[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.

Passing bull 182 – Political cant gone tropo


But away from the Beltway, mainstream Australians might be less interested in internal politicking, insider sneering and partisan point-scoring, and more interested that a dynamic and high profile indigenous advocate has thrown his lot in with the Prime Minister’s government and offered himself for election.

The Australian, 24 January, 2018

The poor fellow does not understand that the whole article, and his whole oeuvre, comes from the Beltway, and is about ‘internal politicking, insider sneering and partisan point-scoring.’


Australia Day is a significant national day for our country.  People come to our country to flee violence, to have their kids educated, to grow up in a civil society and we shouldn’t be afraid to celebrate it.

The Australian, 25 January, 2018

Herr Dutton did not pause to enlighten us about how he welcomes people who come to our country to flee violence.  This is the new World Land Speed Record for bullshit and chutzpah.

Here and there -Political Instability – And the Sad Passing of Conservatism – Then and Now


Political stability is a consummation devoutly to be desired.  How quickly may we lose it?

Professor J H (later, Sir Jack) Plumb delivered the Ford Lectures at Oxford in 1965.  They were published in 1967 as The Growth of Political Stability in England 1675-1725.  In them, Plumb said that lasting political stability was not common until recently and that ‘it is certainly far rarer than revolution.’  He defined political stability as –

…the acceptance by society of its political institutions, and of those classes of men who control them.

Instability comes from ‘conspiracy, plot, revolution and civil war’.  Plumb thought that political instability came in England because of three things –

….single party government; the legislature firmly under executive control; and a sense of common identity in those who wielded economic, social, and political power.

Since we now see political instability in England, America and Australia, especially in those parties that brand themselves ‘conservative’, we might learn from Plumb’s account of the arrival of stability.

There is one warning.  Anyone who thinks that the Whig v Tory divide might resemble the split between the two major parties in any of the three nations now is dead wrong.  The old concept is as simple as that of the Holy Trinity.  (Upon the arrival in England of the Germans (Hanoverians) in the person of George I, Sir Lewis Namier said that the ‘Tory gentlemen worshipped the Throne and loathed the Court, believed in authority and disliked Government…..expressing these contradictory feelings in harmless fancies about the ‘King over the water’, a royalty uncontaminated by administration.’  Try threading that needle with a knight of the shire after a few snifters in front of the fire after the hunt – while remembering the terminal penalty for treason.)


Migrant nations have become familiar with the resentment of migrants, especially among those who have missed out on the glittering prizes in their new home.  They see newcomers as trespassers on their property, as threats to what they have achieved.  (Our common law started with arguments over the forms of writs, and the earliest, and most fruitful form of writ was the writ of trespass, the word that figures in the King James Version of the Lord’s Prayer.)  Those protesting against migrants sense that the migrants are debasing or diluting the currency of their citizenship – which might be their most valuable asset in their nation – and threatening to deprive them of a livelihood that is already precarious.  What you get is the syndrome ‘kick away the ladder.’

This issue often figures in what is called ‘nationalism’ – like America First – and is often a front for something worse.  People who want to puff out their chests about their nation often puff out their chests about themselves.  In their grosser form, you get megalomaniacs like Mussolini and Trump.

For some people – again those who are not among life’s winners – the colour of their skin is an asset that that allows them to fulfil a need to put some people beneath them on the social ladder.  These crude and nasty instincts are fanned – for profit – by those parts of the press that we least admire.

The Tory party would eventually lead to the Conservative party.  The ancestors of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage did not like foreigners.  (For a while England had a Naturalization Act.)  The dislike of outsiders, Plumb instructs us, was rife among country Tories.  ‘Xenophobia was a very strong concomitant of Toryism.’  If you wanted to find a closet Tory, you just had to mention the Dutch.  Of course, the French later became the bête noire of the Englishand General de Gaulle did all in his power to keep them there – to the extent that de Gaulle may be honoured as the spiritual founder of Brexit.  His rank ingratitude has come back to bite Europe on the bum.


The tags Whig and Tory did not so much stand for differences on policy, but different attitudes about how to get and handle the levers of power.  In the time we speak of, England ran on what they called patronage and what we call corruption.  ‘The vote was the basic coin for traffic in influence.’  But, then as now, if political parties stand for too little or too much, they splinter.  The death word is faction.  Without a strong, rooted balance of power, a party is exposed to the cancer of faction.  The result is, almost by definition, incoherence.  The party has to confront the proposition that if it cannot govern itself, it cannot govern the nation.  That is precisely the problem faced by the soi disant conservative parties in our three nations.  The plots and conspiracies in Australia have acquired an aura of vaudeville.

