A novel that shows how the past is always with us and how little we know of ourselves or others

A Guardian review of Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! Observes that “Strout sneaks up on profundity.” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/oct/20/oh-william-by-elizabeth-strout-review-the-return-of-lucy-barton#:~:text=The%20miraculous%20quality%20of%20Strout’s,lifetime%20to%20learn%20the%20difference. That is accurate. The novel could be read as a simple, even bare, story of a divorced but still friendly couple going on a journey to discover more about the past of the husband, but it tells us a lot about ourselves. In particular, the novel shows how the past, every part of the past, is always with us influencing, perhaps even dictating, what we do in the present. As the Guardian review says elsewhere, “The miraculous quality of Strout’s fiction is the way she opens up depths with the simplest of touches.”

William, a moderately successful parasitologist, has had two wives leave him, and Lucy, his first wife who accompanies him on the journey, writes. “It came to me suddenly that this is what William’s life rumbled over, like a train on loose tracks.” His childhood, his past, some of which he didn’t know about until the present, were the “loose tracks.”

Lucy asks: “What is it that William knew about me and that I knew about him that caused us to get married?” She doesn’t know. Nor, she realises, does she know William, although they were married for many years and have two grown-up daughters. “I am only saying: I wondered who William was. I have wondered this before. Many times I have wondered this.” We, the readers, suspect that it must have been something to do with the childhoods of both.

What do we know about others or even ourselves? That seems to one of the main themes of the book. “But who ever really knows the experience of another?” The short novel ends (and I think that the arrangement into short paragraphs is important):

“But when I think Oh William!, don’t I mean Oh Lucy! too? Don’t I mean Oh Everyone,

Oh dear Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves!

Except a little tiny, tiny bit we do.

But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true.”

Socrates, perhaps the wisest man who ever lived, when asked what he knew, answered “I know nothing.” I have thought that I’ve known things, but generally as I get older I know—or perhaps understand is a better word—less and less. Am I unusual in finding great comfort in the expanding of my not knowing?

Quotes from Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

I tell you this to explain how we kind of know who we are, without knowing it.

[How Lucy felt when she discovered her husband’s long-standing affair] A tulip stem inside me snapped. This is what I felt. It has stayed snapped, it never grew back.

People are lonely, is my point here. Many people can’t say to those they know well what it is they feel they might want to say.

We crave authority. We do. No matter what anyone says, we crave that sense of authority. Of believing that in the presence of this person we are safe.

“Whenever I don’t know what to do, I watch what I am doing.” And what I was doing that year was leaving, even though I had not yet left.

There was something about her that seemed deeply—almost fundamentally—comfortable inside herself, the way I think a person is when they have been loved by their parents.

What a really awful thing I had done. To deny my husband any chance of comforting me—oh, it was an unspeakably awful thing.

This is the way of life: the many things we do not know until it is too late.

I thought about Lois Bubar. I thought how she seemed healthy; I mean she seemed inside herself, as I have said, in a way that was comfortable.

Whoever knows why one child turns out one way, and another a different way?

Something better (and even cheaper) than a card for the birthday of a special friend

Michael Burn whose autobiography I have just read, lived in North Wales close to and became friends with Bertrand Russell, mathematician, philosopher, dissenter, and winner of the Nobel prize for literature. When they met Russell was nearly ninety and living with his fourth wife, who was 40 years younger than him.

For Russell’s birthday in 1969, his last, Burn wrote him an imaginary letter from John Stuart Mill, who had been Russell’s godfather. Burn added to the letter the signatures of men and women that Russell admired with some of his own “pin-ups.” It’s a marvellous list, and you might like to do something similar for a friend. Much better than a card.

“Katarina Iperatrix blue stoking, William Blake, Shakespeare, the architect of Fountains, Dante Alighieri, the sculptor of Hermes at Olympia, Goya, the architects of small Byzantine churches, J Swift dean, Saba Regina [Queen of Sheba], Plato, Monteverdi, John evangelist, Marie Antoinette beauty [because she said “Pardon, Monsieur” to her executioner for stepping on his foot],  the sculptors of certain compassionate buddhas, da Vinci, the Peterloo martyrs, Elizabeth I, Sandro Botticelli, David Hume, Julie de le’Espinasse, John Milton, Palladio, P B Shelley, Isak Newton, the author of “O westron wind when wilt thou blow,” Benedictus Spinoza, Bramante, Leopardi, Ludwig van Beethoven, Jane Austen, Linnaeus gardener, Aristarchus of Samos, St Simon gossip, Pavlova bird, Keir Hardie, the pilots of the Battle of Britain, Asoka emperor of India pacifist, Titian, Thomas Jefferson America, Lao Tse, Grock clown, Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire, Abraham Lincoln, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giordano Bruno martyr, Francis of Assisi saint, Ellenor Gwynne sinner, Heinrich Heine German, Rene Descartes, Xofer Wren Kt, the authors of the lowland ballads, the defenders of Thermopylae, the architects of Chartres.”

Mary Burn put flowers round the names, and they told Russell that the letter had been delivered to Beudy Gwyn by mistake by a dove escorted by a golden eagle. Russell was charmed and wrote them a thank you letter, which they framed.

