A Czech in Ireland (longer version)

(Unpublished, 2016)

The Irish Free State avoided most of the depredations of World War II. There were casualties from a few bombing raid and Belfast suffered grievously but the Emergency is mostly remembered for insufficient white bread and Eamon de Valera’s visit to the German embassy with a letter of condolence on the death of Adolf Hitler.

Moreover, in an era before mass aviation refugees found it difficult to travel to Ireland and the authorities issued few visas either before or after the war. There were notable exceptions such as the Viennese couple Edward and Lisl Strunz who ran The Unicorn Restaurant for many years.

Another refugee from the period was Denis Scrivener (née Zdenek Skrivenek) who first escaped to London from his native Czechoslovakia in 1939 on the eve of the World War II. He returned home in 1945 but felt compelled to leave permanently in 1949, this time moving to Ireland accompanied by an Irish wife Nan Keating and their young daughter Maria. After overcoming significant adversity in his adopted country he became a successful businessman, setting up Farmhand that employed up to fifty people.

Scrivener’s story is recorded in a self-published book from 1991: The Skrivaneks and the Scriveners (A Czech in Ireland). Written with clarity and honesty, it offers a touching insight into the human toll of seismic political events: first the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 only months after Neville Chamberlain’s notorious Munich Agreement with Hitler that promised ‘peace in our time’, and handed the country over to the Nazis without a bullet being fired; then a Communist dictatorship that followed World War II and lasted until 1989.

Denis’s father was a furrier and during the inter war years ran a successful shop in the centre of Prague. He led a privileged existence with summer trips to the French Riviera and displayed an abiding interest in the opposite sex to the understandable irritation of Denis’s mother. She had lost her first husband in the First World War although she had a child, Lilly, by him, six years older than Denis the only child from the second marriage. From his account it seems Denis enjoyed a rather idyllic childhood animated by winter sports and cultural visits to surrounding countries.

Denis’s parents met in his mother’s native Vienna but settled in his father’s homeland: the new state of Czechoslovakia, born after World War I, which prospered under the liberal guidance of Thomas Masaryk who was president from 1919 until his death in 1935.

Denis escaped to London in 1939 before the German invasion but his remaining family harboured a secret that would prove fatal to some of them. Although officially Roman Catholic Denis’s mother was Jewish by ancestry. In liberal inter-war Czechoslovakia that did not appear to be of any consequence. Denis recalls that: ‘One of the pleasant aspect of living in Czechoslovakia at the time was that you never really knew what religion the other person had, child or adult, and more importantly didn’t care.’

That changed abruptly when the Germans invaded. If the Nazis discovered that Denis’s father was married to a Jew he too would have been considered one under their race laws. Denis asserts that: ‘if my father’s character had been less strong than it was then his infatuation with another woman could have caused a premature and tragic end to my mother’s life. Not an exaggeration to say this, merely a reflection on the realities of the time.’

His father did not succumb to that temptation despite his wife discovering at least one of his infidelities and being in Denis’s estimation ‘a rather difficult wife to live with’: albeit her husband’s conduct might have explained any irascibility.

Alas Denis’s sister Lilly was not so fortunate. She and her two children Inuska and Tomicek were sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1941. Here, remarkably, she re-married and the family survived for two years in no small part down to the influence of Mr Skrivenek who from outside procured extra rations for his step-daughter’s family. But alas Lily, her two children and husband Kuba were all transported to Auschwitz and murdered in 1943, a fate that befell most of Denis’s Jewish relations.

During the occupation Denis’s parents were also incarcerated by the Nazi authorities, and even subjected to solitary confinement, for a period of ten months. Miraculously his mother’s Jewish background was not exposed. This came about because they were denounced to the Gestapo for currency fraud by Denis’s mother’s own sister, who had moved to New York before the war. She informed on them because some of her property had not been sent to her. It reveals his mother’s attachment to her family that she could overlook this treachery to the extent that for a time in the late 1960s they would even live together in Dublin.

In 1939 Denis had escaped on one of the last trains out of the country. At the British border controls in the Netherlands what helped him through without a visa was a good knowledge of English learnt at the English Grammar School in Prague. But for that he might have suffered the fate of the failed applicants who he observed being beaten up by the Dutch police and bundled on a train back into the jaws of Nazi Germany.

Denis worked various jobs on arrival in wartime Britain. He found employment in a munitions factory in what he considered the dowdy town of Warrington where willingness to work long hours for extra pay brought friction with the union that felt this showed his fellow workers in a bad light. But he mainly lived in London where he became a waiter in The Dorchester serving, among others, Winston Churchill and the exiled King Peter of Yugoslavia. It was then that he met and fell in love with a Tipperary nurse Nan Keating. They married in 1943 in London.

But their honeymoon was a hurried weekend in Southend-on-Sea as Denis had by then volunteered for the Free Czech Army. He joined a tank regiment and was soon acting as an instructor. He paints a bleak picture of army life that recalls episodes from the great anti-war Czech novel The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek. He admits that life ‘for many months was difficult to endure’, as he encountered bullying officers and dreadful food. Denis’s regiment arrived in France two weeks after the D-Day landings in 1944.

As the Americans and British armies swept through Western Europe Denis’s regiment stayed put containing German forces in Dunkirk. They sustained considerable casualties from artillery bombardment but Denis emerge unscathed. Through his eyes we see the misery and filth of war and how simply surviving from one day to the next becomes an overriding objective. At least with a keen eye for a profit margin, that would serve him well in later years, he enhanced his paltry allowance by selling his cigarette rations at a substantial mark-up to the liberated French.

Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8th 1945 and at last he returned to Czechoslovakia in the wake of American forces in 1945 who halted in Pilsen to allow Soviet forces liberate Prague. Now within 100km of his native city Denis resolved to make his way there before he had leave to do so.

Travelling by motorbike terrible thoughts ran through his mind. He had had no contact with his family for six years and the Jewish Holocaust was being revealed. At his parents pre-war apartment he found no sign of their names on the residents’ list outside. His heart sank but at last he found out from a neighbour that their plush pre-war residence had been commandeered by the invaders. They had moved to an inferior flat, but it seemed they were alive.

When his mother opened the door to him she promptly fainted, but soon recovered and was delighted to hear of his marriage. His father, typically, asked whether his wife had good legs. Only later did Dennis learn of his sister’s fate, her family’s, and many others. He managed to re-join his regiment without repercussions and soon returned to Prague to resume his pre-war employment in his father’s firm.

Nan Keating arrived in Prague after some months on a British aeroplane. The couple found a stylish apartment on Wencelas Square in the heart of Prague’s Old Town and the joviality of the inter-war years seemed to be returning. For some time the young couple were able to soak up Prague’s alluring night life. Soon a first child, Maria, was born and Nan, who had already acquired some Czech in London, was learning about Czech cuisine under the critical gaze of her not always helpful mother-in-law. But that pleasant interlude would not last long as Nazi tyranny was quickly followed by Communist dictatorship.

The Communist party was well supported in pre-war Czechoslovakia and had been to the fore in opposition to the Nazis. In 1947 elections the party won over 30% of the vote and led a coalition government. But the country was effectively left to the Soviet Union by the Western Powers as it had been to the Nazis in the Munich Agreement of 1938.

This became apparent when often unruly Russian soldiers began to flood the city. Denis recalls how they became: ‘more evident around Prague and their chief leisure occupation became the stealing of motorbikes, robbing people of watches and molesting our women who didn’t have to be young or pretty to attract their unwelcome attraction.’

His anxiety grew as the Communists gradually asserted total power expelling other parties from the government. His tipping point was the apparent suicide in 1948 of the one non-Communist member of the government, foreign minister Jan Masaryk, the son of the Tomas Masaryk. A police investigation in the 1990s concluded that he was thrown from his balcony in the foreign ministry.

Denis resolved to emigrate to his wife’s country which he had never visited, though he did consider returning to London which Nan would have preferred. He regarded Ireland as: ‘a more romantic kind of choice with something of an adventure attached’. Unfortunately adventurous and romantic choices do not necessarily make for an easy life.

Their mind was made up when a visa arrived from the Irish Department of Justice and they were on their way to Ireland just after Eamon de Valera left office after sixteen years in power. The thrusting, cosmopolitan Czech was in for a testing period when he arrived in the economically-stagnant and inward-looking Ireland of the 1950s.

The first port of call was the family farm in Powerstown, County Tipperary which at the time had no electricity or running water. Denis arrived first with his daughter, the three year old Maria, who stubbornly refused to speak English despite being brought up bi-lingually. Nan soon followed.

The problem for Dennis was that for all his business acumen he arrived without a regular trade or profession and the furrier business wasn’t booming in post-war Ireland. He hatched a number of schemes from importing biros to manufacturing toys but for much of the 1950s he was forced into long hours of unrewarding and often menial labour.

Along the way he was treated abysmally by a number of employers as he struggled to support a growing family that would soon include a son John and another daughter Cathy. He endured a particularly unpleasant episode under the employment of one Cork businessman who forced him into hard labour with the promise that he would be given a motor car sales franchise in Dublin. He bitterly recalls that this was ‘my first Irish experience of being let down in a major way, to be followed, over the years, by many others.’ He reckons that ‘there was no question that as a foreigner I was severely discriminated against. But at least Denis exacted a measure of revenge against that businessman in the courts.

Through hard work and persistence Denis slowly made his way by becoming a skilled salesman of tractors in the era of the Massey Ferguson. He says that: ‘working in my father’s business taught me quite a bit about how to create the desire in a prospective customer, how to present my product in a way that would meet his expectations and how to close the sale.’

Dennis’s methods included keeping a file on all prospective clients that would allow him to ask about the wellbeing of a son in America or how the farm’s side line in potatoes was doing. Within a few years these skills brought rewards and he eventually launched his own company which he called Farmhand, an enterprise that survives today.

He concludes: ‘Ireland had been kind to me but dreadfully slow in allowing me to establish myself. Not only that it also gave me a number of hefty “kicks in the teeth” in that tedious and long process.’ But he retained an affection for the country and even after he had handed over Farmhand to his son John and spent a few years in the UK and Canada he decided to return to live out his final years in his adopted country.

