From “The Long, Long Life of Trees”, Fiona Stafford


In spring, you can feel life stirring in the barest twigs and the silhouetted catkins look as if a diminutive duck has run across the sky. One day the twigs are just beginning to thicken and brighten and bulge; by the next they are covered in pincer-paired leaves and pale, lime-white or pink-tinged blossoms. There is nothing tentative about these vernal explosions. When the days are longer, it is all sap and fresh smells, and the liquid calls of birds hidden in the drifts of thicker foliage. The bark has been through it all before, but the craggy faces of cherry tress seems less pinched in the bright light. By early November, when it is all dank and dark, the woods have a different taste, which does not quite match the ember-fall, sugar-brown shaken leaves.

Yeats on Kipling: “I dislike his works so much that I feel sure it must have something to teach me”

A letter to the TLS:

Sir, – Jan Montefiore’s review of Alexander Bubb’s book on Kipling and Yeats (February 24) deserves a footnote. The Irish journalist Lionel Fleming, while on the staff of the Irish Times, met Yeats several times. On one occasion Yeats remarked: “It might surprise you to know what I am reading. It is Kipling. I dislike his works so much that I feel sure it must have something to teach me” (see Fleming’s Head or Harp, 1965).

University of Bamberg, 96045 Bamberg.

There’s also an interesting letter from Martin Scorsese responding to a review of “Silence” (at the same link)

Der Untergang (Downfall) – reviewed for SAU Blog, April 28th 2005

Downfall loomed large in 2005 as a cultural phenomenon. Perhaps, at that point, the fact that some of the survivors of Hitler’s bunker were still alive made it all the more vivid as a story. It is an intense watch, with a lot of suicides (the wikipedia article Mass suicides in 1945 Nazi Germany is worth reading for an overview of this phenomenon) which has, perhaps unfortunately, become best known because of the Hitler Reacts meme.

Here is my SAU review, which perhaps somewhat uncomfortably combines my evident enjoyment of the film with my recognition of the point made by Michael Burleigh forcefully in the TLS. It is also instructive to note Burleigh’s 2005 comment on Germany – “the economy limps along, and the great currents of history flow elsewhere” – the years since have heightened Germany’s power in the world considerably:

Der Untergang (Downfall)
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
certificate 15, 2004

Watching Der Untergang in the cinema, what is most striking is the sheer strangeness of seeing a believable Adolf Hitler incarnated on screen. The opening scene is set in November 1942, and four young German women are shepherded to Hitler’s headquarters in Rastenberg, East Prussia. One is to become Hitler’s secretary. One of these ladies is Traudl Junge, on whose memoir To The Last Minute, along with the historian Joachim Fest’s consultancy, the film is based.

The friendly guard knocks on the door to see if Hitler is ready to receive the ladies. Slowly, Hitler emerges. He shuffles across the screen, oddly reminiscent of Nosferatu in Murnau’s and Herzog’s films. His voice, too, when he speaks, is strangely vampiric; throaty, guttural and rasping South German. This, along with his courtesy, gives him a tired, grandfatherly air. He is kind to the young women, putting them at their ease and asking them to drop the “Mein Fuhrer” business, before selecting the Munich girl Junge for an individual audition.

In his office, Hitler first fondles his dog Blondi, before telling Junge not to worry about making any typing errors, as no-one could make as many mistakes as he does while dictating (so to speak). In a trial dictation, Junge freezes up. The pressure of the moment gets to her. Hitler notices, and gently asks her to start again.

The action then shift to April 20th 1945, Hitler’s 56th and last birthday. He is spending it in Berlin, discovering that Russian artillery is shelling the city from a mere 12 kilometres away. Hitler is considerably less kindly to his military staff on discovering this news. Later, we see his bitter regret that he did not imitate Stalin and wipe out his officers, who are now failing to manoeuvre various armies largely existing in Hitler’s imagination rapidly enough to bring them to bear on the situation.

