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Monday, 30 August 2021

Afghanistan? Reviews of several books

If you type Afghanistan into the search bar above you will be taken to half a dozen long reviews of serious  books about the War in Afghanistan which were published here in 2012 - 2013 and thus written (both books and reviews) without the benefit of hindsight.

Wednesday, 25 August 2021

Review: Amia Srinivasan The Right to Sex


I was looking forward to the book, having read the essay which gives the book its title and which was  published in the London Review of Books in 2018. I read it as a cross over book in which professor appears as public intellectual, seeking to address a wider audience than that comprised of peers and students. It’s true it’s not a difficult book - I read it in a day - though the short text of a hundred and ninety pages is followed by ninety pages of academic apparatus. But though a crossover book, it could readily be assigned as  core text for a course in “Topics in Contemporary Feminism” or some such and I shall imagine myself as course tutor suggesting lines of discussion, despite my evident unsuitability.

I would start us off with the chapter “The Right to Sex”. I suspect that if you begin with a narrative of the crimes and thoughts of a violent incel [ involuntary celibate] like Elliott Rodger, who in 2014 went on one of those killing sprees enabled by American gun laws, then you are not going to find anyone in the seminar room to argue that there is a right to sex. No one wants to side with Elliott Rodger; the only interesting question is whether he, and those who have followed his path, should be thought of as terrorists or - to use a term with a long history - criminally insane. Possibly, we need a new category because the USA sometimes looks from outside like a country as much at the mercy of terrorists and the criminally insane as of COVID. But deeply unhappy people does not quite cut it.

Within the Western traditions of political theory only one writer, Charles Fourier (1772 -1837), readily springs to mind as having argued for a right to sex. He appears briefly at page 87 and I think more could have been made of what he says, not least because his ideas have - unknowingly - been accepted into fairly common practice. Those who care for adult people with profound  disabilities - people who need 24-hour care - have to deal with the fact that some of those they care for want sex and perhaps deserve more than a right to solitary masturbation. A fairly common but discretely conducted solution is for carers to take their charges to visit sex workers, quite a few of whom advertise willingness to see disabled clients and many of whom are willing to see women as well as men. Public money is quite often used to fund these visits. Fourier would have wanted to garland the sex workers with ribbons and flowers.

This is not the stuff of trending social media discussion, though the film The Theory of Everything (2014) does frankly depict aspects of Stephen Hawking’s sex life. But my fairly  simple example of carers accepting the case for some kind of right to sex could get one into a frame-maintaining discussion in the way that documenting the activity of incels probably won’t. No one is going to want to read endless incel manifestos anyway, unless as a student with forensic interest - think  how Freud read the Memoirs of Judge Schreber or Foucault read Pierre Rivière.

If there was a right to sex, what would it be a right to? It might be disappointingly minimal and hardly connect with what we think of as paradigmatic of sexual desire or fulfilment.

But what is paradigmatic of sexual desire and its fulfilment? Srinivasan’s discussion of this is scattered over the whole book, but I would start with her first chapter “The Conspiracy Against Men”. Over the past half century or more, feminists have painted a very bleak picture of male sexual desire. Either men are natural-born rapists or they are shaped by patriarchal societies into less-than-fully-human beings who lose no chance to display a toxic masculinity [ added: I don’t think that Srinivasan actually uses that expression and that may be a choice] they don’t even realise is theirs. The only advantage to the second way of thinking is that it leaves open the possibility that in a different kind of society, men could be shaped differently. The same either-or framing can, of course, be applied to female sexuality.

One feminist strategy has been to argue that sexual relations in general, and not just between men and women, would be better if regulated (legally, morally) within a shared or enforced commitment to a basically Kantian ethics in which human beings - persons - are always to be treated as ends and never as means. Some feminists have reckoned that this approach can also be deployed to build a case against pornography, the subject of Srinivasan’s second chapter, “Talking to my Students about Porn”. But she doesn’t discuss a Kantian approach as such. It does run into at least a couple of difficulties, though they pull in opposite directions.

Back in the 1970s the British government established a Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship and, perhaps remarkably, appointed a very talented academic philosopher, Bernard Williams - Knightbridge Professor in Cambridge - to head it. Williams did look at the question of whether pornography should be regarded as depersonalising, and therefore bad on the Kantian view, but found - perhaps to his surprise - that most of those who figured in the pornography of the time, and however much they might be turned into subjects of fantasy, were generally given quite definite personal characteristics and were not “just” bodies. This was true of Page Three girls but also of characters in what was then called hard core pornography. In accompanying text, they were generally given names, school leaver qualifications, ambitions, hobbies, and so on. Whatever people wanted from pornography it did not appear to be just bodies. The same is probably true today, and video and cam shows allow for the creation of narratives which the still photography of older pornography could only supply in accompanying text.

But in another direction, one of the few academic Anglosphere philosophers to write about sexual desire - Roger Scruton in his 1987 book Sexual Desire [see my review  on this Blog 13 June 2020] - was not entirely convinced that objectification has no legitimate part in sexual desire. It is not just that sexual desire in unruly but that it is at least in part satisfied by objectifications (or less strongly, thematisations) which are consensual and often playful. The key distinction for Scruton is between sex considered as (merely) appetitive and sexual desire as intentionally directed towards persons and thus involving imagination in a way that “appetite” or “instincts” don’t.

Times change and Srinivasan addresses the pervasive part internet porn now plays in young people’s lives. It leads men who have watched porn to say to their girlfriends, You’re doing it wrong (p. 44) and that is a worry because it introduces into inter-personal relations ways of organising experience which have been honed by very large and not disinterested capitalist enterprises. Fifty years ago, it was women who said You’re doing it wrong to their male partners and who proceeded to provide elementary sex education, guiding the man to the location of something called the clitoris and helpful conduct in relation to it. In 1970 Britain’s National Secular Society published a booklet entitled Sex Education: the Erroneous Zone which did indeed show that the sex education offered to young people at the time was inaccurate and misleading. And many argued: it was meant to be. There is a long history in which organised religions have sought very actively to suppress sexual knowledge, including of things (like contraception) which were known about in very distant pasts. The UK publication of the fully-illustrated The Joy of Sex in 1972 was a breakthrough and hugely important for many people. An obscure but very different approach to sex education was provided in the same year by the  English translation of Freudian and Marxist Wilhelm Reich’s The Sexual Struggle of Youth (1934). The translation was the (unpaid) work of someone who went on to become a well-known Anglo-American feminist theorist, though I don’t think she ever claimed credit. It was felt worth doing because Reich challenged a narrowly economistic socialist politics and at the same time showed that obstacles to sexual happiness - like lack of privacy - are differentially distributed by social class. I was reminded of this old book by Srinivasan’s final chapter, of which more later.

