Commonplace 2022


“We need to turn our backs on the ideology of absolute free trade in favor of a model of development based on explicit and verifiable principles of economic, fiscal and environmental justice.” (Thomas Piketty, in Time for Socialism, quoted by Robert Kuttner in NYT review, January 2)

“Obviously, wealth can ameliorate many of these restrictions, but even a wealthy Christian could never hope to become president or enter the higher echelons of the military.” (Philip Wood, on Egypt, in review of The Vanishing Twilight of Christianity in the Middle East, by Janine di Giovanni, in Prospect, January/February)

“Reading about Eric Ravilious as I have to talk in a film being made by Margy Kinmonth, I find a good quote on the Second World War: ‘I regretted that we were being called upon to fight against something regarded as wrong without at the same time having the conviction that we were defending a way of life that was right’ (H.B. Mallalieu in The England of Eric Ravilious by Freda Constable).”  (from Alan Bennett’s Diary, 27 February, 2021, in London Review of Books, January 6)

On ‘Experiments’

The Atlantic, across its long history, has held true that the American experiment is a worthy one, which is why we’re devoting this issue, and so much of our journalism in the coming years, to its possible demise.”  (Jeffrey Goldberg, in Editor’s Note in Atlantic Monthly, January/February)

“This is one of the core conservative principles: epistemological modesty, or humility in the face of what we don’t know about a complex world, and a conviction that social change should be steady but cautious and incremental. Down the centuries, conservatives have always stood against the arrogance of those who believe they have the ability to plan history: the French revolutionaries who thought they could destroy a society and rebuild it from scratch, but who ended up with the guillotine; the Russian and Chinese Communists who tried to create a centrally controlled society, but who ended up with the gulag and the Cultural Revolution; the Western government planners who thought they could fine-tune an economy from the top, but who ended up with stagflation and sclerosis; the European elites who thought they could unify their continent by administrative fiat and arrogate power to unelected technocrats in Brussels, but who ended up with a monetary crisis and populist backlash.” (David Brooks, in Atlantic Monthly, January/February)

“Able to hear subtle differences in sounds, he [Johnny Cash] was trained as a radio intercept operator; and for three years, at least eight hours a day, he sat in a room outside Munich, listening to Soviet transmissions, distinguishing signal from noise.” (Stephen Metcalf, in Atlantic Monthly, January/February)

“I once hear a Russian nobleman say of the Russian peasantry: ‘Every son-of-a-dog of them ought to have a millstone tied around his neck and be sunk in the ocean.’

I heard the same nobleman say: ‘A Minister or Governor of a province who refuses a bribe cannot be considered a gentleman.’” (Paul Dukes, in The Story of “ST 25”, p 13)

“There are definite signs of a rebirth of spiritual values in Russian life, though they cannot yet become openly manifest. By spiritual or religious values I do not mean a revival of a clergy inheriting the traditions of a State Church; nor do I mean the combination of superstition and hysteria which in many Russians passes for religion; nor do I mean the vaunted emotionalism which makes a virtue of display and regards emotional restraint and self-command as inhuman; nor do I mean that proneness to ‘mysticism’ which takes the form of a passion for the abstruse. These are all facets of religious mania which, I believe, contributed to the debacle of the Russian intelligentsia in the revolution.” (Paul Dukes, in Epilogue to The Story of “ST 25”, p 354)


“Schools like Harvard have no one to blame but themselves. Their flimsy approach to ‘diversity’ and their desire to stay as academically exclusive as possible have created an indefensible system of racial nonsense that demeans not only its Asian and Black applicants, but everyone else who has to play this absurd game.’ (Jay Caspian Kang, in NYT, January 31)

“All of them were patriots holding up a mirror to society, forcing us to examine ourselves and better understand the perils that stand in the way of the American experiment.” (Michael Mailer [son of Norman] in the Spectator, January 22)

“The screen gives you the price but the voice gives you the market.” (Derek Tullett, quoted by Martin Vander Weyer in the Spectator, January 22)

“The two most fascinating subjects in the universe are sex and the 18th century.” (Brigid Brophy, according to Wynn Wheldon in the Spectator, January 22)

Now Which Russians Were Those?

