Commonplace 2021


“The deal also did little to assuage fears about how the country’s new immigration rules could complicate the lives of E.U. citizens living in Britain. People from other European countries have been allowed to apply for “settled status” in Britain, the right to stay indefinitely, and more than two million of them have been granted that status.” (from article by Benjamin Mueller in NYT, January 2)

“Since the 2016 referendum, the government has alienated many of the 3.5 million European Union nationals in the country, cynically treating them as bargaining chips in their negotiations with the bloc. Such people make a big contribution to British life — not just as City bankers, as they are often caricatured, but also as frontline medical staff, university teachers and entrepreneurs. Without them, the country would be greatly diminished. Alarmingly, large numbers appear to have left in 2020.” (Peter Gumbel, in Op-Ed in NYT, January 2)

“A historian has no right to just take memoirs and articles based on them. They have a duty to examine them critically and to verify them on the basis of objective information.” (Joseph Stalin, according to Geoffrey Roberts in Literary Review, December 2020/January 2021)

“Capitalism might be wrong, but it was right to make the most of the pleasures and comforts that came with it.” (David Pryce-Jones, in review of Richard Greene’s Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene, in Literary Review, December 2020/January 2021)

“Being in love is a complicated matter; although anyone who is prepared to pretend that love is a simple, straightforward business is always in a strong position for making conquests.” (from Chapter 3 of A Question of Upbringing, by Anthony Powell)

“But Mr. Berners-Lee is taking a different approach: His answer to the problem is technology that gives individuals more power. The goal, he said, is to move toward ‘the web that I originally wanted.’” (from report in NYT, January 11)

“Brexit: a triumph of European statecraft? If the Union’s great breakthrough was to advance beyond a politics of rules to one of events, overturning one rule after another in pursuit of financial stability and border security, wouldn’t it have made more sense to concede to Cameron the brakes on migration he was asking for to win his referendum, rather than to risk Britain’s desertion by invoking immovable principles that are continually being moved? If, when necessity calls, the Treaty of Maastricht’s precise and detailed clauses on budgetary discipline and its prohibition of central bank purchase of government debt can be dismissed in the shake of a lamb’s tail, why not the far vaguer provisions of the Treaty of Rome on the free movement of labour? From the Realpolitiker standpoint advertised by van Middelaar, the logic of pragmatically dodging the blow to the EU from across the Channel should have been obvious. No such thought crosses the mind of his book.” (Perry Anderson, in The European Coup, London Review of Books, December 17, 2020)

“There, the enemy is on the contrary just what the elites of Europe themselves decry and fear most: ‘populism’. Democratic systems have effective oppositions that may one day govern. The European Union is organised in such a way that it does not. But since it is good form to regret its ‘democratic deficit’, it would be better if it at least appeared to do so.” (Perry Anderson, in The European Coup, London Review of Books, December 17, 2020)

“In the break-up of a marriage the world inclines to take the side of the partner with most [sic] vitality, rather than the one apparently least [sic] to blame.” (from Chapter 5 of The Acceptance World, by Anthony Powell)

“All this makes Russian Roulette [Richard Greene’s biography of Graham Greene] an absolutely fascinating document, not so much for what it tells us about Graham Greene but for its take on the shifting tides of 21st century public morality. This, you will be interested to learn, is a world in which referring to a character in a 90-year-old novel as ‘the Jew’ is a matter for shocked disapproval, whereas breaking your marriage vows and neglecting your offspring is, well, just something a famous writer does.” (from review in Private Eye, 8-21 January)

“Whereas the Union ‘shall establish’ a highly competitive economy, it will merely ‘contribute’ to free trade. The reality so nicely captured in this distinction is that, not unlike the US or China, the EU is a mercantilist bloc, replete with subsidies (think only of the Common Agricultural Policy) and protections (think only of services) of many kinds, aimed at barricading outsiders from the privileges afforded insiders. That its neoliberal admirers in Britain should burn so much incense in honour of its internationalist calling is not the least irony of the hour, only underlined by the contrast between its practices and the purer free trade dispositions, proceeding to unilateral abolition of tariffs, of mid-Victorian Britain.” (Perry Anderson, in London Review of Books, January 21)

“Ian​ Hamilton once recounted in the LRB (22 October 1992) that ‘when William F. Buckley Jr sent a copy of his essays to Norman Mailer, he pencilled a welcoming “Hi, Norman!” in the index, next to Mailer’s name.’” (Gavin Francis, in London Review of Books, January 21)

“The supposed backsliding on the part of St John Clarke was certainly not because nay potential hostess objected to his being a ‘Communist’. On the contrary, as an elderly, no longer very highly esteemed writer, such views may even have done something to re-establish his name. The younger people approved, while in rich, stuffy houses, where he was still sometimes to be seen on the strength of earlier reputation as a novelist, a left-wing standpoint was regarded as suitable to a man of letters, even creditable in a widely known, well-to-do author, who might at his age perfectly well have avoided the controversies of politics.” (from Chapter 2 of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, by Anthony Powell)

“Theological truth combines historical fact with unassailable moral principle and a journey of imagination beyond the reach of experience. It cannot be called untrue – only unproven.” (from letter by Charles Keen in the Spectator, January 9)

“But the fact is that animals are not like us. They are us. We all belong to the same kingdom Animalia. We have tried again and again to deny it across the millennia, but it’s unavoidable.” (Simon Barnes, in the Spectator, January 16)

“I have never said that I want moderate Muslims. That is not my problem. I don’t ask a Catholic to be moderate. I don’t give a damn. When it comes to someone’s religion, that does not concern me. On the other hand, I demand of every citizen, whatever their religion, to respect the rules of the Republic, because he or she is a citizen before being a believer or a nonbeliever.” (President Emmanuel Macron, in NYT, January 30)


“‘Are you hideous, stunted, mentally arrested, sexually maladjusted, marked with warts, gross in manner, with a cleft palate and an evil smell?’ Morland used to say. ‘Then, oh boy, there’s a treat ahead of you. You’re all set for a promising career as a lover. There’s an absolutely ravishing girl round the corner who’ll find you irresistible. In fact her knickers are bursting into flame at this very moment at the mere thought of you.’” (from Chapter 2 of The Valley of Bones, by Anthony Powell)

“Half of everything is geography; the other half is Shakespeare.” (Robert D. Kaplan to David Patrikarakos in the Spectator, American edition, February)

“I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.” (from Chapter 4 of The Valley of Bones, by Anthony Powell)

“There are two kinds of people in this world: those who passively fear disaster, and those who plan for it.” (Cal Flyn, in Prospect, December 2020)

“There are two types of people: professional social scientists and amateur social scientists.”  (William Davies, in London Review of Books, February 4)

“The authors of travel books can be divided into two types: travellers who write and writers who travel.” (Hilary Bradt in Literary Review, February)

“There are two types of people in this world. The people who take, and those getting took.” (‘Marla Grayson’, in I Care A Lot, quoted on feature on Rosamund Pike in NYT, February 22)

“’If there’s two types of people in this world — people that are strong and people that are weak,’ he explained in an interview, ‘I’m among the strong percentage.’” (Daniel Banyai, owner of Vermont shooting camp, in NYT, February 24)

“‘Once grace, salvation, and the Divine Nature were subjects of study’, he wrote; ‘now the fact that they were so is the subject of study. Once theology was a pure and autonomous subject; now religion lies at the mercy of psychology, history, anthropology, and whatever other discipline cares to jump in’. Philosophy, which had spent these past few millennia trying to connect human experience to an external, transhuman reality and some sort of secure ground for our values, was interesting primarily as a historical curiosity or a genre of literature. As he wrote in ‘Keeping Philosophy Pure, ‘if philosophy comes to an end, it will be because that picture is as remote from us as the picture of man as the child of God. If that day comes, it will seem as quaint to treat a man’s knowledge as a special relation between his mind and its object as it now does to treat his goodness as a special relation between his soul and God’”. (Crispin Sartwell quoting Richard Rorty in Times Literary Supplement, February 5)

“He was a Sunni Muslim of Syrian descent in a Roman Catholic land.  .  .  Mr. Menem, who converted to Catholicism because it was a constitutional requirement for the presidency, assumed office five months early when President Raúl Alfonsín resigned as the long-troubled economy finally collapsed and looters invaded the supermarkets.” (from NYT obituary of Carlos Menem, former president of Argentina, February 15)

“’A great illusion is that government is carried on by an infallible, incorruptible machine,’ Pennistone said. ‘Officials – all officials, of all governments – are just as capable of behaving in an irregular manner as anyone else. In fact they have the additional advantage of being able to assuage their conscience, if they happen to own one, by assuring themselves it’s all for the country’s good.’” (from Chapter 2 of The Military Philosophers, by Anthony Powell)

“There’s a new spirit abroad in Prince Theodoric’s country, and, whatever people may say, there’s no doubt about Marshal Stalin’s sincerity in desire for a good-neighbour policy, if the West allows it.” (Sillery, in Chapter 1 of Books Do Furnish A Room, by Anthony Powell)

“How one envies the rich quality of a reviewer’s life. All the things to which those Fleet Street Jesuses feel superior. Their universal knowledge, exquisite taste, idyllic loves, happy married life, optimism, scholarship, knowledge of the true meaning of life, freedom from sexual temptation, simplicity of heart, sympathy with the masses, compassion for the unfortunate, generosity – particularly the last, in welcoming with open arms every phoney who appears on the horizon. It’s not surprising that in the eyes of most reviewers a mere writer’s experiences seem so often trivial, sordid, lacking in meaning.” (X. Trapnel, in Chapter 3 of Books Do Furnish A Room, by Anthony Powell)

“On the other hand, people rarely take the view that they have been rewarded according to their deserts, those most rewarded often the keenest to be revenged.” (from Chapter 1 of Temporary Kings, by Anthony Powell)


Letter to a Young Poet

The fall of a girl’s hair, the flare of a skirt –

the merciless daily things that break your heart

Are there for you to learn your skills from. The hurt

Of living is what stings us into art.

