What I’m Reading, April 2020

6 April

John Barton’s A History of the Bible: The Book and Its faith is proving an absolute treat. My interest in religion and belief systems has developed over the last decade or so, triggered — does this count as irony? — by reading Richard Dawkins. Anyway, last year I read the huge but hugely enjoyable A History of Christianity by Diarmaid MacCulloch. Professor Barton is another distinguished Oxford academic.

First of all, it was a pleasure to read — not just well written but also accessible. The contrast with the Michael Foot biography of HG Wells is telling. The Foot book required a great deal of background knowledge to make sense of it; Barton, on the other hand, goes out of his way to make his text accessible to the general reader.

Apart from its readability, this book is exactly what I look for when reading about something I don’t really know much about. Key words and concepts are clearly explained, even basics such as the meaning of ‘testament’, as in Old Testament. Important facts, ideas and arguments are covered succinctly, and revisited and reinforced.

Controversies and areas of disagreement (of which there are many) are set out before the reader. Barton does not shy away from telling us what he thinks, which I like. I turn the page confident that his conclusions and judgements are judiciously reached, and that I am being led along a tricky and complicated path by an expert guide.

9 April

Having planned in December to write something about the general election and the future of the Labour Party, I find that I have now written two blogposts about politics and still not really addressed what Labour ought to do next. Having read Mark Bevir’s book in January on the early years of British socialism and the ideas that were influential at the time when the Labour Party was founded, I have decided to re-read The Labour Party’s Political Thought: A History by Geoffrey Foote.

I bought the book at university, probably in 1986. I remember laughing about the front cover, which features photos of three men — Ernie Bevin, Tom Mann and Neil Kinnock. The photo of Kinnock, who was a new-ish Labour leader when the book was published, is twice the size of the other two, even though Kinnock only features in the final few pages.

I suppose there is an argument that it emphasises the connection between history and politics, but I can’t help thinking that’s it’s really a sales ploy by publishers to give history books an of-the-moment appeal.

13 April

It’s the Easter bank holiday weekend. Having just read John Barton’s history of the Bible, I am certainly noticing the many media references to biblical events, chiefly (of course) the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It’s striking how often these events are written about as if they were established historical facts.

In the absence of live sport on TV, I am working through a backlog of unwatched films and dramas. I have just re-watched Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett as the eponymous queen, Dickie Attenborough as a well-intentioned but deeply conservative William Cecil, Christopher Eccleston stuck on fast-forward as a sinister Duke of Norfolk and a brilliant Geoffrey Rush as Francis Walsingham. I have just started watching Mary Queen of Scots, which stars the wonderful Saiarse Ronan (definitely had to look up that spelling) and I have the Elizabeth follow-up, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, still to come.

I mentioned Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite (which I have also just watched) in a blogpost called Fake History and Film. It is quite astonishing the liberties taken with the historical record in all of these films. Elizabeth, in particular, seems to have cut up a chronology of historical events into individual pieces and randomly reassembled them — either that or just made things up (assuming that she wasn’t really in a long-term sexual relationship with Dudley). Quite astonishing.

A leading article in today’s Guardian talks of revisiting ideas from Labour’s past, mentioning ethical socialism, William Morris and RH Tawney. Just what I have been doing!

18 April

Just finished the Foote book on the Labour Party’s political thought. Two immediate thoughts.

Books on politics age very quickly. That’s why I don’t often buy them. This is mainly a history of political ideas, but the concluding chapter (written in 1985) deals with then-current political thinking. It has not aged well. Events and developments are all viewed through a Marxist lens, and so his critical analysis just seems woefully out of date from the perspective of 2020.

Like many on the hard left, the author can’t quite bring himself to believe that the majority of the British people don’t subscribe to his idea of socialism: “[o]nly by risking a short-term unpopularity through industrial action could the long-term reward of electoral office be obtained,” he writes, in the context of union militancy at around the time of the miners’ strike of 1984. Yuk.

The second thing to note — something that would have completely passed me by until a few years ago — is the poor quality of the proofreading and copy-editing. To be fair, it’s presumably a fact of life for many small, cash-strapped publishers. There are a number of noticeable typsetting errors. More annoyingly, there seems to be absolutely no consistency with regard to capital letters. Style guides vary, but at least be consistent!

Sentences like this one are not uncommon:

The Social Contract … was finally destroyed by the discontent of the union rank and file in the winter of discontent in 1978-9.

Out-and-out spelling mistakes — as opposed to typographical errors — are (as far as I am aware) relatively unusual in books. They get the benefit of the doubt with ‘legitimatist’ — it should probably be ‘legitimist’ — but I was astonished to see Bevan’s famous quote about Gaitskell written as “a dessicated [sic] calculating machine”.

22 April

I finished binge-watching War of the Worlds last night — the 2020 Anglo-French production shown on the Fox cable channel: eight episodes (each of about 45 minutes’ duration) over three days. Set in the present, it’s nothing like the book, I don’t think, except for the basic fact that it’s about an alien invasion. It was bleak and properly dystopian. I was enjoying the slow unfurling of the story and the time taken on character development until I realised by about episode 6 that it wasn’t unfurling anything like quickly enough to reach a conclusion. Sure enough, the final episode sets us up for a second series. How disappointing.

Time for another Sebastian Faulks novel — The Girl at the Lion d’Or. It was published in 1989, so is very early (his first, possibly). I read it ages ago but, to be honest, I can remember hardly anything about it. The character names vaguely ring a bell, as do some seemingly incidental details. I note that a reviewer quoted on the back cover recommends it to fans of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, another novel that I read a very long time ago (possibly in the mid-’80s) and can remember very little about.

27 April

I finished The Girl at the Lion d’Or yesterday. It’s only 250 pages and didn’t take long; I had no trouble reading more than my 10% minimum daily target.

It’s the first of three Faulks novels set in France in the first half of the twentieth century — this one takes place in the ’30s, the final decade of the Third Republic. Just like On Green Dolphin Street, which I read last month, the novel is beautifully crafted: it’s a love story, but so much more as well. Every character, every event (however seemingly incidental), every exchange, every detail helps paint a picture of France in the years leading up to its collapse and national humiliation in May and June 1940.

The terrible impact of the 1914-18 war, particularly the psychological scarring left on the wartime generation, looms large. People are politically rudderless, losing faith in democracy and receptive to extremist solutions; the Jews are convenient scapegoats for the nation’s ills. Hartmann’s old family home is perhaps a metaphor for the Third Republic itself, the cracks in its structure gradually growing larger and its foundations undermined by the troubled builders’ shoddy workmanship.

Wonderful. Alas, my current read, a biography of the Nazi Rudolf Hess — Hess: The Fuhrer’s Disciple by Peter Padfield — most certainly is not. I don’t like giving up on books unless they are impenetrable or really, really boring. This is just a bad biography badly written, so I will plough on, especially as there is much I don’t know about Hess after his flight (as in ‘plane journey’, not ‘escape’) to Britain in 1941.

What I’m Reading, March 2020

3 March

Back to one of my favourite novelists — Sebastian Faulks. Birdsong is probably his best-known book, but my favourite is Human Traces, a brilliant mix of invention, imaginative reconstruction and exposition of developments in psychiatry and psychoanalysis.

