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Category archive: Bits from books

Friday March 23 2018

Yes, today’s “other creature” is a sealion, Operation Sealion, Hitler’s plan to invade Britain in 1940.  And this posting is another bit from a book.  Which book?  Well, I greatly admire the books of Leo McKinstry, and have done ever since I read his wonderful biography of Geoffrey Boycott.  So, as soon as I discovered that McKinstry had written a book about Operation Sealion, I bought it.  I now possess it, and as soon as I have read the other seven or eight books above it in my TO READ list, I will start reading it.  I may even start reading it sooner than that.

This early bit (pp. 4-6), from the Introduction, has already confirmed the wisom of the purchase:

Wartime legend has presented the heroics of the RAF as an exception to an otherwise desperate military performance by Britain in I940. In this narrative, there is a chasm between the daring and efficiency of Fighter Command and the woeful inadequacy of most other parts of the British war effort.  Defeat was inevitable if the RAF was overwhelmed, according to the traditional account, which portrays Britain as hopelessly ill equipped in the face of the Nazi war machine. It was a supposed weakness highlighted by the paralysis in the civil service, the chronic shortages of men and weaponry in the regular army, the lack of modern vessels in the navy and the country’s feeble home defences. The might of Hitler’s Reich, which had blitzed its way through Poland, Scandinavia and Western Europe, would hardly have been deterred by some hastily erected pillboxes, rolls of barbed wire and lightweight guns. The ultimate symbol of Britain’s alleged vulnerability in I940 was the Home Guard, that makeshift force of volunteers whose very nickname, ‘Dad’s Army’, was so redolent of its antiquated nature in the savage new age of total war. Made famous for future generations by the television comedy series of the I970s, the Home Guard appeared more likely to provoke laughter than fear in the invader. The image of Home Guardsmen, devoid of rifles or uniforms, performing their pointless drill routines with broomsticks and pitchforks, has long been held to characterise how badly prepared Britain was. This outlook is encapsulated in a remark made by a volunteer from Great Yarmouth when his unit was inspected in the summer of 1940 by a senior army officer, who asked: ‘What steps would you take if you saw the Hun come down in parachutes?’

‘Bloody long ones: came the reply.

But the commonly held belief in Britain’s defencelessness in 1940 is hardly matched by the historical facts. The Few of Fighter Command were not an exception but part of a national pattern of resolute determination and thoroughness. In almost every aspect of the war effort in 1940, Britain was far better organised than the mythology suggests. The Royal Navy’s Home Fleet, guarding every part of the southern and eastern coastlines, represented a formidable obstacle to German ambitions. Between Sheerness and Harwich alone, the navy had thirty destroyers. RAF Bomber Command relentlessly pounded the invasion fleet, weakening the morale of the German forces. Similarly, the British army had gained enormously in strength and equipment since the fall of France. In September 1940, when the invasion threat was at its height, there were no fewer than 1,760,000 regular troops in service, many of them led by tough- minded figures like Alan Brooke, Claude Auchinleck and Bernard Montgomery. The same is true of the Home Guard, whose broomsticks had by then largely vanished. Most of the volunteers were armed with highly effective American rifles, which were superior, in some respects, to those used by the regular soldiers. Outside the military sphere, the British home front was just as impressive. Aircraft production was much higher than that in Germany, factory hours longer. Major operations, like the evacuation of children from areas at risk of attack, the removal of gold from the Bank of England vaults, or the transfer of national art treasures to remote shelters in Wales, were carried out with superb efficiency.

What is so striking about the British authorities at this time is pressure for survival. During his leadership of V Corps, in the front line of the army’s southern command, Montgomery set out his creed to his officers. ‘We had got to the stage where we must do as we like as regards upsetting private property. If a house was required as an HQ it must be taken. Any material required to improve the defences must be taken.’

Thursday March 22 2018

I’m reading Deidre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Equality, the final volume of her Bourgeois trilogy.  I hope that in this volume, at last, I will read evidence concerning McCloskey’s thesis about how the Great Enrichment came about, which is that it was ideological.  She keeps repeating this, but keeps flying off at other tangents.  Wish me luck.