It is revealing that Denis should recall one particular episode from this childhood. An older boy, unknown to him or his friends, noticed the commotion and asked Denis if he would like to be shown how to perform a figure of eight. Denis was delighted at the prospect and handed over the bike. The boy performed the stunt and promptly cycled off on his new bike. Denis’s life was punctuated by loss, material and otherwise, and he encountered a few con-men along the way but he would work hard to restore his fortunes.

His account shows what life was like for an ordinary person living through terrible times and finding a sanctuary of sorts in a remote country where he struggled to make his way. On an epic journey he encountered all sides of the human character and confronted sustained adversity making him a remarkably resourceful individual but perhaps the constant striving left him a troubled man too. The drive that brought him such success left little time for family life and it might come as no surprise that Nan and he separated after he became successful.

His survival instincts are an inspiration to anyone who finds themselves in a new country. It is also a tale for our time as we see millions of refugees passing through Europe once again. His example suggests that those wishing to enter Europe will also offer a dynamism and hard work ethic to their host societies.

A Czech in Ireland

(Published in the Irish Times 5/4/16)

Seventy years ago in 1946 the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia emerged as the largest political party in free elections forming a coalition government with the support of smaller parties. By that time Denis Scrivener (nee Zdenek Skrivenek) had returned to Prague with his new Irish wife Nan Keating. But the Communist Party soon became a tool of the Soviet Union and a dictatorship followed for over forty years.

Denis had survived war-time exile in Britain where he met Nan and joined up with the Free Czech Army, crossing the channel just after D-Day in 1944 and seeing action around Dunkirk. His remarkable story and subsequent life in Ireland is recounted in a self-published book from 1991: The Skrivaneks and the Scriveners (A Czech in Ireland).

The half-Jewish Denis had already endured the murder of his sister and her two children in the Holocaust along with numerous other family members. Now demobilised he observed unruly Russian soldiers flooding into Prague. He recalls how their chief leisure occupation: ‘became the stealing of motorbikes, robbing people of watches and molesting our women who didn’t have to be young or pretty to attract their unwelcome attraction.’

Denis had returned to work in his father’s successful furrier business and he and Nan were living on Wenceslas Square in the heart of the city. By that stage Nan had learnt Czech and together they enjoyed a lightness that settled briefly over Prague before the unhappy tide of history washed through once more.

A daughter, Maria, was born but Denis’s anxiety was growing over what was happening as the Communists asserted total power by expelling other parties from the coalition.

He made up his mind after the apparent suicide in 1948 of the one non-Communist member of the government, foreign minister Jan Masaryk, son of Tomas Masaryk the founding father of Czechoslovakia. A police investigation in the 1990s concluded that he was thrown from his balcony in the ministry.

Denis resolved to live in his wife’s country which he had never visited, though Nan would have preferred a return to London. He regarded Ireland as: ‘a more romantic kind of choice with something of an adventure attached’. Their minds were made up when an Irish visa arrived from the Department of Justice.

The first port of call was the family farm in Powerstown, County Tipperary which at the time had no electricity or running water. Dennis arrived first with his daughter Maria who initially refused to speak English despite being brought up bi-lingually. Nan followed soon.

In time Denis would become a successful entrepreneur but along the way he was treated abysmally by a number of employers as he struggled to support a growing family that would soon include a son John and another daughter Cathy.

He endured a particularly unpleasant experience with one Cork businessman who tricked him into hard labour with the promise of a Dublin franchise. He recalls that this was ‘my first Irish experience of being let down in a major way, to be followed, over the years, by many others.’ He reckons that ‘there was no question that as a foreigner I was severely discriminated against.’

At last Denis became a salesman of tractors in the era of the Massey Ferguson. He says that: ‘working in my father’s business taught me quite a bit about how to create the desire in a prospective customer, how to present my product in a way that would meet his expectations and how to close the sale.’

Denis’s methods included keeping a file on all prospective clients that would allow him to ask about the wellbeing of a son in America or how the farm’s side line in potatoes was doing. In 1962 he launched his own company Farmhand, an enterprise that survives today. He concludes: ‘Ireland had been kind to me but dreadfully slow in allowing me to establish myself. Not only that it also gave me a number of hefty “kicks in the teeth” in that tedious and long process.’

Denis’s survival instincts are an inspiration to anyone who finds themselves in a new country, as I do now in Prague on a romantic journey in the opposite direction. It is also a tale for our time as we see millions of refugees passing through Europe once again. His example illustrates how migrants often bring a hard work ethic and dynamism to their host societies.


Informing Beauty

(Published in The London Magazine, February-March 2016)

Once in a while you read a book that sets off an electric charge inside you. Usually it coheres with your unconscious ideas, a feeling quite distinct from reading a thriller whose pages you devour with unfocused gusto. This you ingest in measured spoonfuls, allowing its content to echo in your pallet. Fittingly perhaps, I spent much of that encounter with Kathleen Raine’s Defending Ancient Springs bedding down in an unelectrified apartment in Lisbon’s Bairro Alfama.

Prior to reading Raine I had been cultivating a friendship with W.B. Yeats, drawing solace from his struggles with spurned affection and aging. I was driven to sing the words of this supremely lyrical poet. But his taste for the occult sat a little uncomfortably with me considering its capacity for delusional evil.

Nonetheless my affection for Yeats had groomed me to receive the clarity of Raine’s aesthetic principles in the book. I did not agree with it all but it has a timeless quality that makes it a selfishly-guarded treasure for those who own a copy.

At the heart of a narrative that contains essays on her preferred Romantic poets and on themes such as beauty, myth and symbol is the conviction that ‘a revival of the learning of the works of Plato and the neo-Platonists, has been the inspiration not only of the Florentine renaissance and all that followed (in England as elsewhere) but of every subsequent renaissance.’ The suggestion that this is an essential source for great poetry may sound far-fetched but the neo-Platonist influence on the pantheon of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake and Yeats is well attested to.

Neo-Platonist believe in an essential order to the universe that our true selves recognise. Plotinus d. c. 270CE wrote that: ‘we ourselves possess beauty when we are true to our own being; our ugliness is going over to another order’. He adds that: ‘the soul itself acts immediately, affirming the Beautiful where it finds something accordant with the ideal from within itself … But let the soul fall in with the ugly and at once it shrinks within itself, denies the thing, turns away from it, not accordant, resenting it.’

According to Raine this explains a sense of homecoming when we encounter cities ‘where in architecture, sculpture and painting, the needs of the spirit are met.’ She attributes the growing alienation in the Britain of her day to environments, such as ‘the wastes of suburbia’ where that aesthetic sensibility is ignored.

Leaving aside the metaphysics of the soul, it strikes me that there is some common ground between neo-Platonic philosophy and those who assert objective truth in science. A shared conviction that mathematical configuration is a form of truth might ford what can seem an unbridgeable disconnect between science and the arts. From that I draw a measure of reassurance in a zeitgeist of disorder and acute over-specialisation.

According to Raine: ‘Music is considered by the Platonic philosophers to be the highest of the arts because the nearest to the harmonious innate order of number, reflected in all the arts and in nature itself.’ But Nobel Laureate Rabindarath Tagore disagreed concluding that ‘it is nonsense that music is a universal language’; he despaired at the capacity of even his own compatriots really to understand his songs; and felt the West could not be expected to without serious study of Indian music. He regarded pictorial art as a superior medium for cross-cultural exchange.

But though Indian music diverges from the Pythagorean intervals that underpin Western music it is still capable of evoking emotion in the uninitiated. Laurens van der Post writes movingly in his biography Yet Being Someone Other about his first encounter with Indian music: ‘It was sensitive and aquiver with an undertone of something akin to pain. Even the most resolved melodies sounded as if they might have come not from man-made strings but from the living nerves and tissues of the music itself.’ Musical forms of European origin may express a universally comprehensible language but other cultures also seem to have discovered propitious symmetries. Inter-cultural appreciation hinges perhaps on the openness of the individual to an encounter.

Raine devotes one chapter to the role of mythology but errs I believe when she claims: ‘The myths of all races are ageless, since their symbolic language is based upon the permanent and unchanging elements of the world we inhabit.’ National myths can be destructive forces and breed murderous politics. Laurens van der Post writes: ‘Of all the mythology that I had come to know by  then, German mythology seemed to me the darkest, the most undifferentiated, archaic, turgid and dangerous … German mythology was the only one I know where the forces of darkness defeated the gods themselves.’

“Ageless” myths were appropriated by Nazi ideologues and Yeat’s sympathy for Fascism or at least fellow-travelling was linked to his attachment to archaic notions about nobility and race. Raine fails to acknowledge the danger of the dead weight of history or point to the possibility of mythical renewal, such as Germany’s absorption into Europe perhaps.

But I heartily agree with Raine’s contention that psychologists are parvenus to formative symbolisms that poets have long recognised. Moreover poetic synthesis ‘brings together, creating always wholes and harmonies’, often yielding greater insight than philosophical analysis. Yet, paradoxically: ‘With the greatest poetry the mystery only increases with our knowledge.’

In poetry she writes: ‘Lyric form is itself the supreme embodiment of archetypal order, the nearest to music and number; it is beauty itself informing words in themselves ordinary’. Raine does not view these configuration of words as a plodding exercise of measured syllables and rhyming sequences but akin to a universal grammar. She asserts that the essence of poetry informed by a higher sensibility. Following Blake, she sees a poet as the equivalent of a prophet or medium ‘and it cannot, as Plato wrote in the Ion, be achieved by the poet writing from his mundane consciousness but only in that divine madness in which he is possessed by the ‘other’ mind.’

She condemns how: ‘[a]t the present time much that is called poetry is little more than the autobiography of the artist; it is the critical fashion to discount the imagination and to make ‘sincere’ feeling or ‘realistic’ description the test of merit.’ Poetry is thus cast in a sacred light, beyond the mundane exigencies of the quotidian, offering a guide, a light, to the concerns of the time – whether dark Satanic mills or diabolic Trident missiles – and demanding form that channels higher knowledge.

