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Trouble at t’Mill

The curious life of John Stuart Mill, philosopher

When JS Mill was born, his father, James, challenged a friend to ‘race with you in the education of… the most accomplished and virtuous young man.’ That other child has not gone down in history – but he may well have dodged a serious bullet.

Learning Greek at 3, writing a history of Rome at 6, and tutoring his own siblings from the age of 8, Mill’s childhood became synonymous with intellectual hothouse upbringings.

Groomed to be the strict Utilitarian offspring of his father and Jeremy ‘greatest happiness’ Bentham (Mill’s mother, Harriet, goes resoundingly unmentioned in his Autobiography), he was prevented from associating with kids his own age, permanently off-games, and woken up at 5am to work unpaid on James’s History of British India. If mistakes were made, he got no lunch.

Some of his father’s peers expressed concern – while those merely impressed were kept away from him in case he got a big head. Mill was occasionally allowed such treats as Don Quixote, or Joyce’s Scientific Dialogues; but reading poetry was banned, despite the fact the family had once lived in John Milton’s cottage.

At 14 he took a gap year (as well one might), which he spent hobnobbing with French politicians, and taking university courses in chemistry, zoology, and higher maths. (It was noted, though, he could not comb his hair or tie a tie.) Back in England, he was arrested for distributing frank family-planning literature in poorer areas, and by the age of 20 he had nothing left to do but have his mid-life crisis.

In the circumstances, it is amazing that Mill turned out not merely functional but, in the assessment of one recent biographer, ‘the greatest public intellectual in the history of Britain – and perhaps even the world.’

With the help of Wordsworth’s poetry (indeed), he began to distance himself from the Utilitarians, deciding he should worry less about ‘the greatest happiness’ in the doctrinal sense and more about his – and others’ – personal freedom and bog-standard contentment.

Already educated beyond university, and almost employability, Mill purposely took an untaxing clerical job with the East India Company (he finished work round 1pm), and embarked on the enormous side-career of earnest political journalism that would make his name: or, in Edward ‘Clerihew’ Bentley’s wry summary, ‘By a mighty effort of will, / Overcame his natural bonhomie / And wrote Principles of Political Economy‘.

A unembarrassed ‘elitist democrat’, Mill believed that people could and should govern themselves, in the interests both of personal choice and broader social improvement, free from the tyrannies of law or majoritarian social attitudes – but that The People needed education and constraint. His faith in parliamentary democracy was not unqualified.

Individuals should be free to act as they wished, unless it would cause harm to others. ‘Offence’, NB, did not count as ‘harm’. In fact free speech was critical, for airing of minority opinions and for bringing questionable views into contact with better ones.

As an indication of the currency of these and other high-minded attitudes, when he was 31 The Spectator included Mill in a fantasy (sic) radical cabinet, though he was not even a politician.

Politically and personally, he was probably a hard man to be friends with. He viewed Coleridge as a poetic hero, but also an ‘arrant driveller’ on economic matters. Macaulay he called a ‘dwarf’, and Carlyle a ‘true voice for the Devil’ – an amity not defrosted by his maid using the only copy of Carlyle’s French Rev vol.1 to light the fire (cf. Blackadder).

He found eccentricity preferable to uniformity and stagnation, and his fallings out with former allies were almost always over their perceived political inflexibility. He had a marked penchant for killing heroes, including, famously, Bentham himself.

Pensioned off after the East India Company’s disbandment, Mill was finally at liberty to put his money where his professional mouth had been for over 40 years. In 1865 the titanic philosopher became a Liberal MP, by the unusual expedient of admitting at the hustings that he had called his working class would-be constituents ‘habitual liars’ (much cheering).

In a typically idiosyncratic and principled career, he prophesied the environmental dangers of unchecked economic development, but referred to the abolition of the death penalty as ‘effeminacy’; he continued to argue against the ‘tyranny of the majority’ in domestic politics, but was at peace with ‘despotism’ (his word) when it came to British rule in, e.g., India; he suggested learned folks should have more votes than the uneducated, but was the first man to bring a parliamentary vote on women’s suffrage.

He was, perhaps surprisingly, willing to compromise in the name of practical governance; but interested neither in party politics nor in ministerial advancement, he used the Commons as a pulpit to speak on as-yet-hopelessly-unpopular progressive issues. Having wound up Conservatives and Liberals alike, he lost his seat just three years later.

