A song of the past

Glen Newey died on the 30th of September, unexpectedly and far too soon (he was 56). Glen and I were acquaintances at best – our contacts between 1982 and 2017 amounted to one brief email exchange and a vague commitment to meet up when it was possible. I didn’t know him particularly well before 1982, come to that.

However, we were at the same Cambridge college for the same three years, and he did make an impression on me then. He certainly stood out. I remember thinking he looked like something out of Cold Comfort Farm – big-boned, raw complexion, blank, unyielding stare – and being surprised to hear through friends that he was one of the brighter and more hard-working students in his subject group, almost certainly heading for a First. To talk to he was reserved and brusque; he didn’t say much or invite small talk. (To talk to he was hard work, to be honest. Mind you, so was I.) He told me once he’d grown up in Guernsey. What was it like? I asked. “A shithole,” he said, then gave a small smile.

It was fourteen years after leaving Cambridge when I saw Glen’s name again, in the letters column, and subsequently in the main body, of the LRB. From his earliest review – of Habermas’s Between Facts and Norms – he had a distinctive style, a kind of punk donnishness. This isn’t just a matter of interleaving tightly-worded argument with references to Harry Secombe and the Great Train Robbery (“eligible conceptions of the good are unlikely to include those of Ronald Biggs”); Terry Eagleton would do as much. Glen went further, as in his reminiscences of a trip to Berlin:

In deference to the BSE brouhaha, posters in every public eatery in town vouchsafed that the dead quadruped on offer was rein deutscher Herkunft – of pure German origin; grim photos in Der Spiegel showed British bovines being shoved into Topf-style incinerators. Irony, or even memory, was at a discount.

The relentless tastelessness of the Nazi allusions here was very Glen, as was the combination of circumlocution and brutality with which it was delivered. When a reader from Frankfurt complained a couple of issues later, Glen declared himself “happy to make with the smoking calumet”, continuing:

I count Germans among my closest friends, some of whom I stay with when in Berlin. My Significant Other herself hails from the tribe – indeed, her mother is a proud alumna of the Hitler Youth’s female branch, with memorabilia which she showed off to me when I was first presented for her approval.

He then pointed out the flaw in his correspondent’s logic. He had fun.

A few years later, an article on the royal family – memorably headed “About as Useful as a String Condom” – gave Glen’s punk-donnish style free rein. Some correspondents found it a bit much, and I was inclined to agree. Well, sort of.

Letters, 20 February 2003
You describe Glen Newey as a reader in politics rather than Reader in Politics (LRB, 23 January). From this, and from his cheerful pee-po-belly-bum-drawers prose style, I infer that he is a first-year undergraduate shaping up for a career as president of the students’ union. It’s not too soon for him to learn some useful lessons.

First, to label a columnist more talented than yourself as ‘drek’, and a political journalist more serious than yourself as vacuous, may not convince your readers that you yourself are free from these defects. Second, it is a long time since anyone believed that abolition of the monarchy necessarily guaranteed the achievement of a democratic and egalitarian society. [continues]
– Anne Summers

(Along the way, Glen had characterised Jonathan Freedland as ‘vacuous’ and Julie Burchill as ‘drek’. Seems fairly mild, to be honest.)

Letters, 6 March 2003
I can set Anne Summers’s mind at rest on one point (Letters, 20 February): Glen Newey served his time as a first-year undergraduate several years ago, in a cohort including such eminences as Anatol Lieven and myself (parsing that last clause is left as an exercise for the reader). Like Summers and others, I found the style of Newey’s piece on the monarchy distracting; it suggested a sustained and ultimately rather laborious attempt to disguise his native tones as those of an intellectual Richard Littlejohn. Ars est celare artem, of course, but another time I’d rather have more of Glen’s own voice and less from his ars.
– Phil Edwards

I know, it’s dreadful. (Even the formulation is wrong – logically it should be ‘and’, not ‘but’.) By way of context, I was 42, I was midway through my doctorate, I was supporting myself as a freelance journalist – mainly writing opinion columns in computing magazines – and applying for interviews for academic jobs, none of which I got. So when the opportunity presented itself to demonstrate that I, too, could put a Cambridge education to the service of being rude in ornate language, of course I jumped at it. Not that it did me any good, and I’m not sure how I thought it would. Sympathetic magic, really; might as well flag down a flying saucer.

