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Saturday 11 November 2023

Review Angela Saini Inferior



Angela Saini describes herself as a science journalist and this 2017 book is a fine piece of investigative journalism in which she goes out of her way to track down and interview academic researchers who over the past few decades have contributed significantly to the study of sex differences. They include experimental and developmental psychologists, evolutionary biologists, primate ethologists, anthropologists, and a few who might be characterised as cognitive scientists. She has read their books and research papers but it is the quotations harvested from skilful interviews which give this book much of its interest and accessibility.

I do have a general problem which I will make central to this review. Saini is interviewing researchers most of whom seek to model their work on an image of physical science in which painstaking laboratory or field work will yield decisive results. It ain’t gonna work. Decisive outcomes are the privilege of those who can control all the variables which might affect the results. Outside a few parts of physical or natural science it is, unfortunately, never possible to close the system; there will always be uncontrolled variables at work. Thus, for example, a much-cited study of newborns by Baron-Cohen and Connellan eventually comes to be criticised because the field researcher (Connellan) knew the sex of at least some of the babies she was interacting with in a situation where, ideally, she should have not known (page 88). It was a variable which had not been controlled for. Search hard enough and you will soon find others and you will find them in (almost?) every experiment.

Replication of someone else’s experiments is a gold standard test of reliability in the hard sciences. But in the fields with which Saini is concerned, replication is rarely possible simply because the human world will have moved on and that is also an omnipresent variable which cannot be controlled. You cannot replicate an experiment done on 1973 Harvard undergraduates on 2023 Harvard undergraduates because they are just going to be very different kinds of people and the cute experiment of 1973 may just seem weird in 2023. The same problem of replication confronts anthropological fieldwork among tribes comfortingly assumed to be remote and untouched by history when, just like everyone else, they are not. If they don’t have them this year, next year they will be carrying smartphones.

There are related problems and most significantly the fact that the very categories in which research is conducted and hypotheses formulated may be flawed by assumptions (stereotypes acting as uncontrolled variables) which anticipate the results even before the work has been done. Wilhelm Reich once nicely highlighted the problem when he said that the question is not why hungry people steal food but why they don’t. Scientists ask what they think are the right questions but what they think is right may be infused by unexamined prejudice, as Saini repeatedly demonstrates in the early chapters of her book. I mean, you can open almost any “scientific” work written in English in the reign of Queen Victoria and discover toe-curling prejudices which would make modern suburban table-talk seem subtle and sophisticated.

In archaeology and evolutionary biology Saini notes in a couple of paragraphs (pages 143 – 45) a really interesting oversight which is actually a fundamental flaw. Everyone knows that the archaeological record is very partial but we can only hypothesise how partial. It’s possible to dig up flint tools, for example, because they can go for millennia without degrading. But what about early baskets, baby slings and digging sticks? They leave no trace. And suppose it was women who invented and made those things and not the men who are always supposed to have made the flint tools and who squat there in all those cartoon-like drawings of prehistoric times? Without the baskets, the baby slings and the digging sticks you have only half the story of early cultural innovation.

There is one problem specific to work on child development. Though Saini indicates the limitations of the “blank slates” approach (page 66) it remains true that very little research tries to look at babies and young children as agents in their own right, with minds and wills of their own, making choices and decisions and agitating for their voice to be heard. In my own work (most recently Culture as Anarchy) I try to keep in mind the question, What is it like to be a baby? and am tempted to answer that it is rather like being a teenager. You will get my point if you consider the question, Why do babies hate vegetables?

Finally, and the elephant in the room, career researchers can and do falsify or big up results on a scale which is only now being acknowledged. In my youth, Hans Eysenck was reckoned a leading research psychologist, most famous for his Personality Inventory. Now his work is deemed “unsafe”. It’s a consequence of his personality flaws but also  of the scientific rat race and of publish or perish and more besides. And it’s happening now at scale.

What is to be done? There are very many millions of people who want to think about sex differences, talk about them, read about them, research and write about them. The chatter isn’t going to stop any time soon, at least not as long as I am alive. But to make any progress much more attention has to be focussed on the core problems of methodology. Routinised research papers which fit into a narrow, prescribed paradigm are to all intents and purposes rarely worth the paper they are printed on.

Saturday 21 October 2023

Review Anthony Trollope Barchester Towers - and the Victorian Novel


Go back fifty years and you will meet a young man who as a teenager had read a handful of Victorian novels and been devastated by one (The Mayor of Casterbridge) but who now had a complete understanding of what was wrong with the genre. These were novels in which an invisible but omniscient narrator created the trompe l’oeil illusion of a real world, tricking us into tears and laughter which diverted us from the temptation to engage in serious critical reflection on the moral and political values for which those novels provided a vehicle. But now grown up, I had learnt – and in three languages – what the alternative was. In Latin, larvatus prodeo [I wear a mask] anchored the idea that if you are wearing a mask then you should point to it as you advance on the stage, that you should make clear that what you are engaged in is the product of artifice and an artificer. In German, Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt [alienation effect] was the means by which playwright or author could avoid the crime of jerking (fake) tears and laughter from audience or reader by simply emphasising (frequently) that this is only pretend – a thought experiment, if you like - and you are meant to be thinking not wiping away the tears. In Russian, Shklovsky’s остранение [defamiliarization] labelled the ways in which a verbal artist could make the familiar strange and thereby prompt reflection rather than emotional self- indulgence.

Problem sorted. Farewell the Victorian novel.

Fifty years later and I am reading Anthony Trollope. I read The Warden and enjoyed it and now I’ve just finished Barchester Towers (1857) and enjoyed that too and no doubt in part because it provides so much grist for my anti-clericalism. But what sticks out a mile [larvatus prodeo] is an author who is all over the text, hopelessly intrusive, and very very funny. And if I had to identify the style I would call it High Camp (which may well pair with High Church which, if anything, is the religious value which the novel defends).  