“As history tells us, Russians fear the West based on many years of hostile relations with Western Europe, followed by more than 40 years of the Cold War with Western democracies, including our country.” (letter from Alan Safron in NYT, February 4)

“Despite what the rotund and orotund Canon Tonks claimed in my Confirmation class many years ago, there is no absolute truth. Especially in the piranha-infested waters of spydom. Truth is in the eyes of the typewriter and the scissors of whoever has the files. Files may lie by perpetuating on cheap paper with official stamps and smudged signatures the false testimony beaten and bullied out of hapless witnesses. They may mislead by error, selectivity, falsification or subsequent pruning, a prime example being the archives of SOE, which, in a successful effort to expunge all references to SIS and its wartime secrets, have been weeded more thoroughly than the gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society, the edited pages ironed flat to conceal the emendations.” (Geoffrey Elliott, in I Spy, p 230)

“There are some basic rules in life. Never eat in a restaurant called Mom’s. Never play cards with a man named Doc. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are greater than yours. Never lend money to a company whose chairman has a beard, all the more if he has recently won some newspaper nomination as Young Businessman of the Year. To these add, never try to dig up a long-lost parent.” (Geoffrey Elliott, in I Spy, p 262)

“In predominantly Roman Catholic France, abortion was long considered a mortal sin and officially banned by the Napoleonic Code of 1810,  which threatened women who had abortions with imprisonment. During the German occupation in World War II, the procedure was deemed a capital crime, and some women who underwent or performed abortions were executed, often by guillotine. The last such execution was in 1943.” (from NYT obituary of Marie-Claire Chevalier, February 12)

“. . .the Roman Empire lasted at least four times as long as the British Empire, had a death toll nowhere near the scale of British genocide, caused much less environmental devastation and involved none of the curses and gifts of industrialisation. Only those with a vested interest –usually public schoolboys with Classics degrees – find meaningful similarity between the two.” (Sarah Moss in article about Jan Morris in Prospect, March)

“Never forget that under a totalitarian system cruelty and absurdity go hand in hand.” (Al Weiwei, quoted by Orville Schell in New York Review of Books, March 10)

“A limited imagination promotes failure of the memory because there are no luminous and scarcely touched places back there in one’s past, no votive altars of a private religion, so to speak, nor small hooks in the heart attached to lines reaching far back, such that any connection at all in the imagination, or anything that one happens to see, can execute a general tug.” (the narrator in Heimito von Doderer’s The Strudlhof Steps, quoted by Francine Prose in The New York Review of Books, March 10)

The more monstrous the egoist, she had observed from long practice, the more normal people hope to holdup the fabrication – either for ease, or from a terror of any kind of collapse.” (From Elizabeth Taylor’s Flesh)


“When Garbo withdrew from the star system, withdrawal became – for a time – the definition of stardom. Groucho Marx may well have been the only insider to call her bluff. Encountering her one day in an elevator on the MGM lot, he lifted the brim of her hat to peer underneath: ‘Oh, I’m terribly sorry, I thought you were a fella I knew from Kansas City.” (from David Trotter’s review of Robert Gottlieb’s Garbo in London Review of Books, February 22)

“We know that Beethoven was a sufferer, but he never expresses his suffering in his music, like Mahler does. You can hear it in every bar of Mahler — I’m suffering, I’m suffering, I’m suffering — and it’s wonderful, the way he does it.” (conductor Herbert Blomstedt, from interview in NYT, March 3)

“When Sir Tony Brenton writes a letter to the Times, as he frequently does, it always says at the bottom that he was British ambassador to Moscow. The uninformed reader could be forgiven for thinking the subeditors have got it back to front and he was actually Russian ambassador to London. Sir Tony’s message in every letter is ‘It’s all Britain’s fault.’” (Charles Moore in the Spectator, March 19)

“Last year the CIA issued a recruitment video in which the agent they highlighted as their ideal recruiter was a woman of colour who said: ‘I am a cisgender millennial who’s been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I am intersectional,’ She went on to describe her refusal to bow to the ‘patriarchy’. Instead she said she would ‘intoxicate people with my effort, my brilliance’. In its way this is a fine example of bringing your whole self to work. For the lady in question is clearly a narcissistic psychopath. A type I would rather not know exists in the CIA, and certainly would rather the CIA did not imagine was their ideal poster-girl for a recruitment campaign.” (Douglas Murray in the Spectator, March 19)

