Government as jugglery

Government as jugglery

According to this 9th century vizier, policy is what you end up with once you've figured out what works. You throw a few balls in the air and if they don't fall to the ground with a thud, bingo, you have a policy.  Or to use another analogy, you lob a handful of ideas...

I love Babur – II

I love Babur – II

Again, splendid, awkward Babur, the massive mutt picked up by Rory Stewart while trekking across Afghanistan.  Usually Rory has to yank, drag and generally cajole the dog into continuing. Here the roles are reversed when Rory comes close to calling it a day, lying...

I love Babur – I

I love Babur – I

One of the great dogs I've met through reading is Babur, whom Rory Stewart acquired, against his better judgement, while hiking across some of the remoter regions of Afghanistan.  Babur is big, stubborn, brave, fearful, and loveable.Here he lays claim to new territory...

Pocket money sexism

Pocket money sexism

Tom Tulliver once again spurns his sister, putting her in her place in a depressing translation of worth of boy versus girl in terms of Christmas gift money. The novel in many ways revolves around the close, loving but inharmonious relationship between the siblings,...

Brother and sister

Brother and sister

George Eliot's Mill on the Floss is largely about the relationship between Tom and Maggie Tulliver, brother and sister. Her needy love for him and his genuine but undemonstrative and somewhat superior fondness for her.  Summed up perfectly in this single sentence,...

Why fight?

Why fight?

Rory Stewart's trek across Afghanistan allowed him to meet some colourful characters.  Here he questions one of them to understand why he took up arms, first against the Russians and then against the Taliban. It boiled down to fending off unwelcome interference in the...

One breaks into the canon only by aesthetic strength, which is constituted primarily of an amalgam: mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction.  

Source: The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, Harold Bloom (London: Macmillan, 1995), p. 29

What’s the difference?

What’s the difference?

On his long trek across some of the remoter regions of Afghanistan, Rory Stewart found himself being presented as having a range of professions. Here the man introducing him is equally indifferent to accuracy in describing his religion and becomes baffled by his...

In celebration of later love

In celebration of later love

George Eliot noticed a bias in poets' treatment of love, a tendency to say many fine things about its first experience, and far fewer about those that happen later in life.I confess to having a special interest in sharing this quotation on this day, being the joyous...

Of tolerance and tender ears

Of tolerance and tender ears

500 years ago, in an age apparently less tolerant than our own, Erasmus made a plea for free speech, particularly in the form of mockery, providing only that its expression be without rage. I was struck by the contemporary ring of his comment on 'the tenderness of...

Dismissing death

Dismissing death

Rory Stewart's father could be pithy, taciturn, and funny (without necessarily trying to be).  Here his son tries to open up a discussion on some of the deeper sides of life, to which his old man gives short shrift.  He had a tendency to shut down unwanted...

Where is the chair?

Where is the chair?

An endearing philosophical philistinism in the elderly father of Rory Stewart. Ever practical, he had no truck with time-wasting on pointless speculations.I may be guilty of similar.'I've hated philosophy since university,' he said. 'I gave up when they asked me to...

Two points of view

Two points of view

Very important to keep an open mind and allow yourself the possibility of having more than one view point. How better to do so than by having both a front and a back parlour?And thank heaven for one's own exceptional qualities, which are matched, surely, only by those...

Of humbug and hypocrisy

Of humbug and hypocrisy

George Eliot makes a bold statement about wealthy Mr. Glegg's goodness of heart, until you get to the closing clause.  She has many such subtle ways of revealing human failing, which she records but rarely condemns overtly. Her writing also cautions readers against...

Changed identity – II

Changed identity – II

Again, Rory Stewart's guide-bodyguard, Qasim, resorts to invention in presenting his ward to people they meet on their hike across Afghanistan. In general, Qasim does not appear to have regarded Stewart's real identity, as a writer and a hiker, as worthy of mention....

Changed identity – I

Changed identity – I

Rory Stewart's hike across remote areas of Afghanistan began with a couple of bodyguards assigned to him whether he wanted them or not. The senior of these, Qasim, has a habit of giving Stewart varying identities, depending on the people to whom he is presenting him....