Consider this passage (page 281 in my excellent Penguin edition) towards the end of a fraught, intense, seat-edge clinging exchange between Eleanor Bold [heroine] and a bungling but genuine suitor Mr Arabin [hero]:

As she spoke she with difficulty restrained tears; but she did restrain them. Had she given way and sobbed aloud, as in such cases a woman should do, he would have melted at once, implored her pardon, perhaps knelt at her feet and declared his love. Everything would have been explained, and Eleanor would have gone back to Barchester with a contented mind. How easily would she have forgiven and forgotten the archdeacon’s suspicions had she but heard the whole truth from Mr Arabin. But then where would have been my novel?

It's laugh out loud funny. And the tone of voice (which I can only render with both hands spread open) is self-parodying camp. The reader is still in volume two of what they know (according to the Victorian conventions) is to be a three volume, triple-decker novel and will immediately understand the author’s words. And when we do get to volume three we get (at page 415) this:

But we must go back a little and it shall be but a little, for a difficulty begins to make itself manifest in the necessity of disposing of all our friends in the small remainder of this volume. Oh, that Mr Longman [Trollope’s publisher] would allow me a fourth! It should transcend the other three as the seventh heaven transcends all the lower stages of celestial bliss.

And that’s high camp. I rest my case.

Thursday 5 October 2023

Bargains at Blackwells on Trevor Pateman's Books

I see that my preferred bookseller Blackwells has massively reduced the online prices on my books, most of which they have in stock. Hurry, hurry while stocks last ....

Sunday 24 September 2023

Review: Sarah Ogilvie The Dictionary People

The Victorians were terrific collectors of both the animate and the inanimate, often indiscriminately and always excited by the rare and exotic. Each variety of collector had its name, usually confected out of school Latin or Greek: there were the butterfly collectors (lepidopterists), stamp collectors (philatelists), coin collectors (numismatists), inscription hunters (epigraphers), book fiends (bibliophiles), the magpie collectors of junk in general (antiquaries or antiquarians).  The leading figures in each field were often obsessives who neglected others and themselves – their personal hygiene could not be relied upon – and, as in the notorious case of the bibliophile Sir Thomas Phillips, they could rack up very large debts in pursuit of their hobbies.

As part of this cast of thousands there were also the word collectors - the logophiles, philologists, and lexicographers - who form the subject matter of Sarah Ogilvie’s wonderfully researched,  beautifully conceived and well-executed book in which she narrates the story of how the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was created in the period preceding the First World War when James Murray was its long-term editor.

I have my doubts about dictionaries and have never been a great user let alone reader. I possessed a Shorter OED as an undergraduate but don’t have one now.

The Victorian dictionary-makers claimed inspiration from the latest movements in German philology which to the Victorians was really one word, Germanphilology. Ogilvie alludes to Germanphilology but does not really tell us what its achievements were or why we should be concerned with them.

In dictionaries like the OED the living and the dead - words we might use and words we never will - are side by side, the living ones are supposedly illuminated by their history. Their ancestors are to be found in written texts - there was no sound recording of the past available to the Victorians - though the descendant language exists, of course, in both speech and writing. The heart of the lexicographer’s work is the tracking of the way words have been used through time, how their meanings have changed and expanded..

The OED was built very largely on the voluntary efforts of thousands of readers who read not for pleasure but to locate occurrences of words in print which could be dated from the publication in which they occurred and which fairly clearly indicated the sense in which they were being used. Just as stamp collectors hunt for the earliest date on which a Penny Black was used so the OEDs readers tried to push back in time the first occurrence in print of a word which – well, it may now be completely obsolete just like the Penny Black. There are some complications created by the fact that spellings change which are a small part of the problems around treating a word which was used then as the ancestor of a word which is used now.

In the case of what came to be called dialects it is almost exclusively in spoken form that they exist or existed (that’s what got them called dialects in the first place) and before the invention of sound recording they were hard to study unless some writer decided to try their hand at that excruciating genre known as the dialect novel. It was the institutionalised creation of “the English language” which created the dialects in the sense we now understand them.

But though a living language has the past in its DNA it has its meanings in the present, in the current inter-relations of its words as part of active and always mobile semantic fields many of them culturally reflected upon and policed to ensure that we get it right and, among other things, do not cause offence. It is a headache for the Office of Standards that nowadays so many Advanced Warnings are announced in bold letters and so many claims refuted daily in the newspapers

Ogilvie discusses the headaches which sexual words and swear words - she has nothing to say about blasphemous words - caused the Victorian makers of the OED. Alongside what it included there existed all that it excluded; despite the aspirations of its makers to achieve inclusivity. The OED belonged to the cancel culture of its time if only because Oxford University Press believed itself - as it still does - a guardian of morals. (Surprisingly, perhaps, Ogilvie’s book is not published by OUP but under the Chatto & Windus imprint of Penguin/Random House. But neither OUP or the University of Oxford come out of the story she tells in a particularly favourable light).

Propriety lasted well past the Victorian era: Lesbianism did not appear in the dictionary until 1976 before which time the entry for “Lesbian: of or pertaining to the island of Lesbos” was designed to enlighten no one (see Ogilvie page 226). The only concession to modernity was to provide an entry in English, not the Latin once used to keep knowledge of sexual matters away from the lower orders.

Of course, there might sometimes be a good reason for keeping a word out:

“Blandford wrote to him [James Murray] that aphrodisiomania, an abnormal enthusiasm for sexual pleasure, was a word coined by an Italian professor and ‘doubtful whether it can rank as English’. (Murray did not put it in the Dictionary).” (page 161). After all, since there was no abnormal enthusiasm for sexual pleasure anywhere in Victorian England, there was no need for a word anyway.

