Commonplace 2024


“This being Lwów, there was, naturally enough, an ethnic dimension. Many Ukrainians would have preferred the Germans as invaders to the Russian ones, but they preferred both to the Poles and the Jews. While, in theory, the Soviets were neutral between the ethnic groupings, when they talked about revolutionizing the masses and decapitating the boss class they were quite well aware that by masses they meant Ukrainians, and by bosses they meant Poles and Jews. They were quite well aware that they were revolutionising and decapitating different sides in an ethnic war.” (from Daniel Finkelstein’s Two Roads Home, p 83)

“Yet the question “How do I write poetry?’ and the question ‘How can I be seen and respected as a poet?” aren’t the same. In fact, they’re frequently in tension, because the preferences of the “club” are so twisted by that group’s tiny size and self-dealing that to satisfy them often says more about acceptability than artistry. Each club — and American poetry has had many — praises its members’ small, speech-imitating creations, and yet suddenly, inevitably, the cold hill appears, and your fellow engastrimyths vanish along with their talking dolls. What speaks instead then is the empty air, and what it says is: “You’re alone. How do you feel about that?’” (David Orr on Anthony Hecht, in NYT Book Review, January 14)

“‘I’m very proud of my years as a Communist,” Mrs. Barzman told The Associated Press in 2001. “We weren’t Soviet agents, but we were a little silly, idealistic and enthusiastic, and thought there was a chance of making a better world.’” (From obituary of Norma Barzman, in NYT, January 16)

Qu’un sang impur/Abreuve nos sillons!

“He [President Macron] announced a trial that could lead to school uniforms becoming compulsory in the next two years, said all children should learn France’s national anthem ‘La Marseillaise’, and also unveiled an idea for all schoolchildren to take drama courses.” (from report in France24, January 16)

“Lord Bancroft, former head of the Civil Service, was interviewed about the GCHQ row (over trade-union rights in secret-intelligence establishments) on Radio 4’s ‘The World This Weekend’ yesterday, and managed the mixed metaphor of the month. Declining to answer a particular question, he said: ‘That’s an invitation to cock my leg over a wild goose and go off into a mare’s nest’.” (from the Standard, recorded in Encounter, December 1984)

“Experts on Intelligence gathered in Cambridge for a forum on Talpidology (the study of moles) last week. Not 400 yards from the former burrow of Anthony Blunt and other Trinity College men, Chapman Pincher (author of ‘Their Trade is Treachery’) said it was now ‘more probable than ever’ that former MI5 chief, Sir Roger Hollis, had worked for the Russians. If true – which Hollis’s friends deny – it would even things up. Hollis was an Oxford man.” (from the Observer, recorded in Encounter, December 1984)


“Wandering further back in time, through the gradual emergence of a courtly residence out of a trading settlement in swampy territory, we reach the medieval period, with terrifying church wall paintings highlighting the all-pervasive threat of death through the figure of a skeleton dancing between burghers, or the horrific executions and expulsion of Jews before they were later invited back.” (Mary Fullbrook, in review of John Kampner’s In Search of Berlin, in TLS, January 5)

“Sharing biases is self-reinforcing (and contagious), O’Mara explains, because it activates our reward circuitry. It is intensely pleasurable to be bonded with our fellows. Sharing a belief in the tooth fairy, or in adult variants such as manifest destiny (believing in our own specialness), or in conspiracy theories (believing in the specialness of our knowledge), syncs our brains in ways that are addictive. If you believe in the tooth fairy and I respond ‘So do I!’, then we are allies, even friends. A suite of neurotransmitters cements our alliance.” (Michele Pridmore-Brown, in review of Shane O’Mara’s Talking Heads, in TLS, January 5)

“In his view these highly intelligent hominins had their own biological identity and distinctive way of perceiving the world. Their style of processing information was different from ours, as was the way in which they related to the environment around them. These are profoundly important insights; but because our own cognitive limitations make us incapable of fully entering the Neanderthals’ world, they are hard to communicate directly except as abstractions.” (Ian Tattersall, in review of Ludovic Slimak’s The Naked Neanderthal, in TLS, January 5)

“For nearly half a century Communists were excluded or fired from government posts, deported, criminally prosecuted, and blacklisted for nothing more than their associations. In the civil rights era, state governments and private individuals, businesses, and groups targeted people advocating for equal rights, arresting them, refusing to serve them, and unleashing public and private violence against them.” (David Cole, in review of The Canceling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Shlott, in New York Review of Books, January 11)


“The Cheka was set up under Lenin in December 1917 to take on foes of the fledgling Bolshevik state, and was generally understood to be less brutal than its successors.” (Robert Hornsby, in History Today, January 2024)

