Here and there – Sowing the Wind


Sowing the Wind by John Keay (available in Folio Edition) is a balanced and luminous account of how the West imperially but brutally dismembered almost every part of the Middle East.  The result is that, as the Bible said, we are now reaping the whirlwind.  The lessons of this book are vital, but those who would like to concentrate on the West to the Exclusion of the East would want to have nothing to do with this book.  It shows, among other things, why the isolationist response is so fallacious and dangerous.

Robert Fisk raises the issue squarely in his Foreword.

Why does the West think it can lecture the Arabs on their history, their beliefs, their way of life, their ‘culture’?  How can this fundamental imbalance between ‘Occident’ and ‘Orient’ – themselves weirdly Western creations – be corrected or even understood?

And here we touch the essence of the difference between Christianity and Islam in its present tragic stage.  I do not think that we in the West believe in God these days.  American evangelists, no doubt.  Yet their refusal to accept evolutionism is oddly similar to that of ISIS, whose own concept of God refuses to countenance any Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest.’  The ‘fittest’ were those who followed God’s word, to the very letter, and that is an end to it.  Judaism offers a more nuanced response to God’s role and purpose in the creation of life.  Increasingly, however, Muslims find that God the ‘all-creator’ presided over evolution; hence the extraordinary – and to Westerners surprising – Islamist fascination with science.

But in the ‘West’ our gods tend to be human rights and the United Nations, Amnesty International and international law.  That is why our history books no longer speak of Islam and Christendom, but of Islam and the ‘West’.  So how is it……that a people who still believe in God, who still believe that the Quran is the word of God himself, for whom religion lies at the centre of the family and all that life holds, should find itself in submission – militarily, economically, socially, culturally – to a people who have largely forsaken their God?

What is the answer?

Keay tells us that in negotiating the Sykes-Picot agreement, Georges-Picot was ‘the scion of a colonialist dynasty’ and a firm believer in France’s mission historique et civilisatrice.  He therefore demanded and got all of Syria and CiliciaThe agreement was of course the one in which France and England casually carved up the Middle East between them so as to betray almost everyone involved.

Even when he knew the Arabs had been betrayed, Lawrence hoped for a new world order ‘in which the dominant races will forget their brute achievements, and white and red and yellow and brown and black will stand up together without side-glances in the service of the world.’  He said: ‘Unless we or our allies make an efficient Arab empire there will never be more than a discordant mosaic of provincial administrations.’  Keay says:

For all the fine words about building a new Arab nation, Lawrence was as intent as Brémond on creating a post-war Middle East that would be easily manageable in his own nation’s interest.  Syria, in Lawrence’s reckoning, was no more a suitable subject for sovereign independence than Arabia.  It was by nature a vassal country…..Mesopotamia/Iraq would be ‘our first brown dominion’

Lawrence said he was involved in ‘fraud.’

But there was neither sense nor virtue in identifying with the Arabs to the extent of condoning their political presumption.  The Bedouin, even in Lawrence’s piercing blue eyes, were uncouth and unmanageable; settled Arabs he was loth to consider as Arabs at all; and as for the educated, Westernised classes, they were the worst of all….’Europeanised youth’, ‘native Christians’…and ‘nationalised hot-heads’ were abominations who offended British conceits about both class distinction and racial privilege.  Their manners were appalling, yet they were precisely the people who, who, given a chance, would be running the ‘dream-palace’ [Lawrence’s term].  It was unthinkable.

After the armistice Clemenceau asked Lloyd George what he wanted.  ‘I wanted Mosul attached to Iraq and Palestine from Beersheba to Dan’.  ‘You shall have it.’  Why Mosul?  The oil, stupid.

The English bombed Iraq in a 1920 revolt.  The War Office said that they should not use the word ‘rebel’.  That may have entailed something like ‘sovereignty’ in Iraq.  They tried ‘insurgent’ and then ‘revolution.’  The same contortions and lies took place this century in Iraq.

In the Great Revolt in Iraq in 1920, the British lost 400 mostly Indian troops and Arab losses probably topped 8500.  (The Arabs now endure similar ratios against Israel.)

Jordan was set up as a place to park a loose cannon.  ‘Its political viability, even its value to the British, had yet to be proven; its international status had yet to be determined; and its frontiers had yet to be demarcated.  A child of political expedience, it had neither an economic or geographical rationale’.  The same went for Lebanon, but the French wanted to look after Maronite Christians.

Churchill thought of chemically bombing the Kurds, ahead of Hussein.  The Sunni Shia split made things worse.  Do you not see how all these things come back to haunt us?

The Great Revolt in Syria in 1925 saw France bomb Damascus.

That what was reputedly the world’s oldest city could be indiscriminately bombed and shelled in the name of one of the world’s most civilised peoples simply beggared belief.  In the heat of the First World War, Baghdad, Jerusalem and Damascus itself had all changed hands with no more than occasional rifle fire within their revered precincts.  Yet here, without the sanction of war, the champions of religion, equality and fraternity were delivering death to the innocent and destruction to the hallowed while supposedly discharging a sacred trust on behalf of the League of Nations and operating within the consensual constraints of one of its mandates.

Look at what is left of Damascus now and ask yourself who is really responsible.

The Balfour Declaration implied that the ninety per cent of people in Palestine who were not Jewish possessed no national identity and no political rights.  Neither alone nor as part of some other existing entity were the local Arabs reckoned to be a putative nation.  The mandate had no time limit.  For Christians, Palestine was predominantly a Land (capital L) so Holy (capital H) that in respect of its inhabitants, the norms of nationality and government need not apply.  The indigenous Arabs may well have thought that the British treated them in the same way that they had treated our indigenous people – by the simple expedient of saying that their presence did not stop the occupying power doing what they liked.

There were massacres on both sides in Jerusalem in 1921.  This religious or race war is now nearly a century old.  Zionists would not tolerate a representative body since they were a minority and such a government would be prejudicial to the establishment of the national home.

Orde Wingate was involved in training Jewish fighters.  His family was Plymouth Brethren.  He and other Englishmen trained Jewish Night Squads to counter Arab terrorists.  They – people like Menachem Begin and Moshe Dayan – became terrorists.  Wingate told them ‘You are the first soldiers if the Jewish army.  This provoked Arab responses.  The Jewish terrorists had the same motivation as the Arabs – they had God on their side – the only right God.

In one of the more signal failures of the West, the Vichy French fought the British in Palestine.  (One of my neighbours, who is no longer with us, was in the AIF in Syria where he was shot at by the French.  He joined the Air Force in disgust.)

Militant Jewish groups resembled those of the Nazis.  Keay says that ‘Buoyed by prophecy and desperate for sanctuary, the Zionists of the European ghettoes disdained legal restraint…’Churchill referred to ‘a new set of gangsters worthy of Nazi Germany.’  The most senior British politician to be killed in the Second World War was assassinated in the name of Zion.

Keay says that after the first war:

The ruling elites of all the Arab states who had failed to prevent this disaster found themselves fully discredited in the eyes of their own people….Revolution, long in the air, had now entered the bloodstream.

The author goes on to say how MI6 and the CIA installed the Shah; how the British and French were humiliated at Suez; and he mentions the massacres at Shatila and Sabra.