The prizing of sincerity above other considerations that Raine decries is expressed by the main character François, an academic critic, in Michel Houellebecq’s last novel Submission. He says: ‘an author is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes very well or very badly hardly matters – as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed, present in them.’ In Houellebecq’s dystopian vision of a future France what counts, critically, is this biographic authenticity. Absent is concern for the imaginative possibilities of a divinely inspired order that animates great poetry.

But is this vision or inspiration accessible to all who engage with and embody the neo-Platonist philosophy? Not according to Raine: ‘It remains true that genius is not democratic, and the distinction between (for example) the self-expression of patients under analysis and the art of genius is by no means a matter of craftsmanship, but much of the quality and kind of imagination.’

But I believe societies should inculcate the creative application required for genius to flourish such as Yeats glimpsed in the Holy City of Byzantium. If we all can identify that which is beautiful, as we know it in ourselves, then we are capable with sufficient application of reproducing it in a particular domain whether as craftsman, poet or musician. Hard labour in a chosen domain will bring its own rewards and it is for posterity to judge where genius lies.

Theodore Zeldin recently wrote in The Secret Pleasures of Life that: ‘there is a very ancient tradition that everybody who wishes to live fully needs to be a practising artist.’ He observes that: ‘In China the very act of writing, using a brush, made one aware that every brushstroke could be a thing of beauty. Literacy and artistry were one.’ Not all of us are prophets but we might agree with Soren Kierkegaard’s assessment that ‘the possibility of the highest is in everyone, one must follow it.’

Raine also discusses the lofty style that distinguishes poetry from everyday speech. She notes how Carl Jung, who generally disliked high-flown speech, found that when what he called ‘mana, daemons, gods or the unconscious speaks in words its utterances are in a high style, hieratic, often archaic, grandiose, removed as it is possible to be from the speech of that common man the everyday self’. This she identifies this with the primal poetic impulse: ‘The singing of the ballad was by no means in common speech. It was extremely slow, dignified and highly mannered’. She concludes that: ‘It is a mark of imaginative inspiration and content to write in a high and mannered style, removed from common speech; as it of the absence of imaginative participation to write either in a conversational tone or to write in a deliberately vulgar idiom.’ She believes that: ‘What was written for the sake of easy comprehension is precisely that part of poetry which becomes incomprehensible within a few years.’ We need only consider how quickly popular songs become dated.

I believe this insight may be useful to any poet: to honour their inner voice and not play to a gallery that will quickly grow tired of a performance. This is the vertical audience that the poet Eavan Boland identified in a recent lecture in contrast to the horizontal audience of popular acclaim. Poets should contain their revelation within an order that is a part of that mystery: ‘Irish poets learn your trade / Sing whatever is well made’ as Yeats put it.

In a powerful passage Raine despairs at what was occurring in the scholarship of her era influenced in particular by T. S. Eliot:

‘What we did not know thirty years ago was how extreme would be the isolation of those who hold to tradition. It then seemed that there were at least some values which were agreed upon between the profane positivist world and the world of the ‘ancient spring’. Now we know that this is not so, perhaps was never so. At all events, we can no longer deceive ourselves. It seems that there now no longer exists any common terms or common values; beyond a certain point of divergence communication becomes impossible. Relative ignorance may still recognise and aspire towards knowledge, absolute ignorance is perfectly complacent. Tradition, which recognises a difference between knowledge and ignorance, cannot come to terms with a world in which there are no longer any standards by which truth and falsehood may be measured.’

The question is whether this process has accelerated, whether contemporary criticism is stricken by a post-modern doubt that conforms to the dystopian vision adumbrated by Houellebeq: in which authenticity is raised to a value above others, and the prophetic vision cherished by the great poets is accorded no importance. At least one contemporary scholar Edward Clarke shows commitment to the ideal of eternal beauty in his recent book The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry.

Poetry will continue to flow, for some it is a need and a vocation, but without spiritual insight will it flounder, becoming a form of therapy for the unwell or the wild-eyed expression of political discontent? For it to retain its timeless wisdom I concur with Raine that it requires renewed commitment to form: “beauty itself informing words in themselves ordinary”, and continued engagement with underlying metaphysical structures.


In Defence of Kundera’s Absurdity

(Published in Village Magazine, November/December 2015)

Portentousness is the word that best describes most Anglo-American literary criticism. The canon seems to demand erudition and a knowing hauteur loaded with an impression of being slightly jaded by the cocktail party circuit. That at least is the tone favoured by the Times Literary Supplement whose reviewers tend to devour books as A. A. Gill does restaurants.

Attending functions when I wrote for The London Magazine (a lesser breed of the same genus) I encountered a few of London’s bottom-feeding literati, one of whom I bitterly recall communally ordering wine that adorned a list purely to capture the foolish largesse of a patron. Here one of Dr Johnson’s aphorisms seems apposite: “criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense.” Best to go Dutch at such soirees.

After enjoying without entirely comprehending the Franco-Czech author Milan Kundera’s latest book The Festival of Insignificance I noticed a review of it by Michael Hoffman in the Time Literary Supplement. Notwithstanding the mortal sin of referring to another’s review, Hoffman’s excoriation was so venomous that I was inspired to share my own reaction. His article culminates in the assessment that: “It reads like something one of Kundera’s enemies might have written, and passed off as his”. This was a hatchet job of Viking proportions.

Prior to casually dismembering the corpse with the grubby gusto of a journalist on a junket, he dismisses the oeuvre of one of the most original novelists of the last century in surprisingly gastronomic terms as: “addictive, moreish, still fresh, thin textured, a little unsatisfying (perhaps that goes with their addictiveness) and obvious.” It was as if Gill had been asked to assess Nando’s menu.

Perhaps Kundera’s real crime in the eyes of many of the Anglo-American literary elite is to have declared himself a French author, and written a number of novels in that language. With some foundation French culture is now roundly dismissed as decadent and trapped in recollection of past glory, although Michel Houellebecq makes a virtue of this. The idea of an unadulterated émigré Czech writer is far more appealing, but, like Samuel Beckett, Kundera has found expression in the language of his adopted country, and his work may be more interesting for that cross-fertilization.

Like all good (it is hasty to ascribe greatness at this historical juncture) writers of fiction, Kundera shines a light on universal human traits. Eschewing conventional structure in favour of fractured tales, the reader is left to draw his own conclusions. As in real life, grand narratives are not apparent but overlapping, quotidian sequences. Within that schema he distils ideas that shines an elusive light on eternal truths. This might be the addictive quality Hoffman describes but really the compulsion arises from sublime observations on the human experience seemingly obvious but actually quite original.

My favourite example remains his exposition on litost, in the Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

“Litost is an untranslatable Czech word. Its first syllable, which is long and stressed, sounds like the wail of an abandoned dog. As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it …”

Kundera expands on its meaning by way of anecdote.

She was madly in love with him and tactfully swam as slowly as he did. But when their swim was coming to an end, she wanted to give her athletic instincts a few moments’ free rein and headed for the opposite bank at a rapid crawl. The student [the boy] made an effort to swim faster too and swallowed water. Feeling humbled, his physical inferiority laid bare, he felt litost. He recalled his sickly childhood, lacking in physical exercise and friends and spent under the constant gaze of his mother’s overfond eye, and fell into despair about himself and his life. They walked back to the city together in silence on a country road. Wounded and humiliated, he felt an irresistible desire to hit her.…and then he slapped her face.”

Acute awareness of what he does grudgingly translate as: “a state of torment brought upon by the realization of one’s inadequacy or misery,” helps us understand the origin of so much anger and the antidote to it. Kundera turns an isolated word in a minor European language into a near-universal susceptibility. In literature a mark of genius is to make the original seem obvious. We become one with the writer.

Kundera’s most recent work does leave an impression of incompleteness compared to previous more substantial novels but certainly not to the extent of Hoffman’s outlandish assessment. It contains a number of powerful insights: first there is his development of the archetype of the Narcissus that might serve as a lesson to some clever men who cannot understand how an objective of desire resists their advances.

He writes:

‘When a brilliant fellow tries to seduce a woman, she has the sense she’s entering a kind of competition. She feels obliged to shine, to not give herself without some resistance. Whereas insignificance sets her free. Spares her the need for vigilance. Requires no presence of mind. Makes her incautious, and thus more easily accessible …

The Narcissus on the other hand is not proud:

‘A proud man has disdain for other people, he undervalues them. The Narcissus overvalues them, because in every person’s eyes he sees his own image, and wants to embellish it. So he takes care of all his mirrors.

The Narcissus is thus reduced to a person of little significance, the unlikely partner, his skill like that of a successful spy who gets under the covers almost unobserved. He the subject sees a reflection of himself in the object of his desire, and his interlocutor is content with that unchallenging proposition. Kundera fails to say if this works both ways.

Like many of his novels The Festival of Insignificance meanders. Characters pop in and out without a complete picture of anyone emerging: like the failed actor who along with a friend develops a pseudo-Pakistani language complete with a grammatical structure to make his job as a waiter less tedious; then there is a character who for no particular reason tells a friend that he is dying from cancer; we also meet a woman who is saved from suicide and in the process accidentally takes the life of her saviour.

Much of the book defies simple interpretation especially the surreal closing sequence. Perhaps in his dotage Kundera is simply telling us to revel in absurdity, the main forum of which is joking with friends, confiding at one point “in my unbeliever’s dictionary, only one word is sacred: friendship”. One of his characters says: “We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush. There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously.” We might consider this a sign of his Kundera’s decadence, but for Czechs of his generation humour could be an act of defiance against a totalitarian state.

For lurking in the background is the figure of Joseph Stalin of whom we gain glimpses, apparently, from the memoirs of Khrushchev, though it would not be beyond Kundera to make this all up. In his account Stalin spends much of his time humiliating his entourage for his amusement especially the unfortunate Kalinin. But he discovered at a certain point: “nobody around him any longer knew what a joke is.” And in Kundera’s view: “that’s the beginning of a whole new period of history.”

