Commonplace 2019


“There are no historical critics, only fellow practitioners.” (Suzannah Lipscomb, in History Today, December 2018)

“The most savage review I have received since my first book was published in 1969 was written a few years ago by an American specialist writer on intelligence. Bloodied, I asked a fellow historian what the writer might have against me. He responded succinctly: ‘You’ve stepped on his patch. He wants to make sure that you never do so again.’” (Max Hastings, in the Spectator, December 15/22/29, 2018)

“In A Spy Named Orphan Roland Philipp’s description of Donald Maclean’s psychological make-up chimes with what I have always felt about the Cambridge spies (Philby excepted) – namely, that their romance with the Soviets Union partook of patriotism as much as it did of espionage. Maclean seemed to want to hold Britain and the USSR in balance, making a conscious effort to serve both, particularly when in the 1930s the moral interests of the UK were being so ill-served by the government of Baldwin and Chamberlain. I’ve never been much interested in Maclean, finding him as Burgess did something of a bore, but Philipps makes the story and the slow uncovering of his treachery a gripping narrative and an overwhelmingly sad one.” (Alan Bennett, in 24 August 2108 excerpt from his Diaries, published in the London Review of Books, January 3)

Bring Back the Austro-Hungarian Empire!

The main reason for what is happening in Hungary (“Hungary’s Autocracy Beneath a Patina of Democracy,” news article, Dec. 26) is the alienation and anger Hungarians feel toward Western Europe and the European Union.

The cause of this anger is Europe’s failure to do anything to correct the terrible injustice that occurred at the end of World War I through the Treaty of Trianon, when this kingdom, over a thousand years old, was dismembered. This occurred not because Hungary was on the wrong side in the war but because Central Europe was getting too strong and could no longer be dominated by the French and the British.

President Woodrow Wilson rightly opposed the Trianon Treaty; he felt that strangers should not be allowed to redraw the borders in Central Europe and overnight turn millions of Hungarians into foreigners in the towns that were built by their fathers.

It is the responsibility of the European Union to require at least local autonomy for these millions of Hungarians. And it is also important for the general public to understand the reasons for the underlying alienation and anger that are exploited by demagogues. Most people in the West don’t even know that this national minority — one of Europe’s largest — exists. (Letter from Béla Lipták, founder of the Hungarian Lobby, in NYT, January 3)

“In the case of two brothers brought up in very much the same way, we have the one who becomes a nonconformist minister because his father was a nonconformist minister, while his brother becomes a militant atheist because his father was a nonconformist minister.” (Herbert Butterfield, from On Historical Explanation, quoted by C. T. McIntire in Herbert Butterfield)

“I realize that homosexuality is a serious problem for anyone who is, but then,heterosexuality is a serious problem for anyone who is, too. And being a man is a serious problem and being a woman is, too. Lots of things are problems.” (Edward Gorey, quoted by Robert Gottlieb in NYT Book Review, January 6)

“When the English Civil War broke out, hundreds of Puritans returned home to fight in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, a military force founded on the radical notion that promotions should be based on proficiency rather than social status. As they clashed with Royalist armies, they grew to believe they were fighting to liberate their Anglo-Saxon lands from the Norman invaders six hundred years after the latter arrived with William the Conqueror. ‘What were the lords of England,’ a group of common soldiers declared to a wartime visitor to their encampment, ‘but William the Conqueror’s colonels?’ King Charles, they decreed, was ‘the last successor of William the Conqueror’ who had to be cast out if the people were to ’have recovered ourselves from under the Norman yoke.’” (from Colin Woodard’s American Nations, p 63)

“There is nothing in all the dark caves of human passion so cruel and deadly as the hatred the South Carolinians profess for the Yankees.   New England is to [them] the incarnation of moral and political wickedness and social corruption . . .  the source of everything which South Carolina hates.” (Times correspondent William Russell, 28 May, 1851, quoted by Colin Woodard in American Nations, p 229)

“What is frustrating about machine learning, however, is that the algorithms can’t articulate what they’re thinking. We don’t know why they work, so we don’t know if they can be trusted. AlphaZero gives every appearance of having discovered some important principles about chess, but it can’t share that understanding with us. Not yet, at least. As human beings, we want more than answers. We want insight. This is going to be a source of tension in our interactions with computers from now on.” (Steven Strogatz, professor in mathematics at Cornell University, in NYT, January 8)

“There are two maxims for historians which so harmonise with what I know of history that I would like to claim them as my own, though they really belong to nineteenth-century historiography: first, that governments try to press upon the historian the key to all the drawers except one, and are very anxious to spread the belief that this single one contains no secret of importance; secondly, that if the historian can only find out the thing which government does not want him to know, he will lay his hand upon something that is likely to be significant.” (Herbert Butterfield in Official History: Its Pitfalls and Criteria)

