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George Orwell: English Rebel, Robert Colls (Oxford University Press 2013)

I didn’t find this a very well-written or coherent book, but I thought it had one big thing in its favour: it doesn’t treat Orwell like a saint. The world-famous author of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Animal Farm (1945) was not an infallible prophet nor a flawless logician. He contradicted himself. He criticized people for saying things that he would later say himself. He often got things wrong.

But who didn’t, particularly before and during the Second World War? And the irreverence shown by Robert Colls towards his subject seemed to me to deepen into hostility at times. Does the South Shields lad Colls have a chip on his shoulder about the Old Etonian Orwell? I don’t know, but all biographies are also autobiographies. If an anti-hagiography is the opposite of a hagiography, then Colls seems at times to be writing one. That’s definitely what John Baxter was doing in his biography of J.G. Ballard, but English Rebel is a better and more interesting book than that.

It’s also much more eclectic. I like books that can quote from the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety at one moment (pg. 224) and from Richmal Crompton at another:

There’s four sorts of people tryin’ to get to be rulers. They all want to make things better, but they want to make ’em better in different ways. There’s Conservatives an’ they want to make things better by keepin’ ’em jus’ like what they are now. An’ there’s Lib’rals an’ they want to make things better by alterin’ ’em jus’ a bit, but not so anyone’d notice, and there’s Socialists, an’ they want to make things better by takin’ everyone’s money off ’em, an’ there’s Communists an’ they want to make things better by killin’ everyone but themselves. (ch. 3, “Eye Witness in Barcelona”, pg. 95, quoting “William’s friend Henry” in Crompton’s William the Bad, 1930)

As a summary of politics in the 1930s, that isn’t so far off the mark. It certainly captures the spirit of Communism at a time when many intelligent and educated people thought that Communism was the only and ethical hope for the human race. Orwell agreed with Crompton, not with the intellectuals. As Colls points out, he disliked and distrusted intellectuals while being one himself and moving in intellectual circles.

But there’s another connection between Orwell and Crompton: they were both very good writers, still delighting and diverting readers long after their deaths. Orwell was the greater and more serious of the two, but literary criticism can’t explain either of them. It can’t say why they were such good writers and such pleasures to read. All it can do is discuss their ideas, their influences, their culture and their life-histories. That’s not enough and although Colls is a cultural historian rather than a literary critic or (worse) a literary theorist, English Rebel fails to explain Orwell’s greatness just as surely as every previous biography and literary analysis.

And “Englishness” is not a very interesting topic. England and the English can be, but that’s partly because they’re so varied. You might also that Englishness is unconsciousness. The people who want to analyse it or feel the need to go in search of it are outsiders in some way. Orwell was born in British India, which made him an outsider in one way. He went to Eton on a scholarship, which made him an outsider in another. And he had French ancestry, which made him an outsider in yet another.

But I’ve never seen any critics or biographers of Orwell make much of his Frenchness. It’s there in his features and must have been there in his brain and psychology too, because genetics influences both of those. And that’s where Englishness can get interesting: at the genetic and biological level. You won’t find any of that here and bio-criticism isn’t a big subject anywhere yet. It will be, sooner or later, and that’s when Orwell will be better understood. In the meantime, books like this are here to speculate and make suggestions. And despite his irreverence and hostility, Colls does seem to appreciate the greatness and the moral stature of his subject: “Orwell spent his life fighting those who wanted to ‘control life’ and ‘entirely refashion people’ ‘with an absolute authority which penetrates into a man’s innermost being’.” (ch. , “Life after Death”, pg. 224)

That final quote is from the Jacobins and the Jacobins are still with us, using ever more advanced technology to satisfy some very primitive urges for power and domination. Orwell understood the urges and prophesied the technology. This book isn’t worthy of Orwell, but I’m not sure any biography or critique could be. It’s eclectic and interesting all the same. And it’s got a good index and some photos I’d never seen before.

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Infinitesimal by Alexander AmirInfinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World, Amir Alexander (Oneworld 2014)

Infinitesimal is an entertaining read on a fascinating topic: the pioneers of a new form of mathematics and those who opposed them. Amir Alexander claims that “the ultimate victory of the infinitely small helped open the way to a new and dynamic science, to religious toleration, and to political freedoms unknown in human history” (Introduction, pg. 14).

It’s an extraordinary claim and I don’t think he manages to provide extraordinary proof for it. In fact, he probably gets cause-and-effect reversed. Is it likelier that new mathematics opened minds, dynamized science and transformed politics or that open minds created new forms of mathematics, science and politics? I’d suggest that support for the new mathematics was a symptom, not a cause, of a new psychology. But Alexander makes a good case for his thesis and there is no doubt that the world was changed by the willingness of mathematicians to use infinitesimals. Calculus was one result, after all. The book begins in Italy and ends in England, because the pioneers lost in Italy:

For nearly two centuries, Italy had been home to perhaps the liveliest mathematical community in Europe. … But when the Jesuits triumphed over the advocates of the infinitely small, this brilliant tradition died a quick death. With Angeli silenced, and Viviani and Ricci keeping their mathematical views to themselves, there was no mathematician left in Italy to carry on the torch. The Jesuits, now in charge, insisted on adhering close to the methods of antiquity, so that the leadership in mathematical innovation now shifted decisively, moving beyond the Alps, to Germany, England, France and Switzerland. (ch. 5, “The Battle of the Mathematicians”, pg. 178)

Why were the Jesuits involved in an esoteric mathematical dispute? You might say that de minimis curat Loyola – Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Jesuits, cared about anything, no matter how small, that might undermine the authority of the Church. In the view of his successors, the doctrine of indivisibles did precisely that: “in its simplest form, the doctrine states that every line is composed of a string of points, or ‘indivisibles’, which are the line’s building blocks, and which cannot themselves be divided” (Introduction, pg. 9).