As a Czech born in 1929 and living in that country until 1975 Kundera cannot escape that shadow of Stalinism. He himself had his academic career impeded in the 1950s. He may embrace his less troubled new home but the memory of that fearful epoch cannot be dismissed. The “whole new period of history” are those decades when lightness and frivolity were lost. Perhaps he’s saying that we must uphold that in the face of all the hypocrisy today.

In this short book there are various themes that a reader might be drawn to. Ignored in this review is the attention he pays to the significance of the sexualisation of the navel or how humanity is divided into apologisers and those whose instinct is to go on the attack. There is plenty to muse on and its disembowelment is misplaced.

Moreover, it seems perverse for a critic to read the oeuvre of a writer seemingly with the intention of devouring it, as a defence council would a prosecution case in a court of law. To earn a living critics are compelled to read a book, view a film or eat in a restaurant, but many turn it into an unedifying blood sport.

The poet and scholar Kathleen Raine wrote in Defending Ancient Springs: “The power to perceive the beautiful arises from a quality of consciousness: something forever inaccessible to the apparatus criticus, which can be manipulated by persons who do not possess this quality at all”. She adds that: “At best scholarship, by placing in our hands knowledge which we should not otherwise possess, can fit us to read the works of the poets, to decipher what they have written.” Sadly literary criticism is often a platform for the unbridled ego. Kundera’s latest novel attests to the untamed imagination of the author.


The Satements of Osama bin Laden

(Unpublished, 2005)

“There is no reason, based on the information at hand, to believe bin Laden is anything other what he appears: a pious, charismatic, gentle, generous, talented, and personally courageous Muslim. As a historical figure viewed from any angle, Osama bin Laden is a great man, one who has smashed the expected unfolding of universal post-cold war peace.”

This encomium to Osama bin Laden emanates from an unlikely source; Michael Scheuer head of the CIA unit charged with hunting him. After seemingly orchestrating the destruction of the Twin Towers, bin Laden has generated an era of uncertainty, the ‘propaganda of the deed’ mesmerising television viewers across the globe.

Above all, bin Laden has achieved his infamy through mastery of the new media of satellite and internet, indeed a Google search throws up over eleven million responses (a similar search for Nelson Mandela offers a mere four million). Therefore, it is long overdue that bin Laden’s writings and broadcasts should be accessible to the English reader, instead of their being presented in distilled sound bites.

Messages To The World. The Statements of Osama Bin Laden translated by James Howarth, and edited by Bruce Lawrence contains twenty-four statements attributed to bin Laden, and what is revealed is a polemicist of skill, though prone to exaggeration, who projects a message of implacable hostility to the current world order.

America, as the upholder of this order is the target-in-chief. Already by 1998 he says: ‘For as long as I can remember I have felt tormented and at war, and have felt hatred and animosity for Americans.’ He also states in the same year: ‘To kill the Americans and their allies – civilian and military – is an individual duty incumbent upon every Muslim in all countries, in order to liberate the al-Asqa Mosque [in Jerusalem] and the Holy Mosque [in Mecca] from their grip, so that their armies leave all the territories of Islam.’

Bin Laden’s message to the American people is simple; as you voted for the US government you share responsibility. In 1997 he warns ‘A reaction might take place as a result of the US government’s targeting of Muslim civilians… the American people they are not exonerated from responsibility, because they chose the government and voted for it despite their knowledge of its crimes in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and other places.’ Bin Laden thus characterizes Islamic terrorism as merely a response to the aggression of the US and its allies. He draws particular attention to the plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation and the situation in Iraq where hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children are thought to have died under UN sanctions.

In one of his last broadsides in 2004 bin Laden seems to confess to perpetrating the September 11 attacks. He states that the idea of attacking the World Trade Centre ‘came to me when things went just too far with the American-Israeli alliance’s oppression and atrocities against our people in Lebanon.’ He continues ‘As I looked at those destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the oppressor in kind by destroying towers in America, so that it would have a taste of its own medicine.’ However, given that the attack on Lebanon occurred in 1982 when bin Laden and his fellow jihadists were in the pay of the CIA fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, this is not entirely credible, but the memory seemed to leave a lasting impression.

Bin Laden revels in the deployment of Islamic sources hostile to those of other religions and creeds. In so doing he occludes the peaceful elements to Islam. He cites the Qu’ran; “You who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians as friends.” (Qur’an 5:51) but disregards specific Qu’ranic injunctions against the taking of innocent lives. In October 2001 he states: ‘so we kill the innocents – this is valid both religiously and logically, this forbidding of killing children and innocents is not set in stone, and there are other writings that uphold it.’

Bin Laden capably rebuts much of the simplistic propaganda that has emerged from the White House since the ‘War on Terror’ began. In response to Bush’s claim that bin Laden and his acolytes hate freedom he responds: ‘Perhaps he can tell us why we did not attack Sweden for example.’ He also makes light of Bush’s description of Ariel Sharon as a ‘man of peace;’ ‘If Sharon is a man of peace in the eyes of Bush, then we are also men of peace,’ and given Sharon’s background as architect of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, it is difficult to dispute this assertion.

Bush’s most seismic gaffe was to utter the phrase ‘crusade against terror’ on the White House lawn after the September 11 attacks. This was an error of staggering proportions given the resonance of that word in the Islamic world. Bin Laden states ‘So Bush has declared in his own words: “Crusade attack.” The odd thing about this is that he has taken the words right out of our mouth.’

Bin Laden’s awareness of the extent to which combating terrorism can be achieved through the application of ‘soft power’ is revealed; ‘it has become clear to us during our defensive jihad against the American enemy and its enormous propaganda machine that it depends for the most part on psychological warfare.’ The message seems to be; invading countries won’t combat us. He also advocates that ‘the youth should strive to find the weak points of the American economy and strike them there.’

Bin Laden’s greatest failing in confronting his foe was over-confidence; having witnessed the defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan he felt sure that American wings could be similarly clipped. Drawing on the experiences of jihadists in Somalia he repeatedly portrays the American soldier as weak and cowardly, but failed to anticipate the extent to which the national calamity of September 11 inured the American population to the loss of service men and women on foreign campaigns. He also ignores the extent to which mujahadin in Afghanistan were reliant on foreign patrons especially the United States.

On a conciliatory note bin Laden in an address to the people of Europe commits ‘to cease operations against any state that pledges not to attack Muslims or to intervene in their affairs, including the American conspiracy against the entire Islamic world.’ Quite where this leaves Ireland, which allows US military flights to pass through Shannon, is unclear. Moreover, given bin Laden’s disregard for innocent civilians it would be difficult to take him at his word.

Overall, the impression that emerges of bin Laden from his statements is that of a character lacking in compassion and entirely dogmatic in his views. Bin Laden’s world-view is one-dimensional, involving a crude demarcation between East and West which fails to take account of the millions of Muslims and Christians living on either side, and the extent to which the histories of East and West have always been intertwined, a process accelerated in an age of globalisation.

Nevertheless, it is clear that in order to counter bin Laden’s rhetoric which serves as a clarion call to would-be-terrorists, more careful language and tactics are required. It is also appropriate to concede that he often makes valid criticisms of US foreign policy especially that of the Bush administration.

The last statement of Bin Laden was broadcast at the end of 2004, it may be that a rumoured kidney complaint has led to his death or infirmity, but there is no doubt that his words and deeds continue to influence the world.

It’s all in the mind

(published in the London Magazine, June/July 2012)

The ultimate achievement of reason … is to recognise that there are an infinity of things that surpass it. (Blaise Pascal 1623-62) 

After reading Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene I was a convert to Neo-Darwinian genetics. In that best-selling work life is traced to individual genes each seeking to confer advantage on the ‘replicator’, which carries the genes, in order to survive through reproduction. ‘Successful’ genes are passed on, unchanged, to descendents.

Its title alone reveals an analysis that sees human life, and nature more generally, as characterized by competition rather than cooperation. That my actions, thoughts and emotions were reduced to a battle for expression between DNA sequences generated slight despondency; idealism, morality and kindness are simply ‘memes’: ideas that, like genes, proved durable in evolution.

Intriguingly, The Selfish Gene was the favourite book of Jeffrey Skilling CEO of Enron. He interpreted neo-Darwinism to mean that selfishness was ultimately good even for its victims, because it weeded out ‘losers’ and forced ‘survivors’ to become strong.

Over time I developed a more nuanced view of the world. An awareness of the limitation of human intelligence (especially my own) and of the historical specificity of any position made me reluctant to accept any one explanation in full.

A powerful scientific voice has emerged to counter the inheritance of Dawkins. Rupert Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion is an antidote to the Selfish Gene. By providing fascinating insights into the new field of Epigenetics he explodes the grim certainty of the Neo-Darwinian analysis.

Sheldrake provides a powerful critique of the present state of scientific research, berating skeptics (including Dawkins) for a dismissive approach to his evidence. He also addresses what he considers the limitations and corruption of Western medicine. Sheldrake’s account, if accepted, may radically alter our understanding of nature.

Cosmic Resonance

It is often suggested that physics through mathematics will ultimately reveal the organizing principles of the universe and all organisms therein. But Sheldrake refers to the uncertainty principle in quantum physics from which it became clear that indeterminism is an essential feature of the physical world, and the apparent incompatibility of quantum theory with the theory of relativity. He quotes Stephen Hawkings and Leonard Modinaw: ‘The original hope of physics to produce a single theory explaining the apparent laws of our universe as the unique possible consequences of a few simple assumptions may have to be abandoned.’

Sheldrake poses challenging questions to materialists such as: ‘Were all the laws of nature already present at the moment of the Big Bang, like a cosmic Napoleonic Code?’ He argues: ‘The very idea of a law of nature is anthropocentric’, and asserts that ‘eternal laws are embedded in the thinking of most scientists’

His intention is not to dismiss all conventional scientific ideas or cast doubt on every study but instead insists on their limitations: ‘The laws of conservation of matter and energy seem less like ultimate cosmic principles and more like rules of accountancy that work reasonably well for most practical purposes in the realms of terrestrial physics and chemistry, where exotic principles like quintessence and the creation of dark energy can be ignored.’