“This shambling behemoth of a national experiment called America slowly, and in spite of itself, learns. We’ve come to understand our own, at times, hubris. We’ve learned that who’s in charge makes a difference. We will continue to make mistakes.” (John McWhorter in NYT, March 11)

“To write a textbook, he [Naumov] explained, meant to have some kind of unifying narrative with an underlying conception. A point of view. No one, he insisted, would undertake such a daunting and dangerous task at the present time. To offer a unified interpretation of the Soviet period meant, first, that you wished to know the truth, and second, that you had the courage to tell it.” (from Jonathan Brett’s Inside the Stalin Archives, p 213)

“I have nothing but documents here, but to understand history you have to overcome the documents. By themselves, documents will never be enough. In fact very little was written down.” (Vladimir Naumov, from Jonathan Brett’s Inside the Stalin Archives, p 232)

“When the Women’s Liberation Conference gathered in Skegness in 1971, their booking coincided with a miners’ conference where a stripper was part of the evening entertainment.” (Clare Griffith in review of Sheila Rowbotham’s Daring to Hope in TLS, March 4)

“She involved herself with Amnesty International, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Samaritans and the Quakers; was attracted to Maoism; started growing cannabis; and would have joined the Labour Party had it not been working-class.” (Norma Clarke, of Justin Webb’s mother, in review of Webb’s The Gift of a Radio in TLS, March 4)

“What is missing here – by choice, not inadvertently – is the real key to historical writing: a sense of uncertainty. Historians make imperfect judgements about incomplete evidence, and some of what they write about (above all, human intentions) may have been intrinsically uncertain at the time.” (Noel Malcolm, in review of Christopher De Bellaigue’s The Lion House, in TLS, March 4)

“His indifference to things that happen outside Britain (and especially in non-English-speaking countries) is so marked that he makes Nigel Farage look like Isaiah Berlin.” (Richard Vinen on Peter Hennessy’s A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After Covid, in Literary Review, March)

“All agreed during those pregnant years that the best chance to stop Hitler, as is now confirmed by German records, was at the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936.” (from Douglas Dodds-Parker’s Setting Europe Ablaze, p 8)

’We are Vlasov’s Army’ came the explanation. ’To save our lives, we joined the German Army. As soon as we heard that the Allies had landed nearby, we shot all our German officers. Before you say anything else, we want a complete assurance that under no circumstances at all will we ever be handed back to the Russians. Unless that understanding is given here, at once, we are going to shoot ourselves.’” (from Douglas Dodds-Parker’s Setting Europe Ablaze, p 167)

“Rather in the same spirit of desperation, on my last visit to Naples I had agreed to get married.” (Peter Wilkinson, in Foreign Fields, p 217)


“The secret that Robert Browning communicated was that when you speak in the voice of someone else, the speaker, thus registered, reveals something without realizing that he or she is revealing it. There is something unacknowledged in the speech, in the discourse, that escapes with the speaker unaware. And it was that — the drama of the speaker revealing more than was known or suspected — that appealed very strongly.” (Richard Howard, on the attraction of the dramatic monologue, to the PEN American Center in 2005, from his NYT obituary, April 1)

“We are now being assured by graduate students at the University of Leeds that the term Anglo-Saxon should be abolished because it developed ‘as a concept intrinsic to the emerging ideologies of colonialism, nationalism, and white racial identity’. As an eminent medieval historian commented: ‘But they were the victims of Norman colonialization in 1066.’“ (David Abulafia, in the Spectator. March 15)

“You know, I have come to the conclusion that the real purpose of marriage is talk. It’s the thing which distinguishes it from the other sorts of relationships between men and women, and it’s the one thing one misses most, strangely enough, in the long run – the outpourings of trivialities day after day. I think that’s the fundamental human need, much more important than – violent passion, for instance.” (Tory Foyle in Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour, Chapter 8)

