Glen Newey 1961-2017

Thomas Jones

Glen Newey, the LRB blog’s most prolific contributor, died suddenly on Saturday morning. He was an implacable opponent of cant, in all its forms, not least concerning the dead: ‘De mortuis nil nisi veritas,’ he wrote on the demise of the US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia last year. His last post, published just over a month ago, commemorated the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana: ‘On a scale unseen since Queen Victoria hoofed the pail, grief totalitarianism raged across the land.’ So I’ll try not to say anything that would have made him cringe.

Not that he was much given to cringing. Never shy of causing offence, especially where he considered it due, he was unimpressed by the powerful, whether they were elected or appointed to office, or came to it by accident of birth. He wrote a piece for the paper on the monarchy in 2003, and returned to the subject more than once over the years. ‘People sometimes ask me why I moan on so much about the royal family,’ he wrote on the blog in 2013 (Prince Charles was about to visit Saudi Arabia):

Aren’t there more important things to worry about, like war, political repression, man-made climate change or Arsenal’s exit from the Champions League? To give the short answer, yes. But in a funny way, no.

Never exactly on anyone’s side, he heaped scorn on Boris Johnson, the tabloid press and other cheerleaders for Brexit, but at the same time was always a clear-eyed critic of the EU. Yet he was careful to withhold his contempt from those he called, the day before the EU referendum, ‘the serially shat-on’.

Labour’s relative success in the general election in June took him, like most other commentators, by surprise. But in January 2016 he had correctly predicted the outcome of the EU referendum, though he took little pleasure in saying ‘I told you so’ the day after the vote.

He paid closer attention to the odds on elections than he did to opinion polls – ‘the odds on Leave still under-price it,’ he pointed out on 22 June 2016 – and not only because his father was a bookie:

In a school-gate encounter with my mother, a fellow parent, Mr Crapp – a pillar of the local chartered accountants’ guild and man of God – voiced his surprise that she had the brass to show herself in public, given her husband’s job. My doubts about moralism surfaced around this time.

‘Words are for me what shoes were for Imelda Marcos,’ he wrote in a piece about learning Dutch when he went to teach at Leiden University:

It’s not enough for them to be out there somewhere – in a dictionary, say – as, I imagine, it didn’t do it for Imelda to know that there were slingbacks and mules, pumps and brothel-creepers, espadrilles and clogs, laid up in a Dolcis warehouse. They have to be owned, tried on, worn in.

A post from August 2013 on the ‘literal’ meaning of the word ‘literally’ finished with a few thoughts on the Home Office vans that roamed the country that summer, telling ‘foreigners’ to ‘go home’:

We all know what is meant … by ‘home’. Except for those of us who, literally, don’t speak English. And those who, because they left poverty, or forced marriage, or other kinds of servitude, or came to join loved ones, had no home there, but came to find one here. Literally.


  • 2 October 2017 at 1:38pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    I knew Glen slightly at university, and was pleasantly surprised by the scabrous fluency of his LRB contributions. Haven't seen him since 1982, though, and I won't now. Dreadful news, and much too soon.

    • 4 October 2017 at 9:51am
      Phil Edwards says: @ Phil Edwards
      I've written a bit more about Glen on my own blog.

  • 2 October 2017 at 2:01pm
    IPFreely says:
    Sad news. His iconoclastic views were always worth reading. A great loss to the debates and dialogues here.

  • 2 October 2017 at 2:33pm says:
    Sad news indeed.

  • 2 October 2017 at 5:50pm
    woll says:
    very sad news. I enjoyed his witty and acute blogs and was just wondering whether he was going to comment on the current political conferences.

  • 2 October 2017 at 6:30pm
    Dominic Rice says:
    Terrible loss for the LRB blog. Glenn never pulled his punches on any issue of the day and really got the debate rocking. RIP

  • 2 October 2017 at 9:47pm
    Simon Wood says:
    I'm trying to think of what he would have said about his own death here. That post will be truly missed, along with him.

  • 3 October 2017 at 3:21pm
    keith smith says:
    My heart always lifted a bit when I saw Glen Newey's by-line on an LRB blog or article. It was rare to read his stuff without finding an idea worth some reflection. A further pleasure was often in store as pompous asses wrote in to take him to task.

  • 3 October 2017 at 7:59pm
    DanB says:
    Terrible news. How very sad. By coincidence, I renewed my LRB subscription moments before reading this bombshell. Now it doesn't seem nearly such good value.

  • 4 October 2017 at 1:12pm
    errorgorilla says:
    Whenever I think of Glen Newey's piece on the royalty from 2003 I laugh like a drain. The line about Diana being "stiffed on a pedalo by the thick-set offspring of a Levantine grocer" made snot come out my nose. Travel well, Glen.

  • 4 October 2017 at 7:11pm
    Chris sparks says:
    I just need to say that I had the greatest time studying with Glen (and our 3rd musketeer Morris Glassman at York uni ) Glen was awsomely clever ...casually unravelling professor's arguments before our eyes...but clumsy as crap. We kept in touch over the years ..always with the greeting 'you old Bastard' ....I'll no longer see that greeting in my emails...nor the dry insightful and funny comments that would follow...God I'm sad. Great mind and great guy.

  • 24 October 2017 at 2:04am
    kassia says:
    I'm late to this, but I just want to comment with or without cant that this is really a huge loss. I always looked forward to reading Glen's stuff. His pieces were so funny and full of learning, each one sent me off in a dozen other directions. Earlier this year I went back and read everything of his from the archives. It's horrible that there will be no new entries.

  • 31 October 2017 at 5:29pm
    AFH says:
    He was in the Philosophy faculty at Sussex when I studied Philosophy and Politics, and I remember seeing him for the first time and remarking to those next to me that he reminded me of Ade Edmondson.

    I was later in his Ethics class. I remember coming in once to find him in a black suit and tie; the seminar was to be postponed as he had a funeral to attend, though not for before he and the group enjoyed a 10 minute flippant conversation about it. I only really engaged with the 'realist' philosophy with which he was primarily associated with somewhat later, but I think, for better or worse, he was nonetheless a formative influence and someone I remember fondly. It was a sad event to check his wikipedia entry today. RIP Glen Newey.

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