 The word “young” in the previous paragraph leads me to a further point. Sexual desire is something experienced over a life time and during a lifetime if changes in intensity, in focus, and in circumstantial exercise. It’s not unreasonable, in my view, to think of sexual desire as something which for many teenagers is experienced at the beginning in an urgent, unfocussed way - they just need to orgasm and beyond that they can’t think very clearly. It is more like something appetitive in Scruton’s sense. The jazz musician, George Melly, famously wrote when late in life he became impotent, “It’s wonderful, like being unchained from a lunatic”.

Time often removes the original urgency, allowing desire to flourish in the form of marital sexuality. (For husbands, there is even the word uxorious; there is no equivalent for wives). Feminists had their doubts about such happy images of marriage and it was with the institution of marriage that much feminist writing was concerned; once it gets going, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch of 1970 is simply a rant against marriage [ see my review on this Blog, 27 September 2016].

But what about the rapists? as Srinivasan asks to good effect in her final chapter. Looked at one way, sexual violence often enough looks like male violence which happens on some occasion to be sexual. Maybe soldiers who rape are just deploying a different weapon in a context where violence is part of what they are expected to use. Looked at another way, rape is specifically sexual and the fantasies or anger or frustrations or whatever which fuel it have to be analysed within a more specific theory or narratives - since not all rapes may be alike. One could, of course try to break down this contrast. Srinivasan does describe cases, some of which are hard to respond to in a considered fashion. She mentions the case of Jyoti Singh, raped and murdered in 2012 (pp. 11-12). I knew the story and remembered that at the time my reaction had been immediate conversion to the righteousness of the death penalty. Her killers should all be hanged, no doubt at all. End of.

Some feminists have ventured into the demanding task of making forensic examination of male violence: in 1987 Deborah Cameron [now an Oxford professor] and Elizabeth Fraser published The Lust to Kill: A Feminist Investigation of Sexual Murder. But Kate Millet followed up her Sexual Politics (1970) with The Basement (1979) a disturbing study of a single case of the protracted torture and murder of a teenage girl in which the principal part was played by a woman. I think there were people who reacted badly to this book, but in principle it could be seen as an attempt to ask a question about what might be different about (extreme) female violence.


Srinivasan’s book is full of relevant, topical, and challenging examples. But I have always had ambivalent feelings about relevance. I think that students should expect to get from university study fluency in one or more ways of studying the world, just as a student of a  language expects to get fluency in that language. In that sense, I want university studies to be relevant. So a philosophy student fluent in Kantianism could pick up and run with the sketchy remarks I made earlier; a student familiar with the nature of rights-based legal and political theories would be able to assess whether sex is something which can helpfully be addressed in the language of rights or whether a rights-based approach is really too thin, too rationalistic. Some theories are more all-embracing than others, like Marxism and Freudianism, others are more limited tool boxes. Feminism sometimes aspires to be a theory - though Srinivasan calls it a movement rather than theory (page xi and then again on the last page p 179) - but there is a problem that those supposedly fluent in it either seem to be speaking different languages or aren’t on speaking terms. True, it’s a tall order to expect half the world’s population to agree with itself.

But in terms of relevance considerations, fluency is often achieved pedagogically through the study of simplified examples rather than full-blown topical narratives to which we quite often can find no other immediate reaction than shock or outrage, like my own illustrated above. To achieve understanding of how a theory works and how it can be made to yield results, it is often necessary to take an uncomplicated, quieter, example in order to see clearly how the basic machinery of our thinking works or doesn’t work. In a different context, if I was asked to address the giant (or possibly elephant in the room) Nature / Culture topic, I would start with handedness (left/right-handed). Later on, one can look at hard cases - Srinivasan’s book provides many such cases and she invites us to see that there are sometimes no easy answers and sometimes no case to answer.

One approach within contemporary feminism, that associated with Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) strikes me as obscurantist and impossible to become fluent in, so that instead of effective analyses we end up with ritual repetitions of positions to which everyone is expected to nod agreement. Martha Nussbaum provided a trenchant critique back in 1999. But right at the beginning of her book, Srinivasan invokes Judith Butler: “Sex, which feminists have taught us to distinguish from gender, is itself already gender in disguise” and then takes us to her very first footnote reference, to Judith Butler (p.xii. p. 185). Nope. It won’t wash. "Gender in disguise" is a nice try, but it's  rhetorical flourish not argument.

Whether anyone teaches the history of modern social constructionist theories from Alfred Schütz, through Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann and on to John Searle I don’t know. But, when considered, I don’t think there is any coherent version of social constructionism which will lead to the conclusion that the world is a better place for having “gender reveal” parties. I state my case at



I found Srinivasan’s final chapter the most impressive and it should be saved for the last course session. “Sex, Carceralism, Capitalism” fluently deploys theory and argument, sweeps up a lot of apparently disparate material, and points in a clear direction. It’s very well written, refreshing, and persuasive. It is deeply humane and finds a way of formulating that humanity in simple terms picked up and then  re-framed from an old 1977 manifesto which includes the sentence, “As feminists, we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics”. Srinivasan catches the thread and runs with it: “This basic principle - of not ‘messing over’ people as a means to a political end - implies that any choice between improving the lives of existing people and holding the line for a better future must be settled in favour of the former” (p 159). She is at that point specifically concerned with making the argument for the full decriminalisation and legalisation of sex work. But if you pause and think about it for a moment, the formulation is also a rebuke to all those who have been willing to concede to the Stalins and Maos of the world, big and small, that the end justifies the means and that it is the Future (as it is imagined for Us by Them) which trumps the Present (as we experience it).