Interesting tangents, mind you.  Like this one, which is a most interesting prediction, concerning the future of Sub-Saharan Africa (pp. 70-72):

Know also a remarkable likelihood in our future. Begin with the sober scientific fact that sub-Saharan Africa has great genetic diversity, at any rate by the standard of the narrow genetic endowment of the ancestors of the rest of us, the small part of the race of Homo sapiens that left Mother Africa in dribs and drabs after about 70,000 BCE.  The lower diversity outside Africa comes from what geneticists call the founder effect, that is, the dying out of genetic lines in an isolated small group, such as those that ventured into west Asia and then beyond. The founder effect is merely a consequence, of the small samples dribbling out, as against the big sample of the Homo sapiens folk that stayed put in Africa. Any gene-influenced ability is therefore going to have more African extremes. The naturally tallest people and the naturally shortest people, for example, are in sub-Saharan Africa. The naturally quickest long-distance runners are in East Africa. The best basketball players descend from West Africans. In other words, below the Sahara the top end of the distribution of human abilities - physical and intellectual and artistic - is unusually thick. (Yet even in Africa the genetic variability in the Homo sapiens race appears to have been thinned repeatedly before the time of the modest emigrations, by population crashes, such as when the super volcano Toba in Sumatra went off, suggestively also around 70,000 BCE. It reduced our Homo sapiens ancestors to a few thousand-a close call.)

The thickness of sub-Saharan abilities at the high end of the distribution is a mere consequence of the mathematics. Greater diversity, which is to say in technical terms, higher variance, means that unusual abilities at both ends of the distribution, high and low, are more common. Exactly how much more depends on technical measures of genetic difference and their expression. The effect could be small or large depending on such measures and on the social relevance of the particular gene expression.

The high end is what matters for high culture. Sub-Saharan Africa, now at last leaning toward liberal democracy, has entered on the blade of the hockey stick, growing since 2001 in per-person real income by over 4 percent per year-doubling that is, every eighteen years. A prominent Nigerian investment manager working in London, Ayo Salami, expects an ideological shift among African leaders in favor of private trading as the generation, of the deeply socialist anticolonialists born in the 1940s dies out.” The 6- to 10-percent growth rate available to poor economies that wholeheartedly adopt liberalism will then do its work and yield educational opportunities for Africans now denied them.

The upshot? Genetic diversity in a rich Africa will yield a crop of geniuses unprecedented in world history. In a century or so the leading scientists and artists in the world will be black-at any rate if the diversity is as large in gene expression and social relevance as it is in, say, height or running ability. Today a Mozart in Nigeria follows the plow; a Basho in Mozambique was recruited as a boy soldier; a Tagore in East Africa tends his father’s cattle; a Jane Austen in Congo spends her illiterate days carrying water and washing clothes.  “Full many a gem of purest ray serene / The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear.”

Thursday March 01 2018

A tweet reminded me about this wonderful rant from Louis CK:


That’s the version of it, with dots inserted by him, that Steven Pinker quotes in his new book about the Enlightenment.

Pinker is concerned to explain why increasing affluence doesn’t seem to make everyone ecstatically happy.  Deidre McCloskey, in her Bourgeois trilogy, is fond of talking about how the Great Enrichment has made regular people as of now nearly three thousand percent richer.  So, why aren’t we three thousand percent happier?  Because we don’t seem to be.

Lots of reasons.  First, you are happy not according to your absolute level of affluence, but rather according to how affluent you get to be and how meaningful your life gets to be compared to what you were expecting, and compared to how well everyone else seems to be doing, because that tells you how well you could reasonably have expected to do.  You may well have been raised to expect quite a lot.  Second, although technology hurtles along, for most this hurtling is both pleasing and rather unsettling, the less of the former and the more of the latter as time goes by.  We don’t experience, in our one little life, how much better things like Twitter are than is looking after cows, out of doors, all year round, with not enough food or heating.  What we experience, as we get older, is how confusing things like Twitter are, or alternatively, if we ignore something like Twitter, how demoralising it is that it has defeated us and denied us its benefits.  Or how tedious air travel is, compared to what we’d hoped for rather than compared to a horse drawn wagon in a desert.  Yes, I live three thousand percent better than that wretched cowherd three hundred years ago, and if a time machine took away my life and gave me his life, I’d be three thousand percent more miserable.  But that’s not the same as me being three thousand percent happier than he was.  Happier, yes, definitely.  But not by that much.

