Commonplace 2019


“There are no historical critics, only fellow practitioners.” (Suzannah Lipscomb, in History Today, December 2018)

“The most savage review I have received since my first book was published in 1969 was written a few years ago by an American specialist writer on intelligence. Bloodied, I asked a fellow historian what the writer might have against me. He responded succinctly: ‘You’ve stepped on his patch. He wants to make sure that you never do so again.’” (Max Hastings, in the Spectator, December 15/22/29, 2018)

“In A Spy Named Orphan Roland Philipp’s description of Donald Maclean’s psychological make-up chimes with what I have always felt about the Cambridge spies (Philby excepted) – namely, that their romance with the Soviets Union partook of patriotism as much as it did of espionage. Maclean seemed to want to hold Britain and the USSR in balance, making a conscious effort to serve both, particularly when in the 1930s the moral interests of the UK were being so ill-served by the government of Baldwin and Chamberlain. I’ve never been much interested in Maclean, finding him as Burgess did something of a bore, but Philipps makes the story and the slow uncovering of his treachery a gripping narrative and an overwhelmingly sad one.” (Alan Bennett, in 24 August 2108 excerpt from his Diaries, published in the London Review of Books, January 3)

Bring Back the Austro-Hungarian Empire!

The main reason for what is happening in Hungary (“Hungary’s Autocracy Beneath a Patina of Democracy,” news article, Dec. 26) is the alienation and anger Hungarians feel toward Western Europe and the European Union.

The cause of this anger is Europe’s failure to do anything to correct the terrible injustice that occurred at the end of World War I through the Treaty of Trianon, when this kingdom, over a thousand years old, was dismembered. This occurred not because Hungary was on the wrong side in the war but because Central Europe was getting too strong and could no longer be dominated by the French and the British.

President Woodrow Wilson rightly opposed the Trianon Treaty; he felt that strangers should not be allowed to redraw the borders in Central Europe and overnight turn millions of Hungarians into foreigners in the towns that were built by their fathers.

It is the responsibility of the European Union to require at least local autonomy for these millions of Hungarians. And it is also important for the general public to understand the reasons for the underlying alienation and anger that are exploited by demagogues. Most people in the West don’t even know that this national minority — one of Europe’s largest — exists. (Letter from Béla Lipták, founder of the Hungarian Lobby, in NYT, January 3)

“In the case of two brothers brought up in very much the same way, we have the one who becomes a nonconformist minister because his father was a nonconformist minister, while his brother becomes a militant atheist because his father was a nonconformist minister.” (Herbert Butterfield, from On Historical Explanation, quoted by C. T. McIntire in Herbert Butterfield)

“I realize that homosexuality is a serious problem for anyone who is, but then,heterosexuality is a serious problem for anyone who is, too. And being a man is a serious problem and being a woman is, too. Lots of things are problems.” (Edward Gorey, quoted by Robert Gottlieb in NYT Book Review, January 6)

“When the English Civil War broke out, hundreds of Puritans returned home to fight in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, a military force founded on the radical notion that promotions should be based on proficiency rather than social status. As they clashed with Royalist armies, they grew to believe they were fighting to liberate their Anglo-Saxon lands from the Norman invaders six hundred years after the latter arrived with William the Conqueror. ‘What were the lords of England,’ a group of common soldiers declared to a wartime visitor to their encampment, ‘but William the Conqueror’s colonels?’ King Charles, they decreed, was ‘the last successor of William the Conqueror’ who had to be cast out if the people were to ’have recovered ourselves from under the Norman yoke.’” (from Colin Woodard’s American Nations, p 63)

“There is nothing in all the dark caves of human passion so cruel and deadly as the hatred the South Carolinians profess for the Yankees.   New England is to [them] the incarnation of moral and political wickedness and social corruption . . .  the source of everything which South Carolina hates.” (Times correspondent William Russell, 28 May, 1851, quoted by Colin Woodard in American Nations, p 229)

“What is frustrating about machine learning, however, is that the algorithms can’t articulate what they’re thinking. We don’t know why they work, so we don’t know if they can be trusted. AlphaZero gives every appearance of having discovered some important principles about chess, but it can’t share that understanding with us. Not yet, at least. As human beings, we want more than answers. We want insight. This is going to be a source of tension in our interactions with computers from now on.” (Steven Strogatz, professor in mathematics at Cornell University, in NYT, January 8)

“There are two maxims for historians which so harmonise with what I know of history that I would like to claim them as my own, though they really belong to nineteenth-century historiography: first, that governments try to press upon the historian the key to all the drawers except one, and are very anxious to spread the belief that this single one contains no secret of importance; secondly, that if the historian can only find out the thing which government does not want him to know, he will lay his hand upon something that is likely to be significant.” (Herbert Butterfield in Official History: Its Pitfalls and Criteria)

“Nothing in the whole of historiography is more subtly dangerous than the natural disposition to withhold criticism because John Smith belongs to one’s own circle or because he is a nice man, so that it seems ungracious to try to press him on a point too far, or because it does not occur to one that something more could be extracted from hm by importunate behavior.” (Herbert Butterfield in Official History: Its Pitfalls and Criteria)

“One of the high tests of an historian is the degree to which he possesses the requisite elasticity of mind, so that he is not a mere compiler adding new facts to old ones, not a mere prisoner of a current framework of story, but a detective determined not to miss the clue that may lead to a fresh reconstruction of the theme and carry the issue to a higher order of thought.” (Herbert Butterfield in Official History: Its Pitfalls and Criteria)

 “Early February saw another lucky escape when a shell exploded ‘at no great distance’ from him while lunching at Laurence Farm with Archie Sinclair and others.” (Andrew Roberts in Winston Churchill: Walking with Destiny, p 241)

“A meaningful national identity [for the ni-Vanuatu] has been constructed from a common appreciation of ceremonial pig-tusk bracelets and the taking of kava, a very mild narcotic root that looks like primordial pea soup and tastes like a fine astringent dirt.” (Gideon Lewis-Kraus in the NYT Magazine, January 20)

“In Mr. Glazer’s case, it seemed, a multiculturalist was a neoconservative who had been mugged by reality.” (from NYT obituary of Nathan Glazer, January 21)

And which strong post-WWII international order was that?

“Traditional adversaries will continue attempts to gain and assert influence, taking advantage of changing conditions in the international environment — including the weakening of the post-WWII international order and dominance of Western democratic ideals, increasingly isolationist tendencies in the West, and shifts in the global economy.” (from report by director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, in NYT, January 23)

“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 Service and British Counter-Measures (July 1944) [WO-279-499 at the National Archives, probably written by Hugh Trevor-Roper])

“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. Stories which appear wildly improbable may in the end turn out to be true. Other stories which appear too absurd or too complicated to have been invented may, nevertheless, not be true. There is no rule of universal application; and a case which breaks all the rules may merely be a piece of stupidity or a mistake on the enemy’s part.” (from A History of the German Secret Service and British Counter-Measures (July 1944) [WO-279-499 at the National Archives, probably written by Hugh Trevor-Roper])

“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 Service and British Counter-Measures (July 1944) [WO-279-499 at the National Archives, probably written by Hugh Trevor-Roper])

“‘Intriguing parallel’ is one of those phrases that makes one start counting the ceiling tiles.” (James Wolcott, in London Review of Books, January 24)


Cabbie Stories (1)

“My husband, T.S. Eliot, loved to recount how late one evening he stopped a taxi. As he got in, the driver said: ‘You’re T. S. Eliot’. When asked how he knew, he replied: ‘Ah, I’ve got an eye for a celebrity. Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him: “Well, Lord Russell, what’s it all about”, and, do you know, he couldn’t tell me.’” (letter from Valerie Eliot to the Times, February 8, 19??)

Cabbie Stories (2)

“He [Alec Guinness] once got into the back of a cab and the driver said, ‘I know you.’ Alec opened his mouth to confirm that he was indeed Alec Guinness and the driver said, ‘No. don’t tell me. I’ll get it. Before you get out, I’ll get your name.’ As Alec was paying the fare, the driver said with a flourish, ‘I’ve got it. Telly Savalas.’

So Alec says, ‘No, that’s not it.’

‘I bet you wish you was though,’ says the cabbie.” (from Michael Caine’s Blowing the Bloody Doors Off, p 209)

“Over the years I have become an expert at reading body language. I remember in the 1960s when Russian agents were being discovered all over the British establishment, Kim Philby was being interviewed on television and the journalist said, ‘Answer me truthfully, are you a Russian spy?”

Philby turned his gaze down into his lap, then up again, looked the interviewer straight n the eye and said ‘No.’

‘He’s lying,’ I said to myself. He put his head down to get his face ready, to prepare the correct face of innocence. If he had been telling the truth he would not have needed to do that, he would just have said no.” (from Michael Caine’s Blowing the Bloody Doors Off, p 97)

“What diplomatic discretion may have prevented Prime Minister Netanyahu from pointing out, but which might have been apt, was that Israel had an advantage in that nearly all of the arrivals into the country for decades had a common link in their Jewish heritage – whereas in the months and years to come Angela Merkel and her nation would have to recognize that few of the people they let in during 2015 were German Lutherans.” (from Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe, p 124)

“When Hilaire Belloc published The Great Heresies in 1938 he had devoted a chapter to ‘the great and enduring heresy of Mohammed’, a passage that makes The Satanic Verses look tame.” (from Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe, p 131)

“There is nothing so funny as a person demanding money to which he is not entitled in recompense for an injury to his reputation which he has not sustained.” (Auberon Waugh, according to William Cook in the Spectator, January 26)

“That is why Hugh White, an Australian official-turned-scholar, emphasizes so strongly in his book The China Choice that mutual recognition of the legitimacy of each other’s political system is essential if the risk of conflict between the US and China is to be reduced.” (Anatol Lieven, in Prospect, mid-winter 2019)

“There are critics who are convinced that he would have been a more interesting man if, while painting the bins, he had been targeted from the air by a Spectre attack helicopter with Ernst Stavro Blofeld at the controls (“No, Mister Larkin, I expect you to die!’), but instead he was dedicated to writing poems.” (Clive James on Philip Larkin, in Prospect, mid-winter 2019)

“Karl Popper, the philosopher who, among those I have known personally, was the one whose achievements I held in highest regard, always believed that mathematics as a language. But he never succeeded in convincing me.” (from letter by Bryan Magee in Prospect, March 2019)

“Back in the old days, you all only hired Irishmen. They were drunks, but they could be trusted.” (Jeff Sessions to Andrew G. McCabe, from The Threat, quoted in NYT review, February 19)

Is your outlook not well-rounded enough? A sociologist helps  . . .

