Sunday in Mexico

The bells toll the faithful to early morning mass as I venture out into the bright but still cold dawn in the centre of Queretaro. In the broad, empty streets beside the Spanish baroque church I pass three indigenous women on their way to sell dolls in one of the central squares filled with trees, fountains, statues, and models of the devil, Noah, the Virgin Mary, the Three Kings, three elephants, a camel, and various animals, including a leopard. The women’s clothes are brightly coloured and capacious with white, red, green, and orange overlapping. They wear broad sombreros with coloured bands, and they are carrying baskets of dolls that are even more brightly coloured than them.Mexico.3

Mexico.1

A couple of hours later we hear from our room that looks over the central square the roar of motor bikes. From the balcony we see hundreds of motor bikes slowly circling the square. Cars are displaced. The mood is not ominous but cheerful. The drivers are not protesting but sharing their joy in motorbikes with each other and the watching crowds. After 10 minutes they are gone.

About an hour later we hear shouts of protest. From the balcony we see hundreds of protestors marching to music, holding banners, and chanting. Most are dressed in white and carry Mexican flags. We have no idea what they are protesting about.

After the sun goes down the square is filled with people, but the densest crowds are around the bandstand where a brass band plays jaunty Mexican music. All around the bandstand couples dance. Most are elderly, all are excellent dancers. As a new dance begins I see an elderly man with a large grey moustache go down on one knee to ask a much younger woman to dance. He reminds me of Don Quixote. She declines but accepts the proposal of another, not much younger, dancer. Undeterred Don Quixote asks another woman to dance. They dance slowly and beautifully.

We stand behind a row of seats and admire the dancers. As a new dance begins an elderly man of perhaps 80, again with a grey moustache, turns to Chicken and asks her to dance. She says she doesn’t know the dance. He says in English that he will teach her. Like a parachute jumper she accepts his offer. He places one firm hand on her shoulder and another behind her back and steers and instructs her: she does well. But then it becomes more complicated. He tells her to count to 11, and at some point they separate, dance side by side, and then he must twirl her round. This doesn’t go so well, but Chicken is pleased with herself for her courage—and I’m greatly impressed.

In Mexico anything can happen at any moment—and usually does.

Mexico.2

Graham Greene on how the proximity of death enhances life from “Travels with my Aunt.”

‘In a year,’ my aunt said, ‘what would you two have to talk about? She would sit over her tatting – I didn’t realize that anyone still tatted – and you would read gardening catalogues, and then when the silence was almost unbearable she would begin to tell you a story of Koffiefontein which you had heard a dozen times before. Do you know what you’ll think about when you can’t sleep in your double bed? Not of women. You don’t care enough about them, or you wouldn’t even consider marrying Miss Keene. You will think how every day you are getting a little closer to death. It will stand there as close as the bedroom wall. And you’ll become more and more afraid of the wall because nothing can prevent you coming nearer and nearer to it every night while you try to sleep and Miss Keene reads. What does Miss Keene read?’

‘You may be right, Aunt Augusta, but isn’t it the same everywhere at our age?’

‘Not here it isn’t. Tomorrow you may be shot in the street by a policeman because you haven’t understood Guaraní, or a man may knife you in a cantina because you can’t speak Spanish and he thinks you are acting in a superior way. Next week, when we have our Dakota, perhaps it will crash with you over Argentina….My dear Henry, if you live with us, you won’t be edging day by day across to any last wall. The wall will find you of its own accord without your help, and every day you live will seem to you a kind of victory. “I was too sharp for it that time,” you will say, when night comes, and afterwards you’ll sleep well.’

TravelsAuntPoster

“Psoriasis is my health”

To most doctors psoriasis is a disease to be fought, contained, and even cured, but is this far too narrow a view? John Updike, one of the greatest writers in English of the past century, had psoriasis for almost all his life, and he writes in Self-Consciousness: “Psoriasis is my health. Its suppression constitutes a poisoning of the system, of my personal ecology,” and “psoriasis is normal, and its suppression abnormal.” How can doctors who study disease and a patient who sees deep inside himself have such different views? The patient comes first, and so it is the doctors who must learn.