It’s because we don’t feel that much happier that Louis CK has to rant, to remind us of how lucky we are.  And that Steven Pinker has to write his book, to make the same point.

But what if progress continues to hurtle forwards?  What if someone reads this posting, centuries from now, and he says: Good grief, those Twenty First Centurions were very easily satisfied.  Five hours to get from New York to California?

It must have been hell.

Thursday December 28 2017

For years now, I’ve wanted nail down a particularly choice Terry Pratchett quote, concerning the limits of the idea of equality, which is that for there to be equality, someone has or some people have to insist upon it, and if that insistence is to count for anything, then there goes your equality.  My problem was that I didn’t have the name of the character that the quote was about.

But today, I described the quote as best I could to my friend Adriana, and she told me at once that the name of the lady in question was Granny Weatherwax.  And once I had the name, the rest was easy.

The quote I was looking for is the second from the bottom of these Quotes About Granny Weatherwax:

“Mistress Weatherwax is the head witch, then, is she?’

‘Oh no!’ said Miss Level, looking shocked. ‘Witches are all equal. We don’t have things like head witches. That’s quite against the spirit of witchcraft.’

‘Oh, I see,’ said Tiffany.

‘Besides,’ Miss Level added, ‘Mistress Weatherwax would never allow that sort of thing.”

That is to be found in A Hat Full of Sky.

Wednesday December 27 2017

Last night, egged on by some Southern Comfort and Coke, I sneaked a posting onto Samizdata, at a very quiet time of the year, and after a long break from doing anything there.  I wonder how often, in human history, far more portentous events than that have been set in motion by the power of alcohol to turn “maybe later” into “what the hell I’ll do it now”.

The posting started with a photo of five hands holding five plastic glasses of something alcoholic.  Here is another photo of the same scene, at the top of Primrose Hill, this time with one of the participants also doing a photo:


And then I showed a photo of Perry de Havilland, taken on Christmas Eve at his home.  Here is another such photo, rather less exuberant:


And I ended with a quote garnered from Deidre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues.  Page 61 of my paperback edition features five such quotes.  I put one of these, from Benjamin Constant (and added that link to that piece about him) in the Samizdata posting.  Here is another, from Voltaire, dated 1733:

I don’t know which is the more useful to the state, a well-powdered lord who knows precisely when the king gets up in the morning ... or a great merchant who enriches his country, sends orders from his office to Surat or to Cairo, and contributes to the well-being of the world.

Neither do I know “which is more useful to the state”.  But I know which one isn’t contributing to the well-being of the world and which one is.  I think Voltaire rather gives his game away there.

Sunday December 24 2017

Some time at or around 1780, the world’s economy went from being Malthusian to being Modern.  Modern as in literally billions of us getting to lead increasingly comfortable lives.  The graph of human creature comforts goes from horizontal to something very close to vertical.

Deidre N. McCloskey has written a succession of books about this wondrous transformation.  I started reading Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain The Modern World, but was disappointed by the lack of original source evidence she presented to justify her opinion that the transformation was, at heart, an ideological one.  I agree with this opinion, and hoped she would back it up.  Instead she went through all the rival explanations, explaining at exhaustive length why they were wrong, but didn’t seem to say nearly as much as I had hoped about her and my preferred winner.  I put the book aside.

Prodded by my friend Alastair James, I have now started reading the first book, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce.  This is the first one, the one that explains what the transformation was, and in particular its strongly ethical content, and it thus explains more than you usually get told these days about why this transformation was such a very, very good thing.  Instead of reading this book searching for what it doesn’t say, I am now reading it for what it does say, and am enjoying it a lot.

Here is how McCloskey concludes her opening summary, her “Apology” (pp. 50-53):

“It is vital,” Ridley declares, “that we reduce the power and scope of the state.” Yes. The freedom half of the Enlightenment Project can support in practical terms the reason half. “It is not to happiness alone,” wrote Constant in 1819, “it is to self-development that our destiny calls us; and political liberty is the most powerful, the most effective means of self-development that heaven has given US.” Secret police and fixed elections and patriarchal oppression of women and unwise attempts to fulfill the two-centuries-old project of reason by regulation and state planning rather than by Adam Smith’s “simple and obvious system of natural liberty” - to name some of the more important assaults on bourgeois human capital - do more damage to our goods and to our goodness than do conventional economic failings.