“The criterion of a successful theory is that it enables us to understand its predecessors in a newly intelligible way.” (Alasdair Macintyre, according to Jonathan Rée in London Review of Books, February 8)

“If I were God, I do not think that I would want to be studied by most contemporary theologians.” (Alasdair Macintyre, according to Jonathan Rée in London Review of Books, February 8)

“In the columns of NB there were regular protests against the idea, and the practice, of ‘separate-but-equal’ treatment of British black writers, which was gradually becoming embedded in the general conversation – a return to the bedrock of pre-civil rights segregation in the Unted States. Separate workshops for women of Asian origin sprang up in London and elsewhere, often funded by local authority culture departments eager to find worthy ways of spending taxpayers’ money. Would a woman of non-Asian appearance be asked to present ethnic certification at the door, on pain of being turned away? Anthologies reserved for black and Asian short story writers (the term BAME, standard for black, Asian and minority ethnic, had yet to come into common use) were announced, as well as prizes restricted to those who considered themselves black. If that condition of entry is broadly acceptable, then the argument is settled: we do live in a society in which people – in this case writers – can be separated according to the colour of their skin.” (James Campbell, in NB by J.C., pages 18-19)

“Unlike some pessimists who believe that only illusions render life bearable, he puts his faith in open-eyed realism: ‘To see things as they are, as opposed to how we would like them to be,’ has a healing, if not redemptive, effect, for it ‘allows us to extricate ourselves, with some dignity, from the entanglement that is human existence.’” (Robert Pogue Harrison, quoting Costica Bradatan, in review of In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility, in NYRB, March 7)

“His concern from now on would be the world as it is, not as religion would have it be. ‘I regard it as the irresistible effect of the Copernican Astronomy,’ he wrote, ‘to have made the theological scheme of Redemption absolutely incredible.’” (John Banville on Ralph Waldo Emerson, in review of Three Roads Back by Robert D. Richardson, in NYRB, March 7)

“It is commonplace that the British do not take easily to passepartout theories, such as Marxism, which aim to expound the whole of history. Give such an idea to a Frenchman and he will say that it originated in Paris; to a German and he will make a world-system out of it; to an American and he will attempt to market it; to an Irishman and he will weave a legend about it; to a Russian and he will become messianic or make himself miserable about it, perhaps both; to a Japanese and he will photograph it; to an Englishman and he will change the subject.” (from Michael Burn’s Turned Towards the Sun, p 65)

“’The sovereign people have spoken,’ Churchill had growled, ‘and have decided on their own destruction. So long as the power remains in me, I shall find in my duty to divert them from their fell intent.’” (describing Churchill’s reaction at Chartwell on losing the election in 1945, recorded by Sir Desmond Morton, from Michael Burn’s Turned Towards the Sun, p 165)

“An atheist is a man without visible means of support.” (Sir Wilmott Lewis, according to Iverach McDonald in his History of The Times 1939-1966, p 151, quoted by Michael Burn in Turned Towards the Sun, p 109)

“Lately the comparison of Bolshevism with disease has become common. This is not sufficiently true. Bolshevism is not only a disease; it is death, and a very quick death, or it is not real Bolshevism.

            Bolshevism in general is a catastrophe, a shipwreck.” (P. D. Ouspensky, in Letter IV from Letters from Russia, 1919)

“‘By the way’, he said, ‘did you ever hear of the Chief of Police here in Rostov just after the outbreak of the Revolution. One of his clerks found him in his office, examining some documents very carefully. At last he looked up and said, scratching his head, “Ye-es, I can understand that the proletariat of the world ought to unite; but what I don’t understand is why they should want to unite at Rostov-on-the-Don.”’” (P. D. Ouspensky, quoted by C. E. Bechofer in the Epilogue to Ouspensky’s Letters from Russia, 1919)


Stalin from the Grave

“It has been said that Stalin also crossed his [Pasternak’s] name off a list of those to be purged and came to regard him almost as inviolable, even after Doctor Zhivago was published abroad in 1957.” (Alexander Lee in History Today, February)


“Despite being co-responsible for the demise of hundreds of Allied parachute agents, the British Secret Intelligence Service faked Kopkow’s death and gave him freedom in exchange for his unrivalled understanding of Soviet espionage in Western Europe, particularly the famed Red Orchestra.” (Declan O’Reilly, in abstract of ‘Interrogating the Gestapo: SS-Sturmbannfűhrer Horst Kopkow, the Rote Kapelle and Post-war British Security Interests’, published in the Journal of Intelligence History, 2023, Vol. 22, No. 2)