One objection made to the film – most notably by Michael Burleigh in the TLS – is that, far from being brave and ground-breaking, it is very much in line with a certain Germany tradition:

Successive German ambassadors to Britain have chided us about this country’s unhealthy obsession with the Third Reich. In fact, much of this obsession is a response to Germany’s own addiction to the Nazi past, as anyone can easily establish by flicking through publisher’s catalogues, Die Zeit and Der Spiegel, or channel-hopping German television. The obsession seems to be growing, for as the economy limps along, and the great currents of history flow elsewhere, Germany’s artistic finest again and again try to freshen up the old brown gang to showcase their talents, going where Grass, Beuys, Kiefer, Syberberg and all the rest have been many times before.

Of course, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film differs from the work of the artists Burleigh mentions in that it is in a popular medium, one bound to have a much greater reach than the works of Beuys or Kiefer. It has garnered enormous international attention as the first film to “humanise” Hitler, showing him being kindly to his dog and his secretary. Bruno Ganz’s central performance – praised for its brilliance by all critics I have read, including Burleigh – is remarkable. It is somewhat absurd to claim to find the portrayal of a man who died thirty-three years before I was born convincing, but based on newsreel footage and the simple fact that this portrayal is not that of a caricature Hitler foaming at the mouth, Ganz is an uncanny double.

I do not share Burleigh’s low opinion of the film’s artistic merits, but his suspicion of this film as part of a cult of Nazi-myth making is worth bearing in mind. Certainly considering the lovingly presented DVD packaging in Vienna I came across a few days after seeing the film in Dublin, (the film is already on DVD release in the Teutonic world) with its undeniable air of bunker-chic, I felt somewhat queasier about the whole enterprise. The Premium Edition DVD package features a cardboard case inside the main slip case, the dirty concrete colour of the bunker walls. The two DVDs nestle in this handsomely designed case, with little bits of bunker signage printed on the cardboard.

My queasiness is partly at the sheer power of the story. It would be one thing if it was a bombastic propaganda piece, filled with obvious national self-pity. The film is much more artful than that. As well as its considerable histrionic and artistic merits, any story of desperate men and women facing their last days on earth has a power to move. At various stages I found myself dabbing at tears, thinking at the same time that damn it, this is the end of Nazism, the end of the worst tyranny the world has known, here on the screen. Some of this is the simple, unsubtle power of the cinema screen. It is a rare film in which we feel the absolute absence of empathy with the protagonists. Some is the nature of what is being portrayed, and even the most ardent anti-Nazi would surely find the Goebbels children’s fate monstrous and tragic. But of course, that fate was chosen by Dr and Frau Goebbels, just as the fate of all the characters was chosen by Adolf Hitler.

There are many beautiful touches – the instant lighting of cigarettes all around the bunker when the Fuhrer expires, the burial party that has just hurled Hitler and Eva’s corpses into a hole to be consumed by petrol-fuelled flames forced to break off their last Heils to take cover from artillery fire – and, pace Michael Burleigh, it is a very impressive piece of film making. The music is striking, with its undertones of Wagner (Gotterdammerung seems never to be far from the imagination of those who deal with the last days of the Third Reich), but never overwhelming or emotional.

Some years ago, Simon Schama wrote in the New Yorker of the Hollywood films set in the past that betray a tin ear to the otherness of other times. He was writing about Amistad, Spielberg’s boring civics lesson steeped in modern mores and social attitudes, as well as the likes of Michael Collins. Mainstream Hollywood treats the past as a source of instant pseudo classiness, as opposed to a different world to be explored and chronicled with care and attention. Troy, with Achilles and Hector spouting sentimental and/or atheistic tosh that would have repelled Argives of any era, was a prime example.

