Category Archives: Personal

October 2014

I was in the UK for most of October, and predictably was not able to complete the website conversion project. My visit was successful: I underwent a viva on my graduate thesis at Buckingham University, and gained approval from the board of professors for the upgrading of my B. Phil degree to a D. Phil (in Security and Intelligence Studies). Thus I now have a structure in place according to which I shall write during 2015. I also spent six days at the National Archive at Kew, studying government files from 1940, as well as documents pertaining to suspected communists in the 1930s and 1940s. (For obvious reasons, I cannot say any more than that  . . .)    Not a lot of Commonplace entries this month.                                                                                                                                                                                                            (October 31, 2014)

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August-September 2014

I have not completed the task of rebuilding the website on WordPress. But progress has been made. I underwent half an hour’s training on the product last week, and have started to refine the template and populate the new site. I do, however, leave for a three-week visit to the UK on Thursday, so the completion of the project will have to wait until my return. Thus, for this month, I have merely added the normal Commonplace entries.

As part of my research towards my post-graduate degree in Security and Intelligence Studies, I have been reading a lot about espionage, as well as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the 1930s. As a break from the horrors of Hitler’s oppression and exterminations, and of Stalin’s purges, I turned to Compton Mackenzie’s ‘Water on the Brain’, an absurd spoof of Britain’s intelligence services. Mackenzie wrote it in something of high dudgeon after he had been prosecuted for breaking the Official Secrets Act in his record of his experience working as an SIS officer, ‘Greek Memories’. ‘Water on the Brain’  was published in 1933, the same year that Hitler came to power, and perhaps shows that an ability to laugh at oneself, and at one’s country’s institutions, was as good a reason as any to fight for a liberal democracy. Ironically, the main theme in the novel is a (misinterpreted) fight for Scottish nationalism – something Mackenzie was himself romantically keen on. I include three brief extracts from the novel in my September Commonplace entries.                                                                                                                                                                                                              (September 30, 2014)

I have good news for the regular readers of this website. (You know who you are, even if I don’t). Ever since its inception, I have been encouraged  –  nay, implored   ̶  by many well-meaning counsellors to improve its design, so that it would lose its clunky textual feel, and include some eye-catching graphics. It has always been my intention to do so, but I am a man of words, not pictures, and the inertia against changing something that worked at an adequate level has contrived to put off that task. Well, the time has come. The tool I used to build the website is Microsoft’s FrontPage, which I acquired over ten years ago. The website of the town where I live, St. James, had been constructed with it, and at one time I was going to help out with site maintenance. But Microsoft has long withdrawn support for the product, and the company that hosts my site has issued an ultimatum that, from November 1, it will no longer support sites constructed with it. I have accordingly chosen a template design tool with which I shall reconstruct the site, and populate it with all my stuff (including some glitzy pictures, no doubt.) I hope to have this activated by October 1, as I shall be in the UK for much of October, but, if not by then, soon after my return.

I shall meanwhile keep updates to the minimum. I did receive a fascinating message from a reader in Peru, who had discovered my commentary on ‘The Enchantment’ from a Google search. He was in possession of a fuller version of this lyric work, one passed to him by his mother. I intend to post his version when I return, and offer my thoughts on where it stands in the historiography. Otherwise, just the updates to the Commonplace Book this month.                                                                   (August 31, 2014)

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March-July 2014

July’s reading was dominated by Lord Vansittart’s monumental and extraordinary memoir ‘The Mist Procession’. This eccentric figure had a unique perspective on the political tribulations of the ’20s and ’30s, and his account has a very allusive, Macaulayesque character. His manner and style reminded me of Enoch Powell. I was surprised that none of his sayings have made the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: Nigel Rees suggests that may be because they lack an ‘X-Factor’. That could be so, but I would reply that there are a helluva lot of quotes in the Dictionary which would fail on that metric. Anyway, I have included in the July Commonplace entries a number of his observations that caught my fancy.

For those ardent addicts tracking the Ruthenian story, I have added a postscript (Ruthenia). More to come next month!                                         (July 31, 2014)

Ditto. Just a few Commonplace entries added.                                                                                                                                                      (June 30, 2014)

Another quiet month. Commonplace entries added, and a couple more examples of Hyperbolic Contrast.                                                               (May 31, 2014)

A quiet month. Just the regular Commonplace entries added.                                                                                                                                  (April 30, 2014)

I have added an essay on Ruthenia – that mysterious territory situated in the centre of Eastern Europe, and now in the Ukraine. The normal updates to my Commonplace file appear, as well as a few minor additions and edits.                                                                                                                                                  (March 31, 2014)

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December 2013-February 2014

Two articles in the January Prospect caught my eye. In the first, a summary of a survey by YouGov on religious opinion in Britain reported that “Today there are almost exactly the same number of religious as non-religious Britons. And atheists easily outnumber believers in a personal God.” So far, so good. In the second, a report on the fresh flaring up of troubles in Northern Ireland, I read that “in 2012, Protestants ceased to be a majority and now form just 48 per cent of the population” [Catholics presumably having overtaken them].