“Nothing in the whole of historiography is more subtly dangerous than the natural disposition to withhold criticism because John Smith belongs to one’s own circle or because he is a nice man, so that it seems ungracious to try to press him on a point too far, or because it does not occur to one that something more could be extracted from hm by importunate behavior.” (Herbert Butterfield in Official History: Its Pitfalls and Criteria)

“One of the high tests of an historian is the degree to which he possesses the requisite elasticity of mind, so that he is not a mere compiler adding new facts to old ones, not a mere prisoner of a current framework of story, but a detective determined not to miss the clue that may lead to a fresh reconstruction of the theme and carry the issue to a higher order of thought.” (Herbert Butterfield in Official History: Its Pitfalls and Criteria)

 “Early February saw another lucky escape when a shell exploded ‘at no great distance’ from him while lunching at Laurence Farm with Archie Sinclair and others.” (Andrew Roberts in Winston Churchill: Walking with Destiny, p 241)

“A meaningful national identity [for the ni-Vanuatu] has been constructed from a common appreciation of ceremonial pig-tusk bracelets and the taking of kava, a very mild narcotic root that looks like primordial pea soup and tastes like a fine astringent dirt.” (Gideon Lewis-Kraus in the NYT Magazine, January 20)

“In Mr. Glazer’s case, it seemed, a multiculturalist was a neoconservative who had been mugged by reality.” (from NYT obituary of Nathan Glazer, January 21)

And which strong post-WWII international order was that?

“Traditional adversaries will continue attempts to gain and assert influence, taking advantage of changing conditions in the international environment — including the weakening of the post-WWII international order and dominance of Western democratic ideals, increasingly isolationist tendencies in the West, and shifts in the global economy.” (from report by director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, in NYT, January 23)

“In the last resort the best way to conceal a damning story is to confess under pressure to something less incriminating but nevertheless discreditable.” (from A History of the German Secret Service and British Counter-Measures (July 1944) [WO-279-499 at the National Archives, probably written by Hugh Trevor-Roper])

“Spies may be clever or stupid, plausible or clumsy, experienced or hopelessly amateur. The fact that a man is manifestly ill-equipped to be a spy is, particularly in this war, no proof that he is not one. Stories which appear wildly improbable may in the end turn out to be true. Other stories which appear too absurd or too complicated to have been invented may, nevertheless, not be true. There is no rule of universal application; and a case which breaks all the rules may merely be a piece of stupidity or a mistake on the enemy’s part.” (from A History of the German Secret Service and British Counter-Measures (July 1944) [WO-279-499 at the National Archives, probably written by Hugh Trevor-Roper])

“It is less difficult than might be supposed to extract a confession. Spies are not commonly men of character. They are far more likely (at least in this war) to be parasites than patriots. It is a profession particularly attractive to vain men who have failed elsewhere. Their damaged self-esteem is restored by the atmosphere of secrecy and importance which surrounds their doings irrespective of their own success or failure.” (from A History of the German Secret Service and British Counter-Measures (July 1944) [WO-279-499 at the National Archives, probably written by Hugh Trevor-Roper])

“‘Intriguing parallel’ is one of those phrases that makes one start counting the ceiling tiles.” (James Wolcott, in London Review of Books, January 24)


Cabbie Stories (1)

“My husband, T.S. Eliot, loved to recount how late one evening he stopped a taxi. As he got in, the driver said: ‘You’re T. S. Eliot’. When asked how he knew, he replied: ‘Ah, I’ve got an eye for a celebrity. Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him: “Well, Lord Russell, what’s it all about”, and, do you know, he couldn’t tell me.’” (letter from Valerie Eliot to the Times, February 8, 19??)

Cabbie Stories (2)

“He [Alec Guinness] once got into the back of a cab and the driver said, ‘I know you.’ Alec opened his mouth to confirm that he was indeed Alec Guinness and the driver said, ‘No. don’t tell me. I’ll get it. Before you get out, I’ll get your name.’ As Alec was paying the fare, the driver said with a flourish, ‘I’ve got it. Telly Savalas.’

So Alec says, ‘No, that’s not it.’

‘I bet you wish you was though,’ says the cabbie.” (from Michael Caine’s Blowing the Bloody Doors Off, p 209)

“Over the years I have become an expert at reading body language. I remember in the 1960s when Russian agents were being discovered all over the British establishment, Kim Philby was being interviewed on television and the journalist said, ‘Answer me truthfully, are you a Russian spy?”

Philby turned his gaze down into his lap, then up again, looked the interviewer straight n the eye and said ‘No.’