It would be too simple to say that Updike liked his psoriasis. He spent his life battling it and trying to conceal his scales. He felt himself to be a “monster” and it stopped him learning to swim until he was at Harvard, when it was humiliating not to be able to swim. He felt too that it was a “self-generated scandal.” But psoriasis kept him out of the army, for which he was grateful, even though he recognised that it “would handicap no killing skills.”

Updike developed psoriasis aged 6 in 1938, and his doctor—who himself had psoriasis and regretted that it stopped him being a surgeon—prescribed Siroil, which smelt and was useless. Updike then discovered the power of the sun, and for much of the rest of his life sought out the sun to clear his scales, even travelling to the Caribbean when it was winter in the United States. “My condition,” writes Updike, “forged a hidden link with things elemental—with the seasons, with the sun . . . ”

In the 1970s Updike was living in New England, close to the Ipswich beach that “cured” him in the summer, and so was one of the first to benefit from PUVA (psoralen plus ultraviolet A), which was developed at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Eventually, however, he suffered from photoxicity, which “feels like sunburn of the muscles” and which caused him to walk “like a Japanese woman.” So he was switched to methotrexate, which meant he couldn’t drink alcohol.

Updike believes, however, that his psoriasis was the making of him. He observes that Italians call it morbus fortiorum—“the disease of the stronger”—and writes:

Whenever in my life I have shown some courage and originality it has been because of my skin. Because of my skin, I counted myself out of any of those jobs—salesman, teacher, financier, movie star—that demanded being presentable. What did that leave? Becoming a craftsman of some sort, closeted and unseen—perhaps a cartoonist or a writer, a worker in ink who can hide himself and send out a surrogate presence, a signature that multiplies even while it conceals.

Why did I marry so young? Because, having once found a comely female who forgave me my skin, I dared not risk losing her and trying to find another. Why did I have children so young? Because I wanted to surround myself with people who did not have psoriasis. Why, in 1957, did I leave New York and my nice employment there? Because my skin was bad in the urban shadows, and nothing, not even screwing a sunlamp bulb into the bathroom socket above my bathroom mirror, helped. Why did I move, with all my family, all the way to Ipswich, Massachusetts? Because this ancient Puritan town happened to have one of the great beaches of the North East, in whose dunes I could, like a sin-soaked anchorite of old repairing to the desert, bake and cure myself.

Psoriasis “made him into a prolific, adaptable, ruthless enough writer.” It was the source of his creativity. “What was my creativity, my relentless need to produce but a parody of my skin’s embarrassing overproduction?” His thick skin allowed him to shrug off rejections. And “having so long carried a secret behind my clothes, I had no trouble with the duplicity that generates plots.” The dualism between his skin and himself appeared to him “the very engine of the human.”

Perhaps it’s too much to expect doctors treating patients with psoriasis to carry all these thoughts in their heads, but the great doctors are the ones who can begin to understand exactly how patients feel about their disease and adapt their management and conversation accordingly. This applies not only to psoriasis but to all conditions, especially perhaps mental health problems. Very few patients have Updike’s power to analyse and describe how they feel about their diseases, but that’s why it’s so important for doctors to read accounts like Updike’s. Anatole Broyard is another who has written deeply about his illness, proposing that “To get to my body, my doctor has to get to my character. He has to go through my soul.”

Writing his memoirs entitled Self-Consciousness, which were published in 1989, Updike imagined how he would become “too ill for all these demanding and perilous palliatives,” and how “the psoriasis like a fire smouldering in damp peat will break out and spread triumphantly; in my dying I will become hideous, I will become what I am.”

John Updike in 1986

Glimpses of Prime Ministers

Watching Harold Wilson in The Crown last night I remembered seeing him at an election rally in 1966 and reflected how I had caught at least a glimpse in the flesh of all the prime ministers since then (with one exception).