“‘We need a new “cultural contract” in which everyone gets to have a secure, culturally rich ethnic identity as well as a thin culturally neutral and future-oriented national identity.’ Kaufmann envisions a ‘multi-vocal nationhood’ in which Afro-Caribbean Britishness is recognized as being distinctively British as harvest festivals or nativity plays. ‘In exchange for de-centring themselves from the nation, white Britons should be given free rein to celebrate their more historicist, rural, ancestral vision of British nationhood.’ This will, he says help them to develop a more rounded and assured outlook.” (Joan C. Williams in review of Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift, in TLS, February 8)

How Sociologists Spend their Time: No. 257 in a series

“In many countries, the University-educated are 10-25 points more likely than those without high-school to think that a person who wants less immigration for ethno-cultural reasons is a racist.” (Eric Kaufmann, in Whiteshift, according to Joan C. Williams, in TLS review, February 8)

“R.A.B. about administrative questions. I can’t stand these. I am suddenly told that a Department in the Ministry of Obfuscation has to be reorganised: it must come back ‘under control’ of the Ministry of Circumlocution. But there is a great difficulty, as the Head of the Department – Col. Shufflebotttom – ought not to be there, and I ought to substitute Mr. Piffkins. (Other people tell me this is a ramp, and that the real man is Nuffkins.) I don’t know S. or P. (or even N.). I can’t grasp what they are supposed to be doing. I have no data to go on: how the Hell can I decide? But I was at it all day – and work accumulating.” (Alexander Cadogan’s Diary entry for October 6, 1939)

“An intelligence officer ought to be like the devil: believing no one, not even himself.” (Joseph Stalin, quoted by Stephen Kotkin in Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941, p 839)

Friendship? Legitimacy?

“The precedents set by FDR – the concentration of war-making and military policy exclusively in the executive branch, the normalisation of secrecy and deceit – had been counterbalanced by his friendship with Stalin and his recognition of legitimate Soviet interests in Eastern Europe. When Roosevelt died, that balance was lost.” (Jackson Lears, in review of Robert M. Dallek’s Franklin Roosevelt: A Political Life, in London Review of Books, February 21)

“One of the last memories I have of working with Halifax and Churchill was when we were invited to march up and down in the garden of No. 10 while Winston was rehearsing his speech ’We shall fight on the beaches’. There we were, the lanky Edward, the stocky Winston and myself. As Winston declaimed, he turned to us and said, ‘Would you fight in the streets and on the hills?’ Pacific as we were we warmly agreed, saying ‘Yes, certainly, Winston’, and then continued to march up and down with him.” (from Lord Butler’s The Art of the Possible, p 87)

“We sat at a table in the window and ate what remained of the Club [Athenaeum] food after the bishops had had their run; for we were somewhat late, and the bishops attack the sideboard early.” (from Lord Butler’s The Art of the Possible, p 159)


“All healthy societies rest on the widespread acceptance of a dense web of reciprocal obligations among citizens. Underpinning this is a recognition of shared identity built through social interaction, common endeavours, shared history and shared future, since this generates a presumption of fellow feeling. Psychologically, this is what citizenship of a healthy society means.” (Paul Collier, in the Spectator February 23)

“Fish were born to fly, yet everywhere they swim.” (Alexander Herzen, according to Henry Hardy in In Search of Isaiah Berlin, p 107)

“By the end of August 1940, a Soviet Latvian Constitution had been promulgated, giving birth to the Latvian People’s Commissariat of State Security, ensuring powers for NKVD commissars. Directions on procedures were signed on 28 November 1940 in the city of Kaunas by the Lithuanian NKVD, and were in line with those issued by Moscow to their Latvian and Estonian counterparts.”

            “The circular read in part . . . . 

For the task of operative work, it is of profound importance to know how many former policemen, White Guardists, ex-army officers, members of anti-Soviet political parties and organisations are in the territory of Lithuania and where this element is concentrated. This is necessary in order to define the counter-revolutionary force and to direct our apparatus of active agencies for their annihilation and liquidation.

Executing the Order of the People’s Commissariat of NKVD of USSR, No. 001223, referring to a report on the anti-Soviet element, and the demand to be most careful in the exact execution of the task, I issue the following order:

            Into the alphabetic files must be entered all those persons who, because of their social and political past, their nationalist-chauvinistic inclinations, religious beliefs, moral and political instability, are hostile to the socialistic form of State, and consequently might be exploited by foreign intelligence services and counter-revolutionary centres for their anti-Soviet purpose.

            Among such elements are to be counted:

  1. All former members of anti-Soviet political parties, organisations and groups: Trotskyites, right-wingers, Mensheviks, Social Democrats, anarchists etc.
  2. All former members of nationalistic, chauvinistic, anti-Soviet parties, Nationalists, Christian Democrats, the active members of student fraternities, of the National Guard etc.
  3. Former policemen, officers of the criminal and political police and of prisons . . .” (from Stalin’s Secret War by Rupert Butler, pp 35-36)

On Magyars

  1. “There’s no such thing as a Hungarian race or ethnicity. Just a Hungarian language.” (Rev. Gabor Ivanyi, quoted in NYT, March 16)
  2. “MIERNIK: As soon as I say you are beautiful, you mention Nigel.

BENTLEY: That is the Hungarian part of me. Subtle.”

(from Charles McCarry’s The Miernik Dossier, p 41)

“‘Aren’t you supposed to be the gentlemen who lie for the good of their country?’

‘That’s diplomats. We’re not gentlemen.’

‘So you lie to save your hides.’

‘That’s politicians. Different game entirely.’”

 (from John le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor, Chapter 7)

“The journalist Auberon Waugh, in whose time-capsule of a flat I briefly lived in 2000, once summed up what he took to be the primary motivations for writing books. ‘With women, there is this tremendous desire to expose themselves. With men, it is more often an obscure form of revenge.’” (Thomas W. Hodgson, in the Spectator, March 2)

“Academics are the only people I can think of for whom this sentence makes sense: ‘I’m hoping to get some time off so that I can get some work done.’” (Sidney Verba, scholar of democracies, from his NYT obituary, March 18)

On The Satanic Verses and Islamicists

“My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.” (John le Carré, quoted by Hanif Kureishi in TLS, March 1)

“In a civilized world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work in order to reinforce this principle of free speech.” (Roald Dahl, in letter to the Times, quoted by Hanif Kureishi in TLS, March 1)

“The message of the Enlightenment is that we have some choice over who we want to be, making our own destiny as individuals, without submitting to gods, revelation or ancestors. The basis of this is a liberal education and a democracy of ideas. These are not British values – over which Europeans have no monopoly – but universal ones.” (Hanif Kureishi in TLS, March 1)

“Notions of criticism, free-ranging thought, and questioning are universal values which benefit the relatively powerless in particular. If we gave way on any of these, even for a moment, we’d leave ourselves without a culture, and with no hope.” (Hanif Kureishi in TLS, March 1)

“Was there is [sic] a single human civilization, if unequally developed in different parts of the world? Or are human cultures radically different, yet all (perhaps equally) valuable? The views of Picasso and the Surrealists were also acknowledged: primitive art conveyed spiritual insights that had been lost in the West. These messages fitted in with different justifications of colonialism. In the interwar years the ideal of civilizing a world of savages, France’s mission civilisatrice, was challenged by those who urged an appreciation of difference and a respect for local traditions.” (Adam Cooper, in TLS, March 8)

“Monty asked him what rank he had been during the war, and when Rose said he was a subaltern Monty relied, ‘I was a Field Marshal. I don’t suppose we ever met.’” (A. N. Wilson, quoting from Kenneth Rose’s journals, in the TLS, March 15)

Courting Habits of Our Supreme Court Justices (No. 23 in a series)

“ . . . she invites him home, but he fails the audition at the Lazy B, when he flinches at her father’s offer of a bull’s testicle grilled on a branding fire.” (on the future Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist’s unsuccessful wooing of Sandra Day O’Connor, as cited by Jeffrey Toobin in his review of First, by Evan Thomas, NYT, March 24)

“MIERNIK: No, it’s important that the ugly, the miserable believe that the beautiful are serene.