“’A man’, she thought suddenly, ’would consider this a business outing. But, then, a man would not have to cook the meals for the day overnight, nor consign his child to a friend, nor leave half-done the ironing, nor forget the grocery order as I now discover I have forgotten it. The artfulness of men’, she thought. ‘They implant in us, foster in us, instincts which it is to their advantage for us to have, and which, in the end, we feel shame at not possessing.’” (Beth Cazabon in Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour, Chapter 11)

“Research suggests that trauma can be passed down generation to generation. Bodies retain physiological imprints of traumatic memories, which can be reactivated by stressful events.” (from report on Ukraine in NYT, April 17)


“This committee will focus on the Church’s priority of racial justice as it is manifested in the material culture in our churches and cathedrals.” (advertisement for membership of the Contested Heritage Committee of the Church of England’s Church Buildings Council, reported by Charles Moore in the Spectator, March 26)

“It was prompted by Davie’s concern that on current trends the BBC ‘will not feel indispensable enough to all our audience.’ In an effort to avert a fatal slide into irrelevance, he promised to create ‘an organization that is much more representative of the UK as a whole’: one that is 50% women, 20% ethnic minority and 12% disabled.” (Henri Astier, at

“Doig often uses the word ‘we’ incautiously to refer to the relatively privileged inhabitants of rich industrialized countries – as in the claim that ‘science is why we live in the healthiest and wealthiest period that we have ever had’. A ‘global’ history of death throughout all time and space ought not, ideally, to have an appendix of life-expectancy data focused only on the United Kingdom. The idea that ‘we’ have ‘largely overcome’ ‘famine and war’ would be a welcome surprise to some human inhabitants of the world, and seems implausible as a prediction of the global future. Doig declares blithely that, once the science of disease is understood, ‘we can devise solutions’ – as if poverty could be banished with the wave of a pen.” (Emily Wilson, in review of Andrew Doig’s This Mortal Coil – and other books – in TLS, April 15)

“Potter notes the recommendation of the parliamentary committee overseeing the charter review in 1936 that ‘BBC officers should consult civil servants, informally, whenever “the interests of the state appear to be at all closely involved.”’ Only ‘informally’, of course: nothing more than a chap having a word with another chap. The extent to which this could compromise the BBC’s independence became apparent in the late 1930s when the Foreign Office agitated for foreign-language broadcasts to counter the propaganda of the Axis powers. John Reith, the director general, felt obliged to accept an arrangement that, as Potter puts it, ‘included agreeing that news editors would accept specific guidance from civil servants as to which items needed to be included in, or omitted from, different foreign-language services. All this was subsequently enshrined in a secret “gentleman’s agreement” between the BBC and the government, unwritten and thus eminently deniable by both parties.’” (Stefan Collini in review of Simon J. Potter’s This Is The BBC, in LRB, April 21)

“Comrade thieves, wheeler-dealers, robbers, picklocks, swindlers, blackmailers, double-dealers, sots, marauders, pickpockets, cat burglars, vagrants, and other brethren…we have to meet in order to choose representatives to the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies…Unite, comrades, for in unity is strength!… [Signed] Group of conscientious businessmen.” (advertisement in socialist newspaper in Tver in 1917, from Gary Saul Morson’s review of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Red Wheel, in The New York Review of Books, May 12)

“What compels them to kick up all that dust?… Why do philosophers go in for skepticism? Why do they ask whether the table is really there, whether you might turn out to be a robot, whether you see what I see when we simultaneously remark the deep vermilion in the rose?” (Richard Rorty, on questions asked by Stanley Cavell’s work, from Christopher Benfey’s review of Cavell’s writings in New York Review of Books, May 12)

“In early September 1944 Forrestal wondered out loud why it was that ‘whenever an American suggests we act in accordance with the needs of our own security, he is apt to be labeled a God-damned fascist or imperialist, while if Uncle Joe suggests that he needs the Baltic provinces, half of Poland, Bessarabia, and access to the Mediterranean, all hands agree that he is a fine, frank, candid, and thoroughly delightful fellow because he is explicit in what he wants.’” (from John Kelly’s Saving Stalin, p 284)

