Just for fun: “Cold Comfort Farm” (1932)

Hilarious after all these years!

I have been rereading Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm with great pleasure, especially while assisting someone doing a study of Jane Austen’s Emma and the movie Clueless. In common to all three is a young woman bent on tidying up the lives of those around her. Flora Poste in CCF has rather more success.

I think Thomas Hardy and D H Lawrence rather than Austen while reading the novel, even if the real objects of Gibbons’s parody are rather less well known than those three. What fun it all still is!

When sensible, sophisticated Flora Poste is orphaned at nineteen, she decides her only choice is to descend upon relatives in deepest Sussex. At the aptly named Cold Comfort Farm, she meets the doomed Starkadders: cousin Judith, heaving with remorse for unspoken wickedness; Amos, preaching fire and damnation; their sons, lustful Seth and despairing Reuben; child of nature Elfine; and crazed old Aunt Ada Doom, who has kept to her bedroom for the last twenty years. But Flora loves nothing better than to organize other people. Armed with common sense and a strong will, she resolves to take each of the family in hand. A hilarious and merciless parody of rural melodramas, Cold Comfort Farm (1932) is one of the best-loved comic novels of all time.When sensible, sophisticated Flora Poste is orphaned at nineteen, she decides her only choice is to descend upon relatives in deepest Sussex. At the aptly named Cold Comfort Farm, she meets the doomed Starkadders: cousin Judith, heaving with remorse for unspoken wickedness; Amos, preaching fire and damnation; their sons, lustful Seth and despairing Reuben; child of nature Elfine; and crazed old Aunt Ada Doom, who has kept to her bedroom for the last twenty years. But Flora loves nothing better than to organize other people. Armed with common sense and a strong will, she resolves to take each of the family in hand. A hilarious and merciless parody of rural melodramas, Cold Comfort Farm (1932) is one of the best-loved comic novels of all time.

You may read Chapter One here.

One of my Facebook regular sources, Wordnik, offers a list of words from the novel. “Mollocking” is included. From Wikipedia:

The speech of the Sussex characters is a parody of rural dialects (in particular Sussex and West Country accents — another parody of novelists who use phonics to portray various accents and dialects) and is sprinkled with fake but authentic-sounding local vocabulary such as mollocking (Seth’s favourite activity, undefined but invariably resulting in the pregnancy of a local maid), sukebind (a weed whose flowering in the spring symbolises the quickening of sexual urges in man and beast; the word is presumably formed by analogy to ‘woodbine’, honeysuckle and bindweed), scranletting (ploughing), and clettering (an impractical method used by Adam for washing dishes, which involves scraping them with a dry twig or clettering stick).

The writing style often deliberately includes convoluted and overwrought prose with strained metaphors: Gibbons indicates some of the more deliberately purple passages with asterisks.

Taking in rather than giving out

Lately I have been taking stuff in rather than giving stuff out. After a pause for a joke courtesy of Wilson’s Blogmanac, I shall explain.


Love it!


I finished the Great Big New Book. (See from the Melbourne Writers Festival, August 2009 a video on Slow TV: Where to, Democracy?: John Keane in conversation with Lindsay Tanner.)  I am much taken by Keane’s analysis of three stages of democracy: assembly; representative; monitory.

Currently I am enjoying and learning much from David Crystal’s The stories of English (2004).

Reading from Vanity Fair I downloaded recently: Betting on the Blind Side by Michael Lewis.

Michael Burry always saw the world differently—due, he believed, to the childhood loss of one eye. So when the 32-year-old investor spotted the huge bubble in the subprime-mortgage bond market, in 2004, then created a way to bet against it, he wasn’t surprised that no one understood what he was doing. In an excerpt from his new book, The Big Short,the author charts Burry’s oddball maneuvers, his almost comical dealings with Goldman Sachs and other banks as the market collapsed, and the true reason for his visionary obsession.


My TV has carked, so my viewing at the moment is via the laptop, and what treasures I have found to download.

Slow TV

Maintained by the people who bring you The Monthly, Slow TV is rich pickings indeed. That I am a fan of Waleed Aly has been confirmed by watching his What’s Right? Waleed Aly on Conservatism. With Shaun Carney. So brilliant that man, and he confirms that I am also a conservative (in the long forgotten sense) at heart myself.