BENTLEY: What an idea. The Edwardians thought that nothing gave the poor greater pleasure than the sight of a rich man. That’s an odd viewpoint for a modern Communist.” (from Charles McCarry’s The Miernik Dossier, p 42)

“But so long as the EU remains in its present form – without the possibility of differential legal tiers of membership for non-euro members that do not wish to pursue ever-closer union – the question of whether it is better for Britain to be outside the EU with more sovereignty at the cost of weaker economic relations, or inside it with opt-outs and weak political influence, will not go away. Perpetual engagement with the unresolvable European question and what it means for political order in these islands is a historical burden Britain must learn to accept, possibly forever.” (Professor Helen Thompson, in History Today, March)


“Hammad’s father, Saad, said it was important to foster in his children a curiosity about their heritage, particularly because they were not able to visit the region as children. ‘That’s what makes you whole, as a person,’ he said, ‘to look at all the dimensions of yourself.’” (Isabella Hamad’s father, quoted in NYT review of The Parisian, April 5)

“But if it haunts the collective imagination, that is chiefly because the Blitz epitomizes the belief that at a decisive moment Britain ‘stood alone’, the one European nation to defy Hitler in defence of freedom. This notion pervaded the rhetoric of Winston Churchill, who became Prime Minister in May of that year. In reality, even before the United States entered the war, Britain had behind it the resources of a world-wide empire.” (Neil Berry, in TLS, March 29)

“Maybe we are not tired of ‘experts’, as Michael Gove put it in 2016; maybe we are tired of bores. Experts tend to speak in questions and informed possibilities – they are usually gently convincing and leave space for the grey areas, they welcome being challenged. Bores tend to behave as if they have all the answers wrapped up. They speak as if they know about that which it is impossible for anyone to now about. They speak as if the future is moulded from the sound of their voice.” (Rozalind Dineen, in TLS, March 29)

Mostly nonsense “Humans are tribal. We need to belong to groups. We crave bonds and attachments, which is why we love clubs, teams, fraternities, family. Almost no one is a hermit. Even monks and friars belong to orders. But the tribal instinct is not just an instinct to belong. It is also an instinct to exclude.” (Amy Chua, in Political Tribes, quoted in review by Paul Seabright in TLS, March 29)

We? “We will have to respond in a manner far more timely and nimble than we did to the Little Ice Age.” (Robert J. Mayhew, in TLS, March 29)

“And thus Prykke joined Steam Radio’s tight team

Of people primed to Talk on Any Theme,

A mafia of men with minds like swords

As well as some extremely brainy broads –

And truth to tell our lad found nothing easier

Than hanging on the lips of Lady Freesia

Or trading witticisms with Mag Scrabble

Or letting Margerina Latchkey babble.”

(from Book Eight of Clive James’s Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage through the London Literary World)

“George Simmel, the sociologist, pointed out that ‘the purpose of secrecy is above all protection. Of all protective measures, the most radical is to make oneself invisible.’ Secrecy is maintained less to secure the safety of the state than to protect those who rule it from the scrutiny of the ruled, and helps perpetuate the hierarchical structure of British society in the age of democracy.” (David Stafford, in Britain and European Resistance 1940-1945, p xiii)

“If three British officers say three different things, that does not mean that any of them is wrong; it does not mean that any of them is confused; it only means that it is more intricate and far-reaching than has hitherto been supposed.” (C. M. Woodhouse, in Apple of Discord, p 39, quoted by David Stafford in Britain and European Resistance 1940-1945, p 5)

“At the back of my mind, I still see every sentence as demanding to be put into Latin. If it cannot be put into Latin, I know that it is, at best, obscure, at worst, nonsense.” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, from One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper, p xviii)

“If, as an anthropologist, you are faced with ‘whole sentences which appear to mean nothing’, don’t despair; they probably do mean nothing and can therefore be ignored. Life is short, and those who will not take the trouble to write clearly cannot properly expect to be read.” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, from One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper, p 139, 22 January, 1967, to Alan Macfarlane)

“I do not read anything he [Christopher Hill] writes because nothing that he writes can be trusted: he has no scholarly method.”

“Neale once said to me that it was useless to discuss evidence with Tawney; he simply didn’t know what it was.” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, from One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper, p 284, December 28, 1984 to Blair Worden)

“But dons, in general, I fear are boors. I had thought this was true only of Cambridge dons; but alas, it is general. Not only boors but also so silly, and so self-important: they believe that they are an intellectual élite whereas in fact they are, for the most part, an insulated and protected species of lemming.” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, from One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper, p 289,2 March, 1985, to Hugh Lloyd-Jones)

“Scholarship which is confined to one rut becomes antiquarianism: it needs a context, and the possibility of comparison, and the invigorating infusion of reality, and life.  But then, of course, there is the opposite danger of dilettantism, the occupational hazard of the journalist. I think that one needs to be a disciplined specialist in one area in order to have a corrective standard outside that area – and meanwhile to have interests outside that area in order to preserve one’s balance and keep intellectually alive.” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, from One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper, pp 308-309,4 October, 1986, to Alasdair Palmer)

“I also dislike 90% of Christians and Christianity. But I will not join you as ‘a solid atheist’. I am fascinated by religion as a sociological phenomenon. I enjoy observing the foibles – the harmless foibles – of its various adepts. I recognize that it has done some practical good. And then, I think of its contribution to art and music and poetry! How mean, how insolent is the claim that we can dispense altogether with it; how jejune a philosophy which leaves no mystery behind it! But of course, when people smugly claim to solve that mystery with theological explanations, I shut off.” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, from One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper, p 321,2 November 1986, to Alasdair Palmer)

“This delights me, because it enables me to ask a question: a question which I cannot decently put to a professed Christian but may, I suppose, risk putting to an ex-Christian. Did you, at the time, really believe, or believe that you believed, those quaint, superannuated doctrines of Incarnation, Resurrection, Ascension, etc. which, in the Creed, we solemnly say that we believe, and which, if words have any meaning, are indeed essential beliefs; for, as the Apostle says, with unusual clarity, ‘if Christ rose not from the dead, then is all our faith vain’.

Do ‘committed’ Christians really ‘believe’ such stuff? Merely to pose such a question makes me somewhat dizzy; for if the answer is Yes, I must resign myself to thinking that I am in a madhouse, or the Floating Island of Laputa; but if it is No, then what is the meaning of being a committed Christian? This is a problem – a semantic, an epistemological, perhaps an anthropological problem – which exercises my poor, well-meaning brain, and exercises it more severely than ever now I have survived into a more serious-minded generation and migrated from the sunlit uplands of Oxford into these dismal Dissenting Fens. Now, and here, I have come to realise that there are people, even in what Gibbon would call ‘the full light and freedom of the 20th century’, who apparently take this stuff not (as is surely permissible) as an agreeable allegory, or harmless poetic myth, into whose historically consecrate shell successive generations have poured a permanent philosophic or moral content, but literally. I have heard tell of ‘born-again Christians’: grown persons who, having previously been rational creatures, have suddenly and deliberately – horrible thought! – chosen to take up this bizarre mental apparatus. Ex-President Carter, I believe, is one of them, and I have a dark suspicion that there are one or two in the university of Cambridge.” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, from One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper, pp 323-324,23 November, 1986, to Alasdair Palmer)

“The awareness campaigns are key to combating the myths and misinformation that surround leprosy. Mr. Chowla recalled a tribal woman he had met in Chattisgarh, a locus of the disease in northern India. The woman’s fingers were clawed, a signature effect of leprosy. But she saw no point in visiting a doctor. The disease was an intergenerational curse, she said: Her grandmother once had boiled frogs in a fit of annoyance at their loud croaking, and the frogs had taken revenge on her, the granddaughter.” (from report in NYT, April 23)

“For you must know that the Dean of Christ-church is both dean of the cathedral church of Oxon and head of that college, and seldom is one man fit for both parts, as things now stand, the former requiring a clergyman of  the established Church, the latter a man of humane learning fit to govern a society of schollers; so that some would seek an act of Parliament to separate the two. But others oppose this as an affront to her majesty’s prerogative and the patronage of the Church, and to tradition, besides the difficulty of disentangling the property and other rights which, by now, have become so intertwined that both might suffer shock if rudely severed.” (from the letter of Mercurius Oxoniensis to Mercurius Londoniensis, Dark and Obnubilated Affairs, 26 July 1969, from The Letters of Mercurius)

“The most important thing, as we have discussed today during the talks, is to restore the rule of international law and revert to the position where global developments were regulated by international law instead of the rule of the fist.” (President Putin, reported in NYT, April 26)


“Climate change is the greatest challenge humanity has collectively faced.” (John Lanchester in NYT Book Review, April 28)


“While I am aware that there is no Truth, no objective truth, no single truth, no truth simple or unsimple, either; no verity, eternal or otherwise; no Truth about anything, there are Facts, objective facts, discernible and verifiable. And the more facts you accumulate, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. And finding facts – through reading documents or through interviewing and re-interviewing – can’t be rushed; it takes time. Truth takes time.” (Robert Caro, in Working, quoted by Ruth Schurr in TLS review, April 26)


“Finally, there is the invisible hand that links together the interests of merchants and manufacturers in different industries. This is Smith’s most famous use of the phrase ‘invisible hand’. It also contains his worst argument effectively that when each capitalist advances the interest of his own industry, business as a whole benefits, since it is nothing more than the aggregate of individual industries. This is a fallacy of composition; it assumes without proof that the success of one industry is not generally linked to the failure of others (manufacturer of fore-hoses versus manufacturer of fire-proofing).” (Alexander Douglas, in review of Eric Schliesser’s Adam Smith and Dennis C. Rasmussen’s The Infidel and the Professor, in TLS, April 26)

“The past is the only thing we know. The present is no more than an illusion, a moment that is already past in an instant (or, rather, a moment in which past and future slot into each other). And what we know about the future is nothing else than the projection of our past knowledge into it.” (John Lukacs, in A Student’s Guide to the Study of History, quoted in his NYT obituary, May 9)

“The Myers-Brigg Type Indicator, or MBTI, is not universally respected (‘astrology for middle management’ is an unflattering description), but there is no doubting its popularity, from job recruitment to dating sites, or its enshrinement in American life  . . . ” (Phil Baker, in TLS review of Merve Emre’s What’s Your Type?, May 3)

“Good gracious me, if we ruled out hiring staff who had a fling with Marx in their misspent youth, we should have to fight the war with the Women’s Auxiliary.” (‘Miss Maxse’, from Robert Littell’s Young Philby, p 195)

“‘Gentleman, it is not Soviet communism I fear, but rather British imperialism,’ Truman remarked to Senator Burton K. Wheeler some weeks after becoming President.” (John Ranelagh, in The Agency, p 122)

“In September 1946 Henry Wallace, Truman’s secretary of commerce, received a warm reception when he said: ‘To make Britain the key to our foreign policy would, in my judgment, be the height of folly. Make no mistake about it: the British imperialist policy in the Near East alone, combined with Russian retaliation, would lead the United States straight to war  . . .  The real peace we now need is between the United States and Russia.’” (reported in NYT, September 13, 1946)

“The Reds, phonies and the parlor pinks seem to be banded together and are becoming a national danger. I am afraid they are a sabotage front for Uncle Joe Stalin.” (President Truman, September 19, 1946; quoted by Daniel Yergin in Shattered Peace) (from John Ranelagh’s The Agency, p 125)

