Commonplace 2023


“I had a conversation with Eric Hobsbawm just before he died, and he said that the most civilized countries to live under, with the best guarantee of freedom in the world, were constitutional monarchies.” (Robert Harris, in the Spectator, 17-31 December, 2022)

“For all its propensity to violence, Russia has made decisive contributions to the global equilibrium and to the balance of power for over half a millennium. Its historical role should not be degraded.” (Henry Kissinger, in the Spectator, 17-31 December, 2022)

“The last joke he told me, only a week or two before his death, concerned a couple walking down the street when they spot someone across the road. ‘Isn’t that the archbishop of Canterbury?’ says the wife. ‘Is it?’ says her husband. ‘Go and ask him,’ she says. So the man goes over, apologises for troubling him and asks: ‘Aren’t you the archbishop of Canterbury?’ ‘Bugger off.’ He returns to his wife. ‘What did he say?’ ‘He said: “Bugger off.”’ ‘What a shame,’ says the wife. ‘Now we shall never know.’”  (Alan Bennett on Barry Cryer, from LRB, January 5)

“All good historical work is at heart ‘revisionist’ in that it uses new findings from the archives or new perspectives from historians to improve, to perfect — and yes, to revise — our understanding of the past.” (from  Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past, a collection published this month and edited by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, historians at Princeton, quoted by Carlos Lozada in NYT, January 8)

“The truth is that by the time a person becomes conscious there is such a thing as a ‘working class,’ he has already lost touch with it and has ceased to be a credible authority on its characteristics.” (Paul Johnson, in 1990, according to his NYT obituary, January 13)

“New prisoners are largely of two kinds – there are those who for shame, fear or shock wait in fascinated horror to be initiated into the lore of prison life, and there are those who trade on their wretched novelty in order to endear themselves to the community.” (from Chapter 6 of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold)

“And finally, they would know it was a gamble. They would know that inconsistency in human decision can make nonsense of the best-planned espionage approach; that cheats, liars and criminals may resist every blandishment while respectable gentlemen have been moved to appalling treason by watery cabbage in a departmental canteen.” (from Chapter 7 of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold)

“In itself, the practice of deception is not particularly exacting; it is a matter of experience, of professional expertise, it is a facility most of us can acquire. But while a confidence-trickster, a pay-actor or a gambler can return from his performance to the ranks of his admirers, the secret agent enjoys no such relief. For him, deception is first a matter of self-defence. He must protect himself not only from without but from within, and against the most natural of impulses; though he earn a fortune, his role may forbid him the purchase of a razor, though he be erudite, it can befall him to mumble nothing but banalities; though he be an affectionate husband and father, he must under all circumstances withhold himself from those to whom he should naturally confide.” (from Chapter 13 of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold)

“It’s implausible to expect scholars with insecure jobs to offer bold and innovative claims about history when they can easily be fired for doing so. Instead, history will be studied increasingly by the wealthy, which is to say those able to work without pay.” (Daniel Bessner, in NYT, January 15)

“She was no fool, either. When the 1930s smart set were treating Hitler’s rise as a joke, or, in the case of two Mitford sisters, Unity and Diana, a glamorous gimmick, this Scottish pragmatist picked up an unexpurgated translation of Mein Kampf on board ship, read it and started sending copies and notes to friends urging them to take more seriously his terrible “mentality, ignorance and obvious sincerity”. This hardened her attitude to the collaboration-minded Duke of Windsor, and to Wallis.” (Libby Purves, in review of Gareth Russell’s Do Let’s Have Another Drink, a biography of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, in TLS, January 6)

“Salman Rushdie, for this reason, insists that without freedom of expression there cannot be freedom of thought at all: ‘The moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.’ His rule of thumb? ‘You never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions.’ And by ‘no respect’ he means the highest respect: a true desire to participate collectively in reaching the goal of truth.”  (N. J. Enfield, in review of Susie Alegre’s Freedom to Think, in TLS. January 13)

“Speaking of ‘unwoke’ encyclopedia entries (January 6), may I refer your readers to the entry on the ‘British Empire’ in the 1911 edition of Britannica, which proffers this disclaimer in its opening paragraph: ‘The term “empire” is in this connexion obviously used rather for convenience than in any sense equivalent to that of the older or despotic empires of history.’” (letter from Edward Moran in TLS, January 20)

“The Cold War began with the Polish monitoring of Russian communications in 1944.” (Dermot Turing, in XYZ: The Real Story of How Enigma Was Broken, p 268)


“It is perfectly possible for a statement to be precise without being accurate (e.g. ‘Big Ben is located in Merthyr Tydfil’), and to be accurate without being precise (e.g. ‘Big Ben is located in England’.) (from letter by Professor Stuart Dunn in Private Eye, 20 January-2 February)

“But Mises, like his socialist opponents, was forearmed against bad news. When he talked about capitalism, he was not thinking about oligarchs, tycoons, nepotists, profiteers, kleptocrats, inheritors, asset-strippers, mafiosi, hedgers, money-launderers, monopolists, loan sharks, fraudsters, arms dealers, racketeers, tax-dodgers, plutocrats, press barons, slave traders and cartelists, but of plucky little Crusoes who start with nothing and make their luck by working hard and doing everyone a good turn. “ (Jonathan Rée in review of Hayek: A Life, 1899-1950 by Bruce Caldwell and Hansjoerg Klausinger, in LRB, February 2)

“Among boys at school the same thing is even more conspicuous, because boys have less of conscience than men, are more addicted to tyranny, and when weak are less prone to feel the misery and disgrace of succumbing. Who has been through a large school and does not remember the Maxwells and Grindleys, – the tyrants and the slaves, – those who domineered and those who submitted? Nor was it, even then, personal strength, nor always superior courage, that gave the power of command. Nor was it intellect, or thoughtfulness, nor by any means such qualities as make men and boys loveable. It is said by may who have had to deal with boys, that certain among them claim and obtain ascendancy by the spirit within them: but I doubt whether the ascendancy is not rather thrust on them than claimed by them. Here again I think the outward gait of the boy goes far towards obtaining for him the submission of his fellows.

But the tyrant boy does not become the tyrant man, or the slave boy the slave man, because the outward visage, that has been noble or mean in the one, changes and becomes so often mean or noble in the other.” (Anthony Trollope, in Can You Forgive Her?, Chapter 16)

“There is no vulgar error so vulgar, – that is to say, common or erroneous, as that by which men have been taught to say that mercenary tendencies are bad. A desire for wealth is the source of all progress. Civilization comes from what men call greed. Let your mercenary tendencies be combined with honesty and they cannot take you astray.” (Plantagenet Palliser, in Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?, Chapter 25)

“We all know the tone in which servants announce a gentleman when they know that the gentlemen is not a gentleman.” (Anthony Trollope, in Can You Forgive Her?, Chapter 60)

“Tell me something I don’t know.” (Lady Glencora to Alice Vavasor, in Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?, Chapter 62)

“Greg Garrett, a professor who teaches literature, pop culture and theology at Baylor University, says humans are hard-wired to be threatened by things that we don’t recognize.” (from NYT, February 5)

“As the psychologists Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky have shown, our brains are hardwired to fail to judge probabilities consistently. We ae subject to any ‘cognitive biases’, as psychologists call them, which distort our judgement.” (from Henry Marsh’s Admissions, p 245)

“I wish I were a sea-squirt,

If life became a strain

I’d veg out on the nearest rock

And reabsorb my brain.”

(by the author’s wife Kate, from Henry Marsh’s Admissions, p 265)

“I have come to the opinion that archaeologists, scientists, museum curators, historians and dons make the best intelligence officers. They have this in common that they are accustomed to gathering information from a wide variety of sources and reaching a logical conclusion. Actors, artists, poets and other literary men are just the opposite. They deal in emotions. They give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name, which is just what a good I.O. must not do.” (from S. John Peskett’s Strange Intelligence, Chapter XVI)

“In the end, a strong case can be made that the concept of ‘revisionist history’ is so widely applied and the realities behind it so deeply infused into historical thought that it’s useless as a distinctive feature of any work of history. All written history is—in one respect or another, on one scale or another, and with one impact or another—revisionist in intent or consequence. Revisionist history is a universal phenomenon. Historians’ debates and shifting views of their subjects are the principal means by which they approach, while never reaching, their goal of understanding the extraordinary complexity of human life in times before their own. In fact, their arguments about the past and their varied ways of going about their work should be celebrated as signature characteristics of a democratic culture. Where enforced orthodoxy exists, there lies totalitarianism.” (James M. Banner Jr., in Humanities, Summer 2022)

“Straight-tusked elephants went extinct at least 30,000 years ago; many factors were probably to blame, Dr. Roebroeks said, including predation, climate change, reduction in food availability and competition from woolly mammoths moving into their territory. Neanderthals had already disappeared by then, pushed aside as Homo sapiens inherited Earth. As Mr. Cuppy observed, ‘That kind of progress is called evolution.’” (Franz Lidz in NYT, February 7)

“The gentlemen of England always play the game, but reserve the right to change the rules at half-time if they find they are losing.” (quip attributed to Harold Laski according to letter in TLS, February 10, from Michael Barber)


“The evidence is piling up to suggest that any one individual’s adaptation to lifetime experiences such as parental care or food deprivation may be chemically passed down to subsequent generations.” (Patricia Fara of Clare College, Cambridge, in History Today, January)

“There once was a man of the Saar

Who said: ‘We are German, nicht wahr?