Documentary Heaven

Another treasure trove. Lately I caught up with Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story (2009). Unfortunately the copy I downloaded is missing the final minutes, but there enough there to confirm that the greatest thing about the doco is the stories people tell, many of which in their concrete way give the lie to so much far more effectively than generalised ranting does. Matt Da Silva has a recent post on it.

Moore said that in the new film he tried to make something that would ensure he never got another gig ever again. This is confronting. But so is the story he tells in it. In fact, it’s a set of stories that point to a bankrupt system of governance.

Democracy is not well served when executives from large banks are invited to participate in reform of regulation, Moore says. It is not well served when airline pilots are underpaid. It is depleted when corporations take out life-insurance policies on employees whose families, when the employees die, get nothing.

Democracy suffers when ordinary people are given loans at low interest and are unable to pay the interest after the interest rate suddenly ramps up at the end of a teaser period that they didn’t know about because it was buried in the fine print…

In Australia there were defaults but we didn’t get so many defaults because we have regulation that is adequate for its purpose – that is, preventing financial meltdown. But we still suffered for it. We’re still seeing, now, the federal opposition throw dirt on the government for having let the exchequer go into the red.

What the boys on the opposition benches never tell us, however, is that it was a conservative, neo-liberal, Republican government in America that allowed the situation to get so bad that the value of some major US companies dropped by 50 percent in a very short period of time. The US government became the world’s second-largest carmaker in the aftermath of the implosion. Those who enjoy Moore’s iconoclastic style will get a kick out of this movie. It is funny, fact-based, uncompromising, and wise. It tells stories that nobody else tells…


Well there is so much on offer from Aunty! Lately I have taken some items from Message Stick, for tutoring as well as personal reasons.

Intriguing fiction

  1. Dale Peck, What We Lost (2004) –USA smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005
  2. Tony Pollard, The Secrets of the Lazarus Club (2009 pb) – UK smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005
  3. Maria Quinn, The Gene Thieves (2009) – Australia smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005  smiley-happy005

Dale Peck, What We Lost.

220px-9.13.09DalePeckByLuigiNovi Not everyone loves Dale Peck, nor apparently does Peck love many of those he reviews.

With the emergence of the ridiculous Dale Peck, the method of Wieseltier’s literary salon reached its reductio ad absurdum. Peck smeared the walls with shit, and bankrupted their authority for all time to come. So many forms of extremism turn into their opposite at the terminal stage. Thus the New Republic‘s supposed brief for dry, austere, high-literary value—manifesting itself for years in a baffled rage against everything new or confusing—led to Peck’s auto-therapeutic wetness (as self-pity is the refuge of bullies) and hatred of classic modernism (which, to philistines, will always be new and confusing).  — Source.

The scope of Peck’s contempt is wide. He has no more regard for his elders than for his contemporaries. The modernist tradition, he writes, ”began with the diarrheic flow of words that is ‘Ulysses,’ continued on through the incomprehensible ramblings of late Faulkner and the sterile inventions of Nabokov, and then burst into full, foul life in the ridiculous dithering of Barth and Hawkes and Gaddis, and the reductive cardboard constructions of Barthelme, and the word-by-word wasting of a talent as formidable as Pynchon’s; and finally broke apart like a cracked sidewalk beneath the weight of the stupid — just plain stupid — tomes of DeLillo.” Not even the masters of the 19th-century realist novel are spared; in a 1999 interview, Peck called Dickens ”the worst writer to plague the English language.”

The question arises: Why should we care what Dale Peck thinks? The short answer is, He’s interesting. Not only has he managed to get himself talked about (”Dale Peck is the Michael Ovitz of the literary world,” says the literary agent Bonnie Nadell); he has managed to stir up a debate over the practice of book reviewing — its status, its value, its effect on our literary culture. ”Peck may not be right about his scorched-earth policy,” the novelist Jeffrey Eugenides has said. ”But his essay moves the discussion from the small idea (is this a good book or not?) to the large one (where should literature be headed?). – Source.

What We Lost occupies a space between non-fiction and fiction.

