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Index: History & Biography

The Panopticon.

Neil Davie: ‘It was this combination of omniscient surveillance and unquestioning submission that made the Panopticon such a powerful symbol in the hands of Michel Foucault; a place where the prisoner “is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.”’

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W. L. Courtney.

John KMarriott: ‘No one who knew the Oxford Courtney – the brilliant teacher, the keen metaphysician – doubted that he had a logic of the head; no one who knew him in his later and mellower and happier years could ever question the truth and depth of his “philosophy of the heart.” In pace requiescat.’

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Ernest Renan.

George Saintsbury: ‘[Renan’s]] gospel may certainly be said to be a vague gospel, and the enemy may contend that Morgane la Fée is architect and clerk of the works at the buildings which he so industriously edifies with graceful words and, at the same time, with a vast quantity of solid learning. But of his literary skill there can be no question, and scarcely less of the admirable character of his intentions.’

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Chernobyl.

Richard Jensen: ‘Valery Legasov spent two years fighting behind the scenes to have some of the more glaring problems with the reactor addressed. When these efforts failed, in frustration and despair, he hung himself in the stairwell of his office building on April 27, 1988. ‘

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The Magdeburg Sphere.

Marcel Cohen: ‘Can the way we see the world after the Catastrophe serve as testimony for a man of my generation? Can a form of absence of the author, an author cut-off from himself, serve as presence for the reader? These are further questions to which I have no answer. But I remember that when I was a special correspondent for a Parisian daily in Israel during the Six Day War, I was struck by this obvious fact: contrary to a church or a mosque, the Wailing Wall is not a place where you can take refuge and feel sheltered. You gaze upon it and then you must necessarily resolve to turn your back to it in order to look out at the world.’

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James Smetham calls on the Ruskins.

Mark Jones: ‘By inviting Smetham to Denmark Hill, Ruskin was admitting to his circle of acquaintances one of the most intriguing and curious actors to feature on the outskirts of the whole Pre-Raphaelite pageant. Although Smetham’s art along with his facility with an evocative phrase have largely been mislaid by posterity, his talents both as painter and correspondent are long overdue for critical reappraisal.’

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Rabindranath Tagore.

Ezra Pound: ‘We have found our new Greece, suddenly. As the sense of balance came back upon Europe in the days before the Renaissance, so it seems to me does this sense of a saner stillness come now to us in the midst of our clangour of mechanisms.

The “mens sana in corpore sano,” the ethic of Odyssey, came then upon the tortured habits of mediaeval thought, and with no greater power for refreshment.

I am not saying this hastily, nor in an emotional flurry, not from a love of brandishing statement. I have had a month to think it over.

Hearing his first Greek professor, hearing for the first time the curious music of Theocritus, coming for the first time upon that classic composure which Dante had a little suggested in his description of limbo, Boccaccio must have felt, I think, little differently from what we have felt here, we few who have been privileged to receive the work of Mr. Tagore before the public have heard it.’

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Who is Bruce Springsteen?

Peter Knobler: ‘Senator and former presidential candidate John Kerry says, “There’s an authenticity about Bruce that’s just incontrovertible…I think it’s because he’s so true to who he is, and people know it.” But who is he? Is he the egalitarian liberal who sang the radical anti-private-property verse of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” at President Barack Obama’s first inaugural, or is he the guy who allowed his band to be low-balled when offered contracts for a highly anticipated and financially rewarding “reunion tour”?’

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Entertaining Mr Pooter.

Stephen Wade: ‘The world of entertainment c.1900 was multi-layered and performers worked at every level, from readings and recitals to grand opera and serious drama. The writers who provided the material were working in an increasingly complex world in which professionalism was being created and defined, partly through the growth of intellectual property legislation. The performers existed, for the most part, in a designated slot within the very wide spectrum in the performing arts, both amateur and professional. As for the audience and readership: they were an identity in flux, eager for things to do after their long working hours and economic pressures.’

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W. H. Davies: the tramp poet’s ‘gift of laziness’.

M. D. Armstrong: ‘One of the gifts which he seems to have acquired from his life as a tramp, or possibly the gift which made him a tramp, is the gift of laziness. We say, deliberately, gift, because the power of being profitably, creatively lazy is a great gift. Not stagnation, which is the deadliest of all sins, but recreative laziness.’

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The Case of Edmund Rack.

Tom Lowenstein: ‘Buried in [John Collinson’s] Preface, Rack’s presence counts for nothing. He’s the ghost in the corpus. Once he has done service, this Norfolk weaver’s son (who’d made his living as a dyer), is penned up in a sentence. The book’s proclaimed author is a Church Patrician. While Rack exits, once he’d briefly entered, like a footman, in a single movement.’

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Among ‘Vanished Kingdoms’, whose is next?

For even the mightiest sovereigns, eventual collapse is a safer bet than indefinite life. But there is a line separating awareness of unpleasant historical facts from fatalistic acceptance, and Mr. Davies, both in conversation and in his work, treads it watchfully.

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How bad was colonialism? Pretty good! Racial politics aside.

Mr. Kwarteng is a black writer of Ghanaian origin who might have been expected to adopt the classic left-wing analysis of the British Empire as an exploitative, racist kleptocracy. Instead, he has written a far subtler and more nuanced critique.

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Cissy Patterson: an American journalist’s three-drink claws.

Following the trend of Americans making socially advantageous marriages to European aristocrats, Patterson wed a Russian count who abused her and kidnapped their only child. It’s an incredible story given new life through [Amanda] Smith’s research, which uncovered sources that reveal how – through the intervention of Patterson’s family, President Taft and the Russian Czar – Patterson’s three-year-old daughter was finally returned home.

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