Schama contrasted the usual Hollywood history with films like Aguirre, Wrath of God and The Return Of Martin Guerre, which truly inhabited the ultimate foreign country, the past. Of course, no film will ever be historically accurate in the pedantic sense of internet-based obsessives (and its worth noting that flatulent historical epics leached of anything that might trouble modern audiences in terms of morals or behaviour invariably employ legions of experts to ensure that the swords are the right length) but it is worth at least trying. Just as historical novels freighted with research flounder if they fail to capture an atmosphere or a mood of the past, an embarrassment of scholarly solecisms can be forgiven if this elusive atmosphere is captured.

Der Untergang, too, is a film which meets Schama’s test. It has an ear for the past that goes beyond the details of uniforms and weaponry. Aside from its emotional pull, the inevitable result of any filmed depiction of similar events, its power derives from this sense of being close to a documentary. Of course, no doubt a host of errors and conflations of facts are present, and this sense of historical authenticity is – always has to be – something of a sham. Burleigh notes, for instance, that while the film’s heroes are largely from the Waffen-SS, none of these are French or Latvian volunteers – which he identifies as a factor in making this:

a chauvinistic film with disagreeable undercurrents of German “victimhood”.

Burleigh also noted the coyness of the non-depiction of the Fuhrer’s suicide. I can’t recall seeing a film featuring so many self-murders in my life – indeed by the end so often have we seen SS men blow their brains out that it loses all impact – yet the central suicide is unshown.

We see a corpse wrapped in a blanket, and a bit of blood on the sofa, but not the annihilating moment. But then to show Hitler shooting himself might indicate a certain finality, the last thing anyone inadvertently collusive with Nazi myth-making seems to welcome.

It is the annihilating moment, and after Hitler departs the scene, the rest of the film is curiously flat. It is somewhat like, ironically, The Merchant of Venice, with things being nowhere near as interesting once Shylock departs in Act IV. Of what remains, the Goebbels family suicide is the most uncomfortable scene to watch. There’s a curious and disturbing sense that, having denied us the final sunset of Hitler, we are made to watch as if in compensation a mother’s infanticide of her own children. Interestingly, the camera cuts away too from Goebbels’ shooting of first his wife and then himself.

One can also sympathise with Burleigh’s observation that:

Rather than watching Hitler morosely shovelling down mashed potatoes and pulses in his claustrophobic underground empire, we could have had more ideological insights or something to give clues as to how this possessed nonentity came to power. The quotidian trivia are so distracting that you might almost miss the fact that this wreck of a man has slaughtered 6 million Jews.

Normally I have little sympathy with those who demand that directors achieve “balance” in their films, confusing filmmaking with coalition building. But I do in this case, firstly because of the enormity of the Nazi crime, and secondly because Hirschbiegel himself pulls away from the claustrophobia of the bunker to try and give us a sense of “balance”. In the only overtly mawkish touch in the film, we see a father desperately try and persuade his son, one of the children decorated by Hitler for their tank-busting endeavours, to abandon the struggle. The boy treats his father with contempt, until his companions are killed and he runs crying home to Papa. The vignette does tell us something of the destruction rained on the German people by the tremulous wreck incarnated by Ganz, but one feels that, if we are shown this, why not something of the horrors suffered by the Russians, or the Poles, or the Jews?

Der Untergang is a potent piece of work. As a work of cinematic art, it has much to recommend it. Any recommendation, however, has to come with an injunction to read about the men and events portrayed in it, and more especially the actions of those men which led to those events. Its power is impressive, but also proof of the superiority of the written word to visual drama to the achievement of an understanding of history.



How book reviewing works – my first thoughts on Raymond Tallis’ “The Mystery of Being Human”

Recently my review of Raymond Tallis’ “The Mystery of Being Human” appeared in the TLS.

This review had a somewhat convoluted gestation. Put simply, I didn’t like the book much. That isn’t enough for a book review, or at least not enough for an interesting one.