In 1851 he’d married Harriet (NB) Taylor, with whom he had been spending considerable time – ‘platonically’ – for decades, notwithstanding, and sometimes in, the presence of her husband (alive and, well, unstimulating). Alas for Mill, she died in 1858, but such was the impact, both morally and intellectually, of ‘the most admirable person I had ever known,’ that he dedicated much of the final phase of his life to the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, recruiting Florence Nightingale (originally sceptical) and being hailed by Millicent Fawcett as the ‘principal originator of the women’s movement.’

And so, while Bentham sat in state in his ‘auto-icon’ pickle-jar at UCL, Mill died an outsider, thrown out of one last club just months before his death, for his outspoken views on land redistribution.

Despite Monty Python‘s slanderous assertion that Mill became particularly ill on half a pint of shandy, it was actually a skin disorder what got him: erysipelas, or ‘holy fire’ (fittingly or otherwise, for an avowed agnostic in the former papal state of Avignon). He went to his grave believing his life had been ‘uneventful’, leaving one stepdaughter, Helen, and one godson (surely not the mot juste), Bertrand Russell.

For (the prototype edition of) Smith magazine

You want appease of me?!

The Hitler Years: Triumph 1933-1939
by Frank McDonough
Head of Zeus £30

In the early- to mid-1930s my grandmother (Irish, South African, later Australian) lived for a few years in the east of Germany, as a language assistant/housemistress in a boarding school. Her one recorded comment about Hitler’s accession to power was that he put an end to the suffering of an awful lot of German people.

I strongly doubt she hated Jews, or that she was a reckless war-monger (a decade on, her husband would be sent to Abyssinia). She simply recognised that the country was in an absolute mess – politically incontinent, almost bankrupt, starvation looming in the rural areas (for the remaining 60-odd years of her life she drank her tea black, a habit inculcated during those times of acute shortages). Strong solutions were called for – by both left wing and right – and Adolf Hitler seemed to be providing them.

She was not alone in these straightforward views.

The Hitler Years: Triumph 1933-1939 (part one of Frank McDonough’s two-book project on the disgruntled former corporal’s time as Führer) makes it abundantly clear that ‘even if Hitler had never come to power Germany would probably have had a right-wing nationalist coalition during this period.’ This would have had the backing of the humiliated German military, would almost certainly have demanded to renegotiate the Versailles Treaty, and would probably have gained the sympathy of the political classes in England and France, particularly when they were threatened with the alternative (purportedly) of Communism.

Hitler did not create the conditions that enabled his rise, and he fed, however cynically, on genuine – even legitimate – national grievances. He was appointed to the Chancellorship quite constitutionally (pundits both local and foreign not seeing this as any kind of fundamental moment), and his rule began as, and for a long while remained, a necessary and supportive coalition of the Nazi party, upper-class politicos, the army, the civil service and big business.

The reality is that he successfully won over most of the German population to his major public plans, so while all the now-familiar hallmarks of Nazi rule (book-burning, purges, camps, violent anti-Semitism) emerged in some form almost immediately, the German people had – at best – already capitulated. As Hitler himself said in a 1937 interview: “A government like ours could never stay in power without the will of the people to support it.”

But Triumph is the more interesting for pushing back against the cartoon of Hitler as all-conquering monster/supermensch, instead demonstrating the slow creep of the Nazi state takeover, the caution with which Hitler had to move, the resistance that he often faced, and his surprising and instinctive flexibility.

Challenges to his outright authority came from his own ranks (Ernst Röhm), political superiors (von Papen), economic circumstances, and the church (Lutheran as well as Catholic). Criticism was neither unheard of nor unheard. In 1935 the party was complaining that Hitler seemed to have relaxed his persecution of the Jews (he had, for diplomatic reasons), and his generals were outspoken about the country’s unpreparedness for war. As late as 1939 some of the high command were even plotting to arrest him (though, y’know… they didn’t).

So Hitler was also simply lucky. In any case – one must grimly conclude – from the German/Nazi/Hitlerian viewpoint, from 1933 to 1939, almost nothing went wrong. (The rest is volume two: Catastrophe).

All well and good (non sic); but did we really need another book about the Nazis?

With its no-nonsense chronological account, ‘immense readability’ (see press release), and, of course, parade of fascinating details, Triumph is essentially an undergrad primer on pre-war Germany, albeit a handsome one, decked out in appropriately-ominous black and red, and nicely illustrated (look: some ‘ordinary Germans’ pointing and laughing in the aftermath of Kristallnacht).

