF.  After the war, he established a small business in Maclean.   He was one of the most effective meeting chairmen I have encountered:  He would listen carefully and politely to what people were saying, summarize their concerns fairly and dispassionately (even when he was passionate himself on the issues being discussed), and was able to identify quickly the nub of an issue or a way forward in a complex situation.  He could usually separate his assessment of an argument from his assessment of the person making it, which helped him be dispassionate.  Although The Grafton Daily Examiner has an obit here, I doubt he will be remembered much elsewhere on the web, hence this post.

Update (2010-06-12): SMH obit is here.

Film: The New World

I am a great fan of the films of Terence Malick, and so I was delighted to read John Patterson’s recent article proclaiming Malick’s The New World as the single film masterpiece of the decade just ending.

It may seem like an exaggeration, but with The New World cinema has reached its culmination, its apotheosis. It is both ancient and modern, cinema at its purest and most organic, its simplest and most refined, made with much the same tools as were available in the infancy of the form a century ago to the Lumières, to Griffith and Murnau. Barring a few adjustments for modernity – colour, sound, developments in editing, a hyper-cine-literate audience – it could conceivably have been made 80 years ago (like Murnau and Flaherty’s Tabu). This is why, I believe, when all the middlebrow Oscar-dross of our time has eroded away to its constituent molecules of celluloid, The New World will stand tall, isolated and magnificent, like Kubrick’s black monolith. Anything else that survives from now till then will by comparison probably resemble 2001’s grunting apes. To quote, simultaneously, Godard’s Pierrot le Fou and primitivist auteur Sam Fuller – whose 1957 western Run of the Arrow is a sort of thematic inbred bastard cousin of The New World – Malick is seeking “in a word: emotion!”
Continue reading ‘Film: The New World’

Political activists of renown

Recently, I have listed the teachers and writers who have influenced me, along with the managers whom I admire.  I now list the politicians and political activists whom I admire.  Some of these led conventional political careers, others were community organizers or single-issue advocates, and yet others were spies, or were accused of being such.

Edmund Campion, Robert Persons, Robert Southwell, Thomas Aikenhead, Tom Paine, Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Solomon Plaatje, Franklin Roosevelt, Ted Theodore, John Curtin, Doc Evatt, Richard Sorge, Imre Nagy, Zhou Enlai, Milada Horakova, Bram Fischer, Salvador Allende Gossens, Lyndon Johnson, Donal Lamont, Rudolf Margolius, Gough Whitlam, Helen Suzman, Andrei Sakharov, Alexander Dubcek, Nelson Mandela, Zhao Ziyang, Martin Luther King Jr, Zdenek Mlynar, Mikhail Gorbachev, Vaclav Havel, Michael Schneider, Bella Subbotovskaya, Paul Keating, Vadim Delone, Jes Albert Möller, Barack Obama and Rory Stewart.

Australia (5), Czechoslovakia (5), and South Africa (5) have produced more than their per capita share of political heroes, it would seem, but the distribution no doubt reflects my reading and interests.  Of course, it hardly needs to be said that I do not necessarily agree with any or all the views these people have expressed or hold, nor necessarily support all their actions.

Heroes: the underground railroad in Rhodesia

Talking about Zimbabwean history reminded me that there are some unsung heroes of Zimbabwe’s struggle for majority rule whom I wish to salute.   These are the people who, rejecting the racist policies of the Rhodesian Front government, organized an illegal underground railroad to secretly transport black and white resisters across the border, mostly to Botswana and Zambia.   The whites transported were usually resisting military conscription to fight in a war they disagreed with, a war in support of a cause they believed immoral.  I knew a couple of these railwaymen:  AP (“Knotty”) Knottenbelt, who had been headmaster of Fletcher High School, a state boarding school for black boys, from where he resigned in 1969 rather than raise a Rhodesian flag; he is said to have tied the flag to the back of his car and driven it through the dust of the schoolyard in front of the assembled students before hoisting it; he later tutored at the University of Zimbabwe, and the Mugabe Government appointed him to the board of the Posts and Telecommunications Corporation after Independence.     Another railwayman was his bridge partner, Nick Holman (1919-2002), father of the (now former) Financial Times Africa Editor, Michael Holman.   These men and their collaborators deserve praise and admiration for their great personal courage in support of a non-racial society.

One of those transported by this railroad was the late Christopher Lewis, son, grandson, and great-grandson of Rhodes Scholars.  His father, Charles Patrick Jameson (“Pat”) Lewis (d. 1975) was a lawyer in partnership with Hardwicke Holderness MP (1915-2007), and Chairman from 1961-1969 of the Constitutional Council established under the 1961 Rhodesian constitution; Christopher Lewis’s paternal great-grandfather Vernon Lewis CMG (d. 1950), was a Rhodes Scholar later appointed in 1950 Chief Justice of Southern Rhodesia (being succeeded on his death the same year by Sir Robert Tredgold);  Vernon Lewis was married to Ethel Amy Jameson, daughter of Leander Starr Jameson (1853-1917), Prime Minister of the Cape Colony between 1904-1908, who had led a failed attack against the Transvaal in 1895-1896 (later called the Jameson Raid).  Another son of Vernon Lewis, John Vernon Radcliffe Lewis (1917-?), was also a Rhodesian and Zimbabwean judge.