I have reached for On Green Dolphin Street, not a novel I have read before. In fact, when I opened the book at page one, I knew nothing about it whatsoever, except that it was set in the United States some time after the Second World War.

It’s a great feeling, reading from one page to the next with no idea about who the characters are, how the story will develop or even what the book is actually about. Early indications are that it involves a clever, fast-tracked diplomat whose career has stalled and whose problems are slowly but surely grinding him down, and his relationship with his devoted wife, who appears to have a gaping emotional hole in her life.

One sentence has baffled me, and I can’t work out whether it’s an error. Mary, the wife, is conflicted:

She could not establish an order of preference between the two; as well ask her to distinguish between a tree and a cloud: no crude ranking could reflect the reality of either.

8 March

I’m two-thirds of the way through On Green Dolphin Street. It’s another Faulks treat. He is a master at conjuring up a sense of time and place — be it the trenches of the Western Front, Occupied France during the Second World War or, in this case, New York at the end of the ’50s and beginning of the ’60s. Faulks is also a wonderful crafter of stories, adding layer upon layer as he goes and weaving threads of context and background that combine to form a convincing picture of the characters and their lives.

All the signature Faulks traits are here: the background research is thorough, time and place compellingly drawn and the attention to detail remarkable. It’s a whirlwind tour of delis and diners, apartment blocks and shops, bars and nightclubs — all to a backdrop of jazz (On Green Dolphin Street is apparently a Miles Davis classic).

9 March

Wonderful. Just wonderful.

On Green Dolphin Street is much more than just a conventional love story. It explores the different types of loving relationships — the unconditional love between parent and child; that life-changing first love; the love that grows and develops between lifelong partners; passionate and erotically charged love; and love between two soul mates.

The busy, bustling, labryinthine streets of New York are wonderfully drawn. Faulks is perhaps using the city as a metaphor — both its bewildering complexity and its dazzling possibilities. The Second World War is also a lingering presence, casting its long shadow years after the war itself is formally at an end.

After briefly worrying that the ending was turning into a rerun of the final episode of Friends, I found the conclusion satisfactorily unsatisfactory. It was, after all, an impossible dilemma that Mary faced.

A must-read.

15 March

I am in the middle of recording yet another version of The War of the Worlds. I have always loved the original Gene Barry film from the ’50s, didn’t really like the Tom Cruise version and avoided the 2019 three-part BBC mini-series. This is a multi-parter and stars Gabriel Byrne. As with all multi-part dramas, I will watch it when all the episodes have been shown.

That reminded me that I haven’t actually read anything by HG Wells, except for the rather intimidating opening page of The Time Machine — at least, it seemed intimidating when I was a teenager. In the meantime, I have reached for H.G.: The History of Mr Wells by former Labour leader Michael Foot.

I have a lot of time for Foot. Whatever one thinks of his politics, he is a great writer and his two-volume biography of Nye Bevan was a big part of my formative years. The Wells book is something else — more a literary biography, perhaps even literary criticism, rather than a conventional biography. I am fairly certain, for example, that at no point does the book say what H.G. actually stands for. Another extraordinary feature of the book is the length of some of the extracts from Wells’ writing — an extract from The Passionate Friends, for example, stretches for nine pages.

19 March

I finished the HG Wells biography today. Two immediate thoughts.

Firstly, how little I knew about him. I was aware that he had written a number of sci-fi classics (I could probably have named about five) and, of course, I knew that he was a socialist. Little did I know of the prodigious output that he kept up throughout his life. Nor did I know anything of his rather colourful life, particularly his many sexual relationships.

Secondly, it has not been a particularly easy read, taking a great deal of knowledge for granted. I was on solid ground with the history and politics stuff, but the many, many literary references were often new to me and not always easy to follow. Making a regular appearance throughout the book were Wells’ literary hero Jonathan Swift — someone I definitely need to learn more about — and, to a lesser extent, other literary figures such as Lawrence Sterne, William Hazlitt, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and (of course) George Orwell.

In conclusion, this is certainly not a book for someone looking for an introduction to Wells’ work.

28 March

After struggling through the Wells biography, I was looking for something to really carry me away. The Righteous Men by Sam Bourne did not disappoint. It’s a long-ish read —560 pages or so. I more or less kept to my 10% daily target except for the end. A sure sign of a gripping read, I finished off the last 100 or so pages in a day.

Sam Bourne is the nom de plume of Jonathan Freedland, my favourite Guardian columnist. I read and enjoyed The Last Testament a few months ago. He has a new book out — To Kill a Man — but I like to be systematic so I went for this one, his debut novel, published in 2006.

At least one of the ‘puffs’ — the endorsement quotes on the front and/or back cover — compares him to Dan Brown. Having only seen the films, I can’t comment on Brown’s writing, but he will do well to match Bourne/Freedland, whose books are pacy, gripping and superbly crafted. In The Righteous Men, a mass of what the reader assumes to be minor detail, there to add colour or to flesh out a character’s backstory, is liberally sprinkled throughout the opening pages, only to take on huge significance as the plot unfolds.

Both of the Sam Bourne books I have so far read have had religion at the heart of the plot. Each has been exceptionally well-researched, delving into ancient beliefs and traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each one raises interesting and important questions about the nature of religious faith and about religious fanaticism. I will say no more!

The Righteous Men has certainly whetted my appetite for my next read, John Barton’s highly acclaimed A History of the Bible.

What I’m Reading, February 2020

3 February 2020

I finished A Divided Spy by Thomas Kell the other day. That means I managed to read four books in January, putting me comfortably ahead of my target. A nice balance, too, of fiction and non-fiction, academic and non-academic, challenging and ‘lighter’ reads etc.

Reading Peter Ackroyd’s Dominion brought me back to thinking about the development of socialism and the origins of the Labour Party. I am re-reading The Making of British Socialism by Mark Bevir, a book I first read perhaps five years ago, possibly more.

It’s a tough book to get into, not really one for the general reader. It’s essentially a collection of academic papers pulled together into some kind of coherent whole. It is essentially a history of ideas but, as I say, written for an academic audience, with its talk of “retrieving alternative socialist pasts” and “narrating those pasts”. I gulped when I saw the sub-heading ‘Theory’, not really my thing when it comes to history. Welcome to “aggregate concepts”, “naive empiricism”, “reification” and so on.

8 February 2020

The Making of British Socialism is proving an interesting challenge. It’s extremely repetitive in places — almost certainly due to its origins as a series of academic papers — which was annoying at first until I realised that the repetition was actually helping with the reinforcement of key ideas and aiding understanding.

The first couple of chapters were tough-going, with lots of terms and concepts unexplained. To take just one example, it assumed an understanding of the distinctions between popular radicalism, liberal radicalism and Tory radicalism.

As the book goes on, however, each of the key political ideas and concepts is being carefully unpicked, explained and analysed. One or two things still left me none the wiser — the discussion of German idealism, for example (nothing new there) — but most of the chapters have been rewarding and enlightening.

On a separate note, the BBC’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation — The Pale Horse (based on her novel of 1961) — starts tomorrow. A must-watch.

13 February 2020

I finally finished the origins of British socialism book — a couple of days behind schedule. It’s been a busy few days, and I have found it difficult to keep to my 10% target.

