Commonplace 2018


“In its capacity to exclude dissent, it is like no other formation of mass opinion in my adult life, although it recalls a few dim childhood memories of anti-communist hysteria in the early 1950s.” (Jackson Lears, in London Review of Books, January 4)

“The paranoid style in American politics embodied by the late senator [McCarthy] and his followers seems to have been ominously resurrected in 2016.” (from letter by Edward Horowitz in TLS, December 22 & 29, 2017)

“When I am in front of a picture, it speaks better than I do.” (Jules Renard, quoted by Julian Barnes in London Review of Books, January 4)

“Stefan Zweig likes to tell a tale about a memory, in spring some years back, of meeting the beautiful wife of a publisher: ‘How well this beautiful May morning suits Frau Kiepenheuer’ was his charming salute. To which Roth added, ‘You haven’t yet seen her on a September evening.’ To which Zweig, outdone, says: ‘Now we know what a great writer you are.’” (from Volker Weidermann’s Ostend, p 111)

“The very fact that I’m inclined a la longue to pessimism gives me a certain heightened capacity for enjoyment; we should take every good thing with us, for as long as we can enjoy it.” (Stefan Zweig in letter to Annette Kolb, from Volker Weidermann’s Ostend, p 135)

“Implicitly she recognizes that she finds being seduced more interesting (more engaging more thrilling, more erotic, more seductive in prospect) than giving herself in a direct, unambiguous way; that the prelude to the sexual act can be more desirable, more erotically fulfilling, than the act itself. Seduction, the thought of seduction, the approach of seduction, the imagined experience of seduction, turns out to be profoundly seductive, even irresistible.” (J. M. Coetzee, on Defoe’s Roxana, from Late Essays 2006-2017, quoted by Benjamin Ogden in NYT review, January 14)

“What is wrong with systems, to Herbert, is that they are systems. What is wrong with laws is that they are laws. Beware of angels and other executives of perfection.” (J. M. Coetzee, on Zbigniew Herbert, from Late Essays 2006-2017, quoted by Benjamin Ogden in NYT review, January 14)

“Someone once said that a woman is either happily married or an Interior Decorator.” (Adrian Tinniswood, in The Long Weekend, Chapter 9)

“Margot Asquith, exasperated at her [Sybil Colefax’s] determination to know everyone, said one couldn’t talk about the birth of Christ without Sybil saying she was there in the manger. And Gerald Berners mocked her lion hunting by inviting her to dinner ‘to meet the P. of W.’ When she turned up, she found herself being introduced not to the Prince of Wales but to the Provost of Worcester.” (Adrian Tinniswood, in The Long Weekend, Chapter 9)

‘Horny-Handed Sons of Toil’: News Update                                                                                                                                      “He [Stalin] argued that, on the contrary, calluses were now no longer obligatory at factories since ‘our factory is something like a laboratory, something like a chemist’s, where it is clean and there are no calluses. Is this bad or good? I think it’s good, very good. Calluses are a matter of the past.”

“Comrade Khruschev thinks that to this day he remains a worker, when in fact he’s an intelligent.’ [Stalin]

“As Amir Weiner observes, during Khruschev’s ascendancy ‘an intense media campaign celebrated the honor and worth of manual labor, praising citizens who were not afraid of soiling their hands rather than “sitting in their offices and filing papers”.’ It seemed that callused hands were back in fashion again.” (from Sarah Davies’s and James Harris’s Stalin’s World, pp 219, 220 & 230)

“I realized early on that it’s a huge mistake veer to meet architects. They’re always charming, even the worst ones. Once you’ve been out for a drink with them, or to lunch with them, you’ve had it. It’s very important to keep entirely separate from the entire architectural world, so then you can insult them.” (Gavin Stamp, from a 2015 interview, reported in Private Eye, 12-25 January)

“Impertinently, in French, she [Gisele] had asked the Jewish Agency official if he was a believer. No, he replied. Then she asked him how a nonreligious person who regarded himself as a Jew could advise another nonreligious person who regarded herself as a Jew to convert in order to join the Jewish people and their country? The representative of the Jewish people replied drily that this was the law, adding that in Israel her father would not have been able to marry her mother, as only religious marriage was allowed.” (from Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, p 11)

“The year Galut was published [1936], there occurred an academic event that would determine the character of all future historiography in Israel. While it generally followed the European model of academe, the Hebrew University decided to create not one but two history departments, one named Department of Jewish History and Sociology; the other, Department of History. All the history departments of all the other universities in Israel followed suit – Jewish history was to be studied in isolation from the history of the gentiles, because the principles, tools, concepts and time frame of these studies were completely different.” (from Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, p 102)

“The new conquerors had an extraordinary system of taxation.: Muslims did not have to pay any taxes; only the unbelievers did. Given the benefits of Islamization, it is not surprising that the new religion quickly attracted great numbers of converts. Exemption from taxation must have been seen as worth a change of deity, especially as he seemed so much like the former one. In fact, the caliphs’ taxation policy had to be modified later, as the mass conversions to Islam by the conquered population threatened to drain the treasury.” (from Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, p 181)

“This national statement [‘the claim of the people without a land to the land without a people’], which was simplified into a useful and popular slogan for the Zionist movement, was entirely the product of an imaginary history grown around the idea of exile. Although most of the professional historians knew there had never been a forcible uprooting of the Jewish people, they permitted the Christian myth that had been taken up by Jewish tradition to be paraded freely in public and educational venues of the national memory, making no attempt to rebut it. They even encouraged it directly, knowing that only this myth would provide moral legitimacy to the settlement of the ‘exiled nation’ in a country inhabited by others.” (from Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, p 188)

“The desire to remain independent in the face of mighty, grasping empires – in this case, the Orthodox Byzantine Empire and the Abbasid Muslim Caliphate –  impelled the rulers of Khazaria to adopt Judaism as a defensive ideological weapon. Had the Khazars adopted Islam, for example, they would have become subjects of the caliph. Had they remained pagan, they would have been marked for annihilation by the Muslims, who did not tolerate idolatry. Christianity, of course, would have subordinated them to the Eastern Empire for a long time. The slow and gradual transition from the ancient shamanism of the region to Jewish monotheism probably also contributed to the consolidation and centralization of the Khazar realm.” (from Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, p 222)

“There was anxiety about the legitimacy of the Zionist project, should it become widely known that the settling Jewish masses were not the direct descendants of the ‘Children of Israel’ – such delegitimization might lead to a broad challenge against the State of Israel’s right to exist. Another possibility, not necessary in conflict with the former, is that the occupation of large, densely populated Palestinian territories intensified the ethnic element in Israeli identity politics. The proximity of masses of Palestinians began to seem a threat to the imaginary ‘national’ Israel, and called for stronger bonds of identity and definition. The effect was to put the kibosh on any remembrance of Khazaria.” (from Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, p 236)

“In the 1970s Israel was caught up in the momentum of territorial expansion, and without the Old Testament in its hand and the ‘exile of the Jewish people’ in its memory, it would have had no justification for annexing Arab Jerusalem and establishing settlements in the west Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and even the Sinai Peninsula. The writer who was able, in his classic novel Darkness at Noon, to crack the Communist enigma, did not comprehend that the Zionist regime was entirely caught up in the mythology of an eternal ‘ethnic’ time. Nor did he foresee that the post-1967 Zionists would resemble the Stalinists in their ferocious response – both saw him as an irredeemable traitor.” (from Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, pp 239-240)

“The statement by the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce that ‘any history is first of all a product of the time of its writing’ has long been a commonplace, but it still fits perfectly the Zionist historiography of the Jewish past. The conquest of the ‘City of David’ in 1967 had to be achieved by the direct descendants of the House of David – not, perish the thought, by the offspring of tough horsemen from the Volga-Don steppes, the deserts of southern Arabia, or the coast of North Africa.” (from Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, p 243)

“Therefore, although we are not in the field of zoology, and the precise terminology is less demanding than it is in the life sciences, Israel must still be described as an ‘ethnocracy’. Better still, call it a Jewish ethnocracy with liberal features -that is, a state whose main purpose is to serve not a civil-egalitarian demos but a biological-religious ethnos that is wholly fictitious historically, but dynamic, exclusive and discriminatory in its political manifestation. Such a state, for all its liberalism and pluralism, is committed to isolating its chosen ethnos through ideological, pedagogical and legislative means, not only from those of its sown citizens who are not classified as Jews, not only from the Israeli-born children of foreign workers, but from the rest of humanity.” (from Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, p 307)

“It is beginning to appear that there are only two types of people in the world: those that exhibit clonal hematopoiesis and those that are going to develop clonal hematopoiesis.” (Kenneth Walsh, director of the hematovascular biology center at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, quoted in NYT, January 30)

“We are all of us held together by words. And when words go, not much remains.” (Martin Amis, from The Rub of Time, quoted by Dwight Garner in NYT review, January 30)


“We are talking about the history of the Jewish people, from the exodus from Egypt to the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust. Refugeedom is in our DNA. Seeking asylum is in our blood.” (Rabbi Nava Hefetz  of Miklat Israel, quoted in NYT report, February 3)

“According to one account of the proceedings [of a 1975 conference to discuss Stalinism], the conferees not only failed to reach any consensus about how to define Stalinism; they couldn’t even agree whether they should try to define it. About the only thing they could agree on was that, as one wag quipped, ‘it didn’t develop out of Buddhism’.” (Lewis H. Siegelbaum, in TLS, January 19)

“In February 2012, as Greece was negotiating its second bailout loan, I interviewed a retired commander of the Hellenic Air Force whose pension austerity policies had cut by half. He was incensed that Greece’s European partners saw their loans to the country in uncompromisingly financial terms. ‘Don’t they remember Marathon? Don’t they remember Salamis? Shouldn’t Greece receive some consideration for defending Europe from the Persians?’ he asked.” (John Psaropoulos in TLS, February 9)

“In a word, we are all members of our cultural milieu. So soon as the orientation of our interest plays any role whatsoever in a matter, the milieu, the cultural complex, the Zeitgeist, or whatever one wishes to call it, must exert its influence. In all areas of a culture there will exist common features deriving from the world view and, much more numerous still, common stylistic features – in politics, in art, in science.” (Erwin Schrodinger, from Ist die Naturwissenschaft milieubedingt?, quoted by Phillip Blom in Fracture: Life and Culture in the West 1918-1938, p 125)

#MeToo in 1928                                                                                                     “Not for her the polite reticence of a young lady who waits to be spoken to. Seeing a man she finds interesting, it is she who pursues him, and it is she who slaps him when he makes an advance – not because it is unwelcome but because otherwise it would simply be too easy for him.” (Philipp Blom on Clara Bow, from Fracture: Life and Culture in the West 1918-1938, p 220)

“Scholarship is seldom at its best when done by a committee, or even in collaboration, and historians above all are suspicious of coauthorship or of research assistants.” (Robin W. Winks, in Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, p 69)

“Nothing . . . is more irritating than the practice of hiding the notes at the back of the book so as not to distract the attention of readers of delicate concentration. Nothing is better reading (except a good index) than footnotes.” (Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis, quoted by Robin W. Winks in Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, p 98)

[‘And nothing is more infuriating than copious endnotes that do not contain relevant page or chapter numbers at the head of all pages.’ Coldspur]

“We had been at war with Germany longer than any other power, we had suffered more, we had sacrificed more, and in the end we would lose more than any other power. Yet here were these God-awful American academics rushing about, talking about the Four Freedoms and the Atlantic Charter, and criticizing us for doing successfully what they would try and fail to do themselves later – restrain the Russians. Donovan was very lucky we didn’t send a Guards Company to OSS Cairo.” (Colonel Sir Ronald Wingate, in interview with Anthony Cave Brown, quoted in Last Hero, p 609, and cited by Robin W. Winks in Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, p 214)