So, how can these two statements be reconciled? Either:                                                                                                                                                                                     a) a) Northern Ireland is not representative of the totality of the United Kingdom, and has a dramatically different religious profile. (Yes, I realize that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, but not part of Great Britain. YouGov did not explain what populations they used for their surveys.) But then I might have expected YouGov to explain any significant variations by geography; or                                                                                                                                                                                                                  b) People lied in their responses, in quite a consistent pattern; or                                                                                                                                                                          c) The terms ‘Protestant’ and Catholic’ have lost some of their religious connotations, and are just tribal signifiers.

It seems to me that the third explanation is the most likely. Now, I am not somebody who is hot on ethnocentric notions, since such cultural traditions and beliefs are not ‘inherited’, but acquired through parental and ‘community’ influence, and tribalism has no place in a pluralist democracy. Yet I can see some people attaching themselves to such ideas. For example, while I do not understand the concept of who or what a ‘Jew’ is (I get very upset if I am classified as a ‘Gentile’), the idea of Jewish culture is vaguely apparent to me, even though I find all the pseudo-history and mysticism a bit hard to accept. As Arthur Koestler wrote in Judah at the Crossroads: “Take away the ‘Chosen Race’ idea, the genealogical claim of descent from one of the twelve tribes, the focal interest in Palestine as the locus of a glorious past, and the memories of national history perpetuated in religious festivals; take away the promise of a return to the Holy land – and all that remained would be a set of archaic dietary prescriptions and tribal laws.” But Koestler believed that Jews were defined by Judaism, as a religion, while there are probably as many Jews today who would define themselves as agnostic or atheist as there are believers.

So have Protestantism and Catholicism gone along the same route? Are there now ‘ethnic’ Protestants and Catholics? Isn’t that rather silly? Or, with a slightly different spin, ‘Can you be an atheist priest?’, as Jessica Abrahams asked in the same issue of the magazine. I wrote a letter to the Editor on this question, describing my puzzlement at the information she was promulgating, but she failed to consider my observations worthy of publishing. Again, I don’t expect every editor to whom I write letters to print my submissions [is that really true? Ed.], but I would expect the Editor of Prospect – which is a fine magazine, though earnestly think-tanky – to have some opinion on the issue. I think we should be told.   (The regular Commonplace entries have been added.)                                                                                                                                  (February 28, 2014)

My research this month has focussed very much on the lead-up to Munich in 1938. I have accordingly posted a short piece on Mein Kampf, as well as started a newCommonplace file for 2014.                                                                                                                                                                                   (January 31, 2014)

We have just returned from a very enjoyable stay in California, seeing James and Lien and their three daughters – Ashley and the twins, Alexis and Alyssa. I have added a  postscript to Emily Davison’s Wig, and the December set of Commonplace entries to the 2013 document. A very happy New Year to all my readers! (January 1, 2014)

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January 2013

Students of human evolution may have encountered stories in the press over the past year that ‘we’ are a hybrid species – specifically that modern human beings interbred with at least two groups of other ‘human’ species, in particular the Neanderthals and the Denisovans, about 50,000 years ago. (The New York Times reporter called the latter group ‘mysterious’, presumably because it destroyed all records of its charter and member rolls, like MI6, whereas the Neanderthals were prototypical Liberal Democrats, and believed in open access and maximum publicity.) Now I don’t know if there is a word that expresses the notion that homo sapiens is culturally superior to other hominid cousins (anthropomorphism is already taken, and anything around homo- is fraught with danger), but this strikes me as a very arrogant and unscientific way of presenting the facts. After all, if ‘we’ interbred with Neanderthals (or those Denisovans, who were in fact far more alluring because of their mystery), weren’t those Neanderthals part of ‘us’, too? It is not as if the offspring of a Neanderthal and an – ahem – ‘modern’ humanoid lady, taught to be houseproud and to clean his fingernails regularly, could have told his father: “Sorry, Dad, you’re a Neanderthal, and I’m not, and I’m not going to put up with your filthy habits any longer.”

Now this analysis raises all sorts of testy questions about the immutability of species, and the gradualism of evolution, and may remind us that our DNA has a helluva lot in common with that of fruitflies, anyway. I don’t intend to go into those questions now. All this is mere preamble to the fact that, this month, I ordered my DNA testing-kit from the Genographic Project via National Geographic Magazine, took the swab samples from my cheeks, and sent them by mail to Texas. By this method, I shall learn, in a few weeks, about my own biological heritage, and how closely I am related to Attila the Hun, which would explain a lot about my famed curmudgeonliness. I suspect it will also show a dense packing of Denisovan genes, which would account for my fascination with spies and detective stories and cryptic crosswords, and for my absorption with the Great Mysteries of Life. And when my wife accuses me of being enigmatic and obtuse, I can just tell her: “Sorry, dear. It’s in my DNA.”  More to follow in a few weeks.

