Books for Christmas ( Part 2 ).


christmas-treeBy John Wyse Jackson, Zozimus Bookshop, 84 Main St, Gorey, Co Wexford. (010353 86 123 3137)

Further to my discourse (below) on the various reasons why a ‘celebrity’ might choose a particular title as his or her ‘Book of the Year’, I feel impelled to add one more, spotted recently.

This is the Reconciliation, a phenomenon that is all too rare in the literary world.

In the Times Literary Supplement for 29 November 2013, A N Wilson, ANWilson in Pinknovelist, biographer, historian and erstwhile ‘young fogey’, makes his main choice a book entitled The Virgin’s Baby: The Battle for the Ampthill Succession, by Bevis Hillier.

The nomination calls the book a ‘beautifully crafted slice of tragicomic social history.’ Nothing strange about that, you might think. Wilson, a prolific and professional writer, has himself published copious social histories. But the crucial point here is that he shares something else with Bevis Hillier: both have written lives of the poet John Betjeman.

Hillier spent 25 years on his massively detailed three-volume biography, which came out between 1988 and 2004;mxPTHPX14SeCqebhF_DJC7A conversely, Wilson’s succinct and lively account of the poet (published in 2006) is unlikely to have detained him for more than a matter of months. In 2002, they became enemies after Wilson reviewed Hillier’s second volume, calling it a ‘hopeless mish-mash of a book’.

Hillier took his revenge. That year he chose Wilson as his least favourite author in the end-of-year lists. Wilson responded publicly: ‘How utterly pitiable to be some old bachelor in a Hiram’s Hospital, smock-clad like a pauper in the reign of Henry VIII, dripping resentment like the dottle from a smelly churchwarden’s pipe, and with so little in his life that he has to worry his sad old head about a book review.’

Hillier wasn’t finished. He forged a letter ‘proving’ that Betjeman carried on  an affair with the late Honor Tracy.image002 This was entirely untrue – Miss Tracy, an Englishwoman, did have a long love affair with Ireland, but never, as far as anyone knows, with any actual men.

When, as intended, the misleading epistle fell into Wilson’s hands while he was writing his biography, he included  it gleefully in the book, conjuring up, as David Pryce-Jones put it in an account of the business, ‘alcohol-fuelled lunches and afternoons in a rented room.’ What A N Wilson unfortunately failed to notice was that the first letters of its sentences spelt out ‘A N Wilson is a sh**’!

That was then; this is now. During 2013 the newspapers reported that the two writers were observed in a restaurant  dining amicably together. Apparently, the pair even exchanged signed copies of their most recent books. The hatchet has clearly been buried – and, as we have seen, Wilson has further marked this happy event in the traditional way: by choosing his new friend’s latest literary production for the ‘Books of the Year’ column. 

(Eagle-eyed readers may notice that despite a promise I have entirely failed to mention any of MY Christmas books at all.  Well, how about the following?

Just What I Always Wanted! Unwrapping the World’s Most Curious Presents By Robin Laurance. A pristine hardcover copy is for sale (for 5 euros) at Zozimus Bookshop, Gorey, where the proprietor is desperate to sell it before Christmas!)


Pope Francis on Poverty.

By Michael Dwyer.

pope_francis_1_048In the West it is at Christmas more than any other time that we are called to remember all those who suffer under the burden of poverty. And just now, in the mouth of Christmas, “Time” has announced that Pope Francis is the Man of the Year. A man who has uncompromisingly laid his cards on the table when it comes to the poor. He loves them and he wants more of them.

In a series of statements since his accession he has made clear his hostility to what he calls capitalism and the operation of the free market. The market, like sinful man, is a wild and savage beast that devours the weak and enriches the strong and the greedy. He has condemned those on the right who worship the market and believe it can provide humanity with the values it needs.


Smith and…


..Marx, who made the same mistake!

The problem is the Pope has no idea what the market is or what is it is for. The market is simply Wilde’s cynic. It knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. And that perhaps is where Francis goes wrong. Like Smith and Marx after him he confuses price with value. But he should know better. It was after all Spanish Jesuits that first described the subjective nature of value.

I know of no conservative who thinks the market can tell her or him anything other than the price of a good. Now be sure that is not a small thing but it is a long way from everything. Correct pricing allows for rational and efficient choices about investment, spending and use and distribution of scarce resources. It does not tell me that cheating at cards is wrong.

He in common with most leftists seems to believe that there is a correlation morally between free marketers and selfishness. To believe in freedom of the individual is it seems to reject the idea of society and decry communal and cooperative action.


…and Rand who made even more mistakes!

The cold universe of the Randian Objectivist may indeed be morally narcissistic and atomistic. A place where unattached and indivisible egos are the centre of a hostile cosmos. But this is the caricature of the position of conservatives and most libertarians. The sacrality of the individual lies at the heart of the Christian genius and that of liberal democracy. Francis would do well to remember that. The importance of the individual to the Right is not so I may assert that I –Ego- am the centre of the universe, but that we are all separately and jointly the centres of all our moral universes. And in our universe we may be safe from power, coercion, theft and violence, be it of another individual or of the awful violence of the State.