Christopher Lewis’s maternal grandfather Leonard Ray Morgan (1894-1967), also a Rhodes Scholar, was a lifelong friend of Robert Graves whom he met at Oxford, and was Permanent Secretary for Education in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland; and Christopher’s uncle by marriage was the chiShona linguist, George Fortune (1915-2012).  Ian Hancock’s interesting history of liberal white opposition to the racist policies of the Rhodesia Front is dedicated to the memory of Pat Lewis. Christopher’s sister Annette was married to lawyer Anthony Eastwood (1940-2015), whose first wife Ruth Fischer (later Ruth Fischer-Rice) (b. 1939) was the daughter of Bram Fischer (1908-1975), lead defence counsel at the Rivonia Trial of Nelson Mandela and others. Bram Fischer was the son of a Judge-President of the Orange Free State and grandson of the only Prime Minister of the Orange River Colony, Abraham Fischer (Prime Minister 1907-1910); his wife Molly was a niece of Jan Smuts.

Well before the fall of communism, Anthony Eastwood once told me of visiting the USSR as an honoured guest and asking, as a lawyer, if he could meet a fellow lawyer.  The next day he was ushered into a meeting with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the USSR.

A wonderfully well-written but very sad memoir by Hayden Eastwood, son of Anthony and Annette Eastwood, of his upbringing was published in 2018.


Hayden Eastwood [2018]: Like Sodium in Water: A Memoir of Home and Heartache. Cape Town, RSA: Jonathan Ball.

Ian Hancock [1984]: White Liberals, Moderates and Radicals in Rhodesia 1953-1980. New York, USA: St Martin’s Press.

Managers of renown

Since we so rarely have the chance to thank those who have influenced us, I have previously listed teachers and non-fiction writers who have influenced me, and listed the public lectures I have attended.  I thought it appropriate also to list the people I have worked with whom I have admired and learnt from as managers, which I do here:
Victor Barendse, Andreas von Blottnitz, Will Bobb, Gene La Borne, Judy Bradford, Jan Buettner, John Cornish, Don Day, Wanchai Ekraksasilpchai, John Griffiths, Neill Haine, Tony Hawkins, Michael Heath RIP, Jin-Young Hwang, Walter Kamba RIP, Mathieu Lasalle, Marian McEwin, Michael Orr, Maureen Piche, Jerry Rossi, Leanne Thomas, Dennis Trewin, Henry Vandemark, Don Warkentin, Richard Wetenhall.

Effective leadership is context-specific:  what works in one domain on one occasion may not work elsewhere or with the same people at other times.   However, in looking across the people whose management skills I have learnt from, I realize there are some common features which most share to a greater or lesser extent.   One is a sharp intelligence, which may be manifest in many diverse ways (verbally, mathematically, organizationally, etc).  A second feature is a marked ability to read the emotions of others and to sense the social dynamics of a group or a meeting.    Good managers know their audiences well.  A third feature is an ability to read their own emotions (a skill which is surprisingly uncommon) together with an ability to control the public expression of these emotions when it so behooves them;   most of the people I have listed would make good poker players.  A fourth feature is an integrity of purpose – enthusiasm, honesty, transparency, directness, fairness, a willingness to argue for positions, and a willingness to consider evidence before reaching conclusions.  Finally, all of these people are effective at getting things done – not a skill to be sneezed at, despite the generally low status that doing things has among the chatterati.

Two kinds of people

 K. Kram in Glee and Disaffection (translated by Mark Kaplan):

When I was an adolescent it struck me, rather narcissistically, that there were two kinds of people, politically speaking. On the one hand, there were those who had realised, at first dimly and intuitively, that there was something profoundly wrong with the social and political order in which they lived. It was wasteful, unjust, amoral and much more besides. Its language seemed formulaic and false, a screen of clichés and convenient fictions. Following up these dim intuitions, turning them into genuine understanding, would be no easy task. One had been thrown into this world, grown up with its assumptions and habits of thought, and these had (to use a phrase I would learn later) deposited a kind of inventory, and this inventory had to be painstakingly scrutinised and thought through. This thinking through would involve dragging into visibility and naming the whole social order. It would be a long game. One would have to relearn how to think and speak. But only fidelity to this project was worthwhile. And this type of person pledged that they would never succumb to the easy rewards of this social order, they would do everything they could to maintain their critical distance. Otherwise, they could not live with themselves. From this social order which they had not chosen they would at least win for themselves insight into its workings, and would attempt to prepare and imagine alternatives.
And the other type? These consisted of those scandalised by the very presence of the first type. For these people, the mere fact that a form of life existed seemed to be sufficient proof that it should. And for them, the first type of person could only be motivated by resentment or fashion.”

