Sex and the Enlightenment city

Libertine London: Sex in the Eighteenth-Century Metropolis

Julie Peakman, Reaktion Books, 2024, 352pps., £25

With Libertine London: Sex in the Eighteenth-Century Metropolis, Julie Peakman has given us an intimate portrayal of women’s sexual activity during the long eighteenth century, which ran from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to Waterloo in 1815. Peakman ends her long century in 1830, but I doubt if many readers will quibble at her fifteen-year addition, since many of the chapters that make up Libertine London are a fine introduction to the social history of the period, which aims to look at that magnificent yet squalid era through the eyes of the sex hustlers of the time.

Each type gets a chapter devoted to her, starting with the drabs who worked the streets to the bawds who managed the brothels, then up to the courtesans. Finally, the volume culminates with the royal mistresses who were at the pinnacle of the oldest profession.

By dividing these women up into categories, Peakman shines a light on the niche each one inhabited, as well as open up the broader society to the modern reader. The raddled street prostitutes inhabited a world of extreme poverty, as did tens of thousands of Londoners in those days. It was a world where a child could have his head crushed under the wheel of a cart and where street crime was so ubiquitous that even the link boys who carried a blazing torch and were hired to light the way often worked with street thugs who relieved the victims of their wealth.

Many women were actually semi-whores. “Milliners…were particularly known for their sideline in prostitution,” Peakman tells us – as indeed they were until well into the twentieth century. The actresses who trod the boards often supplemented their income with acting of a different kind, as did the girls who sold fruit and nuts at the theatres, which reminds this reader of the legend of Nell Gwynn who took the fancy of Charles II when she offered him an orange from her basket.  Of course, there was also the army of seasonal workers who brought in the crops, along with the milkmaids who sold their product on the streets. Peakman doesn’t mention the milkmaids who were seen by many as innocent country girls, ripe for the plucking, but who this writer suspects knew exactly what they were doing and the role they were expected to play.

Peakman does touch on that theme when she reminds us that brothels could charge extra for a guaranteed virgin and that many a whorehouse bed had a secret compartment with a cloth soaked in red juice that the highly experienced trollop could use to show to her client that she had indeed just been deflowered.

One chapter that jars as it is so unconnected to the rest of the volume is the one dealing with homosexualism during the period. The chapter presents upper class homosexuality between consenting adults as being the norm, and ignores the, frankly, odious nature of the abuse that went on between wealthy pederasts and young boys. When it comes to the rape of servant girls by their employers, Peakman gives us chapter and verse on matters such as the trial of Colonel Francis Charteris in 1730 on a charge of raping a maid. She concludes: “Sadly, as with most aristocratic men who had committed rape or other crimes, Charteris managed to wheedle his way out of the death penalty.” That is true, as he got a royal pardon, but he still had to pay his victim £30,000 and when he died in 1732 his coffin was covered in dead cats before the gravediggers could shovel the earth over it. Libertine London also gives us horrifying accounts of the rapes of young girls, many not even in their teens and discusses the ways in which wealthy, well-connected abusers escaped from what passed for justice in those days.

However, what it does not do is even consider the equally vile crimes committed by wealthy homosexuals against lower-class boys. Two cases spring to mind, and both were covered by the pamphleteers and newspapers of the day, but neither is mentioned by this authoress.

The first is so famous that from the date of the trial in 1772 right up to the Oscar Wilde scandal over a century later, it was debated and chewed over long after all the participants were dead. Captain Robert Jones of the Royal Artillery (he may have been a lieutenant, but is usually given the rank of captain) was convicted of the buggery of a boy of 12. His victim was Francis Henry Hay who spoke clearly and bravely at the trial and almost certainly helped the jury return a guilty verdict, whereupon Jones was sentenced to death. Perhaps needless to say, he was pardoned on condition that he left the country and never returned, and left to live his life in Florence, although it is possible that he never got further than Lyon.

Then we have the matter of General Sir Eyre Coote in 1815 who was involved with some boys at Christ’s Hospital school. This involved the giving and receiving of the birch and did not lead to a trial, but Coote was dismissed from the army. Throughout the nineteenth century, the fictional character of Rosa Coote was used by Victorian writers of pornography as a stock figure that was presented as either the general’s daughter or his niece. It is unlikely that this character would have been created had the readers not understood the reference to the general, even many years after the scandal.

It is impossible to believe that Julie Peakman did not know of these cases as people were writing about them for decades afterwards. Why she chose to ignore them is a matter for her, but it does leave this reviewer wondering why this carefully curated account of upper-class homosexuality was even included in a volume that aims to show the lives of women in the sex trade.

Julie Peakman’s argument as she expresses it is to show us the lives of those women who had transactional virtues by presenting them as the victims of “misogyny,” a word that was not even invented until this century and a concept that was as alien to the long eighteenth-century as it is to many of us in the twenty-first. This was a world of utter poverty for the many and fabulous wealth for the few. Women, being great survivors, have always been aware that they have a commodity in their own bodies and when times are bad they will rent out that commodity to ensure their survival. Thus, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the going rate for sex in Vienna was three cigarettes. That is not three cartons of cigarettes, or even three packs, but three individual cigarettes. A girl with three cigarettes could exchange them for three eggs, or three loaves of bread: she could survive another day in other words. It was this need to survive, rather than “the prevalence of men’s unabated lusts and the sexual vulnerability of women” that was at work in Libertine London. That said, this reader did find the conjuration of the spirit of Mary Whitehouse that is implicit in that sentence very entertaining.

One does not need to over think what was going on during this era, and in most of her individual chapters, Julie Peakman presents clear, thoroughly researched and well-written accounts of the lives of many London women. It was a time when men murdered and robbed, with many ending their days dancing the hempen jig at Tyburn Tree, and women survived by renting themselves out. It was a hard time to be poor, is the conclusion that this reviewer took away from Libertine London.

Clever and cheerful, like a lizard in the sun

Friedrich Nietzsche, by Edvard Munch (1906)

Unpublished Fragments from the Period of Dawn (Winter 1879/80-Spring 1881)

Friedrich Nietzsche, J.M. Baker Jr, Christiane Hertel (trans.), Stanford University Press, 2023, paperback, 530pp, $28

The thirteenth of nineteen volumes in the Stanford University Press edition of the German-language Friedrich Nietzsche Sämtliche Werke covers the notebooks from late 1879 to early 1881, at a time when Nietzsche was writing Dawn (Morgenröthe, 1881), the second book of his “free spirit” trilogy. Even a well-informed Nietzsche reader may draw a blank at that, as it is the least widely read of his books. These notes relate to a critique of the generation of morals, particularly the topics of dissimulation and self-deception, the subjects of Dawn. The title refers to the potential rebirth of modern man, freed from the shackles of Judeo-Christian religion and worldview, led by great self-actualised men – the Übermenschen.