Srinivasan then broadens the argument into a critique of what she calls “carceralism” of which Law & Order feminism has been a sponsor. Here the focus is on the United States and its extraordinary prison Gulag, fed by an out-of-control police and (to outsiders) theatrical criminal justice system, and some frankly weird laws. She rightly makes out the case that those who are already most disadvantaged are further disadvantaged by Law & Order “solutions” and that the only solutions which have any chance of working will necessarily involve a big redistribution of income and wealth from the increasingly rich to the increasingly poor. I sometimes think that even getting back to where we were forty or fifty years ago would help a lot. (Switch to the UK for a moment, and answer this question: When Margaret Thatcher took power in 1979, one of her first important acts was to cut the top rate of income tax from xx% to yy%. What were the values of xx and yy? Answer at the bottom of the page).

Srinivasan has published a very well written, forthright, committed, and in many respects, unusual, book which will, I am sure, be much read and appreciated. I look forward to reading in the next book what she has to say (there is already a lot in article form) in the narrower part of her role as professional philosopher.

* * *

Times change:

Amia Srinivasan is the seventh person to be appointed to Oxford University’s Chichele Professorship in Social and Political Theory since it was created in 1944. The first holder was G D H Cole (1889-1959), the only holder to be born in the United Kingdom, and notable as a World War One pacifist, Fabian, Guild Socialist and  mentor to two leaders of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson. In Church of England Oxford, he stuck out as an atheist and when it was his turn to say grace at meal times in All Souls, substituted a two minute silence.

His domestic relations were rather more conventional; in the biography of her husband which she published after his death The Life of G D H Cole (1971), Dame Margaret Cole wrote that though they were married for over forty years and had three children,

….he was always under-sexed - low-powered. If he had not married, I doubt very much he would have had any sex-life at all in the ordinary sense ….For women generally, except his wife, he never seemed to have any sexual use at all, and by and large to regard them as rather a low type of being….He believed as strongly as any anti-Socialist that no woman (except Jane Austen) had ever achieved first-class honours in art or literature; and he felt that the main purpose in life of the majority of them was to distract a man from his proper work …. his sex life diminished gradually to zero for the last twenty years of his life. Concurrently, he developed by degrees a positive dislike of, and disgust with, any aspect of sex almost equal to that of the early Christian fathers …… (pp. 91 - 94)

When they could have been having sex, husband and wife were instead busy jointly writing popular detective novels: The Walking Corpse (1931), Disgrace to the College (1937), Murder at the Munitions Works (1940) - and over twenty more like that. They employed household servants so one does not have to imagine titles being worked up as she washed and he dried.

* * *

83% was cut to 60%


Monday, 16 August 2021

Review: Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray


Reading a novel, you usually assume a stable text. But - consulting the notes to this edition in the course of reading - it became clear that this is not a stable text. For first 1890 magazine publication in the USA, Oscar Wilde submitted a typescript which was then edited in house. Some simple improvements were probably made but, more importantly, passages which were  overtly homoerotic were toned down, made more bland and generic. When Wilde expanded the American text for  1891 British publication as a novel, he also drew back from some of his original commitments as well as adding new themes to make the novel, let’s say, more “balanced”.

So it’s unclear now whether Wilde put his name to what he had really wanted to write and to what extent he was taking pre-emptive action against the cancel culture of his time, a culture which would not only have disallowed an overtly homoerotic story, even one couched as a morality tale as this one is, but would also exclude the author from polite society. And Wilde - married man with two children -  had one very big foot in polite society even if by 1890 (when this work was first published) he had the other foot in London’s  gay demimonde. Despite its enduring fame, the text of Dorian Gray is a compromise formation which could be read as a reflection of Wilde's compromised position.  So I ask, was there a different Dorian Gray that he would really  liked to have written?

The novel is built around an effective Gothic conceit - a portrait of Dorian Gray which spontaneously changes appearance to track the degeneration of its sitter - and it has some characteristic Wildean dialogue which hovers nicely between the frivolous and the profound. It’s a bit uneven and at one point I winced. For the second version, Wilde added a revenge narrative in which the sailor James Vane seeks to avenge his sister Sybil who committed suicide after being cruelly discarded by her Prince Charming, Dorian. By page 198 of chapter XVIII, the reader knows for sure, though without a name being given, that James Vane has been unsuccessful in his attempt. This does not stop Wilde right at the end of the chapter (page 199) labouring the obvious with a flat sentence which reads “The man who had been shot in the thicket was James Vane” which falls, redundant and very flat. 

Wilde could probably have written and published the novel he really wanted to write by a quite simple subterfuge. He could have written in English, employed a translator, and published in French - under his own name or a pseudonym. This thought occurs to me having just read (in the TLS, 13 August 2021) a review of two autobiographical novels, translated into English from the French of Liane de Pougy (1869 - 1950). De Pougy is always called a “courtesan” and, more familiarly, one of les grandes horizontales, both euphemisms for what we would now call a high-end sex worker. Clients on her books included Queen Victoria’s son and heir, the Prince of Wales, later Edward Seventh. Pougy appears to have felt free and been free, to write as she pleased with explicit sexual detail - and get published around the time Wilde was writing.

By the 1950s, Vladimir Nabokov did not even have to translate into French to get his Lolita published in Paris. The USA and the UK have always been bastions of  prudery, and still are. As a result, Dorian Gray is a prudish book.

Friday, 13 August 2021

Review: G K Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday


To put it briefly, No.

Late in life, G K Chesterton drew attention to the sub-title of this novel, A Nightmare, and it’s true that its phantasmagoria of chases and pursuits which play fast and loose with time and space can best be understood in terms of the kinds of thing which happen in dreams. But that doesn’t solve the problem that the overall effect is that of something whimsical and silly, with some cod symbolism/philosophy/theology thrown in at the end in an attempt to redeem it.

This 1908 book does have one foot in the real world. Like Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) - a very good novel - it picks up and makes plot-line use of the fact that contemporary anarchist and other revolutionary groupings across Europe were heavily infiltrated and even controlled by secret policemen, notably by agents of the Tsarist Okhrana created in 1881. Chesterton’s story line amounts to not much more than the successive (and rather laborious) revelation that six out of seven members of an anarchist central committee are all policemen, and very British policemen too.

