Commonplace 2022


“We need to turn our backs on the ideology of absolute free trade in favor of a model of development based on explicit and verifiable principles of economic, fiscal and environmental justice.” (Thomas Piketty, in Time for Socialism, quoted by Robert Kuttner in NYT review, January 2)

“Obviously, wealth can ameliorate many of these restrictions, but even a wealthy Christian could never hope to become president or enter the higher echelons of the military.” (Philip Wood, on Egypt, in review of The Vanishing Twilight of Christianity in the Middle East, by Janine di Giovanni, in Prospect, January/February)

“Reading about Eric Ravilious as I have to talk in a film being made by Margy Kinmonth, I find a good quote on the Second World War: ‘I regretted that we were being called upon to fight against something regarded as wrong without at the same time having the conviction that we were defending a way of life that was right’ (H.B. Mallalieu in The England of Eric Ravilious by Freda Constable).”  (from Alan Bennett’s Diary, 27 February, 2021, in London Review of Books, January 6)

On ‘Experiments’

The Atlantic, across its long history, has held true that the American experiment is a worthy one, which is why we’re devoting this issue, and so much of our journalism in the coming years, to its possible demise.”  (Jeffrey Goldberg, in Editor’s Note in Atlantic Monthly, January/February)

“This is one of the core conservative principles: epistemological modesty, or humility in the face of what we don’t know about a complex world, and a conviction that social change should be steady but cautious and incremental. Down the centuries, conservatives have always stood against the arrogance of those who believe they have the ability to plan history: the French revolutionaries who thought they could destroy a society and rebuild it from scratch, but who ended up with the guillotine; the Russian and Chinese Communists who tried to create a centrally controlled society, but who ended up with the gulag and the Cultural Revolution; the Western government planners who thought they could fine-tune an economy from the top, but who ended up with stagflation and sclerosis; the European elites who thought they could unify their continent by administrative fiat and arrogate power to unelected technocrats in Brussels, but who ended up with a monetary crisis and populist backlash.” (David Brooks, in Atlantic Monthly, January/February)

“Able to hear subtle differences in sounds, he [Johnny Cash] was trained as a radio intercept operator; and for three years, at least eight hours a day, he sat in a room outside Munich, listening to Soviet transmissions, distinguishing signal from noise.” (Stephen Metcalf, in Atlantic Monthly, January/February)

“I once hear a Russian nobleman say of the Russian peasantry: ‘Every son-of-a-dog of them ought to have a millstone tied around his neck and be sunk in the ocean.’

I heard the same nobleman say: ‘A Minister or Governor of a province who refuses a bribe cannot be considered a gentleman.’” (Paul Dukes, in The Story of “ST 25”, p 13)

“There are definite signs of a rebirth of spiritual values in Russian life, though they cannot yet become openly manifest. By spiritual or religious values I do not mean a revival of a clergy inheriting the traditions of a State Church; nor do I mean the combination of superstition and hysteria which in many Russians passes for religion; nor do I mean the vaunted emotionalism which makes a virtue of display and regards emotional restraint and self-command as inhuman; nor do I mean that proneness to ‘mysticism’ which takes the form of a passion for the abstruse. These are all facets of religious mania which, I believe, contributed to the debacle of the Russian intelligentsia in the revolution.” (Paul Dukes, in Epilogue to The Story of “ST 25”, p 354)


“Schools like Harvard have no one to blame but themselves. Their flimsy approach to ‘diversity’ and their desire to stay as academically exclusive as possible have created an indefensible system of racial nonsense that demeans not only its Asian and Black applicants, but everyone else who has to play this absurd game.’ (Jay Caspian Kang, in NYT, January 31)

“All of them were patriots holding up a mirror to society, forcing us to examine ourselves and better understand the perils that stand in the way of the American experiment.” (Michael Mailer [son of Norman] in the Spectator, January 22)

“The screen gives you the price but the voice gives you the market.” (Derek Tullett, quoted by Martin Vander Weyer in the Spectator, January 22)

“The two most fascinating subjects in the universe are sex and the 18th century.” (Brigid Brophy, according to Wynn Wheldon in the Spectator, January 22)

Now Which Russians Were Those?

“As history tells us, Russians fear the West based on many years of hostile relations with Western Europe, followed by more than 40 years of the Cold War with Western democracies, including our country.” (letter from Alan Safron in NYT, February 4)

“Despite what the rotund and orotund Canon Tonks claimed in my Confirmation class many years ago, there is no absolute truth. Especially in the piranha-infested waters of spydom. Truth is in the eyes of the typewriter and the scissors of whoever has the files. Files may lie by perpetuating on cheap paper with official stamps and smudged signatures the false testimony beaten and bullied out of hapless witnesses. They may mislead by error, selectivity, falsification or subsequent pruning, a prime example being the archives of SOE, which, in a successful effort to expunge all references to SIS and its wartime secrets, have been weeded more thoroughly than the gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society, the edited pages ironed flat to conceal the emendations.” (Geoffrey Elliott, in I Spy, p 230)

“There are some basic rules in life. Never eat in a restaurant called Mom’s. Never play cards with a man named Doc. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are greater than yours. Never lend money to a company whose chairman has a beard, all the more if he has recently won some newspaper nomination as Young Businessman of the Year. To these add, never try to dig up a long-lost parent.” (Geoffrey Elliott, in I Spy, p 262)

“In predominantly Roman Catholic France, abortion was long considered a mortal sin and officially banned by the Napoleonic Code of 1810,  which threatened women who had abortions with imprisonment. During the German occupation in World War II, the procedure was deemed a capital crime, and some women who underwent or performed abortions were executed, often by guillotine. The last such execution was in 1943.” (from NYT obituary of Marie-Claire Chevalier, February 12)

“. . .the Roman Empire lasted at least four times as long as the British Empire, had a death toll nowhere near the scale of British genocide, caused much less environmental devastation and involved none of the curses and gifts of industrialisation. Only those with a vested interest –usually public schoolboys with Classics degrees – find meaningful similarity between the two.” (Sarah Moss in article about Jan Morris in Prospect, March)

“Never forget that under a totalitarian system cruelty and absurdity go hand in hand.” (Al Weiwei, quoted by Orville Schell in New York Review of Books, March 10)

“A limited imagination promotes failure of the memory because there are no luminous and scarcely touched places back there in one’s past, no votive altars of a private religion, so to speak, nor small hooks in the heart attached to lines reaching far back, such that any connection at all in the imagination, or anything that one happens to see, can execute a general tug.” (the narrator in Heimito von Doderer’s The Strudlhof Steps, quoted by Francine Prose in The New York Review of Books, March 10)

The more monstrous the egoist, she had observed from long practice, the more normal people hope to holdup the fabrication – either for ease, or from a terror of any kind of collapse.” (From Elizabeth Taylor’s Flesh)


“When Garbo withdrew from the star system, withdrawal became – for a time – the definition of stardom. Groucho Marx may well have been the only insider to call her bluff. Encountering her one day in an elevator on the MGM lot, he lifted the brim of her hat to peer underneath: ‘Oh, I’m terribly sorry, I thought you were a fella I knew from Kansas City.” (from David Trotter’s review of Robert Gottlieb’s Garbo in London Review of Books, February 22)

“We know that Beethoven was a sufferer, but he never expresses his suffering in his music, like Mahler does. You can hear it in every bar of Mahler — I’m suffering, I’m suffering, I’m suffering — and it’s wonderful, the way he does it.” (conductor Herbert Blomstedt, from interview in NYT, March 3)

“When Sir Tony Brenton writes a letter to the Times, as he frequently does, it always says at the bottom that he was British ambassador to Moscow. The uninformed reader could be forgiven for thinking the subeditors have got it back to front and he was actually Russian ambassador to London. Sir Tony’s message in every letter is ‘It’s all Britain’s fault.’” (Charles Moore in the Spectator, March 19)