Empirically we know certain things, small and great. Of the small, for example we know that conservatives in practice care more for the poor than others. They give more money. They give more time. They are more likely to be member of voluntary and community organisations. They are not greedy and selfish. They are altruistic and giving.

But there is a great thing we know, and we think that Francis ought to know it too. We know that if you want to reduce poverty, massively, radically, quickly, and permanently then get the market in to do the job, not some cabal of economists or politburocrats. Those countries where the division is least between the rich and the poor are market economies. Those countries where the bottom quintiles have the highest standard of living are market Those countries where the poorest have most access to education, to health care, to legal protection, to a good diet, to a long life, to a freedom from corruption, to protection from violence, are market economies. Those countries where the poor are least likely to stay poor are market economies. Those countries which spend the most, by a massive difference, on relieving poverty at home and abroad are market economies.

It maybe simply easier for all involved to see poverty as something to be solved or relieved by lobbying governments, rather than by converting men’s hearts. To persuade a government to spend other people’s money is the work of an instant. To persuade a bad man to be good is very hard indeed. That is the wonderful thing about the market. Let it operate, let men act in freedom, and wealth will fall on the good and the bad indifferently.

Hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty by the choice of India and China to partially abandon their old planned approach to the economy. The single greatest leap forward for the biggest chunk of humanity took place in the great Victorian explosion of wealth creation. Which was by the way followed by the greatest explosion of private philanthropy seen since the middle ages. Hundreds and thousands of schools, hospitals, libraries, orphanages and universities were established and endowed by capitalists like Carnegie, Guinness, Rockefeller, Drexell and Vanderbilt. An honourable tradition carried on today by the likes of Bill GatesBill-Gates, Dave Packard, Bill Hewlett and Leonard Lauder. Men who give from choice not coercion. Is it really necessary to remind a pope that no moral can be a forced act ?

Millions of men women and children live on a dollar a day. The definition in 1990 prices of absolute poverty. None of them, none, not one, live in countries that have been historically Market economies. The gap between the rich and the poor in the old Second World of centrally planned economies was a vastly greater than that which pertained in the wild child eat their own young world of western market economies. The poorest people in Ireland today count as amongst the richest in the world.

If this pope is serious about caring about the poor and actually wants to reduce their number the he should take a couple of hours out his busy week to read about economics. He needs to learn about the world as it is and has been, rather than the story he seems to have accepted without bothering to check the facts. The pope is an important man. When he speaks journalists pretend to listen. So he has a moral duty to speak from an informed mind and conscience. To that end I will send him a copy of Hazlitt’s ‘Economics in One Lesson’ as a Christmas present.2c5ece749d286cfb2f460efb3f5d2881 If he applies himself I predict we maybe hearing some sense out him by Easter. Deo Volente.

Note: The Foundation For Economic Education is among our American links.


A papal biography.

by Richard Miller

“Francis, Bishop of Rome” by Michael Collins, The Columba Press, Dublin, p. 121. 9.99 Euro.

213-32249-francis-bishop-of-rome_smlI must confess to never having read a biography of a reigning pope before I encountered this small but beautifully produced little book, which seems to be intended to capture the Christmas market. As such it will do well, and deservedly so as it is a competent piece of work which recounts the remarkable story it sets out to tell in clear, if patronising, prose. But how seriously should we take its basic thesis that the election of Pope Francis from Argentina marks a major departure of the history of the Western Church?

There are fears on the right; as there are hopes on the left.  The liberal right sees Francis an exponent of liberation theology, keen to impose Marxist inspired “solutions” which won’t work. The left sees a humble man, focussed on the needs of the poor, the unlucky, and those forced to the edges of society.che-liberation

Who is correct? What is clear is that both sides are agreed that we are to some extent in uncharted territory. Whilst South America has always been a major element in Catholicism, its insights have never before been likely to be so influential. There are important questions here. Questions which are made all the more pressing by the very recent election of a left wing President in Chile, and by the situation in Venezuela. More precisely, what are we to expect from the new Pope? What are his priorities, and what are his views?

Unfortunately the importance of these questions are not properly reflected in the research or depth of the analysis presented by Father Collins. The author is utterly uncurious. For example he mentions ( Collins, p. 15)  the interesting fact that one of the most important formative influences on the young Bergoglio was that of a Marxist who “who encouraged Jorge in his pursuit of knowledge,” and who lend him Communist books. There is nothing inherently damaging about this. Some of the twentieth century’ s most notable conservatives have had youthful flirtations with the left. But it is both interesting and potentially important. I for one badly wanted to know much more. What exactly did the young Bergoglio read in this connection? Did he struggle with “Capital?” Or did he restrict himself to the “Manifesto.” Why doesn’t Father Collins tell us? And if doesn’t know why does he not pick up his telephone and find out?   Surely we have the right to expect some detail and texture about the influences that surrounded the young man who was to become Pope.  In this instance something more than a  story designed to show Bergoglio’s decency ( which surely we should be able to assume) is required. And yet  Father Collins provides nothing more than the blandness of anecdote.