The story of a man with five passions, three of which he renounced

I read Turned Towards the Sun the autobiography of Michael Burn primarily because he was in Colditz with my father. Indeed, Syd, my father gets two mentions in the book—one for copying out Burn’s novel and another for attending the communist meetings that Burn organised in Colditz together with Giles Romilly, the nephew of Winston Churchill. One of the thoughts I had while reading the book was how many excellent books have been written that have been largely forgotten. Do we need new books? Couldn’t we simply rediscover the excellent old ones?

I’ve already written a blog about Burn’s novel that my father copied out, and in that blog I summarise Burn’s remarkable life.https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2022/08/11/the-novel-my-father-copied-out-in-colditz/ In short, he was homosexual, met Hitler, was seduced by National Socialism before seeing the error of his ways, was a lover of Guy Burgess, was captured in the St Nazaire raid and was in Colditz, became both a Roman Catholic and communist and renounced both, married an older woman, became a successful journalist, novelist, playwright, and poet, lived in North Wales next door to Bertrand Russell, ran an unsuccessful shellfish business, and died age 97.

A major theme of his book is about life as a homosexual when it was illegal. When he told his father that he was homosexual, his father referred him to the King’s doctor [Burn’s father was secretary to the Wing], who became “embarrassed” when Burn told his story, cut him short, and referred him to a specialist. The specialist was equally useless, examined his breast and balls and told him “Nothing to worry about at all, my dear fellow. You’re completely normal.”

In later years Burn attended a doctor who gave him intravenous injections of methedrine and asked if he wanted to be “cured.” Methedrine, an amphetamine, was used in psychotherapy because it “loosened inhibitions.” (Now ironically it’s abused in homosexual culture as a drug that because an aphrodisiac that delays ejaculation it allows sex lasting hours or even days.) When asked if he wanted to be “cured” Burn answered that “I took homosexuality to be an inalienable part of me.”

He tells the story later in the book of how when his wife was away he arranged an assignation with a young man only to have two men burst into the room, describe themselves as detectives, and say that if Burn paid them £75 (about a thousand pounds now) they would not report him. Burn realised that the men were not detectives and consulted a solicitor, who advised him to report the incident to the police as they would treat blackmail as a more serious crime than homosexuality. The men were caught and tried at the Old Bailey. The case was reported in the News of the World, and Burn was worried that his name would emerge. It didn’t. Burn says in his autobiography that he had been advised not to include the story in the book. He includes other stories that he was advised to omit.

No doubt there will be distortions, omissions, and evasions in Burn’s autobiography as in all autobiographies, but Burn is more honest about his mistakes and failures than most. Although you have probably never heard of Michael Burn and woudn’t’ have thought of reading his autobiography, you will find much in his book (available through Abebooks) to enjoy.

A great novel from which I extracted wisdom, understanding, insights, quotes, advice, and beauty

When I read a book I mine it. I journey through the story extracting wisdom, understanding, insights, quotes, advice, and beauty. Something usually sticks. I capture the quotes (see below), and I do what I can to capture the treasure I have extracted in blogs and conversations—but most is probably lost, hence the joy of rereading.

Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety has proved to be a King Solomon’s Mine of treasures. Not only do I have a greater understanding of the French Revolution, one of the world’s most important events, I have encountered remarkable people, enjoyed their company, and had a wonderful time. I have also written six blogs based on the book (this is the seventh); most of the blogs are primarily quotes from her book and are listed below. Plus there are more quotes (see below).

Almost all the novels I read seem to have something about writing in them, as if novelists can’t stay away from fascination with their craft. Mantel writes in this book of a journal: “The universe and all its follies shall be comprehended in the pages of this hyper-critical journal.” She has in her book captured much of the universe and its follies.

She also says this in her novel: “Writing’s like running downhill; can’t stop if you want to.” That seems to be true of her writing, not that I mean it as a criticism. I’d have been delighted if her book went on; she makes only one mention of Napoleon, and the book ends with execution of Danton with a single sentence telling us of the later execution of Robespierre. I would love to read Mantel’s account of Napoleon’s rise and fall, but that will never be as she has died.

I don’t suppose that Mantel planned for her book to be more than 700 pages long, and she might have written about Robespierre’s downfall as well as his rise. Perhaps she simply couldn’t go on any longer. Perhaps she was tempted to produce two volumes rather than simply one. That’s what she did with her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, which she’d never intended to be a trilogy.

A Place of Greater Safety is perhaps a greater book than the Cromwell trilogy, which I did greatly enjoy. I was left wanting more from this book, where I felt that the last volume of the Cromwell trilogy was longer than it needed to be.

I recommend that you read A Place of Greater Safety if you haven’t already (and read it again if you have), and I‘m now going to work my way through all of her novels that I haven’t read, starting with Beyond Black.

Blogs I’ve extracted from A Place of Greater Safety

Maximilien de Robespierre: a fanatic full of contradictions

Utopias are inhuman and dangerous

Life in a totalitarian state

Monsieur Danton’s confession

Advice on how to help the grieving from an unlikely source

Good writing about bad sex

Quotes from “A Place of Greater Safety” by Hilary Mantel

The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide: anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.