Walpole is seen now as England’s first prime minister.  He had a genius for managing the business of government.  Someone called him the greatest bomb-disposal expert in history.  ‘Walpole created a centre of gravity at the heart of the administration.’  Previous monarchs had not achieved that and ‘every Cabinet from 1689 to 1714 rapidly disintegrated into faction; their composition rarely remained stable for more than a year.’

We have seen that in the U K and here, and it looks very likely that the political pressure that is about to be applied to the Republicans will see them go the same way.  They have so far shown an appalling lack of moral fibre in allowing a political brute to trash almost every part of their political dispensation.

What is different in Australia is that two generations ago all the factions, cranks and crooks were on the other side of politics.  Now they are on the so called conservative side, and you can watch their inanity being aerated every night on Sky News or each morning with The Australian as Rupert Murdoch inflicts on the land of his birth the lesions he has so sadly inflicted on the land of his choice.


It follows a fortiori that a government that cannot control its parliament or congress is by definition unstable.  Trump now finds himself in a position similar to that of the prime minister of the U K and Australia.  Both got where they are faute de mieux after a squalid faction fight and each looks both transient and wobbly – the antithesis of the required centre of gravity.

Plumb tells us that after 1601, the Commons were ‘fundamentally out of hand – difficult to screw money from and a hotbed of criticism; no one could manage them for long, neither James I, Charles I, Cromwell, nor Charles II.’  They were in truth king-baiters from hell.  (In another work, Plumb memorably said of the arrival of George I: ‘He was not in any way enamoured of his new subjects.  They had an evil reputation amongst monarchs for shiftiness. He was aware that most of the noblemen who fawned on him at his arrival had dabbled in treason.’)

All three nations have taken the benefit of the English settling their constitution in dealing with the caprices of the Stuarts, but blood and pain had to be drawn to achieve that settlement.  Seventeenth century England is a terrible lesson of a parliament out of control.  And that’s without looking at the mayhem in the outliers.


Failures in the political system have a snowball effect.  People lose respect for institutions that have caused or at least allowed these fissures to open up.  People then tend to align themselves by interest in distinct groups rather than as a citizen of the nation or a member or supporter of a party.

Plumb spoke of ‘a sense of common identity’ by those who wield power and the acceptance of the institutions and those who control them.  All that has gone clean out the window in Australia – and it does not look healthy elsewhere.  There is scarcely a political, religious, business or sporting body that does not have a dark cloud hanging over it.

An outsider might be forgiven for thinking that only the planet is worth conserving – but it is precisely on this issue that self-proclaimed ‘conservatives’ have betrayed us and themselves – morally, intellectually, and politically.  England’s dull, imported Hanoverian kings were better with logic and science than our native born dunces.  It’s OK for the shock jocks – they are just there for the lucre and their vanity.  But have our would-be statesmen no care for the rest of us?  Nor does it help that their most voluble stooge, the IPA, covertly gets its gelt from Madam Coalminer Extraordinaire.


Scare tactics have been known since Pisistratus, but Walpole brought them to a form of squalid perfection.  There is an appeal – overt or covert – to that bad actor called patriotism.  Plumb says:

Patriotism, almost xenophobic in its intensity, had long been regarded by the Tories as one of their own sacred principles; it was an emotion, they half believed, that no one could feel so intensely as themselves.  Hence, if Walpole could reveal, not once but time and again, that leading Tories were involved in treason, he knew the effect would baffle many a country squire proud of his Englishry, and draw him to support the Crown.

The bogeyman then was called Jacobitism – the prince across the water, the threatened return of the Stuarts and the Church of Rome, and a return to the hell of the previous century.

And of course, accusations of Jacobitism were extremely useful at elections….Like McCarthyism in our own time [they] generated public fear and sapped the will to oppose.

The bogeyman now is Islam and it is a sitting duck for brutal bullies because it is even less coherent than its pursuers – and given the unhinged hysteria of Trump about a migrant caravan, that is no small suggestion.  Ruling by fear itself leads to instability, because it demeans the institutions that permit or require it.


Now for the bad news for those who call themselves conservatives.