“‘The major problem was his mother,’ Ms. Gorme explained. ‘She said she’d put her head in the oven if Steve married me.’ He rolled his eyes and tried to get a word in edgewise, but she plunged on: ‘To the day his mother died, she said I wasn’t Jewish but Spanish.’” (from Steve Lawrence’s obituary in NYT, March 9)

“As I know from my own experience, trust is the essential foundation of successful intelligence and operational work.” (Sir John Scarlett, in Foreword to Tony Insall’s Secret Alliances)

“On the Mindscape podcast, Egginton noted that after spending half his career writing scholarly books that were read only by colleagues and graduate students, he found popular writing to be a revelation—not because it was easier but because it demanded more rigorous thought. ‘And then it began to seem to me that some of my past writing was relying on, say, jargon,’ he said, ‘or skipping steps in thinking through a problem by using a kind of shorthand that I felt that my colleagues and students would totally understand but that we hadn’t necessarily really thought through.’” (Meghan O’Gieblyn in review of William Egginton’s The Rigor of Angels, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality, in New York Review of Books, March 21)

“The archbishop of Canterbury — Justin Welby, who is the head of the church and a peer in the House of Lords — and the archbishop of York said in a statement on Tuesday that the new definition ‘not only inadvertently threatens freedom of speech, but also the right to worship and peaceful protest, things that have been hard won and form the fabric of a civilized society.’ They added, ‘Crucially, it risks disproportionately targeting Muslim communities, who are already experiencing rising levels of hate and abuse.’” (from report in NYT, March 15)

“To meet spiking demand, utilities in states like Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia are proposing to build dozens of power plants over the next 15 years that would burn natural gas. In Kansas, one utility has postponed the retirement of a coal plant to help power a giant electric-car battery factory.” (from report in NYT, March 18)

“Lal quotes the historian Saidiya Hartman in this section and has evidently been influenced by her idea of ‘critical fabulation’. This is a technique, combining research, memoir and fiction, that Harman has used to fill lacunae in the documentation of transatlantic slavery.” (Lucy Moore, in review of Ruby Lal’s Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan, in Literary Review, March)

“I’m sorry to compound Jonathan Ree’s ‘unseemliness’ towards 20th-century Oxford philosophes, but here’s a list of my own for their champion, Richard Davenport-Hines (LR Letters, February) to contemplate. Their German contemporaries included Simmel, Heidegger, Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer, Jaspers, Arendt, Anders, Jonas, Habemas and Blumenberg. The contrast of the depth, radicalism, richness and engagement exhibited by such figures with Oxford philosophy’s strangulated linguistic pedantry, logic-chopping triviality, cultural aridity and wilful experiential impoverishment (le style, c’est l’homme) could hardly be more grotesque, indeed embarrassing. Or would Davenport-Hines regard such a comparison as ‘misapplied’?” (letter from Peter Labanyi in Literary Review, March)


“When Philby disappeared, Comyns Carr lost his job – the feeling being if he knew about Philby he was a traitor, and if he didn’t he was a fool. The couple decamped to Spain in 1956, staying there.” (from Lee Randall’s review of Avril Horner’s Barbara Comyns: A Savage Innocence, in the Spectator, March 16)

“Of Hone’s two bibliographical detective heroes, [Graham] Pollard is by far the most [sic!] interesting. A member of the Hypocrites at Oxford, he married a communist, became a spy, working for MI5, and eventually enjoyed a successful career working for the Board of Trade.” (from Ian Sansom’s review of The Book Forger: The True Story of a Literary Crime that Fooled the World, in the Spectator, March 16)

“This is the condition of the exile, who can never find what he was looking for in his new land yet can never return to the same home he left behind. This is the condition of those who abandon their hometowns around the world and, having changed in the process, also find their towns unrecognizably transformed when they come for a visit, both because of circumstances and because they no longer see them with the same eyes.” (from Omer Bartov’s Tales From The Borderlands, p 201)

“He called upon his German audience to follow ‘the path of coexistence and fraternal cooperation with the democratic camp, at whose forefront stands the mighty Soviet Union under the leadership of the great friend of humanity, the genius Stalin. Your task in the name of the ideals of Lessing, Goethe, and Heine, in the name of the immortal legacy of Marx and Engels, is to lead the German people in the fight for a united, democratic, freedom-loving Germany against the forces of reaction and of vengeance, against the Americans and British imperialist warmongers, who want to make West Germany, supported by capitalist war criminals and former Nazis, into a forward attack base against the free independent peoples, against Poles, against our border on the Oder and Neisse.’” (The Pole Ostap Dłuski, on the occasion of Goethe’s two-hundredth anniversary in 1949, recorded by Omer Bartov in Tales From The Borderlands, pp 226-227)