Cool your desires to ice, then start to play.

Compose it all like music: use what you need:

Secrets; strange worlds; failed love; friends gone away.

Each poem’s a rock-hard crystal, grown from a seed.

Dig down and find the past: dead kings; old war;

Wonder-filled days; riding your first steam train;

Mysteries; why men don’t whistle any more.

Honour the things that won’t come back again.

Remember politics, but don’t digest them whole.

(That shimmering emblem trailed across the sky

Will ravel out your mind, destroy your soul

And fill the world with less while millions die.)

Be sure of nothing: youth’s no time to be wise.

The Truth will let you in on its own plan.

Travel: possess the girl: enjoy each prize.

Don’t think too much about writing. Live while you can.

(By Colin Falck, published in the Spectator, February 13)

“There are also considerations of reticence and taste, and most of all, a realization that every human life is at once so complex and so simple, so perplexing and so clear, so superficial and so profound, that any attempt to present it as a unified, consistent whole, to enclose it within a rigid frame, inevitably tempts one to cheat or falsify.” (from Introduction to Iris Origo’s Images and Shadows)

“The world I had built up in my imagination was unlike any country upon land or sea. It was a phantasmagoria of Queen Anne country houses and Oxford colleges and libraries, of village cricket and nursery tea, of hollyhocks in cottage gardens and cathedral spires, of friends, friends, friends with whom I could be at ease, and of a deep swift stream perpetually gliding between green banks, while a young man (his contours still somewhat blurred) read poetry aloud to me.” (from Iris Origo’s Images and Shadows, p 226)

“The world will never know my life, even if it should write and read a hundred biographies of me. The main facts of it are known, and are likely to be known, to myself alone, of all created men.” (Thomas Carlyle, from Froude’s Life, quoted by Iris Origo in Images and Shadows, p 241)

“On the contrary, I think that people of my age should have the courage to maintain a certain loyalty of the taste that they have acquired through many years of devotion to one of the arts, and frankly to admit what they do or do not enjoy. One need never again, for instance, listen to an opera by Wagner, if that happens to be one of one’s blind spots, nor read the novels of Stendhal, nor the works of Simone de Beauvoir, nor look at a picture by Dali.” (from Iris Origo’s Images and Shadows, p 266)

“People who sound insincere all the time, he [Shorty] thought to himself, should not expect others to notice the difference when they try to sound insincere.” (From Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up, Chapter 18)

“A private grievance is never so dangerous as when it can be identified with a matter of principle.” (J. M. Thompson, according to Harold L, Schechter and Peter S. Deriabin in The Spy Who Saved the World, p 389, citing Alan Studner in CIA paper A Study of Treason)

“Few things in politics are sadder than a nostalgist unaware that the circus has moved on. In Britain, the main function of the works of Friedrich Hayek and his school now seems to be to supply a Zoom backdrop for the increasingly forlorn public interventions of the backbench libertarian MP Steve Baker.” (Jonathan Parry in London Review of Books, March 18)

“The Union fell apart without great bloodshed, as if on its own, and they were corrupted by the ease of the collapse and therefore unprepared for resistance. They thought that all evil had been contained in the USSR and now that there was no Union, things would take the right path; they did not understand that evil was a part of history and that democracy was a system for minimizing evil and not for the triumph of good. Now they were twice orphaned because the country of their birth was gone and the country in which they grew up was also gone.” (from Sergei Lebedev’s The Goose Fritz, pp 67-68)

“The price of misfires, accidents, bad coincidences was very high in that world; in it, a ridiculous suspicion, a nasty rumor, a mean gaze had great power to control reality – because fractional people are more vulnerable than whole ones, it is much easier to present them as demons in the current political bestiary.” (from Sergei Lebedev’s The Goose Fritz, p 242)


“’What the obsessive man still wanted, when he wasn’t blissfully muttering in bed, was an apology,’ Bailey writes in Philip Roth.’ From whom? In short order: villainous ex-wives, the needy children of said ex-wives, feminists who accused him of misogyny, Jewish critics who accused him of anti-Semitism, The New York Times, John Updike, Irving Howe, his bad back, insufficiently devoted editors (‘your engine doesn’t throb any longer at the sound of my name,’ he chastised one), possibly the Nobel Committee. From the first page, the message is clear: Roth is owed.’ (from Parul Sehgal’s review of Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography, in NYT, March 31)

“The really big money comes in through the capital campaigns. These are fundraising events dedicated to financing a major school project: paving the locker rooms with gold, annexing Slovakia, putting out a hit on a rival headmaster. The campaign gets some cockamamie name – ‘Imagine the Future’ or ‘Quid pro Quo’ – and lasts several years. There has never in history been a private-school family that slid in and out of the institution without overlapping with one of these campaigns.” (from Caitlin Flanagan’s Private Schools Are Indefensible, in The Atlantic, April 2021)

“The church was the original multi-cultural project, with Jesus as its only point of identity. It was known, and was for this reason seen as both attractive and dangerous, as a worship-based, spiritually renewed, multi-ethnic, polychrome, mutually supportive, outward-facing, culturally creative, chastity-celebrating, socially responsible fictive kinship group, gender-blind in leadership, generous to the poor and courageous in speaking up for the voiceless.” (from letter by Rt Revd Prof N. T. Wright, former bishop of Durham, in the Spectator, March 27)

“The truth about anything is probably ‘a compound of two opposite half-truths’”. (Tom Stoppard in the ‘proto-mockumentary Tom Stoppard Doesn’t Know, according to Andrew Hagan, in review of Hermione Lee’s Tom Stoppard: A Life, in New York Review of Books, April 29)

“Then I cheered myself up by reflecting that it was overridingly important to have renewed my assault, even verbally and vainly, on the tested principle that ever’y minute a girl is allowed to spend in official ignorance of a man’s intentions means two extra minutes of build-up when the time comes.” (from Kingsley Amis’s Girl, 20, Chapter One)

“The real trouble with liars, I decided as I belatedly got Weber out of his drawer, was that there could never be any guarantee against their occasionally telling the truth.” (from Kingsley Amis’s Girl, 20, Chapter Three)

“But of course Regulation 82(c) of the By Jove and Great Scott Society states, No gentleman shall lay a finger on a lady if the lady should presume to have the effrontery to make the first move.” (Penny Vandervane, in Kingsley Amis’s Girl, 20, Chapter Five)

“Roth’s last years, from 2006 to 2018, were melancholy. He had serious back problems, knee problems, heart problems. He had a psychotic reaction to the sedative Halcion, became addicted to opioids, and went through an excruciating detox. Many of his friends got accustomed to taking him to the emergency room. Lisa Halliday was with him once when he was filling out the admission paperwork. The hospital needs to know, Roth explained, who to call if the end is near. If you are Jewish, they send a rabbi; if Catholic, a priest. ‘And if you say you’re an atheist?’ Halliday asked. ‘They send Christopher Hitchens.’” (from Elaine Showalter’s review of Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography, in TLS, April 9)

“I am a cisgender woman, in a monogamous 30-plus-year marriage with a cisgender straight man. However, I don’t identify as straight. Before marriage, I dated both men and women. If I were single, I would most likely do the same. I consider myself bisexual and am open about that identity with friends and family. And that’s how I fill out official forms, like the census. But I feel weird about doing that at work, a law firm, not because I’m embarrassed about identifying publicly as bisexual but because it feels fraudulent to put myself in that category when I live as a straight woman and don’t face the discrimination my L.G.B.T.Q. colleagues might. On the other hand, I feel that it’s important for leaders in organizations to be ‘out.’ Is it ethical to identify myself as L.G.B.T.Q. on client surveys or state bar forms that inquire as to race, sexual orientation, etc., for diversity-tracking purposes? Terri, New York” (question to the Ethicist, in NYT Magazine, April 18)