Before the storming of the Bastille

Everything that happens now will happen in the light of history. It is not a midday luminary, but a corpse-candle to the intellect; at best, it is a secondhand lunar light, error-breeding, sand-blind and parched.

He [the King] hoped that by refusing to make decisions he could avoid making mistakes; he thought that, if he did not interfere, things would go on as they always had done.


SIR FRANCIS BURDETT, British Ambassador, on Paris (1780): ‘It is the most ill-contrived, ill-built, dirty stinking town that can possibly be imagined; as for the inhabitants, they are ten times more nasty than the inhabitants of Edinburgh.’

Red and blue. ‘Red for blood,’ she said. ‘Blue for heaven.’ The colours of Paris: blood-heaven.


Mirabeau smiled. ‘I myself am familiar with every variety of domestic difficulty, from short temper at the breakfast table to the consequences of incest.’

“We live at a time of great events and little men.”’

Camille [and writing]

[I] believe that my life to me is an élitist entertainment, something that only exists when it is written down and sent by the posts.

‘I never know why Hope is accounted a virtue,’ Camille said. ‘It seems so self-serving.’

The life that feeds the writing that feeds the life to come,

I wonder why I ever bothered with sex, he thought; there’s nothing in this breathing world so gratifying as an artfully placed semicolon.

‘Publishers are a craven breed,’ the Comte said. ‘If I had the ordering and disposition of the Inferno, I would keep a special circle for them, where they would grill slowly on white-hot presses.’

‘All these writers and people, they have enough on each other to live by blackmail and get rich.

He was terribly afraid that happiness might be a habit, or a quality knitted into the temperament; or it might be something you learn when you’re a child, a kind of language, harder than Latin or Greek, that you should have a good grasp on by the time you’re seven. What if you haven’t got that grasp?

In recent weeks Louise has been applying her novelist’s imagination to their ménage – and what a lot of imagination novelists have!

The power of words moving through his bloodstream like a drug.

Lucille [and a love that never dies]

Nothing had prepared her for this; the received wisdom about a love-match was that, after a year’s delirium, the emotions settle down. Nobody had even hinted to her that you could go on falling in love and falling in love, till you felt quite ill with it, spiritually sick and depleted, as if you were losing your essence day by day. If Camille were not here – if he were permanently not here – what would lie before her would be a sort of semi-demi-half-life, dragged out for duty, sick and cold and stumbling towards death; the important part of her would be dead already. If anything happened to him I’d kill myself, she thought;


Name her a topic – the Punic Wars, let us say, or the manufacture of tallow candles – and within a day she will give you a satisfactory account of it; within a week she will be capable of setting up her own factory, or drawing up a battle plan for Scipio Africanus.


THEY TALKED about the theatre, about books and about people they knew; really though, they were only ever talking about one thing, and that was whether she would go to bed with him.

When you get down to it, he thought, there’s not much difference between politics and sex; it’s all about power.

[He] lay on top of her, labouring in pursuit of ecstasy.

I wonder why I ever bothered with sex, he thought; there’s nothing in this breathing world so gratifying as an artfully placed semicolon.

[An erect penis] strange flesh, a damp swollen spike of flesh, quivering with its own life.


She knew that for many women beauty was a matter of effort, a great exercise of patience and ingenuity. It required cunning and dedication, a curious honesty and absence of vanity.

How distressed I am to find myself writing like this, how distressed that a girl [Lucile]of your education and refinement can find nothing better to do, no music practice, no embroidery, no healthy afternoon walk, just these death-wishes, these fantasies of the morbid and the grandiose, these blood-wishes, these images, sweet Jesus, ropes, blades and her mother’s lover with his half-dead-already air and his sensual, bruised-looking mouth.

She had employed one of those expensive hairdressers who make you look as if you’ve never been near a hairdresser in your life.

“One proof of the amiable woman’s character is that all who loved her loved each other, jealousy and rivalry submitting to the more powerful sentiment with which she inspired them; and I never saw those who surrounded her entertain the least ill-will among themselves. Let the reader pause a moment, and if he can recollect any other woman who deserves this praise, let him attach himself to her if he would obtain happiness.” Rousseau

Once you’re pregnant for the first time you don’t mind what happens, you just think about your children.’

Quotes and observations

WE make great progress only at those times when we become melancholy – at those times when, discontented with the real world, we are forced to make for ourselves one more bearable.

‘The Theory of Ambition’, an essay:

Jean-Marie Hérault de Séchelles

How torturing, she thought, is the situation of fools who know they are fools.

A mob has no soul, it has no conscience, just paws and claws and teeth.

[After climate catastrophe] There will be more need to darn and patch, to mend and make do, now that, as her husband puts it, ‘the blow has fallen’.

The gift of philosophical detachment.

[Political ambition] Anything had been worthwhile, any connivance, any shame, any slaughter, if at the end of it you were King of France.

Everything you disapprove of you’ll call ‘aristocratic’. This term can be applied to food, to books and plays, to modes of speech, to hairstyles and to such venerable institutions as prostitution and the Roman Catholic Church.

‘I don’t think they care about the man’s life, in Whitehall. They care about commerce. Shipping. Cash.’

There must be bread, for where there is no more bread there is no more law, no more freedom and no more republic.

‘A religious man is a depraved beast. He resembles those animals that are kept to be shorn and roasted for the benefit of merchants and butchers.’