            And under dem Fűhrer

            Will feel much securer

But Gott really knows if we are.”

(limerick in March 1935 issue of World Review of Reviews, attributed to Kim Philby by Patrick Seale and Maureen McConville in Philby: The Long Road to Moscow, p 97)

“Just as we have seen U.S. Presidents wrap themselves in the American flag in efforts to stifle criticism of their policies, so do we see a foreign country wrapping itself in its state religion, so that criticism of the state or its policies is perceived as a form of racism.” (Senator James Abourezk, from his NYT obituary, February 27)

“People like me who develop an outsized sense of responsibility for others shouldn’t tend goal.” (Brazilian publisher Luis Schwarz, quoted in NYT, February 27)


“One final reflection: as soon as you identify a narc [narcissist] – if you have the resources, if you possibly can – try to let them know you are unafraid of them. Their dead-eyed overconfidence can be quickly distinguished from mere adult self-possession, because its intention and effect is to make you feel all their fear for them.” (from Don Paterson’s Toy Fights: A Boyhood, reviewed in the Spectator by Ian Sansom, February 11)

“’Humans are fascinated by stinging’, he wrote in The Conversation, a nonprofit news website, in 2016. ‘Why? Because we have a genetically innate fear of animals that attack us, be they leopards, bears, snakes, spiders or stinging insects.’ Dr. Schmidt got over that fear.”  (from NYT obituary of Dr. Justin O. Schmidt, entomologist, March 5)

“The point of libraries is not to find the books you already know, but ‘to discover books whose existence we never suspected, only to discover that they are of extreme importance to us.’” (Umberto Eco, in De Bibliotheca, according to Irina Dumitrescu in TLS, February 24)

Eh??  “We believe that we think with our minds. But a part of us – a deep and important part – thinks with the blood. Our sense of self is deeply entwined with the places we came from and the people who formed us.” (Owen Matthews, in Literary Review, March)

“As one Cabinet Minister has said: ‘The first rule of politics is that if you listen to Charles Moore and do the complete opposite of what he says, you won’t go far wrong.” (Geoffrey Wheatcroft in The New York Review of Books, March 23)

“This year will be harder than last year. On the other hand, it will be easier than next year.” (Enver Hoxha, according to Geoffrey Wheatcroft in The New York Review of Books, March 23)

News on the Epigenetic Front

“A spectrum of maternal ambivalence is hardwired into our species, she [Sarah Hrdy] concluded, with environmental and social cues such as the presence of committed others shaping attachment and so-called maternal instinct. Mothers are not passive vessels, as biblical and early Darwinian interpretations had it, but conflicted strategic players in their own lives and in the evolutionary long game.”

“We contain multitudes: epigenetic tweaks can turn us into, say, a beloved creative genius who lives to be ninety, as opposed to a homeless schizophrenic who dies at thirty; or into a resplendent, if chain-smoking, Simone de Beauvoir rather than an asthmatic shut-in who only dreams of being Simone de Beauvoir.”

“Our first 1,000 days after conception will make us profoundly “unequal” in terms of our health spans and lifespans. This bio-inequality becomes especially apparent in midlife, when some of us are still youthful and others are debilitated by chronic illness. “

“Hassett has been involved in resolving debates around our emergence as a species, and teeth ‘gave the game away’. The key evidence is in the number of growth lines on that first molar: many lines equates to the usual patterns of fast ape growth, fewer suggest an intermediary species, and fewer still are an indicator of human-like slow growth, and of everything that goes with that slow growth (helpers, hyper-sociality, neuroticism). On that basis Hassett and her colleagues estimate our species emerged 100,000–200,000 years ago.”

“All children need more equal access to the ‘things’ that matter. The US, with its emphasis on bootstrapping individualism, depends on maternal instinct as hardwired, hence its lack of social support. But, as Hrdy and Conaboy show, maternal instinct is not hardwired.”

(Michele Pridmore-Brown in the TLS, March 10)

“Grappling with the deep history of racism in Western science, the National Academies of Science on Tuesday released guidelines recommending that scientists not use race as a category in genetic studies.” (from report in NYT, March 15)

“Britain’s field marshal Lord Inge told me that he had two great military maxims by which to guide himself, namely: ‘1. Never invade Russia.’ and ’2. Never trust the RAF with your luggage.’” (Andrew Roberts in Leadership in War, p 203)

“We may have as many as fifty-three senses. The less familiar ones include equilibrioception (the sense of balance), magnetoreception (the ability to detect the Earth’s polarity) and proprioception (our sense of our body’s position in space). There is also interoception – conscious awareness of the body’s internal workings, our heartbeat and other physiological processes.” (Anna Katharina Shaffner in review of Ashley Ward’s Sensational, in TLS, March 10)

“The test for historians’ interpretations is not their consonance with any existing political or ideological views: the test is their interpretations’ consonance with known evidence, their plausibility, and their strength – their ability to withstand the criticism to which knowledge ad ideas are always subjected.” (James M. Banner, Jr. in The Ever-Changing Past: Why All History is Revisionist History, p 63)

“That is what it is. It is a protection system against the revelation of mistakes, false predictions, embarrassments of various kinds and maybe even crimes. And then the secrecy system in its application is predominantly to protect officials, administrations from embarrassment and from accountability, from the possibility that their rivals will pick these things up and beat them over the head with it. Their rivals for office, for instance.” (Daniel Ellsberg, on the classification system, from NYT, March 26)

“Freud’s writings are full of ambiguities, so anyone who wants to find either positive or despairing implication in them can do so. When propositions contradict each other, I regard that as a fatal problem. If you’re just a casual reader and you come across sentences that you like, perhaps that suffices for you.” (Professor Fredrick Crews, emeritus professor of literature at the University of California, Berkeley, from NYT, March 26)

“All it does is help the Treasury meet what are some arbitrary targets around capital spending. The move was antithetical to any sensible cost management approach  . . . Whether it’s building new hospitals or building new trainlines, we are holding back the UK if we treat capital spending the same way as we treat revenue spending, and it’s economically very damaging to the country.” (Henri Murison, chief executive of Northern Powerhouse, speaking on Radio 4 concerning the latest delay of HS2, quoted in Private Eye, 17-30 March)

“When the San Francisco Board of Supervisors replaces felon with justice-involved person, it is making an ideological claim – that there is something illegitimate about laws, courts, and prisons.” (George Packer, in The Atlantic, April)


“I am not interested in what you do with them. You can throw them in jail, throw them out of the country, you can even kill them. As an economist, it does not interest me; but I have to tell you, if you don’t eliminate them in government, in unions, in the street, forget about economic development.” (Albert Winsemius, a Dutch adviser from the United Nations, to the Singapore government on communists in 1967, quoted by Kwasi Kwarteng in review of Quinn Slobodian’s Crack-up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy, in the Spectator, April 1)

“Mrs Thatcher’s comment that she would never trust a man who spoke more than two languages  . . .” (from Douglas Boyd’s Moscow Rules, p 239)

“Learn to know what you want. After that, learn to demand it.” (advice from Inkeri’s husband, Kaarlo, from Petra Rautiainen’s Land of Snow and Ashes, p 45)

“In Jewish tradition, the foetus is not considered viable until it graduates from medical school.” (Her rabbi, according to letter from Mary E. Carter in London Review of Books, April 13)

“The day will come when the darkness over our country will dissipate. When black will be called black, and white will be called white; when at the official level, it will be recognized that two times two is still four; when a war will be called a war, and a usurper a usurper.” (Putin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza, at his trial in Moscow, according to NYT, April 18)

“One is a doughty teacher of Russian he met during his national-service training, who illustrated the language’s diverse verbs of motion with the sentence: ‘The man who used to drop in on foot, having noticed two geese sliding along the street in a sledge, will tomorrow go several times, either on foot or in an electric tram, to see his elderly aunt arrive by balloon from Saratov.” (from Michael Frayn’s Among Others, reviewed by Libby Purves in TLS, April 14)