“Intercepted communications, if used by safe hands, might well permit the evaluation of the effectiveness of double agents, since such intercepts would represent a superior source unbeknownst to the double agent. Thus one must at all costs conceal the knowledge that one was intercepting communications, and the person for whom this was the primary goal would always counsel against taking action on anything learned from those intercepts. Yet the point of the intercepts for those not in counterintelligence was to be able to take action against the enemy. Therefore some higher authority, neither in counterintelligence nor in operations, must establish and judge the priorities.” (Robin W. Winks, in Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, p 344)

“Angleton both tests and proves Sherman Kent’s dictum: while much can be learned that is presumed to be irretrievable, one cannot learn enough to tell in the end precisely how interesting, how significant, how true what one does know may be.” (Robin W. Winks, in Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, p 410)

“The historian must have a mulish obstinacy, a refusal to be gulled; he must be incredulous of his evidence or he will trip over the deliberately falsified”. (Sherman Kent in Writing History, p 7, quoted by Robin W. Winks, in Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, p 453)

“‘The historian does not know what he has decided until he writes it’. The act of writing is an essential part, then, of the process of research, of evaluation, of deciding about the significance and truth of any inquiry. It is writing – finding the words to express the assessed as well as the felt meanings – that brings research to its point. This writing cannot be solely for itself, or private, for the search for language to express meaning and conclusion must be deep enough to convey that meaning to a diverse audience, it simply those who share a jargon, since only if those who do not understand what is being said can be reached, through language, to finally understand what is said, has one achieved any understanding of the meaning of one’s conclusions. If one writes only for those who understand through a code language, the search for meaning is forestalled, for the language itself will force meaning upon the conclusions. As a former director of Research and Analysis for counterintelligence remarked, ‘  . . . avoid the small-minded linguistic expert. But language must go to the insights.’ To write is to know.” (Robin W. Winks, in Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, p 465)

“Historians cannot, by definition, be propagandists.” (Robin W. Winks, in Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, p 468)

“The author [Mario Vargas Llosa] seems to agree with Eve Babitz, who wrote that having affairs is the only creative thing most people will ever do.” (Dwight Garner, in NYT, February 20)

‘When I wrote a book on progress in medicine a distinguished Harvard professor wrote that I shouldn’t be earning living as a historian because I had broken a fundamental professional taboo. So the theme of progress has been left to psychologists, economists and others who have been forced to do the historians’ job for them.” (David Wootton, in review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now in TLS, February 16)

“When they were having coffee Giles explained, ‘Peter’s started to write a book about his time in MI5. It will contain some quite secret information so he’ll be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.’

“In that case, why let him write it?’

‘Because, if we prosecute him, people will think that the information is true, especially the Reds.’

‘Well, isn’t it?’

‘No, the important stuff is a complete fabrication’.” (from A. Machin-Taylor’s A Russian Rendezvous, pp 77-78)

“Neanderthals have disappeared. So have Fuegian Indians. So have Greenland Vikings. Population extinction has been a part of human history forever.” (Dr. João Zilhão, of University of Barcelona, quoted in NYT, February 27)


???                                                                                                                           “Unless humanity is suicidal (which, granted, is a possibility), we will solve the problem of climate change.” (Entomologist Edward O. Wilson, from NYT, March 4)

So It Was All Our Fault?                                                                                     “But the intensity of the conflict, including the paranoia that it later produced on both sides, might have been significantly reduced if more attempts had been made by the stronger power to entice Moscow toward forms of cooperation.” (Odd Arne Westad, in The Cold War, p 69)

“Nehru quoted the Indian poet and Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, who in his deathbed message lauded ‘the unsparing energy with which Russia has tried to fight disease and illiteracy, and has succeed in steadily liquidating ignorance and poverty, wiping off the humiliation from the face of a vast continent. Her civilization is free from all invidious distinction between one class and another. The rapid and astounding progress achieved by her made me happy and jealous at the same time.” (Odd Arne Westad, in The Cold War, p 157, quoting Nehru’s The Discovery of India, pp 12-13)

“I like Rightists. I am comparatively happy when these people on the Right come into power . . .  We were not happy with these presidents, Truman and Johnson.” (Mao Tse-Tung to Richard Nixon, February 22, 1972, quoted by Odd Arne Westad, in The Cold War, p 411)

Discuss . . .                                                                                                                “There were of course dissidents to this ameliorated view of the Cold War. In the Soviet Union and eastern Europe some people opposed the authoritarian rule of Communist bosses.” (Odd Arne Westad, in The Cold War, pp 475-476)                     “The Soviet government reports the peasants are abandoning their children. This is not true. It is correct that some parents turn over their children to the state, which promises to care for them and does not. Others throw their children into the Volga, preferring to see them drown rather than be brought up in the communist faith, which they believe is an anti-Christ doctrine.” (Donald S. Day in the Chicago Tribune, August 15, 1921, quoted by Anne Applebaum in Red Famine, pp 60-61)

Shades of Dean Acheson                                                                                       “Put together, the 1990s and 2000s were as if the United States had lost a global purpose – the Cold War – and not yet found a new one.” (Odd Arne Westad, in The Cold War, p 619)

Tell That to Comrade Corbyn                                                                                “If I had to do it over again, I would not even be a Communist, and if Lenin were alive he would say the same thing . . .  I must now admit that we started from the wrong basis, from the wrong premise. The foundation of socialism was wrong. I believe that at its very conception the idea of socialism was stillborn.” (Odd Arne Westad, in The Cold War, p 626, quoting from NYT, November 28, 1990)

“Until the early 1970s I clung to the hope that the Soviet Union might still reject the Communist yoke and progress to freedom and democracy. Until then I had continued to meet people who had grown up before the revolution or during the 1920s, when the Soviet system was still not omnipotent. They were nice, normal Russians – like some distant relatives of my father who were engineers: not intellectuals or ideologues, but practical, decent people, embodying many of the old Russian engineer characteristics so well described by Solzhenitsyn. But then the last of these types died out, and the nation that emerged was composed purely of Homo sovieticuses [sic:  Gordievsky recognizes elsewhere it should be ‘homines sovietici’]: a new type had been created, of inadequate people, lacking initiative or the will to work, formed by Soviet society.” (Oleg Gordievsky, in Next Stop Execution, p 197)

“In ideological terms, I have found the security and intelligence services [in Britain] far better informed and motivated than the rest of the population, many of whom, even now, seem starry-eyed about Communism and ignorant of its evils. The officers with whom I have dealt all have a high sense of duty and responsibility, and seem to be guided by a special intuition which tells them infallibly what is in their country’s best interests.” (Oleg Gordievsky, in Next Stop Execution, p 388)

“Other key English qualities, it seems to me, are discretion, respect for privacy, and tolerance towards foreigners. The level of politeness, of courtesy and tact, must be unique in the world, possibly approached by New Zealand, but nowhere else. Also I have noticed how wonderfully unspoilt and spontaneous people are, retaining their ability to enjoy simple natural things like clouds, sunsets, landscape, sea, and flowers. I am sure people were like that in nineteenth-century Russia, but Communism destroyed all spontaneity, making it impossible for people to be sentimental, or to express appreciation.” (Oleg Gordievsky, in Next Stop Execution, p 389)

News from America                                                                                                  “Let me be clear. Evangelicals still believe no one should be having sex with a porn star. We have not changed our beliefs on that.” (Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas and a presidential adviser, quoted in NYT, March 10)                        “Now, squeezed for space, Great Neck North plans to add a 97-spot student parking lot, which has come as welcome news to students like Josh Vilinsky, 17, a junior, who says he has to arrive nearly an hour before school just to find street parking for his $62,000 Mercedes coupe, a gift on his most recent birthday.” (from NYT, March 10)

“The historian serves no one well by constructing a specious continuity between the present world and that which preceded it. On the contrary, we require a history that will educate us to discontinuity more than ever before; for discontinuity, disruption and chaos is [sic] our lot.” (Hayden White, in The Burden of History, quoted in his obituary in NYT, March 10)

Political Experiments                                                                                                “For six years they have been establishing local and regional governments, sending foreign affairs representatives abroad, collecting taxes, organizing socialist communes and raising militias. They often describe their revolution as ‘the project’ or ‘the experiment,’ the implementation of local self-governing democracy, freedom and equality for women and a socialist system inspired by anarchist and Marxist philosophies.” (from report about the Kurds in Syria, in NYT, March 11)                                                                                                                    “‘The American Experiment’? (Letter from Ian T. Halbert, February 16) I have lived more than half my seventy-one years in the USA, and was not aware that this flawed democracy was the subject of some remote scientific trial. I recall how intellectuals in the 1930s would look on admiringly at Stalin’s Soviet Union, suggesting perhaps that the murder of a few more million heretics and dissenters might be necessary before the ‘Communist Experiment’ could be shown to be successful. I wonder whether Mr. Halbert would like to explain to us who is conducting this test, and when it will be safe to declare it over, and thus move on?” (unpublished letter from coldspur to the TLS, February 20) [One thinks also of the ‘European Project’]

“In oral history you never use one source only. Because people remember incorrectly, or don’t want to remember, or they are in denial and lie. All testimonies lie. So you try to understand why they omitted something, or why they emphasize something else.’ (Anne di Lellio, sociologist, quoted in NYT, March 12)

“There is no point in wasting good thoughts on bad data.” (one of the favourite dicta of John Sulston, Nobelist, from his NYT obituary, March 16)

“Inference is notoriously unreliable, as are eyewitnesses, memories of old men, judgments of mothers about first children, letters written for publication, and garbage collectors.” (Robin W. Winks, in Introduction to The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, p xvi)

“Yet the routine must be pursued or the clue might be missed; the apparently false trail must be followed in order to be certain that it is false; the mute witnesses must be asked the reasons for their silence, for the piece of evidence that is missing from where one might reasonably expect to find it is, after all, a form of evidence in itself.” (Robin W. Winks, in Introduction to The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, p xvii)

“Of all things one must not be called, merely ‘competent’ is among the most damning. On the other hand, to be a ‘seminal writer’ does not mean one’s work is destined for the Grove Press but, rather, that one has lots of ideas which cause other people to have lots more ideas. Whether the ideas are good or not is another question entirely.” (Robin W. Winks, in Introduction to The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, p xx)

“Even the most disinterested historian has at least one preconception, which is the fixed idea that he has none. The facts of history are already set forth, implicitly, in the sources; and the historian who could restate without reshaping them would, by submerging and suffocating the mind in diffuse existence, accomplish the superfluous task of depriving human experience of all significance.” (Carl F. Becker, in Everyman His Own Historian, from American Historical Review, XXXVII, January 1932, extracted in The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, edited by Robin W. Winks, p 19)

“Whatever concessions the historian is prepared to make to the doctrine of relativism, he must retain a fundamentally unshakable conviction that the past is real – however hard it may be to define its nature and write an unbiased record of it. Fully conceding those difficulties, the historian must never concede that the past is alterable to conform with present convenience, with the party line, with mass prejudice, or with the ambitions of powerful popular leaders.” (C. Vann Woodward, American Attitudes Towards History, 1955, extracted in The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, edited by Robin W. Winks, p 38)

“The historian, as an interrogator, wishes to know what fact may lie behind an untruth rather than merely to prove the statement to be untrue.” (Robin W. Winks, in Introduction to Who Killed John Doe?, an extract from Robin G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History, 1956, from The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, edited by Robin W. Winks, p 39)