It’s a short book and I made myself read it all. There are occasional thoughts which resonate, as when Conrad (authorially) writes, “ The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.” - aptly illustrated in our own time by the super-rich who back Mr Trump and Mr Johnson and for whom laws, like taxes, are for the little people.

But, still, No. It wasn’t worth a couple of my evenings.

Friday, 6 August 2021

Review: Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South


Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) often figures somewhere - though perhaps not very high up - on lists of  One Hundred Best Novels in English, novels which you need to read before you die in order to hold a dinner-table conversation while still alive. In her Introduction to my Penguin Classics edition (1995) Patricia Ingham treats it as a novel of ideas, which no doubt it is.

But that doesn’t make it a good novel. It has serious shortcomings. The original circumstance of periodical publication in Charles Dickens’ Household Words no doubt obliged the inscription of excitement into every instalment but when those instalments are stitched together the excitement turns (for this reader) into an unexciting sense of rollercoaster melodrama: Oh no, here we go again …. Though the experience of death formed a major part of everyday Victorian life, Gaskell piles up the bodies to the point at which the last of them (Mr Bell’s) which ought to matter to the reader simply doesn’t; it is so obviously required to bring the plot to an Enter Stage Left, happy coincidence, conclusion. Earlier in the novel, it is only the dying and death of the working class girl Bessy, at the age of nineteen, which really cuts through (for this reader) and that perhaps because with the benefit of hindsight we know that it was the fate of many Victorian teenage girls to die old enough to know that they were being cheated of life and not at all old enough to tolerate the thought. Bessy does enjoy her father's love, but until she attracts Miss Hale's affection and care, Bessy has only the opium of the people to comfort her - and she is indeed fortunate in her knowledge of the Book of Revelations.  

Towards the end, the chapters become thin and miscellaneous; the energy which infuses the earlier chapters is missing. It becomes irritating that through some editorial oversight (perpetuated into this modern edition) it is unclear whether “Cosmo” is the same character as “Sholto” and equally unclear how old this character is - if I was writing an essay on the novel I would try to chart the timeline for Cosmo/Sholto; my guess that it is inconsistent. It is also an irritation that though in this novel London is London and Southampton Southampton, Manchester is Milton-Northern (what? forerunner of Milton Keynes?) which in turn is located in Darkshire which is just toe-curling even by Victorian standards of suggestive names for characters and places. There is also, of course,  the extraordinary Victorian way of evoking characters through their facial features broken down into identikit components and at which Gaskell excels. But I can take only so many dilating pupils, quivering nostrils, and swans-neck, goose-neck (surely some mistake? - Ed.), delicate, alabaster …..throats. For my Gestalt taste, it's all too much like Mr and Ms Potato Head.

Friday, 30 July 2021

Review: Angie Schmitt, Right of Way


We Need to Talk About SUVs.

The United Sates is, apparently, very wealthy but on a wide range of well-being indicators it scores poorly. When the statisticians crunch the data it is always an outlier, as Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson showed in The Spirit Level (2008). Outside the USA, there is some general awareness of this: we sort of  know that American people experience gun violence, drug addictions, obesity, police violence, prison incarceration rates, mental ill-health, crumbling infrastructure, and all-round insecurity on a scale which makes for what some would call a shithole country. To make matters worse, a significant part of the population is now clearly beyond any ordinary appeal to reason, caught up in religious cults, conspiracy theories, and the more or less unhinged thinking of the Alt Right and at least some of the campus Wokes.

Any explanation is going to be complex but certainly lies deep in America’s dominant cultures. Angie Schmitt’s Right of Way is a carefully documented and modestly argued analysis which starts from a problem which does not make many headlines, pedestrian road deaths. In 2018, the USA boasted 6,283 pedestrian road deaths and around 1,500 further deaths involving a person and a vehicle in an off-road car park or private driveway. On a per capita basis, this is a poor result because it is about four times higher than equivalent deaths in the usual suspects for best performance, the Scandinavian countries.

As Schmitt painstakingly develops her account of underlying causes and potential solutions, it becomes (inadvertently) clear that America is stuck in some very hard to shift cultural assumptions and practices, many of which become fully articulated in its criminal justice system. A stand-out case is presented in chapter 3, “Blaming the Victim”.

Back in 2011, having missed a bus in her home state of Georgia, Raquel Nelson - a black woman - had to wait an hour for the next one. As a result, it was dark when she and her three young children alighted from the bus and set out to cross the four-lane highway which separated them from their suburban housing estate. Halfway across, her four year old son broke free of his mother’s hand to run with his sister to the other side. His sister made it, but he was hit by a van being driven at speed and he died. The driver of the van had vision problems, two previous hit-and-run convictions, and had been drinking on the day of the crash.

Outcome? The nearest crosswalk (pedestrian crossing) to the bus stop where she had alighted was a kilometre away, so Raquel Nelson did what everyone in her area did and crossed the road directly from the bus stop to her home. Big mistake. Jaywalking is an offence across the USA, an offence invented during the automobile's post - 1918 rise to dominance,  so she was charged with jaywalking, reckless conduct, and vehicular homicide. She was convicted of all three offences. The conviction was upheld on first appeal and on second appeal (made possible by a pro bono offer) to the Georgia Supreme Court.

The driver of the van, taking advantage of America’s eye-brow raising plea-bargaining system, pleaded guilty to fleeing the scene of the crash.

It would take a long essay to unpack all that is being illustrated by this single case. Schmitt uses it as a way of crystallising the argument that American culture, embodied in laws,  assumes that roads and streets exist primarily for drivers, and that it is the role of pedestrians (and cyclists) to stay out of the way. And not only that, that it is the role of pedestrians to accept Personal Responsibility for anything bad which might befall them.

In the United Kingdom, we have heard a lot about Personal Responsibility lately, some of it from our Ayn Rand-inspired GOP Health Secretary.