And that’s almost all I can say about Glen Newey. He went on writing for the LRB and became an established presence on the LRB blog. (And hey, I’ve written for the LRB blog too! Twice!) He did dial it down – a bit – but never lost that relish for épater le bourgeois, and épater la galérie while he was about it. It was seldom gratuitous. He knew that sometimes – more often than you might think – people need a bit of a shock to see things how they are; sometimes – more often than you might think – telling things how they are is shocking. Our paths crossed briefly a few years later, when he was at Keele and I was applying for a job there; we couldn’t arrange to meet on the day of the interview, though, and I didn’t get the job, so that was that. No ending; the story just stops.


Brian Barder died on the 19th of September. Brian started blogging in 2003; he was in his late sixties and a retired diplomat. When I started the forerunner of this blog, a couple of years later, Brian’s was one of the first I added to my blogroll. Back in the glory days of blogging (circa 2006-8), I commented regularly on his posts and he occasionally on mine, sometimes pursuing our debates through email. I agreed with him strongly on the merits and limits of the international legal order, in particular its lack of support for interventionist adventurism; I also shared his Old Labour loyalties and his heartfelt disdain for the New Labour crew, then very much in power.

We disagreed on other things; in particular, Brian took (what I would call) the conventional view that “terrorists” are beyond any conceivable pale, and that for states to take terrorist actors into account in any way when pursuing their own interests would be tantamount to succumbing to blackmail. I argued the opposing position at some length – pointing out, for example, that if an organised crime syndicate has recently started operating in a certain country, that country’s government will naturally take account of this fact when deciding whether to grant new casino licences, if only by managing things so as to frustrate the crime syndicate. Brian was immovable: the only principled response to terrorism was to say “I see no ships”. (And I’m not saying that he was wrong, necessarily. Certainly organised crime syndicates don’t set out to influence governments in the way that terrorist groups do.)

I was twenty-six years Brian’s junior, as well as having neither qualifications nor experience in a field where he had both; I’m sure he sometimes found my questions and comments impertinent or gauche. For all that, I found him almost invariably wise, thoughtful and kind, and was hugely gratified when he endorsed my readings of international law (most recently in 2013, with regard to R2P and Syria). If there was sometimes a touch of de haut en bas graciousness in there, he carried it off well.

Some time in the late 2000s, the glory days of blogging ground to a halt. When the music stopped I found that, as well as posting a lot less often, I was reading and replying to an almost completely different group of bloggers. So, farewell then, James C-M, Justin McK and Jarndyce; hello, Rodent, WbS and Splinty. A few bloggers from the first group made it into the second, and Brian was one of them. Brian last commented here in 2016, while my last comment at his place is as recent as June this year.

By then, however, a new and more serious disagreement between us had arisen. Old Labour though he was, Brian was never especially left-wing, and he had no time whatever for Jeremy Corbyn or his supporters. As well as distrusting Corbyn on foreign and defence policy – no small matters for a former diplomat – I think Brian simply couldn’t be doing with Corbyn as a politician; for him, I think Corbyn’s failure to control the PLP betrayed lack of power, charisma or both, while his personal scruffiness and penchant for mass meetings were the mark of a dilettante extremist.

I myself had opted for Corbyn even before I thought he had any chance of winning the leadership, and hadn’t seen any reason to waver in my support since then – certainly not since the election, in which Corbyn’s leadership was genuinely impressive. Given another couple of years I think even Brian might have been won round. Sadly, he didn’t have another couple of years. I’d known since earlier this year that Brian was suffering from a life-changing illness, but it barely even crossed my mind that the outcome might be worse than that. 83 is what we used to call ‘a good age’, but it doesn’t make the news of his passing any less of a shock. He leaves a gap in my life, even though I never met him, and I can only commiserate with all those who knew him much better than I did.

NB I didn’t ‘Sir’ Brian in life – entirely with his approval – and don’t intend to start now.

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