Saturday, 28 March 2020



The dances of evasion
as we criss-cross the emptying streets
are an unexpected delight. It’s
a scene populated by film extras.
Around every corner
speeds a white van
carrying potatoes or thieves
plumbers, electricians, deliverers
of boxed this and that, or plague.

We pass one another
with wry smiles
or head averted
with nods, scowls
and occasional indifference.

The sky has been pristine blue
almost fragile, spring detailed
in delicate blossom, demossing trunks.
We breathe in the crisp air
and think twice.  The earth spins
and the world stands still
within this crown of light.


Friday, 6 March 2020


The following lines, from a poem by D H Lawrence, were written by my mother in the front of her copy of Michael Oakeshott's 'Experience and Its Modes':

The profoundest of all sensualities is the sense of truth;
And the next deepest sensual experience is the sense of justice...

Resurrection by Tolstoy

'Resurrection' suffers most in Tolstoy's inability to distance himself from his protagonist, Nekhlyudov.  Of course it is not an inability at all.  It is purposeful and annoying and altogether very Tolstoyan.  There are long passages in which the Count tells us exactly what is what and how bloody awful things are, immediately after having shown us how bloody awful things are.  Henry James's over-used dictum - show, don't tell - gets well and truly overturned. 

Having said that, there are of course all sorts of wonderful things, chiefly descriptions, and we keep reading, pulled east by car and train, to Siberia, or north to St Petersburg.  Tolstoy's eye for the telling detail of dress or glance is always in place, and his knowledge of human nature, for all Nekh's apparent wonder at its wickedness, is fairly comprehensive. Tolstoy's satire, though, is undermined both by his own strident dogmatism - revolutionaries all have kind blue eyes, bureaucrats and the wealthy are invariably ugly - and by a kind of sourness that reduces much of it to sarcasm.  Despite attempts to ape Dickens (whom I believe he revered) he cannot quite bring himself to invest the wicked with the humanity, however broken, that CD does.  Tolstoy is incapable of Uriah Heep.

The above seems mealy-mouthed.  I very much enjoyed this book.  Anyone studying the Russian revolution really needs to read it.  That bloody thing seems inevitable as Tolstoy describes the world of the Imperial criminal justice system.  The prison scenes - of which there are many - are vivid and grisly.  The legal bureaucracies are stifling. 

As often in Tolstoy, there is a lot of weather.  We are always present in his scenes, albeit getting an earful of how we ought to be living. 

Thursday, 27 February 2020


Somewhat unexpected. From 'Resurrection' by Tolstoy, published 1900. The revolted Beh is actually the liberal hero of this chapter ("if he ever departed from strict neutrality it was always in the direction of liberalism"), a senator who wishes to grant an appeal against a ludicrous sentence that will send a prostitute, the heroine of the book, to Siberia. Slovo is "utterly appalled by all this fuss about a prostitute". Tolstoy describes Slovo as "a materialist, a follower of Darwin, and to his mind anything that smacked of abstract morality or, worse than this, religiosity, was not only contemptible nonsense, it was an insult to him personally."

Friday, 14 February 2020


I cry in movies. I'm a rank sentimentalist. But there are different kinds of weeping. You can be reduced by beauty, or at the simply very good, by the wiles of nostalgia, by acts of courage (however fictional), and so on and so forth. Occasionally, however, the tears come out of a kind of shame, and this is what happened to me at the end of Tom Stoppard's new play, ''Leopoldstadt'. And now I have just finished reading the text, and again I can hardly stifle a sob, as I sit among the quiet and the studious in a British Library reading room.

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Republica de La Boca

My Boy Thomas

He done good.  Of course it is all in the genes - his mother's, obviously.

Dr Thomas Arnold


If, by the age of 70, I have managed to read 25 books every year since I was 10 years old, I will have read 1,500 books. A few of those will be repeats ( Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare account for most of these). So let us say 1,450, and let us also be honest and say that from 10 to 15 it was probably closer to ten books a year, if that. So 1,400 in all. Doesn't really seem very many. Not in the great scheme of things. And I still have to read Ulysses and Joseph and His Brothers and the last two volumes of Proust and the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and the Bible and Milton. I'm extremely unlikely to read all these, if any. I'd like to read Burke. I'd like to finish Conor Cruise O'Brien's biography of Burke and Painter's biography of Proust. I'd like to read more Balzac (now that is a possibility). When am I going to get around to Turgenev? Or David Foster Wallace? Let alone books by friends, or the latest Booker or Nobel winner or Pulitzer prize winner.... the truth is that the only book I know for sure I'll read, should I still be living, is the new Lee Child.