“Last year the CIA issued a recruitment video in which the agent they highlighted as their ideal recruiter was a woman of colour who said: ‘I am a cisgender millennial who’s been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I am intersectional,’ She went on to describe her refusal to bow to the ‘patriarchy’. Instead she said she would ‘intoxicate people with my effort, my brilliance’. In its way this is a fine example of bringing your whole self to work. For the lady in question is clearly a narcissistic psychopath. A type I would rather not know exists in the CIA, and certainly would rather the CIA did not imagine was their ideal poster-girl for a recruitment campaign.” (Douglas Murray in the Spectator, March 19)

“This shambling behemoth of a national experiment called America slowly, and in spite of itself, learns. We’ve come to understand our own, at times, hubris. We’ve learned that who’s in charge makes a difference. We will continue to make mistakes.” (John McWhorter in NYT, March 11)

“To write a textbook, he [Naumov] explained, meant to have some kind of unifying narrative with an underlying conception. A point of view. No one, he insisted, would undertake such a daunting and dangerous task at the present time. To offer a unified interpretation of the Soviet period meant, first, that you wished to know the truth, and second, that you had the courage to tell it.” (from Jonathan Brett’s Inside the Stalin Archives, p 213)

“I have nothing but documents here, but to understand history you have to overcome the documents. By themselves, documents will never be enough. In fact very little was written down.” (Vladimir Naumov, from Jonathan Brett’s Inside the Stalin Archives, p 232)

“When the Women’s Liberation Conference gathered in Skegness in 1971, their booking coincided with a miners’ conference where a stripper was part of the evening entertainment.” (Clare Griffith in review of Sheila Rowbotham’s Daring to Hope in TLS, March 4)

“She involved herself with Amnesty International, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Samaritans and the Quakers; was attracted to Maoism; started growing cannabis; and would have joined the Labour Party had it not been working-class.” (Norma Clarke, of Justin Webb’s mother, in review of Webb’s The Gift of a Radio in TLS, March 4)

“What is missing here – by choice, not inadvertently – is the real key to historical writing: a sense of uncertainty. Historians make imperfect judgements about incomplete evidence, and some of what they write about (above all, human intentions) may have been intrinsically uncertain at the time.” (Noel Malcolm, in review of Christopher De Bellaigue’s The Lion House, in TLS, March 4)

“His indifference to things that happen outside Britain (and especially in non-English-speaking countries) is so marked that he makes Nigel Farage look like Isaiah Berlin.” (Richard Vinen on Peter Hennessy’s A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After Covid, in Literary Review, March)

“All agreed during those pregnant years that the best chance to stop Hitler, as is now confirmed by German records, was at the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936.” (from Douglas Dodds-Parker’s Setting Europe Ablaze, p 8)

’We are Vlasov’s Army’ came the explanation. ’To save our lives, we joined the German Army. As soon as we heard that the Allies had landed nearby, we shot all our German officers. Before you say anything else, we want a complete assurance that under no circumstances at all will we ever be handed back to the Russians. Unless that understanding is given here, at once, we are going to shoot ourselves.’” (from Douglas Dodds-Parker’s Setting Europe Ablaze, p 167)

“Rather in the same spirit of desperation, on my last visit to Naples I had agreed to get married.” (Peter Wilkinson, in Foreign Fields, p 217)


“The secret that Robert Browning communicated was that when you speak in the voice of someone else, the speaker, thus registered, reveals something without realizing that he or she is revealing it. There is something unacknowledged in the speech, in the discourse, that escapes with the speaker unaware. And it was that — the drama of the speaker revealing more than was known or suspected — that appealed very strongly.” (Richard Howard, on the attraction of the dramatic monologue, to the PEN American Center in 2005, from his NYT obituary, April 1)

“We are now being assured by graduate students at the University of Leeds that the term Anglo-Saxon should be abolished because it developed ‘as a concept intrinsic to the emerging ideologies of colonialism, nationalism, and white racial identity’. As an eminent medieval historian commented: ‘But they were the victims of Norman colonialization in 1066.’“ (David Abulafia, in the Spectator. March 15)

“You know, I have come to the conclusion that the real purpose of marriage is talk. It’s the thing which distinguishes it from the other sorts of relationships between men and women, and it’s the one thing one misses most, strangely enough, in the long run – the outpourings of trivialities day after day. I think that’s the fundamental human need, much more important than – violent passion, for instance.” (Tory Foyle in Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour, Chapter 8)

“’A man’, she thought suddenly, ’would consider this a business outing. But, then, a man would not have to cook the meals for the day overnight, nor consign his child to a friend, nor leave half-done the ironing, nor forget the grocery order as I now discover I have forgotten it. The artfulness of men’, she thought. ‘They implant in us, foster in us, instincts which it is to their advantage for us to have, and which, in the end, we feel shame at not possessing.’” (Beth Cazabon in Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour, Chapter 11)

“Research suggests that trauma can be passed down generation to generation. Bodies retain physiological imprints of traumatic memories, which can be reactivated by stressful events.” (from report on Ukraine in NYT, April 17)


“This committee will focus on the Church’s priority of racial justice as it is manifested in the material culture in our churches and cathedrals.” (advertisement for membership of the Contested Heritage Committee of the Church of England’s Church Buildings Council, reported by Charles Moore in the Spectator, March 26)

“It was prompted by Davie’s concern that on current trends the BBC ‘will not feel indispensable enough to all our audience.’ In an effort to avert a fatal slide into irrelevance, he promised to create ‘an organization that is much more representative of the UK as a whole’: one that is 50% women, 20% ethnic minority and 12% disabled.” (Henri Astier, at

“Doig often uses the word ‘we’ incautiously to refer to the relatively privileged inhabitants of rich industrialized countries – as in the claim that ‘science is why we live in the healthiest and wealthiest period that we have ever had’. A ‘global’ history of death throughout all time and space ought not, ideally, to have an appendix of life-expectancy data focused only on the United Kingdom. The idea that ‘we’ have ‘largely overcome’ ‘famine and war’ would be a welcome surprise to some human inhabitants of the world, and seems implausible as a prediction of the global future. Doig declares blithely that, once the science of disease is understood, ‘we can devise solutions’ – as if poverty could be banished with the wave of a pen.” (Emily Wilson, in review of Andrew Doig’s This Mortal Coil – and other books – in TLS, April 15)

“Potter notes the recommendation of the parliamentary committee overseeing the charter review in 1936 that ‘BBC officers should consult civil servants, informally, whenever “the interests of the state appear to be at all closely involved.”’ Only ‘informally’, of course: nothing more than a chap having a word with another chap. The extent to which this could compromise the BBC’s independence became apparent in the late 1930s when the Foreign Office agitated for foreign-language broadcasts to counter the propaganda of the Axis powers. John Reith, the director general, felt obliged to accept an arrangement that, as Potter puts it, ‘included agreeing that news editors would accept specific guidance from civil servants as to which items needed to be included in, or omitted from, different foreign-language services. All this was subsequently enshrined in a secret “gentleman’s agreement” between the BBC and the government, unwritten and thus eminently deniable by both parties.’” (Stefan Collini in review of Simon J. Potter’s This Is The BBC, in LRB, April 21)

“Comrade thieves, wheeler-dealers, robbers, picklocks, swindlers, blackmailers, double-dealers, sots, marauders, pickpockets, cat burglars, vagrants, and other brethren…we have to meet in order to choose representatives to the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies…Unite, comrades, for in unity is strength!… [Signed] Group of conscientious businessmen.” (advertisement in socialist newspaper in Tver in 1917, from Gary Saul Morson’s review of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Red Wheel, in The New York Review of Books, May 12)

“What compels them to kick up all that dust?… Why do philosophers go in for skepticism? Why do they ask whether the table is really there, whether you might turn out to be a robot, whether you see what I see when we simultaneously remark the deep vermilion in the rose?” (Richard Rorty, on questions asked by Stanley Cavell’s work, from Christopher Benfey’s review of Cavell’s writings in New York Review of Books, May 12)

“In early September 1944 Forrestal wondered out loud why it was that ‘whenever an American suggests we act in accordance with the needs of our own security, he is apt to be labeled a God-damned fascist or imperialist, while if Uncle Joe suggests that he needs the Baltic provinces, half of Poland, Bessarabia, and access to the Mediterranean, all hands agree that he is a fine, frank, candid, and thoroughly delightful fellow because he is explicit in what he wants.’” (from John Kelly’s Saving Stalin, p 284)