“You can have different sorts of friend. What’s so nice about some of them is that you talk to them about your most private feelings. What’s so nice about others is that you never do. Then again, with some friends it’s a joy to have some common enterprise to work on. With others you couldn’t so much as put up a tent together without irritating each other.” (from Michael Frayn’s Among Others, reviewed by Libby Purves in TLS, April 14)

“The authors also cite ‘Amara’s Law’, named after the Stanford University computer scientist Roy Amara, which states that we habitually overestimate what a new technology can accomplish in the short run and underestimate what it can accomplish in the longer run.” (from Tyler Cowen’s review of Gradual, by Greg Berman and Aubrey Fox, in TLS, April 21)

“One can believe that humans are all the same while being virulently anti-Semitic, because according to anti-Semites, Jews, with their millennia-old insistence on being different from their neighbors, are the obstacles to all humans being the same.” (Dara Horn, in Is Holocaust Education Making Anti-Semitism Worse?, in The Atlantic, May 2023)


“It is easy to bowl against poor batting, and the German batting in the early 1910s appears to have been atrocious.” (Bernard Porter, in Plots and Paranoia, p 128)

“Speaking of the post-Civil War American South, Mr. Schivelbusch told Cabinet magazine in 2006 that ‘romanticizing of defeat can become much more powerful than any romanticizing of victory,’ in part because ‘after any victory, the victorious party does not know what to do, other than to distribute the spoils.’ ‘The South,’ he wrote, ‘transformed the distinction between failure on the battlefield and moral superiority into the central dogma of its new identity.’” (from NYT obituary of Wolfgang Schivelbusch, May 5)

“Madness is when you can’t find anyone who can stand you.” (Pyschoanalyst John Rickman, according to Huw Green in NYT, May 7)

“Both Republican and Democrat administrations have talked of small government while increasing federal spending and the number of federal employees. But since the late 1970s they have succeeded in transferring trillions of dollars from the poor to the rich.” (Tom Stevenson, in London Review of Books, May 4)

“Those brief in-person interactions can make us feel good for a long time because we are hard-wired to connect.” (Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, quoted in NYT, May 9)

“‘I met Lady Antonia once,’ he says. ‘I said to her: “I have a Harold Pinter remote control for my TV.” “Oh?”, she replied. “Yes. It has a pause button . . . and a menacing pause button.” She did not appreciate my joke.’” (Sarah Vine on Sean Macaulay, in the Spectator, April 29)

“How do we distinguish the fraudulent from the authentic euphemism, the specious moral pickpocket from the considerate and soft-spoken idealist?” (Robert M. Adams, in Fair of Speech: The Uses of Euphemism, edited by D. J. Enright, p 55)

“To restrict myself to American novelists alone, I can think of three prominent figures who, but for the opportunity that the contemporary novel allows them to write about sex, would probably have to go into the dry-cleaning business: John Updike, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer.”  (Joseph Epstein, in Fair of Speech: The Uses of Euphemism, edited by D. J. Enright, p 66)

“An agreement subject to contract is no legal agreement at all. Its cousin is the gentlemen’s agreement, reported to have been defined by Vaisey J. as ‘an agreement which is not an agreement, made between two persons, neither of whom is a gentleman, whereby each expects the other to be strictly bound without himself being bound at all.” (David Pannick, in Fair of Speech: The Uses of Euphemism, edited by D. J. Enright, p 146)

“Eco-writing has been all the rage for some time now, and it has gone through several phases, each of which has reflected the growing general trend for personalised narratives. (Leave aside for a moment the fact that filtering everything through an individual human’s perspective is the epitome of the Anthropocene in action.)” (Ben Jacob, in Literary Review, May)

Eh?  “We are each nodes in a network through which information flows and is refracted. The information that is stored in our genes comes from eons ago; the information that we call religion and civilization comes from thousands of years ago; the information that we call culture comes from distant generations; the information that we call education or family background comes from decades ago. All of it flows through us in deep rivers that are partly conscious and partly unconscious, forming our assumptions and shaping our choices in ways that we, as individuals, often can’t fathom.” (David Brooks, in the Atlantic, June)

“At the risk of sounding philistine, I have often been tempted to conclude that there are two forms of philosophy. One deals with the meaning of life, and the questions are unanswerable. The second deals with the meaning of meaning, which can descend into the aridities of Oxford philosophy in the 1950s. The clarity of Dr Johnson’s boot is worth more than the content of many philosophical libraries.” (Bruce Anderson, in the Spectator, May 6)

“Lecturing in communist Yugoslavia, Sir Peter Strawson was harangued by an audience member who accused him of expressing ‘a bourgeois outlook’. Puzzled by this observation, perhaps by its being apparently intended as a criticism, he replied in earnest: ‘But I am bourgeois, an elitist liberal bourgeois.’” (John Maier, in review of Nikhil Krishnan’s A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy at Oxford 1900-1960, in the Spectator, May 13)

“For example, in the late 1980s, the 77-year-old Ayer was entertaining some models at a private party in New York when he was suddenly prevailed upon to rescue Naomi Campbell from the unwanted attention of Mike Tyson in a nearby bedroom. ‘Do you know who I am?’ asked Tyson as Ayer intervened. ‘I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.’ ‘And I,’ replied Ayer, ‘am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we settle this like rational men.’ It was, characteristically of Ayer, an extremely tendentious line of argument. Meanwhile, Naomi Campbell made her escape.” (John Maier, in review of Nikhil Krishnan’s A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy at Oxford 1900-1960, in the Spectator, May 13)

“Professors were deeply invested in controlling their own curricula, which were used to train the next generation of theologians. Vose argues that this form of early modern censorship is similar to contemporary academic peer review: anyone who has been on the sharp end of peer review can appreciate that the difference between academic judgment and inquisitorial persecution is a matter of degree.” (Erin Maglaque, in review of Robin Vose’s The Index of Prohibited Books: Four Centuries of Struggle Over Word and Image for the Greater Glory of God, in New York Review of Books, June 8)

“Graham Greene, who had converted to Catholicism, was privately chastised by the Holy Office in 1953 for depicting a drunken priest in The Power and the Glory. He promised never to do it again.” (Erin Maglaque, in review of Robin Vose’s The Index of Prohibited Books: Four Centuries of Struggle Over Word and Image for the Greater Glory of God, in New York Review of Books, June 8)

“Still more important, what is the Marxist interpretation of literature? It is al Greek to me, just like the Marxist interpretation of history. Marx himself might have provided the answer if he had ever written his projected book on Balzac, a novelist who certainly thought capital important. Do verses scan differently in the Marxist interpretation? Is more attention paid to royalties than literary excellence?” (A. J. P. Taylor in An Old Man’s Diary, p 21)

“In my disappointment over our cancelled visit I reflected on the changed nature of strikes. Once they were directed against the great and the powerful. Now they are directed against the weak and defenceless.” (A. J. P. Taylor in An Old Man’s Diary, p 22)

“Even more extraordinary, in a period when the economic system called capitalism is clearly approaching collapse, the French Communist Party is also running down so that it is a toss-up whether capitalism or Communism will collapse first.” (A. J. P. Taylor in An Old Man’s Diary, p 27)

“In 1945, a similar alliance was projected against Soviet Russia, who had liberated Eastern Europe.” (A. J. P. Taylor in An Old Man’s Diary, p 59)

“We have lived under nuclear terror for forty years and are still here. The danger increases every day. Without the abolition of nuclear weapons the fate of mankind is certain.” (A. J. P. Taylor in An Old Man’s Diary, p 60)

“I am against witch-hunts, whether against cricketers who play in South Africa or academics who once provided Soviet agents with a lot of harmless information.” (A. J. P. Taylor in An Old Man’s Diary, p 70)

‘There is a case for expelling Keynesians from the Labour Party, since Keynesianism is a device, not successful nowadays, for saving capitalism, and Labour is supposed to be a socialist party dedicated to the ending of capitalism.” (A. J. P. Taylor in An Old Man’s Diary, p 102)

Eh? “Neanderthals expanded across Europe and Asia, interbred with modern humans coming out of Africa, and then became extinct about 40,000 years ago.” (Carl Zimmer, in NYT, May 30)

“Something that’s alive today can’t be the ancestor of something alive today.” (Dr. Darrin Schulz, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Vienna, quoted in NYT, May 30)


“Caught up in the dispute are the Freedmen, the descendants of Black people who were enslaved by Native tribes. Many tribes allied themselves with the Confederacy and fought to preserve the institution of slavery. After the Civil War, treaties between the federal government and the tribes abolished slavery and granted the Freedmen ‘all the rights’ of citizens in the tribal nations.