In 1966, when I was 14, I went with my mother to Eltham Green School, one of the first comprehensives, to see Harold Wilson. My parents always voted Labour, and voting Tory was unthinkable. It still is for me. I remember nothing of what Wilson said, but I do remember an energetic talk by Tony Benn in which he made the point that many things—the speed of communication, our capacity to kill people—had increased exponentially in the past 20 years. It was in 1963 that Wilson made his famous “white heat of technology” speech. https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2013/sep/19/harold-wilson-white-heat-technology-speech Benn’s speech left me with the impression that we had reached the limits of change, a wholly false impression—but my fault, not his.

I glimpsed Wilson again—in the Athaneum, a posh club—in, I guess, 1979. I was there with Stephen Lock, my predecessor as editor of the BMJ, and as I had had no jacket he’d had to tell the doorman, inspired by my Cockney accent with its Australian lilt, that I had just got off a plane from Sydney and my luggage had been lost. Wilson was at the next table. He died in 1995 after years of dementia.

Ted Heath I never saw, but I did see James Callaghan after he’d stepped down as Prime Minister. He was in the back row at a small meeting, and I hadn’t noticed him until he spoke. I can’t remember what the meeting was about or what he said. Callaghan died in 2005.

It was also after she stepped down that I saw Margaret Thatcher, at the only Queen’s garden party I ever attended (or ever want to attend). These parties are pointless affairs. One memory is the relative size of the crowd of people around the members of the royal family as they processed from the palace to the tea tent at the back of the garden: Princess Diana was mobbed, the Duke of Edinburgh alone. We chatted with the Bishop of Peterborough, who had a hospital for the criminally insane in his dioceses and was concerned about whether two inmates could be said to be married if they didn’t have sex. He had cigar ash down his purple cassock.

Margaret Thatcher walked past us at one point, and what struck us was how her make-up ended very visibly on her neck. They wouldn’t have allowed that, we thought, when she was Prime Minister. This was perhaps 1992; maybe she was already dementing. She died in 2013.

I’ve already written about my absurd meeting with John Major, the first (and only) prime minister I ever talked to one-on-one. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2018/05/21/absurd-meetings-with-famous-people-number-7-john-major/  I also met his mistress, Edwina Currie, in a television studio once; and I still giggle at her saying about their affair: “He was a perfect gentleman. When we had a bath together he always took the tap end.”

I didn’t ever talk to Tony Blair, but I was twice in a relatively small group with him in Downing Street. One of the meetings was about London’s universities coming together to pack a bigger global punch. I cynically asked Blair “Why it would happen this time when I had been at two previous meetings where the same intention was announced but it never happened.” He had an answer: “This time we have a process.”

Gordon Brown I knew at university when he was the editor of Student and I was the editor of Synapse, the medical school magazine. Indeed, I’d met him before when he represented the humanities faculty and me the medical faculty on the Senate-Student Representative Council Liaison Committee. I’d only been at the university a few weeks and was out of my depth. I never saw Brown when he was Prime Minister, but I met him once in a television studio and once in the Foreign Office.

I saw David Cameron with his wife and children in Tate Modern before he became Prime Minister, and I saw him talk at a conference at the Guildhall when he was Prime Minister. He answered questions with aplomb and wit, and the one thing I remember was him joking about Boris Johnson who had just been stuck on a wire in the air. “Only Boris,” he said, “could carry it off.”

Theresa May and I shared a platform together when she was an opposition MP. It never crossed my mind that she could ever be Prime Minister.

Boris Johnson I saw a few years ago speaking at a conference in Doha. He appalled the audience, which included some of the Qatari royal family, by cracking jokes about kissing the big lips of camels. I was amused rather than appalled by his talk, particularly a reference, which must have been lost on 95% of the international audience, to it being inevitable that Darwin would discover the theory of evolution because of all the strange beasts he’d see walking down Bromley High Street.

It took me some time, as it has taken others, to realise that Boris is malignant not a lovable buffoon. He, I fear, is almost certain to be our next Prime Minister.