“Blok was right, of course. Especially with that comparison, for just as there is nothing more human, more emotionally devastating, than tears of love, so is there nothing more loathsome than indifference to one’s country, to its past, present and future, to its language, its customs, its fields and forests, to its villages and people, be they geniuses or village cobblers.” (from Chapter 47 of Konstantin Paustovsky’s The Story of a Life)

“Religion was their self-deception. It was a world of fruitless make-believe for weary people. They could see no other way out of their trouble and so despite common sense and their own life experiences they believed with a burning fanaticism that justice was incarnate in the person of this poor soul from Galilee, in the person of God. But for some reason that God, invented by people in order to make sense of the bloody and harsh muddle of human existence, never came, or spoke, or helped their lives. Yet they still believed in him, even though their God’s inaction had lasted for centuries. So great was their longing for happiness that they looked for its poetry in religion, in the sobs of the organ, in the smoke of incense, in solemn incantations.” (from Chapter 50 of Konstantin Paustovsky’s The Story of a Life)


“Conservatives will have a field day with this. Prepare to meet the Person Who Got the Stupidest Degree in America, because that person will be on Fox News more than pundits who exude an ‘angry cheerleading coach’ vibe. The case study will be some tragic dweeb who took out $400,000 in loans to get a Ph.D. in intersectional puppet theory from Cosa Nostra Online College and who wrote his dissertation about how ‘Fraggle Rock’ is an allegory for the Franco-Prussian War. I can picture Tucker Carlson putting on his confused cocker spaniel puppy face and asking the poor sap, ‘Why do Democrats want to forgive every last penny of your student loans?’” (Jeff Maurer, in leader in NYT, May 12)

“It is unlikely that even the inhabitants of Basingstoke know that their town, lying in the ambitiously named ‘southern sunbelt’, was once, as Hatherley explains, called the ‘Dallas of Hampshire’ or that the mid-1970s Gateway House was known as the ‘hanging gardens of Basingstoke’.” (Jonathan Meades, in review of Modern Buildings in Britain: A Gazetteer by Owen Hatherley, in Literary Review, May)

“Their national identity was lost on neither the Czar nor the Soviets, both of whom regulated the genre extensively. By the 1930s, the Stalinist regime had carried out mass executions of bandura players throughout the country. At the end of the preceding decade, Sonevytsky said, there were at least 300 bandurists registered in Ukraine. After 1936, there were four.” (Gabrielle Cornish in NYT, May 15)

‘We Are All Guilty’

“Of course, the Nazis were ultimately responsible for Anne Frank’s death, from Hitler and Eichmann all the way down to the lowly functionary Silberbauer and his henchmen. But on a global level, Anne Frank was betrayed by all those who had the ability to help Jews and chose not to. The Dutch queen betrayed her by abandoning the nation; one can imagine a different outcome had Queen Wilhelmina, like King Christian X of Denmark, stood up to the Nazi occupiers and defended the Jews. The US government betrayed her by declining to approve visas for the Frank family to travel via New York to Cuba in 1941 — the only real chance they had to escape the Netherlands. The Allies betrayed her by declining to bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz. The nations of the world betrayed her by turning away Jewish refugees. In imagining that a single person could have been responsible for Anne Frank’s death — and not the tidal wave of fascism that once threatened to engulf the world and may do so yet — are we not betraying her still?” (Rosemary Sullivan in New York Review of Books, May 26)


“Dr Heinz Kiosk, the eminent psychopenologist and chief psychiatric adviser to the Eccles Cake and Garibaldi Biscuit Council, urged at a recent seminar that prison authorities should go much further than this and be obliged to provide for every kind of sexual practice conceivable.

Some of these practices (see Krafft-Ebbing’s collected works, edited with introduction and notes by Dr Kiosk himself and Dr Melinda Fischbein) require elaborate and extensive equipment.

To those who objected that rate-payers might not be willing to pay for all of this, Dr Kiosk replied: ‘It is one way in which these so-called rate-payers can make amends for the persecution of these so-called ‘criminals’ by our unjust consumer-orientated society.’

‘And not only the ordinary rate-payers,’ he shouted hastily, as Dr Llewellyn Goth-Jones, the medical officer of health for Stretchford, who is a director of a new chain of ‘sex aid factories,’ a Nadirco subsidiary, just opened in the Midlands, rose to his feet to support him, ‘WE ARE ALL GUILTY.’”  (from The Stretchford Chronicles, 1973, by ‘Peter Simple’, aka Michael Wharton)

“I knew, thanks to a recent takeover of the company I worked for, that the larger an organization becomes, the more dysfunctional it gets. This was a truth that surely applied as much to the intelligence services as to any other place of work.” (from Mick Herron’s Preface to Slow Horses)

“A writer spends the first part of his or her career hoping to be discovered; the rest hoping not to be found out.” (from Mick Herron’s Preface to Slow Horses)

“Sid said, ‘I hate conspiracy theories.’

‘It’s not a theory once it’s proved. After that, it’s just a conspiracy.’”(from Slow Horses, p 150, by Mick Herron)

“One of the problems with information is that the useful and the useless can be snowflake-similar, and the ability to know the one from the other comes with hindsight, if at all.” (from Mick Herron’s The Last Dead Letter)

“A historian lacks the armature of the scientist or the freedom of the artist, so takes the liberty of the rhetorician. When Mr. Cohen asked Eric Hobsbawm if historical objectivity exists, Hobsbawm laughed. ‘Of course not,’ he replied. ‘But I try to obey the rules.’ Unfortunately, the rules were those of the Communist Party. Hobsbawm falsified the record to defend the indefensible.” (Dominic Green, in review of Richard Cohen’s Making History, in Wall Street Journal, May 21)

“Schizophrenia is the product of endless interaction effects. All of us are probably only a molecule or two away from madness.” (Michele Pridmore-Brown, in review of Adam Rutherford’s Control, in TLS, May 20)

“Subsequent histories of Darwinism have maintained Huxley’s view of Weissmann’s role in ‘sharpening’ the definition of Darwinism by establishing the principle of ‘”hard’ heredity: that is, the complete inability of the organism to influence the genetic information passed on to the next generation.’” (from Jessica Rifkin’s The Restless Clock, p 279)

“Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he cannot live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public.” (Ernest Mayr, in Towards a New Philosophy of Biology, quoted by Jessica Rifkin in The Restless Clock, p 347)


“I’m very skeptical about much of psychoanalysis. I think it’s such a narcissistic indulgence that I cannot believe in it.”

“In my eyes, both Adolf Hitler and my grandfather were false prophets of the 20th century. They shared the ambition to convince other men of the one and only truth they had come upon.” (Sophie Freud, from her NYT obituary, June 4)

“Researching and writing history is like a spinach-eating competition in which the only possible prize is another helping of fresh, steaming vegetables.” (Ian W. Toll, in review of Paul Kennedy’s Victory at Sea in NYT, June 12)

“Spying is a complex business. Information must be not only collected but also properly evaluated and used. This process is jeopardized by enemy disinformation, ambiguous signals, forgery for profit. . . ., distortion by agents eager to please superiors to avoid blame, bureaucratic rivalries,, and leaders’ ideology.” (Barry Rubin, in Istanbul Intrigues, p 49)

“The subject of ‘double agents’ is with us constantly. Many here believe [double agents] to be the best sources of information on our enemies,’ arguing that such men knew a great deal and that American agents could outsmart them ‘to get more than they give.’ This idea was misguided, Wickham warned. ‘The double agent knew only what was necessary to do their job, ‘namely to feed out enemy propaganda.’” (John Wickham, chief of OSS in Istanbul in February 1944 report, quoted by Barry Rubin in Istanbul Intrigues, p 190)

“What frightens me is that when a country begins to extend its influence by strong-arm methods beyond its borders under the guise of security it is difficult to see how a line can be drawn. If the policy is accepted that the Soviet Union has a right to penetrate her immediate neighbors for security, penetration of the next immediate neighbors becomes at a certain time equally logical.” (Averell Harriman, according to Barry Rubin in Istanbul Intrigues, p 272)