But is that true? How do I know? The experiments of the twentieth century told me so. It would have been hard to know the wisdom of Milton Friedman or Matt Ridley or Deirdre McCloskey in August 1914, before the experiments were well begun. But anyone who after the twentieth century still thinks that thoroughgoing socialism, nationalism, imperialism, mobilization, central planning, regulation, zoning, price controls, tax policy, labor unions, business cartels, government spending, intrusive policing, adventurism in foreign policy, faith in entangling religion and politics, or most of the other thoroughgoing nineteenth-century proposals for governmental action are still neat, harmless ideas for improving our lives is not paying attention.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ordinary Europeans were hurt, not helped, by their colonial empires. Economic growth in Russia was slowed, not accelerated, by Soviet central planning. American Progressive regulation and its European anticipations protected monopolies of transportation like railways and protected monopolies of retailing like High Street shops and protected monopolies of professional services like medicine, not the consumers. “Protective” legislation in the United States and “family-wage” legislation in Europe subordinated women. State-armed psychiatrists in America jailed homosexuals, and in Russia jailed democrats. Some of the New Deal prevented rather than aided America’s recovery from the Great Depression.

Unions raised wages for plumbers and autoworkers but reduced wages for the nonunionized. Minimum wages protected union jobs but made the poor unemployable. Building codes sometimes kept buildings from falling or burning down but always gave steady work to well-connected carpenters and electricians. Zoning and planning permission has protected rich landlords rather than helping the poor. Rent control makes the poor and the mentally ill unhousable, because no one will build inexpensive housing when it is forced by law to be expensive. The sane and the already-rich get the rent-controlled apartments and the fancy townhouses in once-poor neighborhoods.

Regulation of electricity hurt householders by raising electricity costs, as did the ban on nuclear power. The Securities Exchange Commission did not help small investors. Federal deposit insurance made banks careless with depositors’ money. The conservation movement in the Western United States enriched ranchers who used federal lands for grazing and enriched lumber companies who used federal lands for clear-cutting. American and other attempts at prohibiting trade in recreational drugs resulted in higher drug consumption and the destruction of inner cities. Governments have outlawed needle exchanges and condom advertising, and denied the existence of AIDS.

Germany’s economic Lebensraum was obtained in the end by the private arts of peace, not by the public arts of war. The lasting East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was built by Japanese men in business suits, not in dive bombers. Europe recovered after its two twentieth-century hot wars mainly through its own efforts of labor and investment, not mainly through government-to-government charity such as Herbert Hoover’s Commission or George Marshall’s Plan. Government-to-government foreign aid to the third world has enriched tyrants, not helped the poor.

The importation of socialism into the third world, even in the relatively nonviolent form of Congress Party Fabian-Gandhism, unintentionally stifled growth, enriched large industrialists, and kept the people poor. The capitalist-sponsored Green Revolution of dwarf hybrids was opposed by green politicians the world around, but has made places like India self-sufficient in grains. State power in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa has been used to tax the majority of farmers in aid of the president’s cousins and a minority of urban bureaucrats. State power in many parts of Latin America has prevented land reform and sponsored disappearances. State ownership of oil in Nigeria and Mexico and Iraq was used to support the party in power, benefiting the people not at all. Arab men have been kept poor, not bettered, by using state power to deny education and driver’s licenses to Arab women. The seizure of governments by the clergy has corrupted religions and ruined economies. The seizure of governments by the military has corrupted armies and ruined economies.

Industrial policy, from Japan to France, has propped up failing industries such as agriculture and small-scale retailing, instead of choosing winners. Regulation of dismissal has led to high unemployment in Germany and Denmark. In the 1960s, public-housing high-rises in the West inspired by Le Corbusier condemned the poor in Rome and Paris and Chicago to holding pens. In the 1970s, the full-scale socialism of the East ruined the environment. In the 2000s, the “millennial collectivists,” red, green, or communitarian, oppose a globalization that helps the poor but threatens trade union officials, crony capitalists, and the careers of people in Western nongovernmental organizations.

