Saturday, 22 August 2015

A Warning

[I]t is a great mistake to suppose that the only writers who matter are those whom the educated in their saner moments can take seriously. There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures, and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people, who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility. And it occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history.
---Warrant for Genocide: the Myth of the Jewish World-Conspiracy and theProtocols of the Elders of Zion, p. 18

Monday, 17 August 2015


Not your usual wedding speech
Delivered Friday 29th June, 2015

The Meaning of Marriage & Wedding

My decision to ask for your hand in marriage was free and I did it without thinking. It was free insofar I did not follow any external norms; I did not ask you to marry me for religious, social or pragmatic (fiscal) reasons, let alone because 'one' does it. As the decision was motivated by love alone and love is an essential determination of will, it conforms to Kant's criteria of a autonomous, i.e. a truly free act (according to H. Frankfurt). I did it without thinking as I never reflected on whether I did the right thing, but also never really thought about what it was that I was doing. Without being able to explicate that, I cannot be said to know what I am doing. And this is unacceptable.
The freedom of my marriage proposal and our marriage rests on the fact that they were not necessitated by any given norm. This implies however that I cannot draw on any traditional ideology to explain what marriage is. One feature found across many accounts which I would like to incorporate is the emphasis on stability, consistency and a lifelong commitment. I also assume that marriage is based on love. Marriage is therefore a loving relationship explicitly projected as one for life. Although temporary marriage and purely political marriages are thereby excluded, this formal definition of marriage leaves its implementation fairly undetermined: quality, quantity, modality and relation are to be settled by the partners. This also implies the possibility to change these categorical parameters as life and love allow or demand it. Marriage is not static.
But is a loving, life-long relationship at all possible? And is it a good idea to even try it? The usual postmodern replies go that despite all dynamism you needlessly limit yourself and give up all the possibilities of lust and life in favour of a metaphysical or romantic ideal. Marriage offers just another possibility of failing and there might be reasons to assume that this is indeed unavoidable. Anthropological considerations certainly seem to show conditions of impossibility of marriage rather than the opposite. Marriage would then have turned out to be a honorable but basically hopeless undertaking. Factors contributing towards this state of affairs include: the castration-complex, a genetically fixed mixed-mating-strategy, a genetically fixed propensity for Bonobo-like free love, the (hormonal) instability of love itself and last but not least the human potential for boredom and the matching curiosity. The rates of divorce seem to confirm the power of these factors. We seem to be limited to medium-range relationships at best and all promises and decisions beyond that appear to be precarious and illusory.
How destructive these considerations are hinges on how powerful we deem these factors to be – and how open we deal with them. A lifelong relationship is certainly under threat from many external and internal forces, so a successful relationship needs to be understood as a difficult accomplishment rather than the 'natural' course of things. But this just corrects the enlightened mistakes about the power of man to understand and control himself – and so maybe even allows for a realistic adjustment of expectations. As long as we do not absolutes of the factors listed above, but grant ourselves a (small) corridor of free decisions and a certain amount of power over ourselves, marriage remains possible. To deal ultimately with this issue we would have to investigate the human condition in general and solve the problem of free will in particular. But I will leave that as a topic for lighthearted conversation over the next course.