A new year of Commonplace entries starts here.                                                                                                                                                     (January 31, 2013)

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June-November 2013

I post another separate article this month, ‘Emily Davison’s Wig’, which contains some typical socio-historical musings touched with some personal interest. Through the magic of electronic publication, I am able to make a minor clarification to ‘September Spooks‘, and add two freshly mined anecdotes to ‘Reflections on the North Downs‘. The normal updates to the Commonplace book appear, as well as a few other sundry items added to the files of Rolls-Royce Quotations and Hyperbolic Contrast Examples.                           (November 30, 2013)

My October report ended up being so long that I made it a separate document, at ‘September Spooks‘, suitable for Halloween. The normal Commonplace updates appear.                                                                                                                                                                                                                     (October 31, 2013)

A premature posting for September, as I am leaving for the UK on September 18, not returning until October 8. I shall be visiting the National Archives at Kew, the Bodleian and Balliol Libraries in Oxford, and the archive of Churchill College, Cambridge, with my seminar on Sir Isaiah Berlin at Buckingham in between (see I also hope to see several old friends. This month also saw my latest Listener crossword puzzle offering, titled ‘Lassoed’, published in the Times on September 7. The Commonplace entries posted this month are few in number.                                                            (September 17, 2013)

Another month goes by. I am preparing for my seminar at the University of Buckingham on October 3. A varied set of Commonplace items, with several quotations on Jewry from Isaac Deutscher and Arthur Koestler.                                                                                                                                                                                   (August 31, 2013)

Little news this month. I have been intensely involved with my research into Walter Krivitsky. Just a few new Commonplace items.                                             (July 31, 2013)

June was a joyful month: our daughter-in-law, Lien, gave birth to identical twin girls, Alexis and Alyssa, sisters to Ashley, on June 17. (Those devotees of social media can find James and his family at ) All are doing well. The nature of this birth has been known to us for months: I was reminded of how far we have come when I picked up the new biography of Margaret Thatcher by Charles Moore in the Wilmington bookshop, and read that, when the Iron Lady’s twins were born, her husband, Denis, was watching cricket at the Oval, and did not even know that twins were expected.                                                                                           (June 30, 2013)


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February-May 2013

This last day of May saw me score my best-ever round of golf – a 77 on the Cate-Irwin Back combination at my home club, the Members at St. James. It is not the most demanding of courses: about 5800 yards off the white tees, but it has plenty of hazards and pitfalls in the form of water and sand, many of which I normally encounter, and the greens are notoriously tricky and grainy. I scored nine pars, two birdies, and seven bogeys. As with many outstanding rounds (so I am told), it could have been so much better. I three-putted four greens, missed a two-foot putt for par on Number 4, and a curling five-footer for birdie on the last hole. When I attempted to enter my score on the on-line system, it was rejected at first for being ‘out of my normal range’. Indeed.    (Just the regular Commonplace updates this month.)                                                  (May 31, 2013)

The results from my DNA testing were disappointing – not because of my shameful Denisovan ancestors, but because they didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know already. It turns out that I am 45% Northern European, 38% Mediterranean, and 17% South-West Asian. (That last bit probably comes from the Neolithic expansion, perhaps from the Eastern part of the Fertile Crescent.) But guess what? That pattern almost exactly matches the mixture predominantly found in – the United Kingdom! So British is my first reference population, and the second is German. (That can be traced to Luke Blumer, who came over to Hull a couple of centuries ago.) I am 1.9% Neanderthal, and 1.5% Denisovan. And that’s it. Of course, National Geographic now wants me to provide information about my family tree, so they can refine their work, but I have other fish to fry. For anyone who knows a lot about their immediate ancestors, I wouldn’t recommend this test. It is quite expensive, and won’t tell you much.

By a strange coincidence, just as I was about to post this text, I read in today’s New York Times an article about cannibalism in 1609 in colonial Williamsburg. The piece quoted a letter written in 1625 by George Percy, president of Jamestown during the starvation period, confirming that incredible things were done, ‘as to digge upp deade corpes out of graves and to eate them’. The article reported that recent analysis of the skull of a 14-year-old girl gave evidence that she had been used as food after her death and burial. It went on to say that ‘the ration of oxygen in her bones indicated that she had grown up in the southern coastal regions of England, and the carbon isotopes pointed to a diet that included English rye and barley.’