“We are quintessentially relational, not cognitive. Yet natural selection, or God, has overprovided, we have a capacity and a desire for relationship that can never be satisfied. We are hard-wired to be frustrated; to be locked inside our own heads and our own rooms, desperate for meaningful contact.” (Charles Foster, in review of three books on loneliness, in the TLS, March 22)


“Peter Laszlo Eotvos was born on Jan. 2, 1944, in the Northern Transylvanian municipality of Szekelyudvarhely, Hungary, which is now Odorheiu Secuiesc, Romania. His father, Laszlo Eotvos, was a lawyer. His mother, Ilona Szucs, was a pianist and music teacher.” (from obituary of Peter Eotvos in NYT, March 31)

“It always surprises people who haven’t studied economics to discover that most economists can’t read a balance sheet. ‘The higher the qualification someone has in economics, and the more prestigious the university, the more likely they’ve never cracked the spine on a set of company accounts,’ he [Davies] says.” (Frances Cairncross, in review of Dan Davies’s The Unaccountability Machine: Why Big Systems Make Terrible Decisions – and How the World Lost Its Mind, in Literary Review, April)

“For Gutkind, creative non-fiction entails ‘writing true stories that provide information about a variety of subjects, enriched by relevant thoughtful ideas, personal insight, and intimacies about life and the world we live in’. This could mean just about anything.” (Rosa Lyster, in review of Lee Gutkind’s The Fine Art of Literary Fist-Fighting: How a Bunch of Rabble Rousers, Outsiders, and Ne’er-do-wells Concocted Creative Nonfiction, in Literary Review, April)

“To be clear is to be boring, provincial, unaesthetic; besides it is more difficult to withdraw from a position openly expressed and definition restricts the fluidity and complexity of everything that is neither real nor unreal but simply is.”  (from Sarah Gainham’s Night Falls on the City, p 111)

“Everyone who engages in conspiracy goes through the first stage of finding it easy, makes a mistake and goes to the opposite extreme, seeing hostile intrigue and danger in everything. This happens inevitably, changing character and relationships, killing generosity and spontaneity, putting every man’s hand against his neighbour.” (from Sarah Gainham’s Night Falls on the City, p 242)

“Such secrets can never be hidden in an intimate relationship, they creep into consciousness by some other route than any open communication, and there is no moment that can be looked back upon and labelled the moment at which everything was first shown.” (from Sarah Gainham’s Night Falls on the City, p 307)

“There are many statesmen and generals whose reputations rest on a prominent nose and chin or on commanding height, on the manner of power taken for granted; only in crisis or to those who know them well is it clear that a habit of saying little and a talent for obeying orders has saved them from making fools of themselves.” (from Sarah Gainham’s Night Falls on the City, p 456)

“You could, for instance, put together a theoretical cabinet made up of Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Rachel Reeves, Yvette Cooper, Lord Mandelson, Lord Heseltine, Angela Eagle, Baroness Vadera (the first woman to head a major British bank), Guardian writer Afua Hirsch, Labour MP Rushanara Ali and former Pakistan PM and international cricketer Imran Khan. That would look wonderfully diverse from an ethnic, gender and sexual orientation perspective – as well as having a wide political balance – but you would have recruited a body of people who all read philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford. There would be no representation whatsoever from the approximate 99.96 per cent of the UK adult population that does not have an Oxford degree in PPE.” (Ross Clark in the Spectator, April 13)

“I do not normally use research assistance, because to do so automatically rules out unexpected finds that the specialist alone will recognize for what they are. Granted, not everyone who sets out in the wrong direction discovers America. But ordering the wrong file in haste can have a back-handed advantage, in that what turns up may be a document more useful than what was requested. Similarly, ransacking library stacks for a book that has been taken out may lead to works whose existence was unknown to the researcher. Serendipity is everything to the alert historian.” (from Jonathan Haslam’s The Spectre of War, p xv)

George Weidenfeld and Denis Healey Corner

“Last year my husband and I celebrated our ruby wedding anniversary. We had organised a dinner in London for 100 of our closest friends.” (Introduction of letter to Dear Mary: Your Problems Solved, in Spectator, April 20)