“To a person who understands the nature of scientific thinking, whether historical or any other, it will present no difficulty. He will realize that, every time the historian asks a question, he asks it because he thinks he can answer it: that is to say he has already in his mind a preliminary and tentative idea if the evidence he will be able to use. Not a definite idea about potential evidence, but an indefinite idea about actual evidence. To ask questions which you see no prospect of answering is the fundamental sin in science, like giving orders which you do not think will be obeyed in politics, or praying for what you think God will not give you in religion.” (Robin G. Collingwood in The Idea of History, 1956, extracted in The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, edited by Robin W. Winks, p 58)

“No memoir or autobiography should be used without an effort to make certain that judgments stated as belonging to a particular date have not been colored or wholly shaped by subsequent occurrences. No diary or volume of letters should be used without a watchful eye for telltale evidence that the text has been altered before publication to delete entries that have become absurd, or to inset material which will reflect credit on the writer’s shrewdness and insight. The more naïveté in a diary, the better the historian likes it  . . .” (Allan Nevins, in The Gateway to History, 1938 & 1962, extracted in The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, edited by Robin W. Winks, p 206)

“Verification is required of the researcher on a multitude of points – from getting an author’s first name correct to proving that a document is both genuine and authentic.*  Verification is accordingly conducted on many panes, and its technique is not fixed. It relies on attention to detail, on common-sense reasoning, on a developed ‘feel’ for history and chronology, on familiarity with human behavior, and on ever enlarging stores of information.” [* Note: ‘The two adjectives may seem synonymous but they are not: that is genuine which is not forged; and that is authentic which truthfully reports on its ostensible subject. Thus an art critic might write an account of an exhibition he had never visited; his manuscript would be genuine but not authentic. Conversely, an authentic report of an event by X might be copied by a forger and passed off as the original. It would be authentic but not genuine.”] (Jacques Barzun & Henry F. Graff, in The Modern Researcher, 1957, extracted in The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, edited by Robin W. Winks, p 216)

“Nowadays if there is an error in the input program the computer not only detects it but gives the approximate description and location of the error and recommends procedure for correction.” (Gerald S. Hawkins, in Stonehenge Decoded, 1965, extracted in The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, edited by Robin W. Winks, p 446)

“To rival an average human brain a computer built by present techniques would have to be about as big as an ocean liner, or a skyscraper. And even then it would lack the capacity for originality and free will. To initiate free choice in a machine the operator would have to insert into its program random numbers, which would make the machine ‘free’ but uncoordinated – an idiot  . . .” (Gerald S. Hawkins, in Stonehenge Decoded, 1965, extracted in The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, edited by Robin W. Winks, p 448)

“All testimony is suspect, because it depends upon whether the person giving it was in a position to know, whether he was calm or intelligent or objective enough to report accurately, and so on.” (William B. Willcox, in The Psychiatrist, the Historian, and General Clinton: The Excitement of Historical Research, from Michigan Quarterly Review, VI, Spring 1967, extracted in The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, edited by Robin W. Winks, p 508)

“If there once happened an event concerning which no shred of evidence now survives, that event is not part of any historian’s universe; it is no historian’s business to discover it; it is no gap in any historian’s knowledge that he does not know it. If he had any ideas about it, they would be supernatural revelations, poetic fancies, or unfounded conjectures; they would form no part whatever of his historical thought.” (Robin C. Collingwood, in The Limits of Historical Knowledge, from Essays in the Philosophy of History, 1966, extracted in The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, edited by Robin W. Winks, p 519)

“An example of poor contemporary history is William Manchester, The Death of a President (New York, 1967), which falls into the Grapefruit School of writing: the assumption, perhaps taken from Time magazine, that we need to know what a man eats for breakfast if we are to understand him.” (Robin W. Winks, in note to extract from Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s On the Inscrutability of History, extracted in The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, edited by Robin W. Winks, p 524)

“The acquiescence of the British people in the denial to themselves of facts indispensable to the judgment of their masters is one of the masochistic curiosities of our age.” (Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in On the Inscrutability of History, from Encounter, November 1966, extracted in The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, edited by Robin W. Winks, p 535)

“Do not use semicolons. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” (Kurt Vonnegut, according to Stephen Spector, from Times Literary Supplement, March 16)

Eh? Shared ancestry?                                                                                            “The DNA of Neanderthals indicates that their ancestors split from our own about 600,000 years ago.” (Carl Zimmer in NYT, March 20)

“Intelligence is a defining characteristic of defense; it is only an accompanying characteristic of offense.” (David Kahn, in Hitler’s Spies, p 528)

“I wrote once that in the West, poetry mainly survives on the university campus, and in our countries it survives mainly in the prison camps. This is the difference. They manage to establish such an unshakeable system that every living word – not only but especially the poetical word – worked against it. Everything else was false.” (Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova to Sam Leith, from the Spectator, March 17)

“I am a historical optimist. Which means I think everything will end well, but I will not live to see it. This is the difference between the usual optimist and the historical optimist. My Ukrainian friend says he is an apocalyptic optimist. He thinks everything will end well – but nobody will live to see it.” (Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova to Sam Leith, from the Spectator, March 17)


“The truth of the matter is, of course, that we have a certain amount of information about famine conditions  . . . and that there is no obligation on us not to make it public. We do not want to make it public, however, because the Soviet government would resent it and our relations with them would be prejudiced.” (Laurence Collier of the Foreign Office, responding to an MP, in 1935, quoted by Anne Applebaum in Red Famine, p 318)

“One of my professors at the University of Chicago once told me that the cultural form democracy had taken root in the US resulted in the inability to countenance any hierarchy based on birth, wealth, merit or intellect, since all implied exclusions of various kinds. Only celebrity was an acceptable basis for hierarchy, since like the lottery it was arbitrary and depended on our whims. Hollywood, therefore, was the model for all US professions and institutions, from the university to the presidency. Perhaps we have all become Americans in this sense.” (Faisal Devji, in Prospect, April)

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. The promise of history is that we can find the rhymes before it is too late.” (Steven Levitsky and Daniel Greenblatt in How Democracies Die, quoted in TLS review by Krishan Kumar, April 6)

“The irony of history is that had Yugoslavia remained together, it almost certainly would have been in the European Union now, having been well ahead in 1990 of current members Romania and Bulgaria.” (Carl Bildt, former Swedish foreign minister and United Nations special envoy to the Balkans, quoted in NYT, April 11)


“The humanist writings of Isaiah Berlin captured the intellectual spirit of the 1990s. ‘”Ich bin ein Berliner,” I used to say, meaning an Isaiah Berliner,’ Garton Ash wrote in a haunting memoir of his time in East Germany. Now that communism had been routed and Marxist utopias exposed as false, Isaiah Berlin was the perfect antidote to the trendy monistic theories that had ravished academic life for the previous four decades. Berlin, who taught at Oxford and whose life was coeval with the twentieth century, had always defended bourgeois pragmatism and ‘temporizing compromises’ over political experimentation. He loathed geographical, cultural and all other forms of determinism, refusing to consign anyone and anybody to their fate. His views, articulated in articles and lectures over a lifetime, often as a lone academic voice in the wilderness, comprised the perfect synthesis of a measured idealism that was employed both against communism and the notion that freedom and security were only for some people and not for others. His philosophy and the ideal of Central Europe were prefect fits.” (from Robert D. Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography, pp 8-9)

“America is what it is, Huntington goes on, because it was settled by British Protestants, not by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics. Because America was born Protestant, it did not have to become so, and America’s classical liberalism emerges from this very fact. Dissent, individualism, republicanism ultimately all devolve from Protestantism. ‘While the American Creed is Protestantism without God, the American civil religion is Christianity without Christ.’ But this Creed, Huntington reasons, might be subtly undone by an advancing Hispanic, Catholic, pre-Enlightenment society.’” (from Robert D. Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography, p 337)

“What really makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other kind of dictatorship to rule is that the people are not informed. If everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but that no one believes anything at all anymore – and rightly so, because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, have to be ‘re-lied’, so to speak.” (Hannah Arendt, in 1973 interview, according to George Prochnik in NYT review of Thinking Without a Banister, April 15)

“I want to leave this country, which, it dawns on me, is so much like my mother. They are almost the same age, my mother and my motherland. They are both in love with order, both overbearing and protective. They’re prosaic; neither my mother nor my motherland knows anything about the important things in life: the magic of Theater, the power of the English language, love. They’re like the inside of a bus at a rush hour in July: you can’t breathe, you can’t move, and you can’t squeeze your way to the door to get out.” (From Elena Gorokhova’s A Mountain of Crumbs, Chapter 18)

“No, because I’ve noticed, in my life as a doctor that the truism is true: People die the way they lived – even the demented and even, somehow, the brain-dead. The brave die bravely; the curious, with curiosity; the optimistic, optimistically. Those who are by nature accepters, accept; those who by nature fight for control die fighting for control, and Ehrenreich is a fighter.” (Victoria Sweet, in review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes, in The Atlantic, May 2018)

“On the other hand, I do and always shall maintain that it is the privilege of the richer but less mentally endowed members of the community to contribute to the upkeep of people like myself.” (Arthur Norris, in Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains, Chapter 4)

“’Perhaps they’ll put you through the third degree.’

‘Oh, William, how can you say anything so dreadful? You make me feel quite faint.’

‘But, Arthur, surely that would be  . . . I mean, wouldn’t you rather enjoy it?’

Arthur giggled: ‘Ha, ha. Ha, ha. I must say this, William, that even in the darkest hour your humour never fails to restore me  . . . Well, well, perhaps if the examination were to be conducted by Frl. Anni, or some equally charming young lady, I might undergo it with – er – very mixed feelings. Yes.’”

(The author and Mr Norris discussing the latter’s summons to present himself to the Political Police, from Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains, Chapter 6)

“Remorse is not for the elderly. When it comes to them, it is not purging or uplifting, but merely degrading and wretched, like a bladder disease.” (from Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains, Chapter 15)

“Thomas Jones repeats the story that Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Gita after witnessing the first successful nuclear weapons test in New Mexico: ‘I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.’ I once had the chance to ask his brother, Frank, who was standing next to him at the time, what Oppie’s actual words were. Frank’s recollection was that he said: ‘I guess it worked’.” (letter from Jeremy Bernstein in London Review of Books, April 26)

“Depressives may simply be judging themselves and the world much more accurately than non-depressed people, and not finding it a pretty place.” (science journalist Kyla Dunn, quoted by William Millar in letter to Literary Review, April)


“She described four ‘sins’ that even the best of biographers might succumb to: (1) dullness, (2) deliberate falsification and willful misunderstanding, (3) falling in love with the subject and (4) the application of modern standards to past customs and principles.” (of Hester W Chapman, writing in TLS issue 3000, dated August 28, 1959, cited by Ruth Scurr in TLS, March 30)

“In no region of cultural activity has Freud had a more profound and lasting influence on modern consciousness than in the writing of biographies.” (Professor Steven Marcus, from his NYT obituary, May 2)

“It is easier to move a graveyard than to move a college faculty.” (Professor Steven Marcus, from his NYT obituary, May 2)

“It is a modern institutional disease. The people who run great institutions get scared by them. The Womens’ Institute runs away from jam and ‘Jerusalem’. The Guides get embarrassed about teaching girls to tie reef knots and boast of their explicit talks about contraception. Great universities are silent about their academic prowess and point up their diverse intake. Great public schools are shy about the rounded education they give their pupils and emphasise how they share their sports facilities with locals. The Globe theatre director thinks it’s about gender, when most people would want it to be about Shakespeare. The army mutters that it might stop ranks calling officers ‘sir’. Yes, all such bodies need renewal, but they must not betray the fundamental reasons why they are loved, and why, indeed, they exist.” (Charles Moore, in the Spectator, April 28)