In the haunting new book by the acclaimed author of Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye, a young man must choose between his troubled family and the new home he loves. Dale Peck, Sr., grew up poor in rural Long Island in the 1950s, sharing a one-room house with seven brothers and sisters, an abusive mother, and an alcoholic father haunted by his past. When, at fourteen, Dale is more or less kidnapped by his father and taken to his uncle’s farm in upstate New York, the change wrought by the move is remarkable. Thriving on the farm, Dale develops a loving relationship with his uncle Wallace, and for the first time he knows contentment. But when Dale’s mother demands that he return, he is forced to choose between his broken family and the land and uncle he has come to love. It is a decision that will determine his future and the legacy he will pass on to his own son. What We Lost is a coming-of-age story that startles in its immediacy and lack of sentimentality. Refracting his father’s past through the prism of his own vivid imagination, the author Dale Peck forges a bridge between generations and reveals the dark secrets at the heart of family.

Reviewers, professional or not, are divided about this book. I found it beautifully written and very moving.

Tony Pollard, The Secrets of the Lazarus Club

9780141035895 Prologue

The waterman whistled as he pulled on the oars, his small craft carrying him slowly but steadily upstream along Limehouse Reach. He’d set out from Greenwich, across the river from southern tip of the Isle of Dogs, and then headed north, passing Millwall and pulling on beyond. The trip took in almost three miles of river, and it was his pitch. There were other watermen and other pitches but this was his and over the years he had come to know every eddy, backwash and mudflat and had long regarded it as home.

Pausing for a moment he tugged down the peak of his cap against a shower of rain which for a short while turned the brown surface of the water into a sheet of hammered copper. Around his feet were collected all manner of things: pieces of timber, lengths of rope, cork fenders, bottles, various sodden items of clothing and even a small chair. He didn’t care who they once belonged to; they were his now. He was employed by the bailiff to clear the river of obstacles to navigation but any stray object floating in the water within the bounds of his beat was legally his property once lifted aboard the boat. All very official it was: you only needed to look at his smart blue uniform to see that…

Favouring one oar over the other, the waterman manoeuvred the boat to the stern of the stationary vessels and with the long-poled boat hook in hand began to look for floating objects. Wedged between the barge in the middle and the skiff was a length of broken ladder, just long enough, he judged, to be of use again. After some difficulty in pulling it free he stowed it with the rest of the stuff. It was then he heard the noise, a scuffing and scratching interspersed with the odd sharp croak. Using the hook against the stern of the middle vessel, he nudged the small boat a little closer into shore. That was when he saw them.

Two scabrous-looking gulls were perched on something floating in the river but seemingly fastened to the lee board of the shoreward barge. They were squabbling over whatever it was the larger of the two was jealously clutching in its beak. It took the waterman a moment or two to realize that the birds were perched on the back of a dead body, the head having become wedged between the lee board and the hull. The corpse was white as a ghost and entirely naked. With its slender limbs and long hair spread out on the water like a dark weed it could only be a woman – that or a child…

It may well have a preposterous plot, as Alan Massie notes in his review, but I enjoyed it for the history behind it as much as for the tale, though that did engage my interest – as it did Massie’s:

Since Florence Nightingale also turns up at St Thomas’s, to the disgruntlement of the hospital’s chief, Sir Benjamin Brodie, and develops a relationship with Phillips, which however stops modestly short of physical expression, there are times when the novel recalls the Max Beerbohm character, name of Brown, who wrote a blank verse tragedy, "Savonarola", in which every well-known character of the Italian Renaissance made an appearance.

Murder, skullduggery and other dark doings abound. Novels of this type require gusto if they are to succeed, and there is certainly no lack of gusto here. The villains are suitably villainous, ingenious and ruthless, the virtuous suitably brave, the narrator suitably dogged and agreeably often in danger, both from the police and the villains.

No wonder Phillips lies on his bed "pondering my fate. Which was it to be? Loss of position; struck off as a doctor; thrown into prison or even lynched by the mob – the possibilities seemed endless". This is splendid stuff. No wonder that we find that hands are "blood-soaked" and a murderer can stand "steady as a monument, watching me through stone-cold eyes".