Byron’s Don Juan: “an epic satire”

“My business,” writes Byron in Don Juan, “is to dress society, And stuff with sage that very verdant goose.” He called the poem “an epic satire.” It took him five years to write, and Shelley considered it the great poem of the age, greater than anything by Wordsworth or Goethe. Harold Bloom also thinks it Byron’s greatest poem but calls it “digressive, unfinished, and unfinishable.”

Byron has huge fun in the poem, poking fun at every topic from writing to women, death, love, marriage, truth, the sublime, and even climate change. I’ve been reading it in small does for months and have finally finished. Perhaps what I’ve enjoyed most is collecting together and even categorising quotes from the poem (see below).

I find it extraordinary that Byron could keep up the strict form, the metre, and the rhyming. It needed great ingenuity, and perhaps one source of the digressions was the need to find rhyming words. But the poem, which at times reads almost like doggerel with a joke in every last line, illustrates perhaps how the need to rhyme can lead you into some interesting places.

I won’t read the poem again, but I’m glad that I’ve read it.

Quotes from Don Juan by Byron

Knowledge, truth, and philosophy

I love wisdom more than she loves me.

 

What are we? and whence came we? what shall be

Our ultimate existence? what ‘s our present?

Are questions answerless, and yet incessant.

 

Of Thought’s foes by far most rude,

Tyrants and sycophants have been and are.

 

And, after all, what is a lie? ‘T is but

The truth in masquerade; and I defy

Historians, heroes, lawyers, priests, to put

A fact without some leaven of a lie.

The very shadow of true Truth would shut

Up annals, revelations, poesy,

And prophecy—except it should be dated

Some years before the incidents related.

 

Adversity is the first path to truth:

He who hath proved war, storm, or woman’s rage,

Whether his winters be eighteen or eighty,

Hath won the experience which is deem’d so weighty.

 

Between two worlds life hovers like a star,

‘Twixt night and morn, upon the horizon’s verge.

How little do we know that which we are!

How less what we may be! The eternal surge

Of time and tide rolls on, and bears afar

Our bubbles; as the old burst, new emerge,

Lash’d from the foam of ages; while the graves

Of empires heave but like some passing waves.

 

Love and marriage

O Love! how perfect is thy mystic art,

Strengthening the weak, and trampling on the strong,

 

Love is so very timid when ‘t is new.

 

‘T is melancholy, and a fearful sign

Of human frailty, folly, also crime,

That love and marriage rarely can combine,

Although they both are born in the same clime;

Marriage from love, like vinegar from wine—

A sad, sour, sober beverage—by time

Is sharpen’d from its high celestial flavour

Down to a very homely household savour.

 

All who have loved, or love, will still allow

Life has nought like it. God is love, they say,

And Love ‘s a god.

 

That false crime bigamy.

 

For Cupid’s cup

With the first draught intoxicates apace,

A quintessential laudanum or ‘black drop,’

Which makes one drunk at once, without the base

Expedient of full bumpers; for the eye

In love drinks all life’s fountains (save tears) dry.

 

Love, that great opener of the heart and all

The ways that lead there.

 

Now hatred is by far the longest pleasure;

Men love in haste, but they detest at leisure.

Women

There is a tide in the affairs of women

Which, taken at the flood, leads—God knows where:

Those navigators must be able seamen

Whose charts lay down its current to a hair;

Not all the reveries of Jacob Behmen

With its strange whirls and eddies can compare:

Men with their heads reflect on this and that—

But women with their hearts on heaven knows what!

 

I ‘ve seen your stormy seas and stormy women,

And pity lovers rather more than seamen.

 

What a strange thing is man? and what a stranger

Is woman! What a whirlwind is her head,

And what a whirlpool full of depth and danger

Is all the rest about her! Whether wed

Or widow, maid or mother, she can change her

Mind like the wind: whatever she has said

Or done, is light to what she ‘ll say or do;—

The oldest thing on record, and yet new!

Intoxication and the sublime

Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter,

Sermons and soda-water the day after.

Man, being reasonable, must get drunk;

The best of life is but intoxication:

Glory, the grape, love, gold, in these are sunk

The hopes of all men, and of every nation;

Without their sap, how branchless were the trunk

Of life’s strange tree, so fruitful on occasion.