There are a few dynamics in book reviewing. One is the desire to write an interesting, or witty, or stylish, or interesting and witty and stylish, piece of prose. Another is the attempt to convey to the reader – who, unlike the review, will have to fork out their own cash for the book – whether it is worth spending time and money on. Another is to do justice to the author, or authors. Part of this is contextual. It is unfair to judge a purely, or mainly, academic work on the grounds of readability, say, we might apply to an avowed popularisation.

I have been reviewing for the TLS since 2004. For much of that time I submitted copy, reviewed a proof, and awaited publication. Only in more recent years have I realised that the relationship with a commissioning editor is exactly that – a relationship. Communication about the piece is part of that relationship, and makes for a much better review.

My review of Tallis’ book was initially somewhat longer. It consisted, as was pointed out to me by the wonderful Maren Meinhardt, an awful lot of quotation. Perhaps I was unwilling to be direct about how much I didn’t like the book, and wished to damn Tallis with his own words. Perhaps, too, I felt a sense of justice towards him, and was unwilling to simply let rip. The “hatchet job” may be superficially enjoyable but ultimately a little puerile.

Anyhow, here is my original submitted copy. It was entirely right to ask for a revision – as well as far too much quotation, I am very wooly as to what Tallis actually argues. I am a little more generous to his NHS essay than I was in my final review (I am unsure if this is really where Tallis is at his “most persuasive”, in retrospect that would be more justly said of this writings on “neurodeterminism”)

In the preface to this volume of essays, the physician and philosopher Raymond Tallis observes that as “among my publications is 1,000 page trilogy on human consciousness, and a forthcoming treatise Of Time and Lamentation: Reflections on Transience at approximately eight hundred pages betrays I am not a consistent advocate of the short form.” He further reflects that the essay “which bears its provisional nature and incompleteness on its sleeve … is an antidote to the fantasy of gathering up the world in one sustained glance” and is therefore “an appropriate form for the humanism that I have been seeking to express for several decades often at great length.”

Tallis has been an atheist since his teens, but increasingly describes himself as a “secular humanist” because, as “believers point out with a regularity that I am inclined to call monotonous … ‘atheism’ is a negative term.” As well as this tendency towards negating, “much atheist thought is, usually unintentionally, anti-humanist” (though “it would be unfair and distracting to single out individual thinkers”, an odd approach given that in other domains the cosmologist Max Tegmark and the theologian William Lane Craig  are singled out as emblematic antagonists)

Five of the six essays are predominantly philosophical in tone and approach. In these the nature of Tallis’ humanism comes into – somewhat – clearer focus. It is most evident in the essay “How On Earth Can We Be Free?” against “neurodeterminism” and “All Is Number” against the contention that “the world is fundamentally composed of mathematical objects such that the whole, fundamental truth about it is captured in the mathematical models developed in advanced physics.” Here, the richness and mystery of human experience is powerfully conveyed; along with our location in tensed time and ability to envisage possibilities, this renders the claim that human existence can purely be explained away with neuroscience and mathematical physics untenable.


Tallis’ anti-religious passages are somewhat pro forma; when considering Craig’s arguments he writes that “most atheists could rehearse these counter-arguments in their sleep”, and there is a rote quality to his litany of religions’ debit side. For all this, in the closing pages he quotes Diarmuid McCulloch on “the seriousness a religious mentality brings to the mystery and misery of human existence, and  concludes “a humanism that is truly mindful of religion and what It has meant may be less prone to the arrogance and ignorance that leads some thinkers to overlook the unfathomable mysteries in which we are immersed, and as a result to fall under the spell of a disenchanted naturalism that overlooks the transcendence in our shared humanity.”

The philosophical pieces illustrate the shortcomings of the essay form which Tallis himself enumerates in the preface. “I hope by this stage that you are persuaded that it is all over for determinism and that we really can be free” reads a not atypical sentence, and there is a rushed feel to much of the writing. Perhaps human consciousness is best addressed in 1,000 page works after all.  It is surprising, given the centrality of Free Will in most Christian theology, to read that “historically, the main assault on the ideas of humans as free agents has come from religion.” Tallis also mourns the “cognitive opportunity-cost of [religious] indoctrination”, this intrusion of an economic concept is surely a manifestation of the contention that “all is number.”