As a soixante-huitard, I recall this period intimately, and embarrassedly. While on the cultural barricades, we did not see ourselves as tearing apart social capital: we thought that we were tearing down the institutions of capitalism. But of course, the institutions survived and instead it was the destruction of civility, of mutually respectful dialogues, that we helped to bring about. I recall attending a meeting of the Oxford Revolutionary Socialist Students – not a parody – during which we were urged to stand up and denounce any suspect peers in the assembly.” (Professor Paul Collier, in TLS, April 15)

“Democratic politics presumes the existence of a proper opposition holding governments to account and offering alternative policies – the very thing which, infamously, does not exist at EU level. As there cannot be opposition within the system, there only remains opposition to the system (primarily in the form of anti-EU parties).”(Jan-Werner Mueller, inLondon Review of Books, April 22)


“Doom is savvy and endlessly entertaining, and if it reads more like a compendium than a treatise, this is because the book follows the rules of Olympian history-writing. The formula involves asserting a claim, or positing a framework of analysis – the ‘six killer apps’ of the West in Ferguson’s Civilization, for example, or the six elements of networks in The Square and the Tower (2017) – and then offering not an argument but a stream of examples. The approach is to use history without actually being it – that is, to avoid offering propositions amenable to scrutiny, contradiction and falsification. As a school, it is not Whiggish, Marxist, or liberal but mesmerist. Historians do other things besides make arguments, of course. They evoke, compare and bear witness. But when the object is to persuade, one wants to know which way the data actually point.” (Charles King, in review of Niall Ferguson’s Doom, in TLS, May 7)

“A good poem allows you to have your feet on the ground and your head in the air.” (Seamus Heaney, according to Seamus Terry in London Review of Books, May 6)

The Answer Is, Of Course, Yes

“Ernst collapsed and died in 1933, a broken man, his future and his belief in Germany, Heimat and sense of belonging having been cruelly undermined. He, like his wife, like his daughters, had repudiated his roots. May asks this:

‘But what happens when you don’t just loathe and repudiate this root or that, but go for your oldest – and try to kill it? When you try to wipe a major part of the slate of your own heritage clean and start again? Isn’t there something here of the spirit of those social experimenters who thought that human beings could be made tabula rasa and then re-constituted, free of the despised past?’

The answer is, of course, no.” (Julia Neuberger, from review of Simon May’s How To Be a Refugee: One Family’s Story of Exile and Belonging, in Literary Review, May) 

“We talk about the United States: ‘They’re totalitarians without knowing it. Millions of people read the Reader’s Digest, that revolting crap. Intellectual nourishment of the lowest order. It kills the intelligence. Same newspapers, same radios everywhere, same soaps, same cities. It all ends up by producing standardized men who carry the totalitarianism of weak, emasculated beings in their veins. Anyone who tries to escape has no choice but to go mad, that’s how worthless he feels. The United States is closer than any country in the world to a totalitarianism of ants.’” (Otto Rühle: Serge disagrees.] (from Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, April 19, 1942)

“Distant religions that are far apart and totally different can be indulgent towards each other, but sects of the same religion must hate each other: family hatreds, competition forte possession of the same truth.” (from Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, January 22, 1943)

“A false Trotskyism is invented in order to refute it, given the impossibility of engaging in discussion with the real Trotskyism – or any other rational discussion. That two times two is five is proved by capital punishment. A moment arrives when the enormity of the forged or false allegation gives it an appearance so imposing that the average man is afraid to doubt it.” (from Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, April 26, 1943)

“Men need a sese of history comparable to the sense of direction of migratory birds. A metaphor more amusing than valid: it is an element of consciousness, quite distant from instinct, that we have been in the process of acquiring since the Encyclopedists.” (from Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, January 5, 1944)

“This conversation reminds me of what Bukharin said to Kamenev about Stalin in 1928: ‘If we follow him he’ll drag the country into the abyss and we’ll perish, and the revolution will perish along with him. If we denounce him he’ll accuse us of treason and we’ll perish.’” (from Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, November 25, 1944)

“In the midst of historical catastrophe, most men choose neither their role nor their death. To see clearly from time to time – this is without question a tremendous privilege: to feel strong enough to uphold those authentic values that are more durable than empires, even totalitarian ones – this is to be among the chosen . . .  ” (from Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May 1, 1945)

“Without imagination the other is never anything but a diminished caricature of ourselves. Rule: Never believe that my fellow man is really like me. The key to the imagination: Admit that the other is profoundly different.” (from Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, April 6, 1946)

“The only things Stalin’s armies were not receiving from their allies were mine detectors, which were declined on the grounds that, as the head of the Soviet military mission in Britain, General Ivan Ratov, explained to his hosts, ‘in the Soviet Union we use people’ to clear mines.” (from Sean McMeekin’s Stalin’s War, p 463)

“The diary notes for September 30, 2016, ‘Nice comfort supper in front of the TV, watching a documentary in appreciation of the late Terry Wogan’. To invert Harrah Arendt, the evil of banality.” (Dean Godwin on Alan Duncan’s In the Thick of It, in TLS, May 14)

“Bias and lack of judgement are two Foreign Office labels which, if once attached to you, never leave you and ruin your career. As far as lack of judgment is concerned, there is only one pitfall – a very dangerous one to avoid. One must never be right too soon. Bias is a more difficult bogey.” (from Robert Bruce Lockhart’s’ Diaries 1939-1965, November 20, 1943)

“Lomnitz and I are of the same generation, and many of my Jewish friends throughout Latin America who are in our age group continue to grapple with issues of identity, albeit in forms their grandparents would have had difficulty grasping. They ask: Are we Jewish Latinos or Latino Jews? Which is the noun and which is the adjective? Lomnitz does not seem to be afflicted with these doubts, or if he is, he has chosen not to discuss them here, except when they concern language.” (Larry Rohter, in review of Claudio Lomnitz’s Nuestra América in New York Review of Books, June 10)


“The pendulum has swung further still in recent years, with some asserting that migration may not have increased at all during the post-Roman period and that the inhabitants of Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries did not care as much about their ethnic identity as Bede later suggested.” (Toby Martin, in review of Max Adams’s The First Kingdom, in TLS, May 28)

“This is the only way that an Asian American-Pacific Islander coalition makes sense — pointing the way toward alliances with other groups, from Black Americans to Muslims, Latinos to L.G.B.T.Q. people. Asian Americans are one political identity among the many that must come together for decolonization.” (Viet Thanh Nguyen, professor of English, American studies and comparative literature at the University of Southern California, in NYT, June 6)

“The story begins with George Kennan’s strategy of containment of the Soviet Union, first formulated in 1947, which marks the beginning of the Cold War,  . . .” (Marjorie Perloff, in review of Louis Menand’s The Free World, in TLS, June 4)

“He [Jean-Paul Sartre] was conscious of his ugliness  . . . but it was the kind of aggressive male ugliness that can be charismatic, and he wisely refrained from disguising it.”(Louis Menand in The Free World, quoted by Marjorie Perloff in TLS, June 4)

Lessons in Genetics

“The longing for nature is built into our genes.” (from obituary of Cornelia Oberland, in NYT, June 10)

“We are, after all, creatures of blood, hardwired to look out for own.” (Darrin M McMahon, in Literary Review, June)

“The Rosenbergs were not venal. If they were guilty, they were guilty of naivety: an idealistic belief in the promise that communism would bring a better world.” (Adam Sisman, in review of Anne Sebba’s Ethel Rosenberg: a Cold War Tragedy, in Literary Review, June)

“Perhaps the secret to understanding Russian history lies in its grammar: it lacks a pluperfect tense. In Latin, English and German the pluperfect describes actions completely completed at a definite point in the past… Early Russian had such a tense, but it was erased. This grammatical lack costs its speakers dear. Russian history never becomes history. Like a stubborn page in a new book, it refuses to turn over.” (Igor Pomerantsev, quoted by his son, Peter, in Spectator, May 29)

“Mexicans emerged from Indigenous people, Brazilians emerged from the jungle but we Argentines arrived on boats. On boats from Europe.” (President Alberto Fernández of Argentina, reported in NYT, June 11)