The OED fosters an illusion that there is such a thing as “the English language” which is more than a social construct or matter of belief and aspiration. In relation to vocabulary the longer you make the vocabulary list the more implausible it is to suppose that what you are cataloguing is “a language”. What you are really doing is attempting a cultural encyclopaedia from small fragments and with no clear boundaries. Ogilvie notes many cases where a word entered into the OED has just one known use (often in a novel or medical textbook) and seems to be unperturbed by that. But to admit words with one known use is really to admit that you are creating a bricabrac shop, a cabinet of curiosities mostly covered in dust.

If there was such a thing as “the English language” at the level of words it would be a fairly simple matter to decide if a word is in it or not. In printed text the presence of a word thought foreign is often indicated by use of italics. Would that it were that simple; loan words cause headaches for the typesetter: is “ennui” an English word and therefore not needing italic?  Does a person’s possession of a “je ne sais quoi” require italic? (See on this site my review of Richard Scholar’s Émigrés on 28 October 2020).

If that is not enough, consider the formation of words by analogy, a favourite of Germanphilologists and something which now excessively happens in the case of -philes and -phobes. I doubt that anyone would challenge the status of “Francophile” as a current English word nor give it italics. But if I am a lover of Australia can I call myself as Australophile ? Or just a lover of Australia? What gets a word into a (living) language is not that some obscure or awkward squad author invents it for a one-off occasion of use but that in some sense it catches on. Clearly, -phobes catch on more easily than   -philes –  that tells you a lot about our culture, I suspect. This morning, I read that Dmitry Peskov has been talking about Russophobia. Smart move; no one wants to be thought a  -phobe.

But because we understand the formation of words by analogy we don’t need a dictionary to know what someone means when they declare themselves an Australophile or Christophobe. It makes no sense to try to create a dictionary out of an indefinitely long list of personal idiosyncracies, including those favoured by the forgotten inventors of forgotten wheezes (see Ogilvie’s chapter on “Glossotypists”). This is the stuff of antiquarianism not of authoritative language guides.

I guess that out there are various answers to the question, How big a vocabulary do you need before you can be counted a fluent speaker or writer of language X? A few hundred? A couple of thousand? The contents of the Shorter version of the Longer dictionary? You can be perfectly fluent in English without knowing what’s in the OED though if you want to write like James Joyce or Vladimir Nabokov it will come in helpful when you want to bamboozle. Most often we identify non-native speakers not by their lack of vocabulary – which may be larger than our own – but by their accent which we can immediately and unreflectively identify as foreign without having any knowledge at all of phonetics, phonology or prosody. And in writing, it is small syntactic oddities not misuses of words which give the game away.

Whatever the English language might be (see footnote for my own answer), one might say that it is at least as much about phonetics, phonology, prosody and syntax as it is about words and their meanings.

Ogilvie records a regret which James Murray had towards the end of his life as the OEDs editor in chief: “If he had his time again, he said that he would have directed his Readers [ those who sought out quotations for the OED] differently, with the instructions, ‘Take out quotations for all words that do not strike you as rare, peculiar, or peculiarly used’”

But looking for the rare is exactly what all Victorian collectors/hobbyists did: they looked for rare butterflies (until they rendered them extinct), rare stamps, and exotic curios. They were uninterested in the ordinary, the everyday, things as common as ditchwater. They often went to great lengths to track down the rare and the exotic and that is what the makers of the OED did too. Like many or most collectors, they were attracted by escapes from everyday life..



Trevor Pateman, “What is English if Not a Language?” in J. D. Johansen and H. Sonne, editors, Pragmatics and Linguistics. Festschrift for Jacob L Mey, Odense University Press 1986, pages 137-40.

Revised and republished in Trevor Pateman, Prose Improvements, degreezero 2017, pages 85-94.

Friday 14 July 2023

Trevor Pateman Culture as Anarchy


My latest small book (64 pages) offers five inter-connected semi-academic/informal essays on the theme of cultural change. They develop ideas and arguments about Nature and Culture, Social Construction, Cultural Appropriation, and the inevitable failure of  social controls (cultural policing) to check cultural change. Most of the references are to popular cultures and minor cultural forms; included are discussions of creoles and tribal practices.

I don't  think many people now want to buy books when so much can be got for free on the internet so this limited edition (300 copies) book is being given away. Initial reception has been positive and I have received some nice emails about the style used to present my arguments.

To obtain a copy you just need to write to me with your name and full postal address But since our Royal Mail no longer aims to provide affordable postage, especially for overseas shipping, I ask that you show you are serious by sending  a letter or postcard to me rather than an email. 

My postal address is Trevor Pateman, Unit 10, 91 Western Road, Brighton BN1 2NW, United Kingdom.

Sunday 14 May 2023

Granta Issue 163 Best of Young British Novelists


Oh dear. Is this really the best?

The current issue of Granta (number 163) showcases in 270 pages the work of Young British Novelists who appear on its “once in a decade list of twenty of the most promising writers under forty living in the UK” (page 12). Each author has posed for a publicity photograph taken by Alice Zoo. More about that in a moment.

At some point in my life I began to encounter debut novels and debut novelists. In a British context that links semantically to the debutante, a well-endowed young woman of impeccable breeding who was presented to Queen Elizabeth the Second wearing virginal white dress before coming-out into a season of balls and parties where she would seek to attract the attentions of well-endowed young men looking for brood mares. The tradition had become sufficiently embarrassing for Elizabeth to abolish it in 1958. Of course, some of the debutantes went on to do non-debutantey type things, most notoriously Bridget Rose Dugdale who stole masterpiece paintings for the IRA and married an IRA gunman in her Irish prison. But most did their duty to reproduce the ancien regime.

