From perpetrator to victim

‘At almost any time in history before today, someone who had deliberately released their own nation’s secrets would have been regarded as a traitor’

So much about an era can be gleaned from those whom it puts into positions of influence and holds up as role models. At almost any time in history before today, someone who had deliberately released their own nation’s secrets and passed them to the enemy would have been regarded as a traitor. Technological advances mean that nobody in any earlier period could possibly have released as much classified information as Bradley (now identifying as Chelsea) Manning did. And yet after serving only a sixth of the allotted jail time Manning’s sentence was commuted by President Obama as he left office last January. With a remarkable inevitability, in September Harvard announced that Manning would become a visiting fellow at its Kennedy School of Government. For once the resultant outcry worked in the appropriate direction. After former acting CIA Director Michael Morrell offered his resignation from Harvard in protest, the university changed Manning’s position from visiting fellow to guest speaker.

There could be a whole conference analysing Harvard’s reasons for elevating Manning. But the fact that Manning chose to go from Bradley to Chelsea (and therefore from perpetrator to victim) is probably the most significant. For a certain type of 21st-century intellectual nothing matters so much as being “true to yourself”. Perhaps they see Chelsea as a different person from the one who perpetrated the leaks? Or one who only did it under identity duress? In any case those who celebrate Manning should reflect on the likelihood that in the long run her position in the Trans battle will prove about as useful as Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt were in the fight for gay rights.


We hear a lot about Francophiles and Russophiles, but I would like to start a movement of Holland-ophiles. Every time I visit the country I feel as though I’ve visited a place very slightly more advanced, for good and ill, than any other. This year I was asked to speak in a castle outside Amsterdam at a summer school for a group of remarkable young students: once on my recent book and twice on my enthusiasms; I ended up giving two lectures on T.S. Eliot.  Crucibles of learning like this are always a deep pleasure for anyone mired in the commoner ends of the culture wars. But these intelligent and delightful students were enough to cause serious hope.

As was what happened one afternoon in Amsterdam. While I was finishing lunch with friends a left-wing politician known for his strong stances on Islam and immigration strolled past, recognised us and joined us. Everything this man has said would get him thrown out of the present British shadow cabinet. Yet he is not only an elected official but was coming from a meeting about a wholly different matter over which he has oversight. It is perfectly normal in Holland to recognise truths that our politicians in Britain and America continue to shy away from, yet still to have a life and continue living it.


Speaking of which, in a period when there is much criticism but little building, a short but important statement has been issued. “A Europe we can believe in” is a learned and deep restatement of European values, signed by a range of European historians and philosophers, including Sir Roger Scruton and Rémi Brague. It is available at the website and would reward anyone’s time.


Until September I had never been on a cruise or even an ocean crossing. But I accepted an invitation to speak on the Queen Mary 2 during a week-long voyage from Southampton to New York. The ship was fine, my travelling companions wonderful. But best was the opportunity to read on board a vessel where wi-fi was bankrupting if it existed at all. I took the opportunity to read novels and memoirs, including Michael Peppiatt’s Francis Bacon in Your Blood. Peppiatt’s biography of the artist made a great impression on me when I read it as a schoolboy. His latest (2015) is a more personal account, both harrowing and hilarious, of friendship with the artist. Reading it caused me to reflect not only on Peppiatt’s changing relationship with Bacon but on the reader’s relationship with him. I suspect that the art as well as the table-talk of Bacon impressed me more as a teenager than it does now. But if a case can be made for the greatness of (and point of returning to) Bacon, then this Boswell makes it.


If there had been occasional longueurs over the preceding week, arriving in New York more than justified this method of arrival. Seeing the Statue of Liberty loom up in the early-morning light was for centuries how people escaping the politics and problems of their native lands first saw this city and continent. I feel rather privileged to have even briefly joined their ranks.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"