That is where he stops.  The disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria still go on.  The assault on the twin towers looks nigh on inevitable in the face of the inane cruelty and provocation of the Arabs by Europe and the U S.  The world may have been much better off if Europe and the U S had kept their hunger for power and oil to themselves.  The whirlwind has a very long way to go, and the conflict between Israel and its Arab and Persian neighbours looks to be soluble only by obliteration of the lines drawn during the death throes of the imperialism of Europe.  Just try to imagine what your reaction may have been if it was Europe that was Muslim and the Middle East that was Christian and that the Christians had carved up and insulted Europe in reverse and without asking dumped a group of the fold in Europe.  How well do you think the Europeans would take all that?  Would you not expect to see at least the level of terror that the Americans, Irish and Zionists used against Britain?  Was it not inevitable that each of those three nations was to be born in terror?

MY TOP SHELF – Chapter 18


[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Charles Darwin (Sixth Ed., 1872)

The Franklin Library, 1975; full leather binding, with gold embossing, ribbed spine, gold edges, and moiré end papers.

As this whole volume is one long argument, it may be convenient to the reader to have the leading facts and inferences briefly recapitulated.

This great book is a testament to the human mind.  Why it should not also be a testament to God is a matter for those who believe in God.  It is, if nothing else, a testament to the grandeur of creation in the world.

The author starts his concluding chapter: ‘As this whole volume is one long argument…’  So it is.  What does Darwin want to persuade the reader to believe?  The theory of evolution, or natural selection – ‘the more complex organs and instincts have been perfected, not by means superior to, though analogous with, human reason, but by the accumulation of innumerable slight variations, each good for the individual possessor.’  Underlying that theory are the propositions that there is a struggle for existence that results in the survival of the fittest.

People in the business of persuasion should study and savour this book.  Darwin writes clearly and simply – and without pretence.  He is candid, or at least he appears to be candid.  His patience does not tyre.  He is courteous throughout.  He states the objections to his theory at their best, and he then exposes to the reader his attempt to deal with the objection – leaving the resolution to the reader.  He shows no vanity, mockery, scorn, or contempt.  He shows his respect for and thanks to other professionals.  He is forever observing the world and wondering about it, but he never loses his sense of wonder at what the world might offer up for observation.  He is like a little boy in a lolly shop – but a very acute and courteous little boy.

Until almost the very end of the book, Darwin does not mention human evolution.  Instead, he begins with domestic animals.  Everyone knows that horses, pigeons, sheep and dogs are bred so that they improve as they change – or, evolve.  All Darwin is saying is that instead of people directing the change, nature does so – but over time-scales that we cannot get our heads around.  Then, with just a few pages to go, we get this: ‘The similar framework of bones in the hand of a man, wing of a bat, fin of the porpoise, and leg of the horse, the same number of vertebrae forming the neck of the giraffe and of the elephant, and innumerable other such facts, at once explain themselves on the theory of descent with slow and successive modifications.’

Two elemental truths pervade this book.  The first is that we learn about the world by observing it, wondering about what we see, and then testing our thoughts by further observation and reflection.  This is called science (from the Latin word for ‘I know’).  Dogs and horses and other animals do much the same thing, although we may get coy about the label we stick on their second phase.  Our reliance on electronic collection of data is dulling our minds and our capacity or inclination to use this natural technique in learning how to design a building, play a sand iron, perform surgery, cast a dry fly, drive a Ferrari north of whatever, or make a wine to challenge the Grange.  (Is it possible that our minds may evolve in reverse through lack of use?)

The other point is equally basic.  In our efforts to put down intolerance, we put up with most outlandish statements about God and the world.  But there is a difference.  We are very slow to condemn any statement about God as untenable because it is silly since many people think that any statement about God is silly, and, indeed, if you take any one religion, the great majority of mankind will regard all of its main beliefs as silly.

But this is not so with nature.  There are laws of nature.  They are empirically verified and denied only by the mad or those whose faith leads them to believe that their Creator can countermand them.  Darwin showed that species evolved, or changed to get better; we need to remember that if we flirt with nature, we may not know or like what we end up with.  One example was the practice of the Spartans of taking children from their parents to toughen them up, a practice followed more softly by the English ruling class until recently.

The book reads a little like a mystery book or detective series.  For example, domestic animals tend to have drooping ears.  Why?  Is this due to misuse of the muscles of the ear because these animals are so seldom alarmed?  The tail of a giraffe serves as a ‘fly-flapper.’  So what?  We have learned that the distribution and existence of animals ‘absolutely depend on their power of resisting the attacks of insects.’  Elephants have been decimated by insects.  Why do some birds show off gorgeous plumage?  For the same reason they perform strange antics before the females – to allow them to ‘choose the most attractive partner.’

Because we are talking of living organisms adapting by experience, the book offers insights of general use.  Darwin stresses that we cannot get our heads around the times involved, and that the geological record will be fragmentary.  If you started off with a pair of elephants, they could have nineteen million descendants after 750 years; after twelve generations, the proportion of blood from only one ancestor is 1 in 2048.  ‘If it has taken centuries or thousands of years to improve or modify most of our plants up to their present standard of usefulness to man, we can understand how it is that neither Australia, the Cape of Good Hope, nor any other region inhabited by quite uncivilized man, has afforded us a single plant worth culture.’  This is a useful reminder to those who think that they can just impose a way of life on people from a different world.

Here is some advice to someone starting in business: ‘The more diversified the descendants from any one species become in structure, constitution and habits, by so much will they be better enabled on many and widely diversified places in th polity of nature, and so be enabled to increase in numbers.’  But respect for Nature and its laws need not deny us our sense of wonder.  ‘…Natural Selection…is a power incessantly ready for action, and is as immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.’

Religion was of course a no-fly zone, but even here Darwin offers a blinding insight.  ‘It is scarcely possible to avoid comparing the eye with a telescope.  We know that this instrument has been perfected by the long-continued efforts of the highest human intellects; and we naturally infer that the eye has been formed by a somewhat analogous process.  But may not this inference be presumptuous?  Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man?

Darwin refers to the ‘common belief…that organization on the whole has progressed’ since the ‘inhabitants of the world at each successive period in its history has beaten their predecessors in the race for life.’  Similar hopes for mankind are constantly challenged.  Is mankind unique in its capacity to go backwards?

Darwin had not been able to sustain a belief in a personal God and was revolted by the idea of everlasting torture.  But when challenged by an atheist, his reply was: ‘But why should you be so aggressive?  Is anything to be gained by forcing new ideas on people?’

And his estrangement from religion and his embrace of science in no way lessened his moral position.  It is clear that his zeal to find a common origin of human species was his loathing of slavery.  A perverted science preached a plurality of species and ‘niggerology.’  Eight days after the publication of Origin of Species, the guerrilla abolitionist and Christian fundamentalist John Brown was hanged for his raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.


Passing bull 186–The trouble with ‘patriots’


Only very skewed people use the term ‘patriot’ in this country – thank heaven.  The word has a wretched and smelly history.  It is a label and it is a source of division, if not hate.  What crime is worse than that of Judas – betrayal?  Charging someone with a lack of patriotism is commonly invoked by bullies with no brains to smear dissenters.  Their real enemies are freedom and restraint.  Senator McCarthy was their champion; Trump and Pence merely ape him.  Even when used as a term of praise, the word smacks of pride in the nation, which is suspect, or glorifying government, which is much worse.