In short, this novel is a fine example of what Maurice Bowra called "the Higher Bogus". It’s full of intellectual quirks, lively speculation, and agreeable invention. I scarcely believed a word of it, but found it highly enjoyable. – Source.

Hence my rating.


Isambard Kingdom Brunel – linked image

If the author’s name seems familiar it is because he is a very famous archaeologist, lately involved in the battle site at Fromelles.

Maria Quinn, The Gene Thieves

Brilliant, lonely genetic scientist Piggy Brown is desperate for a child, but he′s in a tricky legal situation. Dancer is a lawyer with his own reasons for wanting to grant Piggy′s dearest wish — and he can set up Conjugal Contracts which push the envelope of the law.

Dancer visits The Nest, the official centre for surrogates, and inveigles them into recommending someone they have used before, someone who won’t ask too many questions about the baby she carries. But choosing a surrogate can be risky, and this one, Angela, comes with baggage: her own child, Molly, a six-year-old who has already seen too much of her mother′s world.

When a grotesque kidnapping occurs, everything is thrown into chaos and Jack Lee, Chief Investigator for the UN Ethical Science Council, decides it’s time to take charge of the case — for the sake of humanity’s future.

Set as you see in a not too distant future, this first novel raises all manner of intriguing ethical and scientific questions. From the author’s site comes this review.


Great big new book

I so admire the baby talk fashionable in current Australian politics that I thought I would join in. 😉 The big book is from Surry Hills Library.


Click for the book’s comprehensive web site.

smiley-happy005 smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005 John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy, Simon & Schuster 2009

History is often said to be a catalogue of human sorrows, an unending story of bootlicking, a slaughterhouse of crimes. It is not always so. The mould of cruel servitude can be shattered, as happened 2600 years ago, when Greeks living on the south-eastern fringes of Europe laid claim to an invention that now ranks in historical importance with the wheel, the printing press, the steam engine and the cloning of stem cells. Born of resistance to tyranny, their claimed invention at first caused no great stir. Few spotted its novelty. Some condemned it for bringing chaos into the world. Nobody predicted its universal appeal. It seemed simply to be part of the great cycle of human affairs – yet one more example of power struggles among foes. The invention was soon to be seen differently. It was to magnetise millions and to arouse passions on a world scale, understandably so, since it required human beings to picture themselves afresh, to live as they had never before lived. The invention was a potent form of wishful thinking that is still with us today: the Greeks called it dêmokratia.

Wishful thinking – the longing to bend the present world into a different and better future – is often mocked, but the plain fact is that it is a regular feature of the human condition. Whenever we refer to the world around us in language, we habitually allude to things that are absent. We conjecture, we say things that miss the mark, or that express yearnings for things to be other than they are. We live by our illusions. The language through which we speak is an unending series of short little dreams, in the course of which we sometimes fashion new ways of saying things, using words that are remarkably apposite, and strangely inspiring to others. The feminine noun dêmokratia was one of those tiny terms that sprang from a little dream, with grand effect. It was to rouse many millions of people in all four corners of the world – and give them a hand in getting a grip on their world by changing it in ways so profound that they remain undervalued, or misunderstood. In contrast to things whose names immortalise their inventors – newtons, Hoovers, Rubik’s Cubes for example – democracy has no known wordsmith. The roots of the family of terms that make up the language of democracy, and exactly where and when the word was first used, remain a mystery. Democracy carefully guards her secrets. Through the fog of the past only random clues appear, in the guise of wild-looking, ungroomed figures bearing suggestive names like Demonax of Mantinea, the bearded, robed, sandal-shod lawmaker who was summoned (around 550 BCE) by the women of the Oracle of Delphi to grant the people of Cyrene, a Greek-speaking farming town on the Libyan coast, the right to resist the tyranny of the limping, stuttering King Battus III, and the right to gather in their own assembly, to govern themselves, under their own laws.