All these experiments of the twentieth century were arranged by governments against bourgeois markets. All of them were disasters. In short, the neoaristocratic, cryptopeasant, proclerisy, antibourgeois theories of the nineteenth century, applied during the twentieth century for taxing, fixing, resisting, modifying, prohibiting, collectivizing, regulating, unionizing, ameliorating, expropriating modern capitalism, failed of their purposes, killed many millions, and nearly killed us all.

By contrast: during the twenty-first century, if we can draw back from the unfreedom of anticapitalism and adopt instead the simple and obvious system of natural liberty, every person on the planet, in Vietnam and Colombia, India and Kenya, can come to have, complements of the bourgeois virtues, the scope of life afforded now to a suburban minority in the West. It’s the Bourgeois Deal: leave me alone to buy low and sell high, and in the long run I’ll make you rich.

If we will let people own things – their houses and businesses, for example; their labor power - and if we let them try to make profit out of the ownership, and if we keep out of people’s lives the tentacles of a government acting as an executive committee of the country club or worse, we will prosper materially and spiritually.

We can have Aristotles, Wang Weis, Newtons, Austens, and Tagores by the dozens. We can have world science and world music and world literature and even world cuisine in richness unparalleled, a spiritual life untrammeled by need, a clean planet, long and happy lives. By the standards typical since Adam’s curse we can have by the year 2100 another Eden. Well ... all right: such utopian talk, I have said, has dangers. At least we can have material abundance, and the scope to flourish in higher things. And we can be virtuous about it.

Or we can try once again in our ethical confusion to kill it.

Saturday November 18 2017

I’ve started reading Adam Zamoyski’s Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe, the importance of the events described in this book being neatly summarised in its subtitle.  Here is Zamoyski setting the stage for, and then introducing, the Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski.

This was not so much an issue of territory as of Russia’s need to break into Europe and Poland’s to exclude her from it; yet it had brought Russian armies into the heart of Poland, and a Polish occupation of Moscow as far back as 1612. The matter had been settled at the end of the eighteenth century by the partition of Poland between Russia, Prussia and Austria and its disappearance from the map. Despite a continuous struggle for freedom and repeated insurrections, Poland remained little more than a concept throughout the next hundred years, and its champions were increasingly seen as romantic dreamers.

But the partition that had removed Poland from the map had also brought her enemies into direct contact, and, in 1914, into deadly conflict. In February 1917, undermined by two and a half years of war, the Russian empire was overthrown by revolution. In October of that year Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power, but their grip on the country was weak, and they were in no position to prosecute the war with Germany and Austria-Hungary. In the spring of 1918 they bought themselves a respite: by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk they ceded to Germany Russia’s Baltic provinces, Lithuania, the parts of Poland under Russian occupation, Byelorussia and Ukraine. A few months later revolutions in Vienna and Berlin toppled the Austro-Hungarian and German empires, which left the whole area, still occupied by German and Austrian troops, effectively masterless. The Poles seized their chance.

Under pressure from President Wilson, the allies had already decided that the post-war settlement should include an independent Poland. They had even granted recognition to a Polish National Committee, based in Paris, which was preparing to form a provisional government. But they had no authority in German-occupied Poland, and no influence at all over the Bolshevik rulers of Russia, whose government they did not recognize. It was clear that the fate of Poland would be decided on the ground rather than in the conference room, and with Russia floundering in her own problems, the Poles, or rather one Pole, took the initiative.

imageHis name was Jozef Pilsudski. He was born in 1867 into the minor nobility and brought up in the cult of Polish patriotism. In his youth he embraced socialism, seeing in it the only force that could challenge the Tsarist regime and promote the cause of Polish independence. His early life reads like a novel, with time in Russian and German gaols punctuating his activities as polemicist, publisher of clandestine newspapers, political agitator, bank-robber, terrorist and urban guerrilla leader.