The philosopher succinctly summarises his primary concern in this period so: “The greatest problem of the coming age is the eradication of moral concepts and the cleansing from our representations of moral forms or colors that have crept into them and are often difficult to recognize.”[i] He meditates on the nature of morality and how it arises and if some different system of values can govern man’s conduct. Christian morality divides people (according to their characters) into obedient slaves or mindless enforcer. Both act from character, rather than making value judgements based on personal and social good. The claims that Christian morality has the right to be considered normative (as per Pascal) are spurious, Nietzsche contends – as outlined in many of his published books. “[…] Christianity takes no pleasure in the human being.”[ii]

Nietzsche rails against misguided egalitarianism, democracy, socialism and (of course) Christianity, which he sees at the root of modern European man’s slave morality and the ultimate cause of many of civilisation’s parlous state. He sees a levelling of people as a rebellion against natural inequality and exceptional men. It makes men manageably pliable. However, Nietzsche opens the door to individualism for its own sake – the myth of meritocracy, which allows the collectivised minority to seize its power and advantages and (ultimately) its supremacy, as Gaetano Mosca argued. There are few autobiographical comments, but these are indirect and brief, so only the reader averagely acquainted with the philosopher’s life will be able to glean anything from them.

He wonders at the alienness of Judaism, which has been incorporated into European thinking through Christianity, and notes that the words of the Old Testament are (perhaps paradoxically) more accessible to us than the ancient Greeks and Romans. He repeatedly describes morality as Asian – i.e. derived from the Semitic people of the Near East – and finds it unfitting for Europeans; he also adds that he considers Stoicism Semitic. Valuations determine both our personal responses, interpersonal relations and society as a whole; if moral valuations can be altered, or the whole system abolished, then human capacity is freed. Nietzsche is no Panglossian optimist, but he sees human capacity as much greater than what the constricting morals and customs of his day permitted. Incorrect valuations wage war against each other, distracting and confusing; these conflicts demonstrate the faulty foundations of morality and must be seen clearly.

Nietzsche is ever aware of the need for geniuses; these exceptional men will lead, instruct and inspire. “To use and recognize chance is called genius. To use the expedient and familiar – morality?”[iii] He assesses the possibility of describing “an extra-moral view of the world” that is “an aesthetic one (veneration of genius)”. Tantalisingly, the fragment breaks off there. He is aware of the bad character and suffering great men cause and admits that “veneration of genius has often been unconscious devil worship.”[iv]“[A]rtists are usually intolerable as persons, and this should be subtracted from what is gained from their works.”[v]

Of the hundreds of entries (mainly in the form of notes and aphorisms) few extend longer than one page. Every page has an insight into the human condition. “Compassion without intelligence is one of the most unpleasant and disturbing phenomena […]”[vi] There are oddities, such as the author’s contention that there is no instinctive fear of death, merely aversion to the pain of dying and the unknown and that the appetite for life’s pleasures acts as more of a stimulant. Hence there is no life-preservation instinct per se. Another bon pensée is “Clever and cheerful, like a lizard in the sun”, although Nietzsche never seems such a lizard – at least, not on this splenetic showing.

The style is brusque, the diction non-technical, with entries compressed to the extreme. Yet, he allows himself digressions and occasional exclamations. As the translator explains, this directness actually generates difficulties. Unlike his published works, which are models of clear prose and precise argumentation, the notes are littered with general words that can bear several specific meanings, introducing a degree of ambiguity that the translator must adjudicate. Many of these points were never subsequently taken up again by the author, so it is hard to know which meaning he had in mind.    

There are meditations upon the greats, such as Plato, Christ, St Paul, Martin Luther, Goethe, Napoleon, Schopenhauer and others, viewed in light of their limitations as well as their achievements. Napoleon was more intent on seeming superior to others than on being superior. Nietzsche was reading a biography of Napoleon at the time, so there are extensive comments relating to Napoleon’s conduct, character and significance. Wagner – his aspirations, his ambition, his vanity – is wrestled with at length:

Wagner courts being named the German artist, but, alas, neither the grand opera nor his character is specifically German: which is why he has not as yet become dear to the populace, but instead to a class of refined and over-cultivated people – the circle to which, say, in the last century Rousseau appealed.[vii]  

The appearance of these Stanford University Press translations keeps Nietzsche vitally alive, able to dazzle, surprise and shock. As usual, the annotation and index are accompanied by an extensive and illuminating afterword on the subjects of the texts. The critical apparatus is first class and the references well judged.


[i] P. 5

[ii] P. 262

[iii] P. 18

[iv] P. 47

[v] P. 95

[vi] P. 6

[vii] P. 163

Refracted future

Humani Victus Instrumenta – Ars Coquinaria. 1570s engraving

The Mirror

Tim Bragg, Sycamore Dystopia, 2023, pb., 292pps., £10

Ever since the ancients invented automata, writers have wondered about the implications for humanity, and ruminated about the nature of consciousness. The Industrial Revolution would spawn increasing concern about subservience to machines and “Satanic mills.” The Great War and then Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (from which we get the word ‘robot, based on a Czech word, robota, meaning ‘forced labour’) made many people anxious about out-of-control technology – a theme revisited every generation since, as seen for example in the 1984 action classic, Terminator. Today, the growing sophistication of artificial intelligence has turned a trope into a cliché, the subject of articles, books and documentaries which often really tell us more about contemporary concerns than they do about possible futures. Musician-novelist Tim Bragg’s newest book is therefore in a certain idealist-nostalgic-pessimistic vein; this does not mean it is not distinctive or worthwhile.

As in Orwell’s Oceania, or the pages of Fahrenheit 451, the world of The Mirror is a surveillance society, where the state strives to control thought. Like Bladerunner, there are huge and ugly megalopolises, and androids, and people who might be androids. Like Logan’s Run (film version), there is a mysterious and romanticised threshold that must be crossed. As in The Handmaid’s Tale, the authorities limit fertility. Like The Matrix, almost nothing is what it seems. As in many dystopias, there is an unjust government with a privileged ‘Inner Party,’ sinister secrets, ecological impoverishment, and bleak living conditions for the lowest echelons – and of course ‘red-pilled’ rebels seeking to upturn the system. This highly literate author imbues all these obvious influences with ideas of his own.

He brings the genre up to (future) date, setting his story in 2073, and reflecting upon today’s worries about self-image, the control of data, the time we spend online, the cashless society, the food we eat (insects bulk large in The Mirror’s meals), and the erasure of the past. Every citizen wears a ‘mirror’ device, which delivers a limited range of computer-generated entertainment and information, but most importantly allows the authorities to monitor the population. Emotions and sensations are all suspect – except those provided by pills or virtual reality, from ‘conversations’ with ancestors to sexual intercourse. There seem to be no local or national identities, or even any kind of economy.