But, first, what is there left in the name ‘conservative’?  How may that word be usefully applied in a welfare state facing the slow death of churches and the fading of once grand institutions?  Plumb was after all speaking of a time more than two centuries before the evolution of the welfare state in England.  Some ‘conservatives’ say they want small government.  Well, the role of government was very much smaller in England before they set up their jails down here.  This was a time of which Lord Shelburne could say, offhandedly enough: ‘Providence has so organised the world that very little government is necessary.’  England then was just like a well-run cricket club, and you were OK as long as you played cricket.

To return to the bad news:

It is necessary to stress this moral collapse….. the Tory party was destroyed, destroyed by its incompetent leadership, by the cupidity of many of its supporters, by its own internal contradictions; weakened by its virtues and lashed by events, it proved no match for Walpole…..It failed to provide an effective barrier to Walpole’s steady progress towards a single-party state.

Walpole, Plumb says, made ‘the world so safe for the Whigs that they stayed in power for a hundred years.’

Only a very robust and blithe member of the Conservative, Republican or Liberal Party could now suppress a heart tremor on this recall of history.  Can they divorce themselves from one word of the above citation?  In stressing the ‘moral collapse’, Plumb was warning us of the weakness of character and failure of nerve that is destroying political parties in our time.  It’s a shame that more historians don’t bite that bullet – au fond, political issues involve moral issues.


Now for some worse news.  So far we have sought to find guidance from Sir Jack Plumb in looking at our current instability here and elsewhere.  But Plumb did not have to confront what some see as our biggest problem.  The English were and are beset by caste as well as class.  We do not have the first problem as a matter of law: and for the most part, we do not have much of the second problem as a matter of fact.

But we have a huge worry with inequality of wealth and income – that looks to keep getting worse.  A bank teller may be paid one hundredth of what her boss gets paid – and that pay is likely to go up by his firing more people like her.

Any social group must rest on an implied and shared assumption of fairness, decency, and tolerance.  The bank teller cannot retain any faith that that assumption still holds good.  If that is right, our ship of state is in very dangerous waters.  Since at least 1789, people espousing what some are pleased to call Western civilisation have been committed to some form of equality.  If our want of it is too great or painful, the result is not just instability, but revolution.

‘Identity politics’ is a vogue but shifty phrase.  (What else underpins trade unions, churches, cricket clubs, towns, party politics, or nations?)  But if you want to see how all hell breaks loose when a group of people come together out of interest at the unfairness of their lot in life, have a look at the sans-culottes – roughly, blue collar ‘tradies’ – in France after 1789.  Just look at how they doted on Robespierre, then they rejected him, then they slew him, and then they forgot him.  Bored with mere lynchings, they had turned to the guillotine, then the Committee of Public Safety, and then the Terror.  They were plainly not our first terrorists, but they did terrify people by killing others.  They killed to avoid being killed.  And they did so in the name of equality – or what some call justice.

Too many people in political parties that were once truly conservative are now flirting with the mob – or, if you prefer, the gutter.  My dad didn’t have much truck with politicians, but he said to me more than once: ‘Son, if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.’

And if there is one thing that is transcendentally clear about the nature of conservatism, it is that people who claim to be under that umbrella while indulging the mob – while looking warmly at Hanson, Abbott, Farage, Johnson or Trump – are not just deluding themselves, they are spitting in the face of the history of mankind – if not of God.

In truth, the crowds that cheer on Farage and Trump have a lot in common with the crowds that cheered on Jack Cade and Barabbas.

Here and there – The vendetta before Hamlet


We can see the dawn of our laws not in Eden but in our felt need to control the vendetta – unless the law intervenes, a blood feud may have no end.  If the law helped to contain the vendetta, then a failure of the law to deliver justice to the family of the victim may well see a revival of self-help.  We can see that word for word in the beginning of The Godfather.

Homer saw the vicious the cycle.  Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, elopes to Troy.  The Greeks, led by King Agamemnon, the brother of Menelaus, want to go after her.  This is the Trojan War, the subject of the Iliad.  The gods hold them up.  Agamemnon is persuaded to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia so that his boats can sail for Troy.  After the war, his wife, Clytemnestra, who has taken Aegisthus as a lover, kills Agamemnon to avenge the death of a daughter.  Then her son, Orestes, with another daughter, Electra, kills Clytemnestra to avenge his father.  And so the vendetta goes on.  This theme is treated by the three great tragedians of ancient Greece – Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles.

Beowulf is replete with the blood feud – that is one reason we refer to that time as the Dark Age.