Given that marriage as I conceive of it is possible and indeed desirable, we still need to deal with the meaning of the wedding. Since for a marriage to start with a formal or official ceremony is no necessity – and indeed not even self-evident. The Roman matrimonium for example was not based on any official or religious ceremony, but on the verbal consent of all parties – although the nuptiae were of course celebrated duly with family and friends. Even our own pre-marital relationship could count as a kind of common law marriage. That we were in it for the long run even before I proposed to Nora can be gleaned from the fact that Nora did not just answer “yes”, but “yes, of course, naturally!”. In general no loving lifelong relationship is dependent on any official or public act. And in turn neither the vows, nor the signatures or the rings guarantee a happy marriage. There is no such guarantee, we are not powerful enough to give it, but we are free enough to decide consciously to devote our lives fully to someone and to promise to care about her for the rest of our lives. And thereby I have arrived at the essence of wedding as I understand it.
For the dual fact of decision and promise is decisive. The beginning of our marriage thus differs radically from the start of our relationship, which was – from my point of view – mainly something that happened to me, a passive experience, despite all my confused activity. This is why I dislike the polemical metaphor of conquest in the context of falling in love: conquering implies a certain strategic distance to the events and genuine – calculating – activity, both of which I can safely deny my former self. If one wants to use a violent metaphor, stick to Eros' arrow when talking about falling in love.
To propose (and answer) is – in stark contrast to falling in love – an action. But what exactly does it consist in? However marriage is defined exactly, according to our given definition, the decision to get married is a decision for a lifelong commitment. It thusly stands in a long row of decisions leading out of the chaotic, passive beginning of a relationship, two of which I'd like to pick out, namely the avowal of love and the public appearance and introduction. There are many ways of constituting a relationship and communicating your feelings, but the saying the L-word is special. Why? We do not have to go deep into speech act theory to understand that an avowal of this kind is not just a description of the state of affairs – or merely an expression a la Wittgenstein. It is an act of becoming responsible, it destroys ambivalence, objectifies our feelings and shows how serious we are about the relationship. Introducing our partners to our friends has a similar function. We objectify and stabilise 'us' by letting the others acknowledge us as a couple. Implicit prestages are holding hands in public or even the decision to go out as a couple at all. Again the explicit introduction of your better half destroys ambivalence, so the public appearance constitutes another decision in favour of the relationship.
I believe the proposal and the wedding should be understood in line with these decisions, in fact, as a combination of the two. It is the highest form of decision, because it aims at the whole course of your life and manifests publicly and symbolically, i.e. in maximally objectified form. In this it stands opposed to the mute, passive, momentary beginning of the relationship. To be true no matter what is the meaning of our vows, just as the gold of our rings will 'work', i.e. be shaped and formed slightly for the whole course of our lives, but never rust or lose its form.