The pivotal relationship is between two girls, Mia and Karella, who are arriving at physical and sexual maturity; there seems to be no ‘transgenderism’ in The Mirror world (which is plausible, as those who are so exercised by this today will have exited the scene by 2073). Both characters are well thought-through, and nuanced. Bragg’s emphasis on youthful female sexuality however feels slightly discomfiting, even though of course novelists must always be permitted to imagine themselves in guises or roles other than their own. It is however germane to this story, because both girls are being exploited by a highly intrusive state, with Karella the subject of life-long transhumanist experiments, and Mia being viewed as a brood-mare for a eugenics programme. Their every emotion is parsed for psychological significance, and there are constant interventions – for example a dogged therapeutic insistence on treating Mia’s phobia about swimming (a happy intervention, because her instilled ability to swim matters greatly later).

Like everyone else, Mia and Karella are under the purview of a panoptical ‘Hub,’ and an elite organisation called Earthly Living Kingdom (ELK). Mia’s own mother is an ELK Guardian, a senior operative of a group whose sinister plans become increasingly apparent, and the mother-daughter relationship is consequently complex. Mia’s father is absent – or is he?

There are menacing ELK operatives, partly countervailed by a sub-world of gathering rebellion, led by Ned, an IT expert who convenes a secret cell to keep alive fast-fading arts – in effect, the authentic human spirit, at risk from rationalist thinking, cultural coarsening, and technological reductionism. Mia finds especial inspiration and solace in the music of Bach, which although available through approved channels, has fallen into desuetude. In 2073, those who wish to hear such antediluvian sounds risk seeming at best eccentric – and at worst, refuseniks in ‘need’ of pharmaceutical intervention, or biotechnological ‘rebooting.’ Bragg has clearly thought a great deal about the psychological benefits of music for everyone in all ages, here showing synaesthesia as a means of inner escape from one-dimensional mundanity.

The ‘biohacker’ artist Neil Harbisson, by Hector Adalid. Wikimedia Commons

He handles generally well one of the perennial problems of dystopian literature – accustoming readers to invented concepts and specially coined terminology without interrupting the narrative with long screeds of explication. He has tried hard to come up with new idioms. French phrases are unexpectedly widely used. Anglo-Saxon expletives however appear to have gone out of vogue, to be replaced with what seem now insipid new terms of emphasis (“sparking uterus”), which seems an unlikely eventuality – but maybe this symbolises his surmised society’s distance from earthy realism. Some are more believable, such as “abundant” to express enthusiasm. There is admirable restraint and wit in the conversations between the human protagonists and the Rai robots who do much of the work (and are constantly being ‘improved’ by technologists and theorists obsessed with ‘migrating’ consciousness from human to machine, and even more worryingly back again).

The Mirror is a deeply well-intentioned book, and what is even more important, sensitively intelligent – a worthy reflection on issues which are swiftly becoming salient, and which seem certain to become even more so.

A charm of Ffinches

Alexander Ffinch, by Harriet Lloyd-Smith (2011)

Parallels

Alexander Ffinch, the organ of Cheltenham College Chapel, Divine Art Recordings. DDX 21112

RICHARD DOVE is transported by a new album of organ music

My father adored church organ music. At the weekend, I would often wake to the grand noise of Nôtre Dame, Rouen, or the three manual, 44 stop organ at Freiburg Cathedral (a particular favourite). I was constantly reminded of him as I listened to Parallels, a new CD by Alexander Ffinch.

Ffinch is the organist at Cheltenham College and oversaw a complete rebuild of the organ in 2017. There is an intimacy between player and instrument which is both rare and wonderful. There is also a refreshing boldness in the selection of compositions. Where else could one find Gustav Holst alongside Coldplay’s Chris Martin? As Ffinch explains in the sleevenotes:

Today, one of my daily duties is to play to 700 students at the start of their working day. I am facing a generation with the power to instantly access the music they want at any time and trust me, it’s not likely to be original organ music. So to capture their attention, I have enjoyed turning to classical some pop/rock arrangements to present music they hear elsewhere.

The Coldplay song ‘Paradise’ soars around the college chapel, stirring even the most indolent student.

There are other surprises on the recording – a Suite by Florence Price, an African-American composer who combines her classical training with Southern black American culture. Her ‘Symphony No 1 in E Minor’ was premiered at the Chicago World’s Fair by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933. The concert was the first performance of a composition by a black woman by a major orchestra in the US. The ‘Suite’ is jaunty, mellifluous and immediately engaging, with jazz phrasing and gospel singing inspiration.

There is a wonderfully atmospheric, gently-paced interpretation of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod,’ benefiting from the resonance of the chapel’s ancient stones.

Dan Locklair’s ‘Rubrics’ is another surprise, and requires Ffinch’s masterful dexterity. After a tumultuous first movement, we move to a gentle second movement using silence as a sort of leitmotif. As the composer explains in the excellent accompanying booklet: “To be sure, it is impossible to have true silence when music is sounded. But the illusion of silence can be suggested.”

The recording closes with Leon Boellman’s ‘Suite Gothique.’ It was early morning when I listened to the Suite and its third movement ‘Prière a Nôtre-Dame.’ My father was almost with me in the room as the melody floated and swirled. Nôtre Dame was his first port of call on any visit to Paris. From this embracing reverie we launch into the thunderous final movement, the Toccata. It awakened the household as Dad was prone to do. Time to put the kettle on.

Is this a dagger they see before them?

STUART MILLSON is appalled to find Mid Wales Opera facing closure

Founded 35 years ago to bring the finest music and drama to rural towns and communities, Mid Wales Opera is a company specialising in bringing pared-down versions of the greatest music-dramas to far-flung parts of the country. 

On Saturday 23rd March, their run of Verdi’s Macbeth came to an end at the c. 500-seat Brecon Theatre (Theatr Brycheiniog), with a capacity audience enjoying Jeremy Sams’s English version of the score. Directed by Richard Studer – and full marks here for the stage lighting and ‘recycling’ of roles among the chorus – Mid Wales’s own glorious opera company succeeded in generating a dramatic effect, just as overwhelming as anything you might hear at Welsh or English National Opera.

How was it possible for an orchestra-pit ensemble, just 15-strong, to conjure much of Verdi’s lush orchestration? Under conductor Jonathan Lyness the resident chamber orchestra, Ensemble Cymru, achieved this miracle – the timpanist also playing the side-drum, and their splendid cellist generating a rich, resonant sound in those dark moments of the drama. 