“The original draft of the [Colby] note was, if anything, even more categorical. It contained phrases such as, ‘The Government of the United States is unalterably opposed to the policy which has been known as the “Balkanization” of Russia’, and, in relation to the nationality question, ‘The Government of the United States is convinced that, in many instances, the so-called “nationalistic” movements in Russia have been artificially produced and fostered.’ It protested against ‘the dismemberment of national unities, organisms developed through centuries of evolution; the severance of unions effected long ago, often before there had been developed by any of the elements so united anything approaching a national consciousness,’ and ‘the creation of petty and even artificial States, bound to develop conflicting interests and ambitions.’ This language, so at odds with earlier Wilsonian self-determination, was ultimately left out, presumably for the sake of brevity as well as to avoid inflaming anyone.” (from Anatol Shmelev’s In the Wake of Empire, p 398)

“Rather, he notes the Allies’ fatally tepid support of the Resistance and turns a sad gaze on the reprisals that tainted every corner of the mountains with ‘some ineradicable act of cruelty’” (Boyd Tonkin, in review of Graham Robb’s France: An Adventure History, in the Wall Street Journal, June 24/25)

“As Mr. Williams makes clear, James had a less than enlightened approach to the female sex – one that was, perhaps, in keeping with the times and the island culture from which he had sprung. To him, an ideal woman was an amanuensis with amorous inclinations.” (Tunku Varadarajan, in review of John L. Williams’ C. L. R. James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries, in the Wall Street Journal, 24/25 June)

“Non-fiction can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies.” (V. S. Naipaul, according to Sara Wheeler in Literary Review, June)

“When Hobsbawm suggested that the sacrifice of millions of lives to establish a communist utopia was comparable to the sacrifices to beat Hitler, she [Sue Lawley] asked whether there was a difference ‘between killing someone in war and killing your own’. ‘We didn’t know that,’ Hobsbawm said. ‘Dead is dead’.” (Miranda Carter on Desert Island Discs in London Review of Books, June 9)

“In Mrs Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), Martin reminds us, she describes the particularity of the Yorkshire ‘race’. ‘Even an inhabitant of the neighbouring county of Lancashire is struck by the peculiar force of character which the Yorkshiremen display’; their ‘self-sufficiency’ gives them ‘an air of independence rather apt to repel a stranger’. (This brings to mind the quintessential ‘professional’ Yorkshireman, the former England cricket captain Geoffrey Boycott, who repelled strangers and teammates alike.) Then again, Martin mentions that in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is initially described as ‘exaggeratedly reserved’ – only to dash his head against a tree and howl ‘not like a man, but like a savage beast being goaded to death with knives and spears’ at the news of Catherine’s death. You don’t get that sort of behaviour in Barrow-in-Furness (Cumbria), let me tell you.” (Jonathan Drummond, in review of Andrew Martin’s Yorkshire, in TLS, June 17)

“I’ve noticed in life there are three things nobody will admit they do badly, playing bridge, talking French, and driving a car  . . . Riding used to be another.” (Nancy Mitford, from Harold Acton’s Memoir, p 108)

‘But Nancy also received ‘perfectly serious letters from people saying things like, “I am descended from Alfred the Great’s sister and I would like to congratulate you on your splendid stand for people of our sort.”’” (Harold Acton, on the U-nonU debate, from his Memoir of Nancy Mitford, p 111)


“Intellectual honesty is the first casualty of moral outrage.” (Antony Beevor’s favourite quote, from Prospect, July)

“Unfortunately, the progressives who dominate policy in the Biden administration thought there would be little risk to having the government issue enormous quantities of debt, then letting the central bank soak it up. Their anthem, which goes under the rubric of ‘modern monetary theory’ (MMT), is really just a distilled version of a line many left-leaning academics have long been pushing: that government can vastly expand its debt issuance to pay for social spending without ever having to cut spending or raise taxes, including through inflation.” (Kenneth Rogoff, in review of Christopher Leonard’s The Lords of Easy Money, in TLS, July 1)

“  . . .most memoirs, if not loaded guns, are written for the purpose of retribution and revenge. This is by no means a criticism: retribution and revenge are strong reasons for writing a book. You want to put the record straight, to tell your side of things, to correct a wrong. Even the mildest-mannered memoirs have reprisal at their hearts. A memoir of midlife marrow growing may well be a missile directed at a particular person, such as the teacher who gave you bad marks in English.” (Frances Wilson, in Literary Review, July)

“From Western leftists eager to see him as some kind of socialist descendant of the mythologized USSR (though, in reality, Russia is more of a neoliberal paradise) to American M16-and-motherhood activists who consider him a guardian of moral conservatism (though Russia has liberal abortion laws but tight gun control), everyone can have their own personal Putin.” (Mark Galeotti, in review of Philip Short’s Putin: His Life and Times, in Literary Review, July)

“I confess, I have a prejudice about that particular adjective [‘magisterial’] when applied to books. To me, it evokes a lengthy and self-regarding tome in which the author drops the names of distinguished interviewees with monotonous regularity, wears the depth of her research heavily and covers every base, from childhood traumas to the toll of the years, with little sense of an overarching narrative.” (Mark Galeotti, in review of Philip Short’s Putin: His Life and Times, in Literary Review, July)

“To Peter Sichel, John Foster [Dulles] was a figure of pure malevolence. ‘He was a terrible man. Evil, totally evil.’ The old spymaster lowered his voice in a conspiratorial whisper. ’You know, he went to church every Sunday. Never trust a religious man.’” (from Scott Anderson’s The Quiet Americans, p 313)

“Beans are to the cooked breakfast as the Dutch Mercenary Forces were to the Royal Netherlands Indies Army. Keep them in check and they will perform unglamorous but vital tasks about the empire of the fry-up; sweetening sausage, lubricating toast… Exert insufficient discipline upon them, however, and they will soon exhibit their mania for chaos… they engulf an egg… they drown bacon…Your breakfast paradise becomes a gooey mess.” (a contributor to the London Review of Breakfasts blog, quoted by Henry Jeffreys in the Spectator, July 9)

“Peter Hennessy once declared that, in the absence of a written constitution, the UK had to rely on the ‘good chap theory of government’. But what happens if the prime minister no longer even pretends to be a good chap?” (Ferdinand Mount in London Review of Books, July 7)

“Conjecture is what makes ‘prehistory’ so intriguing. It may be irritating for a conservative academic to have the laity intrude on his terrain, but the joy of history is universal. It lies in watching the past shift from impossible to implausible to sometimes even probable. Nothing is more dangerous than a closed mind.” (Simon Jenkins, in letter to TLS, July 15)

We Do?

“Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, has looked back to the distant past to discover why we believe in a transcendent world or supernatural gods. This, he argues, is not a mental aberration, but a function that draws otherwise quarrelsome and unruly human beings together, and improves our health and wellbeing. Beneath the veneer of current doctrinal orthodoxies there lurks an ancient and universal belief in a transcendental world and a divine power that can help us – a yearning and conviction that is part of our human nature.” (Karen Armstrong, in review of Robin Dunbar’s How Religion Evolved, in TLS, July 15)

“Human beings want purpose. We want meaning. We want to belong to something larger than ourselves. The decisions we make in the face of wild problems don’t just lead to good days and bad days. They define us. They determine who we are, who we might aspire to become, who we might come to be.” (Russ Roberts, in NYT Opinion, July 24)

“The living elude us, and it’s only possible to understand people after they’re dead, because it’s only then they sit still long enough for us to see them clearly.” (David Treuer’s ‘writing mentor’, as told by him in NYT Magazine, July 24)

“Instinctively I identify with the person who said that when he heard a politician talk of his vision, he recommended him to consult an optician.” (David Trimble, from his 1998 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, recorded in his NYT obituary, July 26)

“For though it may be true that we should not tell lies, steal, or behave inconsiderately, a fiction-write is heading for disaster if he makes the direct demonstration of such truths one of his main aims.” (Ronald Hingley, in Introduction to The Oxford Chekhov (3))