In Hamlet, the king is murdered by his brother who then speedily marries the widow.  The child of the marriage, Hamlet, is revolted by the conduct of both his uncle and his mother.  Her descent into those ‘incestuous sheets’ makes him ill.  Then the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells the young prince that his brother killed him and that Hamlet must avenge his death.

Was Hamlet morally obliged or entitled to kill the king to avenge his father? A C Bradley apparently thought so.  A Mafia don may feel it now.  But this was not the Dark Ages.  There are exchanges of students to fine German universities.  The royal family is firmly Christian.  Would they still be wedded to the vendetta?

Surely, no.  The answer is given by Tony Tanner.  (I know I have referred often to this before, but the point is worth it.)  Tanner described how western tragedy began two thousand five hundred years ago.  A play, the first in a trilogy, begins with a troubled guard on a battlement on a castle where the people live in disquiet.  A member of a ruling family has to avenge a murder.  Shortly before he executes his mother, Orestes pauses.  But not for long.

The play Hamlet is at the birth of modern drama nearly two thousand years later. It opens in the same way with a guard on a battlement over an unquiet people.  The hero again pauses before taking revenge.  But this time the pause lasts for nearly the whole play. Why?  ‘Because between Aeschylus and Shakespeare, something has taken place which permanently changed the western mind – namely, Christianity and, more particularly for the Elizabethans, the Reformation.’

Tanner went on to say out that although the Greeks dwelt on guilt, they had no word for conscience (a word that occurs seven times in Hamlet).

How, then, did the Greeks handle the vendetta?

The first in time is the trilogy of Aeschylus called The Oresteia.  Agamemnon deals with the murder of the husband; The Libation Bearers deals with the murder of the father; and The Eumenidies seeks to offer a solution – a court of law.  The difference to Hamlet is almost absurd here.  Having butchered the lover, Aegisthus, Orestes turns to his mother, Clytemnestra.  She reminds Orestes that she suckled him as a child.  Orestes pauses and asks his friend what he should so.  Should he be ‘shamed to kill his mother’?  His friend reminds Orestes of the oracles and their oaths in three lines.  Orestes then says:

I judge that you win.  Your advice is good.

Orestes tells his mother:

You killed and it was wrong.  Now suffer wrong.

Now madness is at hand.  Orestes is pursued by the furies of his mother – ‘the bloodhounds of his mother’s hate.’  The play ends:

Where is the end?  Where shall the fury of fate

Be stilled to sleep, be done with?

The Orestes of Aeschylus was, then, a different cup of tea to Hamlet

It is not quite so with Euripides.  His Orestes opens after the murder.  Electra tells Helen that Orestes killed himself when he killed his mother.  Orestes explains his sickness:

I call it conscience.  The certain knowledge of wrong, the conviction of crime..I mean remorse.  I am sick with remorse.

(I am not qualified to warrant the validity of the word ‘conscience’ there in light of the remark of Tony Tanner, but we are reminded that in all translations we are asked to take a lot on trust.)  Orestes had already prefigured the injunction given to Hamlet when he told Electra:

I think now

If I had asked my dead father at the time

If I should kill her, he would have begged me,

Gone down on his knees before me and pleaded,

Implored me not to take my mothers life.

What had we to gain by murdering her?

Later he says he was ordered by a god, Apollo, to commit the murder.  This leads him to this question.  ‘Was he [the god] competent to command a murder, but now incompetent to purge the guilt?’  That is a very fair question for that god.

The father of Clytemnestra can recall when they did things better:

Where I want to know, can this chain

Of murder end?  Can it ever end in fact

Since the last to kill is doomed to stand

Under permanent sentence of death by revenge?

Their ancestors banished the murderers and bound them to silence.  ‘They purged their guilt by banishment, not death.  And by so doing, they stopped that endless vicious cycle of murder and revenge.’  After that, the play takes a dive in tone.  Orestes says ‘I can never have my fill of killing whores’, and in trying to escape judgment for their crime, they plot to murder Helen and take her daughter Hermione hostage,

Euripides also had an Electra , but you get the Full Monty of the vendetta with Sophocles.  Electra is waiting for the return of Orestes to avenge her father’s death.

Come, how when the dead are in question,

Can it ever be honourable to forget?….

What sort of days do you imagine

I spend, watching Aegisthus sitting

On my father’s throne, watching him wear

My father’s self-same robes, watching him

At the hearth where he killed him, pouring libations?….

She [Clytemnestra] is so daring that she paramours

This foul polluted creature and fears no fury…..