On stage, meanwhile, Macbeth’s court, began its disintegration: soldiers with a Fascistic air, reminiscent of Richard Loncraine’s film of Richard lll, marched up and down, Lady Macbeth – the brilliant stage presence of Mari Wyn Williams unleashing her amoral powers, and Macbeth himself, sung by Jean-Kristof Bouton, descending into his ‘feverish visions’ as the apparition of the murdered Banquo appears at a castle feast.

The witches, dressed as 1950s’ office secretaries, but with demonic eye make-up reminiscent of Kathleen Byron’s unsettling appearance in the 1947 film, Black Narcissus, deserve great praise for their unsettling performance. Finally, the end comes for Macbeth as a forest supernaturally advances upon his fortress – actually, the English army in camouflage, although on stage at Mid Wales Opera only the Scottish saltire was raised. (Surely a major omission that the Cross of St. George did not appear?!)

What next for Mid Wales Opera? A real-life dramatic crisis, no less: the shocking removal of one hundred per cent of their grant from the Arts Council of Wales, casting doubt over whether productions of this kind could ever be staged again. Is this a dagger they see before them? It would seem so. But the story is the same, everywhere. Last year, the BBC tried to disband its own elite choir, the famous BBC Singers, and cut its symphonic strength across three ensemblesMeanwhilethe length and breadth of these islands, from Birmingham to Bournemouth, our orchestras and theatres struggle to convince those in power of the vital need for the arts. 

Quite simply, Britain now has a choice: do we just become a TV/consumer society, turning our backs on the splendour and enrichment of music and the arts? Or do we challenge the Arts Council and those in political office for a change in direction? As the wise Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger put it: “Neglect the civilised arts at your peril…”

To support the appeal for Mid Wales Opera, write to Bryn Wgan, Caersws, Powys, Wales, SY17 5QU

Un-harkened Angel

Angel

Alex Kurtagic, London: Spradabach, 2023, hb., 997pps.

DEREK TURNER finds mordant fun in a tale of modern alienation

In 2009, Alex Kurtagic published Mister, his novel of a highly-cultured IT consultant operating within what he saw as the hellscape of contemporary Europe – a man too intelligent for an age suspicious of intellectual distinctions, and too independent-minded for a continent in thrall to neurotic pettifoggery. In Angel, we meet a similarly misfitting man, but one with even less adaptive ability – indeed, a man almost without agency. This is a behemoth of a book about a midget of a man, wandering solitarily in the drab wasteland of these times.  

Angel is a student of 17th Century literature at an English university, whose unhappy fate it is to combine refined tastes and fastidiousness with an inability to impose these on even his immediate surroundings. He is physically slight and correspondingly cowardly, chronically short of money, and not even compensatingly articulate. Traditionally, angels enunciate glad tidings, but this one (aspiring poet though he may be) can barely sustain a basic conversation. He is announced to, rather than an annunciator. His most obvious resemblance to Biblical or Hebrew angels lies in his essential insubstantiality.

Angel is surrounded by people infinitely more impressive than he is – especially women, from his formidable mother and sister, and brilliantly inductive fellow-students to the mothering Amelia who (for some incomprehensible reason) pants to enfold Angel in her ample embonpoint. He is an incel, but unlike some incels, not potentially dangerous. He is not even angry – although the debased nature of his university, and society, deserves almost unlimited contempt. Kurtagic’s front-cover oil of his Van Dyck-bearded subject excellently conveys the nervy nature of his character, his twitching worriedness and state of blinking surprise at the awfulness of almost everything.

We do not lose sympathy for Angel as the tale unfolds, because we never really develop any. Even if somehow we could, he would haemorrhage it with his every action, or more precisely inaction. It is only at the very end that we start to feel sorry for him, but we can never feel respect. He is epically inept and wholly dependent on others, unable to perform the simplest task without mishap. He gets a menial job, but can’t manage the hours. He is given expensive things, and loses them. He is given excellent advice, and makes no attempt to follow it. He gets blamed even for things that aren’t his fault – and we are neither surprised, nor particularly perturbed. The reason he has no money is that he burned through a generous grant from his wealthy and influential parents in pursuit of an American woman (Madison) so obviously unworthy that people who have never met her instantly smell the gold-digger.

Huge events unfold around him, which culminate in unexpectedly dramatic style, but he is so busy mooning about his love-interest (and feeling sorry for himself) that he misses all the portents. And yet this over-specialised evolutionary aberration ends up as one of his cohort’s rare survivors. His near-invisibility ensures that he is mercifully overlooked by the most malign influencers, except when he accidentally offends à la mode ‘activists’ of one kind or another. He does encounter real rebels, but (probably luckily for him) never capitalizes on these encounters, through distractedness or pusillanimity.

But if we cannot admire Angel, we can smile at some of his pratfalls and predicaments. The author’s mordant sense of humour is abundantly in evidence, as his protagonist lurches from one petty indignity to the next – building up debts, humiliations and resentments, borrowing money he can’t repay, exasperating his family, failing his few friends, irritating his tutors, losing all his clothes at the launderette (and all his illusions about Madison), and vomiting all over the fragrant front of the only woman in the world who wants anything to do with him. Angel’s phobias are Ruskinian in their rarefaction, as he registers disgust with bad table manners, dirt, drunkenness, earrings, oxter hair (on women), tobacco and tattoos.

This is however not just a novel of amusing incidents, but also of serious ideas. The author is a determined logophile, and even those with above-average vocabularies may encounter words that are new to them, or that they have forgotten. These pleasing encounters contrast with sometimes over-long staccato dialogue sections when Angel is trying to attract the attention of barmen or shopkeepers, or, yet again, failing to explain himself to his supposed intellectual peers.

Sophisticated sociopolitical arguments are seeded through this book – about sex differences, elitism, the nature and purpose of universities, and freedom of conscience – but none of these viewpoints are expressed by Angel, although we infer that he generally agrees with their conservative-reactionary tenor. There are shrewd observations of today’s cry-bully tendencies, with their manic oscillations between psychological extremes, attacks on easy Aunt Sally targets, and protesting-too-much parading – and excellent evocations of cityscapes in all their Bladerunner alienness, or broken-down decrepitude. Strewn names of books, films, and paintings betoken authorial wide interests, and the book’s production values hint at his awareness of the importance of aesthetics in shaping worlds. Kurtagic is certain there is such a thing as ‘good taste’, and that it is at root a moral choice. This is weighty literature, in more than just a physical sense.

We eventually leave Angel all alone, contemplating the ruins of all his hopes and with no obvious avenue of escape, with even his once-powerful parents implicated in his downfall. It is a desolate outcome indeed even to so inglorious an odyssey, and even for someone not obviously deserving of respect – because behind his seriocomic unfolding can be seen substantive insights into 21st century society, and in his deeply-grained disappointment something of ourselves.