Changing the subject

Changing the subject

A young man in love learns a lesson in the limitations of egotism.  'She' is Maggie Tulliver, a beautiful human being both deeply loved yet in many ways greatly undervalued. She is one of the most honest and open of the richly developed characters in George Eliot's...

Rain refuge

Rain refuge

It happens to be such a morning as I write this. The first chill, misty, rainy morning we've had in a long time and so much needed. Of course, the spirit seeks sunshine and blue skies, but you can also smell and sense the plants and trees soaking up the long-awaited...

Pah to the Iliad

Pah to the Iliad

Tom dismisses one of the world's greatest epics, a 3,000 year old classic of war, on the grounds that its heroes cannot be verified and nor did they even use cannon. Pitiful. Unlike the Duke of Wellington, alive and well in Tom's time and in full possession of the...

Euclidian toothache

Euclidian toothache

Young Tom Tulliver makes the case (in vain) that studying Euclid causes toothache. If you allow for psychosomatic effect, he may be right. In any case, a winning education-avoidance reaction, almost as good as Timothy's awful moment.   'I don't think I am well,...

Those interfering newbies

Those interfering newbies

From Rory Stewart's trek across the Marches, the region of Britain aligned with Hadrian's Wall.  One of the charms of his account is that he takes the time to talk to the locals.  Here he meets one who laments the interference of 'newbies' in the village. ...

A singing map

A singing map

I loved this idea, using a song to guide you in lieu of a map. From one of Rory Stewart's long treks, one across Afghanistan (and several neighbouring countries), and one along the region either side of Hadrian's Wall.May your singing map lead you true,...

The deciding moment

The deciding moment

Rory Stewart was offered a large dog who seemed to have a few health and other 'issues'.  I like that his decision to take the dog seems to have been triggered by the animal's feeble attempt at a tail-wag and a tiny signal of friendliness. I also like that...

Never look a gift dog in the mouth

Never look a gift dog in the mouth

This is the beginning of a wonderful tail of a man and a dog, with Rory Stewart being unable to resist the dog offered to him on his hike across Afghanistan.  Despite his misgivings. Here he tries to walk away from the gift, before giving in and naming him...

Getting to know your guest

Getting to know your guest

One of several exchanges in which Rory Stewart finds himself being presented as anything but what he is.  These introductions took place on his hike across hundreds of kilometres of remote Afghan mountain paths; each time, his guide described Stewart as he...

Mind the mine

Mind the mine

Rory Stewart walked a long stretch of remoteness in Afghanistan, part of an even longer walk which took him across Pakistan, Iran and Turkey.  His account of the Afghan adventure is replete with marvelous exchanges with the locals, and a splendid...

Say what you ought

Say what you ought

A laughing summary of a lady's capacity to say the right thing at the right moment, just what she ought, no more no less. The image is simply one I chose to represent the era, mood and look - a suitably elegant lady who might be the owner of such...

An excellent precaution

An excellent precaution

Long gone the days of bedbugs and room tics, when a lady might think to travel with her own linen. Still, something in the wording suggests a wryness in Jane Austen's view of such fastidiousness.'She always travels with her own sheets; an excellent...

Call him Titus

Call him Titus

Baby Titus, born into a crumbling, rambling pile of stone, with parents of a warmth and tenderness approximately equivalent to the building material of their castle. Here is his mother, prescribing his care for the first five years of his life, at which...

I shall teach the boy…

I shall teach the boy…

The Countess of Gormenghast ponders her personal curriculum for her newborn son, after despatching him to a régime of nanny-care for the first five years of his life.  She clearly has higher hopes for him than for his neglected sister.Her capacity for love...

Where every word starts with ‘a’

Where every word starts with ‘a’

I love Mandelstam's poetic summary of place, here the city of Sukhum, where he says every word starts with A and you should start your study of Caucasian alphabets. 'Sukhum: a city of mourning, tobacco, and fragrant vegetable oils.  Here is where one...

Footing the bullet bill

Footing the bullet bill

This is half funny, half awful - your country of birth, having given you the death sentence, hounds you in exile with bills to cover the cost of your eventual execution. In the event, they left him in (one) peace. He was, by the way, the Principal...