“Of course, the same could be said of other conditions that affect the brain, from dyslexia to dementia. Individuals with SLCs, however, face more stigma; most neurodiverse people are not stereotyped as evil. And that stigma brings into sharp focus the problems faced by neurodiversity campaigners, and indeed by any minority seeking to improve its lot. They make two potentially conflicting claims. One is: ‘Morally, we are like you – ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ – so we deserve fair treatment’. The other is: ‘We are not like you, in that your societal setup disadvantages us, so making reasonable adjustments would make society fairer and enable us to be more productive citizens’.” (Kathleen Taylor, in review of Patric Gagne’s Sociopath, in the TLS, April 19)

“In fact, she said, there was a ‘kind of freedom’ in East Germany, where the ideology of equality meant less stress, competition and greed, and where there was comparatively little to strive for in a society that had only a few options for consumer goods.” (Jenny Erpenbeck, quoted by Steven Erlanger in NYT profile, April 27)


“You can’t have culture in the sense of galleries and museums and publishing houses unless society has evolved to the point where it can produce an economic surplus. Only then can some people be released from the business of keeping the tribe alive in order to constitute a caste of priests, bards, DJs, hermeneuticists, bassoon players, LRB interns, gaffers on film sets and the like.” (from Where does culture come from?, by Terry Eagleton, in LRB, April 25)

“Marxism is about leisure, not labour. The only good reason for being a socialist, apart from annoying people you don’t like, is that you don’t like to work.”  (from Where does culture come from?, by Terry Eagleton, in LRB, April 25)

“In fact, as she writes, the study of the ancient world generally “gives the lie to the idea that everyone is born with a natural, fixed ethnic identity, tied to specific other people by ancestry or ancestral territory”. Even terms such as “Greek” and “Roman” were much more fluid than later accounts make them appear. Throughout How the World Made the West Quinn also decries the tendency to describe the relationship between different peoples in terms of “influence”. Apart from being vague, she says, the term gives too much credit to alleged originators and too little to the peoples who adapt, inflect and transform.” (James Uden, in review of Josephine Quinn’s How the World Made the West, in TLS, May 3)


“I’m not an oligarch. No private jet or yacht. Just a middle-class chap living in Fulham. Do you have any idea what all that adds up to? Or do you think I should be living in some dive in Kilburn?” (Marcus, in Charles Beaumont’s A Spy Alone, p 305)

“Fulham, for instance, is so far west it should have its own time zone. If you work in the City, you would have a shorter commute if you spent the money on a Georgian manor house outside Ashford – with a ha-ha and peacocks, and the facility to park your car less than 500 yards from your front door. And yet, through some form of emergent collective insanity, people conceived the idea that Fulham is a fashionable place to live – and so, per the late Professor Girard, it is a fashionable place to live, and consequently fiendishly expensive.” (Rory Sutherland in the Spectator, April 27)

“Something I’ve noticed about the British: you all have very strong opinions about history, which is something you read about in books. Here on the continent, history is something that happened to us.” (Rudi, in Charles Beaumont’s A Spy Alone, p 124)

“I am not so much concerned with historical epistemology – what is ‘fact’, what is interpretation – as with more humdrum questions: the activities of anti-historians, how sensitive evidence is destroyed or screened, how myths originate, how historical anecdote may simply be a code for ideology, how the reasons of state are eternally at war with historical knowledge. I am concerned with these questions – and certain even more technical problems of collecting oral history.” (E. P. Thompson, in Beyond the Frontier, p 14)

“A good deal of contemporary history rests upon the information of ‘people who know’. The problem is, not that they know nothing, but that they do, in fact, know a great deal. But what they know can pass, over the years, by a process of selection, into an ideological code which presents, in the form of anecdote or fact, what they wish to be believed. If, at the same time, harder evidential material is suppressed or destroyed, the truth of a past event may become irrecoverable.” (E. P. Thompson, in Beyond the Frontier, p 16)

“The archives, when we were in the country, remained closed, and publications of the period 1945-48 remained rare and inaccessible. There was no sense in 1979 that the actions and decisions of the partisan aera could be researched into and discussed with any idea of historical objectivity. One sensed that there was a deliberate ambiguity of interpretation, that documents and anecdotes were being held in reserve, just below the counter, which might be pulled out and used for whatever political cause was in the running; perhaps, we thought in 1979, the partisan experience might provide ammunition of some sort for the running word-battle then proceding [sic] about the Macedonian question.” (E. P. Thompson, in Beyond the Frontier, p 39)

“On the sixth of April [1944] Winston Churchill had written to the British ambassador in Algiers – ‘I suppose you know that we are weeding out remorselessly every single Communist from all our secret organisations . . .’, and, in a minute of the thirteenth of April, ‘we are purging all our secret establishments of Communists because we know they owe no allegiance to us our or cause and will always betray secrets to the Soviet, even while we are working together  . . .’’ (E. P. Thompson, in Beyond the Frontier, p 95, citing Avon papers, University of Birmingham SOE/44/17, and Churchill’s Closing the Ring, p 542)