Demonax may have been among the first public figures to describe himself as a friend of democracy, but we cannot be sure. Not one of his writings or speeches or laws has survived. That makes him a fitting symbol of the way democracy carefully guards her own mysteries against those who think they know her every way. The subject of democracy is full of enigmas, confusions, things that are supposed to be true. It harbours not a few surprises, including the certainty – this book shows for the first time – that it was not a Greek invention. The belief that democracy is or could be a universal Western value, a gift of Europe to the world, dies hard. That is why one of the first matters to be straightened out in any present-minded history of democracy is what might be described as the Greek plagiarism of democracy. The claim put forward within most Greek plays, poems and philosophical tracts, that fifth century Athens wins the prize for creating both the idea and the practice of democracy, seemed plausible to contemporaries. It continues until this day to be repeated by most observers. But it is false.

The Life and Death of Democracy, the first attempt to write a life and times of democracy for well over a century, shows that the little word democracy is much older than classical Greek commentators made out. Its roots are in fact traceable to the Linear B script of the Mycenaean period, seven to ten centuries earlier, to the late Bronze Age civilisation (c. 1500-1200 BCE) that was centred on Mycenae and other urban settlements of the Peloponnese. It is unclear exactly how and when the Mycenaeans learned to use the two-syllable word dâmos, to refer to a group of powerless people who once held land in common, or three-syllable words like damokoi, meaning an official who acts on behalf of the dâmos. What is also unclear is whether these words, and the family of terms we use today when speaking about democracy, have origins further east, for instance in the ancient Sumerian references to the dumu, the ‘inhabitants’ or ‘sons’ or ‘children’ of a geographic place. But these uncertainties are tempered by another remarkable discovery by contemporary archaeologists: it turns out that the democratic practice of self-governing assemblies is also not a Greek innovation. The lamp of assembly-based democracy was first lit in the ‘East’, in lands that geographically correspond to contemporary Syria, Iraq and Iran. The custom of popular self-government was later transported eastwards, towards the Indian subcontinent, where sometime after 1500 BCE, in the early Vedic period, republics governed by assemblies became common. The custom also travelled westwards, first to Phoenician cities like Byblos and Sidon, then to Athens, where during the fifth century BCE it was claimed as something unique to the West, as a sign of its superiority over the ‘barbarism’ of the East…

That is from the book’s introduction. John Keane will take up the position of Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney from July 2010.

See from the Melbourne Writers Festival, August 2009 a video on Slow TV: Where to, Democracy?: John Keane in conversation with Lindsay Tanner.

Great Big Fat Irony

If John Howard had been elected in 2007 we would now have an Emissions Trading Scheme.

English-speaking, yes; identical, no. USA/UK/Australia

One of the advantages of the current layout of this blog is that I can see so many posts at once on the front page. This makes a post like this much easier.

Back at Various finds and ruminations on … 4 (7 April) the subject was of course climate change, but a marvellously long debate ensued with, especially, Kevin from Louisiana. The arguing, needling and at times joking went on for days. It took an interesting if (superficially) irrelevant turn:

  • Kevin apologizing, sorta

    April 10, 2010

    I picked that up from your comments defending the Australians that don’t share their wealth like friendly Americans do. I’ll be happy to learn that I’m misinformed.

    Don’t lean on your ‘pensioner’ status too heavily. That just means that, assuming you didn’t plan well and are poor, that you’ve got more time than money on your hands. 10% of your time is even more powerful than 10% of your income. You can make a huge difference, albeit a hippie liberal one. Especially in a town as big as Sydney.

    Dangit, didn’t I say I was going to be less preachy? Apologies. Also, AGW is a scam.

  • Neil

    April 10, 2010

    “In Australia, the donation level is lower than the USA rate. This variance is largely due to differing social structures rather than a lack of fundamental generosity.”

    From the link you didn’t follow.

    You are right about donating time.

    We have strayed a long way from AGW, perhaps just as well. US-Australian difference is a good topic that I will post on soon. It isn’t appreciated enough, but is I think strongly felt here. See for example The United States vs Australia and The underdog.

  • Kevin apologizing, sorta

    April 10, 2010

    Heh. I’m sure the poor or starving people who don’t get any help from Australians will be happy to learn that it’s just because of ’social structures’.

  • Kevin no longer apologizing

    April 10, 2010

    Your worldview is retarded. I can’t make it any more clear than that.