He contends that we operate in an evolutionary universe in which even the laws of nature are subject to change. He says that the oldest of the constants, Newton’s Universal Gravitational Constant, Big G, ‘is also the one that shows the largest variations.’

Sheldrake’s ‘big idea’ is the hypothesis of morphic resonance. He suggests that the habits of nature, organic and inorganic, operate in non-material morphic fields. Ken Wilber defines the concept: once a particular form comes into existence, it will have a causal effect on all subsequent, similar forms; and thus the more a particular form has been replicated, the more likely it will be replicated in the future.’ This idea is unsettling to pure materialists as it resurrects pre-Enlightenment ideas such as vitalism which suggests the existence of soul apart from our material bodies.

Sheldrake outlines interesting phenomena that lend weight to his theory. Referring to ‘habits of crystallization’, he argues that ‘the more a compound crystallizes, the easier its crystals should form’. He gives the examples of Xylitol which was believed to be a liquid until 1942, but subsequently crystallized at successively higher temperatures. When each new temperature for crystallization was reached this pattern repeated itself in other laboratories and the old crystals did not show up again. He also refers to Ritonavir, a drug used against AIDS, which baffled its developers by morphing inexplicably from its original form, and has continued in that pattern since.

He cites evidence from ‘one of the longest series of experiments in the history of psychology that rats do indeed seem to learn quicker what other rats have already learned’. He attributes observed improved performances in intelligence quotient (IQ) tests, known as the ‘Flynn Effect’, to morphic resonance.

We might identify morphic resonance in human history with the independent emergence of agriculture in different continents in close time proximity to one another. Or, more compellingly, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers identified what he called an ‘axial age’ during which revolutionary ideas such as Platonism, Confucionism and Buddhism emerged simultaneously. On a more basic level, most of us have probably said: ‘I was thinking just the same thing’.

The idea of morphic resonance coheres with Karl Jung’s notion of a collective unconscious, and even more strikingly with the Taoist idea of Qi which is seen to define all physical reality. According to Ted J. Kaptchuk ‘Qi is the thread connecting all being. Qi is the common denominator of all things from mineral to human. Qi allows any phenomenon to maintain its cohesiveness, grow and transform into other forms.’ The action of ‘resonance’ is also apparent: ‘The ability for one thing to influence another is called in Chinese gan ying, which is usually translated “resonance”. If Qi is the link, resonance is the method.’

Sheldrake’s hypothesis can thus be situated within a broader constellation that has long been accepted by important and enduring philosophical schools in the East and West. But what is interesting and indeed remarkable about Sheldrake is that he is a professional scientist with more than eighty articles in peer-reviewed journals, including several in Nature.

Unusual Phenomena

Sheldrake enjoys drawing attention to phenomena that seem to debunk established scientific ideas. In response the online Skeptics Dictionary assert: ‘although Sheldrake commands some respect as a scientist because of his education and degree, he has clearly abandoned conventional science in favor of magical thinking’.

The first law of thermodynamics says that change in the internal energy of a closed system is equal to the amount of heat supplied to that system. Thus the ‘closed system’ of a human being (that doesn’t photosynthesise) cannot draw energy or ultimately survive without food (heat).

But Sheldrake draws attention to the case of Indian yogi Prahlad Jani, one of numerous individuals through history who have claimed to live without food, a phenomenon known as inedia. Jani says he has lived without food or water since 1940 owing to the intervention of the goddess Amba. He was put under continuous surveillance by a team of 35 researchers from the Indian Defence Institute of Physiology and Applied Sciences (DIPAS) in 2010 for a period of two weeks.

He had several baths and gargled, but the medical team confirmed that he ate and drank nothing, and, remarkably, passed no urine or faeces. A previous medical examination in 2003 had given similar results. The director of DIPAS said: ‘If a person starts fasting, there will be some changes in his metabolism but in his case we did not find any’. Most scientists would dismiss this evidence as an impossible transgression of the first law of thermodynamics. This leads Sheldrake to ask: ‘Is science a belief system or a method of enquiry?’ While inedia is rare and controversial there is at least a possibility that human beings can actually draw energy from willpower alone. Scientific research should be alive to that possibility, rather than dismissing it as ‘magical thinking’ because it does not fit with accepted tenets.

Sheldrake also shows how many pets display psychic connections to their owners, and provides empirical evidence for telepathy in humans, including uncanny abilities to determine the identity of the person from whom a phone call is received.


The field of Epigenetics upsets established Neo-Darwinian ideas. It originates in the research of Dr. Lars Olov Bygren a Swedish preventive health specialist who explored how the health of grandparents continues to influence their grandchildren. This has been described as ‘ghosts in our genes’ and was hailed by Time magazine as one of the top ten scientific discoveries of 2009. Bygren and other scientists gathered historical data for famines and periods of over-abundance and showed how these environmental conditions continued to affect the life-expectancy of their children and grandchildren even after adjusting for social class. This astounding research is being used to explain trends in human longevity and supports Sheldrake’s argument that genetic codes are not the full extent of inheritance. Orthodox neo-Darwinism particularly that associated with Richard Dawkin has been cast in serious doubt if not superseded.

Moreover, doubt has been cast on the whole field of genetics by the limited insights of the human genome project. Sheldrake gleefully seizes on this: ‘The optimism that life would be understood if molecular biologists knew the ‘programs’ of an organism gave way to the realisation that there is a huge gap between gene sequences and actual human beings’. Recently, he entered a public wager with an eminent biologist on whether with the genome of a fertilised egg or an animal or plant we will be able to predict in at least one case all details of the organism that develops within the next twenty years.

Will Power

Sheldrake acknowledges the contributions of Western medicine to human longevity citing the example of Edward Jenner’s discovery of the Smallpox vaccine but asserts that the ‘rate of discovery is slowing, despite ever-increasing investment in research’. He suggests this is a product of tunnel vision that afflicts many scientists who see the body in terms of its component parts rather than as an integrated whole. This is contrary to the Chinese approach which sees pathology in terms of a web of phenomena. In Chinese medicine an illness may be expressed in the liver but the cause may lie elsewhere, even in the mind. The Western approach is usually more successful than the Chinese at least in the short term, but it tends to address the symptom rather than underlying causes, arguably leaving greater likelihood of recrudescence.

He says that ‘the failure to recognize the power of minds means that Western medicine is weakest when dealing with the healing effects of beliefs, expectations, social relationships and religious faith’. This is despite medical research acknowledging the power of the mind in the placebo effect, but he says that attachment to a Cartesian, mechanistic view hinders exploration of perhaps non-material phenomena. Many doctors will disagree profoundly with Sheldrake’s analysis.

Sheldrake also draws attention to the disturbing corruption of the pharmaceutical industry: he show how prominent scientists are gifted large fees to put their names to articles that have been ghostwritten; the multi-million scale of lobbying to the US Congress; the self-regulation of the pharmaceutical industry in the UK leading to delays in the inclusion of safety warnings (by 21 months in one instance); and the profitable and usually unpunished sale of drugs ‘off-label’.

Most controversially he contends there is ‘overwhelming evidence that scientists’ attitudes and expectations can influence the outcome of experiments’. If correct this has profound implications for our understanding of medical research. We already assume a researcher hopes a hypothesis – say that a pill will have a certain effective – will prove correct. If he is actually ‘willing’ a certain outcome on the participant in the study then we are entering new, slightly troubling, territory. Sheldrake advocates double-blind testing as an important safeguard.

Rather than funding hugely expensive genetic and molecular studies into the causes of diseases he argues that more attention should be paid to social factors that lead to pathologies. He cites research showing that those who pray or meditate remain healthier and survive longer than those who do not, and wonders why more prominence isn’t given to this. He argues that research into genetic or microbial drivers of obesity should be abandoned in favor of focusing on the social factors of a condition already costing the US taxpayer an estimated $160 billion each year.

He argues in favour of complementary and alternative therapies, attributing their efficacy to the time their practitioners spend with patients compared to conventional doctors who work under greater time pressure; and the unhealthy preoccupation of many conventional doctors with prescribing drugs; many doctors will disagree with the latter contention especially. He refers to a review by the WHO of 293 controlled clinical trials of acupuncture that concluded that it is an effective treatment for a wide range of conditions.

A Moment in Time

It would be churlish to dismiss the benefits of Western science. The natural sciences, including medicine, have improved the quality of our lives, raised life expectancies, and generated fascinating insights into the natural world. But its aspirations and blind spots give increasing cause for concern.

The attitude of many scientists towards genetic modification, invariably motivated by corporate aggrandizement rather than genuine necessity is a particular concern. One of the editors of Nature proclaimed that by the end of the twenty-first century, ‘genomics will allow us to alter entire organisms out of recognition, to suit our needs and tastes … [and] will allow us to fashion the human form into any conceivable shape. We will have extra limbs, if we want them, and maybe even wings to fly’.

The Science Delusion exhibits phenomena that belie what are considered the eternal laws of nature. Doubt is cast on established ideas in genetics with important lessons. Perhaps Sheldrake takes his arguments too far at times and undoubtedly skeptics will dismiss his conclusions, but he does adduce empirical evidence that is worthy of open-minded analysis. This open-mindedness to new, even shocking, discoveries is an important prerequisite for all intellectual enquiry. Spirituality, often disparaged by rationalists, may yield important insights. We have much to learn about our cerebral capacities; Iain McGilchrist estimates that there are ‘more connections within the human brain than there are particles in the known universe.’

Six hundred years ago the Catholic Church claimed to understand the workings of the universe, and most people subscribed to their analysis. Today most of us scorn the preposterousness of their infallibility. Perhaps in six hundred years time our descendents will chuckle at certain established ideas of the present time; unless in the mean time scientific advances bring about the untimely demise of human life on the planet.