“The fact is that you find as much humour in Chekhov’s plays as you are qualified by your own sense of humour, or assisted by skilled interpretation, to find. The plays, like so many of the stories, are built on tension between the humorous and the serious, so that it is not really possible to assess the extent to which they are serious – quite apart from the fact that ‘humorous’ and ‘serious’ are not concepts which necessarily exclude each other.” (Ronald Hingley, in Introduction to The Oxford Chekhov (3))


“What is the fatal attraction they exert on us, the Nazis? We continue to read books and watch documentaries about them many decades after they coolly commenced upon exterminating the Jews — a genocide that in terms of its duration and thoroughness remains unparalleled in the bloody annals of history.” (Daphne Merkin, in review of Nancy Dougherty’s The Hangman and His Wife: The Life and Death of Reinhard Heydrich, in NYT Book Review, July 31)

“When will the media label Vladimir Putin as who he is: the 21st-century Hitler? The sooner the better, since that identification could reach the Russian citizens who are being propagandized.” (letter in NYT, August 6)

“We have to cut carbon emissions, adapt or die.” (from editorial in the TLS, July 29)

“And its focus is on guilt — on identifying a suspect or suspects and making a case. That’s the M.O. of most true crime, to assume the role of prosecutor and to heighten the emotions of we, the jury, and guide them in a particular direction. In the case of “Sophie,” the easiest direction — and possibly the correct one — is toward Bailey’s guilt.” (Mike Hale, in NYT, August 6)

“She [Clare Rydell Arcenas] does this by framing the question in an absurdly simplistic way: ‘We imagine Jefferson, quill poised, with Locke’s Second Treatise at hand, ready to compose the Declaration’s opening lines.’ Who is ‘we’? Nobody I know.” (Barton Swain, in review of Ms. Arcenas’ American Philosopher, in Wall Street Journal, August 6)

“None of the main English parties is agitating for a reversal, so Britain is stuck with Brexit for the foreseeable future.” (Rafael Behr, in Prospect, Summer Special)

“I once gave a sermon in which I said: ‘We’re all sinners. I’m a sinner exactly like everyone else here.’ Someone came up to me afterwards and said: ‘If I’d known you were a sinner, I wouldn’t have come.’” (Archbishop Justin Welby, in Prospect, Summer Special)

“She says that the velocity of climate change is on average 0.42 km per year, meaning that after a century, places in the northern hemisphere will on average have the climate of somewhere currently 42 km further south. A shift in the climate of Petters Bar to that of Croydon over the course of a hundred years hardly seems to be the kind of change which necessitates the immediate shipping of millions or even billions of people from Ghana to Greenland or from Nigeria to Nova Scotia.” (Paul Morland in review of Gaia Vince’s Nomad Century: How to Survive the Climate Upheaval, in Literary Review, August)

“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without belief in a devil.” (Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, quoted by Karim Sadjadpour in NYT, August 14)

“Revolutionary powers don’t think the way others do. They don’t want a different place in the world; they want a different world. It’s no good thinking you can change them, but a moment may come when they begin to doubt or to get over their revolution … then you can start something.” (diplomat Robert Cooper to Karim Sadjadpour, from NYT, August 14)

“The result was akin to that experienced in the contemporaneous socialization of Britain in the post-war years, where the mood was epitomized by J. K. Galbraith’s ’If you can’t comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable.’” (from R. V. Jones’s Reflections on Intelligence, p 8)

“While a commander must thereby be free to gain information from any level, he must avoid the temptation to give orders directly from any level, except in utter emergency, for he would therefore sabotage the authority of all those officers in the chain of command between him and the level concerned. Orders consequent upon information from any level must go down through the chain of command.” (from R. V. Jones’s Reflections on Intelligence, p 151)

“When, with Brown’s professed ignorance of navigation, [G. I.] Taylor asked him how he would know where he was if he succeeded in reaching Europe, Brown replied, ‘I will come down and if I see people in mantillas I will know it is Spain. If I see people eating frogs I will know it is France, and if I see them hitting one another over the head I’ll know it’s Ireland.’”  (from R. V. Jones’s Reflections on Intelligence, p 174)

“The hurt appears somehow to have blocked the facts, and memory to have subconsciously substituted an alternative account. Without theorizing too far about the subconcscious process in either case, I note a tendency for my own memory to ‘round-off’ the rough corners of experience or even, occasionally, to reverse the chronological order in which two events occurred. Since such reversals could sometimes make one’s own actions appear in a better light, the temptation to do so needs stringent monitoring by reference to impartial records.” (from R. V. Jones’s Reflections on Intelligence, p 261)

“He [C. K.Ogden] explained to me that as each house became so congested that he could no longer negotiate the stairs for the books that he had stacked on them, he simply bought another house.”  (from R. V. Jones’s Reflections on Intelligence, p 288)

“But if pressed to do so, I would rather say that Chekhov’s outlook in a nutshell was that he thoroughly distrusted nutshells.” (William Gerhardie in Anton Chekhov: a critical study)

“All biography is fiction, but fiction that has to fit the documented facts.” (from Donald Rayfield’s Preface to Anton Chekhov: a Life.”

“Although Armitage makes positive noises about poetry festivals, things happening online and Kae Tempest, an invokes something called ‘the poetry community’ (a phrase you can imagine [Geoffrey] Hill muttering only in the most witheringly sardonic way), he in some ways laments the formal discipline of a lost age quite a such as his precursor, and views the advantage of modernity with an eye no less sceptical.” (Seamus Perry, in review of Simon Armitage’s A Vertical Art in TLS, August 19)

“Books like this very often mask the impracticality of their arguments by assigning agency to a disembodied ‘we’. Mr. MacAskill does this on nearly every page – and, come to think of it, on the title page: ‘What We Owe the Future’. ‘We’ should increase technological progress by doing this. ‘We’ can mitigate the risk of disease outbreak by doing that. Often ‘we’ refers to the government, although it’s unclear if he means regulatory agencies or law-making bodies. At other times ‘we’ seems to mean educated elites or humanity in general. This gives the book the feel of a late-night dorm-room session of an erudite sort. Fun for the participants, perhaps, but useless.”  (Barton Swain, in review of William MacAskill’s What We Owe the Future, in Wall Street Journal, August 27)

“One of his fans was Alyne Tamir, a half-Jewish, half-Mormon American-Israeli whom he met two months into his travel odyssey.” (on Nuseir Yassin, from NYT, August 27)

“All of us agree that there is no likelihood whatsoever that the Soviet Union will become a political democracy or that it will collapse in the foreseeable future.” (American Sovietologist Robert Byrnes in 1980, quoted by Owen Matthews in the Spectator, August 20)


“Mr. Roussel, then the Communist Party presidential candidate, was fiercely criticized in January for saying all French people should have the right to traditional fare. ‘A good wine, good meat, good cheese, that is French gastronomy,’ he said.” (from NYT, September 6)

“Had her [Caroline Schlegel’s] squint been less marked, to paraphrase Pascal on Cleopatra’s nose, the history of Romanticism might have been different.” (Ben Hutchinson, in review of Andre Wulf’s Magnificent Rebels in TLS, September 2)

A System?Slouching Toward Utopia should be required reading for anybody who cares about the future of the global system, and that should be everyone.” (Lawrence H. Summers in blurb for J. Bradford Delong’s book, in New York Review of Books, September 22) “Magisterial” (Paul Krugman’s blurb in same)

“I  . . . was annoyed to hear my Russian companions cursing the English for exploiting the natives. I thought: yes, the English exploit the Chinese, the Sepoys, the Indians, but they do give them roads, piped water, museums, Christianity, you [Russians] exploit them, and what do you give them?” (Anton Chekhov to Suvorin after visiting Hong Kong, from Donald Rayfield’s Anton Chekhov, p 234)

“Suvorin advocated compulsory cricket in Russian universities, for example, to defect students from idle radicalism.” (from Donald Rayfield’s Anton Chekhov, p 346)

“All right, I’ll get married if you want me to. But my conditions are: everything must be as it was before, that is she must live in Moscow, and I in the country, and I shall visit her. I couldn’t stand a happiness that went on morning noon and night  . . . I promise to be a splendid husband, but give me a wife who, like the moon, does not rise every night in my sky. NB. Marrying won’t make me write any better.” (Anton Chekhov to Suvorin in March 1895, from Donald Rayfield’s Anton Chekhov, p 348)