You make a few botches, you have a few successes, and that’s what politics is about.’

‘The Revolution, like Saturn, is devouring its own children.’

‘You see I approve the duel, the vendetta, the crime of passion. But this machinery of Terror operates with no passion at all.’ De Sade

Nature should visit death; it should not be something you argue against.’

[St Just] There is a description in Tacitus of the Emperor ‘without pity, without anger, resolutely closing himself against the inroad of emotion’. This seemed familiar.

There is the world and there is the shadow-play world; there is the world of freedom and illusion, and then there is the real world, in which we watch, year by year, the people we love hammer on their chains.

Maximilien de Robespierre: a fanatic full of contradictions brought to life

At the heart of Hilary Mantel’s novel about the French Revolution, A Pace of Greater Safety, is a portrait, a dissection of Maximilien de Robespierre. We associate him mostly with the Terror, the guillotining of tens of thousands. We might regard him as a monster, but he was a human being. Mantel examines him—a man of power who is not remembered fondly—just as she examined a similar man,Thomas Cromwell, in her trilogy about Cromwell’s rise and fall.

If you were to meet Robespierre you might not like him much because he was not interested in friendships, but you would find him small, well dressed, polite, modest, intelligent, well-read, and even kind, a man of reason. He would want you to like him. When you talked to him, you’d find that he was dedicated to improving the world:

This was the dearest wish of his heart: to ensure bread to those who had none. Every aim apart from this could be picked to pieces, hacked apart, assassinated. Surely this aim was simple, achievable?”

He’d tell you: ‘I hate all war. I hate all unnecessary violence. I hate quarrels, even dissension among people, but I know I am doomed to live with that.’ You’d discover that in a debate in the Assembly on capital punishment he had “pleaded for it to be abolished.”

Robespierre, an enthusiast for Jean-Jaques Rousseau, wants to bring about the world that Rousseau described, a world of reason, law, nature, and beauty where there are no kings or presidents but where people have enough to eat and can pursue the general good. The Revolution is pursuing a utopia, and everything necessary must be done to achieve that utopia: “The mainspring of energy in a republic is vertu, the love of one’s laws and one’s country; and it follows from the very nature of these that all private interests and all personal relationships must give way to the general good …” The people will be led by the people, which may create tensions: “Every citizen has a share in the sovereign power … and therefore cannot acquit his dearest friend, if the safety of the state requires his punishment.”

Robespierre, you realise, is a fanatic “A patriot should be eager to put the safety of the country above his wife or child or friend. There is no place for individual sentiment now….I deplore factions. I also deplore violence. However, I would rather destroy the factions by violence than see the Revolution fall into the wrong hands and be perverted.”

Here, you realise, is a man who hates dissension and violence but will sanction killing—not kill directly himself—for the Revolution, the pursuit of a better, even perfect world, “To bring us to justice and equality, to full humanity?’

You are dealing with a man full of contradictions, a very human characteristic. Georges Danton, a fellow revolutionary and man of professed and personal violence very different from Robespierre, recognised the contradictions in Robespierre:

“Talking to Robespierre, one tried to make the right noises; but what is right, these days? Address yourself to the militant, and you find a pacifist giving you a reproachful look. Address yourself to the idealist, and you’ll find that you’ve fallen into the company of a cheerful, breezy, professional politician. Address yourself to means, and you’ll be told to think of ends: to ends, and you’ll be told to think of means. Make an assumption, and you will find it overturned; offer yesterday’s conviction, and today you’ll find it shredded. What did Mirabeau complain of? He believes everything he says. Presumably there was some layer of Robespierre, some deep stratum, where all the contradictions were resolved.”

Mantel makes Danton say to Robespierre: “Do you ever ask yourself what God left out, when he made you? I used to make jokes at your expense, I used to say you were impotent, but it’s more than balls you’re missing. I wonder if you’re real, I see you walk and talk, but where’s the life in you?”

Robespierre had Danton guillotined, and then was guillotined himself.

Mantel brings Robespierre to life. Here are other references to him I copied from the novel:

He was dimly aware of a turning missed; one of those forks in the road, that you remember later when you are good and lost.

You can’t, he tells his brother Augustin, separate political views from the people who hold them; if you do, it shows you don’t take politics seriously.

They might respect me. But I don’t want them ever to approve of me because if they approve of me I’m finished. I want no kickbacks, no promises, no caucus and no blood on my hands. I’m not their man of destiny, I’m afraid.’

‘Max doesn’t care for failure or success, it all evens out in his mind. He doesn’t care what other people say about him, or what opinion they hold of his actions. As long as what he does feels right, inside, that’s enough for him, that’s his guide. He’s one of the few men, the very few men, to whom only the witness of their own conscience is necessary.’

I looked at his books. Jean-Jacques Rousseau by the yard; few other modern authors. Cicero, Tacitus, the usual: all well-thumbed. I wonder – if we go to war with England, will I have to hide my books of Shakespeare, and my Adam Smith?

‘Once you bestow affection on a person, reason flies out of the window. Look at the Comte de Mirabeau – objectively, if you can, for a moment. The way he lives, his words, his actions, put me on my guard immediately – then I apply a little thought, and I discover that the man is wholly given over to self-aggrandizement.’