“One story of Birrell’s I remember, but I think it may be a chestnut. Lord Young to Alfred Austin: ‘Well, Mr Austin, are you writing still?’ ‘Keeping the wolf from the door, Lord Young.’ ‘Do you show the wolf your poems, Mr Austin?’ Birrell said too he had heard King Edward do as good as ‘Scribble, scribble, Mr Gibbon’ when he turned to Lord Rayleigh at a Palace party and said ‘Well, Lord Rayleigh, discovering something, I suppose?’ and then turning to Birrell ‘You know, he’s always at it.’” (Diana Manners in letter to Duff Cooper, July 10, 1918, from The Rainbow Comes and Goes, Chapter 10)

“In the happiest marriages, the husband and wife either know everything about each other or absolutely nothing. Mediocre marriages are based on partial confidences: one of you lets slip a confession, a sigh; a fragment of some dream or desire is shared, but then fear sets in; it is retracted.” (from Irène Némirovsky’s The Fires of Autumn, Chapter 7)

“When married couples quarrel, whoever is the first to say the words: ‘It would be better if we separate’ immediately feels as if he or she has committed murder: love still exists between the couple, but those words kill it.” (from Irène Némirovsky’s The Fires of Autumn, Chapter 10)

“The term ‘genetic’ refers to the sequence of base pairs that constitute a gene. Social trauma is not known to change this sequence. ‘Epigenetic’ refers to the biochemical processes – for example, methylation – that regulate the expression of a gene: that is, whether a gene is active, say in the production of RNA, or inactive. The first evidence that social experience can alter the epigenome and thereby the expression of the genome was described just 14 years ago in a landmark study of the influence of parenting on the epigenome of offspring. Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance has been demonstrated and its precise mechanisms are being described.” (from letter to London Review of Books by Mark Erickson, May 10)

“Currently, financial risks are volatile and frequent. Although systemic financial risks are generally under control, risks are accumulating from nonperforming assets, liquidity, bond defaults, shadow banks, external shocks, a property bubble, government debt, and internet financing, and the financial markets are also in a mess. Some financial risks are longstanding, lurking sources of infection that are concealed very deep but may erupt in a flash. The United States subprime crisis erupted in a night. If we’re going to have big trouble in the future, it could well be in this area, and this demands high vigilance.” (President Xi of China, in 2017, according to article in NYT, May 11)

“Frankly, I do not know why people find it difficult to understand Texas. It simply isn’t that hard. All one needs to do is to be able to hold two ideas in your head at the same time. These are ideas are conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. If you can do that, you understand the state.” (from letter by G. L. Seligmann to NYT Review of Books, May 13)

“As in other foreign-policy sectors, the Russia hands divide less along party lines than along foreign-policy philosophies: They are either ‘realists’ or ‘internationalists.’ Realists tend to be cautious about American overseas commitments and deferential toward state sovereignty; internationalists tend to be more inclined to universalist ideals like democracy and human rights, even where these are forced to cross borders. But the two supposed categories are blurred by a thousand factors, not least of which being that realists don’t like being called realists, because it suggests that they have no values, and internationalists don’t like to be called internationalists, as opposed to realists, because it suggests that they have no common sense. In the end, a vast internationalist middle, consisting of neoconservative Republicans and interventionist Democrats, predominates, with tiny slices of hard realists on the right and soft realists, or ‘neorealists,’ on the left. And there are many shades of difference among all these people.” (Keith Gessen, from The Quiet Americans, in NYT Magazine, May 13)

“Once asked to define his get-up, Mr Wolfe replied brightly, ‘Neo-pretentious’.” (from NYT obituary of Tom Wolfe, May 16)

“And the hope that mothers, by exemplifying pure love, will somehow counter the destructive forces of capitalism, can be found in recent campaigns for cleaner air, less contaminated food, more affordable housing, better schooling and healthcare . . . .”  (Ruth Scurr, in review ‘Stifling With Love’, in TLS, May 11)

Tribal News

  • “Mr. Pintilie was born on Nov. 9, 1933, in the Bessarabia region, then in northeastern Romania and now part of Ukraine. His village was primarily German, but the population included Russians, Turks, Romanians and other nationalities. Though that part of the world has had its share of ethnic strife, he remembered a more idyllic childhood. ‘There wasn’t even a hint of racial tension,’ Mr. Pintilie recalled in a 1994 interview with The New York Times. ‘Everybody lived without being conscious of their differences.” (from Lucian Pintilie’s obituary in NYT, May 20)
  • “At one large family lunch, Bernhard put his arm round Therese’s shoulder, and said, ‘Well, we Eastern Jews – ‘Therese shook his hand from her shoulder. ’The Bloch-Bauers are not Ostjuden,’ she said coldly. ‘We are German’.” (from The Lady in Gold, by Anne Marie O’Connor, p 106)

“When the Berlin Wall fell, a political scientist I know joked, ‘Now that Eastern Europe is free from the alien ideology of Communism, it can return to its true path: fascism.’” (Paul Krugman, in NYT, May 22)

Exiles from Communism

  • “Here, I didn’t have to be afraid of a knock on the door at 3 or 4 in the morning.” (Laszlo Tabori, Hungarian runner, from his NYT obituary, May 25)
  • “Luciano, you don’t know anything. You never lived it. For you it’s a beautiful idea, but what was made out of the idea has nothing to do with beauty. It’s a terror.” (conductor Semyon Bychkov, who left the Soviet Union in 1975, to composer Luciano Berio in 1987, quoted in NYT, May 25)

“In Vienna’s complex recent past, ‘everyone in Vienna is related to persecutors, or the persecuted,’ Pleyer said. ‘In some cases, they are related to both.’”  (from The Lady in Gold, by Anne Marie O’Connor, p 280)

“To suggest that one already understood how a field telephone worked would have been ‘unsoldierly’, according to Gill, especially as knowledge within the Army goes according to rank. He illustrated this as follows: ‘no one under the rank of major could be allowed to speak of atomic theory; colonels might mention radio activity; but only field-marshals could cope with Einstein.” (Brian Austin, in monograph EWB Gill – Taking Wireless to War, probably quoting from Gill’s War, Wireless and Wangles)

“Had the Whites embraced the peasant revolution, or the Reds driven all former tsarist officers into White hands, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and the rest would have been delivered back into exile or hung from the lampposts.” (from Stephen Kotnik’s Stalin: Volume 1, p 298)

“A regime created by confiscation had begun to confiscate itself, and never stopped. The authors of Red Moscow, an urban handbook published at the conclusion of the civil war, observed that ‘each revolution has its one unsightly, although transient, trait: the appearance on the stage of all kinds of rogues, deceivers, adventurists, and simple criminals, attaching themselves to power with one kind of criminal goal or another. Their danger to the revolution is colossal.’ The line between idealism and opportunism, however, was often very fine. The revolution was a social earthquake, a cracking open of the earth that allowed all manner of new people to rise up and assume positions that otherwise they would have waited decades to fill, or never been able to fil at all, and the revolutionary mission overlapped their sense of their own destiny.” (from Stephen Kotnik’s Stalin: Volume 1, p 337)

“His conception of politics did not even allow for politics. Lenin railed against the idea that every society was made up of multiple interests that deserved competitive political representation and balancing as naively inviting in the ‘wrong’ interests (‘bourgeois’ or ‘petit-bourgeois’). He repudiated any separation of powers among executive, legislative, and judicial branches as a bourgeois sham. He rejected the rule of law as an instrument of class domination, not a protection against the state. He dismissed the self-organization of tsarism’s many debilitating features: emasculation of parliament, metastasizing of parasitic state functionaries, persecution and shakedowns of private citizens and entrepreneurs – in short, unaccountable executive power, which was vastly enhanced in its grim arbitrariness by a radiant ideology of social justice and progress.” (from Stephen Kotnik’s Stalin: Volume 1, p 410)

“Of course, it was hardly surprising that Bolshevik assaults on private property and the rule of law had not resulted in the formation of a supple, efficient, responsive civil service. Apparatchiks supposed to engage in merciless class warfare with summary executions on one side, were not likely, on the other, to make way for a Greek polis.” (from Stephen Kotnik’s Stalin: Volume 1, p 518)

“’More than almost any other great man in history,’ wrote the historian E. H. Carr, ‘Stalin illustrates the thesis that circumstances make the man, not the man the circumstances.’ Utterly, eternally wrong.” (from Stephen Kotnik’s Stalin: Volume 1, p 739)


“As for your Lenin and Trotsky, I respect them for their thorough-going idealism: it seems that they are simply trying to get down to the bedrock of solid security by reducing everybody to the original state of proletarian veg, everybody to dig, reap, how and beget children: and to hell with intelligence and capitalism. It is the only answer to the dark question at the end of every story by Dostoievsky, Kuprin, Tchecov [sic] and all the other skies: knowledge is a sham, wealth is a sham, both only bring misery on others.” (Robert Graves in letter to Siegfried Sassoon, 13 January 1918, from In Broken Images, p 106)

“The house is spotless and all my poems scan and I have been re-elected football captain.” (Robert Graves in letter to Edward Marsh, 1923 [undated], from In Broken Images, p 151)

Robert Graves on Other Writers

“Yeats: a spiritualist and that is inconsistent with being a poet.”

“Henry Williamson is all wrong; though not, so far as I know, Irish. He has that dreadfully mannered style which spells art – ambition, and is a pious crook.”

“W. H. Auden is a fraud: that is to say he is a synthetic poet, plagiarizing in a curiously wholesale way. He gets hold of some good piece of work by someone which is not too well known, and vulgarizes it.”

“As for D. H. Lawrence – well, there was a real mess! Male self-defeat in an attempt to argue away the fact of woman. . .  He was a bum poet, of course, being a bum person.”

(Robert Graves in letter to Basil Liddell Hart, 21 December 1935, from In Broken Images, pp 262-263)

“Test him [Yeats] again, by all the matures tests you know, and see whether his glamour is really the reflection of poetic fire and not a piece of post-druidic magic, cast by a little man, over young minds.”

(Robert Graves in letter to Alun Lewis, 6 November 1941, from In Broken Images, pp 305-306)

“ . . . the most obstinate door of all – the story of the Nativity and the Crucifixion. I am not a Christian, or a believer in religious hocus-pocus, but I can now make out a good historical case for the more improbable gospel elements and have been able to confirm my thesis, which was based wholly on Welsh-Irish-Greek-Roman-Gallic religious tradition, by a study of early Christian literature (the Apocryphal Gospels and Acts and ‘Sayings of Christ’) and Egyptian and Talmudic tradition, and of Josephus, etc.

The whole Christian business is badly in need of clearing up. Its formidably crystallized errors and inconsistencies get in everyone’s way. Yet it can’t be cleared up by persecution or ridicule, only by reason. And reason transforms it into an ethical system, based on historical and poetic fact, which one can either accept as OK or reject as unsuitable to one’s temperament, but which requires no ‘faith’ and invites no incredulity. And until it is cleared up poetry is hampered by having no valid, constant set of references which all initiates of poetry can learn to use and love and refine individually. The old bards (before bardism got paralyzed by technical traditionalism) had a lovely time with their Secret Doctrine, which seems to have been shared by their colleagues in a number of countries: a set of nations in fact roughly corresponding with ‘Christendom’.” (Robert Graves in letter to Lynette Roberts, 4 December 1943, from In Broken Images, p 320)

“ . . .History is so fraudulent; and in fact all that ‘we’ learn is the technique of distortion.”