As Schmitt unfolds her narrative, it becomes clear that many parts of the USA simply do not have the kind of infrastructure anyone in the UK or mainland Europe will take for granted.  There are some simple but very tellling photographs.You cannot assume pavements or street lighting or pedestrian crossings or traffic calming devices or even safety regulations to reduce the design risk which vehicles pose to walkers. In the USA, they do light-touch regulation if you are wealthy and powerful and willing and able to litigate.

This is brought our forcefully in her discussion of SUVs. SUVs are pedestrain killers for two reasons. If an ordinary saloon car collides with a pedestrian, it will strike the pedestrian below the waist and maybe no higher than the thighs and will tend to throw them forward and onto the bonnet. This actually creates a survival chance. But the high-rise, flat fronted SUV will strike you above the waist, impact your vital organs - and knock you backwards so that it will then run you over. This reduces your chances of survival. That’s not all. High-rise SUVs have blind spots, fore and aft. A small child in front or behind a SUV will simply not be visible if they are closer to the vehicle than about three meters. Schmitt illustrates this with a photograph of seventeen children sitting comfortably on the ground in front of a stationary SUV, all of them within its blind zone. It is these blindspots which cause many driveway deaths, known in America as “Bye Bye” deaths because they often involve a young child waving to a departing parent or relative who reverses over them as they position their vehicle for driving away.

In the USA, SUVs now outsell saloon cars (sedans) heavily. Schmitt links this to an American sense that the whole world is hostile environment against which one needs to be armed and defended. A vehicle which derives its design from a military jeep or armoured car has a lot of appeal; some recent SUVs are advertised as bullet-proof, no doubt attractive for  mothers doing the school run. 

But SUVs now play a significant role in the explanation for America’s high pedestrian fatality figures. The SUV problem has been recognised in other countries and regulations have obliged some design changes to the vehicles which  mitigate the problem; but such regulations are not to be heard of  in the USA. That would be too much like Big Government and Big GOP-funding Business wants government small.

There is so much more in this sober and sobering book. I guess the publisher wanted the sub-title, which is accurate but which may suggest to some potential readers that matters have been pre-judged. They haven’t; Schmitt is careful in her arguments because she wants to unite not divide her potential readers.  If you are appalled to the point of mental exhaustion by what you have been reading about the USA for the past five years and want a way into refreshing your understanding, I recommend this book.








Monday, 26 July 2021

Review: Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White


I admire Victorian novelists who scratched away with quills (later, steel pens) and candlelight to produce very long novels. True, the longer the novel the greater the income in a world where novels often began their lives in serialised, periodical, form before appearing as expensive triple-deckers and, eventually, as one volume popular editions.

The Woman in White runs to over six hundred pages in my Penguin Classics edition and at times the story feels as if it is being deliberately kept going. There are times too when the plot descends into plot summary, the inevitable consequence I guess of serialised publication which requires that readers be frequently reminded of what they had read in previous weeks or months - though that is  something which could have been edited out for a book version.  That said, it’s an extraordinary work and though advertised (on my Penguin cover) as in a Victorian Gothic genre,  it has the feel of a detective story complete with detective (Walter Hart in the right place), clues, plot twists, lures for the reader to wrap it all up, late revelations, and final triumphant success for the detective.

The plot is ingenious, the presentation of the unfolding story through the statements of a cast of witnesses innovative, and the suspense on balance well-sustained. As to the main characters, I found the villains rather more interesting than the heroes: Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco are complex figures who don’t react in stereotyped ways to the opportunities which present themselves or the changing predicaments which challenge them. To a lesser degree, the same is true of minor characters like Mrs Catherick.

The heroes are more stereotypical, though Collins offers fairly sustained alternatives to what I take as Victorian conceptions of femininity, notably in the character of Marian Halcombe, and there are what one might think of as authorial intrusions which underline the shortcomings of Victorian sex-discrimination, notably in relation to marriage and property rights. It would be possible to write a long essay on this topic, and someone probably has written one already.

Despite the fact that the lawyers consulted by the heroes are presented as good characters, one of the most interesting sub-texts of the book is a sustained scepticism about the capacity of the Law to deliver justice, promptly and fairly. Walter Hartright achieves what justice demands by extra-judicial means throughout and his menage a trois accomplice, Marian, cheerfully resorts to bribery in order to spring Laura Fairlie from the Asylum in which she has been imprisoned under a false name and under false pretences.  Whether this aspect of the novel shocked Victorian sensibilities I don’t know, though the best-seller success of the book suggests not.

In contrast, the system of property rights which frees one caste of people from the necessity of ever working - a privilege which provides endless occasions for inheritance disputes - attracts little scrutiny. Walter Hartight has to work for his living, but his achievement is not only to win  the woman he loves (and who loves him) but also restore her to her rightful place in the property order of things.

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Should I Read William Empson's The Structure of Complex Words?


Oxford University Press has recently published scholarly editions of two books by William Empson (1906-1984): Some Versions of Pastoral first published in 1935 and now running to 496 pages and £80 in Seamus Perry’s edition; The Structure of Complex Words, originally 1951 and now running to 672 pages at £95 in Helen Thaventhiran and Stefan Collini’s edition. Colin Burrow, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Oxford, provides a long and informative review of the books in my London Review of Books 15 July 2021. But he hasn’t quite persuaded me to place an order.

Empson is reckoned a major figure in the development of literary studies in England and the USA, a position achieved despite being expelled from the University of Cambridge for heterosexual activity (see Wikipedia for details). It is his role in the development of modern literary studies which justifies these fresh editions, not his status as  persecuted heterosexual. Leaving aside the first book it is the title of the second, The Structure of Complex Words, which deters me.

That invites two questions: (1) What kind/s of structure do words have, if any?  (2) Unless the expression Complex Words is a pleonasm, what distinguishes complex words from the rest?

Words when spoken have phonetic and phonological features which can be captured by the phonetic alphabet; when spelt out in an ordinary alphabet some of those features may be recoverable from the written form but in English not consistently so. So the pronunciation differences between single-syllable hat and hate are indicated by application of a rule which extends to other cases: fat and fate, mat and mate, pat and pate, rat and rate … Unfortunately, there is also bait as well as bate, gait as well as gate. And at the outer limits of English  orthography, sound and spelling are entirely separated, notably in the case of proper names of which the stand-out (and meant to be stand-out) is Featherstonehaugh: the idea here is that only if you mix in the right circles will you know how to pronounce it.  So whatever structure there is, it is not built out of Lego blocks which retain their shape wherever inserted.