“Perhaps I am letting feminism down to say it, but just because a group of women organised something, this does not mean the organisation of that thing is necessarily interesting.” (Imogen West-Knights, in Prospect, June)

“He [Rishi Sunak] recently complained, in relation to a question about reparations, that people shouldn’t ‘unpick history’ – seemingly not understanding that ‘unpicking history’ is literally what historians do.” (Sathnam Sanghera, in Prospect, June)

“Shefkete Hamza, a Roma woman in Tetovo who said she got a city job through the Balancer, recalled that five other applicants — three ethnic Macedonians and two ethnic Albanians — had all falsely declared themselves Roma, a particularly disadvantaged community. ‘I was the only real Roma,’ she said.

Since North Macedonia does not list ethnicity on birth certificates or identity cards, applicants merely have to self-identify as a member of the ethnic group for which a job is open, even if their true identity is clear from their name and or language. That, the personnel director said, made it impossible to call out fakes.” (from report in NYT by Andrew Higgins, May 16)

“‘It’s very hard to do regulations because A.I. is changing too quickly,’ Mr. Schumer, a New York Democrat, said in an interview. ‘We didn’t want to rush this.’” (from report in NYT by Cecilia Kang and David McCabe, May 16)

“Contrary to some opinions, Israelis are not “settler-colonialists.” Jews believe they are originally from the land of Israel because they are. And Zionism, far from being a colonialist project, is the oldest anticolonialist struggle in history, starting during the Roman era, if not the Babylonian Captivity before it.” (Bret Stephens, in NYT, May 22)

“As she told the BBC, diversity ‘freshens’ the rail network. ‘It’s really important that we have diversity of thinking within the railway, which is as important as diversity of ethnicity. It brings creativity.’” (on Zoey Hudson, head of talent, diversity and inclusion at Southern Railway, as reported by Douglas Murray in the Spectator, May 4)

“And he raises the difficult topic of epigenetics. In 1944, the Nazi occupiers inflicted acute famine on part of the Netherlands. Long after the war, in the 1990s, scientists were disconcerted to find that the famine’s long-term human damage – such as exceptional rates of heart disease, kidney problems and obesity – could be identified even in the children born to the generation after the famine. Beyond that span, the transmission of ‘genetic memory’ is predicted to cease. It’s a controversial subject. But Sanghera speculates that such a ‘memory’ of slavery and post-slavery deprivation might still be a factor in physical and mental ill-health in the Caribbean.” (Neal Ascherson, in review of Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireworld: How British Imperialism Has Shaped the Globe, in London Review of Books, May 23)

“Until the last century imperialism was as universal a political practice as any: the Romans and the Chinese created empires, as did the Assyrians, the Aztecs, the Malians, the Khmer, the Mughals, and the Ottomans, to name just a few. Those empires operated with different degrees of brutality and repression, but all presupposed the logic recorded in Thucydides’ dialogue between the Athenians and the Melians: big states swallow little ones as night follows day. It’s a law of nature against which reason has no claim.” (Susan Neiman, in review of two books on Frantz Fanon, in New York Review of Books, June 6)

“Those who wish to hijack Fanon for a program of Afropessimism, or any other form of twenty-first-century Négritudemust explain away lines like these, from the final chapter of that book:

Haven’t I got better things to do on this earth than avenge the Blacks of the seventeenth century?

I do not want to be the victim of the Ruse of a black world.

My life must not be devoted to making an assessment of black values.

There is no white world; there is no white ethic—any more than there is a white intelligence.

Am I going to ask today’s white men to answer for the slave traders of the seventeenth century?

Am I going to try by every means available to cause guilt to burgeon in their souls?
I am not a slave to slavery that dehumanized my ancestors.” ((Susan Neiman, in review of two books on Frantz Fanon, in New York Review of Books, June 6)

“The collapse of Communism didn’t just mean that Russia’s political hegemony over a large part of eastern Europe disappeared virtually at a stroke; the coincident break-up of the Pact, a defence alliance, in effect brought the West militarily right up to Russia’s doorstep – without a corresponding response from Nato. As a result, almost overnight Mother Russia lost a thousand miles of “friendly” territory between it and western Europe.” (from letter by Jim Humberstone in TLS, May 24)


“From Matt Triggs, PCC [parochial church council] secretary at St Mary the Virgin in Nottingham: ‘Just had an email from our diocese to put reducing climate emissions on the agenda. We really don’t have the time or manpower.’” (Patrick Kidd in the Spectator, May 18)