The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry

(Published in Village Magazine, November, 2014)

Few of us can recite a poem in its entirety. Perhaps this no longer matters as even an infant can now find whatever it was on YouTube. Yet many of the outstanding technological advances humanity has made only seem to increase stress levels, generate inequality and cause environmental degradation.
What is the antidote? Is it possible that close engagement with Romantic poetry can bring us from the brink of meltdown? Edward Clarke, the author of ‘The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry’, believes so.
In recent times many in the West have been drawn to the non-dogmatic spiritual traditions of the East from Buddhism to yoga as they search for tranquillity and deep meaning. But Clarke suggests that we “we have our own traditions and mysteries, our own ways of taking hold of breath” that can be found in our inherited poetry.
He argues that “by reciting poems and remembering them, we find that we have been provided with narrative exercises sufficient to apprehend that we are greater than we know”.
Clarke writes of how he continues to draw inspiration from a passage from Milan Kundera’s novel ‘Slowness’. Kundera enquires in one powerful passage:
‘Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars? Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature? There is a Czech proverb that describes their easy indolence in a metaphor: ‘They are gazing at God’s windows’. A person gazing at God’s windows is not bored; he is happy. In our world, indolence has turned into having nothing to do, which is a completely different thing: a person with nothing to do is frustrated, bored, is constantly searching for the activity he lacks”.
Clarke makes bold claims on behalf of his poetic ideal: “Swearing by capitalism, democracy, reason and science, we are all the while cheerfully ignorant about supernatural powers that hide themselves in great poetry”.  Essentially Clarke holds a neo-Platonic, pre-Enlightenment worldview, much like that of most of the poets he adulates including Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Yeats.
Unlike most critics Clarke is unabashed at the suggestion that great poetry engages with supernatural forces: “I contend that the greatest poetry can make us apprehend that God, the centre of religious celebration, whatever we call that nothingness or darkness, incomprehensible and vast in its own being, is a force within man”.
Clarke’s deep engagement has brought him to an explicit belief in the supernatural. He poses the question: “If a work makes us believe in fairies, even temporarily, do they thus come into existence within that work whenever it is read with the most believing mind, however strange that seems?”
The author is unrepentant in response to an accusation from one critic of “spiritual literalism” in his first book. He says: “I will persist in what many critical contemporaries see as a folly because the older poetry calls for it (such is my piety)”. Surely Clarke cannot be faulted for giving poetry a neo-Platonic reading considering the poets he parses would have approved of it rather than the sociological or deconstructive approach now favoured in academic institutions?
Clarke is wary of a melancholic trend in modern poetry. He argues that the worst kind of poetry is confessional. He identifies Sylvia Plath among a raft of poets who he says “are depressingly limited and dangerously egotistical poets”. Clarke insists that poetry should seek to answer eternal questions and eschew self-indulgence.
William Wordsworth’s poetry encapsulates this tension between a Romantic poetry searching for a ‘great beyond’ and the self-referential poetry he holds in contempt: “Wordsworth worries me because he becomes so consumed by the story of his life, ‘The Prelude’, so obsessed with what comes before, that he neglects to develop his capacity to look after, his ‘capacity of thee’, or that which comes to us from the future”.
Clarke identifies historical episodes when pre-modern ideas encounter industrial civilisation as propitious for poetic invention and the other-worldly forms that inhabit such verse. He claims: “Supernatural forms have a habit of entering a country’s literature when its oral culture is dying out and the population becomes more urban and sceptical. In England, genii have flocked to our literature from the sixteenth century onwards. When Yeats was recording the last vestiges of ancient tradition in Ireland during the nineteenth century, the fairies began to find a new home in his verse”.
Clarke endorses the revolutionary ideas of William Blake who favoured a sacramental poetry, and a universal form of religion: “The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nation’s different reception of the Poetic Genius, which is everywhere call’d the Spirit of Prophecy…   As all men are alike, tho’ infinitely various; so all Religions: and as all similars have one source the True Man is the source, he being the Poetic Genius”.
There is a clear divergence between Clarke’s approach and that of one of the leading Modernist poets and critics of the twentieth century, T. S. Eliot. As a devout Christian Eliot rejected what he regarded as the paganism of Romantic poetry. Clarke claims that: “Eliot’s major problem with this book would have been due to his critical position as a Christian”. But Eliot’s devotion led him ultimately to admit that: “The poetry does not matter”.
Clarke is convinced that: “Poetry does matter because it opens paths to self-knowledge by acknowledging indirectly and formally that which I had better call ‘The bright eternal Self that is everywhere’; ‘that is immortality, that is Spirit, that is all”.
This divergence between Christianity and older form of religiosity is identified by the anthropologist Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (2006). She argues that “today’s ‘faiths’ are often pallid affairs – only by virtue of the very fact that they are ‘faiths’, dependent on, and requiring, belief as opposed to direct knowledge. The prehistoric ritual dancer, the maenad or practitioner of Vodou, did not believe in her god or gods: she knew them, because, at the height of group ecstasy, they filled her with their presence”.
The poetry that Clarke esteems evinces this older form of spiritual engagement that a rationalist Christianity, especially that which emerged after the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, superseded. Seen in this way, poetry may be one among other forms of expression including dance and music that allows the human spirit to thrive.
Clarke might be faulted for an elitism that creeps into his evaluation of the poetic imagination. Should we restrict ourselves to the worship at the shrine of a few canonical poets? Or are there many more ‘loafing heroes of folk song’ in our midst as Kundera suggests there once were? Also, the poets Clarke esteems so highly are all male. Is the poetic priesthood a male preserve or should the female imagination be given more emphasis?
Furthermore, it seems unsatisfactory to dismiss the scientific field peremptorily. Undoubtedly there are some scientists that bring ‘scientism’ to an unhelpful extreme such as the tendentious Richard Dawkins. But Clarke may share more of a platform than he realises with others especially Iain McGilchrist. McGilchrist actually taught literature before training as a psychiatrist. His book ‘The Master and his Emissary’ (2009) explores what he views as a pathological imbalance of the brain hemispheres apparent in the Western imagination since the Industrial Revolution, with far too great an emphasis on the problem-solving left, at the expense of the creative right.
Clarke’s book is a powerful polemic that is unapologetic in its spiritual conviction. His Romantic reading of Romantic poetry diverges from most academic discourse and merits fresh appraisal. He traces a line of poetic authority, from Shakespeare to Yeats, which to his great regret was in the end largely broken by industrial civilisation.
As the world confronts the many challenges of a rampant globalism and a dislocated and uninterested population perhaps, as Clarke envisions, a revived mystical poetry, along with other art, can indeed help us comprehend the great beyond, as well as help us cope with the here and now.


Portrait of a Communist as a young man

(Unpublished, 2002)

The decline of both organised religion and mass political activism would seem to suggest that the ‘isms’ from Communism to Catholicism, have been confined to history. With such ideologies swept away by the march of time it would seem the only ‘ism’ left is cynicism.

Some have found in the anti-globalisation movement a refuge from the consumption-driven lifestyle of the west but the nascent movement contains no discernible objective, or philosophical rationale, other than engaging in aimless protests. The attitude seems to be let’s storm the Bastille now and somebody is sure to come with some ideas afterwards.

The voices of protest against the craven use of power for the benefit of a single country or even a single class within a country were not always so incoherent. Half a century ago many of the most intelligent and socially conscious were captivated by a particular ideology – Communism. The ideology that sprang from the writings of Karl Marx and Lenin’s October Revolution.

In this light, it was with particular interest that I read the autobiography of the self-confessed Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm (Hobsbawm, Eric – Interesting Times A Twentieth Century Life, Penguin, 2002). Although some French will be sure to disagree, I do not think it inaccurate to portray Hobsbawm as the greatest historian of the twentieth century. What distinguishes Hobsbawm is not the fluidity of his prose, which can, in truth, be quite turgid, but the breadth of his vision.

If Martians were to come down from earth and they wished to learn about the human species since the French Revolution one would not be doing a disservice to inter-galactic relations to recommend Hobsbawm’s four Ages (the Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, the Age of Empire and the Age of Extremes).

Hobsbawm’s greatness lies in an ability to view the world three dimensionally; the acute eye for detail is never distracted from the overall view. Furthermore, as a peripatetic polyglot, and a Jew by ethnicity, Hobsbawm was a first hand witness of many of the pivotal events of the last century.

Born in Alexandria in 1917 the same year as the October Revolution from which he draws so much inspiration, his parents (his father was British and his mother Austro-Hungarian) soon settled in Vienna where their son Eric was reared. Vienna, the imperial capital of a decaying multicultural mitteleuropean empire was a city where the seeds of two of the most damaging racial ideologies of the twentieth century, Nazism and Zionism, were sown.

Losing his parents, the orphaned teenage Hobsbawm moved to Berlin where he spent his formative political years witnessing the demise of Weimar Germany and the advent of Nazism. It was in this atmosphere of highly charged politicisation that Hobsbawm was converted to Communism.

On its face, the idea of reading the autobiography of an historian sounds uninteresting; suggeting a collection of anecdotes drawn from the often sterile world of academia? Is it not the case that the material of the historian is of interest rather than the historian him or herself? This book escapes tedium and is at times fascinating because it contains an invaluable insight into why such a patently rational and intelligent human being should cling to a seemingly utopian ideology such as Communism.

Communism is an ideology that views the world in terms of historical stages of development, with the ultimate stage, the end of history, being a celestial worker’s paradise where the injustice of material inequality comes to an end. Communists fought and campaigned for their cause with what can be described as a religious fervour, reminiscent of the early stages of Islam.

Like most faiths it involved personal sacrifice for the common good. A virtuous communist was unconcerned by his own life and livelihood because he was working towards the greater good of humanity. He or she was on the side of history.

What is striking about Hobsbawm’s philosophical self-portrait is the almost religious tone of his recollections. ‘For young revolutionaries of my generation mass demonstrations were the equivalent of papal masses for devout Catholics’.

Hobsbawm also describes his disgust for relapsed communists in similarly confessional tones ‘I was strongly repelled by the idea of being in the company of those ex-Communists who turned into fanatical anti-Communists, because they could free themselves from the service of ‘The God that failed’ only by turning him into Satan’.