Having conceived of the wedding as a combination of avowal and public introduction, i.e. as a very loud “I love you”, I'm left with doing just that: Nora, I love you; I wish to spend my life with you and I promise you to be true to you in good times and in bad. I'm infinitely grateful and happy that you have decided to become my wife!

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

MOONBRIGHT by Dannie Abse

Afterwards, late, walking home from hospital,
that December hour too blatantly moonbright
 - such an unworldly moon so widely round,
an orifice of scintillating arctic light -

I thought how the effrontery of a similar moon,
a Pirandello moon that would make men howl,
would, in future, bring back the eidolon
of you, father, propped high on pillow
your mouth ajar, your nerveless hand in mine.

At home, feeling hollow, I shamelessly wept
- whether for you or myself I do not know.
Tonight a bracing wind makes my eyes cry
while a cloud dociles an impudent moon
that is and was, and is again, and was.

Men become mortal the night their fathers die. 

Saturday, 25 July 2015

William and Estelle Faulkner

Excerpt from a letter to my mother, in Notting Hill, from my father, in Oxford, Mississippi, dated October 14, 1959

The Alumni House
University of Mississippi

Wednesday October 14, 1959

Dearest Jay

I did not see Falkner [sic] in the end, but only Mrs Falkner: but this was beyond all reasonable expectation.  The Connection is made, & if ever Falkner wants a platform, I think she’ll fix it.  But I don’t suppose he ever will.
         He has lived here all his life.  The house is simply beautiful.  White as usual, built of wood on Kentish ply-board lines, the usual tall wooden portico pillars, cedars surrounding.  The tall, airy, high-ceiling-rooms and the slender wooden bannisters & the weathered timber floor all joined in a lovely unity.  They were burning cedar in the fireplaces, & the aroma spread through the house.
         Falkner stands for absolute negro equality, for the new South, for the American south in a way.  Like an Irishman he savours and chews over the intolerable inescapable marvellous memories of his childhood & his past, but could not, I think, be called backward looking in any way.  He is unsentimental, and is no longer fighting the civil war, as so many of them are in a fatuous Golf Club kind of way, claiming association and identity with virtues & graces they never had & never will have except by bogus proxy – and yet the picture over the sitting room fireplace in Falkner’s house is the picture of Robert E. Lee…
         Mrs Falkner, Mrs Estelle, is 58, delicate, survivor of two husbands, fragile, once a Southern Belle, and an absolute No 1 knock-out with more sex-appeal in pure concentrated quite irresistible form than all of Hollywood added together & multiplied by six.  She was adorable, and, of course, quite impossible I suppose.  She does not vote, ON PRINCIPLE: and what the principle is, as you watch her holding her cigarette between her fourth and little finger, her hands moving exquisitely on the fulcrums of her thin brown wrists, as you watch here alert, lovely head, and take in the lace and the fragrance, what the principle IS, who can tell?

         I liked her.  A knock-out. Once an alcoholic I seems, and her sister a crook.  Oh Jay, you should have been here.  To hell with California, interesting like Selfridges: but here, the interest is like Chartres or Dublin.”

Friday, 24 July 2015

Gordon Stuart, 1924-2015

Painter Gordon Stuart died today at the age of 91.  His portrait of my father hangs in - or at least is owned by - the National Portrait Gallery.  Among others, he also painted Kingsley Amis, Dylan Thomas, Beryl Bainbridge, and Thomas Beecham. Below is a detail of one of his preliminary sketches for the portrait of Dad.


Sorry to read of the death of Owen Chadwick, who wrote one of my favourite books, 'Victorian Miniature' - a study of the relationship between the squire and the parson in the Norfolk village of Ketteringham, between 1838 and 1869.  Doesn't sound like a page turner, does it, but it did it for me. A little classic.

'It reads like a novel, and it is in fact a small masterpiece.' John Clive, The Times Literary Supplement

'Better than any fiction.' The Times

'Chadwick tells their story with grace and great charm, for he is as fully a master of writing as of history, and there can be hardly anybody who would not rejoice over the reading of such a book as this, which is quite fascinating from its first page to its last.' The Guardian

Thursday, 23 July 2015


Note left by Dad at my college in Oxford, 1978?  The drawing is a self-portrait with Mum.  Both pretty accurate actually.


from a letter written by Dad in Chicago to Mum in Notting Hill, 1959
Note: the art gallery here is stupendous.  At first, I was angry at the thought of all this splendour, the Rembrandts & the Picassos, the El Grecos and the Utrillos, all the wealth of pictures being here in this brutal town.  And I sneered at the hanging, the spaciousness, the smooth money-no-object presentation, and saw it as being based simply on the fact that this picture is worth three million dollars, that another cool million.  But gradually the snarl & the criticism died down & became irrelevant.  I would prefer to see Velasquez in some dirty gallery in Italy or Spain, where the glory is not abstracted, conscious, but a fact of being, like the glory of the sun and the whiteness of dust – but all the same all this was trivial & petty because in fact the artists forbid you through pure power to do anything but realise that you are in the presence of people whose vision & authority is so enormous that you are only a mangy mongrel anyway & you had best keep your trap shut.  So I wandered about, as you do in a gallery, at a loss even for emotion or thought which could match the guessed-at glory, and in the dim and ignorant way, paid my respects and yours to dozens of pictures I had seen a hundred times in reproduction, notably the double-picture landscapes by Monet, one at sunrise & one at sunset; to strip cartoons by Goya; to Picasso after Picasso (mainly blue ones – that old guitar player, those three desolate figures on a foreshore) to Bosch (Paradise) El Greco (the gigantic assumption of the Virgin) & to Rembrandt who towers so humanly and is really damn and blast all words and ignorance and stupidity (one’s own) so undeniably, bugger the gas works, bloody marvellous.