“The​ philosopher Stuart Hampshire served in British military intelligence during the Second World War. When we were colleagues at Princeton he told me about the following incident, which must have taken place shortly after the Normandy landings. The French Resistance had captured an important collaborator, who was thought to have information that would be useful to the Allies. Hampshire was sent to interrogate him. When he arrived, the head of the Resistance unit told Hampshire he could question the man, but that when he was through they were going to shoot him: that’s what they always did with these people. He then left Hampshire alone with the prisoner. The man said immediately that he would tell Hampshire nothing unless Hampshire guaranteed he would be turned over to the British. Hampshire replied that he could not give such a guarantee. So the man told him nothing before he was shot by the French.” (Thomas Nagel, in London Review of Books, June 3)

“Recent excitement about ‘perytons’, bursts of radio waves detected at Australia’s Parkes Observatory and nowhere else, died down when they were traced to a malfunctioning microwave oven in the observatory’s kitchen.” (from review of Avi Loeb’s Extraterrestrial by Chris Lintott in London Review of Books, June 3)

“A Pew poll found thar only about a third of U.S. Catholics believed central Catholic teaching that the communion bread and wine literally becomes the body and blood of Christ during Mass.” (from report in NYT, June 19)


“Now that God is dead, to take on Nietzsche’s famous formula – that is, when we no longer live in a world bounded by a shared unitary conception of the world Christianity once afforded us – how are we to live, and to judge whether we have lived our lives successfully?”  (Hugo Drochon, in review of Raymond Geuss’s Who Needs a World View?, in TLS, June 18)

“Kate Solomon writes, at the start of this concise Life of Amy Winehouse, that by the time of her death ‘we were all simply waiting for the worst to happen’.”  (Declan Ryan, in review of Kate Solomon’s Amy Winehouse, in TLS, June 18)

“Nor am I American, which would be a different form of killer of the French mode of being. I am nothing. Not only stateless in terms of citizenship but rootless by blood, déraciné par excellence.: truly without a fatherland or a father, a man who doesn’t know who spawned him, and whose mother deserted and betrayed her kin, her people; a man who belongs neither here nor there, unbaptized, with no religion, suspiciously polyglot, devoid of any tie to tribe, to any flag  . . .  But of course in search of all those things.” (from Gregor von Rezzori’s The Death of My Brother Abel, p 24)

“In any case, Uncle Ferdinand would continue, any further special function could probably no longer be bred. Every newborn baby has all the possibilities of human life available – some quite unexpected, even surprising, and some so amazingly pre-programmed that one is tempted to believe in transmigration (of a very desultory kind); however, any further shaping of these pre-programmed possibilities is left, Uncle Ferdinand would say, to environment and education  . . . and, naturally, generations of belonging to a given milieu would also develop certain traits, features, and if not characteristics then certain tendencies that would, overall, identify the individual as belonging to this milieu. But nothing more than that.” (from Gregor von Rezzori’s The Death of My Brother Abel, p 159)

“You may not believe it, Mr Brodny, but that’s what it was like. Uncle Agop’s Venezuelan tango orchestra and nigger band as well as Dada and the Constructivist vision, bobbed hair and Expressionism as well as the conveyor-belt production of superfluous consumer goods and political street scuffles, transvestite nightclubs and the ‘simple life’ reform movement, Einstein’s theory of relativity and Fascism, Greta Garbo and Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Mistinguette and James Joyce, Mayakovski and various secret police (et quelle est la différence entre le Négus et Léon Blum? Aucune; tous les deux ont unbe barbe, sauf Léon Blum) – all the things that now make the years between WWI and WWII seem like a paradise lost we owe to the return of the prodigal daughter, America.” (from Gregor von Rezzori’s The Death of My Brother Abel, p 166)

“I’m driving to Paris to pull a twenty-two-year-old American girl out of some dump she’s holed up in, because her beautiful eyes are still full of the terror of the wide-open wastes in the New World from which she comes, where an arrow can come whizzing out at any moment from behind the rock outcroppings, and Grandma wears an Indian scalp on her belt; where the pistols in thigh holsters are still as loose as in the days of Billy the Kid; where the ears of sleeping Negro children are devoured by slum rats in the huge stone wastes of the cities  . . . in short, images for people for whom the pretense of GOD is an absolute necessity for enduring the thought of the world; eyes, alas, that did not try to recognize HIS revelation through European culture, certainly not in the cancerous proliferation of the Old World, in the horrible teeming  of the motorized army ants, the chewing horlàs who chomp on their morsels, zealously insalivating them, washing them down with a swig of beer wine Coca-Cola apple juice milk booze mead lemonade club soda – swallowing, jerking -up of the Adam’s apple, parting of the lips, tongue-dragon rolling forward and flicking a few food -gruel remnants from the teeth, a slight burp – excuse me, it’s just my stomach – and then the next morsel is shoved in . . . and behind it lurks the big cat NATURE, ready to devour them all.” (from Gregor von Rezzori’s The Death of My Brother Abel, p 355)

“Although the states that joined the EC with Britain held referendums prior to accession, and they and several others went on to hold votes on treaties, there is one clear difference around the seriousness with which consent is taken: no EU state recognises a unilateral right of secession of any part of its territory in a way that such a right is understood to apply to at least the non-English parts of the UK.” (Helen Thompson, professor of political economy at Cambridge, in Prospect, July)


“It’s impossible to know how you will feel at the time, but thinking ahead, if I was in my 80s or 90s with dementia in a care home, I would not mind a Covid death, and might even prefer it to watching Cash in the Attic.” (“MD”, in Private Eye, 25 June – 8 July)

“There sometimes is a misunderstanding of what causes gas prices to increase. The supply availability of oil has a huge impact.” (Jen Psaki, Joe Biden’s press secretary, reported in NYT, July 7)

“Given his priapic tendencies, few would have cracked PWE’s codename for Duff Cooper – ‘The Vicar’.” (Andrew Roberts, in Introduction to David Garnett’s Secret History of PWE)

“Our brains evolved to think of people as members of groups; to trust and care for people who are like us and to be suspicious of people who are unlike us.” (Charles Murray, in Spectator World, July)

“There are two essential qualities of a great translator: a strong understanding of the source language and a fluidity of writing in the target language, which is equally — and arguably even more — important for readers.” (Nikko Odiseos, president of Shambhala Publications, quoted in obituary of Thomas Cleary in NYT, July 12)

“If I had to nominate an ideal poet, a Platonic poet, a conservator and repository of poet DNA, a poet to take after and on and from, a forsake-all-others-save-only-X poet, it wouldn’t be Byron, though it would be close. It wouldn’t be MacNeice, though ditto. It wouldn’t be Mandelstam or Akhmatova or Cavafy or Apollinaire or Ovid or Brecht or Li Bai or Bishop or Baudelaire or Les Murray or T.E. Hulme. It would be Heine. Harry or Heinrich or Henri Heine, to taste. Oscar Wilde’s older Parisian cemetery-mate Heine (1797 (?)–1856).” (Michael Hoffman, in NYRB, July 22) 


“We humans have been inextricably linked with war from the outset and it is this intimate connection with conflict that makes us human.” (Malcolm Murfett, in review of Christopher Coker’s Why War? in Literary Review, July)

“The illustrated newsmagazines leap at me, they almost harass me; like a total stranger grabbing my arm in the street and sputtering his conflict-laden experience-broth at me – from his marital problems to his philosophical ideas, his professional, athletic, and erotic perils, possibilities, prospects, his difficulties in raising his children, his traffic delinquencies, his thoughts on urban planning the fight against cancer food for the world ideas on American Russian Chinese Persian Venezuelan domestic and foreign politics Fidel Castro Onassis Anita Ekberg Karl and Groucho Marx – not because he mistakes me for an old acquaintance with whom he has often discussed such issues and problems (or because he recognizes me as especially open and receptive to them) but simply because he has pulled me out by sheer chance from several tens of thousands and I could just as easily have been another passer-by coming his way – he merely assumes in sovereign schizoid autism that whatever regards concerns occupies excites exasperates him is bound to regard concern occupy excite exasperate someone else, ergo that I must instantly be passionately moved and captivated  – ” (from Gregor von Rezzori’s The Death of My Brother Abel, pp 453-454)

“An yet all of us, with our various current histories, are contained in the entirety of current events – all present, whether as oil sheikhs or big bankers, lunar-rocket passengers or record-breaking athletes, movie stars or duchesses, popular singes, politicians, or gangsters, poisoners, bomb-throwers, or other foul-players – or else as amateur gardeners, animal protectors, good Samaritans, quiet book readers, anchorites, blissful navel contemplators, marijuana smokers. Everything exists in the superreality. Thus it is not reality in motion, like history, but rather the unchanging state of Being in and of itself, of which sometimes this and sometimes that becomes visible.” (from Gregor von Rezzori’s The Death of My Brother Abel, p 456)

“Hamburg, as we know, is called the Gateway to the World, and during those winter days it was worthy of the name. Never before or since has it been the scene of such animate transience as in the first phases of the mass migrations (not yet arranged by travel agencies but triggered by the advancing Russians), when the natives of Brandenburg (pushed by the Upper and Lower Silesians, who passed through Lausitz and the Magdeburg plains into the Hanover region, and from there northwards to Schleswig-Holstein, only to be shoved towards Hesse by the Pomeranians and East Prussians, who were driving the Mecklenburgers before them) advanced into Bavarian territory in order to avoid the Thuringians, who had likewise started moving, while the Rhinelanders, who had been evacuated into the Warthegau, tried to trade positions with the Poles who had been hauled to the mines in the Ruhr; however the Rheinlanders were severely hindered by the Sudeten Germans, who had been thrown westward and whose flanks were being attacked by Transylvanian Saxons and Bukovinan Germans  . . .” (from Gregor von Rezzori’s The Death of My Brother Abel, p 593)

“Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.”