Indivisibles must be infinitesimally small, or they wouldn’t be indivisible, but then how does an infinitesimal point differ from nothing at all? And if it isn’t nothing, why can’t it be divided? These paradoxes were familiar to the ancient Greeks, which is why they rejected infinitesimals and laid the foundations of mathematics on what seemed to them to be solider ground. In the fourth century before Christ, Euclid used axioms and rigorous logic to create a mathematical temple for the ages. He proved things about infinity, like the inexhaustibility of the primes, but he didn’t use infinitesimals. When Archimedes broke with Greek tradition and used infinitesimals to make new discoveries, “he went back and proved every one of them by conventional geometrical means, avoiding any use of the infinitely small” (Introduction, pg. 11).

So even Archimedes regarded them as dubious. Aristotle rejected them altogether and Aristotle became the most important pre-Christian influence on Thomas Aquinas and Catholic philosophy. Accordingly, when mathematicians began to look at infinitesimals again, the strictest Catholics opposed the new development. Revolutionaries like Galileo were opposed by reactionaries like Urban VIII.

But the story is complicated: Urban had been friendly to Galileo until “the publication of Galileo’s Dialogue on the Copernican system and some unfavourable political developments” (pg. 301). So I don’t think the mathematics was driving events in the way that Alexander suggests. Copernicus didn’t use them and the implications of his heliocentrism were much more obvious to many more people than the implications of infinitesimals could ever have been. That’s why Copernicus was frightened of publishing his ideas and why Galileo faced the Inquisition for his astronomy, not his mathematics.

But Amir’s thesis makes an even more interesting story: the tiniest possible things had the largest possible consequences, creating a new world of science, politics and art. In Italy, two of the chief antagonists were Galileo and Urban; in England, two were the mathematician John Wallis (1616-1703) and the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Alexander discusses Wallis and Hobbes in Part II of the book, “Leviathan and the Infinitesimal”. Hobbes thought that de minimis curat rex – “the king cares about tiny things”. Unless authority was absolute and the foundations of knowledge certain, life would be “nasty, brutish and short”.

However, there was a big problem with his reasoning: he thought he’d achieved certainty when he hadn’t. Hobbes repeatedly claimed to have solved the ancient problem of the “quadrature of the circle” – that is, creating a square equal in size to a given circle using only a compass and an unmarked ruler. Wallis demolished his claims, made Hobbes look foolish, and strengthened the case for religious toleration and political freedom. But I don’t think this new liberalism depended on new mathematics. Instead, both were products of a new psychology. Genetics will shed more light on the Jesuits and their opponents than polemics and geometry textbooks from the period. Alexander’s theory is fun but flawed.

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Mortality by Christopher HitchensMortality, Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Books 2012; paperback 2013)

Christopher Hitchens died as he lived: writing badly. And raising a lot of questions. Why did intelligent people, some of whom write much better than he did, heap so much praise on him? “Characteristic of his elegant wit,” said the Times of this final brief book. The Irish Times called its author “unremittingly elegant, a master of elegant prose”. Elegant? Elephantine is more like it. As a sample of Hitchens’ execrable style, try this:

…kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system (part I, pg. 7)

Why did “bag of poison” become “venom sack”? Why not simply say “bag of poison” and then “the bag”? Because Hitch followed the adolescent – and irritating – rule of varying words for the sake of it or out of a mistaken fear of boring the reader. Fowler called that rule “elegant variation”. He was being ironic. Which is ironic, because Hitch was supposed to be a master of irony.

He wasn’t. He was a master of pomposity and plodding platitude. For me, he was the Tony Blair of journalism: an untalented and unoriginal man who enjoyed success far beyond his merits. True, there is some good writing here, but Hitchens wasn’t responsible for any of it. Nor was Graydon Carter, an editor of Hitch’s who wrote the introduction. No, the only good writing appears in the afterword by Hitch’s wife Carol Blue:

By the time I saw him standing at the stage entrance of the 92nd Street Y that evening, he and I – and we alone – knew that he might have cancer. We embraced in a shadow that only we saw and chose to defy. We were euphoric. He lifted me up and we laughed. (Afterword, pg. 96)

Carol Blue knows how to play the instrument of English. Her late husband didn’t. She can conjure reality. He couldn’t. But she increases the puzzle of Hitchens’s bad writing not just by doing what he didn’t and couldn’t. Hitch liked Waugh and Wodehouse, but refused to follow their literary example and write well. He also failed to learn anything from three more very good writers, as Blue reveals here:

Slightly down the page he wrote what he wanted me to bring from our guesthouse in Houston:

Nietzsche, Mencken and Chesterton books. (Afterword, pg. 100)

How could Hitchens read those three and still write so badly? Elsewhere Blue offers a glimpse into something that helps explain it: the smugness and self-satisfaction of Hitch’s life and world:

At home at one of the raucous, joyous, impromptu eight-hour dinners we often found ourselves hosting, where the table was so crammed with ambassadors, hacks, political dissidents and children that elbows were colliding and it was hard to find a space to put down a glass of wine, my husband would rise to give a toast that could go on for a stirring, spellbinding, hysterically funny twenty minutes of poetry and limerick reciting, a call to arms for a cause, and jokes. “How good it is to be us,” he would say in his perfect voice. (Afterword, pp. 94-5)

That “perfect voice” is part of the key to Hitchens’ success, I think. Americans appear to be suckers for a Brit with a posh accent and lots of self-confidence. Moving to the US was the best thing Hitch ever did for his career, because he could play the role of patrician intellectual and polemicist much better over there.