But courts have typically used a two-part test to determine who is legally considered to be Indian: whether the person is recognized as an Indian by a tribe or the federal government, and whether the individual has Indian blood. Most Freedmen, even if they are enrolled in a tribe, do not satisfy the blood requirement, meaning they are not recognized as legally Indian in court.” (from report in NYT, June 6)

“Professor Gingerich was raised a Mennonite and was a student at Goshen College, a Mennonite institution in Indiana, studying chemistry but thinking of astronomy, when, he later recalled, a professor there gave him pivotal advice: ‘If you feel a calling to pursue astronomy, you should go for it. We can’t let the atheists take over any field.’” (from NYT obituary of Owen Gingerich, June 12)

“Millions viewed a clip of Calvin Robinson, a deacon in the Free Church of England and one-time Brexit Party candidate, asking whether it is ‘appropriate for a heathen prime minister to be reading a gospel reading’ after Rishi Sunak read the epistle at the coronation.” (Peter Geoghegan, in London Review of Books, June 1)

“Lysenko’s scientific fantasy found favor in large part because it aligned with Soviet faith in the infinite malleability of all things—even plants—under communism. Such egregious politicization of science is easy to mock, but it is uncomfortably familiar in the United States today, as is the unhappy dynamic among right-minded scientists, charlatans, and conspiracy theorists. The uncertainty inherent in the scientific method can make it hard to defend from those who have been carried away by their own imagination, or by someone else’s. Doubt is easy to exploit.” (Sophie Pinkham, in New York Review of Books, June 22)

Eh??  “Whereas Christopher’s [Hitchens’] soul, I am suggesting, is essentially gentile. He doesn’t have a Jewish unconscious – though his beautifully premonitory dream, strongly described in the piece of 1988, suggests that there are traces of him in it.” (Martin Amis, in Experience, p 3260)

“In England, when you see death coming, you just ask if you’ve joined the right queue.” (Martin Amis, in Experience, p 326)

“Taylor shies away from any suggestion that Orwell was on the autism spectrum, but judging by many of the actions depicted in this necessarily lengthy but never self-indulgent book, he suffered from at least a moderate form of Asperger syndrome, which might explain his often uncomprehendingly forthright attitude towards his fellow writers.” (Alexander Larman, in review of D. J. Taylor’s George Orwell: A New Life, in The Spectator World, July)


“His central message is this: the Metropolitan Police has morphed into an organization whose main purpose is to defend the Metropolitan Police.” (Ian Loader, in review of Tom Harper’s Broken Yard, in TLS, June 30)

“At first pass this might seem to rule out the kind of table-denying that van Inwagen himself goes in for. But there is a way out. While he will no doubt be happy to tell his furniture movers that ‘there are two tables in the dining room’, he can explain that, from a philosophical point of view, these words don’t mean what they seem to mean. When he says ‘there are two tables’, he doesn’t mean there are two tables, but rather that there are two regions of his dining room in which matter is arranged table-wise. The Quinean threat of contradiction is avoided by paraphrasing away the awkward quantification over tables.” (David Papineau, in review of Peter Van Inwagen’s Being, in TLS, June 30)

“He [Rupert Sheldrake] studied biology at Cambridge and the philosophy and history of science at Harvard and later worked in agricultural development but eventually became consumed by the idea that memories could be inherited and that intentions – planning to call a particular friend, say – could be transmitted telepathically, a phenomenon he attributed to ‘morphic fields’. These fields, he believed, accounted for both the prickling awareness of being stared at by another person and the uncanny ability of dogs to now when their owners are returning home.” (from New York Times Magazine, June 11)

“Lenin may not have been a sadist exactly, but he was certainly a vicious psychopath, and the society he constructed was built on the bones of his victims.” (Nigel Jones, in review of Victor Sebestyen’s The Russian Revolution in the Spectator, July 1)

“The stamp of a competent doctor is not the ability to solve a mystery, but that they find no mystery in your case whatsoever.” (Druin Birch, in TLS, July 7)

“The natural bonds of private affection are a bulwark against tyranny. That is why tyrants always strive to dissolve them, always in the name of a higher collective good, and invariably because they object, as Ms. Ghodsee does, to the alternative, capitalism. But capitalism is an economic technique, not a political system. Ms. Ghodsee looks forward to when ‘the whole edifice can crack’ and hopes this ‘might actually improve the lives of many ordinary people’. Her book is a reminder why intellectuals should never be placed in positions of authority.” (Dominic Green, in review of Kristen R. Ghodsee’s Everyday Utopia in Wall Street Journal, July 15-16)

“The best espionage novels cater to our fantasies while still persuading us of the authenticity of their worlds. Of the titles published this year, two stand out in the field, and each author understands that, in fiction, veracity is not the same as authenticity. In Hemingway’s words: ‘All good novels have one thing in common. They are truer than if they had really happened.’” (Andrew Rosenheim in the Spectator, July 8)

“To write history means giving dates their physiognomy.” (Walter Benjamin, according to Tony Wood, in London Review of Books, July 13)

“We do not support people who are anarchistic, opportunistic, adventuristic, and Custerite.” (Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton about Weatherman, from Beverly Gage’s G-Man, p 690)

“In late August, he [William Sullivan] wrote a letter to Hoover scorning the “‘yes men”, “rubber stamps”, “apple polishers”, flatterers, self promoters and timid, cringing, frightened sycophants’ who populated the Bureau’s upper ranks.” (from Beverly Gage’s G-Man, p 707)

“There was only one cardinal sin in professional history, as in serious journalism, and that was to make things up.” (from Matthew Richardson’s Scarlet Papers, p 420)

“But unless we fancy a lovely big civil war, killing off loads of arts graduate, then the alternative has to be reform: immigration restrictions (to protect unskilled workers’ wages), transferring the tax burden from income to wealth (to reduce inequality) and nationalizing Elon Musk (every American citizen to be given, say, $100, and the chance to tweet one dog-based meme from his account).” (from review of Peter Turchin’s End Times in Private Eye, June 30-July 13)

“Perhaps most notable is Gabriel’s revelation that it is wrong to classify yourself as a member of a social group. You should not describe yourself as a Bavarian, a northern Italian, a Catholic, a Hindu, or a ‘metropolitan homosexual’, he thinks, or even as having a gender, because these identities are ‘factually unfounded, scientifically impermissible simplifications of our complex social and natural situation’. He criticizes the ‘friendly ghettos’ one finds in metropolises like New York, where Chinese, Indian, Korean, or Orthodox Jewish people form communities based on ‘a shared ethnicity, race, or culture’, on the grounds that these are based on self-delusion and are exclusionary.” (Lucy McDonald, in review of Markus Gabriel’s Moral Progress in Dark Times, in TLS, July 21)

Eh? “Parts of a baby’s unique generic material remain in the mother’s body and brain for the rest of her life, connecting them indefinitely. By thirty-four weeks of gestation, research has shown that fetuses have acquired and stored memories from inside their mother’s womb.” (Birdie Hall, in The Spectator World, August)

“Isaac Bashevis Singer seems to have grasped this nettle. When he was asked in an interview something like ‘Given that religious faith and fate motifs play such an important part in your work, and given that you yourself are largely a secular person, can I ask if you believe in free will?’, Singer replied, You gotta, you’ve got no choice’.” (from letter by David Bell in TLS, July 28)


“Narrative acts as a check on any thematic approach to a subject, let alone any theoretical analysis. Any idea, any theory, any insight can only be valid if it fits with what the evidence suggests is most likely to have happened – a test that many elegant academic theories fail, which is why so few of their advocates embrace it. Only once the story is fully understood is it valid to search for lessons.” (Adrian Goldsworthy in The Eagle and the Lion, quoted by Allan Mallinson in the Spectator, July 22)

“As for the meaning of life, I do not believe it has any. I do not at all ask what it is, but I suspect it has none, and this is a source of great comfort to me – we make of it what we can, and that is all there is about it. Those who seek for some deep, cosmic all-embracing […] libretto or god, are, believe me, pathetically mistaken.” (Isaiah Berlin in letter to Larry Siedentop, quoted by Michael Ignatieff in Isaiah Berlin: A Life, p 340)

“A people like the Roma who can only preserve ethnic identity within the lowest classes, even in modern differentiated societies, and who consider their way of life an ethnic characteristic they fear losing if they advance socially, because there are no suitable role models within their own community and no broad acceptance of a Romani doctor or CEO, find themselves in a nearly inescapable situation.” (Klaus-Michael Bogdal, in Europe and the Roma: A History of Fascination and Fear, quoted by Damian Le Bas in Literary Review, August)

Eh?? “Owing to genetics and adverse experiences, some of us are sensitised to developing this chronic overactivation of the stress response, which not only generates feelings of fear and self-hatred but also damages the cells and tissues of the body, leading to premature coronary artery disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and strokes.”

