Commonplace 2021


“The deal also did little to assuage fears about how the country’s new immigration rules could complicate the lives of E.U. citizens living in Britain. People from other European countries have been allowed to apply for “settled status” in Britain, the right to stay indefinitely, and more than two million of them have been granted that status.” (from article by Benjamin Mueller in NYT, January 2)

“Since the 2016 referendum, the government has alienated many of the 3.5 million European Union nationals in the country, cynically treating them as bargaining chips in their negotiations with the bloc. Such people make a big contribution to British life — not just as City bankers, as they are often caricatured, but also as frontline medical staff, university teachers and entrepreneurs. Without them, the country would be greatly diminished. Alarmingly, large numbers appear to have left in 2020.” (Peter Gumbel, in Op-Ed in NYT, January 2)

“A historian has no right to just take memoirs and articles based on them. They have a duty to examine them critically and to verify them on the basis of objective information.” (Joseph Stalin, according to Geoffrey Roberts in Literary Review, December 2020/January 2021)

“Capitalism might be wrong, but it was right to make the most of the pleasures and comforts that came with it.” (David Pryce-Jones, in review of Richard Greene’s Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene, in Literary Review, December 2020/January 2021)

“Being in love is a complicated matter; although anyone who is prepared to pretend that love is a simple, straightforward business is always in a strong position for making conquests.” (from Chapter 3 of A Question of Upbringing, by Anthony Powell)

“But Mr. Berners-Lee is taking a different approach: His answer to the problem is technology that gives individuals more power. The goal, he said, is to move toward ‘the web that I originally wanted.’” (from report in NYT, January 11)

“Brexit: a triumph of European statecraft? If the Union’s great breakthrough was to advance beyond a politics of rules to one of events, overturning one rule after another in pursuit of financial stability and border security, wouldn’t it have made more sense to concede to Cameron the brakes on migration he was asking for to win his referendum, rather than to risk Britain’s desertion by invoking immovable principles that are continually being moved? If, when necessity calls, the Treaty of Maastricht’s precise and detailed clauses on budgetary discipline and its prohibition of central bank purchase of government debt can be dismissed in the shake of a lamb’s tail, why not the far vaguer provisions of the Treaty of Rome on the free movement of labour? From the Realpolitiker standpoint advertised by van Middelaar, the logic of pragmatically dodging the blow to the EU from across the Channel should have been obvious. No such thought crosses the mind of his book.” (Perry Anderson, in The European Coup, London Review of Books, December 17, 2020)

“There, the enemy is on the contrary just what the elites of Europe themselves decry and fear most: ‘populism’. Democratic systems have effective oppositions that may one day govern. The European Union is organised in such a way that it does not. But since it is good form to regret its ‘democratic deficit’, it would be better if it at least appeared to do so.” (Perry Anderson, in The European Coup, London Review of Books, December 17, 2020)

“In the break-up of a marriage the world inclines to take the side of the partner with most [sic] vitality, rather than the one apparently least [sic] to blame.” (from Chapter 5 of The Acceptance World, by Anthony Powell)

“All this makes Russian Roulette [Richard Greene’s biography of Graham Greene] an absolutely fascinating document, not so much for what it tells us about Graham Greene but for its take on the shifting tides of 21st century public morality. This, you will be interested to learn, is a world in which referring to a character in a 90-year-old novel as ‘the Jew’ is a matter for shocked disapproval, whereas breaking your marriage vows and neglecting your offspring is, well, just something a famous writer does.” (from review in Private Eye, 8-21 January)

“Whereas the Union ‘shall establish’ a highly competitive economy, it will merely ‘contribute’ to free trade. The reality so nicely captured in this distinction is that, not unlike the US or China, the EU is a mercantilist bloc, replete with subsidies (think only of the Common Agricultural Policy) and protections (think only of services) of many kinds, aimed at barricading outsiders from the privileges afforded insiders. That its neoliberal admirers in Britain should burn so much incense in honour of its internationalist calling is not the least irony of the hour, only underlined by the contrast between its practices and the purer free trade dispositions, proceeding to unilateral abolition of tariffs, of mid-Victorian Britain.” (Perry Anderson, in London Review of Books, January 21)

“Ian​ Hamilton once recounted in the LRB (22 October 1992) that ‘when William F. Buckley Jr sent a copy of his essays to Norman Mailer, he pencilled a welcoming “Hi, Norman!” in the index, next to Mailer’s name.’” (Gavin Francis, in London Review of Books, January 21)

