I have an on-off relationship with the Internet at the moment, and a limited supply of books, so to satisfy a deep hunger for reading material I have been copying and pasting free texts into Word. My favourite discovery has been the complete archives of the Paris Review “Art of Fiction” profiles, which I recommend for authorial insights as well as glimpses into peculiar odd minds. Here is the most purely entertaining extract, in which P.G. Wodehouse comments on contemporary fiction…

Do you read any contemporary novels?

I’ve read some of Norman Mailer.

Do you like his writing?

I don’t like his novels very much, but he writes very interesting nonfiction stuff. I liked Advertisements for Myself very much.

How about the Beats? Someone like Jack Kerouac, for instance, who died a few years ago?

Jack Kerouac died! Did he?


Oh . . . Gosh, they do die off, don’t they?

The Old Town of Toruń sits on the banks of the Vistula, suitably fortified, as you can see, against English invaders…

Crossing the bridge I indulged in a little nostalgia…

…and beheld unfortunate anti-communist illiteracy…


On the banks, it was a good day for a spot of reflection…

…and it was the lunchtime of an ageing mariner…

Boats carried tourists through the afternoon…

For some reason, dwarves had been imprisoned underneath the pier…

Toruń was the hometown of Nicholas Copernicus. Here, I thank him for robbing us of our sense of existential importance…

Copernican and Teutonic souvenirs featured heavily in the marketplace, along with these peculiar good luck charms…

I had no idea of who Zbigniew Lengren was but anyone with a monument like this has to have been a good chap…

I popped into the rather ornate Holy Spirit Church…

One of the most beautiful pieces in the church was its most humble…


Travelling onwards, into a summer evening…

Henry Louis Mencken had two enemies above all others: the masses and the moralists. It was his opinion that they Menckenwere one and the same. He wrote, in Damn!: A Book of Calumny, that…

…the mob is eternally virtuous, and the only thing necessary to get it in favor of some new and super-oppressive law is to convince it that that law will be distasteful to the minority that it envies and hates. The poor numskull who is so horribly harrowed by Puritan pulpit-thumpers that he can’t go to a ball game on Sunday afternoon without dreaming of hell and the devil all Sunday night is naturally envious of the fellow who can, and being envious of him, he hates him and is eager to destroy his offensive happiness. The farmer who works 18 hours a day and never gets a day off is envious of his farmhand who goes to the crossroads and barrels up on Saturday afternoon; hence the virulence of prohibition among the peasantry. The hard-working householder who, on some bitter evening, glances over the Saturday Evening Post for a square and honest look at his wife is envious of those gaudy drummers who go gallivanting about the country with scarlet girls; hence the Mann act. If these deviltries were equally open to all men, and all men were equally capable of appreciating them, their unpopularity would tend to wither.

This diagnosis of moral crusades is striking in its inaccuracy. It is true that common men can be imbued with puritanism, and fundamentalist religion could not exist otherwise, but it is wrong-headed to think that this is due to envy. Arabic Salafists could down alcohol and ditch their wives as easily as American agnostics if they shook off their religious creed but it turns out that beliefs can be as and more emotionally satisfying as sensory pleasure. Closer to home: are Middle English prohibitionists envious of the crack fiends they seek to deny a fix? I doubt that most have any idea of what heroin is like except that it can lead one to turn out like Peter Doherty.

Mencken was also wrong to think that common men need be inclined towards virtuous living. The years since prohibition maintained its uneasy rule over America have seen an unprecedented rise in drinking, drug-taking, fornicating and material accumulation of which adults, and young people, of every class have energetically partaken. True enough, we have a great deal that still stirs the millions into emotional fevers, but censoriousness in the case of age-old ethics of restraint has all but disappeared. Tell the average man or woman that you feel that sport should not take place on Sunday afternoons and they will laugh until they reach the point when they grasp that you are earnest, at which they will conclude that you are freakish.

It is ironic that Mencken, the arch aristocrat, was significant in his contribution to populism: one of the finest sharpshooters among the progressive ranks that picked apart the tired old armies of traditional ethics and allowed a wave of social liberalism to sweep the rich and poor into a strange new cultural age.

