Category Archives: Books

Make Way for the Profligate Duke!

I posted on the “profligate duke” a while back. He was the fifth Duke of Marlborough, and quite the rogue. As I mentioned, Sir Winston Churchill’s daughter, Lady Mary Soames, wrote a biography of the duke . The book is no longer in print, but that does not mean that it cannot be found. Heywood Hill of Curzon Street, London came to the rescue!

Image result for The Profligate Duyke

I just got word today that Heywood Hill has a copy and will ship it to me here in Tartu. Bravo! Can’t wait until it arrives!

BTW, I have used Heywood Hill before. Wonderful people! And they know their stuff!

Stay tuned!


Consider one Meyer Rothschild

We tend to think of the Rothschild dynasty as incredibly rich and powerful. And rightfully so. At their peak, the Rothschild family dominated financial markets in Europe. They were richer than kings.

But it was not always that way, The founder of the dynasty was one Mayer Rothschild, who was born and lived his entire life in the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt. Amos Elon Tells his amazing story in his book “Founder”.  Here is a peek

The old Judengasse where Rothschild lived his entire life was a narrow lane, more slum-like and overcrowded than any other tenements in Frankfurt.A closed compound, it was shut off from the rest of the city by high walls and three heavy gates. The gates were guarded by soldiers and were locked at night, all day on Sundays and Christian holidays and from Good Friday until Easter. In it lived the largest Jewish community in Germany in conditions of almost total isolation, or apartheid.

How did Mayer Rothschild find a way while living in these conditions to amass an incredible fortune, teach his boys the rudiments of finance, and send them off to the capitals of Europe to set up the first networked investment banking system the world has seen?

Whether you think this is admirable or not, you cannot deny that it is an amazing story. A heroic story of a man and his family, against all odds, succeeding beyond our wildest dreams.

Books: Is Campion Irrelevant Today?

Margery Allingham was an author who is primarily remembered for her detective stories. She first gained recognition in 1929 with her detective Albert Campion. And Campion returns again and again — not unlike the way that Poirot does. But there is a major difference. Campion changes as Allingham writes more stories. He matures, gets married, has a child, and his role in the stories where he appears tends to fade, until he is but a secondary figure.  Can you imagine Poirot as a secondary figure?

The reason is that Allingham’s story telling skills developed over the years, and she became more interested in characters other than Campion himself. And she had a flare for putting you in the scene where the mundane and the mysterious collide.

The opening scene in the short story “The Case is Altered” (1938) gives us a sense of her style.

Mr. Albert Campion sat in a first class smoking compartment reflecting sadly that an atmosphere of stultifying decency could make even a Christmas a stuffed-owl occasion. Suddenly a new hogskin suitcase of distinctive design hit him , the golf bag brushed the shins of the shy young man opposite him and an armful of assorted magazines burst over the pretty girl in the far corner of the compartment. A blast of icy air swept round the carriage. The familiar jerky movements which indicated the train had started, a squawk from a receding porter, and then Lance Feering burst in, propelled, as it seemed, by a rocket.

That does get your attention! Ms Allingham proceeds to sort out this rather fantastic scene, and unveil a rather fun story. We can draw whatever conclusions we wish from the scene, but it is hard not to connect with it!

At the same time, it would be very difficult to find a person like Campion these days. His life style, class background, manners, all are of a certain period that has pretty much vanished. So why read about him? There is something very likeable about the character. Isn’t that enough?


Digital Nomads and Massive Mugginess in Paradise

Have you gone “off the rails”? Left your hamster cage? Told your boss to “take this job and …?”

More than a few youngsterish folks have done it. They have cut loose and moved out of their comfort zones to embrace a life less designed for comfort, and more designed for adventure.

What do they do? Many find temporary jobs teaching English. But the job is not the point. As Rob Asghar writes for Forbes, there are other things to find and experience. Other types of connections, people and values.

They also find beauty where others find inconvenience and unpleasantness. Those twin beaches on which they and I recently stayed, by the way, just happen to some of the most idyllic locations on Earth. Indeed, when I post pictures of many of my travels, jealous friends tell me, “Looks like you’re in Paradise.”

I am, I tell them. But as they say, there’s a reason so few people go to Paradise: It’s a hassle to get there. And it has fleas and typhoid and massive mugginess.

I am waiting for one of these folks to write their story. Sort of like an “On the Road” without the beats.