Patriotism and nationalism seem to be inseparable from a felt sense of superiority, the political version of original sin.  We might get a harmless warm glow about a kid making a hundred in his first test, but after that it can get nasty.  The English feel good about Nelson and Wellington – what about the people of Alabama and Lee, or of Japan and its war leaders – or, for that matter, Napoleon’s Tomb in Paris?  What about the five million who died for his ego and la gloire de la France?

‘Nationalism’ has been a dirty word, at least since Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Franco and Mao.  People like Trump and Pence merely confirm its dirtiness.  It is invoked by insecure people whose membership of the ‘nation’ is all they have and who see any incursion – even by refugees – as some kind of threat.  These people are easy meat for snake-charmers who are prepared to lie down with dogs – that is to say, too many of those parading as politicians across what some fondly call – and with pride, no less – the Western world.

Historians from the Continent tend to speak in larger terms than English historians.  They are therefore good for us to read.  The Dutchman Johan Huizinga was a very learned and enlightening man, especially when writing about the middle ages and the Renaissance.  (Like Pieter Geyl, he was imprisoned by the Nazis.  Both were by their whole lives against everything Hitler stood for.)  In his great book Men and Ideas, Huizinga has an essay, Patriotism and Nationalism.  It is as well to notice what he says about these two menacing pests.

Whether or not I S claims authority from God, both England and the U S have claimed to be God’s chosen people at one time or another.  It is very unattractive.  As Huizinga says, if nationalism implies a drive to dominate, it is beyond the pale of Christianity.  Or it should be – but at various times, ‘however contradictory it may seem, the Glory of Christian salvation was intermingled with the primitive pride of a barbaric tribal allegiance.’

Huizinga saw the beginning of nationalism in the split in Europe between Romance and Germanic peoples.  He saw an ethnic split as early as 887.  The phrase furor teutonicus was born – and would later be applied by losers to Michael Schumacher.  Statutes of Oxford would see two nations in Britain – between the south and the north – in the middle ages.

But whether the relationship was large or small, the basis for the emotion embodied in ‘nation’ was the same everywhere; the primitive in-group that felt passionately united as soon as the others, outsiders in any way, seemed to threaten them or rival them.  This feeling usually manifested itself as hostility and rarely as concord.  The closer the contacts, the fiercer the hate.

That sums up people like Farage, Hansen, and Trump.  And it indicates the problem such people have in attracting any sensible followers.

In 1793 in France an accusation of want of patriotism was a death sentence.  The nation went mad.  A weird man from Cleves, Anacharsis Cloots, wanted to suppress the word ‘French’ for ‘Germanic’ and he led a delegation of the ‘human species’ to be allowed to take part in a festival of liberty and fraternity.

Then came the Revolution, when the mouth still called out for the universal good of virtue and love of mankind, but the mailed fist struck for the fatherland and the nation, and the heart was with the fist.  The factors ‘patrie’ and ‘nation’ had never had such an intense influence as in the years from 1789 to 1796.  The fact merely confirms that nature constantly proves stronger than theory.  Yet at the same time people constantly thought that they were acting in keeping with the theory.  The National Assembly took it as its first task to formulate a Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.  Observe that man comes first and the citizen second.  But as soon as one sets out to formulate the rights of man, the state appears to be required as the framework for his society.  Humanity could not be the vehicle of the liberty desired so ardently.  Its domain was the fatherland, and its subject the people.  Hence from the outset, the French Revolution served pre-eminently to activate an enthusiastic patriotism and nationalism.

That piece was more English than European; and the French, in the name of liberty and fraternity, severed the head from the body of poor, silly Anacharsis Cloots.  Mere humanity again trumped theory.


In a letter sent to former members, quickly leaked to the media, the prime minister acknowledges ‘some people have left our party for various reasons over recent years’ but says he believes in an Australia ‘where if you have a go, you get a fair go’.

Accordingly, he’s having a go at wooing them back. At least in  New South Wales.

‘We need everyone who believes in our values to become energised members of our movement,’ he wrote to former NSW party members. ‘Very importantly, there is also a Shorten-led Labor party to defeat at the next election. To achieve this, we need you back.’

The Guardian, 1 February, 2018

Can we not hope for more than a talking head?  What values about fairness were deployed by those, including this PM, who sought to block a Royal Commission into bank managers earning say $10 million a year to preside over insulting every one of us?


One thing Trump liked very much was that the audience frequently broke into the chant ‘USA! USA!’  No one can object to this, it’s hardly partisan, but it is a chant implicitly against identity politics because it celebrates universal national identity.

Greg Sheridan, The Australian, 7 February, 2018

I can and do object to the chant.  Imagine our leaders responding to the Minister for Thongs by chanting ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!  Oi, oi, oi!’  The chant was partisan – ‘Make America Great Again’.  And the infatuation of that paper with ‘identity politics’ is mind crippling.  Nationalism – say of Mussolini, Franco or Hitler – is a definitive brand of ‘identity politics.’  Mr Sheridan’s dream of ‘universal national identity’ is a perfect contradiction in terms.  But, then, Mr Sheridan thought the State of Union Address was very good.  Most saw it as complete bullshit.



[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Marc Bloch (1920)

Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, Paris, 1920; facsimile reprint Slatkine-Megariotis, Geneva, 1976; rebound in quarter vellum with red cloth boards and red label embossed.

I was born in France.  I have drunk the waters of her culture.  I have made her past my own.  I breathe freely only in her climate, and I have done my best, with others, to defend her interests.

Winston Churchill used the term ‘unconquerable fidelity’ to refer to some of the people opposing the Third Reich.  It is a very just epitaph for the French historian, Marc Bloch.  Coming from a family of assimilated Alsatian Jews, Bloch studied in Paris at the Ecole Normale Supérieur and then in Berlin and Leipzig.  He served in the infantry throughout the First World War and attained the rank of captain.  He was awarded the Legion d’Honneur.  Between the wars he won an international reputation as an historian and helped to found the Annales School.  He invoked the work of German historians and his great work spanned all Europe.  He re-joined the army in 1939 and wrote a book Strange Defeat after the capitulation.  He worked on historiography, and he also served the Resistance, code named ‘Narbonne’.  Vichy police took him and handed him over to the Gestapo who tortured him and shot him shortly before the Allies arrived.  His friends had asked him to get out of France, but he had thought that he had a duty to stay.

In Strange Defeat, Bloch had uttered those most beautiful words that are set out at the head of this note.  I shall come back to his execution when looking at War and Peace, but it is enough to say now that Marc Bloch was a man to whom the word ‘patriot’ might be applied both fairly and decently.

Rois et Serfs (‘Kings and Serfs’) was Bloch’s doctoral thesis that looked at emancipation ordinances of 1315 and 1318 and found that the references to ‘natural freedom’ did not represent an endorsement of human liberty – they were just part of a conventional formula, a drafting device, although Bloch saw behind it a conflict between the ideals of the church fathers of equality and the reality of their hierarchy.  The work prefigures his later work with its focus on royalty and the functions of royal officials and the ways of the common people.  It contains valuable advice for lawyers today.  Ces discourses préliminaires tournaient tousjours dans le même cercle de pensées ou de lieux communs, sans avoir la vie reelle qu’un bien lointain rapport, – étant forcement elogieéux pour le personage qui avait commandé l’acte, et presentant invariablement ses motifs sous le jour le plus flatteur.  In translation – statutory preambles are self-serving propaganda.