“But you can’t do a professional job on a subject if you’re going to be passionate about it.” (John Huizenga, in 1983 interview with the author, from John Ranelagh’s The Agency, p 471)

“An anchorite or anchoress permanently encloses themselves in a cell to live a life of prayer and contemplation.” (Mary Wellesley, in London Review of Books, May 23)

“The chief practical use of history is to deliver us from plausible historical analogies.” (James Bryce, in 1920, according to Jan-Werner Müller in London Review of Books, May 23)

‘The main benefit of controlling a modern bureaucratic state is not the power to persecute the innocent. It is the power to protect the guilty.” (‘a Hungarian observer’, according to Jan-Werner Müller in London Review of Books, May 23)

“You have the ability to look at a mass of what seems like conflicting trivia and discern patterns. And patterns, as any spy worth his salt grasps, are the outer shells of conspiracy.” (’Kim Philby’ to ‘James Angleton’, in Robert Littell’s The Company, p 36)

“Poetry should respond to climate change.” (poet laureate Simon Armitage, quoted in TLS, May 17)

“We need a revival of period strings as much as we need a revival of period dentistry.” (cited by Nicholas Kenyon in TLS, May 17)

“Or is he [Stalin], on the contrary, the leader of a pro-Western minority bloc within the Soviet Politburo, who would like to come to a reasonable agreement with us and who would carry it out in good faith to insure the future peace of the world, but who is unable to do so because he is outvoted by his colleagues of the ruling oligarchy within the Kremlin?” (Walter Bedell Smith, in My Three Years in Moscow, p 54)

“Some years ago, a knockabout neighbor glanced at a book I was carrying, a recent biography, which had, splashed in bold characters across its spine, EVELYN WAUGH’. ‘Ah,’ he suggested, ‘Steve and Mark’s mum?’” (Mark McGinness, in Quadrant, April 2016)


“Most of the mathematicians are busy admiring the architecture, while the physicists are admiring the animals. Which is more important isn’t, to me, the interesting question. The interesting question is, Why do they fit together so well?” (Freeman Dyson, quoted in NYT, June 3)

“In the 1920s, Cosmo Gordon Lang, then Archbishop of York, was painted by William Orpen, a better artist than he deserved. But he complained to Hensley Henson, the great Bishop of Durham, that the finished oeuvre made him look ‘proud, prelatical and pompous’. Henson replied: ‘May I ask Your Grace to which of these epithets Your Grace takes exception?’” (from the Journals of Kenneth Rose, quoted by Bruce Anderson in the Spectator, May 22)

“She explains her wealth tax by likening it to the property tax paid by homeowners, only broadened to include the ‘diamonds, the stock portfolio, the Rembrandts and the yachts’ of the super-rich.” (on Elizabeth Warren, from the NYT, June 11)

“For all its borrowings from Greek, Norse and German, English is fundamentally an imposition of French (by conquest) and Latin (by religion and scholarship) on a substrate of Anglo-Saxon. The languages made their peace hundreds of years ago but the legacy is an English in which the lexis of labour and the daily life of working people is skewed towards Anglo-Saxon, the lexis of intellectual analysis is highly Latinate, and the lexis of emotional self-reflection and of power leans to French.” (James Meek, in the London Review of Books, June 6)

“Messiaen is the Al Gore of music. That is, he sells a brand of French intellectual sanctity that I will do a great deal to avoid.” (Keith Botsford, from his NYT obituary, June 16)

“Next time you hear the words “existential threat” from a politician, hide the silver.” (Jonathan Rauch, in NYT Book Review, June 16)

“Freud said that laughter is the outward expression of the psyche. But Freud never had to play the Glasgow Empire.” (Ken Dodd, according to letter in the TLS from Darryl Royce, June 7)

“Asking a professor for advice about how to find a job outside academia is about as useful as asking a priest for advice about the wedding night.” (Stephen Marche in the TLS, June 7)

Lines on the Formulation of British Foreign Policy

In a high-ceilinged room in the Office

With Gainsboroughs lining the walls

A distinguished old man with a briefcase

Sat thoughtfully scratching his balls.

He might have been thinking of Tito

Or planning a minute on Greece

The results of the German elections

Or how to get Honour and Peace.

He might have been brooding on Stalin

And if it would pay to be frank

His steady grey eyes were as clear as could be

And his mind was an absolute blank.

                        (Alan Maclean, in No, I Tell a Lie, It Was the Tuesday  . . ., p 63)

“Mr Bevin’s last meeting with Molotov at the first CFM in Moscow in 1946 had produced one of his classic one-liners. Molotov had accused Mr Bevin, at great length, of protecting Nazi war criminals and persecuting freedom-loving democrats in the British Zone of Occupation. Bevin got fed up after a time and interrupted to say, ‘Well, I never shook ‘ands with ‘Itler, more than some can say’.” (Alan Maclean, in No, I Tell a Lie, It Was the Tuesday  . . ., p 67)

“The typical no-dealer is a hybrid of Che Guevara and a Telegraph-reading retiree from Sevenoaks.” (William Davies, in the LRB, June 20)

“Foreign policy makes no sense. The people in charge make decisions based on the politics of the moment, or on an ideology that bears little relation to human reality, or on sheer ignorance compounded by wishful thinking. Or they don’t make a decision at all – events gallop ahead and the decision-makers stumble to keep up. Then they spend the rest of their lives pretending they knew what they were doing all along and justifying something that made no sense in the first place.” (Les Gelb, quoted by Tom Fletcher in review of George Packer’s Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, in Prospect, July)

“As poetry editor of Quadrant magazine, he was famous among Australian poets for giving his opinion of their manuscripts within a month, instead of, like other poetry editors, after a decade.” (Clive James on Les Murray, in Prospect, July)


“This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology, and the United States hasn’t had that before. The Soviet Union and that competition, in a way, it was a fight within the Western family. Now it’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.” (Kiron Skinner, the head of policy planning at the State Department, on China, quoted in NYT, June 27)

“In the middle of the bar fight, the liberal is writing a blog post about biodegradable bottles, or, more likely, trying to start a tasting of artisanal bourbons.” (Adam Gopnik, in A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism, cited by Richard V. Reeves in Literary Review, June)

“Soon after he made himself king, because he was a tribal leader who put the crown on his own head, he went on a state visit to Vienna. They took him to the opera for a gala performance. As he walked up the steps, one of his enemies shot at him. In such circumstances some kings lie down, some walk on as though nothing had happened. Zog did neither. He took the gun out of his shoulder holster and shot the man. You deserve to be king if you’re capable of doing things like that.” (Julian Amery, from The Albanian Operations of the CIA and MI6, 1949-1953, by Nicholas Bethell)

“Certainly there is a point in Europe where you move out of the Western Catholic and Protestant world and into the oriental Byzantine, Orthodox and Islam world. There is a change in the bargaining techniques and negotiations, the customs, the politeness and the cruelty. This is the surface of it, once you know about these things, it’s not difficult to cope with it. All negotiation really is similar, but the manners are different.” (Julian Amery, from The Albanian Operations of the CIA and MI6, 1949-1953, by Nicholas Bethell)

“Unfortunately, the book’s index seems to have been compiled as group therapy at a distraught meeting of Amnesiacs Anonymous.” (Richard Davenport-Hines, on Charles Williams’ Max Beaverbrook, in TLS, June 21)


“When you are trained by the K.G.B., it means you see the world in terms of threats. That’s the only way you see it. The thing about threats is that when you see threats, you do not have strategy; you rely on tactics. Because you don’t know what the next threat might be, you only respond.” (Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist, quoted in NYT Magazine, June 30)

“That it would be better to be married Desmond felt sure: there was something reassuring about a correctly married couple and for someone like himself to remain a bachelor for too long might lead to an undesirable, if not dangerous, suspicion of eccentricity.” (from Humphrey Slater’s Conspirator, Chapter One)

“The surge of philosophical or political thought in ancient Greece or Rome is partly attributed to the leisure time slavery made available to the ruling classes.”  (Claude Meillassoux, according to Tony Green in History Today, July)

“Not only are subjective and arbitrary notions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ inadequate as analytical categories, they actively hinder a more complex engagement with the past. Rather than a meaningful question in and of itself, what must be interrogated is the perceived need to attach simplistic and ahistorical labels to historical evets and structures.” (Kim Wagner, in History Today, July)

“In colonial times, when the British were putting pressure on you. The best place to run away to was Britain itself. Generally though we now have to say that British imperialism was bad and we would like Britain to accept this.” (Nelson Mandela, in Sunday Telegraph, April 1, 1990, quoted by Nicholas Bethell in Spies and Other Secrets, p 222)

“Is self-absorbed fiction always narcissistic, or only if its written by a straight white male? What if it’s autofiction, does that make it ok? What are the alternatives? If a writer ventures outside their own socio-cultural sphere, is that praiseworthy empathy or problematic cultural appropriation? Is Karl Ove Knausgaard more self-absorbed than Rachel Cusk? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” (Claire Lowdon, writing about John Updike in TLS, July 5)

“And yet, this match revealed once again that cricket can serve as a reminder of all that Indians and Pakistanis have in common – language, cuisine, music, clothes, tastes in entertainment, and most markets of culture, including sporting passions. Cricket underscores the common cultural mosaic that brings us together – one that transcends geopolitical differences. This cultural foundation both predates and precedes our political antipathy. It is what connects our diasporas and why they find each other’s company comforting in strange lands when they first emigrate – visibly so in the UK. Cricket confirms that there is more that unites us than divides us.” (Shashi Tharoor, Indian Member of Parliament, in TLS, July 5)

“There is a serious point here, though Winder would never fall out of character to make it without concealing it among anecdotes and droll asides: ‘history’ in general, and historical progress in particular, is not so much he depiction of a logical sequence of events as an invention of historians determined to impose systems and orderly narratives on the unruly past, especially if these scholars were looking at the past as a mere prelude to national greatness.” (Philipp Blom, in review of Simon Winder’s Lotharingia, in TLS, July 5)

The Times mentioned [Norman] Stone’s ‘waspish views’, ‘energetic sex life’ and ‘legendary’ consumption of alcohol (only slightly less euphemistic than the now outdated trio of ‘didn’t suffer fools/free with affections/bon vivant’).” (D.H. in TLS, July 5)

“Genesis is the best book ever on dysfunctional families. Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac on a mountain — Sarah, his wife, must not have been happy with that.” (Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, quoted in NYT, July 13)

“For one, it was so much more relaxing. To be a step ahead in matters of romance requires constant vigilance. If one hopes to make a successful advance, one must be mindful of every utterance, attend to every gesture, and take note of every look. In other words, to be a step ahead in romance is exhausting. But to be a step behind? To be seduced? Why, that was a matter of leaning back in one’s chair, sipping one’s wine, and responding to a query with the very first thought that has popped into one’s head.

