Howard W French on power

Howard W French (writing about China’s activities in the South China Sea), Guardian 28 July 2015: I had been led to believe that my host [Wu Shicun, director of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies] was mightily busy, but as our conversation got under way, the impression one got in his formal, clutter-free office could not have been more different. In a meeting that lasted more than an hour, we were not interrupted, and never once did Wu check any devices for messages.

This is a depressing description of how powerful people are obliged to seem. (French’s implication is that Mr Wu is not powerful because he does not do these things.) Where I work, things have not yet reached this stage.

Interest rates in 12th century Novgorod

Eric Christiansen, The Northern Crusades (second edition, 1997): The Russian princes insisted that, if a Russian borrower went bankrupt, his foreign creditors were to get satisfaction first, and that rates of interest for long-term loans should be low, to suit the long-distance trader, who would have to travel far before he got a return on the money he had borrowed.

I wonder what he means by “low”.

Somewhere in Steven Pinker’s “The better angels of our nature” is English data showing that land rents relative to purchase costs have declined over the centuries.

On monolingualism

Richard Hough, Captain James Cook (1994) – encountering the Hawaiian islands (the first European encounter) during Cook’s third expedition, 1778: There was only one language of the Pacific that the sailors had learned, most to the extent of a few words, others like Jem Burney with fluency. Burney was the first to call down to the men in the nearest canoe: ‘What is the name of your island?’ To his astonishment he was immediately told. The sailors then tried out words they had used frequently in New Zealand, the Society Islands and Easter Island, such as sweet potatoes, breadfruit, hogs and even different sorts of fish. 

There was little wonder among these Hawaiians that these visitors spoke their language. They had never heard any language but their own.

I visited western Kenya a couple of years ago. It appeared that everyone spoke Swahili and their tribal language. Many spoke English too.

Iain Sinclair on technology and cities

Iain Sinclair quoted by Philip Clark, Spectator 18 July 2015: The need people had to make a physical journey from the suburbs into, for instance, Soho because they were into this particular kind of music, these clothes or books – travelling between constricted suburbia and these apparent freedoms at the centre – those journeys of inward motion no longer exist. Now everything is connected with everything else; every place is like another.

I remember going in to Manchester to buy singles. Even HMV had that feeling.

Ryszard Kapuściński on nationalism

Ryszard Kapuściński, Imperium (1993, tr. Klara Glowczewska 1994):


“Please forgive me, but I will speak a bit nationalistically.” She is very amusing, this pugnacious Azerbaijani girl, who on the one hand knows that nationalism is a forbidden fruit and on the other cannot resist the temptation. We are standing over a relief map of Central Asia, and she wants to show me how great Azerbaijan once was (this is what she regards as a bit of nationalism). I tell her that her desire to present to me the Great Yesterday is a universal impulse in today’s world. Wherever one goes, in each country people will boast about how far their ancestors had once reached… Fortunately, if one looks at the history of humanity, it turns out that every nation, in one epoch or another, has had its period of swelling and broadening, at least one patriotic spurt, which today allows it to preserve a certain – admittedly relative – psychic balance among the rest of mankind.

This rings true to me as an Englishman.