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)