This profound lack of curiosity is exacerbated by the book’s lack of scholarship. It contains no index, no footnotes, no references, no bibliography, and indeed no other information as to where the information it contains comes from. This is not then really even an exercise in journalism, but  rather an example of the spin doctors art- no more than what the Americans call – a campaign biography. The Pope’s very office demands more than this.

Is this a harsh judgement? I must confess to being disappointed to reach it. But it is a conclusion which is nevertheless confirmed by a glance at another papal biography of rather the same kind to which by happy accident I have had access. “The Crown of Glory” (1957)  by Aldan Hatch and Seamus Walsh0246364 about Pope Pius 12th is now a period piece. But what struck me forcibly as I glanced through it alongside Fr. Collin’s offering was how similar the two book were.

Of course there are sometimes remarkable differences in tone. When Pius arrived in Argentina for the Eucharistic Congress in 1934 he delighted in the welcome given to him by the Argentinian navy (p. 106)- something that would certainly have horrified Francis! Lkewise Alden and Walsh describe the Papal apartments as being “small” (p. 201,  see also p. 203- 204 ) while Father Collins tells us that Francis refuses to move into  them because they are so big that three hundred people could live there!article-1372464-0B6FB43C00000578-285_634x355 ( Collins, p. 111) But for all that there are far more similarities than there are differences between the two books. Nether can shake off the tone of uncritical adulation. Neither can ask any difficult questions.  Both are filled with anecdotes which ostensibly reveal the “real” Pope but which  are in fact hardly more than verbal versions of the  “photo ops.” so loved by public relations men.

Surely, if the Catholic Church is really to make a new start with a new Pope; then one crucial component of such a renewal would be a new openness which would render such uncritical but trivial  biographies such as these unnecessary?no-poverty-md

Note: For the hell of it I have just ( 11/02/14 ) googled Alden Hatch to discover that he wrote- among other things- a campaign biography about Eisenhower in 1952!

Books for Christmas


By John Wyse Jackson, Zozimus Bookshop, 84 Main St, Gorey, Co Wexford.


Mr Wyse Jackson in festive mood. He is taking orders on 0861233137

As I write, the newspapers and magazines are devoting pages and pages to lists of the favourite books of the year, chosen by various celebrities. While this is a mildly interesting procedure, and occasionally serves to remind us of a good book we might have forgotten, it’s frequently less than honest. Nothing is more indicative of the incestuousness of the literary and academic world.

Take a look yourself. You will find that novelists tend to boost novels by their friends – or even by their spouses. If they haven’t any friends or spouses (and it is surprising how often this is the case with novelists), they recommend other books published by the firm that publishes them, and expect their stablemates to do the same in return. Historians often mention books on their own subjects that are written by other historians, though if you read carefully between the lines you may find that praise is faint, and contempt thinly-veiled. A few people even choose books they wrote themselves, jokingly apologizing for doing so – as if that made any difference.

That’s not all. Very rarely, you may notice, have any of the chosen books appeared on the bestseller lists. For the celebrities, Christmas offers a rare opportunity to show how intellectual they are. There is a certain cachet in suggesting books that nobody else will have read, the obscurer the better. During the 1980s and 1990s, the accomplished literary swagman Clive JamesClive-James-001 became proverbial for listing volumes about high culture that were written in unlikely foreign languages, reminding readers that he was not merely a TV critic and jokester, but an academically minded polymath and global thinker as well.

This is a guess, but I would estimate that less than half of the recommended books have actually been read by the people who recommend them. (In case you were wondering, there’s no doubt, that Clive James had always reads his choices – even the ones in Serbo-Croat or Finnish – for he really IS an academically minded polymath and global thinker.)

The Christmas lists generate many sales and, naturally,yule-log publishers are inordinately interested in them. Flown with Yuletide wine, they can be overheard at book parties gloating to each other about how many of their titles have appeared as choices on the book pages this year – but then, why wouldn’t they? After all, they have often orchestrated these successes themselves: a quiet word in an ear here, a drink bought there, a secret kept, a half-offer made, a favour called in. It’s easy enough if you know the right people.

I’m being cynical. Being a bookseller who sells only secondhand books these days, I have little time for new books at all. Visits to even the most elegant bookshops make me realize how attenuated is the choice of goods on offer. The best book on any particular subject is not necessarily the one that has just appeared – in fact, it rarely is. When Richard Ellmann’s masterly Life of Oscar Wildeoscarwilde is available secondhand at Zozimus Bookshop, then what IS the point of paying four or five times the price for the latest biography of the same writer, which isn’t nearly as good? Why should the latest TV gardener’s glossy album on how to prune fruit trees be any better than a paperback manual from the 1950s? Methods of pruning, after all, haven’t changed at all.


To be included?

Accordingly, when the mandarins that lurk behind the Edmund Burke Institute asked me to contribute a Christmas Book List, I decided to do just that, literally. Rather than adding my voice to the acclaim earned by the 2013 crop of festive choices (Julian Barnes, Colm Toibín, Fintan O’Toole and friends), admirable though these no doubt are, this year my Christmas Book List (which will appear here next week) contains only books ABOUT Christmas. And none of them will be new!