“Blok was right, of course. Especially with that comparison, for just as there is nothing more human, more emotionally devastating, than tears of love, so is there nothing more loathsome than indifference to one’s country, to its past, present and future, to its language, its customs, its fields and forests, to its villages and people, be they geniuses or village cobblers.” (from Chapter 47 of Konstantin Paustovsky’s The Story of a Life)

“Religion was their self-deception. It was a world of fruitless make-believe for weary people. They could see no other way out of their trouble and so despite common sense and their own life experiences they believed with a burning fanaticism that justice was incarnate in the person of this poor soul from Galilee, in the person of God. But for some reason that God, invented by people in order to make sense of the bloody and harsh muddle of human existence, never came, or spoke, or helped their lives. Yet they still believed in him, even though their God’s inaction had lasted for centuries. So great was their longing for happiness that they looked for its poetry in religion, in the sobs of the organ, in the smoke of incense, in solemn incantations.” (from Chapter 50 of Konstantin Paustovsky’s The Story of a Life)


“Conservatives will have a field day with this. Prepare to meet the Person Who Got the Stupidest Degree in America, because that person will be on Fox News more than pundits who exude an ‘angry cheerleading coach’ vibe. The case study will be some tragic dweeb who took out $400,000 in loans to get a Ph.D. in intersectional puppet theory from Cosa Nostra Online College and who wrote his dissertation about how ‘Fraggle Rock’ is an allegory for the Franco-Prussian War. I can picture Tucker Carlson putting on his confused cocker spaniel puppy face and asking the poor sap, ‘Why do Democrats want to forgive every last penny of your student loans?’” (Jeff Maurer, in leader in NYT, May 12)

“It is unlikely that even the inhabitants of Basingstoke know that their town, lying in the ambitiously named ‘southern sunbelt’, was once, as Hatherley explains, called the ‘Dallas of Hampshire’ or that the mid-1970s Gateway House was known as the ‘hanging gardens of Basingstoke’.” (Jonathan Meades, in review of Modern Buildings in Britain: A Gazetteer by Owen Hatherley, in Literary Review, May)

“Their national identity was lost on neither the Czar nor the Soviets, both of whom regulated the genre extensively. By the 1930s, the Stalinist regime had carried out mass executions of bandura players throughout the country. At the end of the preceding decade, Sonevytsky said, there were at least 300 bandurists registered in Ukraine. After 1936, there were four.” (Gabrielle Cornish in NYT, May 15)

‘We Are All Guilty’

“Of course, the Nazis were ultimately responsible for Anne Frank’s death, from Hitler and Eichmann all the way down to the lowly functionary Silberbauer and his henchmen. But on a global level, Anne Frank was betrayed by all those who had the ability to help Jews and chose not to. The Dutch queen betrayed her by abandoning the nation; one can imagine a different outcome had Queen Wilhelmina, like King Christian X of Denmark, stood up to the Nazi occupiers and defended the Jews. The US government betrayed her by declining to approve visas for the Frank family to travel via New York to Cuba in 1941 — the only real chance they had to escape the Netherlands. The Allies betrayed her by declining to bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz. The nations of the world betrayed her by turning away Jewish refugees. In imagining that a single person could have been responsible for Anne Frank’s death — and not the tidal wave of fascism that once threatened to engulf the world and may do so yet — are we not betraying her still?” (Rosemary Sullivan in New York Review of Books, May 26)


“Dr Heinz Kiosk, the eminent psychopenologist and chief psychiatric adviser to the Eccles Cake and Garibaldi Biscuit Council, urged at a recent seminar that prison authorities should go much further than this and be obliged to provide for every kind of sexual practice conceivable.

Some of these practices (see Krafft-Ebbing’s collected works, edited with introduction and notes by Dr Kiosk himself and Dr Melinda Fischbein) require elaborate and extensive equipment.

To those who objected that rate-payers might not be willing to pay for all of this, Dr Kiosk replied: ‘It is one way in which these so-called rate-payers can make amends for the persecution of these so-called ‘criminals’ by our unjust consumer-orientated society.’