‘He’s lying,’ I said to myself. He put his head down to get his face ready, to prepare the correct face of innocence. If he had been telling the truth he would not have needed to do that, he would just have said no.” (from Michael Caine’s Blowing the Bloody Doors Off, p 97)

“What diplomatic discretion may have prevented Prime Minister Netanyahu from pointing out, but which might have been apt, was that Israel had an advantage in that nearly all of the arrivals into the country for decades had a common link in their Jewish heritage – whereas in the months and years to come Angela Merkel and her nation would have to recognize that few of the people they let in during 2015 were German Lutherans.” (from Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe, p 124)

“When Hilaire Belloc published The Great Heresies in 1938 he had devoted a chapter to ‘the great and enduring heresy of Mohammed’, a passage that makes The Satanic Verses look tame.” (from Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe, p 131)

“There is nothing so funny as a person demanding money to which he is not entitled in recompense for an injury to his reputation which he has not sustained.” (Auberon Waugh, according to William Cook in the Spectator, January 26)

“That is why Hugh White, an Australian official-turned-scholar, emphasizes so strongly in his book The China Choice that mutual recognition of the legitimacy of each other’s political system is essential if the risk of conflict between the US and China is to be reduced.” (Anatol Lieven, in Prospect, mid-winter 2019)

“There are critics who are convinced that he would have been a more interesting man if, while painting the bins, he had been targeted from the air by a Spectre attack helicopter with Ernst Stavro Blofeld at the controls (“No, Mister Larkin, I expect you to die!’), but instead he was dedicated to writing poems.” (Clive James on Philip Larkin, in Prospect, mid-winter 2019)

“Karl Popper, the philosopher who, among those I have known personally, was the one whose achievements I held in highest regard, always believed that mathematics as a language. But he never succeeded in convincing me.” (from letter by Bryan Magee in Prospect, March 2019)

“Back in the old days, you all only hired Irishmen. They were drunks, but they could be trusted.” (Jeff Sessions to Andrew G. McCabe, from The Threat, quoted in NYT review, February 19)

Is your outlook not well-rounded enough? A sociologist helps  . . .

“‘We need a new “cultural contract” in which everyone gets to have a secure, culturally rich ethnic identity as well as a thin culturally neutral and future-oriented national identity.’ Kaufmann envisions a ‘multi-vocal nationhood’ in which Afro-Caribbean Britishness is recognized as being distinctively British as harvest festivals or nativity plays. ‘In exchange for de-centring themselves from the nation, white Britons should be given free rein to celebrate their more historicist, rural, ancestral vision of British nationhood.’ This will, he says help them to develop a more rounded and assured outlook.” (Joan C. Williams in review of Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift, in TLS, February 8)

How Sociologists Spend their Time: No. 257 in a series

“In many countries, the University-educated are 10-25 points more likely than those without high-school to think that a person who wants less immigration for ethno-cultural reasons is a racist.” (Eric Kaufmann, in Whiteshift, according to Joan C. Williams, in TLS review, February 8)

“R.A.B. about administrative questions. I can’t stand these. I am suddenly told that a Department in the Ministry of Obfuscation has to be reorganised: it must come back ‘under control’ of the Ministry of Circumlocution. But there is a great difficulty, as the Head of the Department – Col. Shufflebotttom – ought not to be there, and I ought to substitute Mr. Piffkins. (Other people tell me this is a ramp, and that the real man is Nuffkins.) I don’t know S. or P. (or even N.). I can’t grasp what they are supposed to be doing. I have no data to go on: how the Hell can I decide? But I was at it all day – and work accumulating.” (Alexander Cadogan’s Diary entry for October 6, 1939)

“An intelligence officer ought to be like the devil: believing no one, not even himself.” (Joseph Stalin, quoted by Stephen Kotkin in Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941, p 839)

Friendship? Legitimacy?

“The precedents set by FDR – the concentration of war-making and military policy exclusively in the executive branch, the normalisation of secrecy and deceit – had been counterbalanced by his friendship with Stalin and his recognition of legitimate Soviet interests in Eastern Europe. When Roosevelt died, that balance was lost.” (Jackson Lears, in review of Robert M. Dallek’s Franklin Roosevelt: A Political Life, in London Review of Books, February 21)

“One of the last memories I have of working with Halifax and Churchill was when we were invited to march up and down in the garden of No. 10 while Winston was rehearsing his speech ’We shall fight on the beaches’. There we were, the lanky Edward, the stocky Winston and myself. As Winston declaimed, he turned to us and said, ‘Would you fight in the streets and on the hills?’ Pacific as we were we warmly agreed, saying ‘Yes, certainly, Winston’, and then continued to march up and down with him.” (from Lord Butler’s The Art of the Possible, p 87)

“We sat at a table in the window and ate what remained of the Club [Athenaeum] food after the bishops had had their run; for we were somewhat late, and the bishops attack the sideboard early.” (from Lord Butler’s The Art of the Possible, p 159)


“All healthy societies rest on the widespread acceptance of a dense web of reciprocal obligations among citizens. Underpinning this is a recognition of shared identity built through social interaction, common endeavours, shared history and shared future, since this generates a presumption of fellow feeling. Psychologically, this is what citizenship of a healthy society means.” (Paul Collier, in the Spectator February 23)

“Fish were born to fly, yet everywhere they swim.” (Alexander Herzen, according to Henry Hardy in In Search of Isaiah Berlin, p 107)

“By the end of August 1940, a Soviet Latvian Constitution had been promulgated, giving birth to the Latvian People’s Commissariat of State Security, ensuring powers for NKVD commissars. Directions on procedures were signed on 28 November 1940 in the city of Kaunas by the Lithuanian NKVD, and were in line with those issued by Moscow to their Latvian and Estonian counterparts.”