It was definitely worth re-reading. At a time when politics is in a mess and the future direction of the Labour Party — even its very survival — up in the air, it was a useful exercise going back to the core ideas and values that animated progressives in the left’s early days. I particularly enjoyed reading about the ideas of the ethical socialists, who eschewed a class-based analysis, and economics and politics more generally, in favour of an approach based on spiritual renewal. Call it naive and impossible to achieve, but it’s a compelling vision of what the ideal society might be like.

One of the cable film channels showed To the Devil a Daughter last Friday, a 1976 film based on a Dennis Wheatley novel. It’s a somewhat controversial film for a number of reasons, and Wheatley disowned it. It’s rarely shown, certainly far less often than The Devil Rides Out, which I count as one of my all-time favourite films. I was meaning to re-read one of these two books before writing a blogpost on the subject, so this has sealed it. My next read.

16 February 2020

Blimey. I thought Agatha Christie’s writing was dated, but Wheatley takes it to another level. The Devil Rides Out was first published in 1934. Like Christie’s Poirot, we’re mixing exclusively with the rich and privileged. Much of the characters’ wealth is obviously inherited, though Simon and Rex’s considerable incomes appear to be from finance and banking. Simon, we are told early on, is no longer living at his club. Max, meanwhile, is the Duke de Richleau’s ‘man’ — in other words, his butler. Indeed, butlers, maids, chauffeurs, cooks and nannies are an intrinsic part of this world. Globetrotting, too, is the norm: Rex, for example, has happened to notice a beautiful stranger called Tanith, who becomes central to the plot, in Budapest, New York and Biarritz in recent times.

The biggest shock is the use of language and the underlying attitudes it reveals. The meaning of words changes over time, of course, but it surely isn’t just poor writing craft that makes the use of the word ‘queer’ five times in the opening five pages seem alarming.

In Wheatley’s descriptions of the sinister guests at Simon’s party (it turns out they’re all satanists), the juxtaposition of each individual’s racial background with a list of their unpleasant characteristics is unfortunate to say the very least — the “grave-faced Chinaman … whose slit eyes betrayed a cold, merciless nature”; “a red-faced Teuton, who suffered the deformity of a hare lip”; a “fat, oily-looking Babu”.

To modern sensibilities, the most extraordinarily inappropriate exchange, however, goes as follows:

[Duke]: … he reminded me in a most unpleasant way of the Bogey Man with whom I used to be threatened in my infancy

[Rex]: Why, is he a black?

I kid you not.

20 February 2020

I read about 80 pages of The Devil Rides Out last night — staying up late, as is becoming a habit with exciting novels, to finish the story.

The book improves considerably as it goes on. The well-known pentacle scene — when Mocata sends various manifestations of evil to claim back Simon — is excellently written and genuinely unsettling even for the modern reader. Up to this point, the later film roughly follows the book, but the final third is completely reimagined — presumably on cost grounds.

The Eatons’ daughter has been kidnapped by the satanists and is to be offered as a sacrifice in a black mass. In the film, the location of the mass is close by and easily accessible. In the book, on the other hand, our heroes are forced to traverse the continent of Europe. Handily, Richard Eaton has an aeroplane parked at the bottom of the garden. Cue breathless flights to Paris and then to an inhospitable mountain range in Greece for the final showdown between good and evil.

21 February 2020

With the sad news of the death of philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, it felt right to pick out something of his as my next read. I have always found Scruton a curiously compelling figure. My politics are very different from his, though he is far from being an unthinking flag-waver for the right wing of the Conservative Party. His conservatism is grounded in his philosophical beliefs; unlike many on the right nowadays, he takes the ‘conserve’ of conservatism literally. He also writes beautifully.

25 February 2020

I actually plumped for a book about Sir Roger Scruton rather than one written by him, though quotes from his many writings are used extensively. Roger Scruton: The Philosopher on Dover Beach by Mark Dooley analyses Scruton’s core ideas. Dooley is a fully paid-up Scrutonian, so there’s little in the way of critical engagement. Rather, the book serves as a useful introduction. It’s rather a slight book — 180 pages, including extensive end-notes — and hardly the “major study” promised on the dust jacket.

Organised into five chapters, it takes the reader through Scruton’s thinking on matters such as aesthetics, sexuality, religion and culture. Dooley returns repeatedly to notions of the Lebenswelt (our ‘lived experience’), the sacred, home and community, and belonging. He pays particular attention to where Scruton’s views clash with other thinkers, especially those on the left.

A useful read, helping me understand Scruton’s thinking better — and one that makes me want to search out more of Scruton’s output.

By the way, there was an excellent obituary of the historian Zara Steiner in The Guardian the other day, written by Sir Richard Evans. I first came across her when my professor recommended her Britain and the Origins of the First World War to me for my dissertation at university.

Evans is great. His recent obituary of Norman Stone was absolutely brutal. Ouch!

Hercule Poirot’s First Case

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (1920)

After revisiting the very final David Suchet TV adaptations on ITV3 fairly recently, I chanced upon a four-novel Poirot omnibus — actually two omnibuses, eight novels in total — in a local charity shop. Serendipity. Time to acquaint myself for the first time with Poirot in print.

Though a random selection — the novels are not sequential and, beyond the obvious, there is no linking theme — one omnibus did at least begin with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the very first book of the Poirot series. That matters — a lot. A desire for completeness, perhaps. Begin at the beginning: Book One, Volume I, Series One, Episode One. It feels rude not to.

First, a little background. The detective novel was already an established and lucrative publishing phenomenon by the end of the nineteenth century. Edgar Allen Poe and Wilkie Collins are sometimes cited as pioneers of the genre — Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue was published in 1841 and Collins’s The Moonstone in 1868 — and characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Raffles and Father Brown were familiar to readers by the time Poirot first appeared in 1920. As literacy rates soared, the detective novel fed a growing popular appetite for sensational, lightweight (in more than one sense) reading.

The historian AJP Taylor described Agatha Christie, who was writing mainly in the so-called ‘golden age’ of detective fiction between the wars, as “the acknowledged queen in this art”. Having sampled so little of Christie’s writing (though plenty of film and television adaptations of her work), it seems prudent to heed the wise counsel of the incomparable Sherlock Holmes, who famously cautioned against rushing to judgement:

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgement.”

Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet (1887)

I will therefore go no further than the tentative but tame and unsurprising observation that The Mysterious Affair at Styles seems entirely typical of the genre at that time: the country-house setting; the simmering family tensions and jealousies, with legacy disputes the default motive for murder; the long list of likely suspects. Christie’s directness and economy of style are remarkable, a counterblast, perhaps, to the weighty, sprawling novels so typical of the nineteenth century — Dickens, Elliot, Hugo. Indeed, the entire Styles novel took just six hours to read.

There is little attempt at literary craftmanship — no descriptive digressions immersing the reader in location and atmosphere, no cleverly interwoven sub-plots or carefully constructed layers of meaning. The murder plot is (almost) all. Detail is provided insofar as it serves the needs of the plot, principally to widen the net of suspicion and usually to misdirect the reader — all the better to build suspense before the Big Reveal. Equally striking (to this reader, at least) is the poverty of language employed by Christie: I lost count of the number of times, for example, she refers to Hastings’s “lively curiosity”.