In 1904 Pilsudski put aside political agitation in favour of para-military organization. He organized his followers into fighting cells that could take on small units of Russian troops or police. A couple of years later, in anticipation of the coming war, he set up a number of supposedly sporting associations in the Austrian partition of Poland which soon grew into an embryonic army. On the eve of the Great War Austro-Hungary recognized this as a Polish Legion, with the status of irregular auxiliaries fighting under their own flag, and in August 1914 Pilsudski was able to march into Russian-occupied territory and symbolically reclaim it in the name of Poland.

He fought alongside the Austrians against Russia for the next couple of years, taking care to underline that he was fighting for Poland, not for the Central Powers. In 1916 the Germans attempted to enlist the support of the Poles by creating a kingdom of Poland out of some of their Polish lands, promising to extend it and give it full independence after the war. They persuaded the Austrians to transfer the Legion’s effectives, which had grown to some 20,000 men, into a new Polish army under German command, the Polnische Wehrmacht. Pilsudski, who had been seeking an opportunity to disassociate himself from the Austro-German camp in order to have his hands free when the war ended, refused to swear the required oath of brotherhood with the German army, and was promptly interned in the fortress of Magdeburg. His Legion was disbanded, with a only handful joining the Polnische Wehrmacht and the rest going into hiding.

They did not have to hide for long. Pilsudski was set free at the outbreak of revolution in Germany and arrived in Warsaw on 11 November 1918, the day the armistice was signed in the west. While his former legionaries emerged from hiding and disarmed the bewildered German garrison, he proclaimed the resurrection of the Polish Republic, under his own leadership.

Pilsudski was fifty-one years old. Rough-hewn, solid and gritty, he invariably wore the simple grey tunic of a ranker of the Legion. His pale face, with its high, broad forehead, drooping moustache and intense eyes, was theatrical in the extreme. ‘None of the usual amenities of civilized intercourse, but all the apparatus of sombre genius,’ one British diplomat noted on first meeting him.

Pilsudski felt that thirty years spent in the service of his enslaved motherland gave him an indisputable right to leadership. His immense popularity in Poland seemed to endorse this. But that was not the view of the victorious Allies in the west, nor of the Polish National Committee, waiting in Paris to assume power in Poland. After some negotiation a deal was struck, whereby the lion-maned pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski, who had devoted himself to promoting the cause of Poland in Britain, France and particularly America, and was trusted by the leaders of those countries, came from Paris to take over as Prime Minister, with Pilsudski remaining titular head of state and commander-in-chief. While he allowed Paderewski to run the day-to-day business of the government and its relations with the Allies, Pilsudski continued to direct policy in all essentials. And he had firm ideas on how to ensure the survival of Poland.

Thursday November 09 2017

I have started reading Music & Monarchy, by David Starkey and Katie Greening.  What the division of labour is between these two (Starkey is in larger letters thatn Greening on the front cover) I do not know, but it certainly starts very promisingly.  I have already encountered two passages worthy of prolonged recycling here, the one that starts the book (see below), and the bit that follows, about England’s profound medieval musicality.

So, to begin where Starkey and Greening begin, here is how the introduction of this book launches itself (pages 1-2):

Music or Words? Poetry and Drama? Or Anthems, Opera and Oratorio? Which, to personalise and particularise, is the more important in British history and to the British monarchy: the anniversary of Shakespeare or the centenary of Handel? The question almost seems absurd. Nowadays there is no doubt that Shakespeare wins every time. Shakespeare’s cycle of history plays, famously described by another maker of history, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, as ‘the only history I ever read’, still shapes the popular understanding of English history and its murderous dynastic rivalries; while in their nobler moments the plays (re-)invent the idea of England herself before going on to adumbrate a larger, mistier vision of Britain:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this sea of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-Paradise ...
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea ...
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings ...
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land.

Who could resist that? George III (1760-1820) for one, who confided to Fanny Burney: ‘Was there ever such stuff as a great part of Shakespeare? Only one must not say so!’ The eighteenth century more or less agreed with its longest reigning king. The bicentenary of Shakespeare, celebrated five years late in 1769, was a provincial pageant, which, despite the best efforts of the actor-manager David Garrick, made little impact outside the Bard’s birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon and, thanks to torrential rain, was literally a washout even there. On the other hand, the centenary of Handel’s birth (celebrated a year early by mistake in 1784) was a grand national event the like of which had never been seen before: not for the greatest general, politician or king, let alone for a mere musician.  Fashionable London fought (and queued) for tickets; Westminster Abbey was crammed and ladies were instructed not to wear excessive hoops in their dresses while hats were absolutely forbidden. Even then, demand was unsatisfied and two of the events had to be rerun.