“The supposed backsliding on the part of St John Clarke was certainly not because nay potential hostess objected to his being a ‘Communist’. On the contrary, as an elderly, no longer very highly esteemed writer, such views may even have done something to re-establish his name. The younger people approved, while in rich, stuffy houses, where he was still sometimes to be seen on the strength of earlier reputation as a novelist, a left-wing standpoint was regarded as suitable to a man of letters, even creditable in a widely known, well-to-do author, who might at his age perfectly well have avoided the controversies of politics.” (from Chapter 2 of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, by Anthony Powell)

“Theological truth combines historical fact with unassailable moral principle and a journey of imagination beyond the reach of experience. It cannot be called untrue – only unproven.” (from letter by Charles Keen in the Spectator, January 9)

“But the fact is that animals are not like us. They are us. We all belong to the same kingdom Animalia. We have tried again and again to deny it across the millennia, but it’s unavoidable.” (Simon Barnes, in the Spectator, January 16)

“I have never said that I want moderate Muslims. That is not my problem. I don’t ask a Catholic to be moderate. I don’t give a damn. When it comes to someone’s religion, that does not concern me. On the other hand, I demand of every citizen, whatever their religion, to respect the rules of the Republic, because he or she is a citizen before being a believer or a nonbeliever.” (President Emmanuel Macron, in NYT, January 30)


“‘Are you hideous, stunted, mentally arrested, sexually maladjusted, marked with warts, gross in manner, with a cleft palate and an evil smell?’ Morland used to say. ‘Then, oh boy, there’s a treat ahead of you. You’re all set for a promising career as a lover. There’s an absolutely ravishing girl round the corner who’ll find you irresistible. In fact her knickers are bursting into flame at this very moment at the mere thought of you.’” (from Chapter 2 of The Valley of Bones, by Anthony Powell)

“Half of everything is geography; the other half is Shakespeare.” (Robert D. Kaplan to David Patrikarakos in the Spectator, American edition, February)

“I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.” (from Chapter 4 of The Valley of Bones, by Anthony Powell)

“There are two kinds of people in this world: those who passively fear disaster, and those who plan for it.” (Cal Flyn, in Prospect, December 2020)

“There are two types of people: professional social scientists and amateur social scientists.”  (William Davies, in London Review of Books, February 4)

“The authors of travel books can be divided into two types: travellers who write and writers who travel.” (Hilary Bradt in Literary Review, February)

“There are two types of people in this world. The people who take, and those getting took.” (‘Marla Grayson’, in I Care A Lot, quoted on feature on Rosamund Pike in NYT, February 22)

“’If there’s two types of people in this world — people that are strong and people that are weak,’ he explained in an interview, ‘I’m among the strong percentage.’” (Daniel Banyai, owner of Vermont shooting camp, in NYT, February 24)

“‘Once grace, salvation, and the Divine Nature were subjects of study’, he wrote; ‘now the fact that they were so is the subject of study. Once theology was a pure and autonomous subject; now religion lies at the mercy of psychology, history, anthropology, and whatever other discipline cares to jump in’. Philosophy, which had spent these past few millennia trying to connect human experience to an external, transhuman reality and some sort of secure ground for our values, was interesting primarily as a historical curiosity or a genre of literature. As he wrote in ‘Keeping Philosophy Pure, ‘if philosophy comes to an end, it will be because that picture is as remote from us as the picture of man as the child of God. If that day comes, it will seem as quaint to treat a man’s knowledge as a special relation between his mind and its object as it now does to treat his goodness as a special relation between his soul and God’”. (Crispin Sartwell quoting Richard Rorty in Times Literary Supplement, February 5)

“He was a Sunni Muslim of Syrian descent in a Roman Catholic land.  .  .  Mr. Menem, who converted to Catholicism because it was a constitutional requirement for the presidency, assumed office five months early when President Raúl Alfonsín resigned as the long-troubled economy finally collapsed and looters invaded the supermarkets.” (from NYT obituary of Carlos Menem, former president of Argentina, February 15)

“’A great illusion is that government is carried on by an infallible, incorruptible machine,’ Pennistone said. ‘Officials – all officials, of all governments – are just as capable of behaving in an irregular manner as anyone else. In fact they have the additional advantage of being able to assuage their conscience, if they happen to own one, by assuring themselves it’s all for the country’s good.’” (from Chapter 2 of The Military Philosophers, by Anthony Powell)

“There’s a new spirit abroad in Prince Theodoric’s country, and, whatever people may say, there’s no doubt about Marshal Stalin’s sincerity in desire for a good-neighbour policy, if the West allows it.” (Sillery, in Chapter 1 of Books Do Furnish A Room, by Anthony Powell)