Consider the opening chapter, ‘I Go to Styles’ — the ‘I’ being Captain Hastings, who, like Holmes’s Watson, is our narrator and a casualty of war. In ten whirlwind pages, we are introduced to the Cavendish family, family friend Evie, and Cynthia, a foster child of sorts. Though the murder is yet to occur, the soon-to-be victim is obvious, as are at least three likely suspects: the husband, the brooding, troubled brother and a “sinister” (Hastings’s word) doctor, who happens (luckily for us) to be an expert in poisons. Indeed. the efficacy of poison as a modus operandi for dispatching someone is matter-of-factly discussed over afternoon tea. Poirot’s little grey cells will not be required to work out how the murder was committed.

Styles is a world apart: it is a gentrified world of privilege and entitlement, of property and inherited wealth, of starched-collar formality and strict etiquette. Women are referred to throughout as ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’. John Cavendish refers to his mother not as ‘mother’, ‘mum’ or even ‘mummy’ — but as ‘mater’. Endless summer days are spent lounging around the pool, playing tennis or going for long walks.

The landscape is sketched from the pages of William Blake. The industrial revolution, the most tumultuous and transformative event in our history, has by-passed this particular corner of England’s green and pleasant land. There is little or no factory-based work, no pollution, no cramped, stifling urban life. The few labourers we encounter are rough and ready but nonetheless deferential to their social superiors, like the gardener who doffs his cap on entering the boudoir. The servants, respectful and loyal, know their place and freely accept this ‘natural’ order of things, though (helpfully) they do like to listen at doors as their masters and mistresses bicker.

Set (and in fact written) during the First World War, the novel describes a world on which the sun was slowly setting, of course. Despite the trappings of privilege, the younger women are gainfully employed in war-related work: John’s wife works as a farmhand and Cynthia is a VAD, working in a dispensary — perfect for the poisonous plot! These details — and Hastings’s convalescence — notwithstanding, the war screams its absence. Like industrialisation, even total war cannot sully this pastoral idyll. The faithful parlourmaid Dorcas, described by Hastings as “a fine specimen … of the old-fashioned servant that is so fast dying out”, bemoans at one point the presence of a female gardener wearing breeches — surely the end of civilisation as we know it.

Novels are invaluable as windows into the attitudes, values and social mores of the time — and into peculiarities of speech and language. People ‘ejaculate’ and have ‘a queer way’. Cheerful people are ‘gay’. Women are ‘handsome’. Unpleasant men are ‘bounders’ and ‘rascally’. Bad things are ‘damnable’.

Less quaint is the unmistakeable whiff of casual racism and xenophobia. At least one of the comic-book suspects will invariably be sinister, somehow foreign-looking and ‘alien’ – a word that Hastings actually uses. Inglethorp, the main suspect, has an enormous black beard. Dr Bauerstein, an expert in poisons, is “a Polish Jew”. The supposedly sluttish temptress Mrs Raikes is a “gipsy” girl. It is worth noting that the 1990 television adaptation omits Dr Bauerstein completely, and Mrs Raikes becomes merely a farmer’s wife.

An obsession with race was central to Nazi ideology, ending in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Less well known, perhaps, is the fact that concerns about the mental and physical health of the population also preoccupied inter-war Britain. The question of how to improve the racial ‘stock’ was not confined to the outer fringes of political debate; genetics, eugenics, sterilization and birth control were high up the agenda. Indeed, the historian Richard Overy has written:

“…the high point of the British eugenics movement, and of eugenics internationally, came in the years between the two world wars.”

Richard Overy, The Morbid Age

In a society rigidly defined by class, social snobbery is not hard to uncover, but the language of everyday discourse often betrays this wider obsession with racial hygiene and race improvement. For example, the overwhelming importance of maintaining the proverbial stiff upper lip even in the face of calamity — the death of Mrs Inglethorp — is expressed thus:

“Decorum and good breeding naturally enjoined that our demeanour should be much as usual…”

Captain Hastings, Chapter V

An absence of backbone, on the other hand, merits Hastings’s disdain:

“Never, I thought, had his indecision of character been more apparent.”

Captain Hastings, Chapter III

Lest we think this is merely the sneering of a snobbish Hastings, consider Poirot’s comment on an argument involving Lucy Cavendish:

“It was an astonishing thing for a woman of her breeding to do.”

Hercule Poirot, Chapter V

Later, reflecting upon the actions of Evie Howard, he comments thus:

“There is nothing weak-minded or degenerate about Miss Howard. She is an excellent specimen of well balanced English beef and brawn. She is sanity itself.”

Hercule Poirot, Chapter VIII

The cast of supporting characters are mere cardboard cut-outs; only the two principals — Hastings and Poirot himself — are given space to breathe and come alive. His friends might well have described Hastings as a ‘good sort’ — loyal, trustworthy and thoroughly decent. A true Englishman, they would doubtless have said. Confronted with a damsel in distress — a woman he has in fact known for barely a day — he impulsively proposes marriage. Like Nigel Bruce’s Watson, he is rather credulous and dim-witted. Fancying himself as something of a private detective, he is initially dismissive of Poirot’s thought-processes and obscure lines of questioning. Similar to the Holmes-Watson relationship, ‘the master’ sometimes treats ‘the assistant’ rudely, dismissively and thoughtlessly, only to offer profuse apologies later.

“We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all…There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”

Poirot to Hastings, Chapter VIII

Hastings interprets this remark as a compliment, a recognition of his “true worth”. As with the earlier Holmes stories, the assistant-as-narrator device allows the novelist to engage in obfuscation and misdirection, withholding reveals in order to build mystery and suspense.

And what of Poirot himself? A Belgian refugee from his war-torn homeland, he is conveniently living with other compatriots in the village that Hastings (who knew him before the war) happens to be visiting. He is meticulous and particular, to be sure, but perhaps not yet quite the fully-drawn dandy portrayed by Suchet, Ustinov and Finney, and certainly not the athletic swashbuckler depicted in Kenneth Branagh’s recent film. Of the John Malkovitch portrayal, I offer no comment.

Holmes felt so strongly about the dangers of leaping to judgement that he later reiterated the point almost word for word:

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia (1892)

So my quest to uncover the original Poirot will go on. The omnibuses contain several other novels in addition to this first adventure. A reservation on the Orient Express awaits, as does an evening of bridge (Cards on the Table) and a visit to End House to confront the peril that lies therein. John Buchan’s thirty-nine steps are also yet to be climbed, and, going further back in time, the multi-layered, Benedictine world of Umberto Eco is long overdue a revisit. Yet the lure of Baker Street — the pipe, the violin, Mrs Hudson’s cooking — is impossible to ignore for long. The game is afoot.

Enlightenment Now: Book Review

We live in dark times. The forces of irrationalism and anti-progressivism are on the rise across the world – fascism, populism, nativism, authoritarianism, racism, religious fundamentalism. Enlightenment Now is thus a profoundly welcome book, a worldview diametrically opposed to that offered by populists, demagogues and religious fanatics. It is a bible for progressives and a rallying cry for moderate, secular liberal democracy.

Enlightenment Now by Stephen Pinker (2018 edition)

I agree with Bill.