And once there, as he described in Hitch-22, he made friends with other pseuds and windbags, like the late Susan Sontag, also hugely self-confident, also hugely over-rated. She is also an example of how Hitch’s Jewishness was a factor in his success, I think. His maternal ancestry was much more evident in him than in his conservative brother Peter, a better writer and thinker who has fully rejected his youthful Trotskyism, not transmuted it into neo-conservatism as Hitch did. But Peter is pricklier and much less good as schmoozing than Hitch was. He hasn’t attached himself to a powerful clique and propagandized for it, so he wouldn’t have departed on a wave of eulogy and affection if he’d died instead.

I don’t think Hitch deserved the eulogy. The affection is another matter: that’s personal, not public. There was obloquy from some too, but although I disliked and disagreed with him I didn’t like the way he died. It’s wrong to want someone to have a painful and unpleasant death because you disagree with them. I don’t believe in free will and I don’t think that consciousness is responsible for our choices. It’s only consciousness that suffers, not the part of us that chooses.

Hitch bore his own suffering bravely and without abandoning his principles: “If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does” (pg. 91). That’s not funny or original, but he did at least try. He tried to write well about dying too, but he didn’t succeed. I found that a relief, because cancer is an unpleasant and frightening thing. That’s a final unintended irony of a literary life that will, I predict, look smaller and more misguided with the years.


Previously pre-posted (please peruse):

Cigarettes and Al-Qaeda – a review of Hitch-22: A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens (2010)

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Front cover of Mein Kampf by Adolf HitlerMein Kampf, Adolf Hitler (1925)

I came to this book after learning that Hitler was a vegetarian and have to say I was extremely disappointed: not a recipe in sight, only pages and pages (and pages) of turgid political theorizing and autobiography. This becomes even more of a shame when you think of the advantages Hitler had: as a young man he lived for a long time in Vienna, famous around the world for its chocolate and confectionary. A great opportunity to write a classic of pre-war vegetarian cuisine was criminally missed here. One can hardly wonder that Hitler’s reputation never recovered from this early setback.

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A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper by John Allen PaulosA Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, John Allen Paulos (Penguin 1996)

Ah, unrequited love. I love maths, but maths doesn’t love me. Still, it likes me enough for me to learn a lot from books like this. And I, like most people, do need to learn a lot about maths, because not knowing about it can lead you to make all sorts of mistakes and fall into all kinds of misunderstandings.

So we need more writers like the mathematician John Allen Paulos, who knows a lot about maths and can express what he knows simply and entertainingly. This book is one of those that divide your life into BR and AR – Before Reading and After Reading – because it changes the way you look at the world.

Take politics and important questions like the way we vote and the way power blocs work. Paulos examines all sorts of paradoxes and contradictions in both and you should come out of that section understanding the imperfections and dangers of democracy a lot better. You’ll also know that it’s possible to create a set of four dice, A, B, C, and D, in which A beats B, B beats C, C beats D, and D beats A. Impossible? No, it’s very simple – once you know how.

Or take the horrors of discrimination in terms of issues around race and gender. Women are about 50% of the British population and non-whites are about 10% and you should therefore expect them to be 50% and 10%, respectively, of MPs or judges or disc-jockeys or senior managers in confectionery factories, shouldn’t you? And if they aren’t, that’s clear proof of discrimination, isn’t it?

Paulos’s answers are, respectively, no, not necessarily, and no, not necessarily. What is true of a general population is not always true of its extremes:

As an illustration, assume that two population groups vary along some dimension – height, for example. Although it is not essential to the argument, make the further assumption that the two groups’ heights vary in a normal or bell-shaped manner. Then even if the average height of one group is only slightly greater than the average height of the other, people from the taller group will constitute a large majority among the very tall (the right tail of the curve). Likewise, people from the shorter group will constitute a large majority among the very short (the left tail of the curve). This is true even though the bulk of the people from both groups are of roughly average stature. Thus if group A has a mean height of 5’8” and group B has a mean height of 5’7”, then (depending on the exact variability of the heights) perhaps 90 percent or more of the those over 6’2” will be from group A. In general, any differences between two groups will always be greatly accentuated at the extremes.

Discrimination undoubtedly exists, but where it exists, who it’s being exercised against and how much of an effect it has are not questions that can always be answered in simple ways. Paulos even describes how taking measures against discrimination can make its supposed effects worse.

Look before you leap, in other ways, and look with mathematically trained eyes. It will help you in all sorts of ways, from not being taken in by fallacious political arguments to not being ripped off. Suppose, Paulos asks, a pile of potatoes is left out in the sun. It’s 99% water and weighs 100 pounds. A day later, it’s 98% water. How much does it weigh now?

If you can’t work out the answer then you might be on your way to losing a lot of money if a conman looks after your money or investments. Paulos explains the answer – which, surprisingly (or not), is 50 pounds – very clearly and simply, the way he explains the answers of all the other little puzzles he drops into the text as he discusses gossip, celebrity, cooking, bargains, infectious disease, and a host of other subjects that maths can either illuminate or obfuscate, depending on how well you understand it and the logic that underlies it.

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Front cover of Mo Mowlam by Julia LangdonMo Mowlam: The Biography, Julia Langdon (Little, Brown 2000)

(A revision of a review first written in 2005)

When you’re poisonous, it pays to advertise. When you’re not poisonous, it pays to steal that advertising. Wasps have distinctive yellow-and-black stripes, and so do some harmless moths. They’ve evolved to mimic wasps without running the physiological costs of actually being poisonous. It’s cheaper to pretend than to be, in other words, and in nature pretence works. In politics, where mimicry has evolved too, it only works in the short term, because politics is based on promises of delivering good, not threats of doing harm. So you’re in trouble if you can’t find a good excuse for failing to deliver.