  • Neil

    April 10, 2010

    You have the wrong end of the stick there, Kevin…

Differences between the USA and Australia

And so on. I have highlighted my two references above because I really do commend them as interesting. Nor are they heavy reads. Whether you agree or disagree with what you see there, you will find much to think about. For example:


Australia’s urban society commenced in an extremely polarised manner. On one end of the spectrum there were the "pure" settlers and on the other there were the Australians of convict descent. Unlike Australia, America’s urban society commenced in a relatively harmonious form. Pioneers found solidarity in their church groups.

With time, Australia has evolved to become relatively homogeneous while America has become extremely polarised. Although Australia has ideological divisions, these are no where near extreme as the ideological divisions in America that find expression in the Democrat and Republican Parties.

Australia became less polarised because it introduced political measures that made it difficult for extremists to gain political representation. Compulsory voting was one such measure. In America, voluntary voting means that the extremists are great assets to a political campaign. It is the extremists that get out to vote, and convince others to vote as well. To keep the extremists happy, the American political parties must pander to their interests, and this can result in a polarised society. In Australia; however, the extremists are not really important at all. The political party that they have chosen can simply take them for granted and ignore them. The party can then devote its resources on the swinging voters that will decide the election. As a consequence, it is the moderates from the middle-ground that need to be kept happy.  Consequently, both parties position themselves as moderates.

Preferential voting is another innovation that keeps extremists out of Australian parliament. The system forces voters to rank candidates in order of preference. When the ballots are collectively tallied, it is the candidate that is the least hated, rather than most liked, that represents the people. In the 1990s, the system kept the extremist Pauline Hanson out of parliament even though she won the most votes in her electorate.

The first paragraph is a bit of a wild generalisation about US history, mind you. And speaking of that, I have found a great read in Surry Hills Library.

ss10 Kathleen Burk, Old World, New World (Atlantic Monthly Press 2008)

Our close bond with Great Britain seems inevitable, given our shared language and heritage. But as distinguished historian Kathleen Burk shows in this groundbreaking history, the close international relationship was forged only recently, preceded by several centuries of hostility and conflict that began soon after the first English colony was established on the newly discovered continent.

Burk, a fourth-generation Californian and a professor of history in London, draws on her unrivaled knowledge of both countries to explore the totality of the relationship–the politics, economics, culture, and society–that both connected the two peoples and drove them apart. She tells the story from each side, beginning with the English exploration of the New World and taking us up to the present alliance in Iraq. She reveals the real motivations for settling North America, the factors that led to Britain’s losing the colonies, and the reasons why hawks in Congress took the two countries to war again in 1812.

Indeed, war between Britain and the United States loomed again later in the nineteenth century, and it took common enemies to bring them together in the twentieth. But the anchor of the alliance was human. Nineteenth-century British writers celebrated American energy while scorning its vulgarity; American writers appreciated the British sense of tradition while criticizing its aristocracy. Yet social reformers on both sides of the ocean worked together to end slavery and achieve female suffrage. Since 1945, the world has watched and wondered at the close bonds of the leaders–Kennedy and Macmillan, Reagan and Thatcher, and Bush and Blair.

The first joint history of its kind, Old World, New World is a vivid, absorbing, and surprising story of one of the longest international love-hate relationships in modern history.

Prize-winning too: Prof Kathleen Burk: Henry Adams Prize for Anglo-American history 2009.

Professor Kathleen Burk (UCL History) has won the Society for History in the Federal Government’s Henry Adams Prize 2008 for ‘Old World, New World’ (published by Little, Brown), which charts the relationship between Britain and America across four hundred years, from colonisation to the Iraq War.


The Henry Adams Prize recognises each a year an outstanding major publication that furthers the understanding and history of the US federal government, and demonstrates quality and thoroughness of research drawing on original and primary sources.

The prize will be formally presented to Professor Burk in Washington DC on 19 March 2009.

Professor Burk said: “The Society for History in the Federal Government have awarded me the Henry Adams Prize for 2008 for my book ‘Old World, New World: Great Britain and America From the Beginning’ – and it truly is from the beginning, covering from 1497, when John Cabot, a man from Bristol, ‘discovered’ North America, to March 2003, when Britain became a member of the ‘coalition of the willing’ in Iraq.