“Without newspapers one would fall into gloomy melancholy and even get married.” (Anton Chekhov to Sobolevsky on December 31, 1898, from Donald Rayfield’s Anton Chekhov, p 348)

“Church of England is barely a religion if you don’t want it to be one.” (Tom Stoppard, interviewed in NYT, September 11)

Identity Crises “The queen’s death last week, at 96, is a genuinely traumatic event, leaving many in this stoic country anxious and unmoored. As they come to terms with the loss of a figure who embodied Britain, they are unsure of their nation’s identity, its economic and social well-being, or even its role in the world.” (NYT, September 11)

“‘Quite a puzzling interest,’ said Philippe Collin, a journalist who recently produced ‘The Ghost of Phillippe Pétain’, a 10-episode podcast listened to by some two million people. He said the current popularity of the subject reflected the identity crisis of a country disrupted by economic and social upheavals, and looking for answers in the past.” (NYT, September 11)

“The gun issue, amid an energy crisis and soaring inflation, has helped spawn an exceptionally tight race — one entwined with deeper questions about Swedish identity, a diversifying country and a failure to integrate immigrants, especially those who arrived in Sweden during Europe’s migration crisis in 2015.” (NYT, September 11)

“In view of the Russian menace, the situation in Italy, central Europe and the Balkans, and the smouldering volcanoes in the Middle east, I think it would be madness to allow SOE to be stifled at this juncture. In handing it over to the Foreign Office I cannot help feeling that to ask Sir Orme Sargent to supervise SOE is like inviting an abbess to supervise a brothel.” (Lord Selborne to Winston Churchill, in May 1945, quoted by Halik Kochanski in Resistance, p 818)

So the Citizens Were All Rich Beforehand? “  . . . and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose entry on political economy should be required reading for our current government: ’It is one of the most important concerns of government to prevent he extreme inequality of fortunes  . . . not by building hospitals for the poor but by guaranteeing that the citizens do not become poor’.” (Rose George, in review of Simon Garfield’s All the Knowledge in the World: The Extraordinary History of the Enyclopaedia, in Spectator, September 3)

“ . . . until recently, Pilsudski’s name was mud in elderly British trade union circles  . . .” (Neal Ascherson in London Review of Books, September 8)

“In order to convince the new Norman bishops and abbots, it was necessary to set out the cases for traditional saints by writing hagiographies. Initially these were commissioned from continental hacks, because Englishmen had little practice of writing hagiography, just as they had little at writing history.” (George Garnett in History Today, August)

We All? “By what logic or motivation or helpless surrender did we all, hour by hour, transport ourselves within a generation from the thrill of optimism at Berlin’s falling wall to the storming of the American Capitol?” (Ian McEwan, in Atlantic Monthly, October)

“It’s very late-stage capitalism, of course, to sit there or lie there in your envelope of sound, your private entertainment capsule, technologically sealed and cerebrally catered to, fiddling with the volume.” (James Parker in Atlantic Monthly, October)

“Three months into the outbreak, more than half the people reported to have been infected were not identified by race or ethnicity, clouding the disparate impact of the disease on Black and Hispanic men. . . .  Long after mass testing sites were shuttered, Ms. Tompkins’s team was culling birth records to identify people’s race, hoping to manually update tens of thousands of old case reports in the state’s disease surveillance database. State officials still think that the racial breakdown will prove useful.” (from report on data quality issues in US response to outbreaks, in NYT, September 21)

“Better to dream of home, better to wander: to travel in hope, rather than to arrive, settle and be disappointed. Better always to live from the three suitcases, packed and ready for departure.” (Joseph Roth, quoted by Hermione Lee in New York Review of Books, October 6)

“I’m thirty, and where is home?

One more year, one more roof and soul.

A man of many homes has none:

I call no spot of earth my own.” (from Oscar Mandel’s An Espresso at the ‘Number Six’, in Otherwise Poems)

“Indeed, there was a dearth of evidence to support claims connecting Jews and diabetes. Instead, Tuchman writes, physicians ‘simply repeated what everyone else was saying. And those who did offer up numbers and patterns offered statistics that were often unreliable.’ Furthermore, the definition of “Jew” was usually ambiguous. Did it include the Sephardim who originated from Spain and Portugal? Or only Ashkenazi Jews? If the latter, were they the German Ashkenazi, who first arrived in America in the 1830s and were generally wealthy by the end of that century? Or the millions of Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews, primarily from the Russian Empire, who began to arrive in the 1880s and were poor? ‘It is…impossible to answer the question of whether Jews had a higher rate of the disease,’ Tuchman concludes. ‘But we can explore why, despite the highly ambiguous nature of the data—an ambiguity acknowledged at the time—virtually no one questioned the fundamental link between Jews and diabetes during the first three decades of the [twentieth] century.’” (Jerome Groopman, in review of Arlene Marcia Tuchmann’s Diabetes: A History of Race and Disease, in New York Review of Books, October 6)

“‘There is no place at the top of the World Bank for a climate denier,’ said Jules Kortenhorst, chief executive of the Rocky Mountain Institute and an expert on energy and climate issues. ‘David Malpass needs to step down. The World Bank deserves a passionate leader who fully appreciates the threat that climate change poses to reducing poverty, improving living standards and sustainable growth.’” (from report in NYT, September 23)

Mystical Nonsense

  1. “We carry the genes and the culture of our ancestors, and what we think about them shapes what we think of ourselves, and how we make sense of our time and place.”(Hilary Mantel in 2017 Reith Lecture)
  2. “The force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” (James Baldwin, according to Professor Tera Hunter of Princeton University, in TLS, September 23)
  3. “Every person is a link in the great chain of human interactions, that web of shared joys and worries that ties us all together, no matter where or when our lives happen to fall.” (Regina Rini, in TLS, September 23)


“I well remember the scene when, staring at Molotov across the table from him, Trotsky made a cutting philippic against ‘the Party bureaucrats without souls, whose stone bottoms crush all manifestations of free initiative and free creativity of the labouring masses.’ Molotov, whose name Trotsky hadn’t mentioned, should have kept quiet and acted as if the matter had nothing to do with him, or better, nodded to indicate a sense of approval. Instead, he declared while adjusting his pince-nez and stuttering: ‘We can’t all be geniuses, Comrade Trotsky.’” (from Bazhanov and the Damnation of Stalin by Boris Bazhanov, p 53)

“Forcing himself down to Stalin’s level. Kamenev said, ‘Of the question of capturing the majority of the Party.’ ‘Do you know what I think about this?’ Stalin replied, ‘I believe that who and how people in the Party vote, is unimportant. What is extremely important is who counts the votes, and how they are recorded.’” (from Bazhanov and the Damnation of Stalin by Boris Bazhanov, p 57)

“Eighteen months later, when Stalin removed Zinoviev and Kamenev from power, Zinoviev asked bitterly, remembering this plenum and the way he and Kamenev had saved Stalin, ‘Does Comrade Stalin know what gratitude is?” Pulling his pipe out of his mouth, Stalin replied, ‘Certainly I know; it is a malady that afflicts dogs.’” (from Bazhanov and the Damnation of Stalin by Boris Bazhanov, p 76)

“The People’s Commissar for Finances, Sokolnikov, who was undertaking monetary reform, submitted to the Politburo the nomination of Professor Yurovsky as member of the Narkomfin board and head of the department of foreign exchange. Yurovsky was not a communist, and he was unknown to the Politburo. One of the members asked, ‘I hope he’s not a Marxist?’ Sokolnikov hastened to reply, ‘No, oh, no. In the Foreign Exchange department one must know how to work, not chatter.’ The Politburo approved the nomination at once.” (from Bazhanov and the Damnation of Stalin by Boris Bazhanov, p 84)

“Britain has never had a Court Opera in the continental sense, and that’s a good thing, sparing us the epic pomposity that disfigures so many European artistic institutions, and which was imported wholesale from the United States (expect a British orchestra to address you as ‘Maestro’ and you’ll be laughed off stage).” (Richard Bratby in the Spectator, September 24)