Gates, that is. Bill Gates. The front cover of the paperback edition of Enlightenment Now boasts a striking quote from the co-founder of Microsoft, multi-billionaire and philanthropist: “My new favourite book of all time”. Hyperbole? Well, perhaps, but Enlightenment Now is good, very good — an absolute must-read for progressives in these benighted times.

Steven Pinker Enlightenment Now review Darren Waterworth

Steven Pinker first appeared on my radar about six years ago when I took a chance on The Better Angels of Our Nature, the ‘other’ book in a Waterstones ‘Buy one, get one half-price’ offer. Something of a punt in the dark, this impulse purchase demonstrated the influence the high-street chain exerts through its store layout choices and promotional campaigns. Would I have selected the book in any other circumstances? Almost certainly not. Knowing nothing of the author (of whom, more below), the book was shouting ‘trendy’ (to be clear, that’s a bad thing), but I was intrigued by its self-stylisation as “a history of violence and humanity” as well as its breathtaking ambition. It wasn’t always like this.

By way of background, a mea culpa: I plead guilty to years of appalling narrow-mindedness. From sixth-form days way back when, my reading interests extended little further than modern British and European history and politics. One shelf after another filled up with books drawn from a narrow circle of academic historians, political biographers, politicians, broadsheet journalists — or some combination of the above, people like Michael Foot. Hidebound by conservatism, I indulged year after year in comfort reading, to the extent even of skipping the arts and culture surveys to be found in most general histories.

The rigid compartmentalisation condemned in CP Snow’s Two Cultures (which Pinker references) — the one scientific, the other literary — ensured that I neglected even to entertain the notion that a science-grounded book could be read for pleasure. This was less intellectual snobbery (Snow’s charge) and more the absence of three key intellectual attributes on my part: a solid grasp of basic science and mathematics, confidence and — most important of all — curiosity. Reluctant to sail beyond the near horizon, seasickness struck whenever I dared venture out of sight of the calm, comforting shores of modern political history.

Steven Pinker Enlightenment Now review Darren Waterworth

My own enlightenment — if that is not too grand a word — came achingly slowly, beginning with the occasional history of some earlier time or place; my interest in Marxism led me to the English Civil War, for example. Peter Ackroyd’s felicitous prose was a sure guide through the byways of early England, having chanced upon the initial volume of his planned six-volume history from a shop specialising in remaindered books (volume five came out recently). The Shield of Achilles by Phillip Bobbitt was a challenging but rewarding introduction to multi-disciplinary writing. By the time I picked up Peter Watson’s Ideas: A History about ten years ago, I was sold: an ambitious, sprawling ‘intellectual history’ of just about everything — from the beginnings of civilisation, language, religion and writing to the turn of the twentieth century and Freud, Nietzsche and modernism. Watson’s A Terrible Beauty is equally good on modern times.

I credit the incomparable Richard Dawkins with curing my myopia, enabling me to see that the scientific community is equally capable of writing in an elegant and arresting manner. The God Delusion combined an impressive knowledge of religion and ethics with science, history and philosophy. Now I read the likes of Climbing Mount Improbable and The Ancestor’s Tale for pleasure, even if the science quickly passes over my head (though Dawkins’s more recent The Magic of Reality — written for young people but great for buffoons like me — is a splendid introduction to the mysteries of the scientific world). A Damascene conversion of sorts.

Better Angels, then, chimed with my new-found interest in culture and ideas, principally science, philosophy and religion, and sprawling thematic histories. It delivered in spades. A Harvard professor, Pinker’s field is cognitive science, which (as best as I can narrow it down) involves the study of the use of language, the workings of the brain and psychology, the mind and human nature. But Pinker’s writing is a polymathic tour-de-force: he seems equally at ease with history, philosophy, political science, linguistics and statistics. He writes with utter believability, supporting his arguments with a staggering array of empirical evidence, regularly citing up-to-date research and effortlessly deploying pithy quotes from thinkers old and new.

His recent Enlightenment Now picks up the same central argument as Better Angels that — notwithstanding your everyday impressions and assumptions — the world is in fact becoming a better place. Not perfect, note, but better. Not the smallest achievement of the book is the reproduction of 88 graphs, carrying data on everything from calorie intake and childhood stunting to retirement, life satisfaction and loneliness, in order to demonstrate in visual form his core argument about human progress.

At first read, his thesis feels counter-intuitive and simply wrong, at odds with the news that confronts us every single day (he has a convincing theory about this too, of course). Just in the last few days, for example, we have read of an appalling massacre in Sri Lanka, of civil war in Libya, of unrest in Algeria and Sudan, of continuing austerity, cuts and rising debt, of rising knife crime, of air pollution, of species extinction and of other climate-change perils. A typical newsweek, in other words.

The sceptic might choose to start with Pinker’s thought experiment. Ask yourself when in history you would want to be born, assuming that you had no control over where in the world you were born, your economic and social circumstances, your gender, your skin colour, the state of your mental and physical health and so on. The answer, he says, is an emphatic one: you would want to be born now.

Pinker focuses not on the ephemeral, the quotidian or the blip — the stuff of the daily headlines — but on longer-term patterns and trends. The core of the book is a demonstration of his belief that human progress is an empirical hypothesis that can be tested. In one scintillating chapter after another, he does exactly that, examining everything from personal safety and war to education, health, longevity and so on.

Pinker is clear-sighted about the enemies of progress: intuition, religious faith and scripture, authority and unquestioned obedience. Too often, we deny the very fact of progress, and he outlines a variety of fallacies and cognitive biases — the availability heuristic, confirmation bias, negativity bias and so on — to which we are all prone. This is gripping stuff, our all-too-human flaws and failings. We are often unreasoning and irrational, generalising from anecdotes, seeking to confirm prior beliefs, reasoning from stereotypes, ignoring evidence that disconfirms and so on. Nevertheless, his case is that, since the Enlightenment two hundred years ago, we have used reason and science to improve our knowledge and understanding, to overcome our cognitive weaknesses and thereby enhance human flourishing.

He rejects the idea of any kind of ‘Grand Plan’, a cosmic force of God, nature or history propelling us inexorably forward. Progress has been hard-won and must not be taken for granted. We have learned to use the tools of reason to combat unreason and irrationality: free speech and open criticism, fact checking, empirical testing and sober, logical analysis. Pinker is a champion of science and scientific reasoning, and of humanism, the belief that the ultimate moral purpose is to enhance the flourishing of individual human beings (as opposed to the tribe, race, faith etc). He argues that forces of cosmopolitanism — education, art, mobility, urbanisation — have helped develop what he calls our ‘circle of sympathy’, our sense of compassion, our ability to empathise and our concern for the welfare of others. I remember a similar point being made about the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century by, I think, Sebastian Faulks.

Pinker is difficult to categorise. It would certainly be far too simplistic to pigeon-hole him as a ‘lefty liberal’. He believes in the efficacy of free trade, market-based economics and free enterprise (though not of unregulated, red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism), detests ‘political correctness’ — something else that he believes inhibits progress by feeding the false narrative of populists and anti-progressives — and espouses a variety of policy positions anathema to many on the left. He is sanguine about developments in artificial intelligence, adopts a moderate position on climate change (in a nutshell, we have serious problems but it’s not all doom and gloom, and extreme solutions are not the answer) and supports nuclear power and genetic modification of crops.