But I am waiting for Orestes’ coming,

Waiting forever for the one who will stop

All our wrongs.  I wait and wait and die.

For his eternal going-to-do-something

Destroys my hopes, possible and impossible.

Now, there is a whole lot of Hamlet there – not least the sexual jealousy.  And while Hamlet feigned madness to give himself cover, Orestes put it out that he was dead – and sent an urn with his remains to his sister.  So, our heroes were cruel to those they loved – they were cruelled by their mission.  (The other phrase you see is pathei pathos or ‘suffering brutalises’.)

When Electra realises that she is in truth talking to a very much alive brother, we have one of the great set pieces of our stage.  It is wonderfully handled here by this great playwright.  Electra then taunts her mother before her death with the deadly steel that Queen Margaret applied to the Duke of York.  The Chorus says:

The courses are being fulfilled

Those under the earth are alive;

Men long dead draw from their killers

Blood to answer blood.

Electra asks Orestes ‘Is the wretch dead?’  There is then more icy dramatic irony – or the blackest humour – when Orestes leads Aegisthus, who is next to die, to believe that the corpse in the shroud is that of himself rather than that of Clytemnestra.  Orestes endorses justice on all who act above the law – ‘justice by killing.’

In Euripides’ version, Orestes does pause before the horror of killing his own mother.  Then he said he covered his eyes before sinking the steel in her neck.  Electra also put her hand to the sword.  Then Orestes is horrified by his deed.  ‘My god, how, how she bent to earth the legs which I was born through?’  But Orestes has a line that is straight Hamlet: ‘What must I do to punish the murderer and purify my mother from adultery?’  (And, yes, when there is adultery, it is always Mum who needs purifying; a quiet word is usually enough for Dad.)

When first rereading the two relevant plays of Euripides for this note, I thought that he had got too close to Neighbours and The Untouchables.  If sympathy for the hero is essential in tragedy, these plays have problems.  But two translators in the Folio edition have changed my mind.  As we saw, these plays are set after the law had provided a remedy.  Orestes and Electra now look petty or vicious – Germaine Greer saw ‘a shared craziness.’

This Orestes is aptly compared with another difficult play, Troilus and Cressida –‘tragedy utterly without affirmation, an image of heroic action seen as botched, disfigured and sick, carried along by the machinery and slogans of heroic action in a steady crescendo of biting irony and the rage of exposure.’  That is spot on for Troilus. Unloveliness pervades both plays, but when Orestes is set in what we would call modern times, we can see the characters for what they are.  Both children look more worried about lifestyle than morality.  Orestes, like Hamlet, has a grudge that his dynastic leanings have been crushed, and the plays raise an alternative motive – if the children don’t get Aegisthus, he will get them.  (And Claudius did go after Hamlet.)

But you get this sense of bourgeois tawdriness that roused one critic to say ‘Electra is a self-pitying slattern, Orestes a timid ruffian, Clytemnestra a suburban clubwoman, Aegisthus a courteous and popular ruler, the murders as dastardly as conceivable.’  The neighbours at Elsinore don’t look so bad now.

That, then, is in part how the Greek tragedians looked at the vendetta.  Two things.  First, none of these three great playwrights seeks to excuse the vendetta – Electra does not see that she is committing precisely the crime for which she seeks to punish her mother, and Orestes is at best cloudy on that point.  Secondly, we will never know if Hamlet would ever have obeyed the ghost.  When he returns to Denmark, he has enough evidence to slot the king, but Hamlet kills him because in seeking to kill Hamlet, the king had just killed Hamlet’s mother.

The two worlds were very different.  The Sophocles Electra is very high theatre; it is great theatre.  Little wonder that Strauss built an opera on it.  We hardly see either version.  One reason may be that this Electra at times makes The Godfather look like Snow White.  Sometimes we may just want to steer clear of those dark lakes lying in all of us.  And we must recall that the Greeks got into trouble with a human sacrifice to start a pointless war when they got the vapours about the fall of a Greek wife to a man of an inferior race.

The heroic code and chivalric ideal take heavy hits in these Greek plays and Troilus.  They may then be plays for our times when truth has gone clean out the window and people smirk at plain human kindness.  In his note on Troilus, Tony Tanner spoke of the ‘great meltdown of distinctions and values.’  It was chivalry versus barbarism.  Troilus is a ‘sour and abrasive’ play in which ‘rampant appetite is allowed free rein’.  That goes for these Greek plays.  And in Troilus, it is the Greeks in the black hats.  How stands it with us?