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‘No Bullshit’ Bullshit

Stefan Collini: Christopher Hitchens, Englishman, 23 January 2003

Orwell's Victory 
by Christopher Hitchens.
Allen Lane, 150 pp., £9.99, June 2002, 9780713995848
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... Winning is very important to Christopher Hitchens. Dr Johnson was said to ‘talk for victory’, and by all accounts it seems the same might be said of Hitchens. He certainly writes for victory. His preferred genre is the polemic; his favoured tone mixes forensic argument with high-octane contempt. And no one can accuse him of only picking on boys his own size: he is happy to take the ring against tubby, bespectacled former diplomats and little, shrivelled old ladies as well as (special contempt here) relatively fit joggers ...

Hegel in Green Wellies

Stefan Collini: England, 8 March 2001

England: An Elegy 
by Roger Scruton.
Chatto, 270 pp., £16.99, October 2000, 1 85619 251 2
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The Faber Book of Landscape Poetry 
edited by Kenneth Baker.
Faber, 426 pp., £25, October 2000, 0 571 20071 0
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... Condition of England writing is the product of a perceived acceleration in the pace of social change. We owe the term to Carlyle, writing in the 1830s, when the ‘Condition of England Question’ largely turned on the nature of the link between a new form of economic activity (then just coming to be termed ‘industrialism’) which promised undreamed of material abundance, and a newly visible degradation in the living conditions of the urban poor ...

An Abiding Sense of the Demonic

Stefan Collini: Arnold, 20 January 2000

The Letters of Matthew Arnold. Vol. I: 1829-59 
edited by Cecil Lang.
Virginia, 549 pp., £47.50, November 1998, 0 8139 1651 8
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The Letters of Matthew Arnold. Vol. II: 1860-65 
edited by Cecil Lang.
Virginia, 505 pp., £47.95, November 1998, 0 8139 1706 9
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The Letters of Matthew Arnold. Vol. III: 1866-70 
edited by Cecil Lang.
Virginia, 483 pp., £47.95, November 1998, 0 8139 1765 4
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... I shall put together either for a pamphlet or for Fraser, a sort of résumé of the present question, as the result of what I have thought, read, and observed here, about it. I am very well and only wish I was not so lazy, but hope and believe one is less so from 40 to 50, if one lives, than at any other time of life. Matthew Arnold was 37 when he wrote this letter from Strasbourg where in 1859 he was on a fact-finding mission about foreign schools for the royal commission on elementary education ...

Whigissimo

Stefan Collini: Herbert Butterfield, 21 July 2005

Herbert Butterfield: Historian as Dissenter 
by C.T. McIntire.
Yale, 499 pp., £30, August 2005, 0 300 09807 3
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... Do you speak Whiggish? The most recent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary does not, it appears – at least not fluently. The original OED, compiled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, contained full entries for ‘Whig’ and its adjectival derivatives, denoting that group or tradition which had been one of the two main contending forces in British political life from the late 17th to at least the mid 19th century ...

Life at the Pastry Board

Stefan Collini: V.S. Pritchett, 4 November 2004

V.S. Pritchett: A Working Life 
by Jeremy Treglown.
Chatto, 308 pp., £25, October 2004, 9780701173227
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... It was all done with a pastry board and a bulldog clip. Sheets of paper were clipped to the board, the board rested on the arms of his chair and the fountain-pen began to cover the pages with a scrawl that barely hinted at intimations of legibility. Every day was much the same, weekday or weekend: a long morning at the board, lunch, a nap, errands, tea and then back to the board; a drink or two before dinner, perhaps some more reading after dinner, and then early to bed in preparation for another day of turning the doughy ball of thought into light, crisp sentences ...

Boomster and the Quack

Stefan Collini: How to Get on in the Literary World, 2 November 2006

Writers, Readers and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain 1870-1918 
by Philip Waller.
Oxford, 1181 pp., £85, April 2006, 0 19 820677 1
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... In the early 20th century, literary pilgrims to Stratford-upon-Avon already knew a lot about the great writer they had come to honour. The author’s house in Church St has rather come down in the world since then and is now an outpost of Birmingham University, but in its heyday it was home to a writer with some claims to be the most widely read, in English and in translation, across the world ...

Hierophants

Stefan Collini: C. Day-Lewis, 6 September 2007

C. Day-Lewis: A Life 
by Peter Stanford.
Continuum, 368 pp., £25, May 2007, 978 0 8264 8603 5
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... What are poets good for? Are all attempts to speak of ‘the function of poetry’, with that reductive definite article, doomed to pompous failure? In response to these questions, the sentence which precedes Shelley’s over-quoted dictum that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ is rarely cited, and one can see why. ‘Poets,’ he writes, ‘are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves ...