Robespierre had never reconciled himself to fame, and his modesty, if not placated, took a ferocious turn.

“History is fiction.”

‘We don’t need processions and rosaries and relics, but we do need, when things are very bad, the prospect of consolation – we do need, when things are even worse, the idea that in the long run there is someone who could manage to forgive us.’

Everything that’s important is decided in a split second.

[Experience of Cornelia, Robespierre’s common-law wife] In the open doorway he [Camille, Robespierre’s only friend] turned suddenly: pulled her towards him, slipped a hand under her breast and kissed her on the lips. Two of the workmen stood and watched them. ‘Poor you,’ Camille said. He pushed her gently back against the wall. Watching him go, she put the back of her hand against her lips. For the next few hours she could feel the phantom pressure of his cupped hand beneath her breast, and she kept it in her guilty thoughts that she had never really had a lover.

Should the UK have a wealth tax? Almost certainly

I’m strolling with a friend when we start a conversation on a wealth tax. Both of us are left-wing and agree that it must be a good idea to have a wealth tax. My friend says that lots of other countries have them and that there is no reason not to have one. Despite my gut feeling that a wealth tax must be a good thing when the country has severe financial difficulties and enormous disparities in wealth, I feel that I need to know more about the pluses and minuses of a wealth tax. Remembering my time at the Stanford Business School, I worry that although a wealth tax seems attractive there might be unintended consequences.

Back home searching for information, I discover the 2020 report of the Wealth Tax Commission, which comes from the London School of Economics and the Warwick Business School. file:///C:/Users/Richard%20Smith/Documents/ARTICLES/Blogs/2022/Wealth%20tax/OLDWealthTaxCommission-Final-reportold.pdf  Its main conclusion is that “when we face the largest public finance crisis since the Second World War” (which is worse now than when they reported) there is a strong case for a one-off wealth tax. They do not recommend annual wealth tax, and I learn that—despite what my friend told me—many countries have abandoned annual wealth taxes. Wikipedia reports: “In 1990, about a dozen European countries had a wealth tax, but by 2019, all but three had eliminated the tax because of the difficulties and costs associated with both design and enforcement.” It’s important to note, however, that these countries mostly had annual wealth taxes.

A wealth tax is the total value of your assets minus any liabilities. Your assets would include cash, property, investments, pensions, and equity in companies. A mortgage or loan would be a liability. The Commission recommends taxing individuals, so a couple that had wealth of £2 million would be taxed on wealth of £1m each.

The British public favours a wealth tax to raise government revenue over alternatives like increasing income tax or value added tax. The public also favours introducing a new wealth tax over increasing what are taxes on wealth like inheritance tax, capital gains tax, or council tax.

The public were asked about the criteria for a new wealth tax, and the Commission distilled four objectives from their responses:

(1) The tax should raise substantial revenue

(2) It should do so efficiently

(3) It should also be fair

(4) The tax should be difficult to avoid

The Commission the added a fifth objective of its own:

(5) A wealth tax should achieve these objectives better than the alternatives

The Commission recognised that deciding the threshold at which tax should be paid and the rate of tax are quintessential political decisions, and instead of recommending a figure it gives a table. A 1% tax on individuals with wealth of £1m would mean just over 3 million people being taxed and would raise £147 billion at an administrative cost of £4 billion to the taxpayers and £1 billion to the government. A threshold of £500 000 would mean 8.2 million people being taxed and raise £262m.

An alternative model would be to have a progressive tax with, for example, the rate being 0.8% with those of wealth of £1m, 1.6% for £2m, 2.4% for £5m, and 3% for £10m. This would raise £250 billion. (For interest, there are 22 000 people with wealth of £10m or more, 83 000 with £5m or more, and 626 000 with £2m or more.)

To raise £250 billion in other ways would require, for example, 9p on the basic rate of income tax or 6p on VAT.

A one-off wealth tax, the Commission concludes, is economically efficient as it does not distort behaviour, whereas income tax discourages work and capital taxes reduce investment. A wealth tax is progressive, and most people even with a low threshold pay nothing. A well-designed tax is hard to avoid, and one feature is that the tax would have to apply the day it was announced or a day soon after, giving people no time to move their wealth. (Perhaps the new government will surprise us and announce one.) The tax would be based on market value, meaning that people would have to have their houses valued.

One group for whom a wealth tax would present difficulties would be those with a big asset, probably a house, but little income, perhaps only a pension. These people would be able to pay the tax over time, perhaps even after they had died.

An annual wealth tax would not attempt to raise as much money in one year as a one-off wealth tax. The Commission advises against an annual wealth tax for three main reasons: administrative costs are higher; deferral on those with low income is more difficult because a further tax comes in a year; and   people would have more scope to avoid the tax—for example, passing wealth to others in the family or moving abroad.

Whether or not an annual wealth tax is economically efficient is disputed on theoretical grounds, and empirical evidence is lacking. Although there is a widespread belief that economists oppose wealth taxes, the Commission reports that a recent poll of the world’s leading academic

economists found that two thirds thought a wealth tax would be effective and half said it would be “an effective way to improve public

finances after the COVID-19 crisis.” file:///C:/Users/Richard%20Smith/Documents/ARTICLES/Blogs/2022/Wealth%20tax/WealthTaxFinalReport_FAQ.pdf This poll asked about an annual wealth tax; support, as with the Commission, is likely to be higher for a

one-off tax as it doesn’t lead to economic distortion.