While Hobsbawm feels no shame in his Communism it is clear that the events of 1956 when Khrushchev revealed the true depravity of Stalin’s rule, and when the Hungarian Revolution was brutally suppressed, were deeply wounding on a personal as well as a political level. He recounts ‘for more than a year, British Communists lived on the edge of the political equivalent of a collective nervous breakdown.’

The experience can be likened to the situation of devout Catholics having to come to terms with revelations of a paedophilic clergy. However, like many Catholics of today, disgusted by particular priests but convinced by the truth of their revelation Hobsbawm remained true to his ‘church’ – ‘emotionally, as one converted as a teenager in the Berlin of 1932, I belonged to the generation tied by an umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution, and of its original home, the October Revolution, however sceptical or critical of the USSR.’

For Hobsbawm and many others, Communism served a proto-religious function. Leo Tolstoy writes ‘Whatever answers faith gives, regardless of which faith, or to whom the answers are given, such answers always give an infinite meaning to the finite existence of man; a meaning that is not destroyed by suffering, deprivation or death.’ In communism the infinite meaning can be found in the maturation of the historical process which would give rise to the communist utopia or heaven.

The outlook of the Communist as described by Nobel Laureate Jose Saramango contains the same religious leitmotif, but also contains an element of distrust for all ideologies:


What hasn’t been taken into account is that it is possible to be a hormonal communist. I carry inside me a hormone that means that I have no other choice than to be a communist. You can ask, ‘against everything? What about the barbarities and crimes committed?’ My answer is that there is probably no difference between the negative, criminal horrendous, horrible things done in the name of communism and everything that the human being has done throughout human history in the name of the best intentions. Christianity is a good example: millions of people have been sacrificed for a doctrine which is its opposite, a doctrine that promised forgiveness, love and compassion. Forgiveness, love and compassion are things we have been able to show now and then, but they have ended up being submerged by the mass of badness that we also carry. That is why I logically continue to be what I am.


Poignantly, Hobsbawm identifies a loss of faith in higher ideals that haunts many young people today. Comparing his youth to contemporary times, he writes ‘we avoided the strain of unhappiness which today frustrates people whose instinct it is to feel about world affairs exactly as we did then, but who find it impossible to translate their feelings into action as we did.’

Who is to say that a new ideology will not emerge to fill this moral vacuum and harness the instincts of this generation of malcontents? Or perhaps it is better that ideology should be caste aside, as Saramango seems to suggest, because of its legitimisation of “the mass of badness that we also carry.”

Elizabeth David and the British Gastronomic Enlightenment

Elizabeth David and the British Gastronomic Enlightenment

Published in The London Magazine April/May 2010

The landscape of British cuisine would be unrecognisable without the influence of Elizabeth David, whose French Provincial Cookery has been fifty years in print. Not least, the sophistication of her prose – up to this point no British writer had brought a literary sensibility to bear on food writing – created a climate where discussion of gastronomy, which Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin defined as ‘the reasoned comprehension of everything connected with the nourishment of man’, became acceptable and, at times, even de rigueur in polite society.

In Spicing Up Britain – The Multicultural History of British Food, Panikos Panayi’s analysis of the evolution of British food culture, he likens her role in this culinary enlightenment to a Rousseau or Voltaire because of the number of writers who appeared in her wake.

David Kynaston in Austerity Britain 1945-51 is rather more circumspect. He asserts: ‘it is arguable that her influence has been exaggerated. Not only was she far from the most widely read cookery writer – significantly, she seems to have had little or nothing to do with the mass-market women’s magazines.’ He does, though, acknowledge that ‘among those at the very vanguard of the culinary broadening out, David was the totemic figure.’

Thus, while she is not a household name her influence in turning food into a topic for intellectual discourse, and, especially, in generating an awareness and appreciation of other European cuisines among legions of chefs, professional and otherwise, cannot be discounted. Perhaps the River Café, whose alumni (Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall et al) read like a ‘Who’s Who’ of English gastronomy, best embodies her vision of Mediterranean cooking with the finest ingredients.

By the time David came around to writing her books, it is fair to say that British cuisine had reached a nadir. In the 1930s George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier argued that the ‘English palate, especially the working class palate, now rejects good food almost automatically.’ Talk of food was regarded as crass, and shamefully Francophile, even for the upper-middle class as Harold Macmillan recalled of the circles he grew up in before World War I. An interesting echo of a Tory distaste for gastronomic musings can be discerned in views expressed by Boris Johnson in the Observer in 2008: ‘I think all food is delicious. I just can’t understand why people go on and on about it, especially restaurant critics. I mean, food is good, isn’t it?’

Moreover, according to Stephen Mennell’s in All Manners of Food: ‘The really striking, virtually central concern running through the British [cookery] trade press for the best part of a century is with economy.’ The spirit of ‘waste-not-want-not’ fostered an industrial food culture that saw eating in empirical, calorific terms, rather than as an expression of individuality or an evocation of place.

The privations of World War II hardly helped matters by creating an atmosphere, as David Kynaston has observed, where ‘no unbearable lightness of being’ prevailed. ‘Make do and mend’ was the zeitgeist. The continuation of rationing was causing not just hardship but also a stasis or even deterioration in culinary skills.

It was into this setting that the bohemian Elizabeth David strode. She had been travelling around Europe, mainly France, since the age of sixteen, between half-hearted attempts to make a career as an actress on the London stage, and before spending what might be described as a ‘good war’ in Alexandria after being rescued from a rather idyllic sojourn on a Greek island. While in war-time Egypt she moved in the same circles as literary types such as Lawrence Durrell and Patrick Leigh Fermor, and entered into an unsuccessful marriage.

On repatriation to England at the end of the war, David, a tempestuous personality at the best of times, did not take kindly to the bland fare which she was forced to endure. She was particularly outraged by dining experiences when marooned in a hotel in Ross-on-Wye. She later recalled: ‘there was no excuse, none, for such unspeakably unpleasant meals as in that dining room were put in front of me. To my agonized homesickness for the sun and southern food was added an embattled rage that we should be asked – and should accept – the endurance of such cooking.’

Neither was she best pleased by the conservative cooking habits of some her friends. Helping one companion to prepare the family’s evening meal, she injected a bit of life into a gravy by substituting red wine for the cabbage water that was normally used. The children lapped up the new version but her hostess was concerned lest the wine would intoxicate her offspring. David’s claim that the alcohol had been boiled off fell on deaf ears so, ‘[b]ack we had to go to the barbarous gravy routine.’

Her sense of outrage seems to have impelled her to forge a new awareness of the art of cookery through the publication of a series of recipe books that began with Mediterranean Cooking (1950), culminating in her last non-posthumous work An Omelette and a Glass of Wine (1984). Her style of writing was sparse but clear and featured often extensive quotations from her favourite authors. She could deploy a caustic wit to devastating effect when roused. This quality can be seen in an article for The Spectator entitled ‘Lucky Dip’ (29 June 1962) where she mentioned that she had given the filling for a commercial veal and ham pie to her cat, who had turned it down.

Despite engaging with specifically British recipes and themes in some works, her culinary imagination was invariably stirred by memories of the sun-baked surroundings of her dilettante youth. Thus she writes: ‘Here in London it is an effort of will to believe in the existence of such a place [Provence] at all’. Indeed, it could be argued that she developed a Manichean view of a division between the diabolic depths of British food, and the celestial heights of continental gastronomy.

Referring to the routine evening set meals in ‘more modest hotels and restaurants’ in France, she say that the ‘cooking of these dishes would possibly make them into notable meals here in England, but in France one’s expectations are higher, and one’s disappointment at a dull meal consequently greater.’ Not only were English restaurants subjected to criticism but also, seemingly, the very produce of the land. She quotes Ford Maddox Ford to the effect that ‘There [in Provence] there is no more any evil, for there the apple will not flourish and brussels sprout will not grow at all.’ She seems to have had an abhorrence for all things brassicaceae: ‘the drabness and dreariness and stuffy smells evoked by … [the Brussels sprout’s] very name, has nothing at all to do with southern cooking.’

Arabella Boxer in Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food argues that by introducing cheerless post-war England to the delights of olive oil, parmesan and garlic, David diverted attention from the ‘brief flowering’ of English food that took place between the wars, a cuisine that ‘had absorbed a lot of French and American ideas; but it was still based on traditional, home-produced ingredients’ such as simple grills and roasts, fruit fools, summer puddings and Bakewell tarts and cold meats and salads ‘which became more interesting’. David, however, can hardly be held responsible for the failure of British culture to produce adequate writers on that subject. She cannot be faulted for her own inspirations; what she did, above all, was popularise the concept of gastronomic writing as a genre beyond simply recipe books. By establishing this precedent she popularised the discussion of food, and provided ample scope for her heirs, such as Boxer, to reclaim any perceived lost traditions.

Nonetheless, while Dorothy Hartley is correct when she says: ‘We do enjoy foreign dishes and admire continental cooks but when we cook the foreign dishes the dishes, like the foreigners become “naturalised English”’, a fissure does seem to develop between a people and their terroir when the provenance of so much food, like olive oil for instance, is foreign. David was unapologetic: ‘all of us nowadays, except perhaps some curiously bigoted members of the catering profession, have travelled a little, and on visits abroad have acquired tastes which, so far from disagreeing with us, have become a part of our daily lives.’

The kind of domestication of foreign cuisine that David encouraged can be seen as a positive development in that it connotes an avoidance of xenophobia and the smooth operation of multiculturalism – by comparison the French tend to turn their noses up at the very notion of non-French food while simultaneously displaying greater levels of xenophobia if their political preferences are taken as a measure.

Nonetheless, though her official biographer, Artemis Cooper, argues that David always informed people what locally grown food was in season, the ample produce of English agriculture, creams and butters and handmade cheeses, a practice of grass-feeding sheep and cattle, wild fish, abundant game, all tended to pale for her in comparison to foreign alternatives.