            “The circular read in part . . . . 

For the task of operative work, it is of profound importance to know how many former policemen, White Guardists, ex-army officers, members of anti-Soviet political parties and organisations are in the territory of Lithuania and where this element is concentrated. This is necessary in order to define the counter-revolutionary force and to direct our apparatus of active agencies for their annihilation and liquidation.

Executing the Order of the People’s Commissariat of NKVD of USSR, No. 001223, referring to a report on the anti-Soviet element, and the demand to be most careful in the exact execution of the task, I issue the following order:

            Into the alphabetic files must be entered all those persons who, because of their social and political past, their nationalist-chauvinistic inclinations, religious beliefs, moral and political instability, are hostile to the socialistic form of State, and consequently might be exploited by foreign intelligence services and counter-revolutionary centres for their anti-Soviet purpose.

            Among such elements are to be counted:

  1. All former members of anti-Soviet political parties, organisations and groups: Trotskyites, right-wingers, Mensheviks, Social Democrats, anarchists etc.
  2. All former members of nationalistic, chauvinistic, anti-Soviet parties, Nationalists, Christian Democrats, the active members of student fraternities, of the National Guard etc.
  3. Former policemen, officers of the criminal and political police and of prisons . . .” (from Stalin’s Secret War by Rupert Butler, pp 35-36)

On Magyars

  1. “There’s no such thing as a Hungarian race or ethnicity. Just a Hungarian language.” (Rev. Gabor Ivanyi, quoted in NYT, March 16)
  2. “MIERNIK: As soon as I say you are beautiful, you mention Nigel.

BENTLEY: That is the Hungarian part of me. Subtle.”

(from Charles McCarry’s The Miernik Dossier, p 41)

“‘Aren’t you supposed to be the gentlemen who lie for the good of their country?’

‘That’s diplomats. We’re not gentlemen.’

‘So you lie to save your hides.’

‘That’s politicians. Different game entirely.’”

 (from John le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor, Chapter 7)

“The journalist Auberon Waugh, in whose time-capsule of a flat I briefly lived in 2000, once summed up what he took to be the primary motivations for writing books. ‘With women, there is this tremendous desire to expose themselves. With men, it is more often an obscure form of revenge.’” (Thomas W. Hodgson, in the Spectator, March 2)

“Academics are the only people I can think of for whom this sentence makes sense: ‘I’m hoping to get some time off so that I can get some work done.’” (Sidney Verba, scholar of democracies, from his NYT obituary, March 18)

On The Satanic Verses and Islamicists

“My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.” (John le Carré, quoted by Hanif Kureishi in TLS, March 1)

“In a civilized world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work in order to reinforce this principle of free speech.” (Roald Dahl, in letter to the Times, quoted by Hanif Kureishi in TLS, March 1)

“The message of the Enlightenment is that we have some choice over who we want to be, making our own destiny as individuals, without submitting to gods, revelation or ancestors. The basis of this is a liberal education and a democracy of ideas. These are not British values – over which Europeans have no monopoly – but universal ones.” (Hanif Kureishi in TLS, March 1)

“Notions of criticism, free-ranging thought, and questioning are universal values which benefit the relatively powerless in particular. If we gave way on any of these, even for a moment, we’d leave ourselves without a culture, and with no hope.” (Hanif Kureishi in TLS, March 1)

“Was there is [sic] a single human civilization, if unequally developed in different parts of the world? Or are human cultures radically different, yet all (perhaps equally) valuable? The views of Picasso and the Surrealists were also acknowledged: primitive art conveyed spiritual insights that had been lost in the West. These messages fitted in with different justifications of colonialism. In the interwar years the ideal of civilizing a world of savages, France’s mission civilisatrice, was challenged by those who urged an appreciation of difference and a respect for local traditions.” (Adam Cooper, in TLS, March 8)

“Monty asked him what rank he had been during the war, and when Rose said he was a subaltern Monty relied, ‘I was a Field Marshal. I don’t suppose we ever met.’” (A. N. Wilson, quoting from Kenneth Rose’s journals, in the TLS, March 15)

Courting Habits of Our Supreme Court Justices (No. 23 in a series)

“ . . . she invites him home, but he fails the audition at the Lazy B, when he flinches at her father’s offer of a bull’s testicle grilled on a branding fire.” (on the future Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist’s unsuccessful wooing of Sandra Day O’Connor, as cited by Jeffrey Toobin in his review of First, by Evan Thomas, NYT, March 24)

“MIERNIK: No, it’s important that the ugly, the miserable believe that the beautiful are serene.