“The more that the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” (Dr. Steven Weinberg, in The First Three Minutes, quoted in his NYT obituary, July 26)

“Another cites Rachel Cusk, and indeed this might be read as a less brainy take on Cusk’s thesis that it’s the outwardly kind and sensitive blokes you really have to watch as they’re just as bad as the coke-sniffers and the control-freaks of only pretending to understand, while still getting back late from work and having their mates round for pizza.” (from review of Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, in Private Eye, July 23-August 5)

“Reading an Empson essay is like being taken for a drive by an eccentric uncle in a terrifyingly powerful old banger. There are disturbing stains on the upholstery and an alarming whiff of whisky in the air, but when he takes another swig from his hipflask and guns the accelerator, your head gets thrown back so far that you just have to make yourself enjoy the ride – even if you’re not quite sure you’re going where you want to go.”  (Colin Burrow, in London Review of Books, July 15)

“Indeed, in Unwiederbringlich, it might well seem that the only thing that is plainly and whole-heartedly disgraceful is just the lack of a sense of humour which prevents self-awareness, an ironical view of oneself, although even here one or two of the minor characters, e.g. Schwarzkopf, pompous though he is, see, exceptions to such a rule.” (Douglas Parmée, in Introduction to his translation of Theodore Fontane’s Irretrievable)

“  . . . Peter Dwyer had ‘acquired that characteristic which marks the true Oxford nan – a refusal to take oneself too seriously!’” (Alan Jarvis, quoted in Mark Kristmanson’s Plateaus of Freedom, p 101)

“And if humour is also a defence, against, among other things, the accusation that one is taking oneself too seriously, Amis may have relied on his identity as a comic writer to shield him from the larger consideration – both private and public – of his stature as an artist.” (Rachel Cusk, in Foreword to Kingsley Amis’s Dear Illusion – Collected Stories)

The Schleswig-Holstein Question: Who Introduced Cricket There?

“While Christine was having this conversation with Julie Dobschütz, Holk and his daughter walked down the hall and then parted a hundred yards further on beside the round patch of lawn where they used to play cricket when there were visitors.” (from Theodore Fontane’s Irretrievable, Chapter 7)

“After Holk had left Asta by the cricket pitch, he went to the nearest greenhouse in front of which his gardener was hard at work.” (from Theodore Fontane’s Irretrievable, Chapter 8)

“You know everything and yet not enough. I think that only husbands and wives themselves can ever know what a marriage really is and sometimes even they do not know. An outsider sees every moment of pique and hears every argument, for strangely enough married couples don’t generally hide all their disagreements and quarrels from others, ye, it sometimes seems almost as if others are meant to hear them, as if all the most violent things were intended especially for them. But that gives a false picture, because as long as some love still remains, marriage always has another side to it.” (Christine to Julie, from Theodore Fontane’s Irretrievable, Chapter 9)

“Loose living only harms morals but the pretence of being virtuous harms the whole man.” (Ebba to Holk, from Theodore Fontane’s Irretrievable, Chapter 22)


“A book is written when there is something specific that has to be discovered. The writer doesn’t know what it is, nor where it is, but knows it has to be found. The hunt then begins. The writing begins.” (Roberto Calasso in The Celestial Hunter, quoted in his NYT obituary, August 1)

“I’m culturally Buddhist. I have no problem respecting and attending Buddhist ceremonies. But my belief system is Judeo-Christian.” (Cambodian human rights activist Theary Seng, reported in NYT, August 7)

“If people can no longer struggle against injustice then they’ll struggle against justice because what they want to do is struggle.” (Francis Fukuyama, from The End of History and the Last Man [?], quoted by him in the Spectator, July 10)

“On Archer’s table lay a letter he had been writing to a friend of his in Oxford, one who, like most of his contemporaries, was medically unfit for military service – a doubly fortunate shortcoming in the present case, for one of this friend’s several neuroses forbade him to be ordered about.” (from Kingsley Amis’s I Spy Strangers)

“Something monstrous and undefinable was growing in strength, something hostile to his accent and taste in clothes and modest directorship and ambitions for his sons and redbrick house at Purely with its back-garden tennis-court.” (from Kingsley Amis’s I Spy Strangers)

“We have conquered everything and everything has slipped out of our grasp. We have conquered bread, and there is famine. We have declared peace to a war-weary world, and war has moved into every house. We have proclaimed the liberation of men, and we need prisons, an ‘iron’ discipline – yes, to pour our human weaknesses into brazen molds to accomplish what is perhaps beyond our strength – and we are the bringers of dictatorship. We have proclaimed fraternity, but it is ‘fraternity and death’ in reality. We have founded the Republic of Labor, and the factories are dying, grass is growing in their yards. We wanted teach to give according to his strength and each according to his needs; and here we are, privileged in the middle of generalized misery, since we are less hungry than others!” (from Victor Serge’s Conquered City, Chapter 4, written in 1930-1931)

“ . . . In the long run we’ll see. Not you or me, of course: the working class. I’m optimistic for the long run: as for the present, I have my doubts, I’m even more pessimistic. I’m not sure we’ll survive the winter. But I’m certain we have time, a half century, a century perhaps. The mechanism of the world is exposed; it’s easy to show how it turns. That is our strength. We are pushing in the right direction. Perhaps we’ll be swept away; that direction will be no less the right one for it.” (Osipov, from Victor Serge’s Conquered City, Chapter 14, written in 1930-1931)

“They consider themselves descendants of the original Israelites, and they worship in their own versions of a synagogue, observe the Sabbath and follow the Samaritan version of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. But they consider Judaism a deviation from the original Israelite faith, and believe Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem, is the world’s holiest place. And forget the parable attributed to Jesus in the Christian Bible, where a ‘good Samaritan’ helps a man who was robbed and beaten along a road. ‘That’s the New Testament,’ said Shachar Joshua, 71, a Samaritan and former banker who grew up in the West Bank but later moved to Israel. ‘We have nothing to do with it,’ he added, a little gruffly.’” (from NYT, August 23)

“Capitalism is not a rational system. The only way it turns around is through mass struggle.” (Professor Stanley Aronowitz, from his NYT obituary, August 25)

“‘Isn’t Irish summer an oxymoron?” I asked, wondering whether to add it to my list of pet oxymorons: jobs-first Brexit, American cheese, Hersey’s chocolate, managed no deal, fun run, compassionate conservatism, and so on.” (Rachel Johnson, in Rake’s Progress, p 146)

“Atheists want the Democratic Party to become more progressive and are unlikely to remain silent if they don’t see changes.” (Ryan Burge, a teacher of political science at eastern Illinois University, in NYT, August 29)

“Financially speaking, the Celebrity Industrial Complex is benefiting Rooney handsomely. A Marxist, she thinks she should get paid to write books, just not ‘multiples more’ than Prasifka makes teaching high school math, or more than anyone else gets paid to do what they do.” (on the novelist Sally Rooney, from NYT, August 30)


“A Harvard graduate who was inspired by the ideas of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, Ms. Jin is also aggressively pro-worker. She has made it clear in podcasts and her Substack newsletter that creators should get the same rights as other workers. Among the ideas she has championed is a ‘universal creative income,’ which would guarantee creators a base amount of money to live on.” (on the investor Li Jin, from NYT, September 2)

“The beauty of science is that you know where you start from, but you never know where youwill end up.” (Nobel laureate Edmond H. Fischer, from his NYT obituary, September 3)

“Unfortunately, out of all the people in the world to whom the authorities might have turned to solve the problem, they chose highway engineers. In my experience, the last people you want trying to solve any problem, but especially those involving roads, are highway engineers. They operate from the principle that while no problem can ever truly be solved, it can be spread over a much larger area.” (Bill Bryson, in The Road to Little Dribbling, Chapter 7)

‘America has two principal ways to receive formal adulation. Either you single-handedly take out a German machine-gun nest while carrying a wounded buddy on your back at a place called Porkchop Hill or Cemetery Ridge, in which case you get the Congressional Medal of Honor, or you buy society’s admiration by paying for a hospital wing or a university library or something along those lines. You don’t add something to your name, as in Britain, but rather add your name to something. The warm glow of unwarranted prestige is just the same in both cases. The difference is that in America the system produces a hospital wing; in Britain, you just get a knobhead in ermine.” (Bill Bryson, in The Road to Little Dribbling, Chapter 16)

“I pulled out a notebook in the food court and began to list all the pleasant Britannic things I could think of, randomly, as they occurred to me:

Boxing Day

Country pubs

Saying ‘you’re the dog’s bollocks’ as an expression of endearment or admiration

Jam roly-poly with custard

Ordnance Survey maps

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue (a popular and hilarious radio program)

Cream teas

The 20p piece

June evenings, about 8 p.m.

