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Ancient and modern

Ancient & modern

Cold cabbage anyway (people didn’t like Brown? No!), Lord Mandelson’s memoirs read like the work of a robot with a dictaphone.

17 July 2010

12:00 AM

17 July 2010

12:00 AM

Cold cabbage anyway (people didn’t like Brown? No!), Lord Mandelson’s memoirs read like the work of a robot with a dictaphone.

Cold cabbage anyway (people didn’t like Brown? No!), Lord Mandelson’s memoirs read like the work of a robot with a dictaphone. Contrast the letters of the Roman statesman Cicero (106-43 bc).

‘I talk to you,’ Cicero said to his chum Atticus, ‘as though I were talking to myself,’ and in doing so he reveals the man: cultured, liberal and humane, witty and stylish, nervous, vain and indiscrete, but perhaps most of all, ever dependent for peace of mind on the views of others.


‘Think what I must be suffering,’ he tells Atticus, ‘when I am considered mad, if I say what is right about politics, servile, if I say what is expedient, defeated and helpless, if I say nothing.’ As a consequence, he spent most of his time vainly trying to determine the course of action by advising others — Pompey, Caesar, the young Octavian — rather than seizing the initiative himself.

He thought hard about principles. In a letter to Atticus at the start of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar, he says that, to prevent himself breaking down completely, he is asking himself the following questions: under a tyranny, should one — remain in one’s country? Try to abolish it, even if one thereby ruined the state? Try to help with words, or war? Brave any danger for the sake of liberation? And so on.

And there are constant delicious observations and dry asides. ‘Now that Tyrannio [his librarian] has arranged my books, the house has a soul’; ‘I see Livia has left Dolabella a ninth of her estate if he changes his name. Good question in social ethics: “Should a young noble change his name to benefit from a will?” We shall be able to answer more scientifically when we know what a ninth amounts to.’ On Caesar’s campaign in Britain (54 bc) and the slaves he will bring to market: ‘I don’t imagine one can expect any of them to have had a literary or musical education.’

Mandelson’s laboured memoirs, written with all the flair of the speaking clock, betray a man without doubts or introspection, without the slightest interest in, let alone insight into, other people, inert pieces in a mechanical game of his own construction. Prince of Darkness? Prince of Dimness more like.


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