Eh? “Henry Kissinger concludes that our current (presumably western) world is ‘unmoored’, lacking a strategic and moral vision.” (Richard Overy, in review of Henry Kissinger’s Leadership in TLS, September 30)

“I confess even to this day that I still don’t understand quantum mechanics, and I’m not even sure I really know how to use it all that well. And a lot of this has to do with the fact that I still don’t understand it.” (Nobelist John F. Clauser, quoted in NYT, October 5)

“I tend to feel if you are going to live in a high-risk area, you’ve got to accept the risk. I’m not going to ask government to come and bail me out. And I think a lot of people feel that way.” (former CIA-director and founding mayor of Sanibel Island Porter J. Goss, quoted in NYT, October 5)

“You saw very substantial market dislocation. It’s a recognized role of central banks to respond to that.” (Lawrence H. Summers, a former U.S. Treasury Secretary now at Harvard, quoted in NYT, October 5)

“Our budgets have been heavily fiscally responsible, and they build a very compelling architecture toward critical investments and fiscal responsibility. So it would be a mistake to overtorque in reaction to current events.” (Jared Bernstein, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, quoted in NYT, October 5)

“Mr. Urban’s later turn as a media entrepreneur made him one of Poland’s wealthiest business figures. Though he never loosened his commitment to communism, he relished in the luxuries that capitalist success afforded, like his-and-hers Jaguars, a mansion with an indoor pool and a squad of bodyguards.” (from NYT obituary of Jerzy Urban, October 7)

Late-Stage Capitalism   “And as the juggernaut of western capitalism grinds to its halt in a mire of war, displacement, pandemic and climate change, and endurance becomes the lot of ever-widening swathes of population, we may have to relearn it.” (Colin Thubron, in review of Levison Wood’s Endurance, in TLS. October 7)

“It is not an inevitable consequence of late-stage capitalism that the lion’s share of rewards is channelled to the top – rather, it is the outcome of decisions made over the years by policymakers and top bosses.” (Deborah Hargreaves in Prospect, November)

“To be a Jew was to stand at odds with the world; but to be an assimilated Jew was to stand at odds with oneself.” (Keiron Pim, in Endless Flight: The Life of Joseph Roth, quoted by Rachel Seiffert in Prospect, November)

“[Sir Michael] Howard was an elegant example of the conservatism of military historian: he didn’t accept that the malfeasance of elites played much of a role in starting wars. For him, they were an inescapable product of the division of the world into states.” (Tom Stevenson, in review of Lawrence Freedman’s Command, in LRB, October 6)

“The British defence intelligentsia is a monolith. There is no prospect of significant disagreement between, say, IISS and RUSI on any significant question of foreign policy. Dissident work on military history and contemporary security is rare. The policy of the day always happens to coincide with the personal opinions of the grand choeur.” (Tom Stevenson, in review of Lawrence Freedman’s Command, in LRB, October 6)

Problems in the Arts  “Porkalob, who is Filipino American, told Vulture that during the rehearsal process the directors had sought ‘consent from the Black folks in the play’ to carry out its vision for the staging, which includes an evocation of a slave auction — but not from the rest of the cast, including the non-Black actors of color. This decision, she said, using an acronym for people of color, ‘unconsciously held up a false narrative by assimilating non-Black POC folks into whiteness.’” (on the Broadway revival of 1776, from the NYT, October 20)

“The only reason Oxford has not yet been abolished is because no one has yet understood it. If they can understand it, they can dismantle it.” (Roger Scruton, according to Jonathan Price, as reported by Dan Hitchens in the Spectator, October 1)

“In 2002, without comment abroad or at home, the Russian post office issued a set of stamps, ‘The 80th Anniversary of Soviet Counterintelligence’: the stamps show Artur Artuzov né Frautschi, one of the most dreaded OGPU leaders in the early 1920s; Sergei Puzitsky, who organized the killing of half a million Cossacks in 1931; Vladmir Styrne, who slaughtered thousands of Uzbeks in the 1920s; Vsevolod Balitsky, who purged the Ukraine and enslaved the Soviet peasantry. Imagine the uproar if Germany issued stamps commemorating Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler, and Adolf Eichmann. Nobody in Germany smokes ‘Auschwitz’ cigarettes but Belomorkanal cigarettes, commemorating a camp where 100,000 were exterminated, are still sold in Russia.” (from Donald Rayfield’s Stalin and His Hangmen, p xxii)

“As the late British historian Christopher Hill said seventy years late of the Ukraine in 1933: ‘I saw no famine’.” (from Donald Rayfield’s Stalin and His Hangmen, p 190)

“The streets of Moscow and Leningrad were still dangerous at night, but now that banditry was punished as severely as telling anti-Soviet jokes, some of the public regained confidence.” (from Donald Rayfield’s Stalin and His Hangmen, p 309)

“Unlike Ezhov, Beria knew when to hold back, when to step back. Beria was not just a vindictive sadist, he was an intelligent pragmatist, capable of mastering a complex brief, and one of the best personnel managers in the history of the USSR. With very slight adaptations, he could have made himself a leading politician in any country of the world.” (from Donald Rayfield’s Stalin and His Hangmen, p 343)

“In the event, Beria’s four years’ managing atomic weaponry were impressive. He seemed to get as much enjoyment from engineering projects as from arresting and killing enemies of the state.” (from Donald Rayfield’s Stalin and His Hangmen, p 429)

“As for Beria’s legendary sexual proclivities, he was certainly guilty of many rapes – usually by blackmail rather than force – and of violating young girls. On the other hand, some of his mistresses were fond, or at least respectful, of him. By the standards of some Soviet leaders, who used the Bolshoi Ballet as a brothel, or even compared to J. F. Kennedy or David Lloyd George, Beria was not beyond the pale, even if at intervals during meetings he ordered women to eb delivered to his house, as modern politicians order pizzas.” (from Donald Rayfield’s Stalin and His Hangmen, p 459)

“For the world to achieve the net-zero goal for carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency, we will have to mine, by 2040, six times the current amounts of critical minerals — nickel, cobalt, copper, lithium, manganese, graphite, chromium, rare earths and other minerals and elements — needed for electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels. And we will almost certainly have to do it from sources other than Russia, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other places that pose unacceptable strategic, environmental or humanitarian risks.” (Bret Stephens, in NYT, October 30)


“According to the website of the International Churchill Society: ‘The assistant director of the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh declined to exhibit Churchill’s paintings by referring to one of his other “hobbies”: “I understand that Churchill is a terrific bricklayer, too, but nobody is exhibiting bricks this season.”’” (from NYT, November 9)

“Any attempt to identify oneself with a class or way of life not ones’ own is hideous to her. It rather shocks her that I should try (not successfully, I admit) to meet the working class on equal terms, in a pub, for instance, where anything but equality, any suggestion of graciousness, dignity, benevolence, would be hideously out of place.” (Ben Nicolson on his mother, Vita Sackville-West, in letter to his wife Luisa Vertova, quoted in TLS, November 4)

“Historians move back and forth as their subjects demand. But, in essence, history is an imaginative leap into the past with the aim of showing what it was like to live in the face of the unknown. . . . He is at his absolute best when he forgets the condescension of posterity.” (Robert Colls in review of Matthew Engel’s The Reign: Life in Elizabeth’s Britain – Part1: The Way it Was, 1952-79, in Literary Review, November)

“But if history offers a caution – and he is passionate in his belief in the lessons of history – it is that commemoration and reconciliation are not inevitable bedfellows.” (David Crane, in review of Anthony Seldon’s The Path of Peace: Walking the Western Front Way, in Literary Review, November)

“When actors with tears in their eyes talk about their dear colleagues, about friendship and ‘solidarity’, when they embrace and kiss you, don’t get too carried away.” (Anton Chekhov, in annotation to The Wallet (Bumazhnik), cited by Donald Rayfield in Understanding Chekhov, p 31)