“For decades, psychiatry has squared off against its critics, successors to the ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement of the 1960s. They argue that depression (and other mental-health problems) are best thought of not as illnesses but as ‘problems of living’ – understandable responses to circumstances, including the deranged character of modern life. They worry that pathologising depression will inaccurately and unhelpfully locate the problem in the individual rather than society, and encourage reliance on medication rather than getting to the root causes of the problem.” (Michael Eisen, in review of Philip Gold’s Breaking Through Depression; New Treatments and Discoveries for Healing, in Literary Review, August)

“In consequence, I have often conjectured in the text – while making it clear that I am conjecturing – on the basis of less than conclusive evidence. The reason is twofold: truth is ultimately more likely to emerge from a bold, crisp, and refutable claim than a range of hesitated options; and a full discussion of every option would weigh down the story and take up too much space.” (from M. W. Rowe’s J. L. Austin: Philosopher and D-Day Intelligence Officer, p 2)

“It is pleasing to think that two mordant intellects and fine prose stylists – the J. Austen who wrote Sense and Sensibility and the J. Austin who wrote Sense and Sensibilia – are related, even if their closest common ancestor is to be found in the late fifteenth century.” (from M. W. Rowe’s J. L. Austin: Philosopher and D-Day Intelligence Officer, p 11)

“Historical fiction is a balancing act: too much veracity can make any invention look like factual errors; too little can bring accusations of laziness or chutzpah.” (Anna Aslanyan in the TLS, August 4)

“Mixed-race people are now the fastest-growing ethnic group, amounting in the 2021 census to more than 1.5 million people, compared to just over half a million who identify themselves as Caribbean.” (A. E. Stallings in the TLS, August 11)

“Judging a personality, and its disorders, is inherent to the practice of biography. At the extreme end is the genre of psychohistory, which blends historical method with psychoanalytical theory, but essentially every biographer is a psychohistorian.” (Andrew Preston in the TLS, August 18)

“Diversity is but skin deep. The cars, houses, wives, divorces, and psychiatrists of a Utah personalist do not differ from those of a New Hampshire Heideggerian or a North Dakota neo-Kantian, or even a Louisiana Austinian. The ideological differentiation, in formal philosophy, seems to mean nothing in the souls or life-styles of the philosophers, or indeed in the society which harbours and sustains them.” (Ernest Gellner, quoted in John A. Hall’s Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography, p 48) “What is ‘Rome’? The upper-class of the contemporary municipality of that name? Central Italy? The Common Market? Catholic Europe? Countless boundaries, geographic and social, vertical and horizontal, criss-cross each other in a rapidly changing world. Relativism is not so much a doctrine as an affectation.” (Ernest Gellner, in Legitimation of Belief, quoted in in John A. Hall’s Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography, p 125)


“He [Pope Leo 1] also struck a form of deal with the (Christian) vandals in 455, so that although they comprehensively sacked and looted Rome for a fortnight there was comparatively little violence or destruction.” (Anne de Courcy, in review of Jessica Wärnberg’s City of Echoes: A New History of Rome, its Popes and its People, in the Spectator, August 26)

“Pournelle’s [Iron] Law [of Bureaucracy] states that ‘in any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals that bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence or are eliminated entirely’.” (Rory Sutherland in the Spectator, August 26)

Myths on ‘Kinship’

“A fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, who also lives in India, Chatterji was fed xenophobic myths about Pakistan during her childhood. Only as a student in England did she realize that people across the border had similar customs and culinary habits, and that they all shared a kinship as fellow South Asians.” (Hirsh Sawhney in review of Joya Chatterji’s Shadows at Noon, in the TLS, September 1)

“While many South Asian immigrants face discrimination in the United States, those with Dalit ancestry — once deemed to be ‘untouchable’ from birth — say they must also overcome being ostracized by fellow South Asian immigrants who cling to a social stratification that dates back millenniums. That has occurred even though untouchability and caste-based discrimination have been outlawed in India and Nepal for decades.” (from report in NYT, September 10)

“If it hangs from the wall, it’s a painting. If it rests on the floor, it’s a sculpture. If it’s very big or very small, it’s conceptual. If it forms part of the wall, if it forms part of the floor, it’s architecture. If you have to buy a ticket, it’s modern. If you are already inside it and you have to pay to get out of it, it’s more modern. If you can be inside it without paying, it’s a trap. If it moves, it’s outmoded. If you have to look up, it’s religious. If you have to look down, it’s realistic. If it’s been sold, it’s site-specific. If, in order to see it, you have to pass through a metal detector, it’s public.” (from Ben Lerner’s Angle of Yaw, quoted by Marjorie Perloff in the TLS, September 1)

“It’s more that when fact and fiction are blended, both are undermined. We know rock’s historical record so well that when a novelist introduces a series of made-up names and incidents their world-building falls apart. It feels artificial.” (Jude Cook, in review of D. J. Taylor’s Flame Music: The True Story of Resurgam Records by One Who Was There, in Literary Review, September.)

“As the Soviet Ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, later mused: ‘His [Nixon’s] use of the CIA, the FBI, and the considerable powers of his own office to remain in the White House was considered in the Soviet Union at the time a fairly natural thing for the chief of state to do. Who cared if it was a breach of the Constitution?’ In Beijing, Mao wondered what ‘all the fuss’ was about.” (from Calder Walton’s Spies, p 331)

We??  “In fact, Geertz described culture – accurately, in my opinion – as the name we give to the common ways we all make sense of each other, the way we infer what is going on the social world and what we learn from that in order to succeed. All people are in effect anthropologists, figuring out what’s meaningful and why that meaning matters. We who are anthropologists proper just make second- and third-order interpretations on top of that. We write scratch notes, then fieldnotes, then draft upon draft. At one point Geertz compares anthropologists to people who strain to read over the shoulders of the people they are trying to understand. It is a brilliant description of what ethnographers do. It captures something deep about how fieldwork changes people – how they become able to hold in their minds very different moral understandings and social commitments.” (T. M. Lurhmann, in article on Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures, ‘fifty years on’, in TLS, September 8)

“You can know more than you can ever prove.” (Richard Feynman, in lecture at California Institute of Technology, as recalled by Marcus Chown in Prospect, October)

“Ultimately, galaxies are less like machines and more like animals – loosely understandable, rewarding to study, but only partially predictable. Accepting this requires a shift in perspective, but it makes our vision of the universe all the richer.” (Dr. Andrew Pontzen in The Universe in a Box: Simulations and the Quest to Code the Cosmos, quoted by Dennis Overbye in the NYT, September 12)

“Clamping the past on to the present, turning history and art into exact topography, makes no appeal to me; I do not care where the battle was fought or the queen slept, nor out of what window the poet looked; but a landscape rich in these vague associations – some of them without a name – gives me deep pleasure, and I could cry out at the lovely thickness of life, as different now from ordinary existence as plum pudding is from porridge.” (J. B. Priestley, in English Journey, p 35)

“ . . . most of the audience consisted of communists, who stolidly sang their dreary hymn the International. (I think it was that. And why is it always ‘the masses’? Who cares about masses? I wouldn’t raise a finger for ‘the masses’. Men, women and children – but not masses.) (J. B. Priestley, in English Journey, p 43)

“But for my part, I like life and art to be neither Birmingham nor Burne-Jones, but to travel on the honest roads that march between the deacons in counting-houses, on the one side, and the drooping maidens in hot-houses on the other. In fact I like life and art to have much more in common with that other school of painting so well represented here, that of the good old English wataer-colourists, who, whatever their private lives may have been, always impress me as being the happiest set of men who ever lived in this country.” (J. B. Priestley, in English Journey, p 82)

“All I ask is that they should not pretend to be solemnly doing their duty when in reality they are indulging and enjoying themselves. The fox-hunter who begins mumbling excuses, who tells you that he hunts to rid the countryside of foxes, that hunting is valuable because it improves the breed of horses (i.e. hunters), is a contemptible fellow. But I am prepared to respect the hunting man who looks you straight in the eye and declares in downright fashion: ‘I hunt because like it. Hunting’s the most glorious sport in the world, and I live for it. It may be extravagant, cruel, antisocial, anything you like, but I don’t give a damn. And as long as society allows me to hunt, I shall hunt. Halloo!’ But I have not met him yet.” (J. B. Priestley, in English Journey, p 107)