This review first appeared in The Miskatonian (Home page – The Miskatonian) and is reproduced with permission

Forest fantasy

Image: Leonhard Lenz. Wikimedia Commons

Seren of the Wildwood  

Marly Youmans, Wiseblood books, illustrated, hb., 72pps., US$16

LIAM GUILAR is beguiled by a dream of tangled trees

The Wildwood holds the remnants of the past, / Strange ceremonies that the fays still love / To watch – the rituals of demon tribes / Who once played havoc with the universe, / And everything that says the world is not / Exactly what it seems is hidden here, / But also there are paths to blessedness.

So begins Seren of the Wildwood, Marly Youmans’ narrative poem that drifts the reader through a tale that seems both familiar and strange.

Traditional fairy and folk tales have been a resource for many modern writers and film makers. The old story is usually rewritten to correct a perceived ideological bias, or to rationalise the magic, or to make it acceptable to modern audiences, whose ideas of story have been shrunk by mass market films. With notable exceptions, rewriting fails to produce anything that comes close to the originals in their ability to unsettle and entertain. Writers can study archetypes, read the psychoanalytical literature, immerse themselves in Joseph Campbell et al, naturalise Propp’s Morphology, and still produce a story that fails to hold an audience.[i]

The stories Walt Disneyfied are closer to inappropriate dreams that don’t care about your daylight ideology, or your preferred version of the world. They exist in the liminal space between waking and sleeping, recalling a time when the wolves were real and the forest was a dangerous place. Marly Youmans’ story moves bodily into that space, where nothing is quite what it seems, and never quite what it should be, where hope and disappointment are as commonplace as leaves and what we might label cruelty is just the way the world is.

Her poem is not a retelling of a previous story – but is rather a new story, inhabiting old spaces to make them new again. Seren grows up on the edges of the Wildwood, her childhood overshadowed by the death of her brothers, which the story ascribes to her father’s ill-chosen words. Constrained at home by her mother’s care, she is lured into the trees by the promise of friendship and adventure. She meets characters who harm and help her, moving through a dream-like landscape, made real by Youmans’ descriptions, until she finds her way home.

The poem is written in sixty-two stanzas, each consisting of twenty-one lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter ending with a ‘Bob and Wheel’. The Bob is an abrupt two syllable line, the Wheel four short lines rhyming internally. They break the visual and aural monotony even the best blank verse can produce over a long narrative; they can summarise the stanza, comment on it, or provide an opportunity for epigrammatic statement:

[…]Next, a King

Not young but middle-aged his curling beard

Gone steel,

His mind turned lunatic,

His body no ideal

Of grace and charm to prick

Desire: man as ordeal.

The Bob and Wheel, famously used in Gawain and the Green Knight, inevitably evoke medieval precedent, as does the walled garden Seren finds but can’t enter. Although the Wildwood is not the harsh landscape Gawain rides into before returning home, the Knight of Romance rode into the forest to seek adventures because the forest was the place where the normal social rules and expectations did not apply. There is often a didactic element to such stories, but fortunately Youmans avoids the temptation to turn hers into a sermon.

Her poem is full of good lines:

Like some grandfather’s pocket watch wound tight

But then forgotten, Seren moved slower

And slower.

The descriptions of the landscape anchor the fantastic story. In the following quotation Seren is heading towards a river she must cross and discovers a waterfall:

And so she travelled toward the roar of rain

With thunder, apprehensive as she neared

The lip where torrents catapulted free

From stone and merged into a muscular

And sovereign streaming force – the energy

That shocks the trembling pebbles into flight

And grinds the massive boulders into bowls.

Occasionally it is not easy to decide if a line is padded or what might be padding is deliberate stye: ‘It seemed satanic, manic, half insane’, but this is so rare that the fact it’s noticeable is a tribute to all the other lines where it isn’t.  

The poem is rich in images and incidents and packed with a diverse cast of characters, but what does it mean? This is the wrong question. In school we are taught ‘how to read a poem’. For ‘read’, understand ‘analyse’ and the purpose of the analysis is to explain ‘what the poem means’ or, in its most depressing formulation ‘what was the poet was trying to say’. These questions and the approaches they require have little to do with the experience of reading poetry outside the academy.

Stories, poems, and narrative poems especially, can be a way of thinking in and through language, in a non-linear, perhaps non-rational, associative way. The story works for the reader when it activates memory, prior reading, knowledge and experience. The question therefore should be, what does the story do for you while you’re reading it, and afterwards, when a phrase, an incident, or an image remains in your memory.[ii]

Youmans’ poem encourages such a line of thinking; there are numerous allusions to other stories, tying Seren into a network of intertextuality, (at one point she is helped in the story by remembering the stories she has been told), there are images, which evoke a host of medieval precedents, but Youmans avoids the simplification of neat equivalence or the temptation of a tidy conclusion.

In terms of traditional narrative arcs, if you believe in the importance of such things, the story ends abruptly and very little is explained. There are questions left unanswered and threads that were run out but not neatly tied together at the end. The reader is being treated with respect and left alone with the story. It is a book that invites and rewards multiple rereading.

Reading is made easier because the book itself is a beautiful object. Wiseblood books are to be commended on producing such a fine hardback at such a low price. Printed on good quality paper, one stanza to a page, Seren of the Wildwood is illustrated by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. His black and white images complement the tone and mood of the story.


[i] There are obvious exceptions to this generalisation and to be precise everyone who has told these stories has altered them; the Grimms were notorious revisers.

[ii] The undeniable consequence of this line of thinking is that the book that haunts one reader is the same book another reader can’t be bothered to finish, regardless of the reviewer’s praise or condemnation. This seems especially true of narrative poetry. 

Uplifting falling

The Book of Falling

David McCooey, Perth, Western Australia: Upswell Publishing, 2023, 109pps. Aus$24.99

LIAM GUILAR says David McCooey’s poetry is intelligent, skilful, varied – and plain enjoyable

The Book of Falling is David McCooey’s fifth collection of poems, and if nothing else, gives the lie to the invidious myth that people who work on academic writing programmes can’t write.

He’s very good at what he does. His poetry evokes Bunting’s praise of Scarlatti:

It is now time to consider how Domenico Scarlatti

condensed so much music into so few bars

with never a crabbed turn or congested cadence

never a boast or a see-here…

Every well-chosen word in its place, and each word doing the necessary work. In the first four lines of the collection a sense of vague but threatening menace is swiftly evoked:

The unseen night creatures – scaled and feathered

for their occult ceremonies – rasp and call outside

in the dark beyond the half dark that

surrounds this marbled, half lit house

(‘Questions of Travel’)  

Such deft verbal economy is a feature of the wide variety of poems that appear in The Book of Falling and plays against often surprising content. The first three poems are conventional poetic monologues as though the poet were setting out his stall and proving his ability. At the same time the subjects are anything but conventional. Elizabeth Bishop packs to travel; Sylvia Plath looks at her life on her 80th birthday; Marilyn Monroe divines the future and amongst other things, ‘…see[s] who will be forgotten first/ Queen Elizabeth, Molly Bloom, or me.’

