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“Crime, once exposed, has no refuge but in audacity.”

Tacitus


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Rediscoveries

This occasional page, added in September 2019, will feature authors and fragments of writing that I have “rediscovered” by searching the odd corners and hidden places on my own dusty bookshelves, or that have been recalled to mind by something I have read, or by one of my clever friends.

These will include fiction, essays, and non-fiction works of all kinds. There is no intention to convey a ‘theme’ or a ‘message.’ Each offering is separate and self-contained, but all of them have appealed to me in a special way – sometimes intellectually, and sometimes emotionally. In each case I will try to explain, in a few words, why the author or the piece was chosen.

Here is the first.

Richard Mitchell (1929 – 2002)

Professor extraordinary of English and classics at Glassboro State College, N.J. and creator of a unique free newsletter about life and language called “The Underground Grammarian” from 1976 to 1992. I was honored to be one of the chosen recipients of this newsletter in the 1980s. Excerpts are published in several collections including The Graves of Academe, Less than Words Can Say, and The Gift of Fire. They may also be found on the web.

One of his readers and colleagues wrote the following appreciation, and I cannot possibly improve on it.

“There exists in every age, in every society, a small, still choir of reason emanating from a few scattered thinkers ignored by the mainstream. Their collective voices, when duly discovered a century or so too late, reveal what was wrong with that society and age, and how it could have been corrected if only people had listened and acted accordingly. Richard Mitchell’s is such a voice. It could help make a better life for you or, if it is too late for that, at least for your children. Ignore it at your and their peril.”

John Simon

And here are the first two paragraphs from The Graves of Academe. Draw your own conclusions.

“In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is, as we all know, king. And across the way, in the country of the witless, the half-wit is king. And why not? It’s only natural, and considering the circumstances, not really a bad system. We do the best we can.

But it is a system with some unhappy consequences. The one-eyed man knows that he could never be king in the land of the two-eyed, and the half-wit knows that he would be small potatoes indeed in a land where most people had all or most of their wits about them. These rulers, therefore, will be inordinately selective about their social programs, which will be designed not only to protect against the rise of the witful and the sighted, but, just as important, to ensure a never-failing supply of the witless and utterly blind. Even to the half-wit and the one-eyed man, it is clear that other half-wits and one-eyed men are potential competitors and supplanters, and they invert the ancient tale in which an anxious tyrant kept watch against a one-sandaled stranger by keeping watch against wanderers with both eyes and operating minds. Uneasy lies the head.”

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The World We Have Lost by Peter Laslett (1965)

In 1965 I was newly married and had just moved from London to Cambridge, where I worked in a rather grand bookstore. New books poured in every day, and one morning, the delivery included a dozen copies of The World We Have Lost by Peter Laslett, who was a fellow of one of the Cambridge Colleges. The book looked a bit too serious and academic for my taste, but I was intrigued by the title and took a copy home.

I still have that original copy, scuffed and slightly dirty from many moves from house to house and country to country, and with my original penciled comments in the margins. One of the advantages of working in a bookstore was an unlimited supply of new books to borrow. One of the disadvantages was that, the moment you thoughtlessly made a marginal note, you were obliged to buy it.

This was one of those unlikely literary encounters, the right book at exactly the right time. I was a city boy, born and bred in London, with virtually no sense of country life or any history before 1939. When I was a child we had occasionally visited some elderly aunts who had a real Thatched cottage in an Essex village. I was fascinated and horrified by this glimpse into the past: no running water, electricity or flushing toilets, and chickens wandering into the living room. I couldn’t wait to get back to our conventional suburban house. In 1965, for the first time in my life I was living in a rural setting – a village about eleven miles outside the city, in the great flat expanse of the Fenlands.

The villagers, all three hundred of whom seemed to be related, treated us with great suspicion. Silence fell when we walked into the pub. Cities are not friendly places, but I had never felt quite so much the outsider as I did in this rural community. Nor had I ever seen such a community in action. It was more like a large family than anything else. They had a lively system of barter and mutual aid, as well as feuds and grudges going back for generations. We had no place in it.

The World We Have Lost was just the book I needed at that moment, indeed it was a revelation. Laslett’s theme is the lives of ordinary English working people before and after the industrial revolution. The book begins with a portrait of a bakery in 1619. Thirteen or fourteen people worked there, all of them clothed, housed, fed and educated by the master baker.

“The only word used at that time to describe such a group was ‘family’…not an institution, a staff, an office, or a firm.”

England was a nation of “families” in this sense. The largest that Laslett was able to trace consisted of thirty-seven people, but most were much smaller. It was certainly no paradise of freedom, but Laslett argues convincingly that it gave each family member a stable life and an emotionally satisfying role. Everything was on the human scale. There were no factories, no giant corporations, and no Facebook friends. To put it very simply, people knew each other, for better or for worse, and lived close.