In the meantime, I am reminded of earlier iterations of this story. Isak Dinesen’s “Out of Africa” is one.Her story is less about the failed coffee plantation that she tried to build up, and more about the contrast between her European values and the freedom she found in Africa. Here she is

Image result for Isak Dinesen

And how about Forester’s “A Passage to  India”? Forester starts off his story this way

Except for the Marabar Caves — and they are twenty miles off — the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary. Edged rather than washed by the river Ganges, it trails for a couple of miles along the bank, scarcely distinguishable from teh rubbish it deposits so freely.

Not an auspicious start for an adventure. But Foreester will give us our adventure. And it will be a dangerous one, where cultures collide and our sense of justice is challenged.


Paul Fussell: Facing Unpleasant Facts … and More!

Paul Fussell  was an American cultural historian , author and university professor. He had been wounded int he Second War fighting in France, and afterwards, he often wrote about the gap between the romanticized myth of war and its ugly realities.  His book “The Great War and Modern Memory” is a classic look at how the First World War changed modern literary tradition.

By the late 1980’s Fussell was well-known as a curmudgeon. He did not “go with the flow”, and instead  complained of the “dumbing down of America!.  I was attracted to his blunt talk, and I bought his book of essays entitled “Thank God for the Atom Bomb”. While I did not always agree with Fussell, I found his candor and directness to be refreshing.

One of the essays in that book focuses on George Orwell and is entitled “A Power of Facing Unpleasant Facts”. It starts off this way

The words are Orwell’s, for his essay “Why I Write.” From childhood, he says, he might have sensed that he was going to become a writer., for already, he had “a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.” The latter, he implies throughout his career, is necessary not just to any writer but to any honest thinker. And its notably a power, not just a talent or a flair. The power of facing unpleasant facts is clearly an attribute of decent, sane grown ups as opposed to the immature, the silly, the nutty, or the doctrinaire.

Fussell’s closing comment in the essay pertains to a response made by an author to a review of her book.

Although it might be going too far to assert that letting an unwelcome review pass without remonstrance is itself a sign of a serious writer as distinguished from a publicity hound or a neurotic show-off, it does appear that the authors who write in to object, argue, “clarify”, “set the record straight”, and correct misunderstandings of their works are rather consistently the hacks, amateurs, writers on the borders of vanity publishing, or those … suffering under some personal defeat or injured merit and anxious to bring a compensatory portentous message to erring humanity. They are very seldom writers whose concern is their craft, rather than their reputation or their impact on the universe.

I have omitted the name of the target of Fussell’s criticsm.

So what about our “impact on the universe”. Fussell leaves us with one more unpleasant fact

We are left to face the unpleasant facts good writers like Orwell face instinctively: that you aren’t all that important, that no one cares terribly except yourself and your family whether your reputation is high or nonexistent, and that a book wroth reading succeeds rather by word of mouth than by reviews, advertising, or dust jacket blurbs. Good socialists, good university administrators, good presidents, and good writers are  alike in this: they invite criticism, they don’t fear it, and they certainly don’t reject it, reserving the word unfair for bad calls at home plate.

Now let me think for a moment. What president regularly uses the word “unfair” in responding to criticisms of his antics? What president refuses to accept any criticism, or admit any mistakes? What president even refuses to acknowledge truth when it hits him in the face like a hot pizza pie thrown by an angry line chef through the kitchen window at an unruly, drunken customer? What is his name again? Please remind me. In my imagination, I am already happily living in a time when that dude is history.


Remembering the Bad Duke and more!

Sir Winston Spencer Churchill was undoubtedly a great man who descended from a great family line. And yet, the Marlborough family line did have its peaks and troughs.

It all stared amazingly well, when John Churchill returned from his triumphant military campaigns against the French. He was made the first duke, and with funds provided by a grateful state, he built Blenheim Palace as a memorial to one of his greatest triumphs, It was designed not for beauty or elegance, but for grandeur. Here it is, that great pile of stones (paraphrasing Voltaire)

Image result for Blenheim Palace

But the family line did not produce a succession of great men who could or would live up to this level of grandeur. Perhaps the fifth duke, who lived in the early nineteenth century,  represented the absolute low point.

Here is a glimpse

The diarist Harriet Arbuthnot wrote one of her most scathing comments about the Duke following a visit to Blenheim in 1824:

The family of the great General is, however, gone sadly to decay, and are but a disgrace to the illustrious name of Churchill… The present Duke is overloaded with debt, is very little better than a common swindler and lets everything about Blenheim. People may shoot and fish at so much per hour and it has required all the authority of a Court of Chancery to prevent his cutting down all the trees in the park.