We live in dark times. The forces of irrationalism and anti-progressivism are on the rise across the world: fascism, populism, nativism, authoritarianism, racism, religious fundamentalism. Enlightenment Now is thus a profoundly welcome book, a worldview diametrically opposed to that offered by populists, demagogues and religious fanatics. It is a bible for progressives and a rallying cry for moderate, secular liberal democracy. Michael Gove famously claimed during the 2016 Brexit referendum that “the people in this country have had enough of experts”. Pinker loudly and proudly proclaims the value of learning and of experts. He offers hope, but it is hope grounded not in faith but in reason and in evidence, welcome sustenance for even the most Panglossian of optimists.

‘Fake History’ and Film

Elizabeth I meets Mary, Queen of Scots! Churchill rediscovers his mojo on the Underground! Homosexual genius Alan Turing is blackmailed by Soviet spy John Cairncross at Bletchley Park! Hmmm. Memo to self: ‘Films based on historical events are not documentaries. Stop judging them as if they are.’

Diogenes

The above are not happenings in an alternate reality (to borrow some American sci-fi terminology) but scenes from films about real people, their lives mediated through ‘Hollywood’ — just three examples of what we might call ‘fake history’ offered up for our viewing pleasure in well-known films released over the last few years about famous people and/or events.

The buzz surrounding two recent films that focus on the lives of female monarchs from Britain’s past — Mary Queen of Scots (about the rivalry between the eponymous Mary and Elizabeth I) and The Favourite (set in the court of Queen Anne) — has poured lighter-fuel on a debate that seems to smoulder away all but unnoticed before re-igniting whenever a blockbuster film portraying iconic figures and events from the past is released.

Fake history Saving Private Ryan
Though lauded for its realistic depiction of war, Saving Private Ryan has also been much criticised for ignoring the role of the British armed forces and those of other countries in the D-Day landings.

The usual suspects — lower case, not the Kevin Spacey film — have again been hauled in to take up their place in the line-up of cinematic shame: films such as The Patriot, Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, all charged with the heinous crime of playing fast and loose with ‘the truth’. The only surprise is that nobody appears to have brought up Valkyrie, in which Tom Cruise comes within minutes of bringing down the Third Reich.

The debate about ‘fake history’ operates at a number of levels, with questions of historical accuracy morphing into arguments about how much fidelity to the facts actually matters and broader discussions about representations of the past.

At its simplest is a binary question, the answer to which is either ‘yes, this did happen, that’s accurate’ or ‘no, that didn’t happen, that’s not how it really was’. We’re not just talking feature films and television dramas, of course. Any self-respecting pub quizzer will doubtless remind us that, when Cassius declares in Julius Caesar that “The clock has stricken three”, Shakespeare had (deliberately or otherwise) penned an anachronism: mechanical clocks of that type were not around in the first century BC.

Playing ‘fake history’ is fun for all the family. BBC Bitesize (targeted at a young audience) recently ran an online article highlighting inaccuracies in eight popular films — the Alpine escape of the von Trapp family from the clutches of the evil Nazis in The Sound of Music, the death of the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, in Gladiator, the clothing worn by thirteenth-century Scots in Braveheart. And so on.

There are deeper issues involved, however — not least the rather important question of what we mean by ‘the truth’ — and unsurprisingly these trickier matters attract the interest of heavyweight journalists and academic historians alike. In this latest round, for example, Oxford historian and BBC4 regular Dr Janina Ramirez was commissioned to write a piece on The Favourite for the Sunday Times. The Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins set out his views in a typically forthright piece headlined ‘The new threat to truth: fake history films’. He accused film-makers of claiming “the right to mis-sell films as history”, sexing them up with invention, out of fear that “accuracy will not put bums on seats”.

This terrain encompasses all ‘texts’, not just headline-grabbing films about famous people and events found on the school history curriculum. Take two other recent films, both of which might well have come with some variation or other of the words ‘based on real events’ attached. And what is ‘based on real events’ exactly — a neutral statement, a caveat, a disclaimer, a cop-out?

Fake history Stan and Ollie
Stan and Ollie depicts Stan arguing about money with Hal Roach on the set of Way Out West, with Ollie caught in the middle.

The first, Stan and Ollie, uses a Laurel and Hardy music hall tour of Britain in the twilight of their careers as a vehicle for exploring the duo’s relationship. As a narrative frame, it works brilliantly well, though I don’t know enough about their actual story to make confident assertions about how accurate it all is. My gut instinct is to doubt the literal ‘truth’ of certain events depicted, such as the on-set arguments between Stan and Hal Roach and Ollie’s collapse in Worthing, and the accuracy of the portrayal of characters such as the scheming, oleaginous impresario, Delfont.

The second, meanwhile, I have discussed in detail elsewhere: the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, a film that wields a knife with wilful abandon as it cuts the Queen story to shreds. Guitarist Brian May has spoken of his journey of understanding as an executive producer, ending (he says) with the realisation that a film is a very different beast from a documentary — but that both are valid artistic means of telling a story. He is, in essence, criticising those Queen fans unwilling or unable to see beyond the film’s cavalier approach to the facts. That formula — ‘based on real events’ — is, if nothing else, an elastic one. Maybe that’s part of the problem: how exactly are viewers expected to know how literally to believe what is being portrayed?

Fake history The Exception Himmler Kaiser Wilhelm II
The Exception suggests that Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler met with Wilhelm II in 1940 and offered him the chance to return to Germany as Head of State in a ruse to flush out anti-Nazi monarchists.

Of course, should we so choose, we refer to Wikipedia or whatever for (usually) in-depth analysis of the accuracy of this or that scene, portrayal or storyline. My immediate reaction after watching the excellent film The Exception, about Kaiser Wilhelm II in exile in Holland in 1940, was to reach for a biography of the ex-German emperor to clarify how much of it was true (answer: not much). But how many of us ever bother? It’s a fair bet that many film-goers and TV-watchers don’t give the matter a second thought and/or don’t particularly care whether a film is accurate or not — as long as they are entertained.

The business of films, in more than one sense, is first and foremost to entertain — fair enough. Self-styled “public historian, broadcaster, author, and historical consultant to Film & TV” Greg Jenner disagrees with the Simon Jenkins line quoted above, tweeting recently about the importance of historians engaging with pop culture:

Historical films are not “fake history”; they’re stories. They aren’t documentaries and nor do they try to be. So long as historians are able to publicly respond (which we do in droves) these films are helpful, not a hindrance, in stimulating public fascination with the past.

Greg Jenner

In other words, if films are stimulating public interest in the past, that’s surely a good thing, right? Jenner says that historians are taking part “in droves”. I accept that it would be churlish to ignore or downplay the tireless efforts of a wide range of academics and others (a big shout-out here to classroom teachers) to engage with the public via an ever-widening variety of platforms — from websites and podcasts to public lectures and TV programmes.

But a nagging question remains: beyond a stratum of enthusiastic, educated amateur history buffs — to borrow Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase, “that theoretical construct, the intelligent and educated citizen” — how much actual purchase is there at grassroots level among non-history buffs? I refer, perhaps, to those who drink at that bustling yet ever so elusive pub, the Dog and Duck, spoken of in hallowed terms by politicians and media commentators alike, where issues of the day are discussed by ‘ordinary’ folk over a warm pint of beer or glass of wine.