Argumentative authenticity

Argumentative authenticity

You can't help admiring people said to be as authentic as argumentative, including in themselves, and in their art and architecture. This from a slender, entertaining and masterful look at one of the great Roman poets, and his continuing relevance to our...

A page per year

A page per year

Taleb is an erudite and provocative writer, sometimes coming across as intellectually arrogant, though always interesting. Here he shows a healthy sign of self-deprecation which I found entertaining. He's published a few bestsellers, but it doesn't seem...

On living forever

On living forever

Listening time: 2 minutes. This long and winding quotation enchanted me to the extent that I wrote it out by hand some 20-30 times and sent individual copies to as many friends. It is one of a small trove of prose quotations I’ve learned by heart, to recite at dawn to...

On hearing Beethoven for the first time

On hearing Beethoven for the first time

Listening time: 4 minutes. A favourite quotation from a favourite novel, Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, reviewed here (soon also available in audio).In print, it can look dauntingly long, so it is the perfect candidate for the first WritingRedux...

No summer is long enough

No summer is long enough

Referring to the Arctic, where the summers are short and the winters long, this rueful statement made me think about our own longer summers and how they can fill your reservoirs with light and warmth to carry you through the darker, colder months. 'No...

A single moment, a lifelong memory

A single moment, a lifelong memory

This spare and tender novel captures a simple gesture in a passing moment and how it haunts someone for life. These moments can change everything, or simply reveal needs and dreams deeply buried.'"Another one?" the young woman asked, and Egger nodded.  She...

Frogs around a pond

Frogs around a pond

I liked Socrates' image of the Mediterranean, that great big watery basin, as a pond around which we live like frogs. 'We live round a sea,' Socrates had told his Athenian friends, 'like frogs round a pond.'     Source: Quoted in Peter Brown,The World...

Of science and art

Of science and art

Someone spotted this on a wall at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), a bastion of cutting edge science, and therefore intriguing to see how they position it in relation to art. 'Science is what we understand well enough to explain to a...

They had dreams too

They had dreams too

One of the most elusive aspects of history, and perhaps insurmountably so, concerns what people felt, thought, and dreamed.  Yet the endeavour to explore this is crucial to have a sense of history which is more nuanced than a series of more or less...

The most miserable existence

The most miserable existence

Deprivation on the Danube, as viewed by a newly arrived governor during the Roman Empire, posted to a wine-less, olive-free desert. Some 1,500 years later, he would surely approve of the progress made, with many fine wines produced in countries through...

Daft and marginal

Daft and marginal

I liked this description of a region being 'daft-and-marginal' before splitting in two, with one half somehow managing to rule the world for a while.This is from Simon Winder's masterful, erudite and entirely entertaining study of Germany. He writes with...

An empire of leftovers

An empire of leftovers

Simon Winder has a politically incorrect style of presenting history, which makes it a refreshing, thought-provoking read.  I loved his book about Germany, which I read on the eve of running a major event there - it was loaned to me by a German colleague...

Leadership as multi-tasking

Leadership as multi-tasking

You get to steer the ship because you can handle multiple tasks at once. Here, John demonstrates his leadership skills: tiller in one hand, pork pie in the other, and lemonade secure between his knees.  A CEO in the making, or at least an Admiral.The...

A waste of an island

A waste of an island

Wonderful notion this, from one of the best of Ransome's enchanting children's books. Of course if you land on an island, you should light a fire, or what good is the landing?'They had landed on the island near which they were anchored.  They had bathed from it, and...

A different way of crying

A different way of crying

Mia Couto's book is about a man who nearly destroys his family through his fury, both manifest and inarticulate; and about the resilience of his sons in surviving it. I found this simple statement surprising and wise - it takes a lot of strength and...

A new breed of cultural object

A new breed of cultural object

I loved the unashamed enthusiasm of this statement, Rebanks having dedicated his life to preserving both this rare, tough breed of sheep, and the way of life that goes with it.  Also the novel idea (to me), of a breed as a cultural object. The breed is...

A poet on poetry

A poet on poetry

A surprising combination of qualities to look for in fine poetry (and other writing). Hard to think of poetry which comes closer to embodying all three than the meticulous, mysterious and fresh-voiced verse of George Herbert. 'The three qualities I admire...