Avowedly for the ‘general reader’, however, the book has just a six-page introduction to cover all things relevant pre-1933, whereafter McDonough cannot seem to decide whether this is the first book that his reader will have read on Nazi Germany (‘Hitler, who had been an artist in his youth…’ [p311]) or if he should already know the details of the Locarno Pact.

The text is not flawless, either technically or stylistically (Hindenburg’s son Oskar is mentioned, by name, six times in half a paragraph), and McDonough’s ‘blow-by-blow’ approach inclines towards stolidity and repetition. There are also strange anachronisms (someone described as Göring’s ‘line-manager’, for heaven’s sake).

Finally, the book makes no important claims to access/info/revelations we’ve not heard before, and yet announces (press release again) that the completed, two-vol. publication will constitute ‘a definitive history of the Third Reich’. At this point, frankly, that seems optimistic.

For The Oldie


There are more kilts in London than in Scotland.

The Nelson Evening Mail, Thursday, May 9 1907

At 45% of the population, white Christians are a shrinking demographic in America.

Hermal eggings are so leek.

No sensitive person would choose to be the historian of the Irish asylums in the first part of the last century.

Spinoza fucks Hegel up the arse.

Carol Drinkwater has just enjoyed a nice glass of Rioja.

WG Grace achieved 83 ducks in his first-class career. One man alone - Shaw (A.) - clean bowled him 20 times, and six times Grace hit his own wickets.

Smak is full of natural goodness.

Poet Laureate Robert Southey was once elected to parliament without his knowledge, while on holiday.

During the Russian Revolution, some people named their daughters ‘Terrora’.

Satire and humour are more common among royalists.

A trifle can do you a lot of harm.

Goldfish pheromones were discovered by accident.

Only in the English language is there the phrase ‘too clever by half’.


The Government of India collects about £7,000,000 from the sale of opium.

The Nelson Evening Mail, Thursday, July 19 1906

Jacob Zuma is the only black South African president never to lift the rugby world cup.

At Morrisons, your opinion gets rewarded with a £500 voucher.

Vegetarianism, which is based on false hypotheses and ideas, does not have followers in the Soviet Union.

Property blinds all eyes.

You must be prepared to stabilise if you need to excavate earth.

Apples don’t have daddies.

Only humans know that trees are beautiful.

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is appearing at the CENS Workshop on Understanding and Countering Online Falsehoods and Influence Operations.

Necessity, Manitoba, has a population of 1,230 souls.

Almost everyone is happy to accept the cookies.

The lion-keepers at Dublin Zoo have a remarkable record in breeding lion cubs.

Gustav Mahler wrote the Kindertotenlieder before any of his own children died.

Basketball is not an interesting sport.


During one year a high police official in New York was offered £120,000 in bribes to “look the other way.”

The Nelson Evening Mail, Tuesday, June 22 1909

The night is chilly to a man without clothes.

You get a free tote bag if you subscribe to almost anything.

Sussex folk have few superstitions.

There are four benefits to sleeping with a garlic clove under your pillow.

Half a ducat is what monarchs pay their whores.

Only one man ever shook Thomas Mann’s hand.

The English have always been uniquely torn.

There is an Irish cricketer named after Pocahontas.

Towns are attractive to the discontented.

Glasgow University is stamping out rabies.

Elephants use their long noses to climb trees (but only when nobody’s looking).

Because the Lonely Planet says it, doesn’t make it so.

The great game is finished when everyone is dead.

Master class

An evening with Kumar Sangakkara.

For the Sri Lankan Sunday Times


The diamond, in sufficient heat, will burn like a piece of charcoal.

The Nelson Evening Mail, Saturday, November 17 1906

Podcasts will soon be like porn.

The first three volumes of TS Eliot’s letters have been remaindered.

Confidence travels.

The door is a jar.

Roken is dodelijk.

Humans’ rubbish is the filthiest stuff there is.

The workmen’s compensation court is a small building.

Firemen and violinists have soup for supper.

A pack of veggie snacks weighs the same as one standard British Army rifle round.

Pink isn’t a very good colour for a football shirt.

Turkish dictionaries are half the size of Ottoman ones.

It is possible to commit mass murder and still die peacefully in one’s old age.

For elephants, follow the A4108.


The King has a collection of 170 curious walking sticks. One is made from one of the piles of old London Bridge.