Some Wedding Pics

Thomas, Nora, Johanna

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Bethump'd with words

Zounds! I was never so bethump'd with words

Since I first call'd my brother's father dad.

Philip the Bastard
Shakespeare, King John, Act 2, Scene 1

Tuesday, 14 July 2015


I understand that TV Centre is to be demolished. A shame. Great building, much loved by those who worked there. Probably fair to say that it was among the most creative places on earth during the 60s and 70s. (I wonder what will happen to the ‘Statue in the Doughnut’ – the figure being the sun god Helios.) Here's a pic of Sixth Floor Nabobs: Kenneth Adam, Michael Peacock, David Attenborough and Dad (Huw Wheldon).

Thursday, 9 July 2015


Me in all my glory, outside what may be my favourite bookshop in the world, ever.  Palma, Mallorca. Four floors of chaotic organisation. Had neither the time, nor the baggage space to actually purchase anything, but at least grabbed a kwik pic of Damon Runyon's Poems for Men (the book itself was in pieces).

LOVE WITHOUT HOPE by Robert Graves

Love without hope, as when the young bird-catcher
Swept off his tall hat to the Squire's own daughter,
So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly
Singing about her head, as she rode by.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015


Five years ago Sam Munson published The November Criminals.  His new novel, The War Against the Assholes is out now.  I look forward to reading it. Here follows my Amazon review of the first book.

To begin with, you think you are in one of those novels by young men that describe the debauched life they lead as though it was interesting. Sex, drugs and rock and roll. Certainly there are drugs, weed, here, in fact importantly so. But there is no graphic sex and no unworthiness before the great god Rock. In fact this is a rather high brow book, dense, intellectual, even difficult.

The voice is Catcher in the Rye conversational, the conceit being that the book is an essay written for the benefit of the University of Chicago selection board, describing the narrator's best and worst qualities. Addison Schacht, brought up by his oafish but good-natured artist father, sells dope to his high school fellows and is fluent in Latin, with a special love for the Aeniad.

The story of the book, such as it is, recounts Addison's amateurish attempts to discover the murderer of a classmate, Kevin Broadus. Addison fails utterly but in so doing recreates himself, emerging a sadder but wiser man, one who can, at eighteen years old, not only smoke, but buy cigarettes, not only love but admit to loving, his girlfriend, the intriguing Digger.

Kevin Broadus, a saxophonist in the school band, attracts Addison's attention when, in a class about Music and Its Relation to African American Literature Broadus, an African American, does "not particularly" agree with the notion, put forward by the teacher, that African American literature is less constrained than other literatures. This is the only thing Addison remembers Kevin saying in class, ever, but before he can congratulate him Broadus is murdered.

`The November Criminals', as I learned it, was a phrase given to the Germans who surrendered at the end of the First World War and who subsequently accepted the Versailles treaty. I don't know whether it was Hitler's own phrase but it could have been. So: traitors (but, from our point of view, surely, good traitors). If you know this before you start you spend much of the book wondering about its title. The explanation, when it comes, is not entirely clear, but I think that what Addison is struggling to say is that we are all of us traitors to an ideal notion we have of how things should be. Or something. (Addison loves his italics and his 'ors' and 'whatevers').

But perhaps his point is more specifically about contemporary America. Addison certainly has very little time for multicultural orthodoxy, the central tenet of which is: "we're all still racists today". Addison regards this as mere gesture; indeed, in its extended meaning he regards it, as exemplified by Black History Month, say, as "the ultimate fantasy of a slave owner". For his part he, a Jew, collects Holocaust jokes. It is impossible to read this other than as an act of defiance that proclaims THIS IS HOW THE WORLD IS - BE TRUTHFUL.

`The November Criminals' is a superior work of fiction, written with authority and verve. It is occasionally very funny. Chicago would have been foolish not to accept Addison Schacht.