 

My altars are the mountains and the ocean,

Earth, air, stars,—all that springs from the great Whole,

Who hath produced, and will receive the soul.

 

There ‘s music in all things, if men had ears:

Their earth is but an echo of the spheres.

Writing

To the kind reader of our sober clime

This way of writing will appear exotic;

Pulci was sire of the half-serious rhyme,

Who sang when chivalry was more Quixotic,

And revell’d in the fancies of the time,

True knights, chaste dames, huge giants, kings despotic:

But all these, save the last, being obsolete,

I chose a modern subject as more meet.

 

I hope it is no crime

To laugh at all things—for I wish to know

What, after all, are all things—but a show?

 

Reader! I have kept my word,—at least so far

As the first Canto promised. You have now

Had sketches of love, tempest, travel, war—

All very accurate, you must allow,

And epic, if plain truth should prove no bar;

I can’t oblige you, reader, to read on;

That ‘s your affair, not mine: a real spirit

Should neither court neglect, nor dread to bear it.

 

It occupies me to turn back regards

On what I ‘ve seen or ponder’d, sad or cheery;

And what I write I cast upon the stream,

To swim or sink—I have had at least my dream.

 

Dissimulation always sets apart

A corner for herself; and therefore fiction

Is that which passes with least contradiction.

 

I don’t know that there may be much ability

Shown in this sort of desultory rhyme;

But there ‘s a conversational facility,

Which may round off an hour upon a time.

Of this I ‘m sure at least, there ‘s no servility

In mine irregularity of chime,

Which rings what ‘s uppermost of new or hoary,

Just as I feel the ‘Improvvisatore.’

 

I write the world, nor care if the world read,

 

My business is to dress society,

And stuff with sage that very verdant goose.

Death

We live and die,

But which is best, you know no more than I.

 

And Death, the sovereign’s sovereign, though the great

Gracchus of all mortality, who levels

With his Agrarian laws the high estate

Of him who feasts, and fights, and roars, and revels,

To one small grass-grown patch (which must await

Corruption for its crop) with the poor devils

Who never had a foot of land till now,—

Death ‘s a reformer, all men must allow.

 

Having voted, dined, drunk, gamed, and whored,

The family vault receives another lord.

Climate change

This world shall be former, underground,

Thrown topsy-turvy, twisted, crisp’d, and curl’d,

Baked, fried, or burnt, turn’d inside-out, or drown’d,

Like all the worlds before, which have been hurl’d

First out of, and then back again to chaos,

The superstratum which will overlay us.

 

Men are but maggots of some huge Earth’s burial.

Observations

Christians have burnt each other, quite persuaded

That all the Apostles would have done as they did.

 

But vaccination certainly has been

A kind antithesis to Congreve’s rockets,

With which the Doctor paid off an old pox,

By borrowing a new one from an ox.

 

The king commands us, and the doctor quacks us,

The priest instructs, and so our life exhales,

A little breath, love, wine, ambition, fame,

Fighting, devotion, dust,—perhaps a name.

Most men are slaves, none more so than the great,

To their own whims and passions, and what not;

 

A neat, snug study on a winter’s night,

A book, friend, single lady, or a glass

Of claret, sandwich, and an appetite,

Are things which make an English evening pass;

 

The nightingale that sings with the deep thorn,

Which fable places in her breast of wail,

Is lighter far of heart and voice than those

Whose headlong passions form their proper woes.

And that ‘s the moral of this composition.

 

But always without malice: if he warr’d

Or loved, it was with what we call ‘the best

Intentions,’ which form all mankind’s trump card,

To be produced when brought up to the test.

The statesman, hero, harlot, lawyer—ward

Off each attack, when people are in quest

Of their designs, by saying they meant well;

‘T is pity ‘that such meaning should pave hell.’

 

Howe’er the mighty locust, Desolation,

Strip your green fields, and to your harvests cling,

Gaunt famine never shall approach the throne—

Though Ireland starve, great George weighs twenty stone.

 

The sole sign of man’s being in his senses

Is, learning to reduce his past expenses.