Mo Mowlam managed to get some good excuses for not meeting her lying promises, but I don’t think Tony Blair will. Whether he does or not, I can’t understand why people saw Mowlam as such a “refreshing” contrast to Blair. They were very similar in many ways. Like Blair, Mowlam was a not-very-bright egomaniacal fake whose success was based on manipulation and deceit. But in fact she was helped to escape detection by the media’s desire to set a villain, Blair the Liar, off against a heroine, Holy Mo. We don’t like to think that the alternative to a bad ruler might be equally bad or worse, and Mo was a kind of Queen across the Water for those suffering under bad King Tony. Her ill-health and the undoubted malice shown to her by Blair and his cronies added to her romantic image, and when she died in August 2005 the UK even relapsed briefly into mild Di-mentia.

But Mowlam is now sliding back into deserved oblivion. Why she deserves that oblivion is explained by this book. And I suspect that this was part of the author’s intention, though probably not in a fully conscious way. Langdon may have thought she was producing a “balanced” portrayal of her subject’s “complex” personality, but when someone is supposed to be honest and “unspun”, evidence that she can be deceitful and calculating doesn’t so much balance her honesty as suggest that it’s fake. Langdon describes Mowlam calling loudly for a drink in a bar at the House of Commons “because I’ve got the curse” (ch. 8, pg. 171) and either not noticing the “slight frisson” this caused or not caring. But Langdon goes on:

Some of her colleagues are convinced, however, that she actually sets out to shock or take people by surprise as part of a deliberately considered strategy. There is some evidence for this. For example, in an interview for the Mail on Sunday in early 1998, the writer and photographer waited to see the Northern Ireland Secretary for quite some time in an anteroom. She suddenly burst into the room wearing no shoes, no wig and no jacket, and on seeing them exclaimed in apparent surprise in a fruity four-letter way. The reporter, Louette Harding, wrote that the freelance photographer who was with her later disclosed privately that he had photographed Mo Mowlam before for another publication in London, and that, curiously, exactly the same thing had happened on that occasion. He had waited, she had burst in, appeared aghast, done a double-take and then cursed in surprise. (ch. 8, “‘I have as much right to be there as they have’: Westminster 1987-1991”, pp. 171-2)

Langdon’s conclusion is that the “surprise tactics she employs helped present her at Westminster and later to the wider world as someone who was different, a woman who was prepared to challenge the norm” (pg. 172). If that’s an admiring assessment of Mowlam’s behaviour, it’s a cynical one too. However, Langdon says elsewhere that Mowlam’s “spontaneity” — in this case a comment to a male reporter about the discomfort of a new bra — is “quintessential Mo” and “the way she is”. So perhaps Langdon wasn’t expecting her readers to read between the lines of other anecdotes, like this one from Mowlam’s time as an MP in the north-eastern constituency of Redcar:

On one occasion she dropped a friend back at a junction in Grangetown late at night and a passer-by mistakenly thought she was a taxi-driver. He climbed in the back of her car, giving an address as he did so, and rather than pointing out his error she drove off. They started a conversation and a few minutes into the journey he recognized her voice and was quite naturally horrified at his presumption. ‘You’re all right. I’m going that way. I’ll drop you off,’ said his MP. (ch. 9, “‘I’ll be back to see you after’: Redcar 1987-1995”, pg. 192)

But was she going that way before she realized the opportunity the mistake had given her? A story like that would quickly spread, adding to the “Good old Mo” legend, and Langdon goes on to describe how “this popular and saintly woman who is regularly mobbed on the streets of Redcar can also get very angry when she doesn’t get what she wants from her staff” (pp. 192-3). Then Langdon seems to slip back into naïve Mo-groupie mode: Mowlam’s failure to match casual acts of kindness to strangers with consideration for her own staff is explained by the fact that she was “‘driven’ — partly by the impetus provided by her background, partly by her profound political beliefs and partly by fear of failure” (pg. 194). Langdon seems to forget here the way she has shown elsewhere that Mowlam didn’t have any profound political beliefs: like Blair, she was a “pragmatist” who avoided commitment to any particular group as much as she could. She wasn’t particularly left-wing or particularly right-wing, and she didn’t identify herself as a feminist. She was just “good old Mo”… except to those perceptive few who claimed she was devious and a control-freak.

This absence of ideology — and principle — helps explain why Mowlam and Blair were such close allies in the beginning, but she soon fell out with the homosexual cliques that surrounded Blair and Gordon Brown, as Langdon hints when she reports what “one Labour MP” has told her: “People were jealous of her because she was pretty and personable and popular. This MP said: ‘Nick Brown couldn’t bear Mo being close to Gordon. He couldn’t bear a woman being close to Gordon.’” (ch. 8, pg. 186) And yes, Mowlam was attractive before her brain-tumour and the treatment that made her put on weight and lose her hair. Before she revealed she was ill, one female journalist infamously described her as looking like “an only slightly effeminate Geordie trucker” (ch. 11, pg. 264). But that masculine side always seems to have been there: she looks like a boy in some of the childhood photos reproduced here and her features were always large, solid, and rounded.

I’d diagnose the higher-than-average testosterone levels that seem to be characteristic of female politicians, and that may also have manifested themselves in Mowlam’s “earthiness”: her swearing, her enthusiasm both for sex and for talking about sex, and her endearing habit — to some — of helping herself to other people’s food and drink. She was extrovert in a masculine way, in other words. Testosterone helps explain why men are more extrovert on average than women and also more ambitious. Langdon doesn’t use biological explanations like that, of course, preferring to use Mowlam’s early environment instead. Mowlam had an alcoholic father and sought escape from her childhood demons first in academic success, becoming a professor of politics, and then in politics itself.