‘And not only the ordinary rate-payers,’ he shouted hastily, as Dr Llewellyn Goth-Jones, the medical officer of health for Stretchford, who is a director of a new chain of ‘sex aid factories,’ a Nadirco subsidiary, just opened in the Midlands, rose to his feet to support him, ‘WE ARE ALL GUILTY.’”  (from The Stretchford Chronicles, 1973, by ‘Peter Simple’, aka Michael Wharton)

“I knew, thanks to a recent takeover of the company I worked for, that the larger an organization becomes, the more dysfunctional it gets. This was a truth that surely applied as much to the intelligence services as to any other place of work.” (from Mick Herron’s Preface to Slow Horses)

“A writer spends the first part of his or her career hoping to be discovered; the rest hoping not to be found out.” (from Mick Herron’s Preface to Slow Horses)

“Sid said, ‘I hate conspiracy theories.’

‘It’s not a theory once it’s proved. After that, it’s just a conspiracy.’”(from Slow Horses, p 150, by Mick Herron)

“One of the problems with information is that the useful and the useless can be snowflake-similar, and the ability to know the one from the other comes with hindsight, if at all.” (from Mick Herron’s The Last Dead Letter)

“A historian lacks the armature of the scientist or the freedom of the artist, so takes the liberty of the rhetorician. When Mr. Cohen asked Eric Hobsbawm if historical objectivity exists, Hobsbawm laughed. ‘Of course not,’ he replied. ‘But I try to obey the rules.’ Unfortunately, the rules were those of the Communist Party. Hobsbawm falsified the record to defend the indefensible.” (Dominic Green, in review of Richard Cohen’s Making History, in Wall Street Journal, May 21)

“Schizophrenia is the product of endless interaction effects. All of us are probably only a molecule or two away from madness.” (Michele Pridmore-Brown, in review of Adam Rutherford’s Control, in TLS, May 20)

“Subsequent histories of Darwinism have maintained Huxley’s view of Weissmann’s role in ‘sharpening’ the definition of Darwinism by establishing the principle of ‘”hard’ heredity: that is, the complete inability of the organism to influence the genetic information passed on to the next generation.’” (from Jessica Rifkin’s The Restless Clock, p 279)

“Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he cannot live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public.” (Ernest Mayr, in Towards a New Philosophy of Biology, quoted by Jessica Rifkin in The Restless Clock, p 347)


“I’m very skeptical about much of psychoanalysis. I think it’s such a narcissistic indulgence that I cannot believe in it.”

“In my eyes, both Adolf Hitler and my grandfather were false prophets of the 20th century. They shared the ambition to convince other men of the one and only truth they had come upon.” (Sophie Freud, from her NYT obituary, June 4)

“Researching and writing history is like a spinach-eating competition in which the only possible prize is another helping of fresh, steaming vegetables.” (Ian W. Toll, in review of Paul Kennedy’s Victory at Sea in NYT, June 12)

“Spying is a complex business. Information must be not only collected but also properly evaluated and used. This process is jeopardized by enemy disinformation, ambiguous signals, forgery for profit. . . ., distortion by agents eager to please superiors to avoid blame, bureaucratic rivalries,, and leaders’ ideology.” (Barry Rubin, in Istanbul Intrigues, p 49)

“The subject of ‘double agents’ is with us constantly. Many here believe [double agents] to be the best sources of information on our enemies,’ arguing that such men knew a great deal and that American agents could outsmart them ‘to get more than they give.’ This idea was misguided, Wickham warned. ‘The double agent knew only what was necessary to do their job, ‘namely to feed out enemy propaganda.’” (John Wickham, chief of OSS in Istanbul in February 1944 report, quoted by Barry Rubin in Istanbul Intrigues, p 190)

“What frightens me is that when a country begins to extend its influence by strong-arm methods beyond its borders under the guise of security it is difficult to see how a line can be drawn. If the policy is accepted that the Soviet Union has a right to penetrate her immediate neighbors for security, penetration of the next immediate neighbors becomes at a certain time equally logical.” (Averell Harriman, according to Barry Rubin in Istanbul Intrigues, p 272)