Upwards and Onwards

Stefan Collini: On Raymond Williams, 31 July 2008

Raymond Williams: A Warrior’s Tale 
by Dai Smith.
Parthian, 514 pp., £25, May 2008, 978 1 905762 56 9
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... When Raymond Williams died suddenly, aged 66, in January 1988, estimations of him were sharply divided. There were those who regarded him as a deservedly influential literary and cultural critic, a major socialist theorist and an exemplary instance of the union of intellectual seriousness and political purpose. There were others who thought he had for too long enjoyed an inflated reputation, that he was a muddy thinker and verbose writer who had been swept to a form of cultural celebrity by the vogue for working-class sentimentalism in the 1960s and lefter-than-thou self-righteousness in the 1970s ...

Do you think he didn’t know?

Stefan Collini: Kingsley Amis, 14 December 2006

The Life of Kingsley Amis 
by Zachary Leader.
Cape, 996 pp., £25, November 2006, 0 224 06227 1
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... Giving offence has become an unfashionable sport, but Kingsley Amis belongs in its hall of fame, one of the all-time greats. When Roger Micheldene, the central character in his 1963 novel, One Fat Englishman, is warned that he’s about to say something he’ll be sorry for, he replies, ‘those are the only things I really enjoy saying’ – and there isn’t much sign that Micheldene or his creator did feel sorry afterwards ...

Deeper Shallows

Stefan Collini: C.S. Lewis, 20 June 2013

C.S. Lewis: A Life 
by Alister McGrath.
Hodder, 431 pp., £20, April 2013, 978 1 4447 4552 8
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... It is difficult to write about C.S. Lewis without giving offence. Most authors have their admirers, and literary sectarianism is hardly rare, but Lewis is unusual in being at the heart of more than one cult, having excelled in genres where attachments are warmest and the cool touch of analysis can be most resented, such as popular religious writing and children’s literature ...

From the Motorcoach

Stefan Collini: J.B. Priestley, 19 November 2009

English Journey 
by J.B. Priestley.
Great Northern Books, 351 pp., £25, July 2009, 978 1 905080 47 2
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... Earlier this year, I visited the Birmingham suburb of Bournville for the first time. Planned and developed by the Cadburys in the 1890s, the estate is explicitly modelled on an ideal of the English village, with the mostly semi-detached houses playing a set of variations on the theme of the cottage. Consulting Pevsner as I walked around, I was surprised to find that, normally rather sniffy about the various forms of imitation and revival that make up most modern English domestic architecture, he was almost enthusiastic about the style of these placid, unambitious dwellings ...

On the Lower Slopes

Stefan Collini: Greene’s Luck, 5 August 2010

Shades of Greene: One Generation of an English Family 
by Jeremy Lewis.
Cape, 580 pp., £25, August 2010, 978 0 224 07921 1
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... Graham Greene was more than half in love with easeful failure. He chose to end A Sort of Life, the sly memoir of his early years that stood in for an autobiography, with ‘the years of failure which followed the acceptance of my first novel’, adding the characteristic gloss that ‘failure too is a kind of death’ and so may conclude the story of a life as appropriately as one’s last breath ...

Saint or Snake

Stefan Collini: Ann Oakley on Richard Titmuss, 8 October 2015

Father and Daughter: Patriarchy, Gender and Social Science 
by Ann Oakley.
Policy, 290 pp., £13.99, November 2014, 978 1 4473 1810 1
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... Descriptions​ of Richard Titmuss often drew on the language of otherworldliness. He was ‘the high priest of the welfare state’ according to an assessment quoted in the ODNB. His entry there considers, though judiciously rejects, his frequent characterisation as a ‘saint’; understandably, it doesn’t cite his LSE colleague Michael Oakeshott’s description of him as ‘a snake in saint’s clothing ...

Buffed-Up Scholar

Stefan Collini: Eliot and the Dons, 30 August 2012

Letters of T.S. Eliot, Vol. III: 1926-27 
edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden.
Faber, 954 pp., £40, July 2012, 978 0 571 14085 5
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... Writing in his best haughty-provocative manner, T.S. Eliot described Coleridge as ‘one of those unhappy persons … of whom one might say that if they had not been poets, they might have made something of their lives, might even have had a career’. Although the syntax allows a little ambiguity about whether the unhappiness is independent of, or consequent on, being a poet, the obvious reading suggests a somewhat laboured sarcasm about the way the propensity for writing poetry can blight the exercise of other talents, talents that might have led to success in more orthodox careers ...

What’s not to like?

Stefan Collini: Ernest Gellner, 2 June 2011

Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography 
by John Hall.
Verso, 400 pp., £29.99, July 2010, 978 1 84467 602 6
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... When Ernest Gellner was teaching at the Central European University in Prague in 1995, the last year of his life, he cultivated informal social relations with the graduate students there. One student ‘confessed to unease when Gellner sat down to watch television with him – saying it was as if Max Weber had dropped by.’ It requires only a little familiarity with Weber’s vastly ambitious oeuvre and notoriously austere personality to imagine why that might be an unsettling experience, as well as an unlikely one ...

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