“To lie is a sacred duty of all people who wish to uphold sacred traditions.” (Robert Graves, in letter to Basil Liddell Hart, 1 May 1944, from In Broken Images, p 321)

“There is a central paradox in the dynamic of secret intelligence and counterintelligence in that where the former impinges on a wider world, it is justified entirely in terms of that world. Success for the secret intelligence division of an intelligence service is to know that which others would not have known. Success for the Counterintelligence Staff , on the other hand, is in what others do not know. To be ‘unwitting’ oneself is the greatest failure for a counterintelligence officer; to ensure that others are unwitting the greatest victor. It ensues that, as secret intelligence operations and counterintelligence activities grow closer, in the classic model of the British XX Committee, the importance of any particular secret becomes merely notional. Each secret, on this level, is equivalent to all others, as it is the fact of concealment, the fact that one thing or another is secret, that is crucial. The most successful intelligence operation, in those terms, is one that remains unknown.” (from Michael Holzman’s James Jesus Angleton: the CIA, & The Craft of Counterintelligence, pp 224-225)

Great Men                                                                                                                         “The Great Writer  . . . risks becoming the full-time spokesman for a literary establishment that tautologically reproduces itself, a participant at a permanent roundtable on society and life, an expert on Reality.” (Claudio Magris, in Journeying, quoted by Annette Kobak in TLS review, June 1.”                                     “I admired Hardy as a good, consistent, truthful man; I do not believe in great men. I treat everyone as an equal unless they prove themselves inferior.” (Robert Graves, in letter to Siegfried Sassoon, 20 February, 1930, from In Broken Images, p 201)

“His long-ago best man, Mark Culme-Seymout, had felt betrayed by a man he had loved and trusted but he wrote to Alan Maclean that Donald ‘was a victim of our times and I will cling on to the idea that he was a noble victim, no matter how profoundly misguided.” (from Roland Phillips’s A Spy Named Orphan, p 379)

“Wogan [Phillips] outlived Soviet Communism; he died in 1993. When I asked him after it had ended where he stood on the subject, he said that Stalin had been a disaster for the cause but that the system was still inherently right, would come round again and next time be successful. I think Maclean, with his ideological purity, would have said something similar had he lived another few years.” (from Roland Phillips’s A Spy Named Orphan, p 382)

“I was born in South Africa, but I decided to leave there when I was seven months old.” (Abba Eban, quoted by his nephew Jonathan Lynn, in TLS, June 8)

The TLS & Capitalism

  • “And the hope that mothers, by exemplifying pure love, will somehow counter the destructive forces of capitalism, can be found in recent campaigns for cleaner air, less contaminated food, more affordable housing, better schooling and health care (the Moms Clean Air Force, for example, co-founded by Dominique Browning, the former Editor-in-Chief ofHouse and Garden magazine, is a special project of the Environmental Defense Fund).”  (Ruth Scurr, in review Stifling With Love, in TLS, May 21)
  • “The real villains in his story are less the health practitioners, coroners, or funeral directors, than Western capitalism as a whole with its obsession with material success and longevity.” (Julie-Marie Strange in review (among others) of Kevin Toolis’s My Father’s Wake, in TLS, June 8)
  • “Such publications might seem to arise from a capitalist system which demands creativity on the part of its subjects.” (Jonathan Taylor, in review titled Break the Silence, in TLS, June 8)
  • “If non-factual, no-informational uses of the web now dominate, he says, it is because capitalism today has created a pervasive emptiness – not least for a millennial generation that faces a life of precarious job prospects, declining ages and increased social and political instability.” (David Patrikarakos, in review (among others) of Marcus Gilroy-Ware’s Filling the Void, in TLS, June 8)
  • “Nor is there any acknowledgement of the controversy stirred by the Shard, a symbol for some of an aggressive and hubristic capitalism, that commits one more crime against London’s skyline.” (Jerry White, in review (among others) of Roma Agrawal’s Built, in TLS, June 15)

“I was not a Nazi. I did my duty for my country, not for Hitler.” (Reinhard Hardegen, U-Boat commander, from his NYT obituary, June 18)s

“Bolshevism is the negation of democratic government. There is no pretence on the part of M. Lenin and M. Trotsky that they wish the will of the people to prevail. What they say is that the proletariat must rule, and must crush both capitalism and the bourgeoisie. They are opposed to the existence of everybody who does not agree with them. . .  Even the Russian peasants in the mass are not Bolshevik by conviction. Bolshevism, now that its principles are thoroughly understood, turns out to be nothing but an autocracy ‘by the proletariat’ – and not even by the proletariat, but by that part of the proletariat which believes in Bolshevism. All the bloody upheaval of the Revolution has occurred in order that a kind of inverted Tsarism might be enthroned.” (from ‘News of the week’, 1 June 1918 in the Spectator, reprinted in the Spectator, June 2, 2018)

“If westerners cannot legitimately study the history of Africa or the Middle East, then only fish can study marine biology.” (Bernard Lewis to Edward Said, from exchange in New York Review of Books in 1982, cited by J.C. in TLS, June 15)

“Brendan Behan once declared that he was a drinker with a writing problem.” (Terry Eagleton in London Review of Books, June 21)

“Emancipation would finally come in 1867, with Emperor Frank Josef’s ‘constitution’. Jews were labeled a community of faith rather than one of the empire’s ethnic peoples; hence they could not declare Yiddish their ‘language of daily use’, since language determined nationality. Instead Jews had to declare another language and were counted as members of the nationality that spoke it. Initially the Austrians had hoped this would increase the number of Germans in Galicia, but by 1910 almost all Jews registered as speaking Polish.” (from Omer Bartov’s Anatomy of a Genocide, p 19)

“Many Poles and Ukrainians had no trouble coming up with reasons for punishing Jews. Poles also overwhelmingly supported actions against Ukrainian ‘bandits’; Ukrainians enthusiastically approved the deportations of Polish colonists. For their part, the Jews in such towns as Buczacz mourned the demise of Poland; subsequently they fervently wished for vengeance against Ukrainian collaborators with the Nazis. Each group’s conviction in the uniqueness of its own victimhood thus went hand in hand with a desire to punish those associated with its suffering; this was, in essence, the same kind of reasoning employed so successfully by the Nazis, who consistently presented themselves as victims of those they murdered.” (from Omer Bartov’s Anatomy of a Genocide, p 153)

“There are only two things that can destroy a healthy man: love trouble, ambition, and financial catastrophe. And that’s already three things, and there are a lot more.” (Peter Altenberg, in Fechsung, in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, p 17)

“But we are talking about his reputation, the prestige he still has, and, for the humanities, the baleful encouragement he gives to the damaging notion that there is somehow a progressivist, humanitarian licence for talking through a high hat. There is no such licence. The wretched of the earth get no help from witch doctors, and when academic language gets beyond shouting distance of ordinary speech, voodoo is all it is.” (on Walter Benjamin, in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, p 56)

“In the West, someone obsessed with material things is correctly thought to be a fool. In the East, everyone was obsessed with material things from daylight to dusk. It was the most sordid trick that communism played. Killing people by the millions at least had the merit of a tragic dimension. But making the common people queue endlessly for goods barely worth having was a bad joke.” (from Coco Chanel, in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, p 114)

“Just because someone says that he has been influenced by someone else, for example, doesn’t mean that he has, and just because someone doesn’t say that he has doesn’t mean that he hasn’t.” (from F. Scott Fitzgerald, in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, pp 217-218)

“It can be said that the Nazi brew of Nordic saga, Wagnerian fable and elfin tomfoolery had little to do with the Christian concept of conscience. There is truth to that, although we ought not to leave out the consideration that for many centuries a Christian conscience was no obstacle to the most hideously comprehensive persecution of unbelievers. Nevertheless the liberal conscience, the conscience we really value, would never have arrived in the world unless the Christian conscience had preceded it; so Christianity can be conceded the primacy.” (from Egon Friedell, in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, p 245)

“Stalin’s capacity to join in the superstitions centred on his person is the gateway to the larger subject of how an utterly cock-eyed metaphysics guaranteed that the Soviet experiment could not possibly succeed even though the men who led it were ready to murder the innocent en masse.” (from Egon Friedell, in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, p 246)

“Stalin spent his whole career in power proving that a state could plan every detail of an economy only at the cost of terrorizing a large part of the population which might have hoped to benefit from it.” (from Egon Friedell, in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, p 247)

“One of the drawbacks of liberal democracy is thus revealed: included among its freedoms is the freedom to forget what once threatened its existence.” (from Adolf Hitler, in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, p 321)

“It is now part of the definition of a modern liberal democracy that it is under constant satirical attack from within. Unless this fact is seen as a virtue, however, liberal democracy is bound to be left looking weak vis-à-vis any totalitarian impulse.” (from Karl Kraus, in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, p 369)

“There are Wagnerians who claim to have become so well acquainted with the Ring cycle that they cease to feel pressure on their behinds even during Siegfried, but they are hard to believe.” (from Thomas Mann, in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, p 446)

“The nervous strain was far heavier in the case of our men who carried out the executions than in that of our victims.” (From Heinz Höhne’s The Order of the Death’s Head, p 364, quoted in Grigory Ordzhonokidze, in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, p 547)

“A measure of our slowness to face up to the real history of the Soviet Union is that the expression ‘Kirov Ballet’ does not strike us as obscene. The expression ‘Himmler Youth Orchestra’ would. So, to be fair, would ‘Pol Pot Academy of Creative Writing’ or even ‘Madame Mao School of Calligraphy’.”  (from Grigory Ordzhonokidze, in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, p 548)

“Like Stalin, if with a touch more charm, Lenin was always vicious: a fact which, for more than seventy years, was the very last to be admitted by the international left intelligentsia even though men who had known him personally, and believed in his cause, had said so from the earliest days of the regime – even though Lenin had said that the regime must rule by terror.” (from Grigory Ordzhonokidze, in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, p 550)

“Each loving relationship has three stages which succeed one another imperceptibly: the first in which you are happy with each other even when silent; the second in which you are silently bored with each other; and the third in which silence becomes a form that stands between the lovers like an evil enemy.” (Arthur Schnitzler, in Buch der Spruche und Bedenken, quoted in in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, p 703)

“Trotsky’s idea of permanent revolution will always be attractive to the kind of romantic who believes that he is being oppressed by global capitalism when he maxes out his credit card.” (from Leon Trotsky, in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, p 748)

“We cannot lose even one inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors.” (President Xi Jinping, quoted in NYT, June 28)

“To hear Mr. Sharansky tell it, his career has been an endless series of proofs of lessons from the gulag — lessons that the West, to his dismay, has still not fully absorbed: that every human being craves both freedom and a sense of belonging — impulses often in tension but ideally in balance; that free countries must spread freedom to those who lack it, even when the oppressors are allies; and that freedom cannot be imposed, but must be built from the ground up.” (David M. Halbfinger, in NYT, June 30)


“I mentioned earlier that assets and liabilities always balance – that’s the way they are designed, as accounting equalities. But when we come to global wealth, that isn’t true. Studies of the global balance sheet consistently show more liabilities than assets. The only way that would make sense is if the world were in debt to some external agency, such as Venusians or the Emperor Palpatine.” (John Lanchester, in London Review of Books, July 5)

“It is not quite easy to get on good terms with a man if you think his wife whom he is very fond of is as mad as a hatter.” (Rebecca West on Scott Fitzgerald, quoted by Alex Harvey, in London Review of Books, July 5)

