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REVIEW The Mint by T. E. Lawrence

When I was small my grandfather, who had been in the newly created Royal Air Force under Trenchard from about 1921, used to refer to the time when a stranger turned up at their barracks and they were told simply to treat him as a private, the lowest of the low, even though it was clear he was a man of considerable experience and education.

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Private Ross ended up being exposed as T E Lawrence, creator of most the borders of the Middle East, and a figure who was already, even then, well on the way to being a legend in his own lifetime at Lawrence of Arabia. I was too young to quiz my granddad on what Ross had been like. The only thing I can recall him telling me now is that Lawrence struck him as aloof and standoffish.

Riffling through a bookshop in, of all places, Broadstairs last week, I came across The Mint (Penguin 1978), Lawrence’s own account of his time as this lowly, anonymous functionary who worked beside my grandfather. The big surprise is that the work is so foul mouthed. It isn’t hard to see how impossible it was to publish it in his lifetime. The profanities clog up each page, giving it an oddly contemporary feel.

The other point is just how little it really helps in explaining why such an accomplished linguist, strategist and diplomat should have sought this particular route of self-abnegation. Lawrence does explicitly refer to the repressed homosexuality of a lot of his colleagues in the barracks (something my grandfather, which his pre-enlightened views would have no doubt found horrifying). But on the whole he talks about a world of severe solitude at least enjoyed with some other bodies around you. His point made at the end of one chapter that carnality didn’t run easily beside the daily sight of others being dirty, being force marched, and generally being abused is a forceful one.

This is a grim world that he portrays – one of the outer circles of hell where all the inhabitants have some hidden horrors in their former lives they are running from – or at least think they are. It is a very much easier to read book than the interminable Seven Pillars of Wisdom which needs copious maps, name lists and chronologies to make much sense of, and never really lives up to the promise of its amazing title. in short, curt paragraphs, this brings a reader just a little closer to the enigma of this man who always seems to be fleeing something, even to the time he died going to fast on his motorbike in the mid 1930s in, of all places, Dorset.

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REVIEW Second-Hand Time

Like most of the rest of the human race that took notice, the announcement last year that the Belorussian journalist Svetlana Alexievich had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature left me totally clueless as to who she was and what she had written. Since then, I’ve managed to read through her account published in the 1990s of participants and their families who took part in the Soviet Union war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and now the rather more epic Second-Hand Time, just published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

At almost 700 pages, this is a long book to wade through. But it reads quite easily, despite the uncompromising content of some of the interviews. One in particular stayed with me—the account by the mother of a woman who died in Chechnya after volunteering to be a police woman. Like other petitioners in China, this individual had made it her life mission to find out what had happened to her daughter, despite being brutally beaten back by almost every official she had quizzed. One gets the feeling that somewhere in the world, this mother is still pursuing her quest—and still getting frustrated. A very sad story, but all too common.

There is a saying from Hungary, which goes “What is the one thing worse than Communism?” with the answer “What comes after it.” In some senses, Alexievich’s verbatim accounts from people over the last two decades reflecting on the fall of the Soviet Union testify to this. There is the odd expression of (very transient) admiration for Yeltsin, largely scathing accounts of Gorbachev as some traitorous gadfly who was one thing abroad and another at home, but on the whole pretty universal negativity about what happened post 1991. One section of the book talks about the suicide of one of the great generals from the Soviet era who simply couldn’t bear to see what was happening to the country he fought for from the age of seventeen. These sort of stories are not ones we often hear in the West, with its addiction to the story of how democracy triumphed over tyranny in Russia. The most sobering aspect of some of the voices and their stories is how positive the evaluations of Stalin are—even from people who had direct experience of the Great Terror in the 1930s.

Reading a book like this really helps to at least understand why in China there is so much skepticism about the introduction of a more pluralistic, post-Communist order. I imagine that were a Chinese politburo leader to look through this book, they would feel it completely reinforced their convictions that following the path of the Soviet Union would be hurtling towards perdition. And on the evidence of Alexievich’s writing, it would be hard to disagree with them.

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REVIEW Mirror, Mirror: The Use and Abuse of Self-Love

Anyone who has managed to avoid being decapitated by one of those selfie sticks while wading through crowds of tourists around some of the main sites in London (or any other metropolitan centre for that matter) has no doubt reflected on one of the more obvious side effects of the new culture of social media – narcissism. If they have, then I could not recommend more highly Simon Blackburn’s Mirror, Mirror: The Use and Abuse of Self-Love (Princeton 2014) – this link is to the publisher’s website.

Blackburn is formerly Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge. From my memories of the remorselessly dry, analytic approach that most of the philosophers took when studying there three decades ago, it is a wonder that, while coming from this stable, he has been able to write such lucid, engaging and, frankly, very human books. But they are also rigorous, profoundly learned, and, in the end, oddly healing.

This treatment starts with the myth of Narcissus but makes the sound, but perhaps under-appreciated point that self-love,as the ancient Greek story shows, has eternal dissatisfaction built into it. Narcissus reaches out to his own image which he has fallen in love with, only to have his hand shatter its calm reflection on the water surface. The same goes for the sorts of images that Blackburn then moves onto in commercial culture – he writes, in particular, about the L’Oreal campaign with its dreadful slogan `Because you’re worth it’, commenting that the original was apparently going to be the even worse `Because I am worth it’. That, he writes, typifies the sort of self-contained, cold, unreciprocating nature of a lot of images in advertising – things that demand to be looked at, but never, he says, to look back. The message is simple. We need them, they do not need us. That itself denies the fundamental need for responsiveness, dialogue and recognition in any human relationship. No wonder one of the most pertinent critiques of capitalism and consumerism is that their default is to create appetites and hungers, but never to appease them.

Because Blackburn is such an accomplished philosopher, he can write well about morality without becoming moralising. And the final few pages of his book are extraordinary, because, without being remotely patronising, they congratulate the reader for having reached this far into the work and being willing to engage, and think, about these profound problems of self-value, self worth and self-love in a cultural environment where they have become detached from self-knowledge, with its need for appraisal, recognition of contingency, limitations, failures. It is really helpful to have a public intellectual use their immense learning and wisdom to contribute to what is very definitely a vastly important public debate. And much of what Blackburn states is highly prescient, including an eerily powerful section halfway through the book about disdain for facts and expertise – something that has only intensified since 2013 when this book must have been written, and seems to have come to its Armageddon in the dismal EU referendum campaign in the UK, and the equally squalid and awful president election now underway in America.