“There is nothing so permanent as a Church of England experiment.” (Jeremy Paxman, in The English, p 105)

“Unlike many of his predecessors, Mr. Macron has chosen to memorialize not only the valiant and brave, but also the shameful and forgotten — including a site where French resistance fighters were killed by French militia members who were working with the Nazi regime. Some critics have derided the events as ‘memory inflation’ but others note that they come at a time when the country should be contemplating its past ghosts. The head of an advisory board of historians, Denis Peschanski, says the events are aimed at achieving ‘historical equilibrium.’” (from report in NYT, June 6)

“Nothing is more unstable than a fashionable opinion. If your status is defined by your opinions, you’re living in a world of perpetual insecurity, perpetual mental and moral war.” (David Brooks, in NYT, June 7)

“Another part of the Troubles Legacy Act makes provisions for the ‘memorialisation’ of the conflict: alongside a project to consolidate existing oral history records, five academic historians will be granted access to UK state archives to produce what the government initially called an ‘official history’. (It has since been renamed a ‘public history’.)” (Daniel Trilling in Slow Waltz, in LRB, June 6)

“Jon Boutcher, the police officer originally in charge of Operation Kenova, told Parliament in 2020 that ‘a culture of secrecy prevails’ within the PSNI [the Police Service of Northern Ireland], the MoD and MI5. ‘They regard any examination of legacy as a criticism of them and [believe] that disclosure of information represents a threat to national security.’ In the Operation Kenova report published in March, Boutcher described several attempts to ‘undermine and discredit’ his team. On one occasion he was summoned to a meeting with two senior PSNI officers, who wrongly accused him of having broken the Official Secrets Act. On another occasion, in 2019, his team tried to hand over evidence to the public prosecutor only to be told by MI5 that the security clearance for the prosecutor’s office building had expired and the files couldn’t be delivered.” (Daniel Trilling in in Slow Waltz, in LRB, June 6)

“‘And for one awful moment’, he told me. ‘I thought I’d had a forgotten relationship with a Russian actress, Zinovia Flotta, until I realised the words I’d dictated were “Zinoviev Letter”’.” (Tony Benn to Gyles Brandreth, on his diaries, in Literary Review, June)

“We have inherited physical and psychological predispositions not only for sociability and cooperation but also for violence, and are able to deploy either or both as circumstances demand.” (Jonathan Boff, in review of Richard Overy’s Why War?, in Literary Review, June)

“His archive was purchased by the Cambridge University Library (for the surprising sum of £60,000 several decades ago when that sum would have bought a pretty substantial house) and will provide rich biographical pickings when it is free from its fifty-year embargo. Some sections of it are even embargoed until the death of the last surviving child of the current monarch.” (Neil McKendrick, in Sir John Plumb: The Hidden Life of a Great Historian, p 13)

“On the slender basis of six silver teaspoons carrying the arms of a family in whose service his grandmother had worked, he wove a fantasy of himself as a by-blow of an aristocratic English family. He even claimed to be able to trace a family resemblance. When he later confided this suspicion to one of his aristocratic friends and offered the decisive evidence of his mother’s possession of the silver teaspoons, he was quite crushed when she replied, ‘But Jack darling, the servants always steal the tea-spoons!’” (Neil McKendrick, in Sir John Plumb: The Hidden Life of a Great Historian, p 15)

“Some insight into the personal antipathies can be judged from the conversation I overheard in the SCR between Fellows of Christ’s: one said that it [the painting of Plumb by Jenny Polack] made him ‘look like an enraged toad’. ‘Yes, you’re so right’, said the other, ‘isn’t it excellent – absolutely true to life!’” (Neil McKendrick, in Sir John Plumb: The Hidden Life of a Great Historian, p 101)

“Just how left-wing Jack was in his early days in Cambridge is difficult now to assess. Rumour (and reports from some of his surviving friends) suggests that J. D. Bernal propositioned both him and Snow to join the Communist Party. They were certainly sympathizers in the 1930s. Some say that at least one of them accepted the invitation to join, they certainly discussed doing so, but the majority vote seems to be that they refused. Some claim that Jack was certainly an active and card-carrying member and some Cambridge contemporaries of his claimed that he boasted to them that he had formally joined the party. He may well have done so but I found no wholly convincing evidence of this, and in later life he resolutely denied that this was true. He and Snow were certainly passionately anti-Nazi and anti-Fascist. They were outraged by Munich and appalled by Neville Chamberlain. They certainly discussed leaving England before the war in the expectation that an ill-prepared country would lose any forthcoming conflict.” (Neil McKendrick, in Sir John Plumb: The Hidden Life of a Great Historian, p 179)