“How one envies the rich quality of a reviewer’s life. All the things to which those Fleet Street Jesuses feel superior. Their universal knowledge, exquisite taste, idyllic loves, happy married life, optimism, scholarship, knowledge of the true meaning of life, freedom from sexual temptation, simplicity of heart, sympathy with the masses, compassion for the unfortunate, generosity – particularly the last, in welcoming with open arms every phoney who appears on the horizon. It’s not surprising that in the eyes of most reviewers a mere writer’s experiences seem so often trivial, sordid, lacking in meaning.” (X. Trapnel, in Chapter 3 of Books Do Furnish A Room, by Anthony Powell)

“On the other hand, people rarely take the view that they have been rewarded according to their deserts, those most rewarded often the keenest to be revenged.” (from Chapter 1 of Temporary Kings, by Anthony Powell)


Letter to a Young Poet

The fall of a girl’s hair, the flare of a skirt –

the merciless daily things that break your heart

Are there for you to learn your skills from. The hurt

Of living is what stings us into art.

Cool your desires to ice, then start to play.

Compose it all like music: use what you need:

Secrets; strange worlds; failed love; friends gone away.

Each poem’s a rock-hard crystal, grown from a seed.

Dig down and find the past: dead kings; old war;

Wonder-filled days; riding your first steam train;

Mysteries; why men don’t whistle any more.

Honour the things that won’t come back again.

Remember politics, but don’t digest them whole.

(That shimmering emblem trailed across the sky

Will ravel out your mind, destroy your soul

And fill the world with less while millions die.)

Be sure of nothing: youth’s no time to be wise.

The Truth will let you in on its own plan.

Travel: possess the girl: enjoy each prize.

Don’t think too much about writing. Live while you can.

(By Colin Falck, published in the Spectator, February 13)

“There are also considerations of reticence and taste, and most of all, a realization that every human life is at once so complex and so simple, so perplexing and so clear, so superficial and so profound, that any attempt to present it as a unified, consistent whole, to enclose it within a rigid frame, inevitably tempts one to cheat or falsify.” (from Introduction to Iris Origo’s Images and Shadows)

“The world I had built up in my imagination was unlike any country upon land or sea. It was a phantasmagoria of Queen Anne country houses and Oxford colleges and libraries, of village cricket and nursery tea, of hollyhocks in cottage gardens and cathedral spires, of friends, friends, friends with whom I could be at ease, and of a deep swift stream perpetually gliding between green banks, while a young man (his contours still somewhat blurred) read poetry aloud to me.” (from Iris Origo’s Images and Shadows, p 226)

“The world will never know my life, even if it should write and read a hundred biographies of me. The main facts of it are known, and are likely to be known, to myself alone, of all created men.” (Thomas Carlyle, from Froude’s Life, quoted by Iris Origo in Images and Shadows, p 241)

“On the contrary, I think that people of my age should have the courage to maintain a certain loyalty of the taste that they have acquired through many years of devotion to one of the arts, and frankly to admit what they do or do not enjoy. One need never again, for instance, listen to an opera by Wagner, if that happens to be one of one’s blind spots, nor read the novels of Stendhal, nor the works of Simone de Beauvoir, nor look at a picture by Dali.” (from Iris Origo’s Images and Shadows, p 266)

“People who sound insincere all the time, he [Shorty] thought to himself, should not expect others to notice the difference when they try to sound insincere.” (From Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up, Chapter 18)

“A private grievance is never so dangerous as when it can be identified with a matter of principle.” (J. M. Thompson, according to Harold L, Schechter and Peter S. Deriabin in The Spy Who Saved the World, p 389, citing Alan Studner in CIA paper A Study of Treason)

“Few things in politics are sadder than a nostalgist unaware that the circus has moved on. In Britain, the main function of the works of Friedrich Hayek and his school now seems to be to supply a Zoom backdrop for the increasingly forlorn public interventions of the backbench libertarian MP Steve Baker.” (Jonathan Parry in London Review of Books, March 18)

“The Union fell apart without great bloodshed, as if on its own, and they were corrupted by the ease of the collapse and therefore unprepared for resistance. They thought that all evil had been contained in the USSR and now that there was no Union, things would take the right path; they did not understand that evil was a part of history and that democracy was a system for minimizing evil and not for the triumph of good. Now they were twice orphaned because the country of their birth was gone and the country in which they grew up was also gone.” (from Sergei Lebedev’s The Goose Fritz, pp 67-68)

“The price of misfires, accidents, bad coincidences was very high in that world; in it, a ridiculous suspicion, a nasty rumor, a mean gaze had great power to control reality – because fractional people are more vulnerable than whole ones, it is much easier to present them as demons in the current political bestiary.” (from Sergei Lebedev’s The Goose Fritz, p 242)