Thoughts on modern life

Thoughts on modern life

I found this passage striking and moving, perhaps putting its finger on the pulse of much contemporary malaise. It feels a valid and thoughtful statement though you can take issue with certain elements; such as whether pre-modern life was any better for...

Certain of everything

Certain of everything

This statement by Robert Rubin resonated with me and, I believe, with Susan Cain, author of Quiet (a reassuring read if you share such a sense of doubt and wonder from time to time if you might be 'introverted'). It reminds me of a note I found on my desk...

Global folly, global range

Global folly, global range

One of the pitfalls of globalization is the greater range for damaging stupidity which might formerly have been more easily corralled at a local level.This blunt prognosis is from a thoughtful piece by one of the world's preeminent astrophysicists, the...

The book of life

The book of life

'A million species of animals and plants are threatened with extinction. Three-quarters of the world's land and two-thirds of its marine environments have been "significantly altered" by human action.'  I read these lines in The Economist days after this...

Aim high, 17th century style

Aim high, 17th century style

George Herbert, one of England's greatest poets, as well as being a priest and the Orator of Cambridge University (something like today's corporate spokesperson or public affairs director).  He also made a collection of a good thousand proverbs. Here is...

My kind of company

My kind of company

John Donne describes an accomplished woman with a wide-ranging capacity to converse intelligently.  I like the spectrum he chose: predestination to slea-silk and, it seems, everything in between.'She knew well how to discourse of all things, from...

A big headache

A big headache

In the age of supermodels, it was fun to read that the 17th century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi complained to her patron of the difficulties of working with 'expensive female models'.I wonder if one of the 'good ones' she mentions is featured in...

Non-negotiable

Non-negotiable

The 17th century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi names her price and sticks to it, in a letter to her patron. Incidentally slipping in some slurs on her Neapolitan counterparts. Elsewhere she mentions having had her ideas stolen and questions whether...

Slaves to the sun?

Slaves to the sun?

While for the most part these twin sisters are nothing short of bonkers, I liked when one of them questioned the tyranny of time, speaking with splendid disregard for the sun of day and moon of night.For other examples of their more eccentric exchanges,...

Beware rash judgement

Beware rash judgement

Dante is cautioned to beware those who pass speedy judgement - 'Anyone and his wife' who think in witnessing a deed they can securely make assumptions about its karmic consequences.'So we should be strict towardsAll people when they judge at too great pace ...Our...

Yours to win, not lose

Yours to win, not lose

These racing monosyllables have the pace and certainty of one who runs, and lives, as if he can only win. I have a certain admiration for such bounding assurance.'But this one ran as if the race were hisTo win, not lose.  As his life was, and is.''... e parve di...

Of sisters dissimilar

Of sisters dissimilar

Dante meets the two sisters in Purgatory, and Leah describes, with Dantesque pithiness, the difference between them.For other quotations concerning rather more similar sisters, see Jane Eyre, or a few examples of sister-shared insanity in Mervyn Peake's sprawling work...

A sociable breakfast

A sociable breakfast

Little Lord Fauntleroy is out of fashion these days, but I think that's because most people haven't read the book, and believe him to be nothing but the Pears' Soap poster child of velvet and lace collars. He's actually funny, asking innocently adroit...

How dare you think?

How dare you think?

A tale of riches to rags by the author of The Secret Garden, one of my two all time favourite children's books - recommended reading for disenchanted adults. Sara is a stalwart and fearless girl who confronts adult cruelty with the straightforwardness of...

I got me…

I got me…

More loving lines from George Herbert's 'Easter' poem. Herbert was a cleric and his poem is religious, but even if you aren't, this has a wholehearted generosity to it; one person bringing what feels like armfuls of gifts to another, only to find that they...

Can there be any day but this?

Can there be any day but this?

These lovely lines are from George Herbert's poem 'Easter', and that is the day of which he says there is but one.  Whether or not you celebrate Easter, it struck me as a reminder to treat each day as a unique bundle of time, life and, if we're lucky,...

On finding your way

On finding your way

What do you do when you're lost?  In this magical world, you can try paddling round and round until the fairytale magnet needle points you in the right direction. Listen or look out for those mysterious 'attractions'. Another lovely book by the playful,...