[Since I have just returned from a week’s holiday/vacation in Vero Beach, Florida, I shall be not be posting new Commonplace entries for a few days. (Done on May 5.)]                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (May 2, 2013)

Since posting the Reflections piece last month, I have read Nina Berberova’s biography of Moura Budberg. She claims that the young lady with whom Robert Bruce Lockhart had  a dalliance with in St. Petersburg was an actress, and not Moura Budberg, whom he met later. I have thus amended my story. This may not have been the most exciting discovery of the month, but it should be recorded. Again, I have posted a new set of Commonplace entries that show that my reading focus of late has been very intently on espionage and political matters around World War II.  And at the exact moment when I was composing this sentence, I received an email telling me that the results of my DNA analysis from the Genographic Project were available. I’ll report on this fully next month.      (March 31, 2013)

This month I was going to post a reminiscent anecdote about a visit back to England last year, but it developed into something a bit too long for this column, so I made it into a separate article: ‘ReflectionsOnTheNorthDowns‘. The analysis of my DNA sample is meanwhile proceeding on schedule. The usual Commonplace updates.  (February 28, 2013)

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December 2012

Another year of Commonplace entries goes in the books, as well as some updates to examples of Hyperbolic Contrasts, and references to Rolls-Royces. In January, I start my course for an M. Phil. degree with the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham. This will be carried out almost exclusively remotely, although I plan to go to the UK for some of the research. It will leverage some of the work that I have been undertaking into the thoughts and actions of Sir Isaiah Berlin (as yet unpublished!). What it will mean is that my reading in the next couple of years will have to be rather more focussed, and thus items deemed appropriate for entry in the Commonplace Book will not have such an eclectic range. I wish a Happy 2013 to all my readers.  (December 31, 2012)

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November 2012

One phenomenon that intrigues me is the representation of articles that appear in the press, and their appearance in electronic form on the Web. One might expect the New York Times, for instance, with its slogan ‘All the News That’s Fit To Print’, to take very seriously the journalistic record that it commits to posterity. Yet its editors sometimes display an unnervingly cavalier attitude to stories that have already appeared in the printed newspaper, emending the text  ̶  not always to reflect the evolution of the news, but to sanitize or even censor what has been published. On Sunday, November 25, the Times published a story titled ‘Israel and Hamas Are United in Seeing Scant Value in Compromise’. It included comments from Efraim Halevy, former chief of Mossad. The text ran as follows:                                                                                                                                   ‘Efraim Halevy, former chief of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, said that Israel had three alternatives in Gaza: to destroy Hamas, leaving the enclave to its more radical groups; to reoccupy the area, which it evacuated in 2005; or to start a process where the hostile environment is slowly reduced by preventing the influx of new weapons into Gaza while allowing Hamas to increase its civilian political role. “After the elections are over, Israel will have to sit down and ask itself, ‘Where do we go from here?’ ” Mr. Halevy said in an interview.  “If you aim for deterrence rather than trying to destroy your enemy,” he added, “that means you accept his legitimacy, I think.”’

Yet the on-line version has been dramatically changed (see Among the changes is the omission of Mr. Halevy’s last remark about deterrence, one that could be considered quite controversial.  I questioned the Editors about this apparent act of censorship, but got nowhere. The Public Editor (who represents the readers, and writes a regular column), was a little more outgoing and sympathetic, through her assistant Joseph Burgess. He initially suggested that it had been removed ‘for space considerations’, but the final response I received from him was: “As The Times said to you earlier, The Times routinely adds and removes information throughout the day as a story develops.”

This is patently nonsense. There are no space limits on-line, and the extended quotation had nothing to do with the development of the story. I suspect someone drew attention to the fact that Mr. Halevy’s comments could be considered as being unduly hawkish and thus ‘unhelpful’ to the peace process. I suspect the editors of the paper thought it was something they could get away with.                                                                                                                                                               (November 30, 2012)

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August-October 2012

I cannot yet report progress or status on the project that has consumed me recently. Thus this month’s posting merely draws attention to new Commonplace entries, and a poem on Anthony Blunt: ‘To The Ramparts!’     (October 31, 2012)

The main event in September was my brother’s wedding in London. While I was in the UK, I was pleased to be able to meet Dr. Henry Hardy, the editor of Sir Isaiah Berlin’s works, in the Wirral, and Professor Anthony Glees, Director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, in his university town. My research into Berlinian topics of pluralism and multi-culturalism resulted in an unusual set of quotations on various ethnic and religious practices in my September Commonplace entries. I also heard from the Woodland Trust that it had at last posted my poem on its website, and had tastefully added a few photographs to illustrate it. It can be seen at:                        (September 30, 2012

This month has been consumed by a special project – about which more will be revealed soon. Meanwhile – the normal set of Commonplace updates. (August 31, 2012)

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