And yet, paradoxically, if being a step behind was more relaxing than being a step ahead, it was also more exciting. From his relaxed position, the one-step-behinder imagines that his evening with a new acquaintance will transpire like any other – with a little chat, and a friendly goodnight at the door. But halfway through dinner there is an unexpected compliment and an accidental brushing of fingers against one’s hand; there is a tender admission and a self-effacing laugh; then suddenly a kiss.” (from Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, p 122)

“Like the Freemasons, the Confederacy of the Humbled is a close-knit brotherhood whose members travel with no outward markings, but who know each other at a glance. For having fallen suddenly from grace, those in the Confederacy share a certain perspective. Knowing beauty, influence, fame, and privilege to be borrowed rather than bestowed, they are not easily impressed. They are not quick to envy or take offense. They certainly do not scour the papers in search of their own names. They remain committed to living among their peers, but they greet adulation with caution, ambition with sympathy, and condescension with an inward smile.” (from Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, p 196)

“The latter [Labour] continues to be pulled apart by a  schism which has exited since the 1970s between those who believe the European Union – like its predecessor, the European Economic Community – is a champion of workers’ rights and a bulwark against  free-market capitalism, and those who believe it is an agency of neo-liberal economics which would block the establishment of a UK socialist paradise.” (from Spectator editorial, July 13)

“Quite often my father’s lies were so transparent that, barely concealing reality, they did little damage. He lied on principle. Mainly, I imagine, en famille; otherwise how could he have sustained so many positions of trust in a long and well-chronicled career? He lied like other people play tennis, as if it were for relaxation. He never resented being challenged or accused: he would simply emit a little sigh of resignation and compassion, like a prophet rejected in his own country by his kith and kin. Like a prophet, he spoke of what should have happened or what he would like to have happened.” (Anthony Blond, in Jew Made in England, p 16)

“He played golf – which, of course, he pronounced ‘goff’ – in Cannes with the Duke of Windsor; and once when two foursomes, including Alfonso of Spain and Umberto of Italy, were holding them up, to the irritation of the Duke, he remarked, ‘Yes, sir, I’m afraid that today the course is littered with ex-kings.’ It was their last game together.” (Anthony Blond, on Anthony Heckstall-Smith, in Jew Made in England, p 115)

“He was pleased that I was on the committee of the National Council for Civil Liberties (as it was then sensibly called),and told me how, as a young lawyer, he had accompanied a chief inspector on a raid of the Communist Party’s HQ, at the time of the Cable Street conspiracy, in search of incriminating documents. He had asked the chief inspector if he was sure he would find any. ‘Quite sure, ’he replied, tapping his overcoat, ‘I have them here.’” (Anthony Blond, on Sir John Foster, in Jew Made in England, p 215)

“Jews have not the Anglo-Saxon distaste for public scenes: indeed they enjoy them.” (Anthony Blond, in Jew Made in England, p 217)


“Hence the new campus mores. Before an idea can be evaluated on its intrinsic merits, it must first be considered in light of its political ramifications. Before a speaker can be invited to campus for the potential interest of what he might have to say, he must first pass the test of inoffensiveness. Before a student can think and talk for himself, he must first announce and represent his purported identity. Before a historical figure can be judged by the standards of his time, he must first be judged by the standards of our time.” (Bret Stephens, in NYT, August 3)

“Writing, like playing cricket, involves a sort of marriage between discipline and spontaneity.’ (Mike Brearley, in introduction to On Cricket, cited in TLS, July 26)

“Creative writing departments now offer PhDs in one’s own poetry, justifying it as a research degree, in the words of one Welsh university: ‘You will be expected, under the guidance of your supervisor, to demonstrate your skills in handling a sustained creative project, while at the same time establishing a critical framework for your writing.’ When I started out, you simply typed up your poems and sent them off.” (Richard Murray, in TLS, August 2)

“As an African, I can testify to the excellence of Ethiopian Airlines.” (letter to NYT from Leon Joffe in Pretoria, August 8)

“A CI [counter-intelligence] officer is someone who looks in the shaving mirror every morning and asks: ‘I wonder who that man is working for?’” (‘old counter-intelligence staff joke’, quoted by Tom Mangold in Cold Warrior, p 266)

“The issue of a crisis depends not so much on its magnitude as on the courage and resolution with which it is met. The second German bid for world dominion found Europe weak and divided. At several junctures it could have been stopped without excessive effort or sacrifice, but was not: a failure of European statesmanship. Behind the German drive were passionate forces, sustained by obsessionist, sadistic hatreds and by a cruel ideology; to these the Germans, whom defeat had deprived of their routine of life, showed even more than their usual receptivity, while the rest of Europe had neither the faith, nor the will, nor even sufficient repugnance, to offer timely, effective resistance. Some imitated Hitler and hyena-like followed in his track; some tolerated him, hoping that his advance would reach its term – by saturation, exhaustion, the resistance of others, or the mere chapter of accidents – before it attained them; and some, while beholding his handiwork, would praise him of  having ‘restored the self-respect of the Germans’. Janissaries and appeasers aided Hitler’s work: a failure of European morality.” (from the Introduction and Outline to Lewis Namier’s Diplomatic Prelude)

“SIS had a part to play in these developments, and especially so with the growing appreciation of the Soviet Union’s intentions to drop even the pretence of Allied co-operation and pursue self-interested (and understandable) ambitions to ensure its security by dominating Eastern and central Europe.” (Keith Jeffery, in The Secret History of MI6, Chapter 16)

“The materials are unapologetically activist — and jargony. They ask students to ‘critique empire and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism and other forms of power and oppression.’ A goal, the draft states, is to ‘connect ourselves to past and contemporary resistance movements that struggle for social justice.’”  (from article on California’s suggested lesson plans for K-12 ethnic studies program, in NYT August 16)

“In the West, one’s inner world is also a form of personal property.” (Svetlana Alexievich, in 2008 interview, quoted by Sana Krasikov in review of Last Witnesses, in NYT Book Review, August 18)

“Here the subliminal influence of Marxist philosophy surfaces: the notion that it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. If this were so, men would still live in caves; but it has just enough plausibility to shake the confidence of the middle classes that crime is a moral problem, not just a problem of morale.” (from Theodore Dalrymple’s Life at the Bottom, p 13)

“Accountability to everyone means accountability to no one. It is government, not companies, that should shoulder the responsibility of defining and addressing societal objectives with limited or no connection to long-term shareholder value.” (statement from Council of Institutional Investors, reported in NYT, August 20)

“I took part in victimizing innocent, good people. It was institutionalized bullying and scapegoating, and I couldn’t see it because everything about the regime was good for me and I felt I was part of a movement for human progress, freedom and happiness. I wasn’t feeling what happened to other people. It’s a kind of corruption, exactly the kind of corruption that ruins the whole thing.” (former communist Sidney Rittenberg, aide to Mao, from his NYT obituary, August 26)

“I think they belong to the demimonde of poetry. Unless one is extremely impressive in the flesh, one gets more dividends from keeping out of sight, as people’s imaginary picture of you is always so much more flattering than the reality.” (Philip Larkin, in letter to Faber and Faber, quoted by Dwight Garner in review of Toby Faber’s Faber & Faber: The Untold Story, in NYT, August 27)

“Wars invariably end in the defeat of us all. There is more hatred in peace treaties than in declarations of war. Revenge is the most stupid form of hatred. Enforced retribution merely engenders new bitterness and new war. They all talk as though they knew who was responsible for the war, but to discover the truth we need to inspect the archives of a great many Foreign Ministries. Well, let us open up our archives. Someone has to begin! We are all guilty – and I say this to you as one who was imprisoned because he would no longer endure the war.’” (Kurt Eisner, Prime Minister of Bavaria, recorded by Gustav Regler in The Owl of Minerva, p 83)

“The newly joined recruit in the German barracks was required to repeat as follows:

            ‘I swear by God this sacred oath, that I will render absolute obedience to the Leader of the German Reich and People, Adolf Hitler, the Supreme Commander of the armed forces, and that I will at all times be ready, as befits a brave soldier, to fulfil the oath at the cost of my life.’” (from Gustav Regler’s The Owl of Minerva, p 170)

“I met Ilya Ehrenburg in Paris and he told me the joke about the two men walking across the Red Square. One of them suddenly says, ‘Watch out! Be careful!’ The other says, ‘But why?’ There’s no one anywhere near us’. The other murmurs, ‘One of us is bound to be a member of the GPU!’  . . .” (Malraux, according to Gustav Regler in The Owl of Minerva, pp 182-183)

“’We are still far from our objective, said Radek in his high-pitched voice. ‘We thought the child had come of age, and we have invited the whole world to admire it. But it is self-knowledge, not admiration, that we need. The Revolution is no safari, a source of agreeable thrills  Heroism is of no worth in itself. Executions must be evaluated, not made mysteries of. We are all still petty bourgeois!’” (speech at Writers’ Congress in Moscow in 1935, attended by Molotov, Voroshilov, Bukharin, Gorky, et al., from Gustav Regler’s The Owl of Minerva, p 212)

“He [Koltsov] coughed and said: ‘So you don’t know? Destitute children have, by official decree, ceased to exist since April the seventh. They are either locked up or put in a camp. Any that break out are beaten and imprisoned or  . . .’