I also accept that, although accuracy obviously matters a great deal in historical re-creations, it isn’t the be-all and end-all — and perhaps not even the most important element of a film. A film may include plenty of inaccuracies, even wholly fictionalised situations, and yet still be bloody good, as Stan and Ollie certainly showed (assuming the narrative isn’t all literally true). After all, most if not all the dialogue in every historical film is made up: who knows who said what to whom in reality?

A great artist — actor, writer or director — uses their raw material — part-fact, part-fiction — to capture and convey the essence of a person or situation, hopefully revealing deeper or more complete truths. In that sense, even if some of it didn’t really happen, Stan and Ollie still stands up as an utterly delightful window into the world of Laurel and Hardy, funny, moving and sad, a warm-hearted, bittersweet film about friendship, fame and the inexorable passing of time.

I further agree that it is naive and simplistic to expect ‘the truth’ (singular). A ‘text’ — a book, a play, a film, a painting — is a representation (literally, a re-presenting) of the past, an authorial construct based at least in part on the selection and presentation of information. As the historian Anthony Beevor has argued persuasively, the price of supping with the Hollywood devil is stomaching a degree of creative licence for film-makers with regards to ‘what really happened’.

At its worst, however, this Faustian pact leads to oversimplification (not to mention ‘dumbing down’), serious distortion and the flattening of individuals and historical situations into one-dimensional caricatures. It filters out complexity, balance, nuance, ambiguity and paradox. It does not permit doubt, ambivalence and confusion. In other words, it comes at the expense of the stuff of reality and cheapens the study of the past. Ask John McDonnell, who foolishly accepted the request to reduce the life and career of Winston Churchill to a single word.

Films are also products of their time, reflecting the mood, norms and expectations of the day. However, unless handled skilfully by writer and director, they can end up seeming uncomfortably forced and contrived. Darkest Hour, the 2017 film dealing with Churchill’s first few weeks as prime minister in May 1940, is an intriguing case in this respect. With diversity and inclusion society’s current watchwords, any film about events dominated almost exclusively by socially privileged white men will throw up interesting challenges.

Fake history Darkest Hour Underground Winston Churchill
Darkest Hour includes an entirely fictional scene set on the London Underground.

In the film, a key supporting player is therefore a woman, Elizabeth Layton. Though a lowly secretary in the typing pool, she is manoeuvred close to the action and the locus of power, often involved in one-to-one situations with Churchill. Her role is as a proxy, a personification of the British public at large, their hopes and fears, their questions and concerns. She is fearful but resilient, curious to know more, and able to handle the unpleasant, unvarnished truth. Meanwhile, Churchill’s wife, Clemmie, is the steadying influence behind the scenes. More than just the dutiful wife, she gently admonishes the great man when he behaves like an ass.

A David Low cartoon from 1940. The caption read:”Very Well, Alone”. This mood of popular defiance was a feature of the fictional ‘Churchill on the Underground’ scene in the film Darkest Hour.

In the film’s ‘Underground’ scene — wholly fictional, of course — the passengers (a handy cross-section of the British people — men, women and children) are united, defiant and resolute. It is like a David Low cartoon brought to life, a re-creation of the mood portrayed in the official propaganda films of the time and later mythologised as ‘the spirit of the Blitz’. It is a version of history for the Brexiteers.

One of the passengers is a young black man, who appears to be in the company of a white woman — whether friend, lover or spouse is left unclear. While not wholly implausible in 1940, this depiction of relaxed attitudes to inter-racial relationships (and even friendships when involving people of the opposite sex) nevertheless feels anachronistic, and it is certainly very different from attitudes portrayed in the recent Rosamund Pike/David Oyelowo film set partly in late-’40s Britain, A United Kingdom.1

And of course, as consumers of history — watchers of films, readers of books etc — we sprinkle our diet with liberal (small ‘l’) helpings of our own beliefs, values and biases. With our relationship with the European continent currently under the microscope as never before in peacetime, and with much hyperbolic talk about threats to our freedom, Darkest Hour resonates in this time of Brexit-related angst. Would the ‘ordinary’, non-political, non-Eurosceptic viewer have felt this way about the film ten years ago, say?

Or take the films of Mel Gibson as both actor and director. Now something of a bête noire of the film industry and the wider public2, how much are people’s opinions of his work influenced by opinions of the man (drunk, misogynist, Christian extremist, anti-Semite are some of the labels attached to him)? Or, mutatis mutandis, re-read this paragraph, replacing the name in the first sentence with ‘Woody Allen’ or ‘Kevin Spacey’.

As a keen student of history, I feel protective of the people, events and circumstances of the past, and instinctively recoil at falsification, at bias and at individuals and their reputations being brazenly glorified or traduced. When I open a history book — especially on the many topics about which I know little or nothing — I bring to it certain expectations and assumptions. First and foremost, I want accuracy and fidelity to the facts. Secondly, I trust that the representations shown to me — and judgements offered — by the writer are judiciously reached, based on the best available evidence. I want to learn about three-dimensional characters, not black-and-white ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. Where doubt about the evidence exists, I want it to be made clear that doubt exists.

Fake history Adolf Hitler Downfall
Bruno Ganz’s brilliant performance in Downfall was both celebrated and criticised for ‘humanizing’ Adolf Hitler.

Is it too much to expect all this of a film — and to be entertained as well? In the week of Bruno Ganz’s death, it is worth remembering what can be achieved. Though no Hollywood blockbuster, and perhaps known to many people only via much-circulated social media memes with joke subtitles, Downfall — and particularly Ganz’s electrifying portrayal of Adolf Hitler — demonstrates that films can indeed combine serious, well-researched history and gripping entertainment. More, please.

Ralph Miliband Biography Review

A strength of the book is that, throughout, the reader senses that judgements made are balanced and fair, sympathetic to the man but not blinkered to his mistakes, failures and personal foibles — not least a tendency to irascibility and impatience towards others as well as moments of self-doubt and, on occasion, fierce self-criticism.

Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left by Michael Newman

Twenty years on, I can still vividly recall scanning the shelves of the university library — me, an eager second-year history/politics undergraduate — in search of a Marxist critique of fascism and happening across a book by Nicos Poulantzas. Three hours, one much-thumbed dictionary, two headache tablets and five pages later, I gave up. My next encounter with the World of Marx was Professor David McLellan’s 1973 biography of Marx himself: well researched and worthy, to be sure, but dense and daunting for the uninitiated. Finding Ralph Miliband was something of a revelation, therefore, for here was a academic — what’s more, an avowedly Marxist academic — with both the ability and the willingness to elucidate Marxist ideas in an accessible way.

Miliband’s most influential book — The State in Capitalist Society — transformed the political sciences in the 1970s and provoked a famous debate with the aforementioned Poulantzas, in part concerning the role and importance of abstract theorising. Poulantzas championed an ultra-theoretical school of Marxism that shunned empiricism and seemed to glory in abstruse theorisation. For these ‘Althusserians’, Marxism had its own discourse, purposely distinct from much of the terminology and assumptions of ‘bourgeois’ debate and thus intelligible only to those who could decode its arcane meanings. Miliband, on the other hand, always sought to test even the most basic of assumptions within the Marxist tradition with reference to the ‘real world’. Moreover, Marxism was much more than a theory for Miliband: it was a guide to action.