If hat and hate are simple, are hatful and hateful complex? Well, they are two-syllabled rather than one; the bolted-on ending - ful adapting them to be ready for adjectival use. That doesn’t sound very complex, and it’s not hard to grasp. But sometimes the - ful is not - or is no longer - a purely grammatical indicator. I can look at the night sky and tell you that I experienced a moment of awe but if I tell you that I had an awful day it’s not in the same league of meaning; the - ful downgrades awe to something more quotidian. Someone learning English as a foreign language might have to have that explained to them. Indeed, whatever complexity words have out of context of use might best be understood in terms of the problems they might pose a second language learner. The Oxford English Dictionary is constructed very much in this spirit though it also has English speakers in mind when it classifies words as arch., euphem., obs., coarse slang. In this way of looking at things, it’s not clear to me that the complexities of awe and awful are of a different order to those which surround, say, boat and ship. I don’t believe that the latter pair could be handled as a “technical” problem, solved by recourse to some measuring system,  in a way that awe and awful can’t.

What could be structure turns out to be a dense mass of sense congealed from a long past of history and cultural changes. History and culture do not have modular structures, as if atoms or logical formulae or those Lego bricks. Accurately summarising such history and culture within the pages of a dictionary is a Sisyphean task because history is accumulating as you write  and culture is changing in new ways ditto. Dictionaries are just specialised encyclopaedias, and thus necessarily partial. The rules of arithmetic or the periodic table aim to escape partiality and many believe that they can succeed.

But are there other kinds of complexity? Is hate a complex word in ways which hat isn’t? Is onyx simple in a way which honest isn’t?

Speakers and writers are, for the very large ninety nine point nine percent most part, using words which have been used before and where there are some fairly general features they will be understood to possess or imply unless those features are explicitly cancelled. So if I say She was wearing a hat that implies (whether I have realised or not)  something which may occasionally be cancelled as it is in She was wearing a hat slung round her neck and hanging down her back. Ah, you see it now, a straw sun hat, perhaps? If I say He’s a hateful fellow that may be partially cancelled by addition of the very convenient but word He’s a hateful fellow but I have to give him credit for ….

This last example incidentally illustrates another problem for any theory of structure: hateful was once a twin of hatful, since it meant full of hate. But that use is now reckoned archaic by the OED and hateful is now roughly synonymous with repugnant - a hateful person is one who excites hate not someone who exudes it. There is no logic or necessity requiring this change, any more than there is for the replacement of reject with refute  or annoy with aggravate. This kind of complexity in the history of individual words makes the prospect of any general  account of  their "structure" very remote. It can only be captured by narratives. The possibility of a more general theory of how to use words in a particular context is much more promising as is shown by the world-wide take-up of J L Austin’s How to Do Things with Words (1962) and all that has been developed from its simple expositions.

A writer needs to be sensitive to the sense which words are likely to carry (as it were, directly) and imply (as it were, indirectly). But it’s also true that since writers cannot control everything they are doing, some senses will be conveyed and some implications steered towards which they did not, personally, at the moment of writing, intend. Forensic analysis of literary texts, under many different names, will be on the look-out for such senses and implications, perhaps especially if they seem to contradict avowed intentions which the author has been foolish enough to profess. It’s better to acknowledge that a lot of the time you ( and me) don’t know exactly what we are doing and at the very moment when we are trying to bend language to our purposes the meanings of what we say and what we write exceeds whatever we intended.

But thinking like this, what place is there for a special category of complex words? Hat has a history just as much as hate which is to say that both have been framed in different ways in different times and places. It may be fashionable or unfashionable to wear hats; ditto for hating to which in some times and places cultural prestige may attach so that it is a compliment to call someone a good hater.

There is a further problem. Words can be used but they can also be mentioned. Traditionally, there were words which it was forbidden to use but which it was permitted to mention - that is to say, to quote. But in my Brave New England Puritan print culture, there are words which it is regarded as unacceptable either to use or quote. Thus, when my Prime Minister (in a text message) described his Health Secretary as “totally fucking hopeless” both print and online versions which supposedly quoted what he said actually amended it to include asterisks which were not present in the original. The purpose is the same as that intended by Sunday school rules for turning Direct Speech into Indirect Speech, rules which miraculously transform the wine of “He’s totally fucking hopeless” into the water of “The Prime Minister expressed exasperation with his Health Secretary”. The trouble with direct speech is that it can be too direct by half and not something you would want to put on the front pages or allow your maiden aunt to hear. (Maiden aunt is probably now arch. but you can always look it up).

Part of the writer’s opportunity consists in the ability to make use of this difference between use and mention but sometimes leaving it unclear whether something is being said or quoted; access to this linguistic resource is central to making the most of irony which can be administered in larger or smaller doses, according to taste and malevolence.

Well, if I am led to generate 1500 words just contemplating the title of a book, I think it would be a very bad idea to try to read its 672 pages and distill them for you here - and Colin Burrow in his helpful review indicates that distillation isn't exactly easy; Empson wasn't that kind of thinker. But perhaps I have done enough to prompt you to fork out for this many-paged, expensive edition of William Empson’s The Structure of Complex Words.








Saturday, 12 June 2021

Review: Duncan Minshull (Ed.), Sauntering: Writers Walk Europe


I bought this because I  read a favourable review and because I sometimes write essays which describe a walk. The book was a pleasure to read, not least because it is produced to Notting Hill edition standards. It slipped into my pocket and I took it with me on a couple of walks which would be punctuated by stops at park benches.

Duncan Minshull  illustrates things which are not specific to his theme. First, that there are very many forgotten, out of print, and (helpfully) out of copyright books which contain very readable material. Second, that short extracts - there are over fifty  in this hundred and fifty page book - if well stitched together (which they are) can add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Some of his authors are very well known, others entirely forgotten. Some walk a lot as a commitment or a pastime; others happen to walk for one reason or another - not always willingly: Nellie Bly stumbles in muddy First World War trenches because it’s her job as a journalist; Robert Antelme is on a Second World War death march. Some tell us more about themselves than the terrain they pass through; some make us laugh - the vigorous Elizabeth von Arnim has a couple of the best lines; some evoke a past - Edith Wharton does it brilliantly. Thomas Jefferson comes out well from a very short extract in which he obtains a poor person’s story.