Despite concerns about an annua wealth tax, the Commission says that “An annual wealth tax would only be justified in addition to these reforms if the aim was specifically to reduce inequality by redistributing wealth.” Many people would thing that a worthy aim in itself, including perhaps a government interested in “levelling up” (or does that phrase exclude redistribution?) The Commission advises, however, that if redistribution is the aim, it may be better achieved through redesign of existing wealth taxes.

My anxiety about unintended consequences were justified, but this well-presented, evidence-based report from the Wealth Tax Commission convinces me that a one-off wealth tax would be a good thing. For the record, mostly because of my London home I would have to pay the tax.

Utopias are inhuman and dangerous

This morning I read an account of Maximilien Robespierre’s Republic of Virtue in Hilary Mantel’s novel of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety (see below). As the sick Robespierre dreams of his version of utopia, people are starving, hundreds of thousands are being guillotined, and people dread the dawn knock at the door. Robespierre, a dedicated and constant reader of Jean Jacque Rosseau’s Social Contract, is completely committed to achieving his Republic. He is making himself ill with the effort.

Do we need utopias? I suppose that we do. I’ve just contributed to creating a “realistic utopia” for death and dying. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)02314-X/fulltext  The danger is that we pursue our utopias with such avidity that we fail to notice the world collapsing around us. We can also become ruthless in our attempt to create our utopias, casting aside—or even murdering—those who are not with us. The beauty of our utopias increases as our circumstances deteriorate. I see everywhere the blindness induced by utopias—in the world, Britain, the NHS, and organisations I cherish.

Mantel’s message is that utopias are inhuman and dangerous.

“Left alone, he lay dreaming of the Republic of Virtue. Five days before he became ill, he had defined his terms. He meant a republic of justice, of community, of self-sacrifice. He saw a free people, gentle, bucolic and learned. The darkness of superstition had drained away from the people’s lives: brackish water, vanishing into soil. In its place flourished the rational, jocund, worship of the Supreme Being. These people were happy; their hearts were not wracked or their flesh tormented by questions without answers or desires without resolution. Men came with gravity and wit to matters of government; they instructed their children, and harvested plain and plentiful food from their own land. Dogs and cats, the animals in the field: all were respected, for their own natures. Garlanded girls, in soft robes of pale linen, moved sedately among colonnades of white marble. He saw the deep dark glint of olive groves, and the blue enamel sky.”

Try to imagine a world where “hearts were not wracked or their flesh tormented by questions without answers or desires without resolution.” To be human is to live with questions that cannot be answered and desires that will not be met.

Life in a totalitarian state

Every day as I read my way through Hilary Mantel’s huge and brilliant novel on the French Revolution, “A Place of Greater Safety,” I come across treasures. It is perhaps strange to describe the words below as a treasure when they are so grim, but they create in few words how it is to live in a totalitarian state. She is writing about the Terror during the French Revolution, but she says that the words come almost directly from the description by Tacitus of life under the Roman emperor Tiberius.

As soon as words had become crimes against the state, it was only a small step to transform into offences mere glances, sorrow, compassion, sighs, even silence …

It was a crime against the state that Libonius Drusus asked the fortune tellers if he would ever be rich … It was a crime against the state that one of Cassius’ descendants had a portrait of his ancestor in his house. Mamercus Scaurus committed a crime by writing a tragedy in which certain verses were capable of a double meaning. It was a crime against the state that the mother of the consul Furius Geminus mourned for the death of her son … It was necessary to rejoice at the death of a friend or relative, if one wished to escape death oneself.

Was a citizen popular? He might start a faction. Suspect.

Did he try instead to retreat from public life? Suspect.

Are you rich? Suspect.

Are you – to all appearances – poor? You must be hiding something. Suspect.

Are you melancholy? The state of the nation must upset you. Suspect.

Are you cheerful? You must be rejoicing at national calamities. Suspect.

Are you a philosopher, an orator or a poet? Suspect.

Monsieur Danton’s confession

I thought this account of Danton’s confession in Hilary Mantel’s novel about the French Revolution, “A Place of Greater Safety,” both brilliant and funny. The Revolution has outlawed religion, Notre Dame is now a Temple of Reason. Danton is confessing because he wants to marry a 15-year-old girl and she insists that they are married by a priest. He must be in a state of grace to marry.

‘Monsieur, you came so that I could hear your confession, before your marriage to a daughter of the church. Please don’t argue, because in this matter you can’t win or lose. The case is unfamiliar to you, I know.’

‘May I know your name?’

‘I am Father Kéravenen. Once of Saint-Sulpice. Would you care for us to begin?’

‘It must be half a lifetime since I did this. It taxes the memory, half a lifetime.’

‘But you are a young man still.’

‘Ah yes. But the years have been crowded with incident.’

‘When you were a child you were taught to examine your conscience each night. Have you left off that practice?’

‘A man must sleep.’