“I am particularly pleased that it is called the Henry Adams Prize.  Adams was part of a dynasty which produced a Founding Father, John Adams, who was also the second President of the United States; John Quincy Adams, sixth President and probably the US’s greatest Secretary of State; and Charles Francis Adams, the American Minister to Great Britain during the American Civil War. But Henry Adams was also arguably one of America’s greatest historians, and not the least of the pleasures involved in writing my book was the need to read all of his works.”

The Adams Prize commemorates the author of the classic multi–volume ‘History of the United States during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’. Adams completed his scholarly work in Washington, where he maintained close contact with the successors of federal officials whose activities he analysed in his history.

The Society for History in the Federal Government brings together government professionals with academics, students and others interested in fostering a better understanding of the federal government from a historical perspective.

For instance, Burk shows pretty convincingly that no-one actually won the War of 1812. Later she has a telling section on why social reform has been more difficult to achieve in the USA than in the UK – or Australia, for that matter, for similar reasons.

See also The Literary Review and The Independent.

Reading and rereading


smiley-happy005 smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005Christopher Potter, You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe (2009)

This is a great book. If anyone could enable me to understand the weird world of quantum physics it would be Potter. Yes, I had no trouble following what he had to say at the level of language, but my mind lagged behind somewhat. I felt more at home as we moved into DNA, the genome, and all that.

I must read it again! See Master of the universe – the backstory is fascinating.

Potter was a former mathematician and lover of literary fiction whose list of writers reflected his divided interests. But, after 19 years at the top of his profession and a quarter of a century in publishing, he had had enough. "I was miserable and I hated my job," he says. "I kept being given more and more responsibilities and I couldn’t bear it. Fourth Estate had been bought up by HarperCollins and I had been given a very good job, but almost every day I had panic attacks. I got absolutely terrified of going on the tube, which made going to work a daily ordeal.

"It turned out that I thought I was having panic attacks because, apparently, I was breathing too shallowly and that was affecting my pH balance, so my doctor told me to take a paper bag everywhere with me so I could breathe in and out of it more deeply. The difficult thing was to find a paper bag. Have you ever tried to find a paper bag these days?

"Looking back, my life had been reduced to a nub. The responsibility was too much and I didn’t have the space to be creative. I think, really, I had been doing the job for too long."

What followed, Potter says, was a mental and physical breakdown. "I was such a rationalist and materialist. I always joked with my American friends about how everyone there was in analysis. About two months after I had had a dinner in New York, where I was joking about how sceptical I was of analysis, I was in therapy."

Potter’s GP prescribed antidepressants. "I was on Valium and antidepressants for three months but I really didn’t want to be. I could feel the changing chemistry of my brain and that made me terrified.

"Eventually I ended up seeing an unorthodox therapist. She said: ‘You’re never going to be as bad as you are now.’ Which, I think, proved to be the most amazingly valuable insight. She did this amazing thing with my feet – what’s it called?" Reflexology? "That’s it. But it involved using little jars to create vacuums on the soles of my feet."

Potter shrugs at my sceptical look as we sit over coffee in his east London home: "All I can say is that it worked. I’m not going to claim that from a scientific perspective it made sense.”…

He decided to write a book that examined the mysteries of the universe. The result is You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe. It’s a book that encompasses relativity theory, quantum theory, evolutionary theory, the mind-boggling nature of antimatter, that reflects on the big bang, and wonders about the nature of being and the destiny of our species.

It is, I think, one of the best popular science books I have ever read. It fully lives up to the hype generated by the pre-publication reviews and by Stephen Fry’s blurb on the dustjacket: "A wonderful, miraculous book: the whole universe bottled for your delight."

But one of the reasons, I suspect, the book is so good is that it isn’t filled with scientific triumphalism or the kind of smug rationalism that may have been Potter’s shtick before his breakdown. Its last three, beautiful but frightening, sentences are: "We want to believe that things last for ever, whether it is love, life, God, or the laws of nature. But death, as Freud continually reminds us, is what certainty looks like. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to live in uncertainty for as long as we can bear it."