BENTLEY: What an idea. The Edwardians thought that nothing gave the poor greater pleasure than the sight of a rich man. That’s an odd viewpoint for a modern Communist.” (from Charles McCarry’s The Miernik Dossier, p 42)

“But so long as the EU remains in its present form – without the possibility of differential legal tiers of membership for non-euro members that do not wish to pursue ever-closer union – the question of whether it is better for Britain to be outside the EU with more sovereignty at the cost of weaker economic relations, or inside it with opt-outs and weak political influence, will not go away. Perpetual engagement with the unresolvable European question and what it means for political order in these islands is a historical burden Britain must learn to accept, possibly forever.” (Professor Helen Thompson, in History Today, March)


“Hammad’s father, Saad, said it was important to foster in his children a curiosity about their heritage, particularly because they were not able to visit the region as children. ‘That’s what makes you whole, as a person,’ he said, ‘to look at all the dimensions of yourself.’” (Isabella Hamad’s father, quoted in NYT review of The Parisian, April 5)

“But if it haunts the collective imagination, that is chiefly because the Blitz epitomizes the belief that at a decisive moment Britain ‘stood alone’, the one European nation to defy Hitler in defence of freedom. This notion pervaded the rhetoric of Winston Churchill, who became Prime Minister in May of that year. In reality, even before the United States entered the war, Britain had behind it the resources of a world-wide empire.” (Neil Berry, in TLS, March 29)

“Maybe we are not tired of ‘experts’, as Michael Gove put it in 2016; maybe we are tired of bores. Experts tend to speak in questions and informed possibilities – they are usually gently convincing and leave space for the grey areas, they welcome being challenged. Bores tend to behave as if they have all the answers wrapped up. They speak as if they know about that which it is impossible for anyone to now about. They speak as if the future is moulded from the sound of their voice.” (Rozalind Dineen, in TLS, March 29)

Mostly nonsense “Humans are tribal. We need to belong to groups. We crave bonds and attachments, which is why we love clubs, teams, fraternities, family. Almost no one is a hermit. Even monks and friars belong to orders. But the tribal instinct is not just an instinct to belong. It is also an instinct to exclude.” (Amy Chua, in Political Tribes, quoted in review by Paul Seabright in TLS, March 29)

We? “We will have to respond in a manner far more timely and nimble than we did to the Little Ice Age.” (Robert J. Mayhew, in TLS, March 29)

“And thus Prykke joined Steam Radio’s tight team

Of people primed to Talk on Any Theme,

A mafia of men with minds like swords

As well as some extremely brainy broads –

And truth to tell our lad found nothing easier

Than hanging on the lips of Lady Freesia

Or trading witticisms with Mag Scrabble

Or letting Margerina Latchkey babble.”

(from Book Eight of Clive James’s Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage through the London Literary World)

“George Simmel, the sociologist, pointed out that ‘the purpose of secrecy is above all protection. Of all protective measures, the most radical is to make oneself invisible.’ Secrecy is maintained less to secure the safety of the state than to protect those who rule it from the scrutiny of the ruled, and helps perpetuate the hierarchical structure of British society in the age of democracy.” (David Stafford, in Britain and European Resistance 1940-1945, p xiii)

“If three British officers say three different things, that does not mean that any of them is wrong; it does not mean that any of them is confused; it only means that it is more intricate and far-reaching than has hitherto been supposed.” (C. M. Woodhouse, in Apple of Discord, p 39, quoted by David Stafford in Britain and European Resistance 1940-1945, p 5)

“At the back of my mind, I still see every sentence as demanding to be put into Latin. If it cannot be put into Latin, I know that it is, at best, obscure, at worst, nonsense.” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, from One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper, p xviii)

“If, as an anthropologist, you are faced with ‘whole sentences which appear to mean nothing’, don’t despair; they probably do mean nothing and can therefore be ignored. Life is short, and those who will not take the trouble to write clearly cannot properly expect to be read.” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, from One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper, p 139, 22 January, 1967, to Alan Macfarlane)

“I do not read anything he [Christopher Hill] writes because nothing that he writes can be trusted: he has no scholarly method.”