For one awful moment

For one awful moment

Timothy and his siblings run away from their strict grandmother and land, unwittingly, at their uncle's place.  Ambrose is a dream uncle and a dream teacher, getting them educated by morning classwork and evening homework. But the afternoons are theirs to...

And this is anger

And this is anger

Dante's description of Anger is gloriously conveyed in Clive James' translation by the delicious echo of 'plots and plans' in 'pots and pans'.  And reduced to but a clattering din in the house, you have to wonder if it's worth it.  As Homer describes it, hostility is...

Being certain vs being correct

Being certain vs being correct

Know the sort? Enough confidence and you can get yourself obeyed even if you are ordering people in the wrong direction. This quality often passes for 'leadership', regardless of whether the organization ends up being led off a cliff.   From a favourite...

The immorality of short-cuts

The immorality of short-cuts

This imperious dismissal of short-cuts as immoral and inevitably causing confusion made me laugh. I have mixed feelings about them.Where it's an innovative way to do something faster without any loss of quality, I'm all for them; the immorality lies in...

Chew on it

Chew on it

A satisfying simile for mulling over an idea before implementing it. There is much playful language in the wisdom deftly embedded in Elizabeth Goudge's writing.One of the best English children's authors, and this is among my favourite of her books. See the...

Four good men

Four good men

Hemingway's protagonist goes recruiting and chooses quality over quantity. Trust is what sorts the good men from the 'undependables'.  ‘I could use twenty more men, to be sure,’ Robert Jordan said.‘Good ones do not exist.  You want undependables?’‘No.  How...

Sing what you cannot say

Sing what you cannot say

In January 1942, a score of Verdi's Requiem was smuggled into Theresienstadt concentration camp and performed by prisoners, conducted by Rafael Schäcter.Starting with about 150 singers, the numbers dwindled as they disappeared into this or that hellish...

As it sounded, so it looked

As it sounded, so it looked

In the preface to his marvelous translation of Dante, Clive James mentions the poet's pithiness.  I can't judge it in the original Italian, but it certainly comes through his English version.So I liked this example, a summary conclusion that things really were as bad...

Nervous as horses before a thunderstorm

Nervous as horses before a thunderstorm

Steinbeck's alarming simile launches a powerful, gripping overview of societal and economic malaise, which resonates uncomfortably with much current public discourse on jobs (or their loss, precarity or deficiency) and inequality. It articulates in deeply...

Synaesthetic sound

Synaesthetic sound

An early evocation of synaesthesia - I like Dante's portrayal of a voice in terms of visibility. This is from Clive James' superb translation. 'And yet He said these wise things visibly -I mean that you could see the sound ...'  (Purgatory, Canto 10)See also our...

Summary impatience

Summary impatience

I liked this sharp injunction to Dante to hurry up and spit it out. You can imagine an impatient parent or schoolmaster snapping at a nervous, faltering child, a chronological equivalent to the commonly heard exasperation: 'I'm not made of money, you know'. 'Name your...

As a conqueror enters a surprised city

As a conqueror enters a surprised city

For Valentine's Day, a heart-warming account by the first biographer of the poet George Herbert on how he met his wife.Jane Danvers was one of nine daughters of Charles Danvers, who liked George Herbert so much he said repeatedly that he'd be delighted to...

Ill guidance, bad leadership

Ill guidance, bad leadership

A strikingly modern sounding comment by Dante, resonating painfully when the evening news seems to be forever picking apart the latest vagaries of bad leadership. 'Ill guidance is the cause of the ill fameThe world has earned, this wicked world of pain -Bad...

Too much information

Too much information

Dante anticipated the age in which we are drowned in facts, fake and otherwise.  Note his observation of our being overwhelmed by it, written in the 14th century.  Wonder what he would make of the endless bombardments of information now.   'Overwhelmed with such a...

Doubt in an age of faith

Doubt in an age of faith

Dante lived in an age where faith was the norm, at least in public, and doubt could land you in trouble. How modern his assertion therefore sounds, allowing doubt to be not only natural, but rooted in the truth and sprouting from it as a healthy off-shoot. 'Doubt is...

