January 2011

A New Year, and a new Commonplace Book opened (Commonplace2011). Quite a rich and varied assortment for January. Please take a look especially at the quotations from Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands – a very impressive, though gruesome, book, that deservedly gained multiple plaudits from the critics. Now I am off to the UK for a dinner, at Whitgift School, to celebrate the Centenary of my father’s birth on February 9th. (January 31, 2011)

It was Clive James, in an essay in the indifferent collection, The Revolt of the Pendulum, who prompted me to pick up in December the memoirs of the British Labour Party politician, Dennis Healey, The Time of My Life. The book is well worth reading (though not as wonderful as James asserts), if you can glide quickly through the portions that display Healey’s affectations. Healey is the first person I have read to debunk that absurd remark from Dean Acheson about Britain ‘losing an Empire and not finding a role’, and the chapter on the hopelessness of trying to manage an economy in a democratic society should be compulsory reading for any dedicated monetarist or neo-Keynesian today. But the contradictions and oversights in Healey’s account of his life are preposterous. Like Brown (and Churchill, of course) he claimed to know nothing about economics when he became Chancellor, yet he had for twenty-five years been espousing a policy of pursuing that ‘irreversible shift of power and wealth to working people’ without an understanding of how wealth is created, or what it would mean for aesthetes like him if such a goal were achieved. He was of that generation (‘Our Age’ as Noel Annan so condescendingly wrote), which was sympathetic to socialism (and occasionally communism) out of some simplistic moral inclination, and shares with us his deluded belief that the UK was fighting the Nazis so that socialism could be built in his native land. His definition of socialism is sloppy, defined primarily by ‘consensus’, and he thus lauds (in 1989) the Japanese economy as it was managed by a multipartite consensual approach to business. Yet he admires constitutions that allow rapid decision-making, and he has the tastelessness to refer to the first two years of Margaret Thatcher’s term of office as a ‘holocaust’. He was disparaging about aristocrats and culture in his firebrand youth, but shows off his cultural accomplishments and boasts of his high-placed friends throughout the book.

Healey’s vast claims of friendship with so many persons really grabbed my attention. He identifies well over 100, most of whom are ‘close’, ‘dear’ or ‘lifelong’, and I have compiled a roster of them, which can be seen on this site at TheFriendsofDenisHealey, a kind of List of Huntingdonshire Cabmen de nos jours.  Last December, after reading Kenneth Clark’s memoirs, I remember posting here the opinion that Clark’s collection of  ‘friends’ made George Weidenfeld (of Remembering My Good Friends) look like a hermit. But Denis Healey makes Kenneth Clark look like St Simeon of Stylites.

Coincidentally, on December 26th, an Op-Ed piece by Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary anthropology at the University of Oxford, titled You’ve Got To Have (150) Friends, appeared in the New York Times. Here Professor Dunbar drew attention to the illusion of the multiplicity of friendships that was enabled through social networks like Facebook, reminding us that ‘our circle of actual friends remains stubbornly small, limited not by technology but by human nature’. He has written a book titled How Many Friends Does One Person Need? Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks, and frequently lectures on the topic. I then exchanged brief email messages with Professor Dunbar (he is not a friend of mine), pointing out the contribution that memoirs – especially political memoirs – could make to his research, and expressing the hypothesis that that there might be an inverse correlation between the confidence with which one feels one’s fame is merited, and the number of friends that that person makes claim to in his or her memoirs. The professor replied – rather disappointingly – that ‘the short answer is that we haven’t looked at celebrities [sic] friendships at all.’ Get to it, prof!

In December I also read the woolliest and most pointless book on history that I have read for a long time – Robert Dallek’s The Lost Peace. Professor Dallek attempts to analyze the opportunities missed by national leaders between 1945 and 1953 to create a more peaceful world, engaging in his narrative some dubious counterfactual speculation, but not offering any inspection of structural influences that prevented such an idealistic outcome. In underplaying the ideological divide between totalitarianism and constitutional democracies (which he sloppily misrepresents in the Marxian terms of communism versus capitalism, as have so many other historians and commentators), he appears to regard the representatives of both systems as equally morally culpable. Typical of his conclusions is the following observation: “Mao cannot be seen as any wiser than Truman or the Koreans for having entered the conflict [the Korean War]. China’s battlefield casualties were horrendous – more than a million – and the war delayed badly needed investments in the domestic economy to raise the country’s miserably low standard of living.” Irrespective of the US’s adventurism, there appears nothing in this account to suggest awareness of Mao’s later social programs of ‘investment’ – the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, in which over 60 million Chinese citizens were to die. Theirs was truly a ‘Lost Peace’ – or alternatively the peace of the graveyard. Didn’t Schiller have it (as J. Wallace Larwood inquired on Peter Sellers’s The Critics) – ‘Die Ruhe eines Kirchhofs!’?

A much better read was David Lodge’s outstanding Deaf Sentence.            All three of these works have contributed to my December Commonplace entries.

A Happy New Year to all my readers!                                                                                                                                                                (December 31st, 2010)

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