Smelling the sea before you see it

Villages with ridiculous names like Shellow Bowels and Nether Wallop”

(Bill Bryson, in The Road to Little Dribbling, Chapter 26)

“Hell, everyone knows that an ugly guy with a good line gets the chicks.”  (Jean-Paul Belmondo, from his NYT obituary, September 7)

“The problem with Australians is not that so many of them are descended from convicts but that so many of them are descended from prison officers.” (Clive James, according to Alexander Downer, in the Spectator, August 28)

“Saying that Mr. Biden rejects church teaching could make it sound like he is merely disobeying the rules of his religious group. But the church’s teaching about the sanctity of life is true.” (resolution by Notre Dame University’s Faculty for Life, quoted by Linda Greenhouse in NYT, September 12)

“History shows us that it’s not about failure of intelligence, it’s about the limits of intelligence. When the Soviet Union crumbled, when Libya collapsed, when the actual moment came in Afghanistan, intelligence hadn’t failed. It was just limited, as it always is at the very end.” (UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, interviewed in the Spectator, September 4)

“At Yalta, he [Roosevelt] treated Stalin as if he too had been at Groton.” (Thomas Blaikie, in review of Michael Knox Beran’s WASPS: The Splendor and Miseries of an American Aristocracy, in Literary Review, September)

Blobs and communities

“A lot of people who are proud members of the foreign policy community would object to the phrase [the ‘Blob’]” (Hal Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, quoted in NYT, September 17) 

“I recall that one of my first editors, the very sober Max Hastings, felt it necessary to ask a journalist in an interview whether he had a drink problem. The candidate looked at his watch and replied ‘No, too early for me – it’s not yet 12: but don’t let me stop you’.” (Martin Ivens in TLS, September 3)

“Fiction requires truth-telling, whereas in a biography one can make things up.” (Peter Ackroyd, according to Craig Brown, in TLS, September 10)

On Experiments

“Yes, I believe it was worthwhile . . . .  I thought – and still think – that the communist experiment (and it always was an experiment) was worthy trying. It was a very noble experiment. And had it succeeded, it would of course have been a great step forward for humanity.” (George Blake, interviewed by Hans Olink in 1999, as quoted by Xan Smiley in review of Simon Kuper’s Spies, Lies, and Exile: The Extraordinary Story of Russian Double Agent George Blake, in New York Review of Books, September 23)

‘The American Experiment; Dialogues on a Dream’, by David M. Rubenstein (History Book Club selection, September)

“The jury is still out on those questions. How they are answered will determine the future not only of western universities but also of that astonishing spiritual-political experiment that is western democratic liberalism.” (Roger Kimball, in September Spectator World, p 39)

“As a citizen, D came within the scope of legal provisions for the punishment (death, without trial, on simple proof of identity) of soldiers deserting abroad, even in peacetime. He knew all about the ruling psychoses, for he was standing up against them. The notion that a man might bow out without betraying, as faithfully as it were humanly possible (the vagueness of that formula!), faithful to the extreme of objecting to the intolerable, and its destruction of us; that a man might withdraw only to vanish into insignificance, well, any of his chiefs willing to believe that would be deemed a lunatic, or an accomplice to be liquidated without delay.” (From The Secret Agent, Part 1 of Victor Serge’s Unforgiving Years)

“Historians fabricate greatness, as they call it, because they are mediocrities with lame imaginations who can only plod along the beaten track, and they’re cowed by the cudgel and their own mediocrity into shoring up the cult of established power  . . .  Power has the same hold over the tyrant as anybody, because he has seized the levers of power just like a burglar making off with the Grand Seal of State.” (From The Secret Agent, Part 1 of Victor Serge’s Unforgiving Years)

“Our work consists in deciphering enemy intentions, through enemies who are often themselves ignorant of them . . .

War is a great game of psychology. The enemy calculates and so do we. Strength only enters as a function of these calculations. An error is sometimes the product of a flawless but excessively linear calculation which fails to allow for the unstable, the unknowable, the irrational, call it energetic or mindless folly . . .  Hence reverses and defeats are the penalty of error. This enemy is conducting a technicians’ war. He is convinced of his superiority, and with good cause. His machines are better and more numerous., his special forces are better trained, more numerous and organized than ours, its officer class more educated. I would even grant that its winter equipment makes a mockery of ours  . . . But winter is on our side. We are winter men  . . .” (Potapov, in The Flame Beneath The Snow, Part 2 of Victor Serge’s Unforgiving Years)

“But the pillagers of the wrecks that were once sovereign states, the painted-over citizens of the sham democracies, the traffickers entrusted with profitable economic missions, the spies and the disinformation merchants, these by contrast know all the rules of the game. They fly at whim across the oceans as though the laws of mechanics and the strategic map of the world were theirs by rights (which they probably are). In this still-mysterious mutation of a civilization, it may be that such hybrid beings, their vitality all the more exacerbated in its final upsurge, will prevail for some time  . . .” (from Journey’s End, Part 4 of Victor Serge’s Unforgiving Years)

“Sooner or later, the time will come when Private Snodgrass must advance straight to the front.” (General Wavell, according to Lt.-Gen. Sir Frederick Morgan, in Overture to Overlord, p 79)

“As a practical matter, our book outlines two criteria that could be used to establish eligibility for receipt of reparations. First, the government could impose a lineage standard: An individual would need to have at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the United States. Second, there is a need for an identity standard: Reparations recipients would need to show that, for at least 12 years before the enactment of a reparations plan or establishment of a study commission for reparations, they had self-identified as Black, Negro, African American or Afro-American. This criterion would prevent someone who is living as white from suddenly claiming eligibility for reparations when there is a monetary gain to be had from being the descendant of an enslaved person.” (William A. Darity Jr, professor of economics and the Samuel Dubois Cook distinguished professor of public policy at Duke University, in NYT, September 26)

“A resident of Ely for seven years remarks that to be accepted as a local you’d have to have lived there since the time of Hereward the Wake.” (Piers Brendon, from review of David Kynaston’s On the Cusp: Day of ’62 in Literary Review, September)

“In spite of Bourne-Paterson’s disgust, I talked to our psychiatric expert. On the whole, I must confess, I did not find his opinions over-helpful, for while they were careful and explicit and often profoundly interesting, they equally often seemed to me to miss the points over which were were specifically concerned. I never reached that stage of proficiency where I was able to evaluate the importance of the presence or absence of a mother-fixation in the selection of an agent for a particular mission. On this occasion, however, perhaps because he said what I had hoped he would, I was impressed by what he told me. ‘Lots of people are nervous of jumping out of balloons’, he said, ‘where they could fairly easily be persuaded to bale out of an aircraft.’” (Maurice Buckmaster, in They Fought Alone, p 72)

“In England we find it easier to credit our leaders with muddle rather than Macchiavellian cunning; on the continent it is the other way round.” (Jean Overton Fuller, in The German Penetration of SOE, p 178)


“’The fear and hatred of strangers,’ Makari writes through the lens of Foucault, ‘not only manifested itself in pogroms and race riots but also lurked in seemingly reasonable places, inside the heart of society, perhaps inside all hearts.’ Any quality that can reside in all of us necessarily ceases to be a pathology and simply becomes one more aspect of human nature. What could be the solution to such an entrenched problem? “’Radical egalitarianism poses the greatest threat to xenophobia,’ is what he finally ventures.” (Thomas Chatterton Williams, in review of George Makari’s Of Fear and Strangers, in NYT Review of Books, October 3)

“The Parsis wouldn’t want any compromises in their living standards and the quality of life. You won’t see many Parsis hanging outside trains at 6 in the morning coming from the suburbs — they aren’t cut out for it.” (Parsi journalist Sarosh Bana, quoted in NYT article, October 4)