Tribal News                                                                                                                “In recent years, even some of the Turks have come to doubt their origin story, choosing instead to embrace the idea that they are Native American. In 2013, the South Carolina government recognized some of them as the  Sumter Tribe of Cheraw Indians, a step that opened a rift in the small community . . . . .  The authors were aware that they were treading on sensitive ground. Online arguments between the two camps — those who still consider themselves Turks and those who now say they are Cheraw — have grown so heated that when the authors appeared recently at a local history museum, organizers requested a police presence.” (from NYT report on the Turks of Sumter County, South Carolina, July 5)                                                                                                              “Our Tatmadaw, being a people’s Tatmadaw born of ethnic people, is an organization representing the state and the people.” (General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military chief on the country’s military force, the Tatmadaw, reported in NYT, July 18)

“Seen from almost any point of view. The government’s decision to increase spending on the NHS is disgusting. It is cynical in its timing to coincide with the Health Service’s 70th birthday in England; weak in its refusal to tie the increase to any improvements; mendacious in its claimed link between the increase and a Brexit dividend; evasive in its refusal to represent this as a straightforward tax rise; constitutionally improper in its efforts to ‘take the issue our of politics’ by trying to agree it for many years ahead; and, as always, for those who still think the NHS is ‘the envy of the world’ (have they actually asked the world?), ‘too little, too late’.” (Charles Moore in the Spectator, June 23)

“Franco was a dictator, but a good one. I really don’t understand why these Communists want to take him out.’ (Estela Tapias, on prime minister Pedro Sánchez’s plan to remove Franco to a more modest burial place, from NYT, July 8)

“We are given to accepting the phrase ‘western civilisation’ without much thought. It is a cliché, a catchword. It is confused, and often identified with ‘western democracy’ as if democracy has a compass direction. And it is often identified with Christianity, which is a creed and not a civilisation. If, as I think, it is none of those things, it is worth while our enquiring what western civilisation really is and how it has developed.”

“I think it is important for us to realise that it is not western civilisation which is tired and worn-out and effete, it is communism. It is not western civilisation which is unable to accept new ideas and alter its social structure, it is communism. And it is not western civilisation which has to exclude religion and to force its scientists and philosophers to follow the ‘party line’. For communism is, in my opinion, the ideology of tired men and tired minds, and western civilization is the ideology of fresh men and fresh minds.

The thing that tired minds dislike most of all is change. And change, as I have said, is the essence of western civilisation. Its social structure was never static; first it was monastic, then it was feudal then capitalistic and now to a large extent it is becoming social-democratic. The truth is not final nor is it simple. It does not lie at the bottom of a well, it is many-sided. Western civilisation, like its religion, represents a constant striving towards an ideal which it never reaches. There is always another peak to climb, another social injustice to put right.”

(Basil Schonland at Rhodes University, Fort Hare, 26 October, 1951, quoted by Brian Austin in Schonland: Scientist and Soldier, p 409 & 410)

“Back in the 1990s I had several acquaintances, most of them living outside London, who genuinely believed that what got reviewed in national newspapers and weekly magazines was the result of half a dozen book-world eminences meeting in a smoke-filled room to apportion favours to their friends and line up hatchet jobs for provincial upstarts they disliked.” (D. J. Taylor in Literary Review, July)

“One of the things that The Ink Trade shows is that Burgess, whose main fault as a reviewer was excessive compassion for his fellow authors, can still serve as a model for beginners and old hacks alike: be fair, be clear, give your reader a good idea of what the things is actually like, do your homework if necessary and, if you can, entertain. This will help you review well, but not nearly as well as Mr Burgess. Nobody did it better.” (Kevin Jackson, in Literary Review, July)

“When it comes to conceptual art, some may wonder who is the more accomplished con-man (or the more culpable): the highly skilled forger with a painterly technique to dupe the expert, or the skill-free ‘artist’, who persuades the collector that a urinal or an unmade bed was ever ‘art’ in the first place. In this world of conceptual crookery, it is often a moot point who is really fooling whom.” (John Adamson, Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, in History Today, July)

“The interesting thing about the rich is that they like being told where to get off. They confuse it with honesty.” (Bernie Gunther, in March Violets, by Philip Kerr, Chapter 2)

“The simple fact of the matter is that a man who wakes alone will think of having a woman just as surely as a man who wakes with a wife will think of having breakfast.” (from Philip Kerr’s The Pale Criminal, Chapter 17)


“Some people would say that we have already returned to 1937. I would say that we haven’t reached 1937 yet, but we have definitely reached the 1970s.” (Vladimir Voinovich, to Radio Free Europe in 2017, quoted in his NYT obituary, August 5)

“There are people in the world who see me as the Stalin of the Caribbean. And I look like him. Look at me in profile. Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I see Stalin.” (President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, in 1917 broadcast, reported in NYT August 7)

“Neal Ascherson told me that literary editors are those who prevent their friends from writing books by getting them to review other people’s.” (Claire Tomalin in A Life of My Own, according to Dwight Garner in NYT, August 7)

“I am thinking of writing a review of this book, and my opening line will be: ‘This is a book by a committee, about committees, for committees.’” (Sir Maurice Oldfield on Professor Hinsley’s British Intelligence in the Second World War, from Martin Pearce’s Spymaster, p 103)

“Many seem to assume that rainbow liberalism will remain deferential to the demands of avowedly enlightened, well-off people like themselves – yielding a future in which student loans for graduate degrees are forgiven, property values in gentrified urban neighborhoods and fashionable inner suburbs are forever lofty, service-sector wages never quite rise to the point where hiring help becomes unaffordable, and, of course, rural white traditionalists are banished from the public square.” (Reihan Salam, in Atlantic Monthly, September 2018)

“I don’t like to say bad things about paleontologists, but they’re really not very good scientists. They’re more like stamp collectors.” (Nobel prize-winning physicist Luis Alvarez [died 1988], from NYT, quoted by Bianca Bosker in Atlantic Monthly, September 2018)

“Of living authors, I have difficulties with much of Martin Amis, huge, windy American blockbusters – Jonathan Franzen comes to mind – most of Salman Rushdie, books by women who think that no one else has ever had a baby or brought up teenagers or been through a divorce, etc. And any book where the author refers to him/herself as ‘going on a personal journey’.” (Anne de Courcy, in NYT Book Review, August 12)

“It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don’t imagine my parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.” (V.S. Naipaul, in a lecture in 1990 on ‘the pursuit of happiness’, quoted in his NYT obituary, August 13)

“The more plausible an experienced agent’s story sounds, the more suspiciously it should be regarded.” (from Leonard Mosley’s The Druid, p 224)

“The Poles were dismayed, he said, that these bodies (BBC, Army Education Department and PWE) employed foreigners, some like Smolka/Smollett with anglicized surnames, ‘of multiple allegiances, self-appointed saviours of society, bitter little Messiahs, do-gooders, cranky professors, recognizable fellow-travellers and numberless camp-followers from among the frustrated and ambitious intellectual proletariat – all burrowing like wood-beetles, corrupting and softening with their saliva and excrement the oaken heart of England.” (Richard Davenport-Hines quoting Sir Owen O’Malley’s The Phantom Caravan, in Enemies Within, pp 302-303)

“For what is nonsense writing, really? Not the absence of sense, but rather an acknowledgment that sense itself is a lock that is also a key, and a key that is also a lock. Robert Frost once wrote, ‘The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words’.” (David Orr on Edward Lear, from NYT Book Review, August 26)

“It was my first lesson in intelligence. Never be certain that someone is not betraying you, just because you like and trust them. Anyone, but anyone, can be blackmailed. And it is often the most patriotic citizen who is turned into a traitor and betrays the cause he loves.” (Allen Dulles, quoted by Leonard Mosley in Dulles, p 46)

“I don’t know if he is a rascal. There are few archbishops in espionage. He’s on our side and that’s all that matters. Besides, one needn’t ask him to one’s club.” (Allen Dulles on Gehlen, quoted by Leonard Mosley in Dulles, p 275)

“All intelligence people who achieve fame or notoriety, quorum pars minima fui, are elevated to legendary status – by their own side.” (Kim Philby, quoted by Leonard Mosley, in Dulles, p 282)

And He Isn’t Finished Yet . . .                                                                                  “He is a professor at Columbia and has been writing about inequality since the late 1960s.” (byline on Joseph E. Stiglitz in NYT Book Review, August 26)

“For a man who wants to be his own master, to depend on no one else, to make life conform to his own visions rather than to follow the blueprints of others, playwriting is the perfect occupation. To sit in a room alone for six or seven or 10 hours, sharing the time with characters that you created, is sheer heaven. And if not heaven, it’s at least an escape from hell.” (Neil Simon, from his NYT obituary, August 27)


On Translation

“Translation and spying are natural bedfellows: both involve double allegiances, parallel modes of expression, the ability to observe and interpret; to jump, like a seasoned performer, from one role to another . . . .  A translator is a double agent, constantly playing two texts, two cultures, two readerships off each other in order to arrive at a truth that ultimately serves no master but his own exacting level of excellence.” (Mark Polizzotti, in Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto, quoted by Frank Wynne in his Spectator review, August 25)                                                                                                                                               “I made the argument that translating plays requires a different skill from translating prose, and that the former was enhanced by a thorough knowledge of playwriting and theater.” (Richard Nelson, in NYT, September 11)

“Run, my friend — do not walk, for time is short and the world is about to be buried in bran flakes.” (Martin Shubik, economist and game theory pioneer, from his NYT obituary, September 1)

“That’s true, we do sometimes kill, but not people, not even something resembling a human being. Fascist degenerates. You have a few wet jobs on your own record, and a lot of people say you should be shot! Have we shot you?” (Gulag guard, from Ivan Christyakov’s The Day Will Pass Away, p 202)

“Matthew Dean, the head of Salisbury’s City Council and owner of a local pub, the Duke of York, said he hoped it would put to rest conspiracy theories circulating about the crime.” (from report of surveillance camera evidence of GRU agents, in NYT, September 6)

“Ignorance and foolishness don’t oppress in the same way that knowledge and wisdom do, precisely because they are incompetent.” (David Runciman, in How Democracy Ends, quoted by Colin Kidd in London Review of Books, September 13)

“When considering, after the war, a complaint that the records kept by F Section were somewhat incomplete, he [Buckmaster] commented that those who finished work at any time between three and five in the morning felt ‘little desire to tabulate the events of the day in order to earn the gratitude of some hypothetical historian of the future’.” (from Patrick Howarth’s Undercover, p 136)

“SOE’s policy, which of course failed, was based on the belief that only the Army could provide effective opposition to Hitler. This may have been true, but in retrospect it is difficult to decide which was the more astonishing, the number of German generals who were privy to the plans to overthrow Hitler and approved of them, or the incompetence with which the conspirators tried to translate their plans into action.” (from Patrick Howarth’s Undercover, p 232)

“Some day, when the full history is written – sober history with ample documents – the poor romancer will give up business and fall to reading Miss Austen in a hermitage.” (John Buchan, in Greenmantle, quoted by M. R. D. Foot in SOE in France, p 143)

Dubito, ergo sum – I doubt, therefore I survive – must be the motto of every successful secret agent.” (from M. R. D. Foot’s SOE in France, p 311)

“You will remember that we are purging all our secret establishment of Communists because we know they owe no allegiance to us or to our cause and will always betray secrets to the Soviet, even while we are working together. The fact of the two Communists being on the French Committee requires extremely careful treatment of the question of imparting secret information to them.” (Winston Churchill, in Second World War, v, 620, quoted by M. R. D. Foot in SOE in France, p 360)