Potter, then, has written a book that concludes we are not the centre of the universe – it may well have been the breakdown that gave the book these deeply disturbing resonances.

smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005 Julian Baggini, The Duck that Won the Lottery (2008)

A very entertaining way to clear thinking. I was reading it as I wrote my recent climate change posts. 😉

Britain’s best-loved popular philosopher, provides another rapid-fire selection of short, stimulating and entertaining capsules of philosophy. This time the focus is on the bad arguments people use all the time, in politics, media and every day life. Each entry takes as its starting point an example of questionable reasoning, and Baggini, with characteristic clarity and wit, dissects the argument and then invites readers to do the same with other examples, and in their daily lives.
Catch your friends ‘loading the dice’, or broadcasters committing the ‘fallacy of the complex question’. Learn how to spot false dichotomies, gambler’s fallacies and un-flagrant contradictions, and add ‘slippery slopes’ and ‘post hoc fallacies’ to your rhetorical toolkit.

About Julian Baggini
Julian Baggini is the editor and co-founder of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His books include Do You Think What You Think You Think?, What’s It All About? – Philosophy and the Meaning of Life and the bestselling The Pig That Wants to be Eaten, all published by Granta Books.


smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005Richard J Evans, In Defence of History (1997)

This is an absolute favourite of mine. To quote the review on Butterflies and Wheels:

Richard J. Evans’ In Defense of History is an explanation of how historians do their work, but most of what he says is just as relevant to other forms of inquiry–which makes sense, because inquiry is the original meaning of the Greek word from which we get our word ‘history’. The distinction between facts and interpretation, and how one goes about both; the patchy nature of the evidence; primary versus secondary sources (consider the status of hearsay evidence in court); unnoticed preferences (such as a liking for reading printed archives rather than manuscripts) that can influence what one takes to be one’s disinterested convictions about the best methodology; such issues and many more like them turn up in any work that involves research, investigation, excavation literal and figurative. As a result the book is not only a fascinating account of the workings of history but also implicitly a meditation on epistemology in general. It is also a reasoned but firm refutation of the more extreme or frivolous varieties of posmodernist history. For a preview of what Evans has to say on this subject, see his article ‘Postmodernism and History’ on Butterflies and Wheels.

A follow-up to a favourite

One of my favourite books of the past decade is Jonathan Glover’s A Moral History of the Twentieth Century.

I have only now found his excellent web site.

glover Do visit him.

Rereading “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass”

Haven’t seen the new movie, but it was good to remind myself what a brilliant pair of books these are.

"But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad."
"How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here."

The prefatory poem to Through the Looking Glass is really quite sad:

jabberwock.jpg.display Child of the pure unclouded brow
And dreaming eyes of wonder!
Though time be fleet, and I and thou
Are half a life asunder,
Thy loving smile will surely hail
The love-gift of a fairy-tale.

I have not seen thy sunny face,
Nor heard thy silver laughter;
No thought of me shall find a place
In thy young life’s hereafter –
Enough that now thou wilt not fail
To listen to my fairy-tale.

A tale begun in other days,
When summer suns were glowing –
A simple chime, that served to time
The rhythm of our rowing –
Whose echoes live in memory yet,
Though envious years would say ‘forget’.

lewiscarroll-image Come, hearken then, ere voice of dread,
With bitter tidings laden,
Shall summon to unwelcome bed
A melancholy maiden!
We are but older children, dear,
Who fret to find our bedtime near.

Without, the frost, the blinding snow,
The storm-wind’s moody madness –
Within, the firelight’s ruddy glow,
And childhood’s nest of gladness.
The magic words shall hold thee fast:
Thou shalt not heed the raving blast.

And though the shadow of a sigh
May tremble through the story,
For ‘happy summer days’ gone by,
And vanish’d summer glory –
It shall not touch with breath of bale
The pleasance of our fairy-tale.

But the sheer inventiveness of the books, the philosophical games and verbal tricks!

Humpty-Dumpty-Carroll1871 `And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’
`I don’t know what you mean by "glory,"’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant "there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!"’
`But "glory" doesn’t mean "a nice knock-down argument,"’ Alice objected.
`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master – – that’s all.’
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. `They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs, they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’
`Would you tell me, please,’ said Alice `what that means?`
`Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. `I meant by "impenetrability" that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’
`That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
`When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `I always pay it extra.’

Do take these books down and read them again. I really don’t think I’ll bother with the movie.