“Behind all the new movements of this age, nationalistic, fascistic, communistic, has been more than a suspicion of the mental attitude of a gang of small-town louts ready to throw a brick at the nearest stranger.” (J. B. Priestley, in English Journey, p 141)

“Bluntly, the position is this: the good old-fashioned English Sunday – the Sabbath, as it is called by a great many people who do not seem to realis, first, that they are not Jews, and second, that anyhow they are a day out in their calculations -is still being imposed upon large numbers of people, especially younger people, who no longer want the old-fashioned Sunday, and more than they want the good old-fashioned English side-whiskers, thick underclothing, or heavy meals.. It is imposed on them legally and by force, not by mere suggestion; and the reason that the imposition is still successful is that in most provincial towns the authority is largely in the hands of elderly men who are not in sympathy with the desires of newer generations.” (J. B. Priestley, in English Journey, p 158)

“There is no escape. We may be under fifty different national flags, but we are compelled to serve now under one economic flag. We do not know who designed it and ran it up, but there it is, and the more often we try to desert from it the more brutally we shall be starved into submission.” (J. B. Priestley, in English Journey, p 227)

“His Communism is not a reasoned alternative to a social machine that is wobbling and running down, is not a transition from an obviously incompetent and unjust system to an order of society that embodies our ideas of competence and justice: it is the entrance into a Human Paradise and anew Golden Age, from which, by some mysterious means, all the selfish wickedness of the present world will be banished. Nobody could be more cynical than he is about elected persons and men in authority here and now, but he has no difficulty in persuading himself that in a Communist England all elected persons and men in authority would acquire a new mystical virtue.” (J. B. Priestley, in English Journey, p 246)

“All over the world the shutters are being closed, the blue pencils are being sharpened, the gags and seals and chains and warrants for summary arrest are being brought out. Yet there is some liberty still in England. Milton could be living at this hour. A good number of my fellow-authors who are forever sneering at liberal democracy have still sense enough to keep within its tolerant boundaries, and do not venture into those admired territories where they would soon find themselves kicked about by uniformed hooligans or shoved into a gaol that new nothing of habeas corpus.” (J. B. Priestley, in English Journey, p 333)

“What is protested against as a crushing tyranny in one country is tolerated as a necessity in another. Some of my friends rage against the absence of liberty in Italy and Germany but quite overlook its absence in Russia. We English do not let our imaginations travel as far as India.” (J. B. Priestley, in English Journey, p 333)

“I never meet members of that House without feeling that they simply belong to a rather amusing, rowdy club in Westminster. I have dined at the same table with prominent Tory and Labour politicians, and found that they had far, far more in common with one another than they had with me, being members of the same club.” (J. B. Priestley, in English Journey, p 334)

“We know rock’s historical record so well that when a novelist introduces a series of made-up names and incidents their world-building falls apart.” (Jude Cook in review of D. J. Taylor’s Flame Music: The True Story of Resurgam Records by One Who Was There, in Literary Review, September)


“For me the novel is character creation. Style is nice, plot is nice, structure is OK, social significance is OK, symbolism worms its way in, timeliness is OK too, but unless the characters convince and live the book’s got no chance.” (Larry Mcmurtry, quoted by Dwight Garner in NYT Book Review, October 1)

“The Spanish-language network Univision broadcast the event in Spanish, and Ilia Calderón, the first Afro-Latina to anchor a weekday prime-time newscast on a major network in the United States, was a moderator.” (from NYT, September 30)

“In Pathogenesis, I wanted more from the witnesses to the past, and rather fewer illusions to pop culture. Not everyone knows, loves or even likes Monty Python, Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings.” (Adam Rutherford in review of Jonathan Kennedy’s Pathogenesis, in TLS, September 29)

“According to the veteran political journalist Andrew Marr, political memoirs serve three purposes: ’to settle scores, to nudge the dial of the historical verdict, and above all to win a publisher’s advance that is unlikely to be earned out.’” (Tim Bale, in Literary Review, October)

“But always the view is equally confined, and of what disappears as Time turns the handle there is left only gut knowledge, oral tradition, painted caves and kitchen middens, written records and (nowadays) electronic storage and retrieval systems. Without these, civilization as we think of it would collapse.” (J. I. M. Stewart in Myself and Michael Innes, p 52)

“Wystan Auden told me, near the end of his life, that he could recall absolutely nothing disagreeable that had ever happened to him.” (J. I. M. Stewart in Myself and Michael Innes, p 55: contradicted in incident on page 65)

“You know, Stewart, what happens to boys who don’t know what they want to do in life. They become chartered accountants.” (Dr. Ferard, to the author, in J. I. M. Stewart’s Myself and Michael Innes, p 66)

“If there is any ability that is truly unique to human beings it is perhaps the ability to bullshit about the unique significance of our species.” (Lorna Finlayson, in London Review of Books, October 5)

“Meir was not particularly religious, but she divided the world into Jews and non-Jews.” (Avi Shilon, in review of Golda Meir: Israel’s Matriarch, in Literary Review, October)

“João Zilhão, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Lisbon who was not involved in the study, praised the findings for adding to the body of evidence that Neanderthals were much like us. He described the paper as ‘another nail in the coffin’ of the scholarly conceit that humans did not become anatomically, behaviorally and cognitively ‘modern’ until quite recently.

‘Call them what you want,’ Dr. Zilhão said. ‘Archaics, Homo erectus, Home heidelbergensis, Neanderthals, whatever — humans have been human for hundreds of thousands of years. The most important difference between the recent and the remote Paleolithic is that, the more distant from us, the more difficult it is for us to see it.’” (from report in NYT, October 17)

“Anybody who becomes a philosopher and never has any serious doubts about whether this is a wise life choice is not a very good philosopher.” (Daniel Dennett, in I’ve Been Thinking, quoted in review by Julian Baggini in Prospect, November)

“But that alone is a feeble basis upon which to proceed and Gray’s case is one that demands a practical answer: a radical adaptation of liberalism to the huge challenges of the 21st century (climate change, inequality, AI, pandemics, longevity and social care).” (Matthew D’Ancona, in review of John Gray’s The New Leviathan: Thoughts After Liberalism, in Prospect, November)

“The whole immense part of Europe lying between the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and the Adriatic was a single giant chessboard of peoples, full of islands, enclaves and the most peculiar combinations of ethnic mixtures. In many places, every village, every social group, every profession almost spoke a separate language. In the middle Dniester valley of my youth, landowners spoke Polish, peasants, Ukrainian, and bureaucrats, Russian, but with an Odessa accent. Merchants spoke Yiddish, while carpenters and cabinet-makers, as Filipians and members of the Old Believer sect, spoke Russian, but with a Novgorod accent, while the kabannicy swineherds spoke a vernacular of their own. Besides these, in this region there were villages of petty nobility speaking Polish, villages with the same nobility speaking Ukrainian, Moldovan villages speaking Romanian, Gypsies speaking Gypsy, and Turks, who, although absent, still left their mark in the minarets standing in Kamianets-Podilskyi and at Khotyn on the other side of the Dniester. Ferrymen on the Dniester still called the Podolian side of the river Lech-land and the Bessarabian side Turk-land, even though there both Poland and Turkey belonged to the rather distant past.” (Jerzy Stempowski, in W Dolinie Dniestru: Pisma o Ukrainie, translated by Jacob Mikanowski, from his Goodbye, Eastern Europe, pp 111-112)

“There is an obvious prima facie case against identitarianism. Multicultural democracy works only so long as people see themselves as equal before the law and part of a broadly shared community. Too much focus on difference risks fracturing the polis. But this argument requires care, because it has often been produced in bad faith by people who had no intention of pursuing genuine equality.” (Regina Rini, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Social Reasoning at York University in Toronto, in review of Yascha Mounk’s The Identity Trap and Susan Neiman’s Left is Not Woke, in TLS, October 13)

“He marshals vast swatches of cognitive and behavioural science, along with neuroscience, to argue that there is no place among it all where ‘you’ can intervene and direct events according to your will. Find me the neuron, Sapolsky demands, that, uninfluenced by all else, makes a decision. What your brain does, he explains, is influenced by your genes, by the quirks of your neural wiring, by your environment and upbringing, even by your deep evolutionary history. While none of these alone eliminates free will, collectively they fill the decision-making pot right to the brim. ‘Put all the scientific results together’, Sapolsky says, ‘and there’s no room for free will … There’s not a single crack of daylight to shoehorn [it] in.’” (Philip Ball, in review of Robert Sapolsky’s Determined and Kevin J. Mitchell’s Free Agents, in TLS October 13)