“Neale once said to me that it was useless to discuss evidence with Tawney; he simply didn’t know what it was.” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, from One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper, p 284, December 28, 1984 to Blair Worden)

“But dons, in general, I fear are boors. I had thought this was true only of Cambridge dons; but alas, it is general. Not only boors but also so silly, and so self-important: they believe that they are an intellectual élite whereas in fact they are, for the most part, an insulated and protected species of lemming.” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, from One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper, p 289,2 March, 1985, to Hugh Lloyd-Jones)

“Scholarship which is confined to one rut becomes antiquarianism: it needs a context, and the possibility of comparison, and the invigorating infusion of reality, and life.  But then, of course, there is the opposite danger of dilettantism, the occupational hazard of the journalist. I think that one needs to be a disciplined specialist in one area in order to have a corrective standard outside that area – and meanwhile to have interests outside that area in order to preserve one’s balance and keep intellectually alive.” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, from One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper, pp 308-309,4 October, 1986, to Alasdair Palmer)

“I also dislike 90% of Christians and Christianity. But I will not join you as ‘a solid atheist’. I am fascinated by religion as a sociological phenomenon. I enjoy observing the foibles – the harmless foibles – of its various adepts. I recognize that it has done some practical good. And then, I think of its contribution to art and music and poetry! How mean, how insolent is the claim that we can dispense altogether with it; how jejune a philosophy which leaves no mystery behind it! But of course, when people smugly claim to solve that mystery with theological explanations, I shut off.” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, from One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper, p 321,2 November 1986, to Alasdair Palmer)

“This delights me, because it enables me to ask a question: a question which I cannot decently put to a professed Christian but may, I suppose, risk putting to an ex-Christian. Did you, at the time, really believe, or believe that you believed, those quaint, superannuated doctrines of Incarnation, Resurrection, Ascension, etc. which, in the Creed, we solemnly say that we believe, and which, if words have any meaning, are indeed essential beliefs; for, as the Apostle says, with unusual clarity, ‘if Christ rose not from the dead, then is all our faith vain’.

Do ‘committed’ Christians really ‘believe’ such stuff? Merely to pose such a question makes me somewhat dizzy; for if the answer is Yes, I must resign myself to thinking that I am in a madhouse, or the Floating Island of Laputa; but if it is No, then what is the meaning of being a committed Christian? This is a problem – a semantic, an epistemological, perhaps an anthropological problem – which exercises my poor, well-meaning brain, and exercises it more severely than ever now I have survived into a more serious-minded generation and migrated from the sunlit uplands of Oxford into these dismal Dissenting Fens. Now, and here, I have come to realise that there are people, even in what Gibbon would call ‘the full light and freedom of the 20th century’, who apparently take this stuff not (as is surely permissible) as an agreeable allegory, or harmless poetic myth, into whose historically consecrate shell successive generations have poured a permanent philosophic or moral content, but literally. I have heard tell of ‘born-again Christians’: grown persons who, having previously been rational creatures, have suddenly and deliberately – horrible thought! – chosen to take up this bizarre mental apparatus. Ex-President Carter, I believe, is one of them, and I have a dark suspicion that there are one or two in the university of Cambridge.” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, from One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper, pp 323-324,23 November, 1986, to Alasdair Palmer)

“The awareness campaigns are key to combating the myths and misinformation that surround leprosy. Mr. Chowla recalled a tribal woman he had met in Chattisgarh, a locus of the disease in northern India. The woman’s fingers were clawed, a signature effect of leprosy. But she saw no point in visiting a doctor. The disease was an intergenerational curse, she said: Her grandmother once had boiled frogs in a fit of annoyance at their loud croaking, and the frogs had taken revenge on her, the granddaughter.” (from report in NYT, April 23)

“For you must know that the Dean of Christ-church is both dean of the cathedral church of Oxon and head of that college, and seldom is one man fit for both parts, as things now stand, the former requiring a clergyman of  the established Church, the latter a man of humane learning fit to govern a society of schollers; so that some would seek an act of Parliament to separate the two. But others oppose this as an affront to her majesty’s prerogative and the patronage of the Church, and to tradition, besides the difficulty of disentangling the property and other rights which, by now, have become so intertwined that both might suffer shock if rudely severed.” (from the letter of Mercurius Oxoniensis to Mercurius Londoniensis, Dark and Obnubilated Affairs, 26 July 1969, from The Letters of Mercurius)

“The most important thing, as we have discussed today during the talks, is to restore the rule of international law and revert to the position where global developments were regulated by international law instead of the rule of the fist.” (President Putin, reported in NYT, April 26)


“Climate change is the greatest challenge humanity has collectively faced.” (John Lanchester in NYT Book Review, April 28)


“While I am aware that there is no Truth, no objective truth, no single truth, no truth simple or unsimple, either; no verity, eternal or otherwise; no Truth about anything, there are Facts, objective facts, discernible and verifiable. And the more facts you accumulate, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. And finding facts – through reading documents or through interviewing and re-interviewing – can’t be rushed; it takes time. Truth takes time.” (Robert Caro, in Working, quoted by Ruth Schurr in TLS review, April 26)