The seeming outlier in this collection addresses a third of the subtitle: the essay “Lord Howe’s Wicked Dream: Notes from an Undeveloping Country.” This is a passionate attack on the destruction of the NHS perpetrated by the 2010-15 Coalition and now the solo Conservative government – an extended version of Tallis’ piece in the TLS of September 7th 2016. An eloquent account of the follies, bad faith and falsehoods underlying the agenda of stealth privatisation perpetrated under Health Secretaries Lansley and Hunt, here Tallis is at his most persuasive – but an opportunity is missed.

He justifies the inclusion of this polemic amongst philosophical essays on the grounds that “being healthy is for most of us a necessary precondition of taking philosophical problems seriously” and, in the Preface, links the assault on the NHS not only to neoliberal economics but also “the increasingly prevalent idea that the universe and the human world boils down to numbers” he targets in the essay “All Is Number.” He makes less of what seems to me a more evident connection to the secular humanist project he undertakes in the other essays.

In “How On Earth Can We Be Free?” he writes, in a passage celebrating “human beings as the originators of an entire extra-natural reality”, of “the human institutions to which we relate for so much of our lives, and the social facts and preoccupations that fill our waking hours.” The NHS is surely emblematic of these institutions, and the values which Tallis espouses; indeed here is an opportunity for a secular humanism that is not about endless negation to assert itself.

Tallis’ passion for freedom, and determination to fully face “the mystery of being human” without illusions or false consolation, is clear. Ironically, by relegating philosophising behind healthcare in human needs (“To adapt Berthold Brecht’s ‘First grub, then ethics’ I would suggest ‘First analgesis, then metaphysics’”) he seems to remove the NHS essay from this philosophical concerns, and ends up subtly downgrading his own humanistic project.


Review of “The Mystery of Being Human” by Raymond Tallis, TLS, 15/02/17

Behind a paywall online, I have a review of Raymond Tallis’ The Mystery of Being Human : God,Freedom and the NHS, in the current TLS.

Here’s the bit that you don’t have to pay to see:

An atheist since his teens, the philosopher and retired physician Raymond Tallis increasingly describes himself as a “secular humanist” because, as “believers point out with a regularity that I am inclined to call monotonous . . . ‘atheism’ is a negative term”. His philosophical project is defined by a focus on the richness and mystery of human experience, which he identifies not only as an antidote to religious dogma but to all systems that tend towards reductionism. Tallis’s passion for freedom, with a corresponding determination to face fully “the mystery of being human” without illusions or false consolation, is evident throughout.

Paradoxically, however, much of his writing collected here is devoted to debunking and, in various ways, negating. This is most evident in his essays making the case against “neurodeterminism”, and against the contention that “the world is fundamentally composed of mathematical objects such that the whole, fundamental truth about…

…indeed. Short version: I didn’t care for it. I will probably post a little more on this here after a decent interval.

Nabokov and Epilepsy – my letter to the TLS

I have a Letter to the Editor in the current TLS responding to Galya Diment’s piece on Vladimir Nabokov and epilepsy. The letter is behind a paywall but you can see the much of it at the link above:

Sir, – One could not doubt Galya Diment’s sensitivity and acuity as a reader and teacher of Nabokov (Commentary, August 5). One also cannot doubt that her lived experience of epilepsy gives her vivid insight into the condition. Nevertheless, one can also hold reasonable scepticism about her assertion that “he, too, must have suffered from some form of epilepsy”.

There are many explanations, clinical and above all non-clinical, that could be advanced for the ­fugitive mental states Nabokov so superbly describes in his prose. “Joggy and jiggy and buzzy” is, for me, an exact description of a certain stage of insomniac restlessness. Diment cites his synaesthesia, which she writes occurs in “at least 4 per cent of temporal lobe epilepsies”; the corollary of this statistic is that it does not occur in up to 96 per cent of temporal lobe epilepsy, and the majority of synaesthesiacs do not have epilepsy,…


There isn’t an awful lot more, except a brief bit about the whole historical-diagnosis caper. The letter is a more concise version of what I blogged about here in response the article originally.