The carnivore’s dilemma

The carnivore’s dilemma

I liked the honesty of Hall's admission of hypocrisy and am sorry to report that I know the feeling.  Morally, rationally, I would, should, probably, be a vegetarian, and can happily go without meat for relatively long periods.  But give it up all...

The thoughts of a pig

The thoughts of a pig

A wonderfully involved tail of a pig's escape and eventual recapture.Firstly, a protracted endeavour to find him, eventually discovered resting in a barn, engaged in 'thinking unutterable things'. Secondly, the vain boast of an Irishman who was sure he...

A plea for pity – II

A plea for pity – II

Keats' plea for tolerance, given we each have flaws that can be painfully exposed.  See Theodore Dreiser's similar suggestion that pity and compassion be given more room in a stony-hard universe. And George Eliot importunes us to lean towards tenderness...

A plea for pity – I

A plea for pity – I

A pithy plea for pity in a rocky, raging universe.  See Keats' equally eloquent expression of the need for tolerance.  And George Eliot importunes us to err on the side of compassion rather than severity.We all have a weak side easily exposed. Let's go...

Do what a hero must

Do what a hero must

Naturally, any would-be hero or heroine needs to set sail, or how are they to prove their worth? Clive James, from whose splendid translation this and other nearby quotations come, remarks on Dante's economy of phrasing, and this is one example.  Lapidary others to...

A fair request

A fair request

In an age where you are expected to shout, tweet, bluster and generally blather about everything you do, it is heartening to read Virgil's pithy injunction that reasonable requests should be responded to by silent action. "The answer to a fairRequest should be the...

Joys unsung and untold

Joys unsung and untold

At winter's advent, a reminder of its beauty and magic.  May you be safe and warm within the stronghold. For another fine description of its harshness and splendour, see James Rebanks. ‘This is winter,’ he declaimed. ‘Winter’s stronghold.  But winter...

Where gannets swoop and rise

Where gannets swoop and rise

In the countdown to a major gift-giving season, I liked this ancient reference to a human presents. May you give and receive gifts in a spirit of open-hearted affection, bringing real pleasure all round. And if you celebrate it, have a wonderful Christmas,...

Stories as therapy

Stories as therapy

The story as a means to bear sorrow is an idea I'd like to believe, but can't quite relate to personally. Karen Blixen was likely speaking from her own experience, and I can only admire the implicit resilience. 'All sorrows can be borne if you put them...

Stories as generosity

Stories as generosity

An expansive view of stories from Turkestan, as if they embody the sweeping spaces of the steppe, and the freedom of those who tell them. Take me to some tales from Turkestan...'The essence of the stories from Turkestan is generosity, a virtue of the...

Can’t bear the noise

Can’t bear the noise

I don't blame them either. A delightful recollection of a sensible ursine response to the outrage of war in their habitat. See another lovely account from the same book, of monster lobsters."Last year, when the hard fighting was going on up there" he...

The lobsters of Skopelos

The lobsters of Skopelos

Hyperbole, nothing like it when suitably blatant, creative and outrageous. You couldn't possibly eat one of these, only engage them in a civilized conversation about world affairs, or in a game of chess.See, from the same book, a similarly improbable yet...

Of art and Ithaca

Of art and Ithaca

This poetic summary resonates deeply - the search for green eternity as opposed to 'mere astonishments'.  I've always been baffled by sensationalism or the desire to shock as a motivation in itself, rather than as a possible by-product of creating...

Two types of aesthetic

Two types of aesthetic

A pithy way to categorize an aesthetic response - the straightforward reflection of a mirror or the more complex refraction of a prism.  I will test this out next time I look at a building, sculpture, painting or poem. 'Two aesthetics exist: the passive...

In praise of the unknown and unseen – I

In praise of the unknown and unseen – I

The great humanist George Eliot sings the praises of those who act well or kindly in countless unmarked ways, without any song or dance about it. See a similar example in her superb Adam Bede, and Vasily Grossman's plea for the value of untraceable...

In praise of the unknown and unseen – II

In praise of the unknown and unseen – II

Highlighting the significance of the insignificant people who constitute most of humanity and its history. See a similar praise of unsung heroes in Eliot's Middlemarch, and an echoing cry by Vasily Grossman. I sense that George Eliot and Vasily Grossman...

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