“The notion of an audit is a very technocratic idea. It assumes that there is a problem or crime to be ferreted out. There is an assumption in the data crunch that assumes people in the past should have known that figures like Sacagawea or Sojourner Truth would be important in the future.” (Michele H. Bogart, an art historian at Stony Brook University in New York, on the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s National Monument Audit, from NYT, October 4)

“Or put less politely, as Mr. Rudd writes in the first sentence of his paper, ‘Mainstream economics is replete with ideas that ‘everyone knows’ to be true, but that are actually arrant nonsense.’ One reason for this, he posits: ‘The economy is a complicated system that is inherently difficult to understand, so propositions like these’ — the arrant nonsense in question — ‘are all that saves us from intellectual nihilism.’” (Neil Irwin on Jeremey B. Rudd, senior adviser at the Federal Reserve, from NYT, October 5)

A ‘Wealthy’ Nation with a $27-Trillion Debt

“There would have been a global economic collapse if in fact the wealthiest nation on earth did not pay its debts. We’re going to pay our debts. We have two months to figure it out.” (Bernie Sanders, in NYT, October 7)

“Get promoted before anyone notices that you’re not terribly good.” (BBC ‘desk-jockey’ – Director, World Service Group – Jamie Angus’s survival strategy, according to Private Eye, 17-30 September)

“Paxman also has a Taylor-esque propensity to skate over awkward complexities that might slow the pace of the narrative.” (Richard Vinen, comparing Jeremy Paxman’s style to that of A. J. P. Taylor, in Literary Review, October)

            . . . how a Royal Government (Great Britain) betrayed a Royalist government (the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) to exclusively support a Communist government (that of Tito) against the wishes of an ally and a Democratic government (the United States) in order to keep another Communist government (of Stalin) from gaining control, while that Communist government (of Stalin) betrayed its own Communist partners (the Yugoslav Partisans) to support the Royalist government (the Kingdom of Yugoslavia).” (from Marcia Kurapovna’s Shadows on the Mountain, p xi, quoted by Patrick G. Zander in Hidden Armies of the Second World War, p 223)

“What is literature good for? Perhaps only to help us to remember, and teach us to understand that some strange connections cannot be explained by causal logic. There are many forms of writing; only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts.” (from W. G. Sebald’s talk An Attempt at Restitution, quoted by Judith Shulevitz in Atlantic Monthly, November)

“Such [intellectual] temptations are the bane of historians, and not only of those who are in pursuit of attractive intellectual novelty. This does not mean a defence of ‘orthodox’ history, because there is no such thing. Historians should be aware of the inevitably revisionist nature of their thinking and work. But the revision of history must not be an ephemeral monopoly of ideologues or opportunists who are ever ready to twist or even falsify evidences of the past in order to exemplify current ideas – and their own adjustments to them.” (John Lukacs, in Historical Revisionism About the Origins of the Wars of the 20th Century, in War, Resistance & Intelligence: Essays in Honour of M.R.D. Foot, edited by K. G. Robertson)

“Those companies reap the rewards of capitalism. Apple, for instance, has had phenomenal growth. But it sells expensive phones to the hundreds of millions of people who can afford them, while many more cannot. The same is true for most public companies: They sell to those who can buy and ignore those that can’t.” (Zachary Karabell, in NYT, October 19)

“Their [hunter-gatherers’] brains grew in size to help them navigate their ever more complex relationships.” (Anna Katharina Schaffner, Professor of Cultural History at the University of Kent, in review of Charles Foster’s Being Human, in TLS, October 15)

“This is the season for the retelling of Greek myths, those stories that are so wired into the western mind that we sometimes hardly know we are retelling them at all.” (Peter Stothard, in TLS, October 22)

“Liberals are people who do the right things for the wrong reasons so they can feel good for 10 minutes.” (Mort Sahl, from his NYT obituary, October 27)

“I thought I was capable of reading anything – novels by Edwina Currie, Soviet stories about romance in concrete factories, tales narrated by coins or shopping trolleys – but this total stinker came close to defeating me with its air of grindingly uninventive sanctimoniousness.” (Philip Hensher on Booker Prize nominee Bewilderment, by Richard Powers, in the Spectator, October 16)

“Nobody says ‘I’m a physicist’ because they read the Richard Feynman lectures; you’d be surprised by the number of ‘historians’ whose qualification seems to be liking books about Napoleon – and who get quite shirty if you suggest someone with a PhD in the field might have more claim to the title.” (Katrina Gulliver, in review of What is History Now?, edited by Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb, in the Spectator, October 16)

“My theory is that violence is the primary thought and that the political ideology comes along afterwards. His political world exists just to have a world to be psychotic in.” (Torgeir Husby, a psychiatrist who examined Anders Breivik, to Rod Liddle in 2915, as reported in the Spectator, October 23)

More on Spong and J.C. Flannel

“At the 1998 Lambeth conference, I had a debate with Bishop Spong about the person of Christ, who he is; about marriage, children and how to live as a Christian. After the debate the president of the Humanist Society, who was there, got up and offered Bishop Spong honorary membership of the Humanists. I thought: my case has been proved! Now I don’t want to be judgmental about particular people but the church from time to time has to set out clearly what it believes about the human condition, about the nature of men and women, how they relate to one another. But the fact is, it is ever able to hold a line on anything.” (Michael Nazir-Ali, previous Bishop of Rochester and recent convert to Catholicism, in the Spectator, October 23)


“We are an amazing species, and we can do better.” (Nicholas Kristof, in NYT, October 31)

“Don’t be too hard on Lenin  . . . Much of his strange behavior can be simply explained by the fact that he totally lacks a sense of humor.” (Georgi Plekhanov, according to Asaf Sharon, in review of Tom Segev’s A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion, in New York Review of Books, November 4)

“We may be sure that the cessation of the medical emergency will give rise in the academic world to chronic paroxysms of controversy – among historians as to whether more deaths could have bene prevented, among economists as to whether the cost of sustaining life in one generation will be defrayed by a reduction of longevity in the next, and among philosophers as to whether a reasonable balance has been struck between length of live and the ends for which we live. These are perennial – that is to say, unanswerable – questions of the kind that will furnish a living to academics for years to come.” (Mark Edwards, Professor of Early Christian Studies, Tutor in Theology, Librarian, in Christ Church Annual Report, 2020)

“We’ve reached the stage of history where we have scientists and activists agreeing our prevailing system is putting us and our planet on a course of real catastrophe. To find yourself paralyzed, with your horizons closed off by false perspectives on human possibilities, based on a mythological conception of history, is not a great place to be.” (Professor David Wengrow, in NYT interview, November 1)

“Experience has taught me that it is not worth arguing with Soviet people. One simply has to confront them with the new facts and await their reactions.” (Winston Churchill to War Cabinet, July 1943, from CAB-80-41/1)

“The tools of a green economy, such as solar panels and new forms of battery storage, still require mining, manufacturing, shipping, and supply chains, which come with their own problems: solar panels made by Uighurs reportedly forced into labor, rare minerals sourced from conflict zones or countries whose antidemocratic rulers remain in power thanks in part to Western industries’ reliance on their exports, e-waste disposal chains that expose the most marginalized garbage pickers to toxic chemicals.” (Anna Louie Susman, in New York Review of Books, November 18)

“There exist in the game of police provocation three golden rules which the OGPU had partly inherited from the Tsarist Okhrana, partly perfected itself: The first rule is that the same formula of provocation should not be used under two different sets of circumstances or for two different purposes. The second (which has already been mentioned in connection with Opperput’s defection) is that when the time comes to wind up a given ‘legend’ – whether because one’s opponent has begun to inspect the truth, or because circumstances have changed – the initiative for such a suspension should always be taken by those responsible for their ‘legend’s’ operation and prior to its denunciation by the other side, even if this means denying oneself a few additional successes. And the third rule is that in winding up operations, one should invariably seek to provoke the maximum of disarray in the enemy camp by sowing confusion among the rank-and-file and suspicion and distrust in the leadership, while at the same time covering up those agents who happen to have still escaped suspicion.” (from Geoffrey Bailey’s The Conspirators, p 82)

“Stalin’s show trials and mass purges would not take place for a decade – yet here is the general plan of later dictatorships and surveillance capitalism, laid out in ‘We’ as if in a blueprint.” (Margaret Atwood, in foreword to Ecco edition of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, quoted by Jennifer Wilson in NYT Book Review, November 14)

“In fact, by the mid 19th century the law had got itself into such a tangle that a person injured in a failed attempt at suicide could be indicted for wounding with intent to kill, an offence for which Parliament had thoughtfully provided the death penalty.” (Stephen Sedley, from 2021 Doran Lecture, in London Review of Books, October 18)

“All English stories get bogged down in whether or not the furniture is socially and aesthetically acceptable.” (A. S. Byatt, according to Dwight Garner in NYT, November 16)