“Finally, there is the invisible hand that links together the interests of merchants and manufacturers in different industries. This is Smith’s most famous use of the phrase ‘invisible hand’. It also contains his worst argument effectively that when each capitalist advances the interest of his own industry, business as a whole benefits, since it is nothing more than the aggregate of individual industries. This is a fallacy of composition; it assumes without proof that the success of one industry is not generally linked to the failure of others (manufacturer of fore-hoses versus manufacturer of fire-proofing).” (Alexander Douglas, in review of Eric Schliesser’s Adam Smith and Dennis C. Rasmussen’s The Infidel and the Professor, in TLS, April 26)

“The past is the only thing we know. The present is no more than an illusion, a moment that is already past in an instant (or, rather, a moment in which past and future slot into each other). And what we know about the future is nothing else than the projection of our past knowledge into it.” (John Lukacs, in A Student’s Guide to the Study of History, quoted in his NYT obituary, May 9)

“The Myers-Brigg Type Indicator, or MBTI, is not universally respected (‘astrology for middle management’ is an unflattering description), but there is no doubting its popularity, from job recruitment to dating sites, or its enshrinement in American life  . . . ” (Phil Baker, in TLS review of Merve Emre’s What’s Your Type?, May 3)

“Good gracious me, if we ruled out hiring staff who had a fling with Marx in their misspent youth, we should have to fight the war with the Women’s Auxiliary.” (‘Miss Maxse’, from Robert Littell’s Young Philby, p 195)

“‘Gentleman, it is not Soviet communism I fear, but rather British imperialism,’ Truman remarked to Senator Burton K. Wheeler some weeks after becoming President.” (John Ranelagh, in The Agency, p 122)

“In September 1946 Henry Wallace, Truman’s secretary of commerce, received a warm reception when he said: ‘To make Britain the key to our foreign policy would, in my judgment, be the height of folly. Make no mistake about it: the British imperialist policy in the Near East alone, combined with Russian retaliation, would lead the United States straight to war  . . .  The real peace we now need is between the United States and Russia.’” (reported in NYT, September 13, 1946)

“The Reds, phonies and the parlor pinks seem to be banded together and are becoming a national danger. I am afraid they are a sabotage front for Uncle Joe Stalin.” (President Truman, September 19, 1946; quoted by Daniel Yergin in Shattered Peace) (from John Ranelagh’s The Agency, p 125)

“But you can’t do a professional job on a subject if you’re going to be passionate about it.” (John Huizenga, in 1983 interview with the author, from John Ranelagh’s The Agency, p 471)

“An anchorite or anchoress permanently encloses themselves in a cell to live a life of prayer and contemplation.” (Mary Wellesley, in London Review of Books, May 23)

“The chief practical use of history is to deliver us from plausible historical analogies.” (James Bryce, in 1920, according to Jan-Werner Müller in London Review of Books, May 23)

‘The main benefit of controlling a modern bureaucratic state is not the power to persecute the innocent. It is the power to protect the guilty.” (‘a Hungarian observer’, according to Jan-Werner Müller in London Review of Books, May 23)

“You have the ability to look at a mass of what seems like conflicting trivia and discern patterns. And patterns, as any spy worth his salt grasps, are the outer shells of conspiracy.” (’Kim Philby’ to ‘James Angleton’, in Robert Littell’s The Company, p 36)

“Poetry should respond to climate change.” (poet laureate Simon Armitage, quoted in TLS, May 17)

“We need a revival of period strings as much as we need a revival of period dentistry.” (cited by Nicholas Kenyon in TLS, May 17)

“Or is he [Stalin], on the contrary, the leader of a pro-Western minority bloc within the Soviet Politburo, who would like to come to a reasonable agreement with us and who would carry it out in good faith to insure the future peace of the world, but who is unable to do so because he is outvoted by his colleagues of the ruling oligarchy within the Kremlin?” (Walter Bedell Smith, in My Three Years in Moscow, p 54)

“Some years ago, a knockabout neighbor glanced at a book I was carrying, a recent biography, which had, splashed in bold characters across its spine, EVELYN WAUGH’. ‘Ah,’ he suggested, ‘Steve and Mark’s mum?’” (Mark McGinness, in Quadrant, April 2016)


“Most of the mathematicians are busy admiring the architecture, while the physicists are admiring the animals. Which is more important isn’t, to me, the interesting question. The interesting question is, Why do they fit together so well?” (Freeman Dyson, quoted in NYT, June 3)

“In the 1920s, Cosmo Gordon Lang, then Archbishop of York, was painted by William Orpen, a better artist than he deserved. But he complained to Hensley Henson, the great Bishop of Durham, that the finished oeuvre made him look ‘proud, prelatical and pompous’. Henson replied: ‘May I ask Your Grace to which of these epithets Your Grace takes exception?’” (from the Journals of Kenneth Rose, quoted by Bruce Anderson in the Spectator, May 22)