But she doesn’t seem to have been very intelligent and Langdon’s naïvety and Moöphilia may be apparent in her description of Mowlam’s preparation for her role as “Spokeswoman on City and Corporate Affairs“ in Neil Kinnock’s shadow cabinet:

She worked, as ever, extraordinarily hard. Night after night she could be seen walking down the Library Corridor in the Commons with a huge pile of books in her arms. She had no particular expertise in City affairs and she had some catching up to do, but she was going to get on top of this portfolio and she was going to prove that she could make it a success. (ch. 8, pg. 181)

Well, she “could be seen” carrying “a huge pile of books”, but did she ever read them? As on many other occasions, Mowlam is doing something ostentatious or flamboyant that will be talked about. But, like the warning yellow-and-black stripes on a harmless moth, there may have been no substance behind it. I remember hearing or reading her admit in an interview that when she had that job in the Shadow Cabinet and hadn’t prepared properly for a meeting with financiers, she would go and ask them to explain what they thought, which she knew they were always happy to do. Meanwhile (I assume), she nodded and looked intelligent. Langdon reports that later, after Labour achieved power and Mowlam was appointed Northern Ireland secretary, she

prepared diligently for this post and impressed her friends and colleagues … with her degree of application. [One of them] came across her studying a calendar she had compiled containing all the dates and anniversaries of historic and political consequence in Irish history. (ch. 12, “‘Discipline Before Desire’”, pg. 265).

Had she set that encounter up too? Either way, her calendar doesn’t seem to have helped her much in Northern Ireland, but success there would have been beyond a much more intelligent and capable woman. Peter Mandelson, another homosexual in Blair’s inner circle who fell out with Mowlam, began to brief against her as he manoeuvred for her job. Some of what he said does seem to have been true: her brain-tumour was affecting her judgment. After all, when she left Northern Ireland she started to believe her own hype and wanted to become Foreign Secretary. Surprisingly, the acerbic cartoonist Gerald Scarfe believed her hype too, because as she was being pushed out of favour he portrayed her as a puzzled and unhappy dove of peace with the title “Mo Grounded”. It’s the last photo in the photo section and would be the lasting image of Mo Mowlam: a good and decent woman done down by dark forces.

Well, there’s enough evidence in this book to show that this image is false, though she does seem to have been targeted after the standing ovation she received during a speech by Tony Blair at the Labour Party Conference in 1998. He mentioned “our one and only Mo”, and then had to pause for “90 seconds” of applause touching “110 decibels on the clapometer” (ch. 12, pg. 299). It’s said that Blair’s lieutenants — people are still reluctant to admit the sickness starts at the top — disliked both the ovation and the polls that showed she was more popular than he was, and set out to undermine and isolate her.

If so, it was a falling-out among thieves. Although Mowlam’s illness and death were sad, she and Blair were very similar. Like him, she was a fake who used politics as a stage for her own self-serving psychodrama. I felt sorry for her when she deteriorated intellectually in the final days of her illness, lapsing into a kind of amiable premature senility, but then I’d feel sorry for Blair in the same circumstances. It wouldn’t undo the harm he’s done to British politics or excuse his earlier deceit and dishonesty, and the same goes for “Mo” Mowlam.

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StellissimusThe Cosmic Gallery: The Most Beautiful Images of the Universe, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2013)

Eyck’s EyesVan Eyck, Simone Ferrari (Prestel 2013)

Dealing Death at a DistanceSniper: Sniping Skills from the World’s Elite Forces, Martin J. Dougherty (Amber Books 2012)

Serious StimbulationCleaner, Kinder, Caringer: Women’s Wisdom for a Wounded World, edited by Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (University of Nebraska Press 2013)


Keeping It GweelGweel and Other Alterities, Simon Whitechapel (Ideophasis Press 2011) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Ave Aves!Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe (second edition), text and maps by Lars Svensson, illustrations and captions by Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström (HarperCollins, 2009) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Flesh and FearUnderstanding Owls: Biology, Management, Breeding, Training, Jemima Parry-Jones (David & Charles, 1998) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Hit and SmithSongs that Saved Your Life: The Art of The Smiths 1982-87, Simon Goddard (Titan Books 2013) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of Hitch-22 by Christopher HitchensHitch-22: A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens (2010)

The true extent of Christopher Hitchens’ literary achievement is apparent only when one reflects that two of his favourite authors were Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse. With those shining examples before him, he contrived for decades to produce some of the world’s most pompous and constipated prose. The caption to one photograph in this autobiography runs: “Blockading a racist hairdresser, 1968.” I won’t call that the funniest line in the book, because as far as I could discover it was the only funny line in the book. And the humour was not intentional. Racism is not, after all, a joking matter. One question occurred to me again and again as I toiled through Hitch-22 and the dull story of Hitch’s short journey from Trotskyism to neo-conservatism: what is his mother tongue? Because it certainly isn’t English. Yes, if Waugh is a swallow and Wodehouse a hummingbird, then Hitchens has all the aerial grace and acrobatic skill of the Guggenheim Museum. If you’d like to feel your synapses shrivel, read on:

Let us go, then, you and I [sic], to a dingy and rather poorly lit union hall in Haringay, North London. The time: the mid-1970s. The place: a run-down but resilient district, with a high level of Irish and other immigrant population. I am the invited speaker and the subject is Cyprus, the former British colony in the Mediterranean which has recently been attacked and invaded by both Greek and Turkish armies. Many refugees from this cruel bombardment and occupation have arrived in London to join the staunchly working-class and left-wing Cypriot community that has been here since the 1930s. My articles on the ongoing imperial crime have won me a certain audience. The brothers and sisters in Haringay aren’t easily impressed by visiting talent, and it’s unlikely that I’ll even get the taciturn treasurer of the local branch to refund my “tube” fare from downtown, but I’m used to this no-nonsense style and have even trained myself to approve of it. Before being exposed to my scintillating rhetoric, the audience will be subject to a steady series of quotidian preliminaries… (“The Fenton Factor”, pg. 137 of the Atlantic Books paperback)