These are followed by word play, short sequences about family, a group of satires and elegies, poems about urban life, as well as ‘Three Photo Poems.’ The latter is a new genre to me: three sequences which juxtapose very short texts (one of the sequences is made up of ‘found poems’) and photographs. 

The juxtaposition of pictures, either of the mundane, as in the sequence about bathrooms, or the family photographs which on closer inspection look anything but mundane, with short pieces of text, lead to the second reason you should read the book.

On a first reading you can never tell what’s going to be on the next page. This is a defining characteristic of the other two books of McCooey’s poetry I have read, and unusual in single author collections, where formal and thematic similarities tend to be on almost every page. The variety here is held together by a unified view of the world, a laconic wit, which takes pleasure in the commonplace while recognising how strange it is. Take his ‘Rain Poem’:

And as if someone uttered the trigger word

rain begins without ceremony.

But it’s not ‘driving rain’;

it’s just sitting outside

engine idling over the neighbourhood.

The poem could stop there, but it turns into something more than a pun and a neatly turned image.

It doesn’t give a damn

And then, like a poem ending

you look out the window

and the rain has stopped.

The birds have returned and the wind

has begun its invisible cover-up job.

Many of the poems present the everyday and familiar, but alter the point of view just enough to destabilise the way you’re used to looking at the world – Freud’s Uncanny perhaps, without the baggage attached to that word.

When was the last time you thought about how strange bathrooms are? ‘Bathroom Abstraction #3’ begins: “Windowless bathrooms are the cave of modernity”.

What you encounter as reader is an intelligence moving through time, and recording the variety of experience, taking interest and pleasure in the world – and above all wanting to share it with the reader. There are numerous single author collections where the reader is left feeling his or her presence is not required – or perhaps only required as an anonymous cheerleader who proved their devotion by buying the book.

If a poem can be a space for thinking through and in language, McCooey’s poems invite readers to look without telling them what to think. A short example is ‘Australia’:

Dropping my son at school.

It is ‘Art Day’;

students are to dress up

as their favourite artist.

I see a kid dressed in white.

He has sunscreen on his nose,

And carries a cricket bat.

This is both bemused and amusing, but open to different ways of being read. There is the traditional art community criticism of Australian attitudes towards ‘the arts’ in a sports-mad country – a criticism of the arts community’s failure to penetrate the education system even on a school day ostensibly devoted to ‘Art – or a wry celebration of the artistry of Australian cricketers, who can flog a rock-like ball a long distance with enough balletic grace to suggest cricket is indeed an art form. The poem holds all these possibilities (and others) open for the reader.

And finally – this may be a heretical comment: poetry is a highly sophisticated form of entertainment. It provides unique pleasures. Reading book reviews, it can seem that enjoying poetry is a subversive activity. The reviewer usually makes great claims for its importance, significance, ground-breaking genre-bending, appropriate ideological stance on the burning issues of the day, but rarely admits to having enjoyed reading the book under review. McCooey’s books are skilfully written, varied, thought provoking, and above all enjoyable. You should read them.

Britain, from Armistice to Hungry Thirties

Sing As We Go: Britain Between the Wars

Simon Heffer, London: Hutchinson Heinemann, 2023, 960pps., £35

KEN BELL finds much of interest in an account of the interwar years, but wishes it was less Tory

Simon Heffer’s Sing As We Go: Britain Between the Wars is the final part of a three-volume work which takes the country from the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Heffer belongs to the Tory school of historiography, so the reader who expects a social historian’s account of poverty in south Wales is going to be disappointed. History for those of that school is made by statesmen who sit in magnificent drawing rooms where they decide the fate of nations over maps. Sing As We Go is a quintessential account written in that style.  

A sizeable chunk of Sing As We Go is taken up with a reappraisal of Neville Chamberlain, a man condemned in the popular mind as Hitler’s dupe. As Heffer makes clear, appeasement was a policy that began before Hitler even came to power, with the word itself being first honoured with a place in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1933. The British, ever the fans of balancing the great powers off against each other, had been siding quietly with Germany against France since the 1920s. So, appeasement until the Munich Agreement was the policy of a confident British state that did not want France to become too dominant in the years after the Great War. As Heffer writes it was not about “surrender, capitulation or humiliation by or of the appeaser.”

Leaving foreign policy aside, and to be fair to the statesmen of the era, for the first time in British history they had to engage in the “economic management” of the country. It is no wonder that they did not know how to manage a modern state and economy, as nobody had ever had to do that before. So as Chancellor, Neville Chamberlain was not ashamed to admit privately that he was “very frightened at the financial part,” which is pretty much the central aspect of any chancellor’s role. He certainly seemed to make a better fist of the office than Winston Churchill, who admitted that whilst he understood the words of the generals, the economists “all talk Persian.”

Neville Chamberlain (second from left) visiting Newcastle slums in 1925. Image: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

As Chancellor, Chamberlain helped grow the economy during the Great Depression by spending large sums on rearmament, a fact that was much criticised at the time and is often forgotten today. As Prime Minister the output increased, leading Stafford Cripps, that most cadaverous of vegetarians, to comment that “every possible effort” had to be made to stop military recruitment. He even went on to tell a group of future aircraft builders that they should “refuse to make armaments.” It is hard to believe that Cripps would later be appointed as Minister of Aircraft Production in the Churchill government. Such things can only happen in Britain. Nevertheless, Britain was better prepared for war in 1939 than she would otherwise have been had Chamberlain not spent so many millions on the armed forces throughout his time as Chancellor and then Prime Minister.

The economy by 1937 was booming, but not in the heavy industrial areas of south Wales, northern England and the Scottish central belt. Heffer refers in passing to the distress in such areas, but it is not really the concern of his school of historiography to consider people who live below the elite level, so Heffer asks us to concentrate on the economy as a whole where output and prosperity increased.

Heffer deals with the Irish War of Independence very well indeed, with an even-handedness that surprised me. He is no fan of Eamon de Valera, but few of today’s Irish historians are; the reappraisal of de Valera has been very harsh on the man and his record. That said, he is clearly impressed with Michael Collins, a man who was probably one of the finest guerrilla commanders of the twentieth century. It was Collins who ordered the killing of the ‘Cairo Gang’, a high-level squad of British counter intelligence officers, an action that was carried out with brutal efficiency one Sunday morning. Many were still in bed when the IRA squads burst in and killed them, some in front of their wives or mistresses.