The Nelson Evening Mail, Wednesday, April 10 1907

All the best people are born in October.

In Moldova (and Czechoslovakia), ‘carp’ is spelled ‘crap’.

In 1492 Native Americans discovered Columbus lost at sea.

Exultant language is reserved for the mountains.

Ye cannae shove yer granny off the bus.

You can get syphilis through wooden spoons.

Real men wear real clothes.

Termite baiting is currently in progress.

Max Hastings is the author of 27 books, most about conflict.

Not all of Mozart’s paintings were perfect.

Scotland have been knocked out of the Rugby World Cup.

One of the known properties of honey is that it drips.

Some Russian villages purposely elect the village idiot.

Briefs from the field

Sunday August 11th 2019

‘Remarkably few ‘keepers have become captains; and many of those who have have quickly given up the job.’
— Mike Brearley, The Art of Captaincy

On strict assurance that he was about to leave the country, the Chairman, Selectors, and Life Members/Platinum Donors Circle of the Rain Men CC collegially thrust the almond-scented chalice of captaincy at your present correspondent, for his final, as it were, run-out. His first act was to press-gang a competent vice captain, N Pool.

This is the East Hants game that Marcus every year says will be played ‘in Bumble’s back garden’; which is completely true, except it’s more like his manorial lands, the whole place is entirely unsignposted and satnav-proof (‘Guy Burgess country’ ©A Doggett-Jones), the ‘garden’ is an impeccably-mown field, off a farm track off a private lane around the corner from a deeply private school (#XMen more like), and hidden even then behind the log piles, garages of classic cars and clubhouse big enough to host wood-burner, hunting trophies, vintage F1 kit, and bespoke toilet poetry. Oh, and said bloke ain’t the actual Bumble. But apart from all that…

We were on time. Almost. And even had a crowd – comprising Marcus, Sam, Amelia and Martha… to say nothing of the dog, who filled in at deep extra cover for the first few overs.

Overwhelmed by the responsibility, the captain promptly lost the toss, but White Hunters agreed to bat first, anyway: the format a match of 70 over total (and you thought you’d seen everything…!), enabling the declaration, draw, and all that jazz, plus local rule of not-out-first-ball which their captain said he was sometimes slightly embarrassed to offer opponents but which Smyth, mindful of how some people get a lot of golden ducks, said would suit us just fine thankyouverymuch.

D Brook, in his first appearance of the year, gamely let himself be volunteered to start the bowling, and plans hatched earlier in the week (gasp!) saw P Reidy stationed at mid-off, to which their opener promptly slapped the first ball. Initially appearing to pouch an absolute sitter, Reidy clearly then recalled the first-ball business, and dismissively allowed the ball to hit the ground.

Thus notified, their No.1 fell anyway to a comfortable catch by D Owen (the only kind he knows, apparently), all part of Brook’s extremely economical 7 overs for just 9 runs. The No.2 went to a sharp run-out (also from Owen). And thus strode to the crease the dark-haired Morgan-Grenville – the first of two or three handsome young spunkers in this team who like to spice things up by playing ‘Name That Tree’ before they heave their 6s into it.

Our would-be-nemesis began despatching it to all parts… and never stopped, Pool and S Sutton manfully absorbing the worst part of the onslaught. Our fielding was actually quite reasonable (above ground, at least), but M-G 1 needed no help to take his opportunities, and by the time he switched to left-hand just to be sure he could hit good clean boundaries that way too, Pool, at what was suddenly mid-off, felt he might as easily admire the strokeplay from the comfort of the grass.

Unbloodied and emphatically unbowed, Morgan-Grenville was graciously recalled to the dressing room on 51 (alas! we shall not see his like again, etc.), whereon one might have thought our luck would start to turn.

At this point, though, the oppo asked what might be ‘sensible’ to aim for, re ‘making a game of it’: 170? 180…? We said 150 might prove quite competitive – but, inexplicably, they did not seem convinced. They also raised the as-yet-undiscussed issue of bowlers being limited to 7 overs, which scoffers, naysayers and milquetoasts of all stripes had feared could pose a problem for us. Sensing our difficulty (ha!), they then withdrew this stipulation; but we agreed the only gentlemanly way though this slight awkwardness was now to demonstrate our veritable smorgasbord of strength in depth.