 

Of all the barbarous middle ages, that

Which is most barbarous is the middle age

Of man; it is—I really scarce know what;

But when we hover between fool and sage,

 

I will not dwell upon ragouts or roasts,

Albeit all human history attests

That happiness for man—the hungry sinner!-

Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner.

 

In play, there are two pleasures for your choosing—

The one is winning, and the other losing.

Byron

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ten tips for entrepreneurs

Every year I chair a Dragon’s Den at Imperial College, where students present entrepreneurial projects to four of us and we award a cash prize to the top two. The College asked me to produce one tip for entrepreneurs, and I misread the email and produced ten. Here they are.

Your offering is less important than your capacity to stay the course

You will, I hope, have a great product or new service. It will, you hope, bring great benefits to customers and the world and make you rich, giving you the means to develop more great products and new services. You will have spent lots of intelligence and energy developing your offering, and you will believe in it. But ultimately whether you succeed will depend less on the quality of your offering but more on your capacity to stay the course. Indeed, it will probably be easier to succeed with something that is slightly better or cheaper than an offering already available rather than something revolutionary, which will demand a new way of thinking and behaving and a new market.

Prepare for a rocky but fascinating journey

The course of start-ups, like that of love, is never smooth. There will be many ups and downs and twists and turns. Many of them will capture you unaware. You will have moments of triumph and disaster, and, as Rudyard Kipling writes, treat those two imposters both the same. It will be easiest if you can learn to love the tumult.

Try for pathological optimism

Successful entrepreneurs are often “pathological optimists.” They see a bright future when all about them see catastrophe. I’m not sure that you can manufacture optimism to such a degree, but if you are by nature a pessimist you might consider a career other than entrepreneurship.

Build a team that is mission driven

If you are to succeed you will need others around you. Your team will be much stronger if your employees work with you because they believe in the mission and are not just in for a job or the money. The job of a leader is to create a vision and then motivate people to want to achieve that vision.

Surround yourself with people who are better than you and will be critical friends

When I was the editor of the BMJ my screensaver said “Any journal that can’t be better than its editor is doomed.” It’s true for all enterprises. You need strong people around you, some of them, perhaps all of them, better than you. And you must create a culture where those people can be critical, tell you when you are going wrong.

“No margin, no mission”

You will have to think money. The nuns who run a hospital in America have a saying “No margin, no mission.” You may be (and perhaps should be) more interested in the mission than the money, but the money will kill you if you don’t get it right.

Get a good finance person

It’s because of the importance of money and cash flow that the most important member of your team will be a finance person. You need to find somebody you trust who will give you accurate—and sometimes terrifying—financial data. You will not be able to succeed without such a person.

Think cash, but beware of investors

It’s cash flow that kills start-ups. You have a great offering, huge potential, and even eager customers but suddenly you can’t pay your staff. You will need money to keep you going for what is likely to be several years before you become profitable. It may not be that much, and you might be able to raise it from family and friends. But probably you will need investment, and investors can be your friends. But ultimately most are driven by money rather than mission and would prefer a rapid return than a slow one. They may become impatient and if they control the company oust the “scruffy founder” and install a “company person.”

“Murder your darlings”

Artists have a saying “murder your darlings.” They mean that the part of the painting that you most cherish, or if you’re a novelist the passage you treasure, may have to go for the benefit of the whole. That may well be true with part of your offering or strategy.

Be prepared to change course

You may set out with a clear idea of how you think you will succeed but then discover it’s not working: the product, the strategy, the marketing, or the team need changing. You may need to cut your team right down or change your offering. The changes may feel uncomfortable and will not guarantee success, but continuing in the same way will bring disaster. You have to be willing to change course, and, as I said at the beginning, you need to learn to enjoy the changes.

Dragons Den

A biography that is as great a book as Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”

This morning I finished reading the 768 pages of the first volume of Robert Caro’s five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson (LBJ). At 500 words a page this first volume, The Path to Power, the book is nearly 400 000 words. Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is 1.5 million words. By the time he has finished (if he can finish) Caro will have written two million words.