“Mitchell argues that our actions are best considered as outcomes of the neural circuits associated with volition, and he cogently explains how these operate. He recognizes that, of course, such decisions are influenced by somatic, genetic, social, cultural and historical factors: there is little in Sapolsky’s lengthy exposition of such influences on our choices that is not acknowledged more concisely in Free Agents. But the two authors come to such radically different conclusions because, while Sapolsky insists that free will must be something other than what we know about behaviour and mind, Mitchell seeks to locate the notion within that very soil. As Mitchell says, arguing that we are puppets manipulated by strings is to deny the very nature of self. ‘The puppet is made out of strings’, he writes. ‘If you removed them, there would be no puppet left.’” (Philip Ball, in review of Robert Sapolsky’s Determined and Kevin J. Mitchell’s Free Agents, in TLS October 13)

“The ideal intelligence report can be read by the light of a match on a restive horse on a windy night.” (Lieutenant-General Sir William Platt, quoted by Anthony Cavendish in Inside Intelligence, p 183)

“[J. L.] Austin coined the slogan ‘A vote for Hogg is a vote for Hitler’. A. J. P. Taylor, his colleague at Magdalen College, remarked that this was the only one of Austin’s propositions that he understood.” (from letter by David Carpenter in London Review of Books, October 19)

“These progressive demonstrators seem to believe that all of Israel is a colonial enterprise — not just the West Bank settlements — and therefore the Jewish people do not have the right either to self-determination or self-defense in their ancestral homeland, whether it’s within post-1967 borders or pre-1967 ones.” (Thomas L. Friedman in NYT, October 27)

“Tribalism in this sense (the term being otherwise rather insulting to most tribal peoples) is not at all the same thing as political partisanship. There are three important differences. Tribalism spills beyond the strictly political arena into parallel assumptions about history, geography, economics, and, of course, religion. Unlike partisanship, it makes the ethnic or social group, rather than the nation or the state, the primary locus of belonging. And neither side in this (typically binary) contest truly accepts the legitimacy of an electoral defeat. Being outvoted is understood not as a disappointment but as an existential threat.” (Fintan O’Toole, in review of Left is not Woke by Susan Neiman, in New York Review of Books, November 2)

“In 1925, he [Stalin] called to ask Larin to speak against Bukharin at the Party conference on the subject of Nikolai Ivanovich’s [Bukharin’s} slogan for the peasants, ‘Get rich!’. In a private conversation with Bukharin, Father had already strongly expressed his opinion that the phrase ‘get rich’ missed the mark; ‘enrich yourselves’ would be preferable because ‘get rich’ was the terminology of the bourgeoisie.” (from Anna Larina’s This I Cannot Forget, p 28)

“Dzerzhinsky is no more; the wonderful traditions of the Cheka have gradually receded into the past, those traditions by which the revolutionary idea governed all its actions, justified cruelty towards enemies, safeguarded the state against any counter-revolution. For this reason, the organs of the Cheka won a special trust, a special honor, an authority and a respect.” (from Bukharin’s 1937 Testament, memorized by his widow, and delivered to the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1961, from Anna Larina’s This I Cannot Forget, pp 343-344)


“My affairs, I suspect, were a lot like anyone else’s: each a journey into new territory, each an escape from the last, each offering a refuge from I don’t know what – perhaps convention itself –and, in my case, each a vain attempt to find the Ur-woman I never had, never understood, and always suspected by definition.” (David Cornwell [John le Carré] in letter to Adam Sisman, quoted in his Secret Life of John le Carré, p 160)

“The fact that Jews have been indigenous to the Holy Land for millenniums and that more than half of Israel’s population are Mizrahi Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent who have often fled Arab persecution is generally passed over in this prism focused on white imperialism.” (Roger Cohen, in NYT, November 2)

“It is a mark of le Carré’s awfulness that I was several times reminded of the late-period Kingsley Amis, who, when people protested at his self-aggrandizement, rudeness, cantankerousness and so on would reply, ‘Yes, but you see I’m Kingsley Amis’.” (D. J. Taylor, in review of Adam Sisman’s Secret Life of John le Carré, in The Spectator World, November)

“May I add a detail to Robert Potts’s review of Adam Sisman’s study of the emotional and literary repercussions of John le Carré’s tedious lechery (October 20)? I once asked a retired SIS officer about the influence on his former colleagues of le Carré’s novels. I was told, for what it is worth, that until the 1970s SIS officers were generally an uxorial bunch of men, remaining faithful to their wives in a spirit of well-regulated prudence, but that le Carré’s fictions made them feel that they were missing easy tricks. Consequently there was an increase of adulterous adventuring at home and abroad. Perhaps I was being teased, but I think not.” (letter by Richard Davenport-Hines in the Spectator, October 27)

“I once asked Sir Vernon Bogdanor, emeritus professor of politics and government at the University of Oxford, whether he preferred teaching undergraduates or postgraduates. With no hesitation he replied: ‘The undergraduates – they’re much brighter’.” (from letter by David Bussey in the Spectator, October 27)

“In reality, of course, it was a full-scale invasion of Kuwait to expel Iraq’s forces that, after defeating them on the battlefield, very deliberately stopped at the Kuwait-Iraq border for multiple reasons, including the reluctance to replace a destroyed Iraqi army by turning much of the US Army into a Mesopotamian constabulary, which duly happened after the full-scale invasion in 2003. (I testified to that effect before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations just before the war of 2003, with Senator Biden in the chair, but I made no headway at all because the administration representative at the hearing said that it was a fight to bring democracy to the long-suffering Iraqi nation, and when I countered that removing Saddam would bring anarchy and not democracy, I was easily dismissed with the accusation that it was racist to assert that Iraqis were incapable of democracy. I only made things worse by noting that there was no Iraqi nation, only bitterly divided Kurds, bitterly divided Arab Shia priestly dynasties, Turkmens and deeply divided Sunni Arabs.)” (Edward N. Luttwak, in review of Michael Mann’s On Wars, in the Spectator, October 27)

“The United Staes is an extraordinarily resilient country, agile and flexible, and the inherent goodness of the American people is there.” (General Mark Milley, quoted in The Atlantic, November)

“As Biden’s running mate, she became the first woman, first Black American, and first South Asian American to be elected vice-president. Before that, she was the first South Asian American and only the second Black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. Before that, she was the first woman, Black American, and South Asian American to serve as attorney general of her native California. Before that, she was the first Black woman in California to be elected a s district attorney.” (Elaina Pott Calabro on Kamala Harris, in The Atlantic, November)

“One of his new colleagues told him that the first consideration when voting on any bill should be ‘Will this help me win re-election?’ (The second and third consideration, the colleague continued, should be what effect it would have on his constituents and on his state.)” (McKay Coppins, on Mitt Romney, in The Atlantic, November)

“The world now contains more than 5,400 economic enclaves: estates, islands, parks, havens, free ports, bonded warehouses, export processing zones, special economic zones, free-trade zones, free points, and the like. One geographer counted eighty-two names for them.” (Daniel Immerwahr, in review of Quinn Slobodian’s Crack-Up Capitalism in NYRB, November 23)

“Instead of attacking the welfare state, the theory goes, they can play a zone defense, outrun its regulations, and sap its revenues. Slobodian notes how eager the wealthiest today are to ‘opt out, secede, and defect from the collective.’ They live in compounds, fly on private jets, sail superyachts, hoard art in free ports, buy islands, found online worlds, build bunkers, establish alternative currencies, or launch themselves into space.” (Daniel Immerwahr, in review of Quinn Slobodian’s Crack-Up Capitalism in NYRB, November 23)

“Recent studies show that five thousand years ago carbon dioxide was being pumped into the atmosphere, perhaps in part because of deforestation and tilling of the soil — the beginning, according to some scientists, of the anthropogenic transformation of the earth, though in this case with arguably benign consequences, for the extra emissions may have averted a new glacial period.” (Christopher de Bellaigue, in review of Peter Frankopan’s The Earth Transformed: An Untold History in NYRB, November 23)

“A decline in our sensitiveness and discrimination with words must be followed soon by a decline in the quality of our living also.” (I. A. Richards, according to Richard Davenport-Hines in Literary Review, November)

“For Ms. Braun-Pivet, like many French people, religion is a matter of tradition and heritage and not faithful devotion. Her husband, Vianney Pivet, is a nonbelieving Catholic, and they celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah with their five children.” (from report in NYT, November 23)

“The distinguished Australian Sinologist Simon Leys once observed that comparisons of the CCP elite to the mafia are in a sense unfair to the mafia, in which a certain loyalty to “brothers” does play a part. Losers of political battles at the top of the CCP generally are not relegated to comfortable retirements—they go to prison or worse.” (Perry Link, in review of Ha Jin’s The Woman from Moscow: In Pursuit of Beauty, in NYRB, December 7)