‘Or what?’

‘The same decree lays down that children from the age of twelve upwards may be shot.’” (from Gustav Regler’s The Owl of Minerva, pp 238-239)

“Then out came the copybook maxims, like bullets fired at a crumbling fortress. ‘Religion is the opium of the people. A man with a full stomach does not whine for God. The Pope is the accomplice of capitalism. Twice two is four. Where ever there is a carcass, there you will find vultures, Marx knew it all. Long live Stalin!’” (Werner, from Gustav Regler’s The Owl of Minerva, p 302)


“If the Union’s primary objective in those circumstances turns out to be punishing the citizens of the outgoing country for their decision – even if that means causing great damage to the remaining countries – that is hardly a great advert for EU membership. If this does turn out to be the case, the sooner Britain leaves, the better.” (David Gunnlaugsson, former prime minister of Iceland, in the Spectator, August 24)

“Academic life is a withdrawal from the fight in order to utter smart things that cost you nothing.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, according to Stephen Budiansky in NYT Book Review, September 8)

“‘I had the gut feeling in the 1950s,’ he wrote in ‘The Essential Wallerstein’ (2000), ‘that the most important thing that was happening in the 20th-century world was the struggle to overcome the control by the Western world of the rest of the world.’” (from Immanuel Wallerstein’s NYT obituary, September 11)

“In the war, you learned to take nothing for granted. Even continuation of life. My father’s brother, Rex, joined the air force and he was killed. That was a big blow to Mom, because they really liked each other a lot. I sometimes think she’d rather have married him than my father. One day we were in Bournemouth in the evening and suddenly she screamed, ‘Rex!’ and started sobbing hysterically. And it was the very moment he was shot down over Egypt.” (Jane Goodall, from NYT interview, September 15)

“‘We literally gave up a lot during the bankruptcy and the American taxpayer gave up a lot,’ said Ashley Scales, 32, a G.M. worker walking the picket line outside the Hamtramck plant’s main gate. ‘We gave up twice because we pay taxes and we gave up in the contractual agreement. And now the corporation is making more profit than ever and they still want to play games.’” (from NYT, September 17)

“Writing in The Journal around the time the book was published, Mr. Ingrassia asserted that in return for any direct government aid to G.M., ‘the board and the management should go.’ ‘Shareholders should lose their paltry remaining equity,’ he wrote. ‘And a government-appointed receiver — someone hard-nosed and nonpolitical — should have broad power to revamp GM with a viable business plan and return it to a private operation as soon as possible.’ He added: ‘Giving GM a blank check — which the company and the United Auto Workers union badly want, and which Washington will be tempted to grant — would be an enormous mistake.’” (from the NYT obituary of Paul Ingrassia, September 17)

“For instance, the words peace and cooperation. They immediately produce radiant smiles – the gastric juices are at work. Yet neither word has any meaning outside a specific context. In an abstract sense, the most peaceful place on earth is a cemetery, while cooperation, say, with a criminal is deemed complicity and is punishable by law in any country. It’s simple, isn’t it? Yet I could not explain these simple truths to my interlocutors. The Pavlovian conditioned reflexes, developed over decades, proved impossible to overcome. To this day there is such an absurdity as the Nobel Peace Prize. Peace with whom?” (from Vladimir Bukovsky’s Judgment in Moscow, p 293)

“Meanwhile it was this senseless ‘pursuit’ of the phantom of happiness in which that eternally young America was engaged. It was back in Roman times that cynical Europe reached the conclusion that you cannot run away from yourself and can only better yourself through persistent labor. The ones who fled to the New World did not believe this, blaming Old Lady Europe for all their misfortunes. Is it any wonder that their descendants have a sacred belief in the ‘American dream’ – that is, that you can start your life afresh, from scratch, like turning the page of a book? And if happiness is not found, pack your gear, saddle up, and ‘go west, young man!’ The average American family does not live in one place for more than five years. So what ‘accumulation of culture’ can there be if the past in America means two weeks ago, and the preceding five years are considered antiquity? Every five years America rediscovers the world, life, sex, religion – all this without any link to the discoveries of the past five years. It is an ensorcelled country, where life is three-dimensional with the fourth dimension unknown -moving forward in a state of permanent amnesia. There is a feeling that your footsteps produce no echo, and your body casts no shadow. Even applying the greatest efforts, you are unable to change anything or even leave any tracks, as if you had spent your life walking along the water’s edge at the seashore.

            And if one’s only purpose in life is to pursue happiness, success at any price, then one cannot have any principles or concepts; after all, they exist only in time. In fact, what is the worth of a reputation if a person is reborn every day? What is the worth of concepts if every five years the world is reinvented once more? A person speaking of principles and concepts is looked upon as a madman. It is deemed normal, good, and successful to be a ‘pragmatist’, an opportunist, a conformist.

            America is really a land of conformists, ruled by constantly arising epidemics of a feverish nature: all of a sudden, everyone starts jogging, because it is allegedly good for one’s health. It does not matter that the man who invented this craze died at the age of 55 while jogging – 40 million Americans continue to jog, making the earth shake. Or salt is suddenly declared to be the source of all ailments – so just try getting salt on the table in any American restaurant. Should you ask for it, you will be suspected of suicidal tendencies. I do not know, but it is quite possible that at the beginning of the century America was truly ‘the land of the free’, but hearing this today is laughable. It is hard to imagine a nation more enslaved by any craze, even the most idiotic ones, by any petty charlatans who thought it up. In the final instance, enslaved by its pursuit of success. Yet even success, perceived so three-dimensionally, temporally can only be purely material, not going beyond the framework of the old Russian saying, ‘It is better to be healthy and rich, than sick and poor’.” (from Vladimir Bukovsky’s Judgment in Moscow, pp 322-323)

“The American elite still believe in the myth of the ‘noble savage’, the innate good nature of Man, ruined by bad institutions. It professes some kind of completely antediluvian egalitarianism, but probably only one in a thousand can name the original source. As followers of a socialist Utopia in the most general, masonic version they know nothing of the subsequent development of socialist ideas, especially not their downfall. It is like a sanctuary in honor of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the same sense that North Korea is a sanctuary in honor of Stalin.” (from Vladimir Bukovsky’s Judgment in Moscow, p 325)

“People in general, and the intelligentsia in particular, are extremely arrogant, egotistic animals, considering themselves smarter than anyone else in the world, and certainly smarter than their governments. I can think of no occasion on which the intelligentsia admitted that it had been wrong, especially when it came to disputes with the lawful authority. The reason for this is probably the intelligentsia’s belief that its real abilities remain unwanted. Terrible. After all, they are the elite, and that means that they should rule the world, or, at least, people’ minds. But life, that unfair judge, has condemned them to more humble pursuits: teaching children the alphabet, curing our aches and pains, studying bacteria through a microscope, being bored in provincial courtrooms, or giving communion to parishioners and listening to their endless complaints about the injustice of life. And all around, out in the big world, completely different people make important decisions that determine the fate of mankind. Moreover, these people are not brighter, better educated, or morally worthy. How can one accept that? So a member of the intelligentsia cannot simply force himself to do his job without contrivances and pretensions. He cannot just teach children to read and write – no, he has to ‘raise future generations’; he cannot just prescribe pills for a patient and ease his suffering – no, he needs to concern himself with the health of all mankind. A priest, meanwhile, is convinced that God Himself has put him in the pulpit for the salvation of one and all.” (from Vladimir Bukovsky’s Judgment in Moscow, p 426)

“The difficulty of ‘doing business’ with communists is that they have the disgusting habit of lying while looking you in the face.” (Vladimir Bukovsky to Margaret Thatcher, from his Judgment in Moscow, p 590)

“The lesson of the literature [Francis] Bacon loved, Mr. Peppiatt added, was ‘that we don’t really know why we’re here, that we invent our purposes, that we invent our drives and aims. And then, suddenly, we’re gone.’” (from NYT, September 19)

“Yes, the most ambitious, most ascetic, most ideologically committed builder of a new life, just like a simple stonemason, feels the need to come back home in the evening. To light his lamp, open his book, and smile into affectionate, loving eyes.” (from Teffi’s Armand Duclos, quoted in Note 60 of the author’s Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea)

“ . . . indeed, my complaint against Bernard Shaw’s dialogue is that all the characters are so witty all of the time that they fail to remind us of any human being except Shaw himself.” (T. S. Eliot, in ‘Poetry and Drama’, a 1954 lunchtime talk in Cape Town, reprinted in TLS, September 13)

“ . . .a perfect combination of two important trends in Russian thought before, during and after the Soviet era: nihilism, a negative condition; and apocalypticism, a positive condition.” (musicologist Simon Morrison on the Soviet composer Galina Ustvolskaya, in NYT, September 29)

“At any rate I wanted to believe in it. It was after the ‘dekulakization’ but before Stalin’s purges. ‘What about the Kulaks?’, I asked a Russian physicist. ‘Well, we had to get rid of half a million rich peasants in the interests of the masses, but now this has been done there will be nothing more like it, and the future is rosy.’ I believed him.” (Professor Nevil Mott, from A Life in Science, p 52)


“It’s just that breaking up these companies, whether it’s Facebook or Google or Amazon, is not actually going to solve the issues. And, you know, it doesn’t make election interference less likely. It makes it more likely because now the companies can’t coordinate and work together.” (Mark Zuckerberg, quoted in NYT, October 2)

“When this terrible war is finally over, no matter the outcome, events will surely be distorted, and the truth, which is never black or white, will be reshaped by those who write the history, depending on whether they are the victors or the vanquished.” (Elisabeth Gille, in The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irène Némirowsky by Her Daughter, p 176)