But this book stands here for the great ‘Feudal Society’ (La société féodale), a clear and simple picture of feudalism that offers us a picture of medieval Europe.  It is extremely wide in its scope but, like the work of Maitland, it is rooted in the concrete and it is graphically written.  It is one of those great histories that can be read and enjoyed equally by the specialist and the general reader.  It is in truth a masterpiece of composition – in French or English.

Here are some extracts to show the style and substance of this colossal achievement.

Yet the revival of interest in Roman law provoked lively opposition.  Fundamentally secular, it disturbed many churchmen by its latent paganism.  The guardians of monastic virtue accused it of having turned away the monks from prayer.  The theologians reproached it with supplanting the only forms of speculative activity that seemed to them worthy of clerics.  The kings of France themselves or their counsellors, at least from Philip Augustus on, seem to have taken umbrage at the too easy justifications which it provided for the theorists of Imperial hegemony.  Far from arresting the movement, however, this opposition did little more than attest its strength.

The principal difficulty, therefore, which faced the central government was to reach residual subjects, in order to exact services and impose the necessary sanctions.  Thus there arose the idea of utilizing for the purposes of government the firmly established network of protective relationships.  The lord, at every level of the hierarchy, would be answerable for his ‘man’ and would be responsible for holding him to his duty.  This idea was not peculiar to the Carolingians….Under the Carolingians, on the other hand, various royal or imperial edicts were concerned with defining precisely the offences which, if committed by the lord, would justify the vassal in breaking the contract.  This meant that, with the exception of such cases, and apart from separations by mutual agreement, the tie lasted for life.

Yet, whatever the inequalities between the obligations of the respective parties, those obligations were none the less mutual; the obedience of the vassal was conditional upon the scrupulous fulfilment of his engagements by the lord.  This reciprocity in unequal obligations….was the really distinctive feature of European vassalage.  This characteristic distinguished it not only from ancient slavery but also, and very profoundly, from the forms of free dependence known to other civilizations, like that of Japan, and even to certain societies bordering on the feudal zone proper.

In reflecting on this picture of people being bound together by mutual agreement and ties, we are speaking of times more than a millennium ago.

It was there in the commune that the really revolutionary ferment was to be seen with its violent hostility to a stratified society.  Certainly these primitive urban groups were in no sense democratic.  The greater bourgeois, who were their real founders and whom the lesser bourgeois were not always eager to follow, were often in their treatment of the poor hard task masters and merciless creditors.  But by substituting for the promise of obedience, paid for by protection, the promise of mutual aid, they contributed to the social life of Europe a new element, profoundly alien to the feudal spirit properly so called.

There is a riveting insight there, both French and universal.

Assuredly the English parliamentary system was not cradled in ‘the forests of Germania’.  It bore the deep imprint of the feudal environment from which it sprang.  But the peculiar quality which distinguished it so sharply from the Continental systems of ‘Estates’, and, more generally, that collaboration of the well-to do classes in power, so characteristic of the English political structure so long ago as the Middle Ages – the origin of these is surely to be found in the firm establishment on English soil of the system of assemblies composed of the free men of the territory, in accordance with the practice of the barbarian epoch.

The book ends with these words.

Nor was it an accident that in Japan, where the vassal’s submission was much more unilateral and where, moreover, the divine power of the Emperor remained outside the structure of vassal engagements, nothing of the kind emerged from a regime which was nevertheless in many respects closely akin to the feudalism of the West.  The originality of the latter system consisted in the emphasis it placed on the idea of an agreement capable of binding the rulers; and in this way, oppressive as it may have been to the poor, it has in truth bequeathed to our Western civilization something with which we still desire to live.

So much of all this is treasure.  Here is the work and the writing of a man of immense learning and authority.  This great French scholar and patriot gives me the same feeling that I get when I am reading Maitland – that I am in the hands of an historian whose judgment has been forged in the mastery of his evidence and whose integrity is assured by the demonstration of his technique. You are blessed indeed if you ever get to read a work of history that is as enlightening – as illuminating – as ‘Feudal Society’.

Here and there – John Keats on a Prime Minister and a President


There are who lord it o’er their fellow-men
With most prevailing tinsel: who unpen
Their baaing vanities, to browse away
The comfortable green and juicy hay
From human pastures; or, O torturing fact!
Who, through an idiot blink, will see unpack’d
Fire-branded foxes to sear up and singe
Our gold and ripe-ear’d hopes. With not one tinge
Of sanctuary splendour, not a sight
Able to face an owl’s, they still are dight [equipped]
By the blear-eyed nations in empurpled vests,
And crowns, and turbans. With unladen breasts,
Save of blown self-applause, they proudly mount
To their spirit’s perch, their being’s high account,
Their tiptop nothings, their dull skies, their thrones—
Amid the fierce intoxicating tones
Of trumpets, shoutings, and belabour’d drums,
And sudden cannon. Ah! how all this hums,
In wakeful ears, like uproar past and gone
Like thunder clouds that spake to Babylon,
And set those old Chaldeans to their tasks.—
Are then regalities all gilded masks?


Endymion, Book III.

Emphasis added to show relevance to Messrs Trump and Morrison – with deepest apologies to the dead poet and his lonely grave in Rome – ‘Here lies one whose name was writ on water.’  At the age of twenty-five he was worth ten of those referred to above.

Passing bull 185 –Worse labels: -ist and –ism.


One label I would happily ban is the term ‘racist’.  In a world that lacks tolerance, restraint and courtesy, this is a nasty smear that is too often applied without justification.

The Governor of Virginia engaged in an offensive stunt 35 years ago when he was a student, and has offered stupid and evasive explanations that show a consciousness of guilt equal to those of his President.  Does that justify his being called on to resign because it shows that he is ‘racist’?

Liam Neeson is a fine actor who has recently specialised in films of blood-curdling violence. When someone close to him was attacked, he confessed to going out to find someone else from the same group as the attacker and wreaking lethal revenge on him.  Neeson said this was very wrong of him, even though the instinct for revenge may be described as primal.  But are we justified in saying that Neeson is a ‘racist’ because his putative target was black?

People may I suppose have differing views.  I regard each allegation as unfounded to the point of absurdity and to be both cruel and offensive.  But to consider the issue rationally, you need to answer something like the following question.  Does the evidence show that the relevant person (a) engaged in conduct that (b) evidences a propensity of (c) a kind that warrants an adverse moral judgment embodied in the epithet ‘racist’?  You do not need a degree in law or philosophy to stipulate that kind of analysis.  Built into those questions is one relating to time.  Is, for example, the foolish student of 35 years ago the same person as the Governor today?

What is ‘racism’?  In the Shorter OED, you have to go the Addenda to get:

The theory that distinctive human characteristics, abilities etc are determined by race.

That sounds sterile if correct.  I much prefer this from Professor Simon Blackburn in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (which obviously draws on Kant in its reference to ‘dignity’ and ‘value’).

The inability or refusal to recognise the rights, needs, dignity or value of people of particular races or geographical origins.  More widely, the devaluation of various traits of character or intelligence as ‘typical’ of particular peoples.

The reference to ‘typical’ is good, because the judgment involves typing – and that almost of necessity shows an inability to recognise the rights, dignity or value of each member of the group so typed.  That as it seems to me is the vice – and it almost always is a view of humanity that is warped by prejudice.  Prejudice itself is a form of corruption of thought that is integral to someone engaging in what might be called ‘racism’.