It does not take Anthony Comstock to observe that amid the enthusiasm for brief and often self-involved pleasures, significant customs and enduring consolations have been undervalued. From the steep decline in stable families to the discomfiting rise in social isolation, Westerners are too fractured to be very moblike and it turns out that this is not an unqualified blessing.

Mencken may have been too much of an individualist to appreciate this. He cared about great men. Everyone else was entertainment. I quote, again, from his Book

The only permanent values in the world are truth and beauty…This is the heritage of man, but not of men. The great majority of men are not even aware of it. Their participation in the progress of the world, and even in the history of the world, is infinitely remote and trivial. They live and die, at bottom, as animals live and die.

It is true that most people will not get far in or with science and art, and that their lives will not be troubled to all that great an extent by the more fundamental questions of existence. There are two points to be made, though. The first is that the lives and works of the greatest people have depended, to a large extent, on their existence in societies populated by conscientious and energetic men and women. The second is that those of us who are not phenomenal in our cognition and creativity have emotional lives alone and together that are meaningful to us, and, in their triumphs and tragedies, often rich in charm and interest. Not everyone can be Shakespeare, Dickens or Mencken favourite Mark Twain but these men drew inspiration from the lives of the forgotten. One is entitled to reject or disregard this but I think that societies with no care for the wellbeing of all but a select few of their members are doomed to callousness so dramatic that it entails barbarism.

To believe this, one need not deny individual greatness any more than admiring a landscape prevents one from studying particular flowers. I suspect that Mencken knew this or he would not have been such a keen journalist. Some of his enthusiasm can be attributed to a morbidity but once this has been accepted as an avenue of pleasure, as well as listening to opera or reading the classics, it would be foolish to suppose that one could transcend the masses.

GrouchoThe Modern Review was a magazine edited by Julie Burchill and Toby Young, which served up “low culture for high-brows”. A Guardian profile observed that it “redrew the cultural map, forever wiping the high-cultural smirk from the face of Britain’s critics”. A while ago I claimed that its influence on British Conservatism was a symptom of a movement that had so prioritised economic concerns that it had lost its sense of the importance of culture.

One data point that I used was Cosmo Landesman, Burchill’s ex-husband and a founder of The Modern Review, writing in the Spectator in defence of dirty old men. Reflecting on this, I thought that it might have been harsh. The ageing libido is an intriguing subject that has been explored in art to very fine effect.

Yet those works explored the theme with style and Landesman did not. He has returned to validate my judgement with a Spectator column on his “lust for right-wing women”…

I belong to that small, deviant group of liberal-lefty-pro-feminist men who find conservative/right-wing women super sexy.

Oh dear.

Of course, the intrusion of politics into the bedroom could also be explored in an interesting way. Landesman, however, offers this…

I have slept with women who write for the New Statesman and women who write for the Daily Telegraph and I can’t honestly claim that one lot is better than the other.

Bragging about one’s sexual prowess is always sad. When you are almost sixty it is downright tragic.

But there are certain post-coital benefits that come with women of the right. They never subject a man to the music of Nick Drake or Nina Simone.

What is “left-wing” about listening to Nick Drake and Nina Simone?

As good libertarians, they don’t mind if you smoke in bed or pick up a newspaper or roll over and go to sleep…

What is “libertarian” about reading in bed?

Nor do you ever have to lie in bed and watch some mawkish film about Nelson Mandela or one made by Michael Moore.

It is perhaps beside the point but Michael Moore references are so dated that one might as well drop in jokes about Al Gore, Friends and Janet Jackson exposing her cleavage at the Superbowl.

I am sure that Landesman is a pleasant chap to know but if this dull boorishness represents right-wing humour we should tip concrete into the graves of Waugh and Mencken lest their spinning cause earthquakes in Combe Florey and Baltimore.