Indeed, John Pearson writes in “The Private Lives of Winston Churchill”

After the hermit duke came his son George, one of the greatest spendthrifts of a spendthrift age. He did his best,  through lunatic extravagance, to empty the first Duke’s treasure chest to pay his debts. This was none too easy, since most of the fabled books and gems and paintings were still guarded by trustees. Even before succeeding to the Dukedom, George could gaily lose £30,000 in an afternoon at Doncaster Races, and although this was one of many debts he refused to pay, he remained chronically and wretchedly in debt throughout his dukedom.

The details are incredible. Pearson goes on

The early nineteenth century was a time when a duke could get away with almost anything, but there were limits, such as when he hoodwinked the Blenheim trustees by melting down the solid gold state dinner service, presented to the first Duke by the Elector of Bavaria, and having it replaced with a cheap pinchbeck replica. But no matter what he melted down, the desperate fifth duke could never hope to repay his debts. According to one visitor to Blenheim in  the 1820’s, all the servants in the palace were in fact bailiffs, which didn’t do much to cheer things up.

BTW, “pinchbeck” is a form of brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, that has the color or gold and was popular as an inexpensive gold imitation. It was invented in the 18th century by a clockmaker, Mr. Christopher Pinchbeck, hence the name.

Pearson’s interest in the story of the bad duke relates to the romantic expectations of Sir Winston Churchill over the prospects of his son, Randolph. Sir Winston believed in great destiny for himself and his family — at least the men. It was his guiding star. But that would be upended by Randolph. As a young man, Randolph believed he would inherit greatness, and he could talk a blue streak, but he would prove unable to live up to the calling. What happened? That is what Pearson explores in his book. Let’s just say that a recipe of great hubris without great abilities to match will not produce a great success.

But back to the fifth duke. In 1987, Sir Winston’s daughter, Mary Soames, published a biography of the profligate duke. Here is the cover

Image result for Fifth Duke of Marlborough

It is a book that I would like to purchase, both because of the author and the topic.  The image on the cover of the fifth duke was made in 1803 by James Gillray and published by Hannah Humphrey. The subtitle is “The inexpressible air of dignity”.  Gillray was one of the two greatest satirical cartoonists of his day. Hogarth was the other. Mrs. Humphrey was a well known publisher … and Gillray’s consort. I do not use the word “mistress” because they lived together., unmarried. The more modern term, POSSLQ (persons of opposite sex sharing living quarters) was not to be invested for another century and a half, give or take a decade or two.

In case you are wondering, the term POSSLQ is a designation created by the US Census Bureau in the 1970’s to assist in measuring the prevalence of such cohabitation. It became popularized in the 1980’s, which inspired Charles Osgood to write

There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do

If you would be my POSSLQ

You live with me and I with you,

And you will be my POSSLQ.

I’ll be your friend and so much more;

That’s what a POSSLQ is for.


Stay tuned!

James Boyd White: Government is not a Machine

In his book “Acts of Hope”, law professor James Boyd White offers a number of stories about society and conflict in society about society. These are not stories about lawyers or law cases. Instead, they are stories about how we talk about authority. And, of course, they start with Socrates. In his final dialogue, the Crito, Socrates brings out why he believes it is better to die based on an unjust law than to flee into exile.

It is an important book for anyone who wants to better understand where authority comes from. BTW, you might be surprised that on this point, lawyers do not agree. Legal scholars have different views about what makes law, law.

White  reminds us of the human dimension of authority — created jointly from leaders and followers.

Here is one of the closing paragraphs

One theme running through these texts is that of exile or secession and reunion. In this they catch another general feature of human life. Each of us, in growing up, in becoming independent, must in a sense secede form the languages we have been taught, resisting and transforming them, yet we can never escape them entirely, and a part of success is a return, though on different terms, an acceptance of what one must accept about oneself,, one’s world, and the way one has been made. Socrates is an Athenian,  he will  not deny that by exile, but prefers to die, an act with meaning in his world.  Mandela likewise refuses exile,he insists on acting in his world, even if it means his death, and doing so on his own terms; yet not hsi alone, for what he offers south Africa is not a remote ideal but a better version of itself. Lincoln seeks to define a union that will comprise us all, North and South, black and white, individual and nation, for the theological vision out of which he operates is a narrative in which we all have a common place; and his is a vision that promises to teach us something of our own capacity for charity.

In other words, society need not be perfect in order to inspire loyalty to it by appealing to the narratives that make it better.

White closes with this thought

None of these writers thought he lived in a just or perfect world. Everyone saw evil, in himself and in others, everyone saw defects of mind and language in himself and others. Yet each found a way of living in an unjust world by imagining an ideal