“’What the obsessive man still wanted, when he wasn’t blissfully muttering in bed, was an apology,’ Bailey writes in Philip Roth.’ From whom? In short order: villainous ex-wives, the needy children of said ex-wives, feminists who accused him of misogyny, Jewish critics who accused him of anti-Semitism, The New York Times, John Updike, Irving Howe, his bad back, insufficiently devoted editors (‘your engine doesn’t throb any longer at the sound of my name,’ he chastised one), possibly the Nobel Committee. From the first page, the message is clear: Roth is owed.’ (from Parul Sehgal’s review of Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography, in NYT, March 31)

“The really big money comes in through the capital campaigns. These are fundraising events dedicated to financing a major school project: paving the locker rooms with gold, annexing Slovakia, putting out a hit on a rival headmaster. The campaign gets some cockamamie name – ‘Imagine the Future’ or ‘Quid pro Quo’ – and lasts several years. There has never in history been a private-school family that slid in and out of the institution without overlapping with one of these campaigns.” (from Caitlin Flanagan’s Private Schools Are Indefensible, in The Atlantic, April 2021)

“The church was the original multi-cultural project, with Jesus as its only point of identity. It was known, and was for this reason seen as both attractive and dangerous, as a worship-based, spiritually renewed, multi-ethnic, polychrome, mutually supportive, outward-facing, culturally creative, chastity-celebrating, socially responsible fictive kinship group, gender-blind in leadership, generous to the poor and courageous in speaking up for the voiceless.” (from letter by Rt Revd Prof N. T. Wright, former bishop of Durham, in the Spectator, March 27)

“The truth about anything is probably ‘a compound of two opposite half-truths’”. (Tom Stoppard in the ‘proto-mockumentary Tom Stoppard Doesn’t Know, according to Andrew Hagan, in review of Hermione Lee’s Tom Stoppard: A Life, in New York Review of Books, April 29)

“Then I cheered myself up by reflecting that it was overridingly important to have renewed my assault, even verbally and vainly, on the tested principle that ever’y minute a girl is allowed to spend in official ignorance of a man’s intentions means two extra minutes of build-up when the time comes.” (from Kingsley Amis’s Girl, 20, Chapter One)

“The real trouble with liars, I decided as I belatedly got Weber out of his drawer, was that there could never be any guarantee against their occasionally telling the truth.” (from Kingsley Amis’s Girl, 20, Chapter Three)

“But of course Regulation 82(c) of the By Jove and Great Scott Society states, No gentleman shall lay a finger on a lady if the lady should presume to have the effrontery to make the first move.” (Penny Vandervane, in Kingsley Amis’s Girl, 20, Chapter Five)

“Roth’s last years, from 2006 to 2018, were melancholy. He had serious back problems, knee problems, heart problems. He had a psychotic reaction to the sedative Halcion, became addicted to opioids, and went through an excruciating detox. Many of his friends got accustomed to taking him to the emergency room. Lisa Halliday was with him once when he was filling out the admission paperwork. The hospital needs to know, Roth explained, who to call if the end is near. If you are Jewish, they send a rabbi; if Catholic, a priest. ‘And if you say you’re an atheist?’ Halliday asked. ‘They send Christopher Hitchens.’” (from Elaine Showalter’s review of Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography, in TLS, April 9)

“I am a cisgender woman, in a monogamous 30-plus-year marriage with a cisgender straight man. However, I don’t identify as straight. Before marriage, I dated both men and women. If I were single, I would most likely do the same. I consider myself bisexual and am open about that identity with friends and family. And that’s how I fill out official forms, like the census. But I feel weird about doing that at work, a law firm, not because I’m embarrassed about identifying publicly as bisexual but because it feels fraudulent to put myself in that category when I live as a straight woman and don’t face the discrimination my L.G.B.T.Q. colleagues might. On the other hand, I feel that it’s important for leaders in organizations to be ‘out.’ Is it ethical to identify myself as L.G.B.T.Q. on client surveys or state bar forms that inquire as to race, sexual orientation, etc., for diversity-tracking purposes? Terri, New York” (question to the Ethicist, in NYT Magazine, April 18)

As a soixante-huitard, I recall this period intimately, and embarrassedly. While on the cultural barricades, we did not see ourselves as tearing apart social capital: we thought that we were tearing down the institutions of capitalism. But of course, the institutions survived and instead it was the destruction of civility, of mutually respectful dialogues, that we helped to bring about. I recall attending a meeting of the Oxford Revolutionary Socialist Students – not a parody – during which we were urged to stand up and denounce any suspect peers in the assembly.” (Professor Paul Collier, in TLS, April 15)

“Democratic politics presumes the existence of a proper opposition holding governments to account and offering alternative policies – the very thing which, infamously, does not exist at EU level. As there cannot be opposition within the system, there only remains opposition to the system (primarily in the form of anti-EU parties).”(Jan-Werner Mueller, inLondon Review of Books, April 22)