Australian logic: a salute to Malcolm Rennie

Recently, I posted a salute to Mervyn Pragnell, a logician who was present in the early days of computer science.  I was reminded of the late Malcolm Rennie, the person who introduced me to formal logic, and whom I acknowledged here.   Rennie was the most enthusiastic and inspiring lecturer I ever had, despite using no multi-media wizardry, usually not even an overhead projector.  Indeed, he mostly just sat and spoke, moving his body as little as possible and writing only sparingly on the blackboard, because he was in constant pain from chronic arthritis.   He was responsible for part of an Introduction to Formal Logic course I took in my first year (the other part was taken by Paul Thom, for whom I wrote an essay on the notion of entailment in a system of Peter Geach).   The students in this course were a mix of first-year honours pure mathematicians and later-year philosophers (the vast majority), and most of the philosophers struggled with non-linguistic representations (ie, mathematical symbols).  Despite the diversity, Rennie managed to teach to all of us, providing challenging questions and discussions with and for both groups.   He was also a regular entrant in the competitions which used to run in the weekly Nation Review (and a fellow-admirer of the My Sunday cartoons of Victoria Roberts), and I recall one occasion when a student mentioned seeing his name as a competition winner, and the class was then diverted into an enjoyable discussion of tactics for these competitions.
Continue reading ‘Australian logic: a salute to Malcolm Rennie’

Guerrilla logic: a salute to Mervyn Pragnell

When a detailed history of computer science in Britain comes to be written, one name that should not be forgotten is Mervyn O. Pragnell.  As far as I am aware, Mervyn Pragnell never held any academic post and he published no research papers.   However, he introduced several of the key players in British computer science to one another, and as importantly, to the lambda calculus of Alonzo Church (Hodges 2001).  At a time (the 1950s and 1960s) when logic was not held in much favour in either philosophy or pure mathematics, and before it became to be regarded highly in computer science, he studied the discipline not as a salaried academic in a university, but in a private reading-circle of his own creation, almost as a guerrilla activity.

Pragnell recruited people for his logic reading-circle by haunting London bookshops, approaching people he saw buying logic texts (Bornat 2009).  Among those he recruited to the circle were later-famous computer pioneers such as Rod Burstall, Peter Landin (1930-2009) and Christopher Strachey (1916-1975).  The meetings were held after hours, usually in Birkbeck College, University of London, without the knowledge or permission of the college authorities (Burstall 2000).  Some were held or continued in the neighbouring pub, The Duke of Marlborough.  It seems that Pragnell was employed for a time in the 1960s as a private research assistant for Strachey, working from Strachey’s house (Burstall 2000).   By the 1980s, he was apparently a regular attendee at the seminars on logic programming held at the Department of Computing in Imperial College, London, then (and still) one of the great research centres for the application of formal logic in computer science.

Pragnell’s key role in early theoretical computer science is sadly under-recognized.   Donald MacKenzie’s fascinating history and sociology of automated theorem proving, for example, mentions Pragnell in the text (MacKenzie 2001, p. 273), but manages to omit his name from the index.  Other than this, the only references I can find to his contributions are in the obituaries and personal recollections of other people.  I welcome any other information anyone can provide.

UPDATE (2009-09-23): Today’s issue of The Guardian newspaper has an obituary for theoretical computer scientist Peter Landin (1930-2009), which mentions Mervyn Pragnell.

UPDATE (2012-01-30):  MOP appears also to have been part of a production of the play The Way Out at The Little Theatre, Bristol in 1945-46, according to this web-chive of theatrical info.

UPDATE (2013-02-11):  In this 2001 lecture by Peter Landin at the Science Museum, Landin mentions first meeting Mervyn Pragnell in a cafe in Sheffield, and then talks about his participation in Pragnell’s London reading group (from about minute 21:50).

UPDATE (2019-07-05): I have learnt some further information from a cousin of Mervyn Pragnell, Ms Susan Miles.  From her, I understand that MOP’s mother died in the Influenza Pandemic around 1918, when he was very young, and he was subsequently raised in Cardiff in the large family of a cousin of his mother’s, the Miles family.  MOP’s father’s family had a specialist paint manufacturing business in Bristol, Oliver Pragnell & Company Limited, which operated from 25-27 Broadmead.  This establishment suffered serious bomb damage during WW II.   MOP was married to Margaret and although they themselves had no children, they kept in close contact with their relatives.  Both are remembered fondly by their family.   (I am most grateful to Susan Miles, daughter of Mervyn Miles whose parents raised MOP, for sharing this information.)


Richard Bornat [2009]:  Peter Landin:  a computer scientist who inspired a generation, 5th June 1930 – 3rd June 2009.  Formal Aspects of Computing, 21 (5):  393-395.

Rod Burstall [2000]:  Christopher Strachey – understanding programming languages.  Higher-Order and Symbolic Computation, 13:  51-55.

Wilfrid Hodges [2001]:  A history of British logic.  Unpublished slide presentation.  Available from his website.

Peter Landin [2002]:  Rod Burstall:  a personal note. Formal Aspects of Computing, 13:  195.

Donald MacKenzie [2001]:  Mechanizing Proof:  Computing, Risk, and Trust.  Cambridge, MA, USA:  MIT Press.