Monday, 10 February 2020


This is an extract, quoted by Tom Stoppard in a 1999 NYRB article, 'Pragmatic Theatre', from a play by James Saunders, entitled Next Time I'll Sing To You.  Saunders was an exponent of Absurdist theatre.  He died in 2004.  Next Time I'll Sing To You was staged in the West End in 1963, and featured Michael Caine, Barry Foster and Liz Fraser.  Stoppard credits the play for providing the impetus to write for the stage himself.

There lies behind everything, and you can believe this or not as you wish, a certain quality which we may call grief. It’s always there, just under the surface, just behind the fa├žade, sometimes very nearly exposed, so that you can dimly see the shape of it as you can see sometimes through the surface of an ornamental pond on a still day, the dark, gross, inhuman outline of a carp gliding slowly past; when you realize suddenly that the carp were always there below the surface, even while the water sparkled in the sunshine, and while you patronized the quaint ducks and the supercilious swans, the carp were down there, unseen. It bides its time, this quality. And if you do catch a glimpse of it, you may pretend not to notice or you may turn suddenly away and romp with your children on the grass, laughing for no reason. The name of this quality is grief.

Thursday, 30 January 2020

BOOKS 2020

Blue Moon by Lee Child
Zed by Joanna Kavenna
A Dangerous Man by Robert Crais
Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin
Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard
Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy
How to Fight Anti-Semitism by Bari Weiss

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Review of The Fighting Jew in the JC

Daniel Sugarman's kind review in the JC, back in November,  I missed it completely.

The Fighting Jew by Wynn Wheldon (Amberley Publishing, £20)
Daniel Mendoza was the first British Jewish celebrity. And, as this fascinating work by Wynn Wheldon relates, the champion boxer would break new ground in a variety of different ways. Even his boxing style, which was considered abnormal when he first employed it, became orthodox.
In his celebrated three-fight rivalry with Richard Humphries Mendoza would employ, together with his competitor, an early example of “trash talking”, two fighters taking pot-shots at each other in the recently established British press via mocking letters covered with a thin veneer of civility.
After his retirement, Mendoza wrote what could be viewed as the first proper sporting autobiography, sprinkling the text with a variety of anecdotes from his career. For a century after he stopped fighting, “a la Mendoza” was an idiom used to describe settling a dispute with one’s fists.
While Mendoza was not the first Jewish boxer, he was the first to reach such heights, becoming the acknowledged “champion of England” in a period when the sport had no official federation (and, more dauntingly, no weight classes, so that a fighter could find himself facing someone much larger in the ring). The Jewish pugilist would meet the Prince Regent, a follower of “The Fancy”, as devotees of the bare-knuckle contests referred to the sport. He would even, in 1792, while convalescing in Windsor, conduct what he described as “a long conversation” with George III. As Wheldon writes, while Mendoza would probably not have been the first Jew to meet the king, it is likely that he was the first to have had a long discussion with him.
Wheldon’s passion for his subject shines through — perhaps augmented by the fact that his interest is not just general, but familial. As he reveals in the introduction, his wife is a Mendoza, descended from the champion’s uncle. But the book is filled with information designed to provide a sense of familiarity for present-day readers. Such-and-such a pub, the author tells us on a number of occasions, still stands today (then, more so than now, it was customary for retired sportsmen to operate drinking establishments).
The Fighting Jew charts Mendoza’s rise to fame, his years at the top of his game, and his descent into extreme poverty as his star waned.
Contrary to the popular tropes, then and now, that Jews make bad sportsmen/are good with money, Mendoza was an excellent boxer but woeful with his finances, having somehow managed to spend everything he made (a considerable sum) and then some.
Although not religious, Mendoza was proud of his faith and conscious of the fact that, to Jews and non-Jews alike, he was seen as the physical defender of both the bodies and the pride of his co-religionists. While, as the author is careful to point out, public antisemitism certainly did not vanish due to Mendoza, the idea that he “liberated Jews from attack” as a result of his rise, helping boxing gain popularity among young Jews, is “largely true”.
While there is a certain amount of speculation in Wheldon’s description of events, this does not detract from what is an entertaining and informative book, offering a picture not just of Mendoza himself, but of the conditions of late 18th-century Britain and some of the remarkable characters present in genteel society at the time.
We are told that, after one fight in which he had triumphed, Mendoza was carried to a nearby inn on the shoulders of a friend, with a crowd made up of many Jews shouting “Mendoza Vekhayam” — “Mendoza is alive and well”. Wheldon’s book will surely help keep the story of Daniel Mendoza remain “alive and well” for many years to come.
Daniel Sugarman works at the Board 
of Deputies of British Jews, and is a former JC reporter