Heffer makes much of the shock and outrage that this action had in the USA and does rather play down the fact that the killings destroyed the British counter-intelligence operation in Dublin. The countryside was largely controlled by the IRA, and the Sunday morning operation in Dublin meant the capital city was also largely controlled by Collins’ men. I suspect that General Collins was happy to take that outcome, and could live with a few outraged headlines from across the Atlantic.

Simon Heffer is on firmer ground when he considers the London negotiations between the British government and the Irish plenipotentiaries to end the war. We are back to the world that Heffer loves the most, that of statesmen in drawing rooms, passing the port and taking momentous decisions. We are given some interesting vignettes of the negotiations, with Collins, the guerrilla leader, complaining to the arch-imperialist Winston Churchill that the British had put a £5,000 reward on his head. Churchill showed Collins a £25 reward poster that the Boers had put on his head two decades earlier. “Collins laughed and the air cleared,” when Churchill pointed out the disparity between the rewards offered that was clearly in Collins’ favour.

The negotiations were conducted on both sides by men who acted in good faith and who wanted a settlement, so compromises were possible. The Irish agreed to take over the Royal Irish Constabulary, change the name and keep the officers. The British accepted that their paramilitary unit of former British officers known as the ‘Auxiliaries’ or ‘Black and Tans’, who mainly guarded fixed locations such as police stations, were a British problem and cost that was not to be charged to Ireland. The British quickly withdrew both units from Ireland, paid them their outstanding wages and discharged them from service.

This level of reasonableness leads us to the final third of the book which is concerned with Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler. Heffer makes clear that it is a failure of Chamberlain that he did not cotton onto Hitler’s nature sooner than he did. As Heffer points out, Chamberlain’s supreme self-confidence led him to believe “that he was right” in just about everything, and it took him until early 1939 before he was forced to conclude that Hitler was “half mad”. However, Chamberlain’s reputation will need more than this volume to repair it from the charge that he was Hitler’s stooge, but it is a fair start to the process. Few people realised just what a chancer Hitler was, but at least when that realisation finally dawned, Neville Chamberlain, more than any other, was the man who ensured that Britain had modernised armed forces that could enter the lists against the rearmed Germany.

Viewed overall, Sing As We Go is a solid account of how Neville Chamberlain and others struggled to come to terms with the Britain that emerged from the Great War as the country groped, almost blindly at times, towards the next one. The Britain of Victoria’s era would have dealt with Ireland as she dealt with the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to argue that historically the British treated the Indians and Catholic Irish as if both were dodgy natives who needed a firm hand. By 1921, the British seem to have been pleasantly surprised that Michael Collins and his men were not the dubious natives of the popular imagination, but actually reasonable chaps with reasonable demands. That changed attitude would stand the British in good stead a generation later when it came time to negotiate the end of the Raj.

Seers catalogue

The Prophets of Doom

Neema Parvini, Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2023, pb., 230pps., £14.95

BENJAMIN AFER welcomes a book about neglected thinkers, but wishes it was more systematic

The self-styled ‘reactionary’ Colombian philosopher Nicolás Gómez ‘Don Colacho’ Dávila once characterised periods of civilisational greatness as “the summer noise of insects between two winters” – an especially apt comparison when we realise that there is no set guidebook or sure path to making a civilisation great, or even to making or maintaining a civilisation at all.

‘Golden ages’ are mostly noticed only in comparison to a seemingly inferior present, long after they have ended, which makes every reactionary or conservative action a rear-guard one in defiance of overpowering forces. In his new book The Prophets of Doom, Dr. Neema Parvini (known better online as ‘Academic Agent’ – the name of his YouTube Channel – or ‘A.A.’, gives us eleven such rear-guardists, perhaps more accurately termed ‘seers’ than prophets. Their gift is the ability to get a complete understanding of not just their own societies and times, but the very concept of civilisation and the entropic forces that affect it.

The story of how Dr. Parvini came to discourse on such a topic could itself be a multi-volume book. What began as a series of YouTube videos and livestreams in 2017, dealing mostly with libertarian economics but also partly with the week’s headlines, took a dramatic turn in 2020 when Dr. Parvini found himself suspended from his day-job as an English lecturer at the University of Surrey – apparently as part of a hit-job by left-wing students and faculty. Since then, his focus has been increasingly on the decline of Western power, prestige and self-confidence under the rule of a simultaneously negligent, incompetent and malicious internationalist elite. This book marks the beginning of what we might call the ‘mature’ phase of that trajectory. Despite my reservations about the content of this book (dealt with below), there is no doubt that Dr. Parvini is among the best-read living academics on the subject of civilisational decline. 

That breadth of reading is apparent with a mere glance at the cover (a quality edition thanks to Imprint Academic). The thinkers proffered here are pleasingly diverse and idiosyncratic – a necessity when dealing with a topic as broad and monumental as the decline of civilisations. The roster is made up of Giambattista Vico, Thomas Carlyle, Arthur de Gobineau, Brooks Adams, Oswald Spengler, Pitirim Sorokin, Arnold Toynbee, Julius Evola, John Bagot Glubb, Joseph Tainter and Peter Turchin. From this book alone a relative newcomer to reactionary ideas can gather that there are moral, metaphysical, economic, racial, mystical, religious and purely entropic aspects to the process, and as such, Prophets of Doom shows us that the thinkers of a yet-to-be-assembled reactionary canon are among the most sophisticate and keen-eyed of men to have ever undergone the intense intellectual disquiet that comes with witnessing decline.

That sense of genteel panic is evident throughout the work of all eleven thinkers and conveyed in miniature, but without loss of effect, by Dr. Parvini. The brief biographies provided are, for the most part, both interesting and useful, without straying as so many such books do into mere historical clutter. There is pathos to be found in some of these simple revelations about a particular ‘prophet’or his work, such as the fact that Brooks Adams awoke each morning and sang a tune of his own making to the words “God damn it, God damn it, God damn it,” or that Count de Gobineau’s work was always basically an attempt to find out why the French aristocracy had been reduced to the lamentable status of bourgeois clerks with titles. The reactionary is always a man driven by his instincts and investigations to warn everybody else, but whose words seem (to borrow again from Gómez Dávila) “absurd when he says them and obvious in retrospect.”