“SOE’s direct part in the liberation of Paris was slight; though not as negligible as a few writers have supposed, who take the old-fashioned view disproved in 1870-71 that the fate of Paris decides the fate of France, and suggest that the struggle for national liberation and the struggle for control of the past and future capital can be more or less equated.” (From M. R. D. Foot’s SOE in France, pp 413-414)

“The title of a Foreign Office file this autumn – stating a fact, of course, not a policy – should not be lost to history: ‘No job for Freddie Ayer’.” (from M. R. D. Foot’s SOE in France, p 420, Note 1)

“In other cases authors, even when they had themselves taken part in what went on, have not always found it possible to keep to the unvarnished truth. A sort of declension can be observed: from minor inaccuracies due to misinformation, or brought in to heighten the tone; through material foisted on authors by unscrupulous ex-agents of both sides protecting or inflating their own reputations; major imaginative revisions superimposed on the facts; and material printed in direct contradiction of statements made by those in a position to know; down to pieces of downright fiction elaborately disguised as fact.” (from M. R. D. Foot’s SOE in France, p 453)

“When John Cornford, the poet and Communist agitator who was killed in Spain, came to my rooms in Cambridge on 17 May 1936 and tried to persuade me to Communism, I gave only one reason for refusal: ‘John, I am not a murderer, and do not wish to become one.’” (from letter by Anthony Dickins in Times Literary Supplement, April 17, 1980)

“Though relatively thin on fresh insights, British Journey makes a valuable contribution in its own way, by piecing together a mosaic of the socio-economic grievances that have festered in British society over the past few decades: the spiritual vacuum left by dwindling religiosity; pressure on under-resourced public services; isolation and insecurity in an increasingly precarious and casual labour market; the decline of vocational training and the failure of the job market to absorb university graduates.” (Houman Barekat, in review of Joe Hayman’s British Journey, in Times Literary Supplement, September 7)

“At all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim  . . . .  No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, childhood, toilet training  . . . .  The moment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything.” (Joseph Brodksy, in commencement address at the University of Michigan in 1988, quoted in the Times Literary Supplement, September 7)

“Their name is used now as a term of abuse, as if Neanderthals were the epitome of uncouthness – shambling morons whose knuckles scraped the ground. In fact, ‘they showed clear signals of modern behavior: they made jewellery, employed complex hunting techniques, used tools, had control of fire and made abstract art’.” (Patrick Skene Catling, in review of The Book of Humans: The Story of How We Became Us, in Spectator, September 22)

“The intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding its object, is something which every person of sensibility has known; it is doubtless a subject of study for pathologists. It often occurs in adolescence: the ordinary person puts these feelings to sleep, or trims down his feelings to fit the business world; the artist keeps it alive by his ability to intensify the world to his emotions.” (from T. S. Eliot’s essay on Hamlet, quoted by Craig Raine in an article about Harold Pinter, Spectator, September 22)


“Whilst there are plenty of conspiracy theorists perhaps a little too willing to advocate global schemes of labyrinthine complexity, often constructed on foundations of dubious evidence, there is plenty of room in our culture for due recognition to be given to what might be termed ‘the secret world’.” (Nigel West, in Introduction to Seven Spies Who Changed the World)

“Hope springs eternal. It’s one of the most frequently quoted verses of English poetry. The poet was Alexander Pope, a decidedly cautious man. He had many enemies, and we know from his sister that he never went out into the street without his large, aggressive dog, and always with two loaded pistols in his bag.” (Walter Laqueur, from Reflections of a Veteran Pessimist, quoted in his NYT obituary, October 2)

“ . . . I do avoid nearly all forms of fantasy. That’s not to imply that there are not great works out there in that form, only that I tend to lose interest just a soon as magic of any kind enters a story, for this strikes me as escapist, as a denial of the mortal hand we’ve all been dealt, and I prefer to read those works that confront our reality and limitations and thwarted longings head on.” (Andre Dubus III, in By the Book, in NYT, October 7)

“His main claim to fame is for what has become to be known as ‘the Sukhomlinov effect’: the principle that there is an inverse correlation between the attention a general pays to his uniforms and his military skill.” (from Christopher Andrew’s The Secret World, p 498)


“Perhaps the most remarkable and unique feature of the laboratory was the canteen located on the top floor which provided coffee in the morning, lunch after midday and tea in the afternoon. The attraction was definitely not the ‘bangers’ or, the ‘toad in the hole’ or other culinary opportunities, but sitting down with a random collection of lab directors, post-docs and graduate students and talking about science. The conversations were always about science and about experiments, never about the movie someone saw the previous night. Everyone contributed suggestions and/or criticisms. Initially I wondered how anyone got any experiments done since they were spending so much time in the canteen, and then I realized that the many discussions reduced the number of unwise or unnecessary experiments that were done and enhanced the good ones.” (Nobelist Thomas A Steitz, talking about his time at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, quoted in his NYT obituary, October 11)                                                                                               “Do you think that history professors chat about the reasons for World War One when they met for lunch, or that nuclear physicists spend their coffee breaks at scientific conferences talking about quarks? Sometimes. But more often they gossip about the professor who caught her husband cheating, or the quarrel between the head of department and the dean, or the rumours that a colleague used his research grant to buy a Lexus. Gossip usually focuses on wrongdoings. Rumour-mongers are the original fourth estate, journalists who inform society about and thus protect it from cheats and freeloaders.” (Yuval Noah Harari, in Sapiens, p 24)

“Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.” (Chuck Hoskin Jr., the Cherokee tribe’s secretary of state, from NYT report, October 16)

“Artificial intelligence offers new hope for addressing challenges that seem intractable today, from poverty to climate change to disease.” (Lila Ibrahim, chief operating officer, DeepMind, from NYT, October 19)

The Logic of the Expert

“Species that evolved from a common ancestor are bunched together under the heading ‘genus’.”

“Presumably, everyone reading this book is a Homo sapiens – the species sapiens (wise) of the genus Homo (man).”

“Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.” (from Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, pp 4 & 5)

More Expert Logic

“The instinct to gorge on high-calorie food was hard-wired into our genes.”

“That’s what makes some of us spoon down an entire tub of Ben & Jerry’s when we find one in the freezer and wash it down with a jumbo Coke.” (from Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, p 41)

“History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.” (from Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, p 101)

“If King David were to show up in an ultra-Orthodox synagogue in present-day Jerusalem, he would be utterly bewildered to find people dressed in East European clothes, speaking in a German dialect (Yiddish) and having endless arguments about the meaning of a Babylonian text (the Talmud). There were neither synagogues, volumes of Talmud, nor even Torah scrolls in ancient Judaea.” (from Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, p 193)

“People continue to conduct a heroic struggle against racism without noticing that the battlefront ahs shifted, and that the place of racism has been replaced by ‘culturism’. There is no such word, but it is about time we coined it. Among today’s elites, assertions about the contrasting merits of diverse human groups are almost always couched in terms of historical differences between cultures rather than biological differences between races. We no longer say, ‘It’s in their blood.’ We say, ‘It’s in their culture.’” [Actually, we –  though not I –  say, ‘It’s in their DNA’. Coldspur] (from Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, p 303)

“Marriages go bad not when love fades – love can modulate into affection without driving two people apart – but when this understanding about the balance of power breaks down, when the weaker member feels exploited or the stronger feels unrewarded for his or her strength.” (from Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives, p 7)

“None behave with a greater appearance of guilt than people who are convinced of their own virtue.” (from Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives, pp 115-116)

“It is, of course, one of life’s persistent disappointments that a great moral crisis in my life is nothing but a matter for gossip in yours.” (from Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives, p 212)

“One cannot have one’s cake and eat it too. Those who elect to be free in thought and deed must not hanker after the rewards, if they are to be so called, which the world offers to those who put up with its fetters.” (T. H. Huxley, objecting to the proposal that George Eliot be buried in Westminster Abbey, quoted by Phyllis Rose in Parallel Lives, p 237)

On Marriage and Serpents

“  . . .they stood united, with Mrs. Carlyle firmly and joyously playing the role of her husband’s protector, playing the serpents without so that he could concentrate on slaying the serpents within.” (from Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives, p 246)

“Marriage is a nest of small scorpions, but it kills the big dragons.” (Ted Hughes, in a letter to a fellow poet, quoted in review of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2 by Parul Sehgal in NYT, October 24)

“I look at what is happening with Italy and can only think: what insanity allows people to think that a fiscal union will lead to anything but the end of the EU?” (Bruno Maçães, a former secretary of state for European affairs in Portugal, quoted in NYT, October 27)

“Richard Craig, gun lover, Trump hater, is the man behind the local ordinance here that made gun ownership obligatory for the head of every household. The unusual rule, approved overwhelmingly by the town board in 2013, has gained this small community in southwestern Colorado some notoriety.” (from article about Nucla, Colorado, and the Democrat Richard Craig, in NYT, October 28)

“.. .but there must have been other children in Upper Austria in the early 1890s who were potty-trained in similar ways to the putative Führer, who didn’t then go on to start the second world war.” (Andrew Roberts in the Spectator, October 13)

‘When Allan Mallinson quoted Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke’s observation that nothing brought out the worst in people more than high command, Antony Beevor replied: ‘Cecil Beaton also added Charity and Amateur Dramatics.’” (Andrew Roberts in the Spectator, October 13)

“There is no terror so consistent, so elusive to describe, as that which haunts a spy in a strange country. The glance of a taxi-driver, the density of people in the street, the variety of official uniform – was he a policeman or a postman? –  the obscurity of custom and language, and the very noises which comprised the world into which Avery had moved contributed to a state of constant anxiety, which, like a nervous pain, became virulent now that he was alone.” (from John Le Carré’s The Looking Glass War, Chapter 8)


“Historical events can seldom be traced to a single cause, and where several causes operate it is unwise to offer comparative estimates of the responsibility of each.” (from Ralph Bennett’s Behind the Battle, p 190)

“Intelligence is of no value unless there is a force to take advantage of it.”  (from Ralph Bennett’s Behind the Battle, p 191)

“Precisely because deception must attach itself like a parasite to a body already sick, it cannot later claim to be the sole cause of the patient’s death.” (from Ralph Bennett’s Behind the Battle, p 262)

“From childhood Nietzsche was subject to excruciating headaches and eye pain. A school doctor predicted total blindness. Cures were humiliating and painful: He was left to lie in darkness for a week at a time, leeches attached to his ears to draw the blood down from his head. Later, on the battlefield of a Prussian war with France, he contracted diphtheria and dysentery. The treatment at the time — silver nitrate, opium and tannic acid enemas — destroyed his intestines. At any moment in his adult life, he suffered from uncontrollable vomiting, hemorrhoids, blinding eye pain and the constant taste of blood in his mouth.” (from NYT, November 1)

“Young focused on the trigeminal nerve, the nerve that provides sensation in the lip and the rest of the face. There are several pain syndromes linked to that nerve, and the one Young thought was most likely was a rare entity with the awkward acronym Sunct — Short-lasting Unilateral Neuralgiform headache attacks with Conjunctival injection and Tearing. These headaches are characterized by brief episodes of pain localized in one side of the face and associated with watering, bloodshot eyes.” (from NYT Magazine, November 4)

“We in Balliol should never take a narrow and provincial view of the universe. We should imitate the genial tolerance of the sun which rises over Wadham and sets over Worcester.” (Anthony Kenny, from Brief Encounters, quoted in TLS review, November 2)