“The artist’s entire energy must be directed at two forces: man and nature. On the one hand, physical weakness, tense nerves, early sexual maturity, passionate thirst for life and truth, dreams of activity as wide as the steppes, restless analysing, a dearth of knowledge together with wide-ranging thought; on the other hand – a boundless plain, a harsh climate, a dreary, harsh people with its heavy, cold history, Tatar yoke, officialdom, poverty, ignorance, damp capital cities, etc. Russian life bashes the Russian till you have to scrape him off the floor, like a twenty-ton rock. In Western Europe people perish because life is too crowded and close, here they perish because it is too spacious.” (Anton Chekhov, in letter to Grigorovich, cited by Donald Rayfield in Understanding Chekhov, p 49)

“He conjectured that everyone, under the veil of secrecy, under the veil of night, has his real life, the most interesting one. Every individual existence is held together by a secret and, perhaps, this is partly why educated people make such intense efforts to see that personal secrets are respected.” (Anton Chekhov, on Gurov, in The Lady with the Little Dog, cited by Donald Rayfield in Understanding Chekhov, p 212)

“The lists of those selected for removal [from the Baltic States in 1939] were drawn up in secret beforehand, being based in reports from spies, and individuals were included on the basis of economic category to which they belonged – not of any hostility to Soviet rule which they might have expressed in deed or word. They included bankers, businessmen, hotel proprietors, titled persons, restaurateurs and shopkeepers as well as intellectuals and professional persons generally, members of all political parties other than the Communist, persons expelled from the Communist Party and the Komsomol, officials, policemen, gendarmes, prison warders, clergymen together with other religious activists, smugglers, Red Cross staff, immigrants and natives polluted by foreign contact whether through travel, stamp-collecting or the study of Esperanto.” (from Ronald Hingley’s Russian Secret Police, p 185)

“According to this well-worn legend a certain professor once quarrelled with his neighbour, an uneducated boor who also happened to be an NKVD officer. The Professor accused him ‘of not even knowing who wrote Yevgeny Onegin’ – a deadly insult, implying as it did ignorance of Russia’s greatest poet Pushkin, and hence the feared charge of lack of culture. It is not surprising that the imprudent scholar found himself under arrest. Before long, however, the insulted and puzzled officer was able to boast to his friends that he had now established the authorship of Yevgeny Onegin, for the Professor had confessed – presumably under torture – that it was he.” (anecdote frequently told by Stalin at Beria’s expense, from Ronald Hingley’s Russian Secret Police, p 213)

“During the couple’s stay in Europe in the early 1950s, she confessed that despite her ‘proletarian sympathies’, daily existence was intolerable without paid help.” (Joanne O’Leary on Elizabeth Hardwick, and Robert Lowell, in London Review of Books, November 17)


To Be Filed Alongside ‘Kafka’s Underpants’

“In a lecture delivered in Hull on August 9 he [Simon Armitage, UK poet laureate] discussed the bemusement and indignity of excavating Larkin’s pyjamas while digging through his belongings in the name of research.” (Kyra Piperides in TLS, November 25)

“Within the Abwehr group of conspirators – and it must be stressed that it was a group, not the entire unit – he (Canaris) could be biting. ‘Never’, he once told a staff meeting with a straight face, ‘neglect to give the “Heil Hitler” salute to any flock of sheep you might be passing. You never know: there may be some high-ranking official among them.’” (From Anton Gill’s An Honourable Defeat, p 85)

“The coronation was a Protestant affair, which Roman Catholics needed a papal dispensation to attend. A year earlier the king had angered them by agreeing after much prevarication to recite the accession declaration against transubstantiation, even if he had the grace just to mutter it.” (Michael Ledger-Lomas on King Edward VII, in History Today, November)

“Her commitment, however, is to ‘public scholarship’, and her primary engagement is with readers who are not involved with the changing priorities of higher education. Such readers, whatever their cultural or ethnic identity, might well feel that the obstacles faced by women in their working and personal lives are as intractable as they have ever been.” (Dinah Birch, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Cultural Engagement and Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool, on Anna Beer’s Eve Bites Back, from TLS, November 18)

“These are arguably small errors, but they suggest an overall hastiness. They also make one wonder about the accuracy of other material. Historians writing for a general audience necessarily iron out some scholarly subtleties, but they should, if anything, be more careful with the evidence than their academic colleagues. Lay readers do not have access to their sources, and what appears in print tends to acquire the solidity of fact.” (Irina Dumitrescu, on Janina Ramirez’s Femina, from TLS, November 18)

“’The history of mammals is our history’, Brusatte writes, ‘and by studying our ancestors, we can understand the deepest nature of ourselves.’ He takes the reader through a family tree bushy with other, often co-existing, human species. By synthesizing complex, revolutionary data from DNA extracted from bones and teeth, he introduces us to the Denisovans, a ‘ghost’ species discovered from genetic data, whose anatomical features remain largely unknown. ‘When our African sapiens ancestors met the Neanderthals of Europe and Denisovans of Asia’, we are told, ‘we all bred with one another – in what seems like a mad, transcontinental bacchanalian carnival that lasted for a few tens of thousands of years’.” (Julia Clarke, on Steve Brusatte’s The Rise and Reign of the Animals, from TLS, November 18)

“He refers to the ways in which genetic data informs ancestry as DNA ‘paternity tests’. This is regrettably out of date and misleading, as are aspects of his shorthand guiding us through the traits that lead to more perfectly mammal-like creatures, a teleological convenience that implies evolution is heading in a certain, useful direction. But few will care; the focus of this book is on telling an epic tale, and in this regard Steve Brusatte succeeds admirably. (Julia Clarke, on Steve Brusatte’s The Rise and Reign of the Animals, from TLS, November 18)

“Even the most honest of men find it surprisingly easy, through the film of time, to recall their own actions quite differently from the way in which objective evidence makes it clear they in fact occurred.” (from Roy Jenkins’s Baldwin, p 72)


“ . . . and after Edward I expelled us in 1290 we had to wait almost 400 years for Oliver Cromwell to ask us back.” (Tanya Gold, in the Spectator, November 26)


“But there is a good case for saying that the sum of the parts is a Pleistocene hunter-gatherer. That’s what we all still are. Scratch a banker and you will find a flint-spear-wielding forager; a brilliant practical zoologist, botanist, meteorologist, tracker and mammoth-butcher. That’s what’s palpitating under the Armani suit, desperate to be expressed, generating the angst we describe as the modern condition.” (Charles Foster, from review of Paul Pettitt’s Homo Sapiens Rediscovered, in TLS, December 2)

“The majority of the Soviet people, in spite of all the shortcomings and difficulties, believes in the present system and in its superiority over capitalism.” (Ilya Dzhirkvelov, in Secret Servant, p 155)

“To retrieve history we need rigour, integrity, unsparing devotion and an impulse to scepticism.” (Hilary Mantel, in her first 2017 Reith Lecture)

“A man who is interested in what makes people tick doesn’t write history.” (from Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, quoted in London Review of Books, December 1)

“His clothes were an incongruous mixture of the workaday and the elegant, such as taken by the vulgar to denote an eccentric way of life, an emotional disturbance, or a subservience to aesthetics, combined always with a certain contempt for convention, by which they are either fascinated or exasperated.” (from Chapter 8 of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, translated by Alan Russell)

“Emma was like any other mistress; and the charm of novelty, gradually slipping away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion, whose forms and phrases are for ever the same. Any difference of feeling underlying a similarity in the words escaped the notice of that man of much experience. Because wanton or mercenary lips had murmured like phrases in his ear, he had but scant belief in the sincerity of these. High-flown language concealing tepid affection must be discounted, thought he: as though the full heart may not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, his thoughts or his sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we strum our tunes to make a bear dance, when we would move the stars to pity.” (from Chapter 12 of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, translated by Alan Russell)

“Right now, according to the current timeline, we are in — deep breath — the Meghalayan Age of the Holocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period of the Cenozoic Era of the Phanerozoic Eon, and have been for 4,200 years.” (from NYT, December 18)

“If men of genius sometimes seem to be nastier than the rest of us, it may be partly because they are less integrated and all their virtue is canalized into the art they produce.” (Raymond Mortimer, quoted by Richard Davenport-Hines in Literary Review, December 2022/January 2023)