“She explains her wealth tax by likening it to the property tax paid by homeowners, only broadened to include the ‘diamonds, the stock portfolio, the Rembrandts and the yachts’ of the super-rich.” (on Elizabeth Warren, from the NYT, June 11)

“For all its borrowings from Greek, Norse and German, English is fundamentally an imposition of French (by conquest) and Latin (by religion and scholarship) on a substrate of Anglo-Saxon. The languages made their peace hundreds of years ago but the legacy is an English in which the lexis of labour and the daily life of working people is skewed towards Anglo-Saxon, the lexis of intellectual analysis is highly Latinate, and the lexis of emotional self-reflection and of power leans to French.” (James Meek, in the London Review of Books, June 6)

“Messiaen is the Al Gore of music. That is, he sells a brand of French intellectual sanctity that I will do a great deal to avoid.” (Keith Botsford, from his NYT obituary, June 16)

“Next time you hear the words “existential threat” from a politician, hide the silver.” (Jonathan Rauch, in NYT Book Review, June 16)

“Freud said that laughter is the outward expression of the psyche. But Freud never had to play the Glasgow Empire.” (Ken Dodd, according to letter in the TLS from Darryl Royce, June 7)

“Asking a professor for advice about how to find a job outside academia is about as useful as asking a priest for advice about the wedding night.” (Stephen Marche in the TLS, June 7)

Lines on the Formulation of British Foreign Policy

In a high-ceilinged room in the Office

With Gainsboroughs lining the walls

A distinguished old man with a briefcase

Sat thoughtfully scratching his balls.

He might have been thinking of Tito

Or planning a minute on Greece

The results of the German elections

Or how to get Honour and Peace.

He might have been brooding on Stalin

And if it would pay to be frank

His steady grey eyes were as clear as could be

And his mind was an absolute blank.

                        (Alan Maclean, in No, I Tell a Lie, It Was the Tuesday  . . ., p 63)

“Mr Bevin’s last meeting with Molotov at the first CFM in Moscow in 1946 had produced one of his classic one-liners. Molotov had accused Mr Bevin, at great length, of protecting Nazi war criminals and persecuting freedom-loving democrats in the British Zone of Occupation. Bevin got fed up after a time and interrupted to say, ‘Well, I never shook ‘ands with ‘Itler, more than some can say’.” (Alan Maclean, in No, I Tell a Lie, It Was the Tuesday  . . ., p 67)

“The typical no-dealer is a hybrid of Che Guevara and a Telegraph-reading retiree from Sevenoaks.” (William Davies, in the LRB, June 20)

“Foreign policy makes no sense. The people in charge make decisions based on the politics of the moment, or on an ideology that bears little relation to human reality, or on sheer ignorance compounded by wishful thinking. Or they don’t make a decision at all – events gallop ahead and the decision-makers stumble to keep up. Then they spend the rest of their lives pretending they knew what they were doing all along and justifying something that made no sense in the first place.” (Les Gelb, quoted by Tom Fletcher in review of George Packer’s Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, in Prospect, July)

“As poetry editor of Quadrant magazine, he was famous among Australian poets for giving his opinion of their manuscripts within a month, instead of, like other poetry editors, after a decade.” (Clive James on Les Murray, in Prospect, July)


“This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology, and the United States hasn’t had that before. The Soviet Union and that competition, in a way, it was a fight within the Western family. Now it’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.” (Kiron Skinner, the head of policy planning at the State Department, on China, quoted in NYT, June 27)

“In the middle of the bar fight, the liberal is writing a blog post about biodegradable bottles, or, more likely, trying to start a tasting of artisanal bourbons.” (Adam Gopnik, in A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism, cited by Richard V. Reeves in Literary Review, June)

“Soon after he made himself king, because he was a tribal leader who put the crown on his own head, he went on a state visit to Vienna. They took him to the opera for a gala performance. As he walked up the steps, one of his enemies shot at him. In such circumstances some kings lie down, some walk on as though nothing had happened. Zog did neither. He took the gun out of his shoulder holster and shot the man. You deserve to be king if you’re capable of doing things like that.” (Julian Amery, from The Albanian Operations of the CIA and MI6, 1949-1953, by Nicholas Bethell)

“Certainly there is a point in Europe where you move out of the Western Catholic and Protestant world and into the oriental Byzantine, Orthodox and Islam world. There is a change in the bargaining techniques and negotiations, the customs, the politeness and the cruelty. This is the surface of it, once you know about these things, it’s not difficult to cope with it. All negotiation really is similar, but the manners are different.” (Julian Amery, from The Albanian Operations of the CIA and MI6, 1949-1953, by Nicholas Bethell)

“Unfortunately, the book’s index seems to have been compiled as group therapy at a distraught meeting of Amnesiacs Anonymous.” (Richard Davenport-Hines, on Charles Williams’ Max Beaverbrook, in TLS, June 21)