“The original draft of the [Colby] note was, if anything, even more categorical. It contained phrases such as, ‘The Government of the United States is unalterably opposed to the policy which has been known as the “Balkanization” of Russia’, and, in relation to the nationality question, ‘The Government of the United States is convinced that, in many instances, the so-called “nationalistic” movements in Russia have been artificially produced and fostered.’ It protested against ‘the dismemberment of national unities, organisms developed through centuries of evolution; the severance of unions effected long ago, often before there had been developed by any of the elements so united anything approaching a national consciousness,’ and ‘the creation of petty and even artificial States, bound to develop conflicting interests and ambitions.’ This language, so at odds with earlier Wilsonian self-determination, was ultimately left out, presumably for the sake of brevity as well as to avoid inflaming anyone.” (from Anatol Shmelev’s In the Wake of Empire, p 398)

“Rather, he notes the Allies’ fatally tepid support of the Resistance and turns a sad gaze on the reprisals that tainted every corner of the mountains with ‘some ineradicable act of cruelty’” (Boyd Tonkin, in review of Graham Robb’s France: An Adventure History, in the Wall Street Journal, June 24/25)

“As Mr. Williams makes clear, James had a less than enlightened approach to the female sex – one that was, perhaps, in keeping with the times and the island culture from which he had sprung. To him, an ideal woman was an amanuensis with amorous inclinations.” (Tunku Varadarajan, in review of John L. Williams’ C. L. R. James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries, in the Wall Street Journal, 24/25 June)

“Non-fiction can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies.” (V. S. Naipaul, according to Sara Wheeler in Literary Review, June)

“When Hobsbawm suggested that the sacrifice of millions of lives to establish a communist utopia was comparable to the sacrifices to beat Hitler, she [Sue Lawley] asked whether there was a difference ‘between killing someone in war and killing your own’. ‘We didn’t know that,’ Hobsbawm said. ‘Dead is dead’.” (Miranda Carter on Desert Island Discs in London Review of Books, June 9)

“In Mrs Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), Martin reminds us, she describes the particularity of the Yorkshire ‘race’. ‘Even an inhabitant of the neighbouring county of Lancashire is struck by the peculiar force of character which the Yorkshiremen display’; their ‘self-sufficiency’ gives them ‘an air of independence rather apt to repel a stranger’. (This brings to mind the quintessential ‘professional’ Yorkshireman, the former England cricket captain Geoffrey Boycott, who repelled strangers and teammates alike.) Then again, Martin mentions that in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is initially described as ‘exaggeratedly reserved’ – only to dash his head against a tree and howl ‘not like a man, but like a savage beast being goaded to death with knives and spears’ at the news of Catherine’s death. You don’t get that sort of behaviour in Barrow-in-Furness (Cumbria), let me tell you.” (Jonathan Drummond, in review of Andrew Martin’s Yorkshire, in TLS, June 17)

“I’ve noticed in life there are three things nobody will admit they do badly, playing bridge, talking French, and driving a car  . . . Riding used to be another.” (Nancy Mitford, from Harold Acton’s Memoir, p 108)

‘But Nancy also received ‘perfectly serious letters from people saying things like, “I am descended from Alfred the Great’s sister and I would like to congratulate you on your splendid stand for people of our sort.”’” (Harold Acton, on the U-nonU debate, from his Memoir of Nancy Mitford, p 111)


“Intellectual honesty is the first casualty of moral outrage.” (Antony Beevor’s favourite quote, from Prospect, July)

“Unfortunately, the progressives who dominate policy in the Biden administration thought there would be little risk to having the government issue enormous quantities of debt, then letting the central bank soak it up. Their anthem, which goes under the rubric of ‘modern monetary theory’ (MMT), is really just a distilled version of a line many left-leaning academics have long been pushing: that government can vastly expand its debt issuance to pay for social spending without ever having to cut spending or raise taxes, including through inflation.” (Kenneth Rogoff, in review of Christopher Leonard’s The Lords of Easy Money, in TLS, July 1)

“  . . .most memoirs, if not loaded guns, are written for the purpose of retribution and revenge. This is by no means a criticism: retribution and revenge are strong reasons for writing a book. You want to put the record straight, to tell your side of things, to correct a wrong. Even the mildest-mannered memoirs have reprisal at their hearts. A memoir of midlife marrow growing may well be a missile directed at a particular person, such as the teacher who gave you bad marks in English.” (Frances Wilson, in Literary Review, July)