For their coming-out photographs most of our debs of 2023 dress impeccably; they would not look out of place in Harvey Nichols or Debenham and Freebody (I borrow those two class indicators from Jean Rhys Good Morning, Midnight (1939)). Among those who don’t fit, K Patrick also contributes one of the better pieces - edgy and tightly constructed.

For the most part, the authors do not trouble us with obscenities, profanities or other breaches of etiquette. They have been schooled by their agents and publishers and before that their Creative Writing classes not to upset anyone. Lie back and think of the book clubs! Maybe for this decade’s crop of debs sensitivity nurses have combed through  the texts, squashing any lurking nits. It’s true, however, that Saba Sams’s prosaic low-life reportage has been allowed in, perhaps as a lesson to us all.

Eleanor Catton gets into this collection with a restrained piece which did not remind me at all of the confident, exuberant author of The Rehearsal, reviewed here on 6 January 2014 and reckoned “very,very good”.Of course, you are still allowed to howl but in that kind of restrained way which allows the Creative Writing seminar to co-exist on the same corridor as its neighbour, the Flower Arranging class. Yes, you can howl but of course not in the manner of that ugly face in Mr Munch’s nasty painting. 

The howling in these pieces is first-person in small family settings usually against the backdrop of natural scenery. In contrast, Isabel Hammad’s unusual piece is interesting because it directly connects to what one might call a bigger picture and Tom Crewe’s because it convincingly imagines how it feels to be one of the little people in someone else’s bigger picture.

But, overall, the picture is a modest watercolour or still life in oils. There is very little that jumps out of the page to demand attention or punches you in an unprepared gut or astonishes you with the virtuosity of its prose.




Tuesday 2 May 2023

We Need to Talk about Diacritical Marks


At school in the early 1960s we had a History textbook which devoted a chapter to the Reign of Lewis XIV. My  teenage self was scornful: He’s called Louis XIV. Why are you removing useful information about how his name is actually spelt? I went on to find fault with other “translations”: Rome when it should be Roma, Joan of Arc when it should be Jeanne d’Arc and so on - but soon bumping up against the awkward squad of names which required diacritical marks. But I persisted and felt that such marks should be preserved too.

Now I’m having some doubts, partly occasioned by the fact that it’s a pain to type or typeset many or most letters which require diacritical marks, but partly for other reasons. Recently, I bought and read a new translation of Marguerite Duras’s 1944 novel La Vie Tranquille (translated with some acknowledged hesitation as The Easy Life (2022)). It’s very short and the publishers have typeset it rather elegantly with wide spacing. There are just a handful of named characters and places, all French and some requiring a diacritical mark (Clémence, Noël, Tiène, Ziès) and one which requires two: Jérôme. That name is actually the first word in the novel.

These accents are carried over faithfully from the French original which I have in front of me. The pages of that original are, of course, littered with diacritical marks of which French is very fond though that fondness is decreasing and some are being abandoned. But in the translation all of those are lost, except those attached to proper names. The opening three paragraphs of my French copy rack up a total of forty one diacritical marks; the English version has just eight, all generated by the repetition of the single word Jérôme. And on the page they simply look intrusive. Could the accents be left off so that we begin the novel reading about Jerome or would that just recreate the horrors of Lewis for Louis?

Interestingly, perhaps, I didn’t react adversely to Clémence or Noël and no doubt because acute accents and what I call umlauts are quite freely used in English to such an extent that, though I am typing in English, Microsoft automatically supplies the accent for café which is a thoroughly anglicised usage. So part of what is at issue is how the page looks as one reads and my experience when reading The Easy Life was that Jérôme is obtrusive though not more than that.

Now I turn to a novel I have just finished reading, Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, The Serial Killer. It’s a very good novel and I recommend it. First published in Nigeria in 2017, it has become a best seller in its US and UK editions, both published in 2019 and shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It was written in English but contains a handful of short, untranslated, passages in which a character speaks in Yoruba. If you think written French is clotted with diacritical marks you’ve clearly never encountered written Yoruba. At page 113, for example, one and a half lines are occupied by nineteen or twenty words which rack up over twenty marks, one letter attracting two marks - a mark above the letter and a mark below.

Is Braithwaite a bi-lingual writer? No. In her Acknowledgments, she writes “Thank you to Ayobami Adebayo for taking the time to add the accents to my Yoruba” (page 226).   I google the name and up comes Wikipedia with Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀, a Nigerian writer with seven accents around her Yoruba name (five above and two below the o's). But Braithwaite in her Acknowledgments gives up on the accents and substitutes an accentless, anglicised version. Should her friend be offended?  

The general justification for diacritical marks is that they provide a pronunciation guide though often enough we will know the pronunciation already: an English child knows how to pronounce café before starting to read about such places. In the past, such marks proliferated in the hands of (often colonial and missionary) linguists trying to index in writing how native words were pronounced in everyday speech without having the benefit of a tape recorder to illustrate them directly. 

I am going to guess that the Yoruba accents we see in Braithwaite's book are the legacy of a colonial past. [ See now the footnote]. I am also going to guess that they are sufficiently complicated to be usable only by quite highly educated people.  And I assert more confidently that they gave me absolutely no help in figuring out how to pronounce the Yoruba passages; I don’t possess even the minimal expertise which I possess for French and German marks. Ah! But should I try to acquire some minimal expertise in written Yoruba? If I’m right, maybe such minimal expertise is not possible - maybe I’m staring at a very complicated system when I look at the words on Braithwaite’s pages, a system which will defy the average person’s attempts to understand it and which did not derive from the work of people trying to make life easy for us.

So what are the marks doing on her pages but missing in her Acknowledgments?  The options are not reassuring. They could be virtue signalling - I care enough about my Nigerian heritage to get it right. Or they could be adding exoticism to the Yoruba - and nowadays we might well regard that as problematic. Yoruba is one language among thousands, but one which happens to be spoken by over fifty million people - so up there with, say, Italian. So why make it more distant from us by retaining the diacritical marks in a book aimed at English language readers very few of whom will understand the  marks as something other than marks of Otherness?