Elizabeth von Arnim is anxious about walking alone and George Sand solves the problem by cross-dressing. Minshull’s walkers have little to say about thieves, cut-throats, child hawkers (my own memory of Istanbul), or beggars. None stroll the red light districts of Europe’s cities and none (if I recall correctly) are walking in search of work.

It was a very pleasant stroll to read this book.

Thursday, 6 May 2021

Review: Karl Schlögel, The Scent of Empires



Timothy Snyder  provided a blurb for the publisher of this book and that caused me to buy it, since Snyder’s own work is very, very impressive. It’s a short book and I read it at one sitting, which may explain why I noticed some unnecessary repetitions of basic bits of information, suggesting that the book was prepared from shorter pieces prepared for separate occasions. An editor could have dealt with this.

The book doesn’t quite come off. I love the idea of taking something apparently minor or peripheral, like the history of the recipe for a perfume, and trying to make the whole world emerge from it as if from a grain of sand. But partly because of incomplete information - for example, the fate in the 1930s of one of the main characters, the Tsarist- turned Soviet-perfumer Auguste Michel - we are left with sketches rather than any whole picture.

Brevity also creates the occasional misunderstanding. After Stalin’s death, his henchman Lavrenty Beria appears in person ( p 116) to release Molotov’s wife Polina Zhemchuzhina, exiled in 1949 and re-arrested again shortly before Stalin’s death. She is a major figure in the narrative since in the 1930s she headed up Soviet cosmetic and perfume manufacture and in 1939 achieved the distinction of being the USSRs first female full-rank People’s Commissar ( p 107). She was more than Molotov's wife, though it was that which first gave a place at the top table. That Beria appeared in person to release her makes him sound rather gallant. Separately, we are told that she remained a convinced Stalinist and hated Khruschev (p 117). The context is this: immediately after Stalin’s death, Beria formed a ruling troika with Malenkov and Molotov; Molotov could easily have made his wife’s release a condition of his participation. The aim of the troika was to maintain the status quo. It was ousted in Khruschev’s and Zhukov’s coup of June 1953; Beria was executed in December 1953 and those now in power explicitly or tacitly agreed that with the death of Beria -  without question an evil figure -  they would henceforth stop killing each other. Beria was most definitely not gallant and Khruschev stopped not only Beria but Polina and her husband Molotov from carrying on Stalinist business as usual.

For me the most interesting part of the book was the reminders it provided of the vast army of foreign talent assembled in Russia before 1914, not only to develop Russia’s infrastructure and heavy industry (think, notably, of John Hughes in the Donbass) but to service the tastes of Russia’s most wealthy, the 1% who lived a life of leisure and ostentation funded by rents generated far away from St Petersburg or Moscow and ultimately based on the labour of an impoverished population.

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Review: Hazel V. Carby, Imperial Intimacies


There was a period when genealogists were specialists in pedigree and I guess there are still those who want to know where they stand in the line of succession to the British throne. Wikipedia only goes up to Number Sixty which completely fails to recognise that a meteorite disaster might require number 6666 to step up. But the popular hobby of family history, enormously boosted by online resources, has a wider appeal. Even the bureaucratic records of births, marriage and deaths, now so easily accessed, provide enough information for the reconstruction of probable stories, for enabling some reasonable sense of how long dead people lived their lives. And though many will be satisfied with common sense tellings, others will delve into history books to set lives into fuller contexts. And for some, books will not suffice and they will visit physical archives and physical streets and buildings - though often enough the latter prove to be changed beyond recognition, as Hazel Carby discovers on her own journeys. But, anyway, there is a spectrum with the bare family tree at one end and, at the other, creative non-fictions which put people into settings and re-create the happinesses, successes, failures, and tragedies of ordinary lives - and which approach to what one might call social histories.

Sometimes such stories are the supplement or an alternative to autobiography. Hazel Carby holds back from her own autobiography, allowing the reader glimpses of shocking incidents which are recorded but not developed. She tries to keep other people in the foreground, to imaginatively re-create their lives, and to set them in contexts using the vocabulary available to a Yale Professor of African American Studies. Sometimes that works, at other times it feels alienating perhaps because just too anachronistic. I read it as an awkward index of the distance Hazel Carby has travelled in her own life, a distance which many travelled in the Great Britain of the 1950s and 1960s when the post-war welfare state provided a material underpinning for upward social mobility through the educational system. One main result was often to leave the upwardly mobile not belonging where they arrived and no longer belonging where they left. Carby is not really in that category since both her parents were talented, valued education, and secured quite a lot of it for themselves and not just, vicariously, for their children. Her father read those of her academic books published before he died.

As the late 1940s child of a white Anglo-Welsh mother and a mixed race Jamaican father who was talented enough to be accepted for aircrew in the war-time RAF, she moves between settings in Britain and Jamaica. She foregrounds the racism she encountered in school and her father at work and in dealing with the Home Office and she traces the history of colonialism, slavery, and more racism as they unfolded in Jamaica from the eighteenth century onwards. Her detective story coup is to trace her Jamaican father’s story back to the union of a small time white English slave plantation-owner and his black “housekeeper” and to find that in that way she is linked not just to Jamaican Carbys but to the Carbys of an eighteenth century Lincolnshire village. It is a remarkable story - and also remarkable that the written records which we keep in public archives are a gift which keeps on giving.

This book belongs on the shelf with works like Alison Light’s Common People which give us a sort of Premier League of family and social histories, stories which non-academic researchers can read with pleasure and aspire to emulate.

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Review: Philip Stephens, Britain Alone


This is a fluent narrative of the United Kingdom’s external political relations with the USA and the European Union from the Suez debacle of 1956 to the Brexit debacle of 2016 and its immediate aftermath. The story is told through the eyes and words of Prime Ministers, their advisers, and senior Whitehall civil servants. There is more detail in earlier chapters where even readers like myself who lived through the events may have forgotten the details - or worse: I can’t even remember if I voted in the first 1975 Referendum…... Later chapters assume, reasonably enough, that the reader’s memory is still reasonably fresh. But even those with very good memories will find things here which they didn’t already know.