As Michael Newman’s book shows, Miliband was an academic, a teacher but, above all, a committed socialist, happiest when he felt he was contributing to the advancement of the left. Thus, in Parliamentary Socialism — the book that secured his international reputation in 1962 — by analysing the reasons for the Labour Party’s failure to implement ‘socialism’, he was implicitly offering a guide to future action. Apart from a brief flirtation with the Bevanites in the 1950s and the Bennite left in the 1980s, Miliband kept his distance from the Labour Party, highly sceptical as he was of its efficacy as an agent of socialist change. He spent his adult life in the ultimately fruitless search for a suitable vehicle to secure a political breakthrough, wedded to the belief that only a class-based political party could do so.

Born in 1924 into a Jewish home, Miliband’s political consciousness was awakened by the Nazi menace in the late-1930s. Though the death camps cast a dark shadow over his childhood and youth, Miliband was one of a number of European refugees who escaped the clutches of the Nazis, finding sanctuary in Britain and going on to form the nucleus of a radical intelligentsia that helped shape the cultural, academic and — to an extent — political landscape of the 1960s and early-70s. Indeed, Miliband lived through a remarkable, if turbulent and ultimately unsuccessful, period for the left. This book is in part, therefore, also a history of the British left from the twin crises caused by de-Stalinisation and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 through the upheavals of 1968 to the challenge of Thatcherism and the collapse of Soviet-type communism.

In writing the book, Newman had access to family, friends and Miliband’s own letters and papers, including a diary and notes made in 1983 for a planned but never completed autobiography. Newman uses this impressive selection of primary source material to paint a convincing portrait of the ‘private’ man as well as the more familiar public figure. His style is — like Miliband’s own — both accessible and, on the whole, eminently readable. A strength of the book is that, throughout, the reader senses that judgements made are balanced and fair, sympathetic to the man but not blinkered to his mistakes, failures and personal foibles, not least a tendency to irascibility and impatience towards others as well as moments of self-doubt and, on occasion, fierce self-criticism.

On the other hand, given the breadth of Miliband’s interests and concerns, judicious editing might have resulted in a more balanced book. Several extracts from Miliband’s work are quoted verbatim and at excessive length. Elsewhere, 13 pages are devoted to ‘the troubles’ at the LSE in 1968 and an entire chapter to his involvement in a campaign for academic freedom. This particular reader frankly hoped for less description and rather more in the way of reflection on matters such as Miliband’s position on academic freedom (which was somewhat inconsistent), his widening disagreements with others on the New Left vis-à-vis the nature and role of the working class by the 1980s and the wisdom of his wish to see a Marxist party of a non-dogmatic nature filling the void between the Labour Party and the Leninist CPGB (which he held in little short of contempt). Tightly written summaries of Miliband’s ideas and actions and relevant narrative would have given Newman more space for his own analysis, commentary and judgements.

This review relates to the edition published in 2002 by Merlin Press. It was uploaded to Amazon in 2004.

Who was Diogenes?

The flimsier the historical evidence, the more entertaining the characters and stories.

Diogenes (me, not the philosopher)

The above is maybe not a ‘law’ of history as such, but it is a useful rule of thumb nonetheless. Diogenes has bequeathed us nothing in writing. Instead, into the historical vacuum of evidential mystery and uncertainty rushes a combination of myths, tall tales and caricature. In other words, not so much what EP Thompson called the enormous condescension of posterity, more the latter’s insatiable desire for a good story. Hence the modern-day popularity of tabloid newspapers, celebrity gossip and online ‘clickbait’ stories. Who cares if the reality is altogether more down to earth and prosaic?

There is certainly no shortage of good stories relating to Diogenes: the man who lived in a tub; the man who walked round in daylight with a lamp ‘looking for a man’; the man who was lippy to Alexander the Great and lived to tell the tale; the man who masturbated, urinated and defecated in public.

In fact, other than a few scraps, little is known for certain about Diogenes. He was born in the late fifth century BC in Sinope, a bustling seaport on the Black Sea. As a young man, he was caught up in some sort of scandal, possibly involving his father and the local currency, forcing him to leave his home and possessions behind. One story has him consulting the oracle at Delphi and receiving advice to ‘deface the currency’. At face value, a typically enigmatic oracular pronouncement, given that currency defacement may have been at the heart of the earlier scandal. But, if we interpret ‘currency’ to refer to conventional standards and codes of behaviour, then the instruction becomes one of cocking a snook at polite society, of deliberately upsetting the applecart. If so, this puts him somewhere near the head of a long line of contrarians and non-conformists through history — the sort of people AJP Taylor, in a different context, referred to affectionately as ‘troublemakers’.

The story of Diogenes reminds us of the old truism about taking time to dig deeper rather than rushing to judgement. Diogenes and his master Antisthenes are regarded as the original Cynics, founders of the Cynic school of philosophy. Cynicism, an unappealing and unpleasant attribute, well described by HG Wells as “humour in ill health” is defined by the OED as “[b]elieving that people are motivated purely by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity” and “[c]oncerned only with one’s own interests and typically disregarding accepted standards in order to achieve them.” But the name ‘cynic’ actually derives from the Greek for ‘dog-like’ and was a reference to the extreme squalor in which Diogenes and others chose to live.

His inspiration was Socrates, who rejected the link between material comforts and happiness, as well as fiercely championing open-mindedness and the right to question authority. It became the basis of his method of teaching (‘Socratic dialogue’) and a supreme virtue in itself. Stories of the lifestyle Diogenes chose — dressing in rags, begging, eschewing the comforts of conventional life — sound remarkably similar to the extreme asceticism practised by religious adherents down the ages. Rejection of crude materialism and of conventional standards and norms of living was their route to freedom — freedom, that is, from human failings such as pride, desire and jealousy. Diogenes’ follower, Crates, supposedly abandoned a rich inheritance to embrace the life of the Cynic. Only with the actions of later followers of Diogenes and the first Cynics — shamelessly living off the largesse of others, relentlessly satirical and sarcastic — did ‘cynicism’ acquire the characteristics we now associate with the word.

As for his more extreme utterances, given that none of his writings survive (if indeed he even wrote anything) who can possibly say whether words and views attributed to him — incest and cannibalism, anyone? — were actually said and, even if they were, whether they were meant literally or just for shock value, another way of upsetting conventional tastes? In reality, the antecedents of many of the values and principles that liberal democracy rightly cherishes — freedom of conscience, universal brotherhood, respect for all life, including that of animals — can be found in the teachings of Socrates and the Cynics who followed. Far from being cynical in its modern usage, they were passionately interested in moral virtue: the representation of Diogenes as the ‘man with a lamp’ actually links to his supposed search for a truly ‘just’ man.

And so we come to the fictional Diogenes Club, first mentioned in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Containing “the most unsociable and unclubable [sic] men in town”, its members were expected to ignore each other and talking was not permitted under any circumstances. Eccentric, peculiar, unconventional — the name ‘Diogenes’ seems fitting. Yet the word ‘cosmopolitan’ — citizen of the world — possibly originated with Diogenes. In these days of growing intolerance, rampant bigotry and narrow-minded xenophobia, at levels not witnessed since the 1930s, this minor fact, apart from anything else, seems to me to recommend him as a figure of interest.