The question becomes this: What would have been lost (and to whom) if Braithwaite had offered us an accentless Yoruba? After all, when I read her Acknowledgments I reckon I have a rough idea how to pronounce the name of Ayobami Adebayo. And so I think do you. And then, to complete the questions, What would have been lost if  Jérôme had become Jerome in my English Duras?


Here is where to start:

Monday 3 April 2023

Josephine Tey Miss Pym Disposes


I suppose it was commercial publishers who invented the genre novel as something which could be packaged and sold as Crime, Mystery, Horror, Romance ….. That packaging created a handy distinction between low-brow and high-brow literature. Those who regarded themselves as above Genre novels  could simply walk away from shop shelves labelled with those identifications. Bloomsbury never became a Genre section though it clearly is for many readers.

The novelist Josephine Tey (1896 - 1952)  - also known as the playwright Gordon Daviot (author of Richard of Bordeaux 1932) but rarely as  the Miss Elizabeth Mackintosh of her Times obituary - was shelved as a Crime writer rather as John le Carré was later assigned to Spy fiction. Josephine Tey probably didn’t mind very much since she wrote, she said, for fun.  At page 178 of Miss Pym Disposes, her friend Henrietta puts down Miss Pym - who could well be taken as the alter ego of Josephine Tey - as having “an extraordinarily impulsive and frivolous mind”. (Tey, incidentally, had just pointed out to the reader that Henrietta has missed an allusion to Kipling’s “Make me different from all other animals by five this afternoon”).

I read first The Franchise Affair and now Miss Pym Disposes in both of which the author has lots of fun. She can be eccentric, whimsical, acid, thoughtful…as the mood takes her. And to that degree she doesn’t seem to care very much who is looking over her shoulder. That seems quite admirable.

Most maybe all authors have at least one or two people peering over their shoulders. The obvious one is the combined double-headed figure of publisher and censor who will put a stop to things currently disapproved of so there is no point in writing them down now only to have them taken out later. At page 10 in my copy Miss Pym is rudely awakened by unwanted noises and “said something that was neither civilised nor cultured and sat up”. The trick here is to leave it to the reader’s imagination and let them pick between “What the devil?" and “What the fuck?” Kipling uses the same trick in Kim as I previously discussed elsewhere on this Blog. Leaving it to the reader  avoids the humiliation of the dashes which litter Victorian novels, usually following the letter D, and the childishness of those carefully calculated  modern asterisks designed to allow you to retrieve the word intended. We are all so adept at this now that in context (for example, as spoken by Boris Johnson) we will know exactly what is intended by   ****. But if we don’t already know the words of Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse - and American freshmen students often won’t - then the internet versions of the poem available may well leave us puzzled as to what it is that your parents do to you. That is not a good state to be in if you have an essay to write..

But Josephine Tey is not troubled by the more extensive and ever-expanding modern sensitivities which authors now have to pre-empt. Fortunately, she has recently come out of copyright and so the old Copyright holders (The National Trust) can no longer authorise or require bowdlerised versions of her novels. I don’t propose to offer a list of things which some enterprising corporate publishing censor might now use as a crib. It would be a long chore anyway, if nothing more. You have been trigger-warned and that ought to be enough.

But the second person at the shoulder is what for short might be called the author’s super ego: the rather punitive figure on the look-out for guilty secrets, the search for pleasure, shameful revelations and such like. Josephine Tey - who all the sources say was a very private person - may have had a fairly active super ego. I wait to read the biography by Jennifer Morag Henderson [ See now the footnote to this Blog post].  Miss Pym Disposes published in 1946 is set in an all-female establishment where live-in teenage girls learn gymnastics, dancing, outdoor sports, massage therapies and more under the supervision of a staff of live-in unmarried women. The scope for writing a novel in the genre of Lesbian fiction or simply Erotic fiction is enormous and modern super ego sensitivities would oppose not much of a  bar to making use of the opportunity, provided political correctness was maintained.

It’s true that the tragic events which conclude the novel arise from the conjunction of two sets of complex relationships: on one side the misplaced favouritism of the college Principal for an unappealing and dishonest student; on the other the close relationship between the most brilliant student Mary Innes and her beau Pamela Nash, nicknamed Beau Nash. They are planning to celebrate their graduation by going off to Norway together. But what might seethe beneath the surface is left to the reader to infer or imagine. However, on the surface and in very marked contrast, the novel is open about the successful heterosexual relationship which develops between an outsider  Brazilian student, the colourfully dressed Desterro (who the college girls nickname The Nut Tart) and the very decent young mixed-ethnicity (Brazilian- English) man Rick. Desterro has to live with the college girls calling him her gigolo.

The only erotically explicit passage in the novel depicts at some length (pages 216-17) a solo dance which Desterro performs to a public audience which includes Rick. At the end, the audience clap “like children at a Wild West matinée” (217). And, Reader, at page 245 she marries him. The novel ends at page 249. 

One might say that this spoken love story provides a structural counterpart to unspoken repressed desire which runs through the main narrative. But whether that is or isn’t a reasonable way of putting the novel in context, I found the novel absorbing and striking in its language, its metaphors and comparisons. An author who can imagine The Nut Tart as a nickname which girls in a Physical Training establishment could pin on one of their number must have something going for her.


The biography is very thoroughly researched but for my taste  is too prim and too defensive of its subject. It does show that the author was unusually keen to inform herself about the subjects about which she wrote and that clearly contributes to the interest which her prose is able to sustain in the reader. In relation to Miss Pym Disposes the primary research consists in the fact that Josephine Tey graduated from a Physical Training establishment very much like the one she describes in the novel.