“Unfortunately, she is unmoved by these memories, having that most valuable of all feminine attributed – the ability to see her vices as virtue.” (Ian Fleming, on his wife, from Automobilia, published in Spectator Points of View (1956-1961))

“Lucky Jim is not a stranger to the Establishment – it is even quite likely that Lord David Cecil was his tutor – but he will have to work his passage before he is accepted seriously and not just as an interesting oddity. By the time he has done that. He will have been so groomed by Sir Harold Nicolson, his corners rubbed off by Mr. A. L. Rowse and his sensibility developed by Mr. Cyril Connolly, that he will be fully equipped to recommend travel books to the readers of the Sunday Times and even open an exhibition at the Times bookshop.” (Henry Fairlie, from The Establishment, published in Spectator Points of View (1956-1961))


“During the event Thursday, a video showed a man shooting bullets at a Cybertruck. ‘The apocalypse could come along at any moment,’ Mr. Musk quipped. ‘Here at Tesla we have the finest in apocalyptic technology.’” (from report in NYT, December 1) “Among the curious episodes mentioned in memoirs is a story that is still going the rounds among workers in a Moscow car factory. This once had the job of making an armoured limousine for Stalin, who had an original way of testing the glass and armour: the engineers responsible were seated in the vehicle, which was then peppered with rifle and revolver fire. The armour held up and the engineers emerged  –  still alive but with hair turned grey.” (from Stalinism, by Alter Litvin and John Keep, p 18)

“Finally, there are the rare occasions when the building is used for Coronations, and we must assume, for the present, that the monarchy will continue to exist. All will agree that the present building is too small, too inconvenient and too ill-planned to enable those many thousands who may wish to witness this quaint and historic ceremony to see it. It is suggested that a place with better visibility, say, the Festival Hall or Wembley Stadium, be used for future Coronations. This will have the additional advantage of being non-sectarian.” (J. Betjeman, from A New Westminster, published in Spectator Points of View (1956-1961))

“An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.” (The philosopher Nichalas Butler, according to Frederick Logevall, in the TLS, November 24)

“The BBC said that Top Gear would not return to television ‘for the foreseeable future’.” (from Spectator Portrait of the Week, November 25)

“Attempts to define liberalism are not likely to meet with success – I mean only that our educated class has a ready if mild suspiciousness of the profit motive, a belief in progress, science, social legislation, planning, and international cooperation, perhaps especially where Russia is in question. These beliefs do great credit to those who hold them.” (Lionel Trilling, from The Function of the Little Magazine, in The Liberal Imagination, p 98)

“This is the great vice of academicism, that it is concerned with ideas rather than with thinking, and now the errors of academicism do not stay in the academy; they make their way into the world, and what begins a s failure of perception among intellectual specialists finds its fulfillment in policy and action.” (Lionel Trilling, from The Sense of the Past, in The Liberal Imagination, p 192)

“An English writer, recognizing the novel’s [Great Expectations’] central concern with snobbery, recently cried out half-ironically against it. ‘Who cares whether Pamela finally exasperates Mr. B. into marriage, whether Mr. Elton is more or less than moderately genteel, whether it is sinful for Pendennis nearly to kiss the porter’s daughter, whether young men from Boston can ever be as truly refined as middle-aged women in Paris, whether the District Officers’ fiancée ought to see so much of Dr. Aziz, whether Lady Chatterley ought to be made love to by the gamekeeper, even if he was an officer during the war? Who cares?’” (Lionel Trilling, from Manners, Morals, and the Novel, in The Liberal Imagination, p 211)

“There is a famous passage in James’s life of Hawthorne on which James enumerates the things which are lacking to give the American novel the thick social texture of the English novel – no state; barely a specific national name; no sovereign; no court; no aristocracy; no church; no clergy; no army; no diplomatic service; no country gentlemen; no palaces; no castles; no manors; no old country houses; no parsonages; no thatched cottages; no ivied ruins; no cathedrals; no great universities; no public schools; no political society; no sporting class – no Epsom, no Ascot!” (Lionel Trilling, from Manners, Morals, and the Novel, in The Liberal Imagination, pp 212-213)

“My advice to anyone who wants to preserve digital work is: ‘print it on paper’.”

“I would suggest implementing open access, while covering the wall with shelves and filling them with solid, attractive, and durable books.” (Robert Darnton, in review of Peter Baldwin’s Athena Unbound: Why and How Scholarly Knowledge Should Be Free for All, in NYRB, December 21)

“In schools and universities, education inculcates conformity with the ruling progressive ideology. The arts are judged by whether they serve approved political goals. Dissidents from orthodoxies on race, gender and empire find their careers terminated and their public lives erased. This repression is not the work of governments. The ruling catechisms are formulated and enforced by civil society.” (John Gay, in The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism, quoted by John Banville in his review in NYRB, December 21)

“I have thought over the years that it does look as if the boy who is withdrawn at school, who is an observer, who isn’t a go-getter, who doesn’t take part in things, isn’t a doer – maybe he’s reserving his energy and building up his potentiality and then afterwards he suddenly blossoms, and makes  a tremendous impact in whatever branch it may be: law, diplomacy, finance, literature, what-have-you. And I can see that many of the boys who were leaders at school, and popular at school, haven’t necessarily done anything after they left school.” (J. B. Wilson, a contemporary of Graham Greene at Berkhamsted, from Norman Sherry’s Life of Graham Greene, Volume 1, p 166)

“In an apology, Mr. [Harvard Professor] Ogletree, who died this year, acknowledged that his 2004 book ‘All Deliberate Speed’ included several paragraphs from another law professor almost verbatim, without any attribution, according to a New York Times report at the time. (He said it was the result of a mix-up by his research assistants.)” (from report on plagiarism in NYT, December 22)

“Of course ‘an extreme improbability is not an impossibility’, as Edward Greenwood writes (Letters, December 8); but the issue is whether it is rational to believe (in the absence of contrary evidence) that an event (such as the universe being so precisely fine-tuned for life) that would be extremely improbable if it had occurred without a cause, did not have a cause. We should only do this if we cannot postulate a simple explanation of it. But in the case of the universe, we can postulate a very simple explanation, that it was caused by a very simple cause (God, one entity with one essential property, omnipotence), which, I have argued, would make its occurrence probable.” (letter from Richard Swinburne, at Oriel College, Oxford, in TLS, December 15)

“He didn’t do historical or religious subjects: no need to know what is happening at the Annunciation (let alone the Assumption of the Virgin) or what Oedipus said to the Sphinx or why so many naked women are attending the death of Sardanapalus. He never painted a literary scene for which you need to know the story. None of his paintings refers to an earlier painting. He was the first great artist since the Renaissance never to paint a nude. He painted portraits but it didn’t matter (except to him) whom they were of. You don’t need to know the history of art to appreciate a Monet picture because he wasn’t much interested in the history of art himself (though he revered Watteau and Delacroix and Velázquez). He had even less interest in the science of visual perception. His art was secular and apolitical.” (Julian Barnes, in LRB, December 14)

“There are various reasons why a youngster may find a political atmosphere and political activities irresistible: he may be a blazing fanatic; he may be hungry for power on any level; he may be ambitious without possessing any particular talent; he may delight in intrigue, happiest when arranging with Smith and Brown to keep out Robinson; and he may combine all these so that in the end, at our expense, he gets the jackpot.” (J. B. Priestley in Margin Released, p 71)

“That he was man of genius only a fool would deny; he was a man of genius who was also practical, sensible and kind; but there was a tricky element in him, a want of complete intellectual honesty, the result perhaps of his having built up a persona as finished and hard as a carapace. Clamped inside it, speaking through a megaphone, he was tricky about sex, about dictators, about equality, about Russia, where he would not have lasted a month except as a distinguished visitor.” (J. B. Priestley on G. B. Shaw, in Margin Released, p 166)

“An English dramatist has the hardest task of all. He has to make scenes out of people who don’t want to make a scene.” (J. B. Priestley in Margin Released, p 212)

“This makes crossword-solving a valuable training in the same kind of mental dexterity that you use in mathematical puzzles, good detective fiction, or indeed real-life detective work of any sort. In particular, it teaches you never to privilege one hypothesis over other possible readings of the data.” (Rory Sutherland, in the Spectator, December 2)

“  . . . stories of labyrinthine deviousness; of actions carried out to convince others that certain knowledge was in our possession, or not in our possession; that certain facts held sway, or never had. A wilderness of mirrors, the land of spooks. Nothing you saw meant what it seemed, apart from those times when it did. Telling the two apart was the tricky bit. Knowing which was real, which the reflection.” (From Mick Herron’s Joe Country, p 69)