The imported foodstuffs that she advocated are not cheap either monetarily or in environmental terms. Arguably, then, she has contributed to a division in British cuisine between a high church of ‘posh’ – generally foreign food – and the traditional and affordable, low-church fare of fish fingers and spaghetti hoops, exemplifying and even amplifying Mennell’s maxim that: ‘Higher social circles have repeatedly used food as one of many means of distinguishing themselves from lower rising classes.’

One area of British food, impacting on all classes, where David attempted to prevent the encroachment of industrialization was bread-making. In article and in her book English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977), she decried the advent of the Chorleywood process which uses lower grades of wheat and comes at the nutritional cost of increased salt and yeast and decreased protein value. Alas, today eighty per cent of British bread is made using that process.

Elizabeth David is now regarded as the doyenne of British cookery and French Provincial Cooking is regarded by many as her finest work. She made the foreign accessible and almost single-handedly forged a British gastronomic tradition. Perhaps her most enduring legacy is that today Britain probably boasts some of the most adventurous and exciting food in the world, but in its lack of esteem for native produce, also some of the most bland and insipid.

A Revolution in Work

Contemporary job insecurity is more than a response to dominant neo-Liberalism. The pace of technological change gives less of a role for human beings with millions of jobs predicted to disappear. With the advance of third and even fourth level education a serious mismatch has emerged between skill sets and the requirements of our economies. Only a revolution in work will allow for greater fulfillment and individual autonomy in this changed environment.

Theodore Zeldin’s latest work: The Hidden Pleasures of Mankind: A New Way of Remembering the Past and Imagining the Future offers a profound examination of the failings of contemporary corporations to offer dignified employment to their workers. He mines history for alternative responses to contemporary challenges.

The book is an extension of Zeldin´s non-profit Oxford Muse foundation that provides an online platform “to stimulate courage and invention in personal, professional and cultural life“. It is a forum where ideas are flashed before participants offering a kind of intellectual Tinder. Proceeds from the book go to that project.

In terms of originality and variety, Zeldin –  born to Jewish-Russian parents in 1933 – is arguably the preeminent historian of his generation in Britain. His lack of a deserved public profile derives perhaps from concentration on the history of France although his Intimate History of Humanity (1994), like this work, provided a staggering global range of sources in his exploration of the human condition in different historical circumstances. But as well as providing a collection of portraits that yield insights into historical processes, in his latest work he looks explicitly at how contemporary societies might offer greater satisfaction for beleagured citizens.

He is a trenchant critic of large corportions and trends towards privatisation. In spite of this, Ikea allowed him to conduct research into its modus operandi which he criticises for a ruthlessly expansionary appetite and inability to nurture the hidden talents of many of its workers. Zeldin harks back to an economy composed primarily of micro businesses operating at all levels of society resulting in greater communication, and a personal relationship with money as opposed to one mediated by impersonal banking institutions.

Zeldin argues that individuals must overcome an inability and unwillingness to share deep thoughts attributing this to how: ´Many are schooled to believe that they need to be hypocrits. The hidden thoughts in people´s heads are the great darkness that surround us.´ For Zeldin the utility of the historical knowledge he has accumulated over a long and impressive career is apparent: ´I juxtapose people and ideas from different centuries and backgrounds so as to find new answers to the questions that perplex the earth´s present inhabitants.´ The hidden pleasures of life lie in the exchange of creative ideas that have brought satisfaction through history.

He is also a restless soul himself. He says: ´I do not wish to spend my time on earth as a bewildered tourist surrounded by strangers, on holidays from nothingness, in the dark as to when the holiday will end, stuck in the queue waiting for another dollop of ice-cream happiness.‘ It appears that a life of climbing the greasy academic pole accumulating honours has proved insufficiently rewarding for the author.

He wonders what the great adventure of our time should be, recalling (eurocentrically) that in the sixteenth century it was the discovery of new continents; in the seventeenth questions of science challenged great minds; while in the eighteenth equality was the great idea that gripped energetic individuals.

Echoed across history he has already listened to a widespread contemporary concern to live less self-centered existences; or in harmony with all the earth’s creatures; or “a quest for beauty, and its appreciation in many forms.” But the great idea of our time remains elusive during an epoch when more people than ever seek a purpose to their lives, and where dominant corporations offer scant reward for skill and artistry, preferring instead a form of ‘teamwork’ where orders are taken from on high.

Later in the book Zeldin considers that giving new meaning to work could be the great adventure of our time: “so that it is more than the exercise of a valued skill, more than the enjoyment of collaboration with others, more than a price that has to be paid in search of security and status, means using work to redefine freedom.” Zeldin is calling for a subtle but far-reaching evolution. Quite what this “freedom” is not explicit but he favours the more haphazard arrangements that once obtained to the formality in most work environments today. The latter sees individuals carry masks into their daily lives.

He traces the origins of the companies that now dominate the world’s resources, recalling how for over a century between 1720 and 1825 in England, during an era of seismic development, it was a criminal offence to start a company. He draws attention to how in the United States until the nineteenth century there were two competing ideas regarding the purpose of companies: the first were those with charters restricted to the pursuit of objectives in the public interest such as canal building; the other regime issued charters of a general character allowing companies to engage in whatever business proved profitable. The latter category remains the dominant form, divorced from responsibility for fellow-citizens, it has carried all before it.

Zeldin quotes Adam Smith, the founding father of modern economics, who predicted that the tedium of performing monotonous work renders an individual: “stupid and narrow-minded. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in rational conversation, but of conceiving generous, noble or tender sentiment; and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning even the ordinary duties of private life.” History certainly shows how many individuals have risen above their lot as unskilled workers, nonetheless a life of unceasing monotony can have disastrous effects. But one wonders whether there ever was, or can be, a fabled ‘New Jerusalem’ or ‘Holy City of Byzantium’ where physical work and mental engagement attain a balance; an artisan creativity inhabiting all fields. Of course that elusiveness should not stop us striving towards it.

It is apparent that multinationals such as Ikea and Walmart, biographies of whose founders (Ingvar Kampard and Sam Walton respectively) he explores, have gobbled up huge numbers of smaller enterprises. Zeldin found that before the nineteenth century villages and towns contained multiple businesses which demanded a wide variety of skills rather than the narrow specialisation that bedevils contemporary life. Peasants found many outlets outside of the season of the harvest. He argues that: “Without a Reformation of Work the wonderful aspirations of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity cannot grow to more than an incomplete slogan.” Many workers now lack a sense of fulfillment in their jobs, their real passions and talents not recognized and nurtured by remote employers.

The book has chapters with surprising questions such as “How many nations can one love at the same time?” and “Is ridicule the most important form of protest”. He provides short biographical accounts of a range of diverse characters: artists, businessmen, philosophers and scientists who have already sought answers to some of the questions that he pursues. At times these biographies might seem cursory but the breadth of his knowledge ranging across eras and continents allows what may seem broad brush history to form a vivid picture, and assuredly a guide to different forms of life.

Albert Einstein was among those who bemoaned the dominance of specialization in his field. He decried how it is “providing an ever-widening gulf between the intellectual worker and the non-specialist”; even going so far as to joke that “since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity I do not understand it myself anymore”.

Zeldin himself argues that: “Specialisation has been responsible for innumerable improvements in skill and knowledge, but it now only bears fruit when it is pollinated by seemingly unconnected visitors from other specialities and when it can escape from being paralysed by bureaucratic medication.” He disparages the legacy of a century of academic growth: “I did not foresee, however, nor did anyone else, the huge cloud of ignorance that the explosion of university education would spread across the world.’ Insightfully he writes: “every time I want an answer to some questions … I risk being buried under a torrent of responses, a hurricane of facts never imagined before, and an onslaught of ever-more ingenious explanations, each from a different point of view. The more information there is, the more ignorance there is.” He seems convinced that most academics have lost sight of the big picture.

The author provides an interesting analysis on the history of the hotel trade. He argues that this sector could become “a significant force in promoting a better understanding of enigmatic strangers and mysterious neighbours”. But these institutions have changed considerably since the nineteenth century when in most parts of the world meals were served at communal tables. That was until Ellsworth Milton Statler (1863-1928) began to offer “a bed and a bath for a dollar and a half,” and standardized the experience in the way Henry Ford did cars. The hospitality industry was born.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic Cesar Ritz was building imitation palaces as hotels that parodied aristocratic rituals of ostentatious opulence for newly ascendant bourgeoisie. The cumulative result is over-priced and impersonal institutions rapidly reaching obsolescence. Unsurprisingly, many people choose the more social and often cheaper experience of Airbnb, or even couch surfing.

As part of his research into the Future of Work, Zeldin examined the experience of hotel workers and guests. Fascinatingly, in light of the recent terrorist attack, one of the hotels he researched was in Tunisia. He found that “In a Tunisian seaside resort, most hotel guests on holidays were too exhausted by their jobs to want to do anything more than rest, and never spoke to the locals; they went back knowing very little about the country they had visited, while the locals who cleaned their rooms and served their meals felt insulted by their lack of interest.” Unfortunately, one local took it into his head to respond to insult with injury. It is a depressing thought that cheap air travel only seems to accentuate differences between cultures.

It is obvious that we need to develop new economic models that allow greater human flourishing and exert less demands on the environment. Zeldin’s book is an important contribution to these debates, especially his critique of corporate culture and the ‘management science’ that guides its leaders. Perhaps one failing of the book is that it tries to do too much: exploring important questions such as gender relations and the capacity for religions to change dilutes its core enquiry into the evolution of work practices and their possible reform.

Finally, Zeldin’s draws an interesting analogy between the importance of human connections and the cells in our bodies billions of which die and are replaced inside our bodies every day: “They are born with a capacity for suicide, which they trigger when they fail to exchange signals with their neighbours; they survive when they succeed in combining with other cells to produce something more than themselves. Cells are constantly transforming themselves, and the proteins in them adapt to the other proteins around them, like dancers joining a ballet.” Humans flourish through social interaction and revelation. Working life should nurture this but often it has the opposite effect. Political rights conferring freedom are of little relevance if individuals are not free in themselves. A revolution in how we work, as well as the economic system that underpins it, is overdue.