“The notion that the number of foreigners had reached its limit started to take hold. The worry began to grow that what was taking place was not simply an intrusion that caused unemployment, problematic because it imposed upon this refined country, polished by the patina of centuries and habit, certain sounds and smells that were unfamiliar and even discordant and dangerous to the French identity, which was at risk of being diluted by excessive, reckless naturalization, but something rather more sinister: a veritable ‘invasion’”.  (Elisabeth Gille, in The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irène Némirowsky by Her Daughter, p 191)

“‘John McDonnell is someone they can talk to, do business with,’ said Lord Robert Kerslake, a former civil service chief who has set up some of Labour’s meetings with businesspeople.” (from NYT report. October 7)

“If you know exactly what you are going to say in a poem, that poem will be a failure. Besides, there is no interest or fun in saying what you already know.” (Ciaran Carson, from his NYT obituary, October 13)

“I’ve taken the year 1919 in somewhat exaggerated terms – the way people will understand it a hundred years from now: not a fleck of flour, not a speck of salt (clinker and clutter enough and to spare!), not a speck, not a mote, not a shred of soap! – I clean the flue myself, my boots are two sizes too big – this is the way some novelist, using imagination to the detriment of taste, will describe the year 1919.” (Marina Tsvetaeva, in Attic Life, from Earthly Signs, p 83)

“I had already turned down one such women’s show in 1916, feeling that in poetry there are more essential distinctions than belonging to the male or female sex, and having an inborn aversion to everything bearing the stamp of female (mass) separatism, namely: women’s courses, suffragism, feminism, the Salvation Army, the famous woman’s question, with the exception of its military resolution: the fairy-tale kingdoms of Penthesilea – Brunhilde – Maria Morevna – and the no less magical Petrograd women’s battalion. (I support sewing schools, however.) In creative work there is no women’s question; there are women’s answers to human questions, namely: Sappho – Joan of Arc – Saint Teresa – Bettina Bentano. There are delightful women’s cries (Lettres de Mlle de Lespinasse), there is women’s thought (Maria Bashkirtseva), there is a woman’s brush (Rosa Bonheur), but these are all isolated individuals who weren’t aware of the women’s question, and who, through this unawareness, decimated (destroyed) it.” (Marina Tsvetaeva, in A Hero of Labour, from Earthly Signs, p 203)

“University teachers are employed to contest the prevailing paradigmatic hegemonies, to prove the absence of the author, the death of the subject, the incongruity of the reader, and also to invigilate examinations when required.” (Samuel Hynes, according to his NYT obituary, October 20.  But this passage (and others) were excised later from the on-line version, perhaps because some were falsely attributed to Hynes instead of to Malcolm Bradbury.)

“Yevgeniya Grinberg was just 4 when her father was taken away. A neighbor of theirs in Moscow, at the heart of Joseph Stalin’s police state, had overheard him describing Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary, as a ‘good orator.’ That evening, her father, Yefim Englin, was arrested under Article 58 of the criminal code, which was often used to persecute ‘enemies of the state.’ He was sentenced to five years of forced labor in a gulag near the White Sea. For young Yevgeniya, it was a devastating lesson about life in the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s.” (from story in NYT, October 22)

“He had enough headaches with his people already, the biggest of which was that the wrong Jews were arriving. American Jews didn’t want to come; Soviet Jews couldn’t come. Instead, Israel was getting what he called ’human debris’: Holocaust survivors (‘Everything they had endured purged their souls of all good’) and Mizrah Jews whose lives in Arab countries had become all but impossible after Israel’s creation.” (Adam Shatz, in review of Tom Segev’s A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion, in London Review of Books, October 24)

“’Horses used to have horns, but they fell off in the process of evolution when the horse came down from the trees in obedience to social demands and went to work for man in the fields, where horns only got in the way. Do you have cows and horses in Africa? And do they hibernate in the winter?’, the poet amused himself. And he explained to Judy that the cow, having taken care of her business and seen to the calf, goes off into the forest, digs a hole, and, settling in cozily, curling up like a bun, sleeps until the spring, swept by snow, with a gentle smile, her lovely eyes closed, eyes whose praises have been sung in epics ours and not ours, and she dreams of swift streams, lo, and green meadows scattered with daisies; meanwhile, forming a chain, hunters are already out on the winter hunt with flashlights and red flags; and they poke the snowdrifts with rakes and lift the sleeping cow with oven forks – that’s why we have only frozen meat here. There aren’t any of your plain old zebu.” (from Tatyana Tolstoya’s Limpopo, translated by Jamey Gambrell, in White Walls)

“To tell the truth, love was what I wanted, and it was there too, because love is always there, right here inside you, only you don’t know whom to share it with, whom you can entrust with carrying such a marvelous, heavy burden – this one’s a bit weak, and that one will tire quickly, and those – you should run from as fast as you can, before they’ve grabbed you like a jam roll on sale near the store Children’s World, slapping down a coin and wrapping up their catch in oiled paper.” (from Tatyana Tolstoya’s Limpopo, translated by Jamey Gambrell, in White Walls)


Eh? “ . . .the stories that people tell themselves in order to explain how they got to the place they currently inhabit are often in deep and ambiguous conflict with the official interpretive devices of a culture.” (Caroline [actually ‘Carolyn’] Steedman, in Landscapes for a Good Woman, quoted by Anna Coatman in TLS, November 1)

“I am not saying Japan should accept all of them [people escaping from Syria]. But if Japan doesn’t open a door for people with particular reasons and needs, it’s against human rights.” (Sadako Ogata, first woman to lead U.N. Refugee Agency, from her NYT obituary, October 30)

“Looking back on the left’s revolutionary enthusiasms of the last 25 years, we have painfully learned what should have been obvious all along: that we live in an imperfect world that is bettered only with great difficulty and easily made worse –  much worse. This is a conservative assessment, but on the basis of half a lifetime’s experience, it seems about right.” (from NYT obituary of author Peter Collier, November 10)

“In a sense we are all crashing to death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles no matter the imminent peril, these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so distant from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.” (Vladimir Nabokov, from Think, Write, Speak, quoted by Dwight Garner in NYT, November 12)


“That Europe could be divided into ‘two camps’, as Zhdanov put it in 1947, had less to do with Stalin’s geostrategic designs than the failure of the United States and Britain to come up with a ‘consistent and forceful policy of engagement’.” (Lewis H. Siegelbaum, in review of Norman Naimark’s Stalin and the Fate of Europe, in TLS, November 8)

“ . . . it also points to a strength in Auden that has always struck me: his ability to speak in abstract terms in a way that seems memorable in part because it has a childlike simplicity, one that can seem naïve but nevertheless strikes at truth, as in : ‘Hunger allows no choice/To the citizen or the police:/We must love one another or die.’” (Jay Parini, in review of Ian Samson’s, September 1, 1939: A Biography of a Poem, in Literary Review, August 2019. But Auden recanted this statement as it was patently false. We all die anyway.)

“We are homo nostalgicus and all our greatest achievements, our greatest art, owe a little to that capacity for longing, for trying to reach a place that no longer exists, that possibly never did, to recapture a mood that we were never even aware of at the time.” (Philip Marsden, in The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination, quoted by Hugh Thomson in Literary Review, November)

“In war all that is most superficial in our tradition is encouraged merely because it is useful, even necessary, for victory  . . . There are many who have no other idea of social progress than the extrapolation of the character of society in time of war – the artificial unity, the narrow overmastering purpose, the devotion to a single cause and the subordination of everything to it – all this seems to them inspiring: but the direction of their admiration reveals the emptiness of their souls.” (from Michael Oakeshott’s The Voice of Liberal Learning, p 116, quoted by Paul Franco in Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, p 12)

“Perhaps what was most distinctive about Oakeshott’s body of work was not the doctrine it articulated but the voice that articulated it – a voice that was skeptical without being cynical, ironic without being nihilistic, modest without being timid, learned without being encyclopedic, and serious without being solemn. It was a supremely civilized voice, not in the trivial sense of a Cambridge don with his sherry (a complaint frequently made against Oakeshott), but in the sense of having a clear perception of current barbarism without feeling compelled to combat it with barbarian weapons.” (from Paul Franco’s Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, p 12)

“There are no unadulterated facts that the historian has access to; instead he is confronted by a welter of conflicting testimony from which he critically has to construct the course of events. The historian does not begin with facts; rather, historical facts are the conclusions of the historian’s critical analysis, the products of his inferential reasoning. In history, Bradley wrote, ‘in every case that which is called a fact is in reality a theory.’” (F. H. Bradley, The Presuppositions of Critical History, p 93, quoted by Paul Franco in Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, p 27)

“Genuine sociality does not consist in mere sociability or gregariousness but in a complete unity of mind. For this reason, sociality is not necessarily incompatible with solitude; in solitude we often seek a more intense union with our fellow human beings than can be found in mere cohabitation.” [!!] (Paul Franco’s paraphrase of Oakeshott’s content in Religion, Politics and the Moral Life, in Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, p 33)

“Despite these criticisms, Oakeshott is clearly sympathetic to what he takes to be liberalism’s central principles: ‘that a society must not be so unified as to abolish vital and valuable differences, nor so extravagantly diversified as to make an intelligently coordinated and civilized social life impossible, and that the imposition of a universal plan of life on a society is at once stupid and immoral.’” [The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe, p xx] (from Paul Franco’s Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, p 76)

“’It is not at all inconsistent’, he writes in a sentence that could stand as a motto for the entire essay, ‘to be conservative in respect of government and radical in respect of every other activity.’” (Paul Franco, quoting Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, p 435, from his Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, p 103)

“’The historian is the maker of his events; they have a meaning for him which was not their meaning for those who participated in them, and he will not speak of them in the same way as they spoke.’ The art of writing history is ‘the art of understanding men and events more profoundly than they were understood when they lived and happened.’” (Michael Oakeshott in review of E. H. Carr’s History of Soviet Russia, quoted by Paul Franco in Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, p 137)