The priest smiled sadly. ‘Perhaps I can help you. You are a son of the church, you have had no dealings I suppose with one heresy or the other – you have been lax perhaps, but you recognize that the church is the one true church, that it is the route to salvation?’

‘If there is salvation, I can’t see any other route to it.’

‘You do believe in God, Monsieur?’

Danton thought. ‘Yes. But … I would add a list of qualifications to that.’

‘Let the one word stand, would be my advice. It is not for us to add qualifications. Your own worship, your obligations as a Catholic – you have performed them, or neglected them?’

‘Refused them.’

‘But those in your care – you have provided for their spiritual welfare?’

‘My children are baptised.’

‘Good.’ The priest seemed easily encouraged. He looked up. The keenness of his eyes took Danton by surprise. ‘Shall we survey the field of your possible derelictions? Murder?’

‘Not as such.’

‘You can say this in full confidence?’

‘This is a sacrament of the church, is it not? It is not a debate in the National Convention.’

‘Point taken,’ said the priest. ‘And the sins of the flesh?’

‘Yes, most of those. The common ones, you know. Adultery.’

‘How many times?’

‘I don’t keep a diary, Father, like some love-sick girl.’

‘You are sorry for it?’

‘The sin? Yes.’

‘Because you see how it offends God?’

‘Because my wife is dead.’

‘What you express is imperfect contrition – that which arises from our human apprehension of punishment and pain – rather than that perfect contrition which arises from the love of God. Nevertheless, it is all that the church requires.’

‘I know the theory, Father.’

‘And you have a firm purpose of amendment?’

‘I intend to be faithful to my second wife.’

‘I might now come to other matters – to envy, perhaps, to anger, pride …’

‘Ah, the Deadly Sins. Put me down for the whole seven. No, leave out sloth. Put in rather that I have been too diligent. A bit more sloth, and I might not have been so sinful in other directions.’

‘And then, calumny –’

‘That’s the politician’s stock-in-trade, Father.’

‘Again, Monsieur, when you were a child you were taught of the two sins against the Holy Ghost: Presumption and Despair.’

‘My tendency these days is more towards despair.’

‘You know I don’t speak of mundane matters – I speak of spiritual despair. Despair of salvation.’

‘No, I don’t despair of it. Who knows? God’s mercy is very strange. That’s what I say to myself.’

‘Monsieur, it is to your credit that you have come here today. You have set your foot upon the path.’

‘And what’s at the end of it?’

‘At the end of the path is the face of the crucified Christ.’

Danton shuddered. ‘So you will give me absolution?’

The priest inclined his head.

‘I’m not much of a penitent.’

 ‘God is willing to stretch a point.’ The priest raised his hand. He inscribed a cross on the air; he murmured the formula. ‘It is a beginning, M. Danton,’ he said.

A neurosurgeon confronts his death

This is the unedited version of my review of “And, Finally” by Henry Marsh, neureosuregon and author. The review is published in today’s Lancet https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(22)02089-X/fulltext. You can read the edited and surely better version there (if you register), but you might prefer to read the rougher and slightly longer version here.

When I worked at the BMJ I came to see that we had a glut of personal views that followed a horribly predictable pattern: “I thought I was a good doctor, then I became a patient and realised how different and awful it was to be a patient, now I’ll be a better doctor.” I wondered if they did become better doctors or simply reverted to type as the experience of being a patient wore off. We decided we’d had enough of these articles and banned them. Now Henry Marsh, neurosurgeon and deservedly a best-selling author of books on his experiences as a neurosurgeon, has written the extended, deluxe, literary version of the BMJ personal views.

Despite copying St Jerome and keeping a human skull on his desk as a memento mori, Marsh describes in And Finally: Matters of Life and Death how he simply couldn’t at first believe that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He had until that event “continued to think that illness happened to patients and not to doctors.” Anxious, unhappy, and feeling abandoned, Marsh realised “how anxious and unhappy so many of my patients must have been, and yet…I had chosen to turn a blind eye to this.” I put a ring round the word “chosen”: was it really a conscious choice or rather how doctors behave by habit to protect themselves? Marsh believed that after his diagnosis he would be a much better doctor if he could start all over again, but we won’t know as he has retired.

In his wonderful book Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery Marsh describes himself as “recklessly honest,” and that is what makes him an outstanding writer. “A writer should,” wrote Hemingway, “be of as great probity and honesty as a priest of God.” More honest, I might add, than doctors who find evasions of the truth essential in their craft. Through Marsh’s reckless honesty I learnt in that book that Marsh is arrogant, feeling himself superior to all the others in a supermarket queue, had a juvenile disdain for managers, and was patronising if affectionate to his juniors. In And Finally he describes a younger colleague who was “very different from me—quiet, thoughtful, immensely well-informed but modest, obsessional and infinitely patient.” Should we, I wondered, conclude that Marsh was loud, thoughtless, poorly informed, conceited, slapdash, and impatient? I hope not.

Once in hospital, Marsh observes, “patients become instantly dehumanised.” They are “still seen as an underclass.” Patients don’t tend to tell doctors what they really think of them, being quick with praise but hesitant with criticism, meaning that it’s easy for doctors “to become pleased with themselves.” “I’ll never know,” concludes Marsh, “what my patients really thought of me, but he does think self-deception “an important clinical skill.” This, he tells us, was a joke, in a book that is rarely funny. Later he tells trainee doctors to recognise the great power they have over patients and not to be corrupted by that power, but we all know that power does corrupt.