“The journey to work, the lonely lodger paying his rent out of a factory wage, are the distinguishing marks of our society, not of theirs.”

Peter Laslett, who died in 2001, was no sentimentalist. He was an exceptionally clear-eyed historian who tested our favorite pastoral myths and nostalgic images of the past with interviews, historical documents, and statistics to He shows that, contrary to popular belief, child marriages and multi-generational ‘extended’ families were rare, and the romantic notion that old people were cared for by the community was simply wrong. They were not. In spite of the shortness of life and scarcity of resources there were institutions that maintained a kind of continuity: the local aristocracy and the church maintained a tenuous authority from generation to generation and the pub or alehouse, then as now, was the center of village life. Urban life was in the pre-industrial world was relatively marginal – the nation’s life was in its villages, which were to a large extent self-sufficient and self-governed. There are revealing chapters on marriage and courtship customs, self-discipline, authority and the class system, and the shattering impact of the industrial revolution on the old ways of life.

I was not given to sentimentalism or nostalgia at the time, although I have suffered from both in later life. But I could feel the truth of in that Cambridgeshire village where nothing much seemed to have changed in two hundred years. Survival meant sticking together and working together, and keeping the outsiders out. It sent me back to equally revealing but less academic books like Laurie Lee’s charming Cider with Rosie, and all the way back to William Cobbet’s Rural Rides (1830). When Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield appeared and became a sensation in the late sixties, it helped to solidify a new and much more complicated vision of the old life and the old ways.

We still have a vivid but false image or rural life in modern England. A decade later I lived in a Suffolk village so relentlessly picturesque that coach tours drove past my cottage, and people peered in at the windows. But not a trace remained of the world that Laslett wrote about. The cottages were full of wealthy retirees or London commuters, while the few remaining farm workers lived in a huddle of council houses on the outskirts. Socially it was just like a suburb, with scarcely a trace of a community life apart from the annual village fete.

In more recent years, traveling and living in rural France, I can still see the faint shadow of Laslett’s world we have lost in some of the smaller villages. The French divide rural villages colloquially into those that are “open” and those that are “closed.” We spend part of each year in a happily open village in Languedoc, which feels and works more like a small town. But some friends made the choice to settle in a closed village because it was exceptionally picturesque, and are beginning to feel that they will never be accepted in a community so defined by its tight boundaries, inwardness, fear of poverty, suspicion of outsiders, and fiercely restrictive family ties. The one book I have found that really brings alive the grim history of rural France is The Discovery of France by Graham Robb (2008). But while Laslett based his findings on statistics and interviews, Robb simply travelled the back roads for months on a bicycle, getting very close to the land and its people. In the end, both portraits of the past are remarkably similar.

It’s not a past that we can or would want to go back to. But knowing it was there, and real, and in some sense made us who we are, was truly enlightening for me. Laslett strongly believed that we could understand ourselves only by understanding our past, and reflecting on the contrasts between our lives and theirs -for example the contrast between the discipline of family and community and the discipline of the factory and the office. He shows all too clearly that we can’t have one without the other: the closeness and stability of community without being suffocated by it, or the freedom of modern society without being lost in it.

Peter Laslett died 2001. He was a great believer in the liberating power of knowledge, and helped to found the Open University (at which I later taught) and the University of the Third Age. But, unlike most academic historians, he wrote beautifully and with feeling.

“The word alienation is part of the cant of the mid-twentieth century and it began as an attempt to describe the separation of the worker from his world of work. We need to accept all that this expression has come to convey in order to recognize that it does point to something vital to us all in relation to our past. Time was when the whole of life went forward in the family, in a circle of loved, familiar faces, known and fondled objects, all to human size. That time has gone forever. It makes us very different from our ancestors.”

Sigmund Freud: Civilization and its Discontents (1930)

This short book, written towards the end of Freud’s career, sums up his lifelong study of psychoanalysis and applies his findings about human psychology to the wider questions of social order and civilization. It is not a reassuring book, especially if you find Freud’s portrait of human nature convincing.

The main line of argument is fairly simple, and is delivered in this book with great conviction and passion. Civilization is only made possible by human self-control and repression. The “natural” man or woman outside of society is driven entirely by fear, aggression, greed, and sexual desire. The whole purpose of culture is to control these impulses, to put prohibitions and rules on him or her by the use of guilt, punishment, and religious myths. Without this repression we can have no civilized society. When it breaks down, even locally or temporarily, we get a glimpse of the barbarism just behind the façade. Recent history has many examples.

“Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus [Man is a wolf to man]. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion?”

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents