Discover more from The Ruffian
The Ruffian: Launch Episode
Hello everyone and thanks for being early adopters of The Ruffian.
Ep.1 might be a little uneven due to all the exposition required but stick with it, by the time we get to ep. 3 of season 4, things will really be hotting up.
The Ruffian will be a weekly(ish) compendium of:
a) Things I've found interesting that week (though not necessarily from that week): articles, papers, video, music books, podcasts, plus the movie I see on my annual trip to the cinema.
b) Things I've written, and anything interesting I'm doing.
c) Things what I've been thinking - brief and roughly drawn thoughts on whatever's going on in the world or in my head.
So a little like my Twitter feed, but with extra stuff and all in your inbox.
ARTICLE (BY WAY OF A BOOK)
This week, let's start with spies. The book that has given me the most reading pleasure this year is a work of popular history: Ben McIntyre's A Spy Among Friends, the story of Kim Philby. The only bland thing about it is the title; the book takes the breath away on almost every page. The portrait of Philby - who was admired, adored, revered by just about everyone who knew him, even as he was betraying all of them - is unforgettable. The espionage stories are plentiful and enthralling and colourful as any fiction (they really did sit on park benches with a copy of The Times waiting for their handler to turn up). Above all, you get a rich picture of mid-twentieth-century Britain's upper class establishment: charming, incestuous, complacent, and absolutely sodden with booze. The book includes a wonderful afterword by John Le Carré, which brings me to what prompted this: the New York Times has arranged a conversation between McIntyre and Le Carré, to publicise Le Carré's new book (he's still going strong at 85). It's a fascinating chat and includes a brief but acute discussion of Trump and Russia.
Rahm Emanuel interviewed by David Axelrod is a great listen. It's like a history of the last 25 years of American politics in one hour, including pen portraits of Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Obama (Emanuel worked in the Clinton White House and was Obama's first Chief of Staff; he's now Mayor of Chicago). Plus the irrepressible, driven, funny, spiky presence of Emanuel himself, and the story of his incredible family.
Russ Roberts interviewing the linguist John McWhorter about how words change over time is a must-listen if you're a bit of a language nerd. It includes a thought provoking discussion of whether we're watching Shakespeare the wrong way. So many of the words in the plays have changed their meaning completely since Shakespeare's time, so either they fly over our heads or, worse, we think we understand them when we don't (in King Lear, Edmund says he's generous; he doesn't mean he's unselfish). So why not perform a sensitively updated text? You wouldn't watch Chekhov in Russian, unless you're a Russian speaker. McWhorter (who is anything but a philistine) makes the argument better than me. Once you've listened to it, read this great counterpoint.
Speaking of which I went to Hamlet, directed by Robert Icke, last week, and it was the best Hamlet I've ever seen, possibly the best Shakespeare I've ever seen. It includes liberal use of Bob Dylan songs which was a bonus (although in the end, much I enjoyed the songs, I thought it was an artistic mistake; the voices clashed). If you've been to see it or if you want to know what the fuss was about there's a very good (long) discussion of the production here.
This got overshadowed by Harvey but it was a really extraordinary moment in American politics (yes I know there's one of those every week but still): here's the American secretary of state saying, very clearly and very deliberately, that the president of America does not speak for America. Wow. Tillerson is the greatest disappointment of this administration, albeit only because I actually held out some hope that he would be OK. As it turns out, he's been a bonus disaster in Trump's great catastrophe circus. But even so, I quite enjoyed the SO-FIRE-ME truculence with which he delivered this message.
I liked this thread from the economics blogger Noah Smith. It touches on something I've been thinking on a lot over the last year or so, because I think it helps make sense of our crazy politics: the difference between status inequality (the distribution of respect) and economic inequality (the distribution of income/wealth). The former is a better explainer for what's going on than the latter. (I wrote about it here.) In his thread Noah argues that this is a better lens on US social tensions than identity politics.
I'll be using the word 'fascinating' a lot in this newsletter, so this, from T.J. Clark's essay on Picasso's Guernica in the LRB (paywalled), is good to know:
The belonging together of ecstasy and antipathy, or fixation and bewilderment – elation, absurdity, self-loss, panic, disbelief – is basic to Picasso’s understanding of sex, and therefore of human life au fond. And the very word ‘fascination’ speaks to the normality of the intertwining: its Latin root, fascinus, means simply ‘erect penis’.