Phillip LarkinChristopher Hitchens wrote, in a review of Philip Larkin’s interesting if undignified Letters to Monica, that “it is inescapable that we should wonder how and why poetry manages to transmute the dross of existence into magic or gold, and the contrast in Larkin’s case is a specially acute one”.

Indeed. Disagreeability is common in writers. What makes Larkin’s more surprising is that it was manifested in such humdrum ways: pettiness, parochialism and porn collecting. How could a man who spent so much of his life grumbling about bills, or leafing through dog-eared back issues of Bamboo & Frolic, produce beauty on the scale of An Arundel Tomb?

Distinguishing between the life and work of an artist is a wise move inasmuch as the value of the latter can transcend whatever dark surprises the former might yield. (And it must be said that Larkin’s were trivial compared to the motley collection of ideologues, paedophiles and rapists other biographers have damned.) Yet it would be folly to imagine that the two are not related – and, indeed, to insist on absolute separation can demean the life more than it ennobles the work.

Often, I believe, the lives of artists seem pathetic next to their creations because their art embodies that which they could not express through their behaviour. It was easy for Larkin to grouse in letters to Miss Jones, or to leer and mock in correspondence with the elder Amis, but it would have been more difficult to express his fears, sadness and longing to his friends. The more interesting an idea or emotion the harder it becomes to deal with the thing. Poetry was a form through which these more sympathetic and yet more difficult tendencies could be explored and expressed and, thus, it not only assures his status as an artist but goes some way towards redeeming him as a man.

ZizekContinental philosopher and postmodern celebrity Slavoj Zizek was accused of plagiarising from, of all places, the white nationalist journal American Renaissance in a study of the anti-semitic theoretician Kevin MacDonald. Zizek offered this “clarification” to the Critical Theory blog…

…a friend told me about Kevin Macdonald’s theories, and I asked him to send me a brief resume. The friend send [sic] it to me, assuring me that I can use it freely since it merely resumes another’s line of thought. Consequently, I did just that – and I sincerely apologize for not knowing that my friend’s resume was largely borrowed from Stanley Hornbeck’s review of Macdonald’s book.

Copying another person’s prose is idle at best. What this explanation reveals, however, is that Zizek is guilty of something other than plagiarism. Consider what he wrote on MacDonald…

We should have no illusions here: measured by the standards of the great Enlightenment tradition, we are effectively dealing with something for which the best designation is the old orthodox Marxist term for “bourgeois irrationalists”: the self-destruction of Reason. The only thing to bear in mind is that this new barbarism is a strictly post-modern phenomenon, the obverse of the highly reflexive self-ironical attitude—no wonder that, reading authors like MacDonald, one often cannot decide if one is reading a satire or a “serious” line of argumentation.

Yet now he claims that he has not read him at all. If his explanation is correct, then, it seems that he relies on friends to give him evidence to bolster his ideas and lies in an attempt to make it look as if he found it. Those, it appears, are the epistemological standards of one of the most celebrated philosophers of our age.

The other possibility is that his explanation is bogus. Whether or not Zizek is a far right plant spreading ideas throughout the modern left; a CIA agent promoting black propaganda or a bearded Andy Kaufman in another European guise are theories that I cannot judge.

estateA Guardian review of a socialist polemic offers this stonker of a sentence…

Her constituency, she says, is the underclass – gay and transgender people, goths, sex workers, rioters, anarchists – arguably the people with the most to lose from the neoliberalist agenda.

In what parallel universe are British housing estates heaving with goths, anarchists and gay people? Do not misunderstand me, I am not claiming that “the underclass” is defined by its colourful statist heterosexuality – there are headbangers, class warriors and same sex couples amid this vaguely defined demographic – but I would have assumed that “being poor” was the most significant qualification. I am no expert but I have heard that anarchists and gay people can be quite, quite middle class. “Being poor”, however, is not as interesting a distinction for commentators who see themselves as paratroopers in the culture wars – especially as working class men and women are liable to be on the other side.

How, by the way, has the age of austerity made goths so vulnerable? Was Labour subsidising Cannibal Corpse LPs?

[Photo: Iridescenti.]


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