Hitchens is further proof of the connexion between left-wing politics and bad prose. We aren’t in need of further proof while Noam Chomsky and Stephen Jay Gould remain in print, but I can recommend this book if you’d like to see Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie brought into disrepute. Hitch retails toe-curling stories about his two most famous literary chums. The Schadenfreude truly is terrific. If Hitch’s fellow theophobe Richard Dawkins wrote as badly as Hitch does, I’d abandon all my religious doubts and join the Society of Pius V. Alas for theists everywhere, Dawkins doesn’t, but the “Argument from Hitch” should still join the five classic proofs of God’s existence. Could anyone produce prose of this quality without divine assistance? Even the most militant atheist might feel a tremor of doubt.


Proviously post-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Rauc’ and RoleMortality, Christopher Hitchens (2012)

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Readers’ advisory: Contains plot-spoilers and a Nietzsche quote.

Crude, clichéd, but compelling. That’s how I’d describe Michael Connelly’s crime novels. And they’re sometimes clever too. His chief character is a Hiero for our times: jazz-loving Vietnam-vet loner Harry Bosch, a maverick murder detective fighting the flood of evil and horror in Los Angeles. The Bosch books are L.A.P.D. noir – very noir, as Bosch’s full name suggests: Hieronymus Bosch. His unmarried prostitute mother, who was raped and murdered while he was still a boy, named him after the proto-surreal Dutch apocalypticist. The books are also L.A.P.D. P.C. – very P.C. But not very original in their P.C. A sure way to spot a bad lad in a Bosch book is that he uses racist language or expresses racist ideas. This is Bosch’s senior officer, Lieutenant Pounds, visiting a crime scene in South Central L.A.:

There was still a lot of debris in the building’s shell. Charred ceiling beams and timber, broken concrete block and other rubble. Pounds caught up with Bosch and they began carefully stepping through to the gathering beneath the tarp.

“They’ll bulldoze this and make another parking lot,” Pounds said. “That’s all the riots gave the city. About a thousand new parking lots. You want to park in South Central these days, no problem. You want a bottle of soda or to put gas in your car, then you got a problem. They burned every place down. You drive through the South Side before Christmas? They got Christmas tree lots every block, all the open space down there. I still don’t understand why those people burned their own neighborhoods.”

Bosch knew that the fact people like Pounds didn’t understand why “those people” did what they did was one reason they did it, and would have to do it again someday. Bosch looked at it as a cycle. Every twenty-five years or so the city had its soul torched by the fires of reality. But then it drove on. Quickly, without looking back. Like a hit-and-run. (The Concrete Blonde, 1994, ch. 2)

Are you surprised to hear that Pounds meets a bad end? A writer is like a god, creating and controlling a world of his own, and he can ensure that blasphemers like Pounds are punished as they deserve to be. And all too often aren’t in real life, alas: blacks are still groaning under racist oppression not just in Los Angeles but in the U.S. as a whole. Sooner or later, as Bosch sadly but wisely foresees, they “will have” to burn “their own neighborhoods” again.

Which will make their problems worse. But what choice do they have? Blacks aren’t fully human and don’t have free will, intelligence, or reason like whites. That, at least, is what racists think. Racists like Pounds? No, racists like Harry Bosch and his creator Michael Connelly. Think about what is really going on in the passage I quote above. Pounds is puzzled by the arson because it was stupid, irrational, and malign. In other words, his premise is that blacks are intelligent, rational and benign people. The arson of the L.A. riots appears to contradict that premise, so Pounds is puzzled.

Bosch, on the other hand, looks “at it as a cycle”, a natural rhythm of black behaviour. They’re oppressed, so they react by making things worse for themselves. Bosch and his creator are actually white male supremacists, but then that’s because they’re liberals. If you listen to what liberals say, you’ll think that they believe in human equality: that we’re all the same under the skin, regardless of race, sex, sexuality, disability, or any other irrelevant externality-issue factor. If you watch what liberals do, however, you’ll realize that they don’t believe in human equality at all. Liberalism secretly operates on the principle that only one group is fully human. Which group is it? White heterosexual able-bodied males, or WHAMs.

In liberalism, only WHAMs have free will and only WHAMs can be blamed for bad behaviour. They oppress everyone else; everyone else is oppressed by them. That’s why it’s so important to criticize WHAMs, take power off them, and punish them for their sins. They could choose good; instead, they choose evil. But when blacks commit arson, loot, and murder large numbers of people, as they did in the L.A. riots, no blame attaches to them. It’s a cycle, a natural rhythm, as mindless and irrational as an earthquake or hurricane. When blacks misbehave, they’re not to blame. The real immorality is committed by WHAMs like Pounds, who don’t “understand why ‘those people’ did what they did”. But this dichotomy contradicts the official liberal line on human nature: that we’re all the same under the skin and any group is capable of doing anything done by any other group.

For example, the Jewish-American scientist Jared Diamond argues in Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) that European and Asian achievements are entirely owed to geography, not at all to genetics. Blacks in Africa were just as capable of building cathedrals, inventing gunpowder, or landing on the moon, but they weren’t living in the right environment. Note where Diamond’s reasoning also leads: it means that blacks were just as capable of conquering and oppressing whites as vice versa. It’s just an accident of history that whites had black slaves and are still preventing blacks from realizing their gigantic potential. We’re all the same under the skin, so if the geographic dice had rolled differently, the tables would have been turned: blacks would have enslaved whites and would now be preventing whites from realizing their potential. Harry Bosch could have been black, named after a black artistic genius, and L.A. could have been full of poor, downtrodden whites oppressed by a non-white elite. The same goes for all other forms of oppression and bigotry. WHAMs have used their power to oppress non-WHAMs, but non-WHAMs are just as capable of being oppressors, when they get the chance. That is the clear logic of liberal dogma on human nature.