Edit  – 12/08/16 – As Galya Diment graciously points out in the comments below, in this post (and in the letter also!) her first name is misspelled as Gayla – so I’ve corrected what I can on my blog, and will get in touch with the TLS also (though I fear it has

From More equal than others, Julian Baggini, TLS 20/7/16

Julian Baggini has a witty, stylish review of various books on the ethics of the human, animal relationship in the latest TLS. I was particularly struck by his trenchant criticism of utilitarian approaches to this issue:

The utilitarian’s exclusive focus on the traceable consequences of action also means that there is a surprisingly vibrant debate among animal ethicists about whether an individual’s choice to eat meat is morally important. The problem is that modern food chains are insensitive to individual buyers’ choices and hence the principled vegetarian’s refusal to eat meat does not save a single animal life. The only consequence of abstinence is a sense of moral superiority and purity.

This is the kind of nonsense that could only be spouted by a philosopher (or perhaps an economist) in the grip of a reductive, mechanistic theory that reduces morality to algorithms of cause and effect. Everyone else knows that complicity in wrongdoing – or right-doing for that matter – does not require that your contribution makes a measurable difference. The suicide bomber whose explosives fail to detonate is not let off the hook. And if ten people give what turns out to be more than enough food to someone who has none, the first nine are no more praiseworthy than the last one. If utilitarian thinking cannot make sense of that, so much for utilitarianism.

The utilitarian approach leads to other conclusions that are counterintuitive, to put it mildly. Could it not be the case, for example, that my cat, without a care in the world, experiences more and purer pleasure than me and so we should have more pets and fewer babies? Even more bizarre is the “replaceability argument”, endorsed by Peter Singer, that just as long as you replace an animal you kill with another with at least as good a life, all is well. Come to think of it, replacing with more than one would be even better. The greatest good of the greatest number could be served by our eating ever larger quantities of humanely reared animals, up to the point at which any decrease in pleasure we felt as a result of the related bloating and health problems outweighed that of all the happy, skipping lambs. And as Belshaw suggests, since it seems that young, playful animals have more fun than their parents – who basically just eat, excrete and reproduce – it really is better that we eat the little darlings before they get old and bitter.


As with so much of the philosophical discourse on this issue, I am struck by how little consideration there is of the perspectives of people who actually deal with animals in daily life. Ethicists are surely right to consider to potentially de-moralising effect of consuming meat and animal products disconnected from any sense of how they got to the plate. Yet the people who are very far from being disconnected from the practices of animal husbandry and slaughter seem rarely to have their voices heard.

His closing paragraphs cites one of those arguments-from-experience that are weak philosophically but powerful at the level of everyday lives.:

Many are unimpressed by the so-called Benjamin Franklin argument. Franklin had been a vegetarian until he accompanied some fishermen in a trip from Boston. His hosts caught and fried some fish, which “smelt admirably well”. Then he saw that, when the fish were opened, they contained smaller fish in their stomachs. “If you eat one another”, he thought, “I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you.”

As an argument, this is indeed weak. But the truth behind the anecdote is not an argument, more an inexorable fact. We live in a world in which death is unavoidable and suffering is everywhere. The only debate should be about the nature and extent of our contribution to that killing.

To live honestly, as creatures of flesh and blood, we need to face these facts squarely. Such realism is often missing in ethical theories that see any kind of human hand in animal death as unacceptable. For instance, Ben Bramble makes a somewhat speculative suggestion that eating meat might cause us unconscious psychological suffering. What he doesn’t consider, though, is that it might be good that there is something troubling in consuming flesh. This isn’t Disneyland and living authentically, as an adult, requires us to embrace full