Another factor that has not been articulated is that such conduct is likely to be found to be offensive, insulting, or hurtful to members of the group typed.  But, perhaps the notions of prejudice and hurt are built into or an inevitable consequence of the existing rubric of racism.

So, our question might be reformulated.  Does the past conduct of the governor or actor warrant the finding against him of a propensity (founded in prejudice) to type African Americans as a group in a manner that does not recognise the rights, dignity or value of individual African Americans (and which they are likely to find hurtful)?

With all respect to those who have a different view, I cannot justify an affirmative answer to that question in either case.  We are, after all, talking about a form of communal condemnation, and those on the attack may wish to bear in mind that remark in the Gospels about the wisdom of being the one to cast the first stone.


Then, last week, we had the former London mayor Ken Livingstone eulogising Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro and their glorious efforts for the Venezuelan people. If it hadn’t been for US sanctions, Livingstone suggested, Venezuela would still be a socialist utopia. ‘When were oil sanctions introduced?’ Neil asked. Livingstone couldn’t remember. ‘I’ll tell you,’ offered Neil. ‘They were imposed this week.’ That couldn’t be true, Livingstone insisted, it wasn’t ‘what the Venezuelan ambassador told me’. And so it went on.

Delingpole and Livingstone are marginal figures in politics, but bullshit has become, as Frankfurt put it, ‘one of the most salient features of our culture’. You can barely cross the political landscape today without stepping in the stuff.

After his televised debacle, Delingpole wrote an article for Breitbart (of which he is UK executive editor)… saying he is ‘one of those chancers who prefers to… wing it using a mixture of charm, impish humour and nuggets of vaguely relevant info’. It’s how Oxbridge graduates work, he suggested: ‘Their education essentially entails spending three or four years being trained in the art of bullshit.’

The Guardian, 4 February, 2018

It’s bloody everywhere, Mate.

Here and there – The Courtiers of King Henry VIII and President Donald Trump


A very long time ago – about, say, five or six centuries – the kings of England did not just reign, they ruled, and their subjects owed fealty to them personally.  Then you could still sensibly speak of an absolute monarchy, as was certainly the case in France, and the rule of law was an idea whose time had not yet come.  That was the case – more or less – with Henry VIII.

Donald Trump thinks that it should be the case for him – and he behaves as if it is.  He is about half a millennium out of date, as are those despotic regimes, like Russia and Saudi Arabia, which Trump most admires.

His gross appearance, his blustering demeanour, his vulgarity, his arrogance, his sensuality, his cruelty, his hypocrisy, his want of common decency, are marked in strong lines.

Every word applies to Donald Trump, but it was written by a famous English critic (Hazlitt) about Henry VIII as seen by Shakespeare in the play of that name – and his Harry might be thought to be mild compared to the historical king.  The play ends with the birth of the future Queen Elizabeth and before King Henry VIII became a retail terminator of his wives and first ministers.

Both Trump and Henry are – I will use the present tense for both – blustering, arrogant, sensual, cruel, hypocritical and lacking common decency.  The essential thing about them is that each of them is so full of himself that there is no room for anyone else.  Being a courtier to either is therefore tricky.  No courtier, no matter how high, ever knows when his time might be up.  The Prologue speaks of great people followed by a thousand friends –

…….Then in a moment, see

How soon this mightiness meets misery….(29-30)

Before looking at what Trump may have in common with Henry VIII – both in history and on the stage – we should notice some differences.  Henry is intelligent, religious and intent on doing the right thing by the country he rules.  None of that is true for Trump.  He is a stupid man with no room in his ego for God or his nation.  Sir Geoffrey Elton said that Henry was ‘intelligent, a capable musician, quite well-seen in theology, a patron of the arts and learning’ and that ‘foreign ambassadors as well as his own subjects praised him to the skies.’  How very different is Trump.  But Elton also said:

Of all Henry VIII’s follies none cost his country dearer than his illusion that he was an old and experienced king who knew his business and needed no one to do it for him.

That’s Trump to his toe nails.

There are other differences.  Young Harry was very well educated.  Young Donald was not.  Henry was fluent in four languages.  Trump has trouble putting a sentence together in one.  You would have as much chance of getting a definition of ‘subject’ and ‘predicate’ from Trump as you would of seeing his school report cards.

King Henry disrupted the body politic in order to give the nation a secure heir to the throne.  That was his duty.  President Trump disrupted the body politic in order to secure places for his family.  That was a breach of his duty, and this vulgar family intrusion continues to generate conflicts of interest that would be laughable if they were not so gross.

What then do they have in common?

Each of the King and the President is a monument to the wisdom of the admonition ‘Put not your trust in princes’ (Psalm, 146:3).  Indeed, one of Harry’s principal victims (Cardinal Wolsey) echoed just those words:

…..O, how wretched

Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favours!

There is betwixt that smile we would aspire to,

That sweet aspect of princes and their ruin,

More pangs and fears that wars or women have.

And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,

Never to hope again.  (III, ii, 366-372)

A strong leader does not have to claim the authoritarian powers of Stalin or Hitler before he reduces his senior advisers to nervous wrecks who look like menials – and whose consequent apparent weakness makes them only a more likely target.  They are made to look and feel servile.  Trump and Harry have this in common with dogs – they can sense fear and this arouses them.  They pleasure themselves by exploiting fear in others.  For each of them, it is a double hit of showing off his power.  They live to put people down and this means that neither has the mettle of a leader.

On this ground, too, neither has a sense of humour.  That is one way that the rest of us oil our humanity, but for each of these man-eaters, a joke is just a badly disguised kick to the groin.

The play Henry VIII sees the fall of three eminent persons – the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Katherine, and Cardinal Wolsey – all engineered by the King.  We also have a putsch against Archbishop Cranmer that is scotched by the King (and what high theatre we have there).  The later execution of Anne Boleyn was little more than judicial murder.  Whether it was more cruel than the casting off of Queen Katherine is a question on which reasonable minds may differ.  The first minister, Cromwell, the prime author of the legislation giving effect to the Reformation in England, would also fall.  And if he fell like Lucifer, the fall was also far more terminal – what Buckingham refers to as ‘the long divorce of steel.’  Wolsey escaped the axe; Cromwell and More did not.  Some of Henry’s victims suffered death, but the list of Trump’s victims is so much longer – and in a much shorter time.

And yet, at least in the play, they all go quietly in the end.  As did most victims of Stalin.  The lethal reputation of the ruler induces a kind of resignation and acceptance.

This looks to be the case with the victims of Trump.  With the exception of James Comey, of the FBI, most went quietly to their end, although as often as not that end was pronounced in the most cowardly and vulgar manner.

Henry VIII appears to be as much a bully as Trump is.  The flip side of the bully is the coward.  Harry fancies himself as a latterday medieval man of steel.  Medieval kings had to rule in a personal way that does not apply to current presidents – at least outside of world war.  The cowardice of Trump is notorious – from his evasion of military service, to his refusal to show his tax returns, to his cringing before real despots – but at least in one respect Harry shares that cowardice.  In his recent biography Thomas Cromwell, A Life, Diarmaid MacCulloch says that Henry is ‘a thorough coward’ when it comes to ‘personal confrontations.’  Trump always gets a minion – like a demeaned three star general – to deliver the pink slip, and he could not bring himself to listen to the tape of the murder of a journalist – before he went ahead to acquit the murderer.