“From Western leftists eager to see him as some kind of socialist descendant of the mythologized USSR (though, in reality, Russia is more of a neoliberal paradise) to American M16-and-motherhood activists who consider him a guardian of moral conservatism (though Russia has liberal abortion laws but tight gun control), everyone can have their own personal Putin.” (Mark Galeotti, in review of Philip Short’s Putin: His Life and Times, in Literary Review, July)

“I confess, I have a prejudice about that particular adjective [‘magisterial’] when applied to books. To me, it evokes a lengthy and self-regarding tome in which the author drops the names of distinguished interviewees with monotonous regularity, wears the depth of her research heavily and covers every base, from childhood traumas to the toll of the years, with little sense of an overarching narrative.” (Mark Galeotti, in review of Philip Short’s Putin: His Life and Times, in Literary Review, July)

“To Peter Sichel, John Foster [Dulles] was a figure of pure malevolence. ‘He was a terrible man. Evil, totally evil.’ The old spymaster lowered his voice in a conspiratorial whisper. ’You know, he went to church every Sunday. Never trust a religious man.’” (from Scott Anderson’s The Quiet Americans, p 313)

“Beans are to the cooked breakfast as the Dutch Mercenary Forces were to the Royal Netherlands Indies Army. Keep them in check and they will perform unglamorous but vital tasks about the empire of the fry-up; sweetening sausage, lubricating toast… Exert insufficient discipline upon them, however, and they will soon exhibit their mania for chaos… they engulf an egg… they drown bacon…Your breakfast paradise becomes a gooey mess.” (a contributor to the London Review of Breakfasts blog, quoted by Henry Jeffreys in the Spectator, July 9)

“Peter Hennessy once declared that, in the absence of a written constitution, the UK had to rely on the ‘good chap theory of government’. But what happens if the prime minister no longer even pretends to be a good chap?” (Ferdinand Mount in London Review of Books, July 7)

“Conjecture is what makes ‘prehistory’ so intriguing. It may be irritating for a conservative academic to have the laity intrude on his terrain, but the joy of history is universal. It lies in watching the past shift from impossible to implausible to sometimes even probable. Nothing is more dangerous than a closed mind.” (Simon Jenkins, in letter to TLS, July 15)

We Do?

“Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, has looked back to the distant past to discover why we believe in a transcendent world or supernatural gods. This, he argues, is not a mental aberration, but a function that draws otherwise quarrelsome and unruly human beings together, and improves our health and wellbeing. Beneath the veneer of current doctrinal orthodoxies there lurks an ancient and universal belief in a transcendental world and a divine power that can help us – a yearning and conviction that is part of our human nature.” (Karen Armstrong, in review of Robin Dunbar’s How Religion Evolved, in TLS, July 15)

“Human beings want purpose. We want meaning. We want to belong to something larger than ourselves. The decisions we make in the face of wild problems don’t just lead to good days and bad days. They define us. They determine who we are, who we might aspire to become, who we might come to be.” (Russ Roberts, in NYT Opinion, July 24)

“The living elude us, and it’s only possible to understand people after they’re dead, because it’s only then they sit still long enough for us to see them clearly.” (David Treuer’s ‘writing mentor’, as told by him in NYT Magazine, July 24)

“Instinctively I identify with the person who said that when he heard a politician talk of his vision, he recommended him to consult an optician.” (David Trimble, from his 1998 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, recorded in his NYT obituary, July 26)

“For though it may be true that we should not tell lies, steal, or behave inconsiderately, a fiction-write is heading for disaster if he makes the direct demonstration of such truths one of his main aims.” (Ronald Hingley, in Introduction to The Oxford Chekhov (3))

“The fact is that you find as much humour in Chekhov’s plays as you are qualified by your own sense of humour, or assisted by skilled interpretation, to find. The plays, like so many of the stories, are built on tension between the humorous and the serious, so that it is not really possible to assess the extent to which they are serious – quite apart from the fact that ‘humorous’ and ‘serious’ are not concepts which necessarily exclude each other.” (Ronald Hingley, in Introduction to The Oxford Chekhov (3))