As attractive as Oakeshott’s political philosophy is, it is not without its difficulties. Perhaps the most serious of these is Oakeshott’s failure to address the crucial, if contingent, question of the social, economic, and cultural conditions necessary for the maintenance and perpetuation of civil association. Though he is careful not to identify civil association with capitalism, it is not clear what he thinks about the corrosive effects on civil life of large inequalities in the distribution of wealth, resources, and opportunities. Nor does he reflect anywhere very deeply on the problem that Tocqueville designated by the term individualism’; the problem of individuals in a liberal democracy retreating into the private circle of their family and friends without connection or a sense of responsibility to the larger community around them; a problem that is exacerbated by the preoccupation with material acquisition and comfort of Western democracies. Also unlike Tocqueville (and Hegel), Oakeshott nowhere brings out the crucial role that the intermediate institutions of civil society play by lifting individuals out of their isolation and identifying them with the political whole. It is not that he is unaware of the pathologies of modern liberal life – one need only recall the devastating portrait he draws in ‘A Place of Learning’ of the shallow and meaningless world in which children ow grow up – but his austere conception of philosophy forbids him from considering these contingent ‘sociological’ issues.” (Paul Franco, in Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, p 185)

“Surely many northern aboriginal families – Lowthers, Vanes, Percys etc. – should protest that their ancestors’ unquiet spirits cannot rest so long as hikers tramp across their sacred rocks and moors. Once they have reclaimed these holy places, they can practice their ancient rites, such as grouse-shooting, undisturbed.” (Charles Moore, writing about Uluru in the Spectator, November 2)

“To be on the Remain side is not so much to herald a European ideal, as to declare oneself anti-Tory. Such has been the case since Jacques Delors, as president of the European Commission, addressed the Trades Union Congress in 1988, when the Conservative Party’s electoral hegemony seemed infinite.” (Paul Lay, in History Today, November)

“I do not like uniforms. I do not like people who are a professional this, that or the other. Professional writers, actors and singers are O.K., but I don’t like professional Jews, professional homosexuals, professional blacks, professional feminists, professional patriots. I don’t like people abdicating their identity to become part of some group, and then becoming obsessed with this and making capital of it.” (from the NYT obituary of John Simon, cultural critic, November 26)

“We put man back at the centre of the universe. Throughout history we keep finding ourselves displaced. We keep exiling ourselves to the periphery of things. First we turn ourselves into a mere adjunct of God’s unknowable purposes, tiny figures kneeling in the great cathedral of creation. And no sooner have we recovered ourselves in the Renaissance, no sooner has man become, as Protagoras claimed him, the measure of all things, than we’re pushed aside by the products of our own reasoning! We’re dwarfed again as physicists build the great cathedrals for us to wonder at – the laws of classical mechanics that predate us from the beginning of eternity, that will survive us to eternity’s end, that exist whether we exist or not. Until we come to the beginning of the twentieth century, and we’re suddenly forced to rise from our knees again.” (‘Niels Bohr’, in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, Act 2)

“The great challenge facing the storyteller and the historian alike is to get inside people’s heads, to stand where they stood and see the world as they saw it, to make some informed estimate of their motives and intentions – and this is precisely where recorded and recordable history cannot reach.” (Michael Frayn, in Postscript to Copenhagen)

“It [the uncertainty of thoughts] is patently not resolved by the efforts of psychologists and psycho-analysts, and it will not be resolved by neurologists, either, even when everything is known about the structure and workings of the brain, any more than semantic questions can be resolved by looking at the machine code of a computer.” (Michael Frayn, in Postscript to Copenhagen)


“For years now — all my life, in fact — there’s been something building up in western liberal democracy that should have been foreseeable, but perhaps was too obvious. There will be a penalty paid for prosperity and stability, and the penalty is that the young will forget. Liberal democracy in the West can die of itself. It doesn’t need an enemy, it can create its own enemies.”  (Clive James, quoted in a Sunday Times, tribute, December 1)

“Christianity teaches us that a rational God created mankind in His image with the rational faculties needed to comprehend the universe. Far from being irrational, Christianity thereby provides the only stable foundation of rational thought, a trustworthiness undermined by both atheistic materialism and self-obsessed pantheism.” (Aidan Crook, in letter to the Spectator, November 23)

“Mr Khan’s case demonstrates the difficult challenge of distinguishing impostors from those who have truly had a change of heart and mind.”

“It is much easier to deceive people when you do not fear death.” (Prevent official) (from NYT report on Usman Khan’s murders, December 6)

Genetic Nonsense

“The new curriculum acknowledges there are minor genetic differences between geographic populations loosely correlated to today’s racial categories. But the unit also conveys what geneticists have reiterated; people inherit their environment and culture with their genes, and it is a daunting task to disentangle them.” (NYT, December 8)

“Namier condemned all Germans as hereditarily tainted with antisemitism, brutality and militarism. They had always been ‘a deadly menace to Europe’, and always would be.” (Richard J. Evans, in TLS, November 29)


“Some of those who have been arrested have lived in India for generations.” (from NYT report on new Indian citizenship legislation, December 12)

Eh? More pseudo-science . . .

“Christakis demonstrates how we have evolved to enjoy sociality and to be prosocial. Humans crave to belong to a group. We are prepared to forgo individual material rewards in pursuit of this. This prosociality comes from our genes, but the connection between individual genes and individual behavior runs through collective behavior: being prosocial, we co-operate, forming habitats that promote further sociality, and through this common group behavior we have gradually changed the gene pool. Since we are all programmed with these genes, vast swathes of our behavior are common. This is why, as a species, we have evolved to be hard-wired for morality. The metaphors of the ‘naked ape’ and ‘selfish’ gene were always clumsy, but they become dangerously misleading if evolutionary genetics is thought to imply either the selfish organism, or that we are fundamentally just another nasty animal. In fact our ‘selfish’ genes program us to be ethical humans.” (Paul Collier, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford, paraphrasing Nicholas A. Christakis in TLS, December 6)

“Liberal democracy must also be strong and decisive, and sometimes even ruthless in protecting, you know, their own peoples, borders, territories, etc. if people start to believe that there is no possibility to combine freedom and a liberal set of values with safety, security and order, then we have no chance to survive.” (Donald Tusk, interviewed in NYT, December 24)

“Mainstream economists nowadays might not be particularly good at predicting financial crashes, facilitating general prosperity, or coming up with models for preventing climate change, but when it comes to establishing themselves in positions of intellectual authority, unaffected by such failings, their success is unparalleled. One would have to look at the history of religions to find anything like it.” (David Grueber, in NYRB, December 5)

“He [Skidelsky] embodies a uniquely English type: the gentle maverick, so firmly ensconced in the establishment that it never occurs to him that he might not be able to say exactly what he thinks, as those views are tolerated by the establishment precisely for that reason.” (David Grueber, in NYRB, December 5)

“Guy knew of Mr Churchill only as a professional politician, a master of sham-Augustan prose, a Zionist, an advocate of the Popular Front in Europe, an associate of the press-lords and of Lloyd George.” (from Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms)

“Men who have endured danger and privation together often separate and forget one another when their ordeal is ended. Men who have loved the same woman are blood brothers even in enmity; . . . ” (from Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen)

“In all his military service Guy never ceased to marvel at the effortless transitions of intercourse between equality and superiority. It was a figure which no temporary officer learned to cut.” (from Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen)

“Enclosing every thin man, there’s a fat man demanding elbow-room.” (Guy Crouchback, in Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen)

“‘Mind you, I’m all for the Russians,’ said Elderbury. ‘We’ve had to do a lot of readjustment in the last few weeks. They’re putting up a wonderful fight.’

‘Pity they keep retreating.’

‘Drawing them on, Guy, drawing them on.’” (from Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen)

“I myself have been too traumatized by Communism and Nazism to have any confidence in the eternal realities of history except the reality of contingency and change, of the imponderable and the unanticipated (and, as often as not, the undesired and the undesirable).” (Gertrude Himmelfarb, in 1989, from her NYT obituary, January 1, 2020)

“He [the Kaiser] spoke English a great deal better than did Edward VII.” (MH’s mother, Edith Edinger) (from Michael Howard’s Captain Professor, p 3)

“Later I was to find in Clausewitz an analysis of the historian’s task that coincided exactly with my own experience. First, find out what happened. Then, establish a chain of causation. Finally, apply critical judgement. Before one could interpret the past, one had to recreate it.” (from Michael Howard’s Captain Professor, p 130)

“The English people have regressed from being Romans to Italians in a single generation.” (Raymond Aron) (from Michael Howard’s Captain Professor, p 156)

“There were in my time three archetypes in the academic world, all pretty odious. One was the ‘God Professor’: the permanent head of a department who condescended to lecture once a week and whose staff had been hand-picked from a court of dependent servile graduate-students. The second was the ‘Airport Professor’, more likely to be found in airport lounges en route to international conferences or to give well-remunerated lectures at the other end of the world than on the home campus. The last was the ‘Consultant Professor’, usually an economist, more often to be found in Whitehall sitting on or chairing government committees than in exercising a duty of care to students.”

“‘Do you realize’, asked Sir Alec [Douglas-Hume], ‘that they actually tried to make me lock him [Masterman] up? It was that book of his, of course. But lock up the best amateur left-hand spin-bowler in England? They must have been out of their minds. I soon put a stop to that, I can tell you.’” (from Michael Howard’s Captain Professor, p 189)


“I had written a little about this in a small book The Invention of Peace, a year earlier, where I tried to describe how the Enlightenment, and the secularization and industrialization it brought in its wake, had destroyed the beliefs and habits that had held European society together for a thousand years and evoked a backlash of tribal nationalism that had torn apart and reached climax with the two world wars.” (from Michael Howard’s Captain Professor, p 218)

“Grossman felt at home in Armenia, where anti-Semitism was absent. Armenians were genetically diverse, like Jews. He met Armenians who had black hair or blond, blue eyes or brown, hooked noses or small straight noses, ‘the thin lips of Jesuits and the thick protuberant lips of Africans.’ This diversity reflected thousands of years of Armenian history and the population’s contact with different nations – numerous raids, invasions, enslavement, and liberation. The same genetic diversity was found among Jews, whose faces ‘look Asian, African, Spanish, German, Slav.’” (from Alexandra Popoff’s Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, p 262)