Although Henry is far more intelligent than Trump, we get the impression that both could be unduly swayed by the last person either spoke to.  That disability is nigh on terminal for a judge, but it also creates disharmony in the court of a ruler.  Courtiers suspected that both Wolsey and Cromwell had got to a position of dominance with King Henry.

He dives into the King’s soul, and there scatters

Dangers, doubts, wringing of the conscience,

Fears and despairs.  (II, ii, 26-28)

That is precisely what we could have heard from some in the White House when Mr Bannon was closeted alone with the President, or when Mr Kushner gets to be so now.  Both those gentlemen have the misfortune to look to be at their most dangerous when they look to be doing nothing.  (It is hard to imagine anyone showing outright blankness in the way Mr Kushner does.  Is anyone ever at home?)

Both rulers are relentlessly insensitive.  Eleven days after Anne Boleyn’s execution, Henry VIII married Jane Seymour.  It was rumoured that he was pleasuring himself at the moment of her decapitation, but Harry has a capacity for self-deception – delusion – quite equal to that of Trump.  As he saw it, this marriage – his third – was his first proper one.  On the day of the execution of Cromwell, Henry diverted himself by marrying Katherine Howard.  Perhaps intercourse eases decapitation.  Both Henry and Trump have an alarming capacity to violate basic decency.

Some may think it is hard to accuse Trump of hypocrisy.  If you don’t believe anything, what is there that you can betray?  But with our Harry, Shakespeare lays it on with a shovel.  The middle aged man who is about to trade in his middle aged wife for a new model fairly wallows in his own moonshine.

O, my lord,

Would it not grieve an able man to leave

So sweet a bedfellow?  But, conscience, conscience!

O, ‘tis a tender place, and I must leave her.  (II, ii, 140-143)

Each ruler fairly glows with any praise.  MacCulloch says that ‘Henry always showed a touching confidence in other people’s admiration of his abilities as a ruler, and the prospect of anyone in mainland Europe expressing unalloyed support for his marital troubles was additionally thrilling.’  For Harry to get sympathy in Europe for his penchant for divorce would be like Trump getting support in Europe for his soft spot for coal.

Each is very touchy and easily kindled to incandescent rage and a lust for revenge.  Each is a born hater.  ‘Anne was now victim of Henry’s ability to turn deep affection into deep hatred, and then to believe any old nonsense to reinforce his new point of view.’

That is vintage Trump.  The original attraction may well have been affected, although the felt need to live in the present could make a sucker of both rulers; but the later loathing was sincerity itself.  Indeed, both claim to have been let down so badly so often that they must concede that they cannot pick the right people to have with them.  That is not a good result for a ruler.

Because neither can be trusted and each rules by fear, their court is a deeply unhappy place.  One of Harry’s courtiers laments ‘he will never give credit against you, whatsoever is laid to your charge; but let me or any other of the Council be complained of, his Grace will most seriously chide and fall out with us’  It is notorious that loyalty flows in only one direction for Trump, but this Tudor cri de coeur leads MacCulloch to comment that ‘the leading men at Court eyed one another and judged the moment to plant a negative thought in the mind of their terrifyingly unpredictable royal master.’

It is hard to think of a better description of what goes on in the White House – except that things are much, much worse there because of the close involvement of the members of the family of the ruler, none of whom knows what to do.  What you get is courtiers looking at each other with what Keats called ‘wild surmise.’

In truth, it is downright dangerous to walk into either court.  Three different fates might await you.  You might get it wrong, in which case a mere firing is an act of mercy.  Or you may have to take a hit for the ruler because it is universally acknowledged that he can do no wrong.  Or worse, you may put part of his gleam in the shade in which case you are really for it.

The Oxford History of England says that King Henry VIII was a ‘great king’.  Their criteria for greatness may be a bit wobbly, since they also say:

Henry VIII was brutal, crafty, selfish, and ungenerous….and as the years passed, what there was in him of magnanimity was eaten up by his all-devouring egoism.  His triumphant ride through life carried him unheeding over the bodies of his broken servants, and though he had an outward affability for use at will, he was faux bonhomme.

There again is Donald Trump á la lettre. David Hume said that Henry may have been great but not good, and that ‘every one dreaded a contest with a man who was known never to yield or to forgive, and who, in every controversy, was determined to ruin either himself or his antagonist.’

Courtiers are companions and councillors.  Both suffer under each of the king and the president.  ‘This enormous man was the nightmare of his advisers.  Once a scheme was fixed in his mind he could seldom be turned from it; resistance only made him more stubborn; and once embarked, he always tended to go too far unless restrained….The only secret of managing him, both Wolsey and Cromwell disclosed after they had fallen, was to see that dangerous ideas were not permitted to reach him.’  Churchill said that of King Henry; Bob Woodward said much the same of President Trump.

It is remarkable how many good lives and careers have been ruined when people have strayed into the court of this king or this president.  They seem to taint all whom they touch.  So many were crooked before they entered the orbit of Trump that for some time now he has had trouble attracting decent people.  Time spent with Trump does not look good on your C V now – how bad might it look in a few years’ time?

We had need pray,

And heartily, for our deliverance,

Or this imperious man will work us all

From princes into pages.  All men’s honours,

Lie like one lump before him, to be fashioned

Into what pitch he pleases.  (II, ii, 44-49)

Now let us see another difference.  Trump has no time or respect for the Constitution or its organs.  It would be silly to say he might leave a good legacy.  The future is not his shtick.

There was next to nothing about religion in the Reformation in England.  It was all about politics and England was much better off politically for getting its version of Home Rule.  And because King Henry chose to split with Rome by acts of Parliament – mere royal fiats would not have done the job – its status was greatly advanced.  We were on our way to the sovereignty of Parliament and the rule of law – and the colonies that would become the United States would be prime beneficiaries of this ascent.

Now may we end with something else that President Trump and King Henry VIII have in common?  For some of us, hardly a day goes by with Donald Trump when we are not reminded of the deathless words of a Boston attorney named Joseph Welch who, after another outrage committed by Senator McCarthy, asked: ‘Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last?’  Nowhere is that want of decency more on show in this king and in this president than in their hunt for skirt and in their complete lack of judgment in how to go about it.

Well, at least the Tudors did not have to put up with wall-to-wall and coast to coast centrefolds, and the women allotted to King Henry were alleged to have some form of pedigree if not some kind of mind.  These things are sadly different now in this uncomely Playboy swamp in the New World.

Passing bull 183 – Changing the way we think


It is one thing to change your mind.  It is altogether a different thing to change the way you think. Historically, the English have viewed the world differently to those over the Channel.  This has led to tension and to the drive to get England out of Europe.  In seeking to do that, the English have acted more like Europeans than the English.  That has got them into an almighty mess.

The study of thinking that we call philosophy tends to divide into two broad schools of thought – those who begin with or focus on the mind and those who begin with or focus on the world outside.  The first tends to stress thinking and logic; the second stresses the external world and our experience of it.  People who do philosophy tend to label the first type rationalist (or metaphysical) and the second empirical.  At an even greater level of abstraction, the first type of thinking is associated with deductive logic, and the second with inductive logic.  Europeans tend to associate with the rationalist tradition, and the English with the empirical tradition.