“  . . . no one cares about a library collection as much as the person who has assembled it  . . . one man’s passion project would be nothing but a burden to whom the responsibility of curation was passed on.” (Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen, in The Library, from review in the TLS by James Waddell, November 5)

“Also, despite millions of years of experience, beavers, to their peril, still have not figured out how to direct where trees fall.” (from article in NYT, November 21)

“Thoreau rattled against trade but it was his father’s pencil manufacturing business that paid for his education and allowed him to enter Harvard. The unofficial religion of America is suspicious of the capitalist system that brings such wealth.” (Martin Ivens, editor, in TLS, November 19)

“Circumstances change and justifications change, but nuclear secrecy regimes lumber on. All bureaucracies tend to perpetuate themselves, and the bureaucracy tasked with managing nuclear secrecy was a paragon of perpetuity. It classifies and declassifies, and, when confronted with Freedom of Information Act petitions, it redacts and procrastinates. Just as nuclear weapons proliferated, so too the practices of nuclear secrecy provided a pattern for the control of many other things governments don’t want you to know.” (Steven Shapin, from review of Alex Wellerstein’s Restricted Data: The History of Nuclear Secrecy in the United States, in London Review of Books, November 4)

“Researchers have documented lizards evolving heritably longer front limbs and larger toepads on their forefeet, the better to grip onto anchor points when buffeted by gales that damage buildings, uproot trees, and fell electricity poles.” (Rebecca Giggs, in article ‘Shape-Shifting Animals on an Inhospitable Planet’, in Atlantic Monthly, December)

“The new state covered the Baikal region, the Amur province, Kamchatka, and the Trans-Baikal territories of Siberia. The Soviets described the FER as a buffer state. Unconsciously using a verbal trick which Gertrude Stein was to make familiar, Lenin said that ‘a buffer is a buffer’. He explained at one point that the buffer was needed ‘to gain time and to beat the Japanese afterwards’”. [Questions of History, No. 10 (1969): pp 148-149] (from Natalie Grant’s Disinformation: Soviet Political Warfare 1917-1992, p 37)

“If a film score comes out uninfluenced by Berlioz, it’s no damn good.” (Malcolm Arnold, according to Hugh Morris in NYT, November 28)

“This document  . . . was an example of true humanism [emphasis added].  During these complicated times, enemies  . . . could [simply]have been shot to death.” (Viktor Stepakov, FSB historian, in 2009, on Merkulov’s deportation plan for family members of ‘counter revolutionaries’ in the Baltic States in May 1941, quoted by Vadim J. Birstein in SMERSH: Stalin’s Secret Weapon, p 80)

The British and the Soviet Ways

“Initially a committed conscientious objector during World War II, Arnold signed up for the war effort following the death of his brother in action, and was eventually posted to a military staff band. Soon after, a sergeant found him in a pool of his own blood: Arnold had intentionally shot himself in the foot, forcing a move back to the orchestra.” (from article on Malcolm Arnold by Hugh Morris in NYT, November 28)

“Self-injured servicemen, nicknamed samostreltsy, were one more OO [osobyi otdel – ‘special department’] problem. On August 2, 1941, the GKO ordered the OOs to arrest ‘self-injured’ servicemen and, if necessary, to shoot them on the spot as deserters. A mortar man recalled in 2006: ‘There was a good guy in our company, a sharp-sighted observer, a Kazakh by origin. I was thunderstruck when it came to light that he put a bullet through his own arm. It was easily recognized. That’s all –  military tribunal and death by shooting. As a rule, the execution was performed in front of the regiment’s formation.’” (from Vadim J. Birstein’s SMERSH: Stalin’s Secret Weapon, p 102)


“The human brain works by an astoundingly complex and powerful chemical process of near instant interactions. We have evolved like this to cope with uncertainty: our fate as a species.” (Paul Collier in Books of the Year, in TLS, November 26)

“More often, as political scientist David Runciman has argued, democracies have a habit of pulling through crises without truly learning from them. (Think of the way ‘neoliberalism’ has limped on since the 2008 financial crash.)” (Philip Ball, in Prospect, December)

“Until 1948 a British woman (not a man) who married a foreigner automatically lost her nationality and passport. The act immediately and retrospectively corrected that. (Though Patel does not go into this, the urgency came from the plight of the many young women, largely Scottish, who had married Polish soldiers during or after the war and had returned with them to Poland. A few years later, the onset of Stalinism brought the arrest of their husbands as ‘imperialist agents’, and stranded many of them in the peasant countryside, often with no money, young children and only a few words of Polish, harassed by the secret police and deprived of any right to ask the British Embassy for help. The Nationality Act rescued them, licensing British diplomats to drive about Poland distributing bundles of fresh passports.)” (Neal Ascherson, from review of Ian Sanjay Patel’s We’re Here Because You Were There: Immigration and the End of Empire, in London Review of Books, November 18)

“And for all his gifts in language, he was far from persuasive in argument. He had the partisanship of the barrister his father had wanted him to be, without the forensic skill or dialectical acuity. Throughout his life he took assertion for demonstration, and rhetoric for logic, and he was prone to making what English judges call bad points, arguments that aren’t so much untrue, or true but irrelevant, unintended ‘own goals’.” (from Churchill’s Shadow, by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, p 72)

“Altogether, Beaverbrook was truly wicked, a puppet-master and wire-puller, a flatterer, a seducer and a corrupter, a bully, a liar and a crook, a thorough-going scoundrel, whose influence on journalistic and public life was wholly malign, far from least his influence on Churchill.” (from Churchill’s Shadow, by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, p 102)

“Never in the field of human conflict have so few words caused so much suffering to so little effect.” (on Churchill’s ‘Set Europe Ablaze’ slogan for SOE, from Churchill’s Shadow, by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, p 102)

“Studying Stalin’s life, I began to entertain the notion — I’m a writer, it’s my job to exaggerate — that the gulags were a kind of revenge for all the intolerable itching. Of course, not everyone with psoriasis becomes a villain. Most of us are good people. But Stalin wasn’t the only evil so-and-so with psoriasis: The Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar had it, as did Abimael Guzmán, the leader of the Peruvian terrorist organization Shining Path, whose arrest came about because his pursuers found jars of his skin cream in the trash cans at his hide-out.” (Sergio del Molino in NYT, December 17)

“We’ve had a dialogue with Russia on European security issues for the last 20 years. We had it with the Soviet Union for decades before that.” (Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, to an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations, from NYT, December 18)

“It should be said, of course, that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with ‘rewriting’ history. Historians rewrite history all the time: it’s our job. Our success and prestige depend on our discovering new facts and advancing new interpretations. There’s nothing very left-wing about this. Conservative historians like Lewis Namier and Geoffrey Elton have rewritten history in hugely influential ways. Historians of all stripes need to reclaim history as a contentious, critical and diverse discipline against the attempts of ignorant and mendacious governments to force citizens to conform to a particular version of it.” (Richard J. Evans in London Review of Books, December 2)

“Everyone has a book in them, and that, in most cases, is where it should stay.” (Christopher Hitchens, according to Joanna Kavenna in Literary Review, December/January)

“But the main problem with defectors is that they quickly run out of crown jewels and then invariably resort to invention what they think their new-found paymasters want to hear in order to extend their usefulness and avoid being discarded to end their days washing dishes in a Hungarian restaurant in downtown Washington.” (James Rusbridger, in The Intelligence Game, p 57)

“When a minister, or even the prime minister, assures Parliament that everything in MI5 is all right what he really means is that this is what he has been told by the head of MI5, which is about as much use as sending a rabbit to fetch a lettuce.” (James Rusbridger, in The Intelligence Game, p 240)

“A more phlegmatic response to the Famous First Book dilemma was that of Kingsley Amis, who in later years was asked if Lucky Jim hadn’t been a bit of an albatross around his neck. ‘It’s better than having no albatross at all,’ he replied.” (Julian Barnes in the London Review of Books, December 16)

“I like to be in a room where I’ve read half the books, and I’d like there to be enough books that I cannot possibly read them in my remaining years.” (Reid Byers, author of The Private Library: The History of the Architecture and Furnishing of the Domestic Bookroom, quoted in NYT, December 26)

“There is really no comparison between my grandparents’ iron-spiked experiences and my marshmallow life. They could never go back to where they were born. I can; though when I do, I feel ever more disconnected, déraciné, what Stalin called a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’, while at the same time till the day I die I shall be seen as a foreigner in the place I now regard as home.” (Geoffrey Elliott in From Siberia, With Love, p 3)

“An appeaser was most memorably described by Winston Churchill as ‘one who feeds a crocodile – hoping it will eat him last’. He used the analogy in 1940 about Hitler and again in 1954 to warn about Stalin’s imperialism.” (Owen Matthews in the Spectator, December 18)