“Mr. Barenboim has long been outspoken. When Israel passed a new law this year that enshrines the right of self-determination as ‘unique to the Jewish people’, he wrote that it made him ‘ashamed of being an Israeli’.”  (from NYT, November 6)

J. Bonington Jagworth Lives

“In a drive on the back roads of Connecticut, the [Allard] J2X is exhilarating. The exhaust is perfectly tuned to produce a snarl that turns into musical banging and popping on the overrun.” (Jim Motavalli in NYT, November 9)

“In the last resort the best way to conceal a damning story is to confess under pressure to something less incriminating but nevertheless discreditable.” (from A History of the German Secret Services and British Counter-Measures (WO 279/499), p 66)

“The attitude of a person under interrogation is one fact among many which can be taken into account; it can never be conclusive in itself. There is enough variety in espionage to ensure that every pre-conceived idea will in some instance prove invalid. Spies may be clever or stupid, plausible or clumsy, experienced or hopelessly amateur. The fact that a man is manifestly ill-equipped to be a spy is, particularly in this war, no proof that he is not one.” (from A History of the German Secret Services and British Counter-Measures (WO 279/499), p 67)

“It is less difficult than might be supposed to extract a confession. Spies are not commonly men of character. They are far more likely (at least in this war) to be parasites than patriots. It is a profession particularly attractive to vain men who have failed elsewhere. Their damaged self-esteem is restored by the atmosphere of secrecy and importance which surrounds their doings irrespective of their own success or failure.” (from A History of the German Secret Services and British Counter-Measures (WO 279/499), p 69)

“If you are too bellicose, you provoke Dictators into doing something irrevocable. If you are too passive, you encourage them to think they can do anything.” (from Alexander Cadogan’s Diaries, p 177)

“But we know, via math and genetics, that your ancestors were also settled in Italy in the tenth century, regardless of whether you’re Tom Conti, Eddie Izzard, President Obama, Richard Dawkins, Taylor Swift, Adolf Hitler, Pope Francis, Queen Elizabeth II, Madonna, Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, all four members of ABBA, my butcher, or Charles Darwin.” (from Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, p 173)

“There’s no such thing as a Jewish disease, because Jews are not a genetically distinct group of people.” (from Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, p 256)

“It’s a novel so it didn’t need to be fact-checked, though a novel needs to have verisimilitude.” (Sara Nelson of Harper Collins, on Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz, reported by Christine Kenneally in NYT, November 14)

“Man kann in Friedenszeiten die Regierung stürzen, wenn man unzufrieden ist. Aber wenn man es während eines Krieges tut, dann verrät man sein eigenes Volk.“ [“One can overturn the government in times of peace. But if one does such during a war, then one is a traitor to one’s own people.”]  (Admiral Canaris to Nikolaus Ritter, from the latter’s Deckname Dr. Rantzau, p 320)

The NYT Avoids the ‘S’ Word

“Venezuela, which was a key axis of that network, has become a regional pariah under President Nicolás Maduro, whose mismanagement of the economy has led to an acute shortage of food and medicine.” (from NYT, November 21)

“They [Jeremy Black’s themes] revolve around a sense of distinctiveness, rather than ethnicity, rooted in many things: a gradual entrenchment of individual liberty, partly expressed through parliamentary sovereignty; a system of Common Law very different – legally, politically and intellectually – from Continental Roman Law; a respect for property; a continuity of local government in parish, shire and town that was comfortable in its English (though not its British) identity; a liking, at least most of the time, for moderation; a language that promoted the nation’s culture and proved exportable; an insular warding off of outsiders, especially threats from Danes, French, Spanish, Dutch and Germans; an identification of Protestantism with patriotism; and an instinctive hostility to supranational movements and religions, such as Catholicism and Islam.” (Jamie Camplin on English Nationalism: A Short History by Jeremy Black, in History Today, November 2018)

“Ultimately, immigration is not actually the problem that inflamed voters: Much more foundational issues, such as austerity, are the real reason.” (Tanja Bueltmann, history professor at Northumbria University, quoted in NYT, November 23)

“Ms. Wallman, the chief statistician for the United States from 1992 to 2017, who helped develop the first governmentwide standard for data on race and ethnicity that came into use in the late 1970s, said she did not like having to categorize by race, but that the government had to for oversight.” (from NYT, November 23)

“The former Prime Minister Lord Balfour, himself an author and philosopher of distinction, observed the process with amusement: ‘At the moment I am immersed in Winston’s brilliant Autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe.’” (from David Dilks’s Churchill and Company, p 10)

“During discussion at the Cabinet of a tangled problem of domestic politics, Churchill asked Alexander for his opinion. ‘Well, Prime Minister, I’m a soldier and I don’t know much about politics; but I feel we should do what is decent, fair, right and honourable.’ A long silence ensued among the politicians. Then the Prime Minister spoke: ‘Never in my long experience have I heard so outrageous a doctrine propounded by a Minister of the Crown.’” (from David Dilks’s Churchill and Company, p 72, source: Harold Macmillan)

“On General Montgomery’s observing that the New Zealand Division did not seem to have been taught to salute, he received the cheerful reply [from Freyberg] ‘That’s all right, Monty. If you wave to them, they’ll wave back.’” (from David Dilks’s Churchill and Company, p 101)

“My upbringing taught me that a useful criterion for assessing a person’s basic competence was whether they knew ‘how many beans make five’. From Brooks we learn that depending on which accountant audits the books, the answer can lie anywhere between zero and sixty.” (Paul Collier, reviewing Richard Brooks’ Bean Counters in TLS, November 16)


“Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological.” (Mary Midgley, in Beast and Man, quoted by James Garvey in Prospect, December)

“Mikoyan’s gift for manoeuvring is still the subject of jokes among Party members. One goes like this. Mikoyan is visiting friends. Suddenly it starts raining heavily outside; all the same, Mikoyan gets up to go home. ‘But you can’t walk!’ his friends protest. ‘It’s pouring out there, and you haven’t got an umbrella!’ ‘Don’t worry,’ he says, ’I can dodge between the raindrops.” (Roy Medvedev, in All Stalin’s Men, p 28)

“Finally, he [Metropolitan Sergius] put the case for a large number of seminaries, as the Church lacked priests. At this point Stalin suddenly broke his silence. ‘Why haven’t you any personnel? Where have they got to?’ he asked, taking the pipe out of his mouth and staring intently at the company . . .  The old man replied, ‘We lack personnel for several reasons, one of which is that we train a man to be a priest, but he becomes a Marshal of the Soviet Union.’” (Roy Medvedev, in All Stalin’s Men, p 96)

“One of them [a group of teachers who had fought in the war], very drunk, was weeping. ‘Who are we going to fight for now?’, he kept whining. ‘We died for Stalin, but what now? For Molotov? No thanks, I’m not going to go out and die for Molotov!’” (Roy Medvedev, in All Stalin’s Men, p 101)

“Everyday experiences like insomnia, sadness, twitchy legs and impaired sex drive now become diagnoses: sleep disorder, depression, restless leg syndrome and sexual dysfunction. If children cough after exercising, they have asthma; if they have trouble reading, they are dyslexic; if they are unhappy, they are depressed; and if they alternate between unhappiness and liveliness, they have bipolar disorder.  While these diagnoses may benefit the few with severe symptoms. one has to wonder about the effect on the many whose symptoms are mild, intermittent or transient.” (Doctors Schwartz, Woloshin and Welch in a 2007 NYT article, quoted in obituary of Dr. Lisa Schwartz in NYT, December 7)

“Men with a sense of humour and a desire to live were, in any case, far more welcome than ‘sad sacks’.  A man who wants to live is the only one who, in case of absolute necessity, knows how to die usefully.” (from George Langelaan’s Knights of the Floating Silk, p 122)

“Being newspapermen, we had, of course. stopped, and had stones thrown at us, but we had managed to catch sight of some of the inhabitants of the village [near Miranda, between Vitoria and Burgos]. Without exception, all had six fingers to each hand and six toes to each foot, and we saw two at least who walked round on all fours; it was a village where the inhabitants had intermarried for centuries and what we had seen were some of the results of these consanguine unions.” (from George Langelaan’s Knights of the Floating Silk, p 181)

“The decision to trademark ‘Hakuna Matata’ is predicated purely on greed and is an insult not only to the spirit of the Swahili people but also Africa as a whole.” (Shelton Mpala, Zimbabwean activist, protesting Disney’s action, recorded in NYT, December 21)

“Ashdown claimed that he first acquired his left-of-centre views in the SBS ‘where people were valued and trusted according to their abilities and skills, not their origins’.” (from Paddy Ashdown’s obituary in the Sunday Times, December 23)

“When one reads the paper today, it feels tentative, for Lauterpacht was a pragmatist who knew that international law as it then was allowed Germany to persecute anyone not deemed to be Aryan.” (Philippe Sands, in East West Street, p 89)

“Poorly crafted laws could have unintended consequences, provoking the very wrongs they sought to prevent. I was instinctively sympathetic to Lauterpacht’s view, which was motivated by a desire to reinforce the protection of each individual, irrespective of which group he or she happened to belong to, to limit the potent force of tribalism, not reinforce it. By focusing on the individual, not the group, Lauterpacht wanted to diminish the force of intergroup conflict.” (Philippe Sands, in East West Street, p 281)

“The term ‘genocide’, with its focus on the group, tends to heighten a sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’, burnishes feelings of group identity, and may unwittingly give rise to the very conditions that it seeks to address: by pitting one group against another, it makes reconciliation less likely.” (Philippe Sands, in East West Street, p 364)

“Now Women’s March activists are grappling with how they treat Jews — and whether they should be counted as privileged white Americans or ‘marginalized’ minorities . . .” (from report in NYT, December 24)

“Historians and journalists always have agendas, but if I want to find out what’s going on in South Africa, I read Nadine Gordimer or John Coetzee, because they offer novelistic truth.” (Justin Cartwright, in 2013 interview with the Independent, quoted in his NYT obituary, December 24)

“There is so little heartless work around. So I feel I am filling a small but necessary gap.” (Edward Gorey, quoted by Sam Leith in the Spectator, December 8)

“It is only through the ‘constellation’ formed by our times with times past that we can interpret the latter.” (Walter Benjamin, in Theses on the Philosophy of History, quoted by Richard Tagart in letter to History Today, December)

“After we had refreshed ourselves in this agreeable but, for me, unusual manner, the judge leaned back in his chair and said: ‘May I ask you a question?’

‘Go right ahead, judge,’ I replied.

‘Do you think these bastards are guilty?’

The question took me by surprise, as it was not one which an English judge might have been expected to put to me in similar circumstances.” (H. Montgomery Hyde, on Judge Goddard’s approach during an adjournment of the trial of suspected German spies in the Federal Court of the Southern District of New York, from Secret Intelligence Agent, p 190)

“A perception of the vanity of earthly things, though it may be enough to get one into Heaven, is not sufficient equipment for the writing of a novel.” (George Orwell, in New Yorker review of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, cited by Hilary Spurling in Anthony Powell, p 268)

“She [Barbara Skelton] was one of three girls said to be able to make or break a London reputation in the 1950s (the other two were Sonia Orwell and the Irish novelist Edna O’Brien). Any ambitious young man hoping to make a name in journalism or the book world was likely to get nowhere unless he could boast of having slept with at least one, preferably all three.” (from Hilary Spurling’s Anthony Powell, p 307)

“Intelligence is only rarely dramatic; its true basis is research, and the best results are usually obtained from the continuous study of insignificant details which, though singly of little value, are collectively of great importance.” (Rear-Admiral John Godfrey, in a memorandum of 1941, quoted by Asa Briggs in Secret Days, p 127)