All laws are made by people; law is therefore the product of history.  The common law and the English constitution have been evolving by trial and error since the Germans replaced the Romans as the rulers of England.  They developed their own national common law – law deriving from custom and precedent – and they resisted their adopting – the process is referred to as ‘receiving’ – Roman law.  Europe did not experience either of those developments.  France did not have a law common to France before the revolution, but the Civil Code has been broadly in place since Napoleon introduced it.  The German nation was not created as a distinct political entity until the 19th century, but its civil code has remained broadly in place since 1900.  Both those civil codes derive a lot from Roman law and, at least in theory, European courts pay much less attention to judicial precedent.

The law of England mainly came from the precedents of the judges with occasional interference from the parliament.  The common law derived from custom and precedent and at once underlay but could be overridden by parliament.  The law of France and Germany tends to derive from legislated codes with occasional contributions from judicial precedent.  One tends to grow from the ground up; the other is what we now call top-down.

Just compare the English Revolution of 1689 to the French of 1789.  The English evicted their king and later a philosopher, John Locke, sought to justify it.  In France, those leading the revolt sought to follow the teaching of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who went into for large statements like ‘Men are born free.’

In seeking to leave Europe, the English have followed the French example.  Instead of inquiring about how in fact the break might be effected, they talked loftily about why in theory it should be done.  Rousseau – whom Carlyle called the Evangelist – would have been proud of them.  Instead of asking how to avoid a hard border in Ireland they talked grandly about ‘freedom’ and ‘sovereignty’ without asking just what differences they might expect to achieve – and at what cost.  They were like spoiled boys in a lolly shop.  We can now see better why England is in such a mess – and some of those boys have been badly spoiled.

First, the English allowed the impulse for divorce to be driven by people who put ideas above evidence and theory over experience.  They gave in to ideology.  They went back on all their history since they left the German forests.

Secondly, they allowed a nation-splitting issue to be decided by a bare majority.  The constitutions of sensible countries and corporations require a lot more.  They ensured and locked in indecision and recrimination.

Thirdly, the two party system is hopelessly inadequate for this job.  They needed a government of national unity like those that won their wars.  Having owned the problem, their parliament is now unfit to resolve it.  The mother of parliaments has become a dismal cat house.

Fourthly, the bare majority was got on a simple lie.  ‘You can control immigration and not be worse off.’

Fifthly, they have hardly a decent leader in sight.  The only person left with any dignity is their Prime Minister.  The rest could not run a chook raffle – and barely one engine driver among them.  The result is a majority against each option.

One of England’s greatest historians – a Jewish migrant from Eastern Europe – said: ‘Restraint, coupled with the tolerance that it implies and with plain human kindness, is much more valuable in politics than ideas which are ahead of their time…’


‘I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times and I think that He wanted Donald Trump to become president,’ Sanders said, according to CBN News. ‘That’s why he’s there and I think he has done a tremendous job in supporting a lot of the things that people of faith really care about.’

CNN News 31 January, 2019

Can we ask whether Muslims are ‘people of faith’ or would that be too silly for words?  As silly, in fact, as saying that the President is a person of faith.



[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



James Joyce (1921)

Folio Society, 1998; etchings by Nimmo Paladino; blue cloth, in blue slip-case.

….and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914-1921.

The great Irish writer James Joyce admired Ulysses, the main character of the epic poem of that name by Homer.  The poem describes the voyage of the wily Ulysses back home to Ithaca in Greece and the reunion with his son Telemachus and his wife Penelope after the fall of Troy.  Joyce fancied Ulysses more than Hamlet, Don Quixote and Faust.  He thought that Ulysses did not seek bloodshed, but saw that war was merely a promotion by entrepreneurs.  Like Ulysses, and a lot of Irish, Joyce wandered.  He wrote his masterpiece as an expatriate over seven years at Trieste, Zurich and finally Paris.  Throughout that time he pestered friends for information on the Dublin that he grew up in for what is probably the most Irish book ever written.  The book aims to document in detail Dublin as it then was, and humanity as it always has been.  The author did not lack ambition.

The story of the Ulysses of Joyce takes place in one day or, perhaps more correctly, twenty four hours, the 16th June 1904, in Dublin.  The three main characters are Leopold Bloom (who has some resemblance to Ulysses), his wife Molly Bloom (who probably has little or no resemblance to Penelope) and Stephen Dedalus (who stands in for Telemachus).  There are eighteen chapters, or titles.  The first three centre on young Stephen and the last title is the famous soliloquy of Molly Bloom.  The central fourteen chapters are a journey around Dublin and his own mind by Leopold Bloom on the day that is now celebrated in many parts of the world as Bloomsday.  We will briefly sample some chapters.

The opening chapter is set at 8.00 a.m. on Martello Tower, Sandycove.  It features young students or teachers, including Stephen.  There is a notion of a family without a father – like occupied Ireland without its leaders.  The novel is littered with allusions to Catholicism, Shakespeare (especially Hamlet) and Wagner.

In chapter 4, the time is again 8.00 a.m. at 7 Eccles Street, the home of the Blooms.  Molly starts where she finishes – in bed.  Bloom gets her breakfast in bed.  He is under the thumb a bit.  He cooks himself a kidney while he prepares for the funeral of Paddy Dignam.

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls ….  Kidneys were in his mind as he moved about the kitchen softly, righting her breakfast things on the humpy tray.  Gelid light and air were in the kitchen but out of doors gentle summer morning everywhere.  Made him feel a bit peckish. 

Bloom takes the mail up to Molly.  It includes a letter from her manager, Blazes Boylan.  Poldy and Molly do not like dressing together but we get a full rendition of Bloom on the jakes.  The chapter resonates with betrayal at home.

In the Penguin’s Student Edition, Declan Kiberd (who was born in Eccles Street, Dublin) finely observes that ‘the reader has the uncanny feeling of knowing more about Bloom than he knows about himself’.  The same goes for Molly – unless, perhaps, you are not a woman.

By Brady’s cottages a boy for the skins lolled, his bucket of offal linked, smoking a chewed fagbutt.  A smaller girl with scars of eczema on her forehead eyed him, listlessly holding her battered cask hoop.  Tell him if he smokes he won’t grow.  O let him!  His life isn’t such a bed or roses!  Waiting outside pubs to bring da home.

Looking for lunch, bloom goes into the Burton restaurant.  They are eating roast beef or corned beef and cabbage or stew.

Smells of men.  His gorge rose.  Spat on sawdust, sweetish warmish cigarette smoke, reek of plug, spilt beer, men’s beery piss, the stale of ferment.  Couldn’t eat a morsel here.

That is just what those slophouses smelt like.  Bloom is too genteel if not womanly for that kind of place.  He goes to Davey Byrne’s, a ‘moral pub’.  While Nosey Flynn sips his grog, Bloom has a gorgonzola sandwich with English mustard for 7 pence and he has a burgundy with it: very, very cosmopolitan, and not obviously Irish.

Chapter 12 is set in Barney Kiernan’s pub at 5.00 p.m.  It is another that is so funny that it may cause trouble when you are driving, but it has a heavy dark side.  The English and Irish establishments get a serve but ‘the Citizen’ represents the one-eyed Irishman – this is the chapter that comes in the place of Cyclops in the case of Homer and he goes after the Jewish Bloom.  The drinkers are against Bloom because they believe he held back on a tip for the races.  Bloom tells them of the great Jews of history and says that ‘the Saviour was a jew and his father was a jew.  Your God.’  The answer is that he had no father.  The humour here can be both dark and black.