Friday 31 March 2023

Martin Wolf The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism


Martin Wolf was born in London in 1946, the first son of war-time Austrian and Dutch Jewish refugees. His is a powerful voice at The Financial Times where he is Chief Economics Commentator and one of the reasons why I pay for an online subscription to the only daily newspaper of which I am a regular reader.

This is the sort of book which invites the appellation “magisterial” - the small print footnotes run to seventy pages - and the opening chapters provide a wide-ranging, detailed but always readable account of the emergence of those hybrid forms of societies and states in which market capitalism is combined with liberal democratic government. The combination is really very recent, not much more than a century on a generous interpretation, and though Wolf reckons it the best form of society which flawed human beings can achieve, it is fragile. Rapacious capitalists don’t like to be constrained by laws and taxation and personality-disordered would-be tyrants don’t like to be constrained by elections and parliaments. But such people do appeal to electorates which sometimes vote for their own disenfranchisement. They did so  in 1930s Germany, repeated the story in 2000s Russia, and capped it in the USA by turning out for Donald Trump - who figures largely in this book, held up as a warning to us all of the imminent peril in which we all now live: the implosion of American democracy. England’s pitiful old people’s vote to leave the European Union was provincial farce compared to these global tragedies.

There are blind spots in the narrative. The blindness of the victorious allies in framing the Treaty of Versailles opened Hitler’s route to power; the Wild East Americans who brought their brand of "freedom n mocracy" to Moscow in the 1990s paved the way for the rise of Putin; the subordination of the Democratic Party to the imperatives of Wall Street provided the plutocrat populist Donald Trump with a vast constituency of disaffected poorer white Americans. The capitalist liberal democracies have things to answer for - and I haven’t even mentioned their colonial adventures, also sidelined here. But, still, I can’t now disagree with Martin Wolf that nothing better than a social democrat version of capitalist liberal democracy is ever likely to be on successful offer. And the offers are often being rejected.

The first half of the book does a very good job and I was engrossed. But after that I was less impressed. What follows is a very extended wish list of things which if done would make our lives materially better and more secure. Now I am the same age as Mr Wolf and I have been reading these wish lists since I was a teenager. Probably he has too. If you took a course in British Politics at university (as I am afraid I did) then you would read books about the “Reform of Parliament” (The title of a once well -known 1964 book by Bernard Crick). Sixty years on, reformers are still whistling in the wind. Voters don’t want reform of Parliament - they turned down the chance of proportional representation when offered  in a referendum. MPs definitely don’t want reform of Parliament either, even left-wing  ones who often turn out to be as hidebound as the worst rural Tory squire. Think Michael Martin, who became a true-blue reactionary Speaker and Dennis Skinner who sat on his safe Bolsover seat for 49 years and to my knowledge achieved nothing. ( He was very upset when an uninitiated new MP once took his reserved clubland seat on the front bench).

Of course, I was pleased when I found things here which are also on my own wish list (see my The Best I Can Do 2016).  But many of them rate no more than a sentence or short paragraph and I can’t see any powerful party or group mobilising around many or most of  them. You might say that it is the achievement (so far) of Sir Keir Starmer to realise that his scope for doing anything of lasting significance if he leads his party to a General Election victory is almost zero. He can aim to be competent, that's all. A dozen years of Conservative incompetence of which Dr Kwarteng’s budget was the crowning glory ensures that there is little room for spending (kiss goodbye once again to hopes of new infrastructure). And if Sir Keir ventures into the culture wars then it will be a vote loser - the right-wing press has secured that already even though the irony is that most Woke policies (such as they are) are fairly reactionary, designed to secure the comfort and lifestyle of very small sections of the population - Martin Wolf briefly picks up on that in a critique of identity politics.  There is very little which is progressive about identity politics; politics is progressive when it advances progressive values like equality of opportunity, not when it advances sectional zero-sum claims to the best that’s on offer. 

People bandy around words like “Representation” without pausing to think what it might mean in many complex contexts; they just think it means they should get the job. (Once you start putting fresh faces on bank notes, you hit problems of representation which are fairly intractable and end up being resolved in favour of the most persistent lobbyists - see my Sample Essays (2020) for a discussion. The problem is perfectly general).

Nonetheless, it’s worth reading through the wish lists just to remind oneself of how daunting is the task anyone of goodwill and some influence would face. Martin Wolf can barely stop himself from saying that in the USA the battle has already been lost; the productive union of market capitalism and liberal democratic politics is already and irretrievably broken. The plutocrats have mastered the art of securing the endorsement of those whose lives are increasingly nasty, brutish and short but which won't get any better under plutocratic (and capricious) rule.

As David Runciman observed in a clear-headed review of Martin Wolf in the London Review of Books, “this book leaves you feeling that what’s needed is a miracle”.

Wednesday 22 February 2023

Adolfo Kaminsky by Sarah Kaminsky


On the internet there are numerous photographs which testify to the love Sarah Kaminsky felt for her father, Adolfo Kaminsky, who died in January 2023 aged 97. Her biography was published in France in 2018 and several translations have already been made. Sarah Kaminsky is the youngest of his children, born when Adolfo was in his fifties. Before then there were other children by other partners and then three by his last and longest-term parrtner, Leïla Kaminsky. As I read this book I lost track of how many partners and children there were in total but it’s clear enough that many were neglected. As a young man of nineteen, Adolfo is a handsome fellow in the photograph reproduced in the book; he remains handsome and well-groomed in the internet photographs of old age.

Sarah Kaminsky’s book is a monument to her father. It’s written as if by Adolfo, in the first person, and in the Prologue there is a sketch of what was involved in researching it: note-taking of conversations with her father; interviews with others. I read the book as if listening to a reliable narrator but then had doubts because the narrator built out of the research seems to have such perfect recall; more or less every narrative has a beginning, middle and end. Memory is just not that good. So it may be that the biography is more romanesque than it presents itself as being. It’s certainly a fascinating read and quite, quite different to another book by a forger previously reviewed on this site, Shaun Greenhalgh’s A Forger’s Tale (reviewed 19 July 2018). The aims, motives, satisfactions could not be more different except for the evident pride in technical accomplishment.