After a prolonged—too prolonged, I fear—preamble Marsh gets down to his diagnosis and confrontation with death in part two of the book. Like many doctors he delayed seeing a doctor about his urinary symptoms. He had a prostatic specific antigen (PSA) of 127, and “frantic, panic-struck googling” told him that most men with a PSA over a hundred are dead within a few years. He went for further tests, including a urine-flow test that left him feeling “I was entering my second childhood already and…being potty-trained all over again.” The nurse, he felt, looked at him with disapproval. Marsh asked the oncologist what was the chance that he would be alive in five years’ time, knowing that the answer was 30%. The oncologist answered unhelpfully that he needn’t write his will for five years (bad advice, of course, as everybody should have a will.)

The proximity of death threw Marsh into a torment, careering wildly between hope and despair. He worried about how he had broken news of a life-limiting illness to his patients. Had his tone of voice been too pessimistic? He discovered as well that false hope—“denial by another name”—was better than no hope. Perhaps the PSA reading was a mistake, perhaps he would respond “miraculously” to treatment. He learnt the “agony” of waiting for the results of tests. The silence from the hospital was unbearable. The reason was that the oncologist’s team kept changing. This is how bureaucratic errors that are minor to the hospital cause great suffering to patients.

The cancer had not metastasised, greatly and blessedly increasing Marsh’s chance of longer survival but ironically undermining the impact of a book on “matters of life and death.” I thought of Clive James, who wrote essays and poems about dying and was reduced to apologising for how long it was taking him to die. I know many people with diseases that would have killed them within months when I was a junior doctor who now go on for years, creating a challenge for the many people writing books and blogs about dying. The dying playwright Denis Potter recorded his famous interview about dying—perhaps the best of recent dying accounts—in March 1994 and died in June that year. Perhaps it’s better to write your account of “matters of life and death” when you are old but don’t actually have a diagnosis of a life-limiting illness. This was the strategy adopted by Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, who was in his mid-80s when he wrote his wonderful and elegiac Waiting for the Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death. All these books and the nationwide mourning for the death of the cancer campaigner Deborah James, “bowel babe,” are examples of what the sociologist Lyn Lofland has called “thanatological chic”: far from being denied “death is the new black.”

As Marsh moves beyond his initial terror he becomes more philosophical, reflecting that it may be better to die of cancer in your 70s than spend 15 years living with dementia. I was heartily abused for advancing the same idea in a blog that unfortunately “went viral,” but most doctors, I find, think the same. Marsh thinks too that it would be awful to young again and that the problems he is experiencing could almost be called healthy. To think that living longer is what matters most in life is, he says, “pathetic.” He finds the thought of a world populated by more and more old people “horrible.”

Treated by chemical castration and radiotherapy, Marsh acquires “the plump and hairless body of a eunuch” and looks “rather like an outsize geriatric baby.” Not only does he not miss his libido and erections he is glad to be rid of them thinking of all the misery they had caused and of the “madness–which feels divine but is often absurd—that comes with falling in love.”

In Do No Harm Marsh wondered about “the way we cling so tightly to life and how there would be so much less suffering if we did not.” But he also recognised that “healthy people…including myself, do not understand how everything changes once you have been diagnosed with a fatal illness.” Oddly, despite the constant presence of death in his work as a neurosurgeon he rarely had “to confront death face to face.” Even for neurosurgeons “death has become sanitised and remote.” Patients conveniently went elsewhere to die. This is perhaps what leads him to think that dying is only rarely easy. Many who work with the dying day to day would not agree.

One way that neurosurgeons encounter patients dying of prostate cancer is when the cancer spreads to the vertebrae and presses on the spinal cord. Neurosurgeons may be able to operate to decompress the spinal cord the vertebrae may collapse and cause paralysis of the legs and incontinence. Patients in this final stage are described poetically by neurosurgeons as “sawn off.” (In South London we use that phrase to describe people who are “a sandwich short of a picnic.”) There is no point in admitting “sawn off” patients to a neurosurgical ward, and Marsh tell us how he “balled out my junior” for admitting such a patient. Marsh then had the painful task of spelling out to the patient that he would never recover any independence and probably wouldn’t even be able to go home.

Worrying that dying can be awful, Marsh asks a doctor friend “to promise to help me when the end comes, if necessary.” The friend agrees. Marsh recognises that this is one of the privileges of being a doctor and launches into clearly written arguments for assisted dying. I particularly enjoyed his reference to the “wild illogicality” of it being illegal to help somebody do something that is not illegal.

With his reckless honesty Marsh thanks his editor for “sorting out the muddle with which I presented her.” I think that she was only partially successful. Marsh riffs on many subjects, including Ukraine, which he visited for 20 years, his compulsion to make things, and the fairy stories he spins every night for his granddaughters, and I often wondered why I was reading what I was reading, although all the riffs have some value. But Marsh does solve the difficult problem of how to end a book well by thinking back on the youth of his mother in German as the Nazis came to power, looking at a beautiful picture of his mother (which is included in the book), and feeling “past, present and future all combined in one whole.”