Years ago my friend Lois gave me the third volume, The Master of the Senate, the volume that won the Pulitzer Prize. I read the first chapter and remember it to this day. Caro described Johnson’s near magical power to get people to do what he wanted them to do—by flattery, bribing, threatening, blackmailing, or whatever it took. But I thought that I didn’t care enough about Johnson enough to read the whole volume.

I made a mistake. I didn’t want to know that much about the Parisians of the Belle Époque, but that didn’t stop me reading Proust. Nor did I want to know about the multitude of fictional characters who teem through Anthony Powell’s The Dance to the Music of Time, but I’ve read the 12 volumes twice—and hope for a third read before I die. I read those books because they are great writing, writing which fascinates and entertains me and tells me things about the world and myself that I would never otherwise know. And I now hope to read all five volumes of Caro’s biography for the same reasons.

It was reading Caro’s magnificent (and short) book Working that led me to think that I must read the biography. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2019/08/24/six-lessons-for-writing-the-supreme-biography/  Caro started on his biography in the late 60s or early 70s and published the first volume in 1982. The second came 16 years later, the third 12 years after the second, and the fourth in 2014, 12 years after the third. Caro is now in his mid-80s, and perhaps will never complete the final volume.

Most biographies (like most novels) go wrong, and the central problem is to impart narrative force while supporting the story with fact, detail, and colour. Many biographies lose the narrative force in detail, and that’s what you might expect with Caro’s biography when it is so long. There is an extraordinary amount of detail, the result of near-pathological research, and yet the narrative force is not lost. Caro said in Working that he wanted his biography to have the power of fiction, not that anything is “invented,” and he succeeds.

Caro does roam from the central story—with, for example, accounts of the history, geography, and geology of the Hill Country, Johnson’s birthplace, and the stories of some of the character’s that loomed large in Johnson’s life—but these “diversions” are compelling in themselves and always in the end contribute to the story of Johnson.

The book is as much (in fact probably more) about power than about Johnson—where does it come from? How do you get it? How do you use it? What does it do to you? The conclusion is that power is ugly and not for the faint-hearted. Johnson had vast ambition, stemming in part from the failure of his father. Ambition trumped beliefs, honesty, and integrity. There may be people who achieve great power through honesty and conviction—and Sam Rayburn, who was speaker of the House of Representatives longer than any other American and central to Johnson’s story may be an example—but they are probably rare. Honesty and integrity will hold you back. Roosevelt, a great president and crucial to Johnson’s advancement, was not hampered by honesty and integrity.

When you read a great book you read about your times and yourself, and I upset some friends with a blog comparing Johnson with Boris, “our Johnson.” https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2019/09/18/lbj-and-boris-johnson-politicians-without-ideology-philosophy-principle-or-beliefs-but-with-a-passion-for-power/ They share ambition, giant egos, lack of conviction, ruthlessness, and a casual relationship with truth and integrity, but I’m not suggesting that Boris will prove as great a man as LBJ. I reflect as well in our ghastly election on how conviction and even integrity will mean that Jeremy Corbyn will never make it to power—except through some strange happenstance, which as Caro’s biography shows, can happen to anybody anytime.

I took surprisingly few quotes from the book (perhaps because I was reading a hard copy rather than on my Kindle), but hera er those that I did take.

Every practical politician knows that hate and fear offer more forceful tools for organizing than love and respect

He had that gut knowledge about the little man’s resentment of the big man

[Johnson’s ambition] was uncommon in the degree to which it was unencumbered by even the slightest excess weight of ideology, of principles, of beliefs.

Lyndon Johnson believed in nothing, nothing but his own ambition….Wining is the name of the game.

Lyndon Johnson was not a reader of books, he was a reader of men—a reader with a rare ability to see into their souls.

He made a point of never bestowing the courtesy of his full attention on a subordinate; when one was talking to him, his invariable, studied, habit was never to stop shuffling through, and at least ostensibly reading, the papers on his desk.

“It is ambition that makes of a creature a real man.” LBJ.

Path to Power