Another relevant book for comparison would be with Marie Jalowicz Simon Untergetaucht [Underground in Berlin] based on tape recordings made by her son towards the end of Marie’s life and narrating the life of a young Jewish woman living underground in Berlin during the War.

Adolfo Kaminsky was the child of Russian-Jewish emigrés of the leftist kind who sought refuge from the Bolsheviks in France, were expelled and made their way to Argentina (where Kaminsky was born) and then made their way back.  His parents reckoned they would be safe in rural France even after the Germans arrived in 1940; they weren’t. His mother was probably murdered by the Germans and the rest of the family ended up in Drancy bound for Auschwitz and only got out thanks to an intervention by the Argentinian consul - they still had Argentinian nationality.

Kaminsky began in his teens a thirty year career as a forger of false documents and worked first in the service of the French resistance, particularly those parts finding safe houses or escape routes for Jews. Later, he worked briefly for the immediate post-Liberation French security services and then for a long succession of liberation movements, notably the Algerian FLN, and for those fleeing repressive regimes. He retired from his always-unpaid work as forger in 1971 when he felt that he was about to be caught and go to prison. He produced false documents in prodigious quantities, dozens or more at a time, and not only French ones - forging Swiss passports was very satisfying because they were supposed to be the most highly protected against forgery. But he would only forge for those he believed to be morally and politically worthy of support. He tried to draw a firm line against organisations which used terrorist violence. That complicated his immediate post-war work for Zionist movements working to drive the British out of Palestine. One remarkable story in the book (pages 125-28) sees him agree to make the timer for a Stern gang (Lehi) bomb which will kill the British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin. He makes the timer but with one special feature; it won't work. 

One must remember that the post-war France in which Kaminsky did most of his work was not a country of liberty, equality or fraternity but a repressive state more like those headed by Franco and Salazar and many of whose citizens were nostalgic for Vichy (and remain so to this day). A great deal of repressive violence was deployed, especially in Paris, where Maurice Papon became Chief of Police in 1958. He was eventually tried and convicted of wartime crimes against humanity - but not until 1998 when he was at the end of a highly successful police and political career spanning fifty years during which time he was directly responsible for the deaths of many innocent people, notably in the massacres of demonstrators in 1961 and 1962. To this day, it is unclear how many dead there were. See Papon’s Wkipedia entry.

Writing that about Paris, I remembered an occasion when I was invited to a private party (a small one) where the front door was opened not by the host but by his Security. The host, living in some Parisian banlieue, was from North Africa who even as late as 1971 might well receive unwelcome visitors. I forget the details and it’s pointless to speculate who invited me or why. Paris in 1971 is also the only place where I have ever been stopped and asked to show my papers to a police officer. I was walking back to my room from the cinema, late one evening. I was carrying my Carte de Séjour (it was obligatory to do so) and as he handed it back to me the officer saluted. I guess it helped to be English not North African.

Wednesday 18 January 2023

Do Good Books Get Published More by Luck than Judgment?

I read two or three books each week, cover to cover, of which maybe half are recently published and mostly from mainstream, major publishers. That’s partly because I pick up leads to new books from mainstream periodicals - principally The Literary ReviewThe London Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement. The first two are conservative in their review choices; the TLS has become more adventurous under its current editor and notices a fair number of books from small and foreign language publishers.

For the past ten years I have posted reviews of some of my recently read books on this blog. They do not offer reader recommendations or puffs which a publisher might pick up for a paperback edition; I only review when I have something to say. That does mean that some books which I think are simply terrific don’t get a review. Most recently, that’s true of Edward Wilson-Lee’s A History of Water (William Collins 2022). I don’t have any of his expertise and I can’t see any way in which I could better the craft which turned his research findings into a fascinating tale.

I have read lots of good books and quite a few duds, often from the same publisher, and begin to wonder about explanations, especially for the bad ones. How do they get published? I can only speculate.

There are a very small number of books where at the end (I rarely give up) I just want to ask who the author is sleeping with.

Then there are books which will have gone through the VIP lane to get their contracts because the author is established in one way or another and sells well every time, regardless. The VIP lane is the route where you are simply waved through. I have a candidate for a bad book by a good author which surely got published regardless. And even if I am wrong about that, there are plenty of readers who will have experienced disappointment with the latest from a favourite author. Few enthusiasts for Ian McEwan will be enthusiastic about Amsterdam (Jonathan Cape 1998).

Most publishing is big business publishing. Sometimes readers are clear beneficiaries: rows of black-backed Penguin Classics on my shelves, cheap, carefully edited and reliable are evidence for that. I am very grateful. But sometimes, and perhaps especially for academic or semi-academic books where the print run will be small, a publisher can only afford a limited budget - that means, limited time - to assess a potential title. As a result, publishers are now in the habit of asking authors to fill out questionnaires as long as those required by the United Kingdom’s Home Office and if the authors game the questionnaire successfully then they are well on the way to get their visa. They have done a lot of work which used to be a publisher’s job. And if you are rubbish at filling up forms - and some of the questions are pretty inane - you won't get published however good your book. But if the paperwork is in order, you are well on your way.

Some years ago [5 March 2016] I responded here to Gerald Steinacher’s generally well-received Nazis on the Run (Oxford University Press 2011). The title alone would sell it, but the book is a mess. And, given its subject matter, I wish it hadn’t been. After trying to set out the historical context it is concerned with I ordered my criticisms:

First, it is less like a book and more like a notebook: lots of miscellaneous facts, disjointed, endlessly repetitive, the chronology erratic. I find it hard to believe that anyone at the English-language publisher, Oxford University Press, read the book before agreeing to publish it. Read it cover to cover, as I have done, and it is like reading the first draft of a Ph.D.