If you are not convinced that you are in the presence of a genius, this may be the last occasion on which it might happen.  Chapter 13 is 8.00 p.m. near the beach at Sandymount Strand.  Bloom becomes carried away watching a young girl as the sacraments are celebrated in the nearby cathedral.  A wordless communication that Freud could have written goes on against the backing of the sacrament and then fireworks going up:

Then they sang the second verse of the Tantum Ergo and Canon O’Hanlon got up again and censed the Blessed Sacrament and knelt down and he told Father Conroy that one of the candles was just going to set fire to the flowers and Father Conroy got up and settled it all right and she could see the gentleman winding his watch and listening to the works and she swung her leg more in and out in time.  It was getting darker but she could see and he was looking all the time that he was winding the watch or whatever he was doing to it and then he put it back and put his hands back into his pockets.  She felt a kind of a sensation rushing too was when she clipped her hair on account of the moon.  His dark eyes fixed themselves on her again drinking in her every contour, literally worshipping at her shrine.  If ever there was undisguised admiration in a man’s passionate gaze it was there plain to be seen on that man’s face.  It is for you, Gertrude MacDowell, and you know it.

The scene gets more graphic as it goes.  This is a chapter of overwhelming power whether read on the printed page or heard on the riveting Naxos recording.  The conclusion is high drama.

In chapter 15, it is midnight in the redlight area mostly inside or out of the brothel of Bella Cohen.  A lot of Ulysses is very funny – most of this chapter is downright hilarious.  It is a kind of dream sequence like The Goons and the Marx Brothers, but most of it makes Spike Milligan or Groucho Marx look pedestrian if not predictable.

Stephen falls into the company of two sluts, Biddy the Clap and a young woman whose second name is Kate.  Unfortunately, Stephen makes a remark about the King – it was probably a reference to Hamlet – that does not seem right to two drunken cockney redcoats.  (‘I’ll wring the neck of any bugger says a word against my fucking King.’)  Although the humour is broader than slapstick, the author describes the way in which the two cockney redcoats propel themselves into a fight over nothing with deadly accuracy.

There is no specified time for the last chapter, and the place is the marriage bed at Eccles Street.  The whole chapter is one sustained monologue of Molly with hardly any punctuation at all.  This is how it starts.

Yes because he never did a thing like that before as asked to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs

Molly reflects on her tryst with Blazes Boylan – they had to move out of the bed for fear of annoying the neighbours.  She is at first dismissive of Blazes but warms to him in the course of her reflection and is looking forward to the next session until she feels the curse coming upon her.  Such, Ned Kelly said, is life.

The soliloquy and the book end in the manner set out at the top of this note.

Those who fear this book, or who are merely neurotic about it, should remember that it ends on this note of affirmation – ‘Yes’, in recitative.  It may not be as serene as the end of Don Quixote, and it may not share the apparent domestic bliss of War and Peace, but this is a book that affirms human life.

This novel is also, with Don Quixote, one of the funniest books ever written. If you are listening to the spoken word, three writers may have you exclaiming out loud at their brilliance – two are English poets (Shakespeare and Milton) and the third is this Irish novelist, James Joyce.

Here are some ways to break down the fear or prejudice about Ulysses.  First, get hold of a print of Duck Soup, and remember what it is like to laugh out loud at pure madness.

Next, get the Naxos 4 CD set of extracts.  (They also have the whole book on 22 CDs).  The parts are most beautifully read by Jim Norton – who sounds as versatile as Peter Sellers in the brothel sequence – and Marcella Riordan.  Almost a quarter of the book is there, including Chapter 1, the Gertie MacDowell sequence, the brothel scene, and Molly’s soliloquy.  This will introduce you to the rhythms of the language and to the humour of the author.

Then, get a text of large type that you are comfortable with – either electronic, or the Penguin’s Student Edition, which has full notes at the back.

Finally, if you want to get to the marrow – or if you would rather have some than none – try concentrating on the Bloom parts and read Chapters 4-8, 10-13 and 15, 16 and 18, and then read Chapters 1-3, 9, 14 and 17 at your leisure.  An alternative tactic – one that works well with Ring Cycle novices – is to start with items that you are confident that you will be at home with – Gertie and the brothel scene, perhaps– and then read the rest.

If all else fails there is the 22 CD full set, and you will be selling yourself very short if you quit this world without at least listening to the 4 CDs of excerpts.

Someone made a remark about Milton to the effect that it was a wonder that his erudition did not crush his poetic genius.  We might say much the same for Joyce.  It is obvious that we are in the presence of a mind of extraordinary power, and in his seven years of cataloguing one day in the life of an ordinary man, Joyce has left us as enduring a testament to our humanity as we have known.

In her fine short life of Joyce, Edna O’Brien recalled the remark that as Joyce got older, he looked like Dante who had lost the keys to his own inferno.  There is little wonder.  The effort of bringing forth monuments like this book must be man-killing.  In his series Civilization, Kenneth Clark was lost in wonder at Michelangelo, and he saw the hero as artist.  We might be lost in wonder at Ulysses, and we might see the artist James Joyce as hero.  We would not be denigrating the Renaissance Italian man to say that the modern Irish man is entitled to stand as hero on the same plane.


MY TOP SHELF – Chapter 15


[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]




Ben Hogan (1957)

Golf Digest Classics, 1985; foreword by Nick Seitz; drawings by Anthony Ravielli; rebound in quarter beige leather with sage label embossed in gold ‘Ben Hogan’ with stone canvass boards.

They tend to think of it as something unique in itself, something almost inspired you might say, since the shot [a two iron of 200 yards to an elusive well-trapped plateau green] was just what the occasion called for.  I don’t see it that way at all.  I didn’t hit that shot then – that late afternoon at Merion.  I had been practising that shot since I was 12 years old.  After all, the point of tournament golf is to get command of a swing which, the more pressure you put on it, the better it works.

Paratroopers are endlessly drilled on procedures to follow when jumping from a plane.  The idea is that any fear that they may have will not overcome their training.  This is just a variant of the basic military idea of drilling and disciplining men so that they will do as they have been trained to no matter how stressful the occasion might be.  This was the idea that Ben Hogan brought to golf.  He became its most successful player because he was its most practised and disciplined.  Over countless hours, days, weeks and months, he planed his swing and machined himself like a tool.

Peter Thompson, five times winner of the British Open, once saw Hogan hit the flag-stick with shots to the 13th and 14th greens at the Masters.  Thompson marvelled that Hogan ‘really played a different brand of golf.  There’s never been anybody like him, and I don’t think there ever will be….He was our unreachable ideal.’  That ideal has at least been reached by Jack Nicklaus, but that is all.

All games are difficult to teach.  Golf certainly is.  You cannot do it with a book, but drowning desperadoes will seek solace anywhere, much like a terminally ill patient will turn to voodoo.  What keeps drawing golfers of all levels back to this book are the wonderful drawings of Anthony Ravielli.  Like great art and inspired thought, they immediately look to be obviously correct and simple and within the reach of any one – and so it is until you put the ball down and you can feel people hold their breath as you drive from the tee or watch the ball take a wobble that you did not expect in a simple four foot putt.

Some person claiming to be wise once said that that which does not kill us leaves us stronger.  Where does that leave the rape of a golf shot or of a golf course?  Ben Hogan does not succeed in communicating the incommunicable, but at least the drawings offer hope, if not solace.