How often do you hear liberals point that logic out? I’ve never heard them point it out at all, because they don’t really believe it. Their aim is not to end injustice against non-WHAMs but to induce guilt in WHAMs, whether it’s deserved or not. But even if it is deserved, it can’t be culpable, if we follow the logic of “We’re All the Same under the Skin”. If liberal ideology is correct, it’s absurd for liberals to be self-righteous and indignant about racism, sexism, homophobia, and other evil WHAM prejudices. We’re all essentially the same, so we’re all potential oppressors and it’s merely chance that group W is oppressing groups X, Y, and Z. But have you ever heard liberals say that? No, they always blame wilful evil by group W, and seem to think that X, Y, and Z, by virtue of being oppressed, have some special saintly status. They can’t have, if liberal dogma is correct. It isn’t, but liberals don’t believe in it anyway: dogma is for preaching, not for practising. The truth is that liberalism, like the overt religions it so often criticizes, isn’t really out to achieve its loudly proclaimed goals. It isn’t really about ending oppression and injustice: it’s about gaining power and money by inducing guilt and censoring dissent. Those who complain most loudly about injustice are often those who are most eager to practice it:

If the suffering and oppressed lost the faith that they have the right to despise the will to power, they would enter the phase of hopeless despair. This would be the case if this trait were essential to life and it could be shown that even in this will to morality this very “will to power” is hidden, and even this hatred and contempt were still a will to power. The oppressed would come to see that they were on the same plain as the oppressors, without prerogative, without higher rank. (The Will to Power, Book One: European Nihilism, #55, translated by Walter Kaufmann)

Also sprach – thus spoke – Friedrich Nietzsche, a WHAM from the nineteenth century who remains one of the best and most acute critics of the self-contradictions, absurdities, and evils of liberalism, of whatever variety: the genuine variety, as preached by benevolent men like John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, or the crypto-Marxist variety, as preached by malevolent women like Hillary Clinton in the 21st.

I call Hillary “malevolent” because I’m an evil anti-liberal WHAM, of course. As a liberal WHAM, Michael Connelly does not believe in wilful female malevolence. Female misbehaviour, like black misbehaviour, is really the fault of WHAMs. At least, that was the line he plugged for many years. A wilfully malevolent female has finally turned up in one of his books, but you won’t need to told what race she is. She is certainly not a “sister”, literal or otherwise, of Kizmin “Kiz” Rider, the black lesbian detective who partners Bosch in Trunk Music (1997) and Angels Flight (1999). Rider has “grown up in south L.A.” and, because she combines three richly vibrant strands of non-WHAM-ness, she doesn’t stay long in the murder squad. She’s head-hunted by the Chief’s office, though she continues to help Bosch in his struggle against WHAM evil.

But Rider does offer strong hints that Connelly isn’t a fully orthodox liberal. For example, she gets herself shot and wounded by a serial killer in Angels Flight and she’s become too tied to the L.A.P.D. bureaucracy in The Drop (2011). Bosch is disappointed in her, though he does recognize that she’s been corrupted by a white system. And the serial killer who shot her is white, of course: Connelly is fully orthodox in never admitting that WHAMs are actually under-represented in serial killing, not the reverse. However, hints of his heterodoxy are apparent again in Jerry Edgar, another of Bosch’s black partners. In The Black Echo (1992), the first book in the Bosch series, Edgar is more attached to his part-time estate-agency work than he is to solving murders. Unlike Bosch, he doesn’t have “a wire in the blood” that drags him to devote his life to fighting the WHAM evil that ravages the world. He doesn’t think that “everybody counts or nobody counts” and, unlike Bosch, who’s driven on by memories of his mother’s death, he won’t devote as much effort to the murder of a homeless drug-addict as to the murder of a high-powered lawyer or city-councillor. He even ends up betraying Bosch and passing information about one of their cases to a journalist on the L.A. Times.

After those two black partners, both of whom fall short of their mentor’s standards, Bosch has a Hispanic-American partner, Ignacio “Iggy” Ferras, in The Overlook (2007), The Brass Verdict (2008), and 9 Dragons (2009). He has a Chinese-American partner, David Chu, in 9 Dragons and The Drop. But Kiz Rider re-appears in The Drop to be told something decidedly heterodox about the Rodney King beating, the appalling act of WHAM evil that caused the L.A. riots. Although Rider is black, she’s also a policewoman, so Bosch feels able to take a pro-police line on the beating. The L.A.P.D., he points out, had previously relied on choke-holds to subdue violent suspects quickly and effectively. But choke-holds were killing too many blacks, liberals said, and they were complaining more and more loudly about police racism. Bosch describes the consequences of their compassion and concern:

“…the department then told the officers to rely more on their batons… Added to that, Tasers were coming into use just as the choke hold went out. And what did we get? Rodney King. A video that changed the world. A video of a guy being tased and whaled on with batons when a proper choke hold would’ve just put him to sleep.”

“Huh,” Rider said. “I never looked at it that way.” (Op. cit., pp. 173-4)

Many liberal readers of the Bosch books will never have looked at it that way either. But those hints of heterodoxy are rare: in the main, Connelly and his characters are fully orthodox. In the chaotic world of Harry Bosch, few things are certain. Death is one. WHAM evil is another. A third is: ethnic minorities never ever ever commit sex-crimes, let alone sex-crimes of a particularly violent and unpleasant kind. If a black or Hispanic is charged with a rape-murder in a Connelly book, you can be certain that a horrendous miscarriage of justice is under way and that Bosch or Micky Haller, Bosch’s lawyer half-brother and star of his own series, will be riding to the rescue.