I then set out to show that it failed to present its evidence in a way which was decisive enough to justify the conclusions Steinacher drew or wanted to draw.  To put the book right would have taken a great deal of editorial labour. As it stands, the book should not have been published.

But then there is the opposite problem where a book has been spoilt by intrusive low-grade (and probably low-paid) editing which makes the author look a fool. I was first alerted to this problem when I read Tim Parks Where I'm Reading From reviewed here 22 February 2015 who described the appalling treatment accorded one of his books by an American publisher - I outline the problems he encountered. More recently, I found an example which indicates that Parks' case was not a one-off.

In 2020 Oxford University Press (USA) published a perfectly acceptable academic monograph with an eighteenth century focus, Richard Scholar’s Émigrés. French Words That Turned English though clearly Émigrés didn’t because it is being given two accents not one on the cover. Leave that aside (but it has potential….). I published a long review [28 October 2020].

One of the things which troubled me was some dumbing down which could only have been the responsibility of some dumbed-down copy-editor. Thus at page 114 I encountered this:

 The French-speaking Genevan thinker and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) …..

Hang on a moment. This is a specialised monograph which will be read mainly by specialists in eighteenth century French and English literature. Which ones did the copy editor think would not know that M. Rousseau was French-speaking or Genevan or a thinker and writer?

It’s not always easy to make the right judgment call. But the copy editor who put their mark on this book disappears when perhaps more needed. So at page 162, the title of a sequence of poems is given in untranslated French with no gloss that the words are those which the French-speaking painter and all-round bad boy Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903) inscribed on perhaps his most famous painting. Now that might have been rather more worthy of the editor’s skills. But how come it was missed? The answer is this: there is no proper name in the immediate vicinity of the poem to trigger the copy-editor’s little App which is limited to providing patter around proper names. Am I exaggerating? I rest my case with the first use of the App in the book, at page 80:

 playwrights such  as William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616), for example, wrote history plays…

It could have been worse. He could have been English-speaking. But, still, Professor Scholar was ill-served by his publisher. Had Professor Scholar added those glosses himself  in a misguided attempt to make his book more accessible, an alert editor would have taken them out as out of keeping with the academic level of the book..







Tuesday 17 January 2023

Running Scared: Dashes, Asterisks, Scare Quotes, Bunny Ears Quotes, Sensitivity Readers


Editors and publishers may not have lists but they know a word that they don’t want to see in print when they see it. One dodge employed by writers is to place a sanctionable word within what are usually called scare quotes. If challenged, they will say that they are mentioning the word, or quoting it, or using it ironically. This will sometimes save them from exclusion from polite society though at a price (I will come to that). But some words have always been judged too offensive to be safely contained within scare quotes and they just have to go or - at least - seem to go.

Before the First World War, an important role in novels was played by the dash giving us characters who declared Well, I’ll be d------- which satisfied the guardians of morals and left nothing to the imagination. In his Kim, published in 1901, Rudyard Kipling tried to be a bit more inventive and after decades of dashes inventiveness was sorely needed. Addressing the no-nonsense dowager Maharanee of Saharunpore, Kim declares “Mother, I owe my life to thee…..Ten thousands blessings upon thy house …” only to find his words indignantly rejected by the Maharanee because she wishes to be thanked as by a son not a priest. Kipling gives the rejection thus: “The house be unblessed! (It is impossible to give exactly the old lady’s word)”. The beauty of this is that it is far from certain that damned would have been the exact word. The Maharanee is a feisty character and, one suspects, could swear like a trooper and troopers - well, it is impossible to give exactly their words.

Someone who may or may not have been inventive gave us another dodge in the form of asterisks, carefully counted out. Unfortunately, there is such a paucity of very naughty words that asterisks are rarely more difficult to solve than kindergarten crossword puzzles. I am not sure that any literary journal would allow me examples, even one at the outer limits of complexity like m***********. The failure of asterisks to protect children, let alone adults, generated a new dodge, exemplified by The C-word and The N-word cleverly designed as occult symbols about the meaning of which the uninitiated dare not ask.

Fortunately, some words can safely be accommodated by scare quotes but that comes at a price, especially in relation to irony. A writer can, of course, use a word ironically without resorting to scarce quotes but some readers will not get the irony - a hazard known about for centuries. In the past, it was thought that scare quotes would rescue the writer from the risk of not being understood but, of course, they do so only at the risk of irritating IQ positive readers who will feel patronised. Worse, an unexpected invention has permanently damaged the value of scare quotes.

I refer to the visual realisation of scare quotes as air quotes or bunny-ears quotes. These are so obviously heavy-handed that they can only be handled safely by celebrities and Republican Party politicians: Google offers me images of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Ryan, and Donald Trump. That alone is enough to cast a shadow over regular scare quotes sometimes still used by writers. But I think scare quotes will soon become extinct in serious writing if they are not so already.

Writers are better off taking their chances that an irony will be missed and simply have to give a bit more thought as to how to carry things off. The best approach is to stop thinking about using individual words or short phrases ironically - which is all that Bunny Ears people do. Instead, the writer needs to set up a whole context in which irony can surface and break through into the reader’s understanding. Maybe someone has had that idea before.

Many pressures weigh on what can be expressed and what can’t declare its name. The pressures change through time but always seem to leave us with a morality police of some kind operating over all or part of literary space. In the very recent past, unemployed ex-Sunday school teachers have found new roles as sensitivity readers who are not fooled by scare quotes or contextualisation. Some of them work for literary consultancies - you have been warned. They can point straight at the Word just as once upon a time they pointed at the boy in the front row who had just farted..