Step forth gallantly T Russell.
…….“Bowler’s name?”
…….“As in ‘Bertrand’,” quoth he, rolling his Rs, his eyes, and his sleeves up. He took 3 wickets off his ‘allotted’ 7, including two steeplers which held up in the wind to the advantage of Sutton and a one-handed running grab from Pool at mid-wicket. Russell also took a catch off F Peckham, who was in turn relieved by Doggett-Jones (2 overs for only 7 runs), then joined in the attack (‘…’) by D Fenton, released at last from his grim posting downwind and at the bottom of the slope. He held the line with an extremely creditable 2-0-6-1 (caught behind), while Doggett-Jones relieved himself beneath the conker tree.

Also making his/its season debut, T Russoff’s ‘broad church’ bowling (it’s where he practises?) was, in the circs, unlucky not to claim a wicket. There was the matter, too, of his blown run-out, Owen – having secured his own first, mind – genially offering that the wicketkeeper might have hit the sticks so hard that the ball was not in his gloves at the point of contact (Russoff himself levelly remarking that if the keeper had left the ball entirely alone the Arm of the Lord™ might well have flattened them directly).

At 140-ish for 8 it had seemed possible that we might hold them to a manageable total. Inevitably, though, the remaining gun bats now came in (M-G 2 and Schooler, remembered from his Dulwich College 1st XI kit last year), and proceeded to swash and buckle their way through approx. another 50 runs.

All but one White Hunter having reached double-figures, they declared, amid a few raised eyebrows (and after exactly half the overs), on 195-7. The tea included Skittles – which we chose not to interpret as some pass-agg mindgame.

The captain had but one instruction for his ten Rain Men and true: to smash a six off every first ball – if only, really, to see what might happen.

What happened is that no-one tried it.

Russell was clean-bowled (philosophically) in just the second over, and Doggett-Jones fell shortly after him. Both Davids were now at the crease, though, which boded well, especially once Owen started clipping casual maxima into the woods. His reward, alas, was some debilitating back pain, and he was stumped, most uncharacteristically, and on ‘only’ 29 runs (our second highest), taking a hefty swing at something that was – how to put it? – not there. Brook too was batting fluidly, until a “no-yes-no” mishap, remarkably reminiscent of this same fixture last year, sent him back to the pavilion on an unusually low score.

The Hon. Capt. was welcomed to the crease with a face-height no-ball that he had just enough time and survival instinct to flail over the slips for 4. (The bowler did concede that it was probably a 5.) But, a golden duck having been howsoever Jesuitically avoided, he thus opted for Set Menu B: the familiar series of near-edges, agricultural hoiks, and the essential dropped catch – in this case to the tune of “Oh, bollocks…!” as the ball carved gently and magnetically towards deep backward square… only for the poor fielder to be blinded by the early-evening sun at the right instant.

When Smyth was undone by – natch – a straight ball, we had well over half the runs required, and half our wickets in hand. Or, viewed another way, we had six batsmen left, and perhaps no more than six overs to trouble them.

But Rain Men aren’t renowned for riding out inevitable, boring draws without them getting just a *bit* exciting.

Sutton went for a duck, and Pool followed not long after with an edge to slip. Fenton chose this strategically crucial time to boost his averages, clubbing away a couple of healthy fours before obligingly taking on an unproblematic ball about a yard outside off stump and dinking it to M-G 1 at mid-on. And behold, suddenly blood was in the water, and White Hunters needed two wickets to win.

The opening attack returned – but sadly for them their efforts were, quite literally, misdirected, a dozen immaculate away-swingers coming down like the wolf upon the fold in first slip’s flannels. (If only they had thought to aim, er, at the stumps.) Under a barrage of ‘encouragement’ from the fielding side, Peckham displayed the sang froid of a Victorian statue, and Reidy – under categorically unambiguous direction from his teammate – was obliged to put the willow on the leather just once.

And then, with two balls to go, it was no longer possible for them to win. It’s not the done thing, I’m sure, for the square-leg umpire to be seen punching the air; but there we have it. With Russoff d.n.b., we’d clinched the ‘moral victory’* by a parson’s nose.

We repaired, all in good sporting humour, to the Thos. Lord pub, in West Meon, where, high on the fumes of having locked in a better all-time captaincy record than S Rose, I could have sworn I saw a diorama of dead woodland animals above the bar, playing a cricket match.

* We came joint second by exactly 60 runs. Or ten 6s, NB, in your old money

Islamic cities

Review of Justin Marozzi’s Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization.

For Geographical