David Starkey on how Handel trumped Shakespeare
Nadar takes photos from his giant balloon
David Hockney likes having servants!
Ross King describes how Louis Napoleon became the most important man in the world
A lot of people used to go to see the paintings in the Paris Salon
Ross King introduces Meissonier
Our Sea (and the trade we did in it)
Lincoln Paine on how Rome mastered the sea by turning sea battles into land battles
Lincoln Paine: A ship in the desert
Lincoln Paine shifts the emphasis from land to water (with a very big book)
Tim Marshall on ‘Sykes-Picot’
Tim Marshall on the warming of the Arctic
Tim Marshall on the illiberal and undemocratic Middle East
And Africa’s rivers don’t help
Africa is (still) big
Industrial predictions from Peter Laurie in 1980
Rod Green on Boys and Men at the time of Magna Carta
Matt Ridley on the educational discoveries of James Tooley
Matt Ridley on how (fracking) technology lead science
A “What If?” concerning the Battle of the Atlantic
Steven Johnson on how technology (such as the Magdeburg Sphere) grows science
Steven Johnson on how coffee replaced alcohol as the daytime drug of choice
Benjamin Franklin maps the Gulf Stream
W. F. Deedes on the rise of Stanley Baldwin
Bach’s development of the most intense musical vision from a straitened environment
Matt Ridley on the Chinese economic miracle
Matt Ridley on how culture leads where genes follow
Matt Ridley on Epicurus and Lucretius
Peter Foster on Robert Owen
Steven Pinker on the (im)moral message of the Old Testament
Juliet Barker on Knights of Old: A lot of history in one paragraph
Steven Johnson on The Myth of the Ant Queen
How David Irving put himself on trial
When David Irving called a British Judge “Mein Fuhrer”
Paul Johnson on Mozart and Da Ponte
Paul Johnson on what the young Mozart was up against
Richard J. Evans on how evidence can become more significant over time
Marc Morris on how the Bayeux Tapestry ought not to exist
Paul Kennedy on centimetric radar
Peter Thiel on how humans and computers complement each other
Marc Morris on medieval evidence (there’s more of it than you might think)
Matt Ridley on how technology leads science and how that means that the state need not fund science
Dominic Frisby on the Hype Cycle
On the rights and wrongs of me posting bits from books (plus a bit about Rule Utilarianism)
How Bill Bryson on white and black paint helps to explain the Modern Movement in Architecture
Chippendale without Rannie
Bill Bryson on the miracle of crop rotation
Postrel goes for Gray
Self-healing concrete
JK Rowling describes two rich girls
Quota quote
Christopher Seaman on conducting
3D printed baby in the womb
Don’t judge a new technology by its first stumbling steps
Alex on Quentin
Algernon Sidney sends for Micklethwait because Micklethwait is wise, learned, diligent, and faithful
New apostrophe-shaped footbridge in Hull
Lighter blogging here but not none
76 operas and a monument in the wrong place for Hermann the German
Emmanuel Todd quoted and Instalanched
Richard Dawkins on university debating games
Alex Ross on Hollywood film scores
Professor C. Northcote Parkinson on the Edifice Complex
Alex Ross on Sibelius
Lawrence H. White on the Scottish experience of free banking
“I will cause a boy that driveth a plough to know more of the scriptures than thou dost.”
John Carey on Shakespeare and the high-art/ popular-art distinction
Official bias
Switching from dumb bombing to smart bombing
“I’ll build it with explosive bolts connecting the wings to the fuselage …”
If the Jews have been running the world they haven’t been doing it very successfully
Terence Kealey on the Wright brothers and their patent battles
Ed Smith on how baseball defeated cricket in America
Understanding is the booby prize exclamation mark
Will China fail?
A dreadful age
Richard Dawkins on the Muhammad cartoons affair
Is Jeremy Paxman a closet libertarian?