As is to be expected, many of the figures of the book are either ignored by the mainstream Western academies (Adams, Glubb, Evola) or dealt with reluctantly as unfashionable but necessary curiosities of the past (Carlyle, Spengler). It is a genuine delight then, to see Giambattista Vico, a central figure of Renaissance humanist literature, given proper due as a man far ahead of his own time, and in this way perhaps the most literally prophetic figure the book has to offer. Quoting an American thinker, Parvini tells us that Vico:

[M]akes it possible to give a rationalist defence of man’s basic irrationality. He gives a non-religious defence of religion. He gives a non-traditional defence of tradition, and an unconventional defence of convention. He’s a non-historical defender of historical life, particularity, and identity.   

Indeed, Vico has been too much ignored by intellectuals. Many reactionaries would date the most general entropic decline to have begun around 1789, but inversion and subversion of hierarchies and the rise of the cult of Man have roots in the absolutist trends of the early 1600s, which coincided with the popularity of scientific humanism and the growing domination of Europe by its merchant class.  

Dr. Parvini deserves great praise for his condensing of Oswald Spengler’s central thesis of decline into what stands out as the finest chapter of the book – albeit one heavy on first-hand quotation to do a lot of the legwork. Though his name is famous, Spengler remains broadly ignored by the English-speaking academies; at least, his thesis is not given anything like as much attention as it ought to be. This is of course because Spengler is not an author that flatters the liberal-bourgeois delusions of many academics, and as such is indigestible.

There are both formalist and anti-formalist traditions in reactionary writing. The formalist would generally balk at comparisons to politics du jour, but as someone usually more sympathetic to the formalist side of things, I must break ranks and praise the deftness with which Dr. Parvini takes us from the considerations of, say, fin-de-siècle East Coast elites to the general stupidities of our own internationalist masters. It is a sobering moment when, having given the conclusion of Henry Adams’ summation of his brother’s Law (“The world tends to economic centralisation. Therefore Asia tends to survive, and Europe tends to perish.”) Dr. Parvini remarks:

At the present time, when many political commentators track the machinations of ‘globalist’ elites who gather at the World Economic Forum at Davos to plan new and ingenuous ways to ration our energy consumption during an ‘energy crisis’, while rising powers such as Russia, China, and India become ever more non-compliant to the increasingly absurd demands of a West that has lost all moral authority, these prophetic lines will not provide much comfort.

It is a shame then, that aside from the odd comparative remark to highlight the more obvious shared fixations, Dr. Parvini has done very little to give a sense of continuum between these men. A “world class scholar,” as he calls himself, should see the metapolitical necessity of building up a shared wisdom between these names, to build up a cohesive corpus of thought.

I feel bound to remark that this is a strikingly dispassionate work, perhaps a consequence of the author’s rather managerial insistence on value-free analysis. None of the authors featured in Prophets produced great work because they were stolidly neutral and ‘value-free’, and this would be a more spectacular book had Dr. Parvini understood this at the outset. Wherever his talent for droll comparative humour does appear (“Won’t someone think of the curry houses?”) it does a remarkable job of hammering home the lessons to be learned, but always leaves us wishing for more.

Most readers would expect The Academic Agent to have given this work the full force of his rather unique rhetorical powers, especially so if they followed his Twitter account (@OGRolandRat) during the period of composition. A great wealth of literature by and about most of the Prophets was being consumed in what looked like a fit of scholarly passion – as evidenced by the impressive bulk of endnotes at the conclusion of each chapter. The rather brief nature of those chapters though, leaves us wondering if this was not actually something like a fit of deadline anxiety. In any case, the summations of each figure are engaging, and helpful to the newcomer in that they spell out exactly what should make the subject of interest to the reader.

Perhaps the best rule of thumb for this kind of reading is that the more pregnant the silence of the mainstream academies when it comes to a certain author, the sharper and more troublesome their analysis. Names like Carlyle and Spengler are obviously too grand to be ignored, even if the attention they get is mainly of a dismissive nature, but it quickly becomes apparent why the weakly dogmatic, gelatinous minds of some present-day lecturers and intellectuals are incapable of grasping the analysis given to us by some of the Prophets.

How on earth could a progressive ideologue, convinced that we are only a few less racists away from world utopia, comprehend Lt. Gen. Glubb’s End of Empires thesis (publicly available online)? John Bagot Glubb (1897-1986) or ‘Glubb Pasha’, as he was known to his Jordanian colonial soldiery whom he trained and led into the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, compared the average lifespans of great empires and discovered that they usually last for no more than 250 years. In such a thesis, our own times are merely the confused, decadent and foolish coda to a cycle all peoples are doomed to repeat ad nauseam, as opposed to the overture to a liberal-progressive stasis-world.

Brooks Adams (1848-1927), a cyclical thinker like Glubb, but one far more concerned with economy and the laws of mercantilism, offers little to sate the progressive ego, which always demands self-confirmation. His excellent and resonant criticism of industrial capitalism might be well received, but his preoccupation with Asiatic races as a looming threat to Western civilisation would surely condemn him as political undesirable. Indeed, I think it is because his warnings about the rise of Asia as a more-than-unfriendly power towards the west seems so terrifyingly prescient that he remains forgotten as “the last and least worthy of the captious Adams tribe.”

The thinker least familiar to me was Pitirim Sorokin, a Russian émigré sociologist who spent much of his life as a professor in Minnesota. Sorokin takes a highly complex and nuanced view of Western civilisation as a whole, developing a theory of “cultural mentality,” in which he described modern western nations as “sensate” – lacking in absolute truth and living in a state of chaotic flux.

It is never wholly fair to critique something for not being something else, but one does wish that Prophets took a more ambitious approach to its subject matter. I was put in mind of the Very Short Introductions series by the Oxford University Press, books of which unusually hover around the 200-page mark, as Prophets does; but the Very Short Introductions typically concern one author, school or concept. If a clear brevity was the aim of Prophets then it has been well achieved, but when we use the term brevity as a positive descriptor we do so in the context that a good poem or aphorism is brief, i.e. that it feels no longer or shorter than it needs to be. Packed with detail though each chapter is, the length and depth to which the ideas are discussed seems arbitrarily limited. I felt the jarring lurch of a sudden stop every time the vast lattice of endnotes came hauling into view. A subject such as this, addressed by a man as capable as Dr Parvini, could have led to a truly remarkable book. Prophets of Doom is in many ways an admirable work with memorable moments, but ultimately only serves as the briefest beginner’s guide to the decline of civilisations.  

Nevertheless, if one remains unfamiliar with the theories of cyclical history but would stop short of diving straight into Spengler, then this book is most worthwhile. Even an initiate will doubtless find something new in the discourses on little-known writers like Glubb and Adams. Personally speaking, Prophets of Doom was worth reading purely for the chapter on Vico. If there is one lesson to be learned from The Prophets of Doom, it is the root of ‘Don Colacho’s’ remark that being a reactionary is not about believing in certain solutions, but about having an acute sense of the complexity of the problems.