“There is no place for ‘isms’ in philosophy. To be a ‘so-and-so-ist’ is to be philosophically frail.”(Gilbert Ryle, according to Anil Gomes in review of Daniel Dennett’s I’ve Been Thinking, in LRB, June 20)

“An absolute sine qua non is that all sources, even primary, must be checked, double-checked and rechecked again. There’s a lot of stuff in the archives that got there by chance, like a forgery accepted as a genuine document, or a report based on a biased interpretation or opinion but nevertheless duly filed. Sometimes a testimony, even of a seemingly credible witness or reliable defector, or a source described as ‘a subject of undoubted loyalty’, may be completely invented and include false claims which later leak into the books and articles. There, as it happens, they are sometimes further misinterpreted or misrepresented.” (from Boris Volodarsky’s The Birth of the Soviet Secret Police, p 170)

“Spies and agents do not become known, even famous like Philby or Sorge, because of their proficiency, good tradecraft or extraordinary talents. Journalists, intelligence historians and writers do not always seem to realize that these two, like many others, were not successes but rather failures, making unforgivable mistakes, and the agents who have been caught are not heroes but losers.” (from Boris Volodarsky’s The Birth of the Soviet Secret Police, p 288)

“As historian she [Nancy Mitford] was scrupulously accurate and took great pains to check facts. Naturally, like every historian under the sun, she chose among the facts what it suited her to choose; but she did not invent.” (Diana Mosley, in review of Harold Acton’s ‘Nancy Mitford: A Memoir, from The Pursuit of Laughter, p 22)

“The Macmillan family of publishers came from a croft on Arran Island, as Harold Macmillan, prime minister, allowed nobody to forget. Humble origins are quite common, but there is something special about an island in the Hebrides. Life was so very primitive and uncomfortable, to exist at all such a tough business, the surroundings so dramatically beautiful, that it is quite in order to boast about it for one hundred and eighty years.” (Diana Mosley, in review of Richard Davenport-Hines’ The Macmillans, from The Pursuit of Laughter, p 78)

“There is virtue in this naive approach, for it demonstrates a fact so often ignored by the historian who has never left his study – namely the power of charm in a politician to dazzle even such an old hand at the game as the author of this book. It is a quality shared by all who rise to the very top in politics in every country in the world, and nothing is harder to explain or define.” (Diana Mosley, in review of the Rt. Hon. Earl Winterton’s Orders of the Day, from The Pursuit of Laughter, p 95)

“He himself had a passing whim for the Church. Life in a pleasant country village appealed to him; he could ride round his parish; the clergy were not supposed to hunt all day long. But there was an insurmountable obstacle; his attitude to God.” (Diana Mosley, on Lord Berners, from The Pursuit of Laughter, p 473)

“A rich Christian must sell all he has and give it to the poor; a rich socialist on the other hand aspires to abolish poverty.” (Diana Mosley, on Sir Oswald Mosley, from The Pursuit of Laughter, p 498)

“It was my first lesson in intelligence. Never be certain that someone is not betraying you, just because you like and trust them.” (Allen Dulles, according to Scott Miller in Agent 110, p 9)

Problems with Phenomenology

“The ‘proprietors practically all assured me that they did not regard themselves as Poles nor desire annexation to Poland’. They were ethnically Polish, but most spoke only German, like their ancestors had done for centuries. . . . . He [Winthrop Bell] advised that only a plebiscite – a series of local regional votes – would show the truth. This accorded with a lesson of phenomenology: the value of a first-person subjective perspective should not be subsumed to data sets, like ethnographical data. For phenomenology, data is valuable, but it requires personal purposes and sustained attention to exist.” (From Jason Bell’s Cracking the Nazi Code, p 168)

“We are inescapably conditioned by the past; in the first instance genetically by our own past.” (Winthrop Bell, in A Genealogical Study, quoted by Jacob Bell in Cracking the Nazi Code, p 303)

“It’s not that we are witnessing the process of forgetting – it’s that we had our earrings wrong in the first place. We thought we were constructing historical memory. But historical memory can exist only when there is a clear line separating the present from the past. That’s when you can say, ‘After the Holocaust,’ for example. But we don’t have that break – there is no past, only a continuous present. As long as that’s the case, we are talking about legacy rather than memory: the continuing legacy of an experience we so cavalierly relegated to the past. That was a mistake. We really wanted it to be true, we really wanted to be like Germany, so we just decided that it was true.” (Irina Flige, from Masha Geesen’s Never Remember: Searching for Stalin’s Gulag in Putin’s Russia, p 54)