Though the author (chief political commentator at the Financial Times - the newspaper I have read for several years after giving up on The Guardian of Morality) took the Remainer side in Britain’s (still ongoing) civil strife, the narrative does not feel unbalanced or obsessive. Nor does Stephens get side-tracked into gossip and he characterises Prime Ministers in terms of their grasp of issues, their management and presentational skills, their decisiveness - and their success or failure. So it’s a serious book.

There are two or three lacunae. Though Empire & Commonwealth figures in the background it rarely appears as a player, nor do those who have migrated from it to the UK. This misses several things. The Empire provided soldiers and supplies of essential goods through World War Two (see David Edgerton, Britain’s War Machine reviewed elsewhere on this blog) and in those ways was not untouched by the European conflict. Equally, more recent migrants from the Indian sub-continent have not had a European take on the world and have clearly been open to “Global Britain” rhetoric. The Leave campaign of 2016 courted the Asian vote (including that in the northern “Red Wall” constituencies) and it was made to appear that the ending of free movement from the EU would be the precursor to greater openness to migration from Asia. This appealed, among others, to Bangladeshi restaurant owners and so on, though they may yet be disappointed. But in 2021 the door has already been opened to dual national citizens of Hong Kong.

This seemingly small topic does sit within a larger one which would look more broadly at the UKs changing demographic which played a large part in making possible the Leave victory in 2016. It also qualifies the broad brush characterisation of the Leave campaign as racist or xenophobic. There are good foreigners and bad foreigners and those who live next door are always the worst.

Another seemingly small topic is Russian influence, which nowhere appears, except briefly in the quaint form of the Profumo scandal. Though Stephens charts a history of the arms-based Cold War and its end, he does not make a theme of the new Cold War in which Russia has deployed cyberattacks, money, kompromat, trolls, and sleeper agents to weaken and even destabilise Western democracies. It would not have been gossip to say something about the role of Russian money in the Leave campaign and in financially sustaining a Conservative Party which has very few members and relatively few enthusiastic donors. The UKs hesitations about its international allegiances and its real friends does seem to have opened a space for the operations of those who wish it failure rather than success. Put differently, the Conservative Party has changed and there are new Brexiters as well as the remaining old-guard of Iain Duncan-Smith, John Redwood, and so on.


Contemporary book jackets, done on the cheap by freelancers, are often dire. This one is quite clever and reminds me that in Germany the UK is now sometimes referred to as Die Insel. And in France, England’s decline is charted in the small linguistic change which has turned Les Rosbifs into Les Fuck-Offs.


Nearly all the books reviewed on this website are ones I have bought; this one was sent as a review copy by the publisher, Faber.

Sunday, 7 February 2021

Review: Martha C. Nussbaum & Saul Levmore, Aging Thoughtfully


I’d like to think I am ageing thoughtfully so I bought this book, not least because in the past I have read and admired the work of the lead author[1]. But this book doesn’t quite work.

Published in 2017, it has become the victim of circumstances beyond its control: the degeneration of American society under the rule of the Trump Family and then the related devastation by COVID. As a result, it now reads as a bit complacent.

But more importantly, it gets caught in that trap which lies between the purely academic book which one can add to one’s CV (it was published in America by Oxford University Press) and the general readership to which most academics and academic publishers now aspire. There is a division of labour between Nussbaum and Levmore, the former pushing to be a bit controversial, the latter settling for the role of avuncular, unbiased adviser on tax planning. But both are held back by the exalted social positions they occupy: Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago; Levmore is William B. Graham Professor of Law in the same university. Nussbaum tries to break frame a bit when, for example, she writes about her colonoscopies. But neither wants to write anything which might deter anyone from becoming the future Ernst Freund’s and William B. Graham’s - sources of gifts and endowments. Rule one of American top university life: Don’t offend the alumni!

Their positions do matter to them, and especially to Nussbaum who spends a significant bit of her share of the book making a pre-emptive strike against those who might expect her, in the near future (she was born - like me - in 1947)  to step down from the Ernst Freund. No chance. A compulsory retirement age is an evil, even if applied to all, and just part of the general  stigmatisation of discriminated-against old(er) people. She’s having none of it. She exercises, eats healthily, has all her marbles intact, and she is going nowhere. All this is asserted in prose which I found brash and not much more than special pleading. She tells us that many great philosophers have produced their best work when old, but unless you can generalise that to mathematicians, scientists and engineers it’s not really a sensible basis for a university retirement policy. Her determination to assert her rights may be the reason why one of the great writers on human ageing, Michel de Montaigne, doesn’t even make it into the index. He was far too willing to accept retirement and, indeed, celebrate it. Levmore is more nuanced on the subject of retirement and there, are of course, ways of softening the blow of compulsory retirement. In universities, the word “Emeritus” provides a little balm; continued use of an office even more - and for someone working in the humanities, surely enough to enable continued research activity. And though Oxford University insists on retirement at sixty seven - rightly in my view - there is no need to apply the rule to its press: a book can be judged on its merits each time, regardless of the age of the author. There are tricky areas: Oxford has a famous Professorship of Poetry, the holder chosen by vote open to all university graduates. The job has  nominal duties, modest stipend, and a fixed term of four years. But in 2019, when someone tried to nominate Denise Riley (born 1948) to the post, the university’s retirement rule disqualified her.

As well as “Retirement Policy” the book has chapters on the importance of friendship, the different kind of relationship we can have to our ageing bodies, the balancing act between retrospection and looking forward, romance and sex, the elderly poor and what to do about them (this is America so: not very much), and estate planning (“Giving It Away”). There are interesting passages throughout but there is too much which is emollient. And the authors do repeat themselves; an editor could have struck through quite a few lines because, as you know, older people do repeat themselves.

[1] See my review of Martha Nussbaum , Anger and Forgiveness in Philosophy Now,  Issue 124,  February / March 2018, page 51.