But by following that liberal line on sex-crime and miscarriages of justice, Connelly is again being a white male supremacist. The active, interesting roles – those of sex-slayer and injustice-overturner – are taken by WHAMs. The passive, accidental role – the poor shmuck whom the racist WHAM system found in the wrong place at the wrong time – is taken by a non-WHAM. Black ’bangas and Hispanic homies are minor characters in a drama that centres on Bosch or Haller. Non-WHAMs suffer from evil, but they don’t create it or fight it the way WHAMs do. Nor do black lesbians like Kiz Rider. Although she lets Bosch down by getting too close to the L.A.P.D. bureaucracy, she isn’t responsible for its machinations. No, WHAMs like Irvine Irving are. He’s the Machiavellian Deputy Chief of Police Bosch clashes with repeatedly until Irving is hoist on his own petard and forced to retire at the end of The Closers (2005). He then becomes a city-councillor and in The Drop he’s putting his Machiavellian skills to work against the L.A.P.D. rather than for it. I suspect that Connelly is orchestrating the Bosch series towards what will be, for Bosch, a shattering revelation: that Irving, who knew Bosch’s prostitute-mother as a beat-officer, is his real father, not the famous attorney whom Bosch has recognized as such till now.

Whether or not that proves true, the way Connelly develops his characters is one of the things I admire about his books: despite the occasionally clumsy prose, Bosch seems to inhabit a real world with real people in it, including him. The Bosch who began the series in 1992 is not the same as the Bosch who continues it in 2012. He’s older, greyer, more scarred, and with more unhappy romantic history behind him. He also had a history when he began the series in The Black Echo: losing his mother as a boy, he went from a series of children’s homes and foster-families into the army, which sent him to fight in Vietnam as one of the “tunnel rats”, the soldiers who went into the tunnel-network dug by the Viet Cong. Connelly acknowledges two more compelling authors at the beginning of The Black Echo: “Tom Mangold and John Pennycate, whose book The Tunnels of Cu Chi tells the real story of the tunnel rats of the Vietnam war.” Fighting underground like that took a special kind of personality and a special kind of physique. Bosch is slight but strong and wiry, not big and muscle-bound, and he has balls of steel. He puts his wiry strength to work occasionally in the books, but only against other WHAMs. He puts his balls to work too, but only with WHAFs. One of the WHAFs bears him a daughter, but he doesn’t learn about this till a later book.

By then, Bosch fans will already know that Connelly has an interest in both pornography and paedophilia. He wouldn’t be writing about those things so often otherwise. Indeed, he occasionally combines the two interests and writes about kiddie porn. The murder-victim in The Concrete Blonde is a porn-actress called Magna Cum Loudly and Bosch has to enter the seedy and sleazy world of L.A.’s adult porn industry to track down her WHAM killer. Kiddie porn turns up in both City of Bones (2002) and Angels Flight (1999). In the latter, circumstantial evidence implicates a black petty criminal in a paedophile sex-murder, but he didn’t do it, of course. The victim turns out to be have been pimped out on-line by her WHAM father.

Is there no end to WHAM evil? Not in the Bosch books, but I do sometimes have to wonder about what is going on in the depths of Connelly’s mind. Bosch discovers he has a beautiful young daughter in Lost Light (2003), but in 9 Dragons she’s living an ocean away in Hong Kong with her mother, the ex-FBI agent Eleanor Wish. However, Wish is killed off before the end of that book and Bosch is living alone with his daughter in The Drop. Can you say Lolita? If you can, I wonder if Connelly’s subconscious is saying it too. Lolita (1955) was another study of WHAM evil and I found myself unable to re-read it when I tried it again recently. It got too yucky. I’ve found the same with some of Connelly’s books, both ones with Bosch and ones without him. Or ones that don’t centre on him, because his characters wander in and out of each other’s series. It’s an interesting way for Connelly to shift perspective and compare and contrast his own creations. Bosch is big in his own series, but sometimes peripheral elsewhere. One of the best Connelly books may be in the shortest series: the two books devoted to the crime-reporter Jack McEvoy, The Poet (1996) and The Scarecrow (2009). The latter was one of the books I couldn’t finish when I tried it again. A dumb black ’banga is charged with a gruesome sex-murder, but surprise, surprise: the murder was really committed by a WHAM serial killer with a leg-iron fetish and a very high IQ. The Poet I could finish when I tried it again. It’s gruesome too, but I liked its clever plot and its use of Edgar Allan Poe.

I also liked the clever plot of Blood Work (1998), a non-Bosch which is the only book I’ve ever felt compelled to re-read immediately I had finished it. The twist at the end of the book cast everything that happened before it into a new light, so I was almost experiencing a different book when I read it again. That is good writing and Connelly deserves his huge success, though I don’t think he would have been allowed to have it if he hadn’t toed the liberal line from the very beginning. I don’t like the fact that Connelly is a liberal, but I do think there’s hope for him. And I definitely admire his ability to produce interesting books at a rate of more than one a year since 1992. When The Black Box is published later this month (November 2012), it will be the seventeenth Bosch book and the twenty-sixth of Connelly’s crime-novels altogether. They’re sometimes crude, sometimes contrived, but usually compelling and often clever too. He’s wrong to slam so relentlessly on WHAMs, but coming events will show him the error of his ways. And slamming WHAMs is a tribute to their importance: whether he knows it or not, Connelly has always been a white male supremacist. Harry Bosch, like the painter he was named after, is an example of why WHAMs matter, why they’re so envied and hated, and why liberalism, with the help of many WHAMs, is so desperate to do them down.

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