Category Archives: Notes on Readings

“The O of ecstasy”

I wrote this originally as a Facebook Note. 

A personal hero of mine died yesterday. The great poet Richard Wilbur was 96.

He wrote beautifully, embracing form and tradition to plumb the truth of “the things of this world.” (The title of one of his books of poetry, taken from one of his most famous poems.) He described our world with all the innocence of a faithful eye:

“Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment
Of panes, the turbine-vent which natural law
Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof …”

Even something as ordinary as peeled onion became transformed, or rather was seen in a higher light:

“How the shucked tunic of an onion, brushed
To one side on a backlit chopping-board
And rocked by trifling currents, prints and prints
Its bright, ribbed shadow like a flapping sail.”

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Column: “Hysterical sex”

Famous writers playing word games. Published on July 30, 2013.

Spoiler alert: This column is entirely, unapologetically, about writers and writing.

Last week, three literary lions of late 20th-century London gathered in New York City to read and make merry. “The occasion,” wrote Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times, “was a rare joint appearance by Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, the literary equivalent of a concert by the Three Tenors—or perhaps a friendlier version of the Yalta conference, with three longtime allies jostling to carve up whatever territory might still be controlled by big-dude British literary novelists of a certain age.”
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Column: One who got it all wrong

In which I criticize one beloved icon and source of Rizal studies. Published on October 19, 2010.

I apologize for writing, yet again, about Rizal. The feedback I got from last week’s column on Padre Damaso and the rape of Pia Alba persuades me that the Philippines remains incomprehensible without reference to the national hero. (To be sure, I am writing a book on Rizal, and the very act of writing makes me susceptible to just the sort of feedback I got last week!) Continue reading

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Column: The rape of Pia Alba

After Carlos Celdran pulled off his cinematic Damaso protest on the altar steps of the Manila Cathedral, opinion writers (myself included) joined the fray. Published on October 12, 2010.

Two columns in the wake of Carlos Celdran’s Damaso protest got me thinking about the vexing relationship between Maria Clara’s mother and Padre Damaso, and about the meaning of Damaso himself. On reflection, I must say it was the historian Ambeth Ocampo who got it wrong, and the anthropologist Michael Tan who got it right. Continue reading

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Column: Aquino and the “mouthpiece”

A conclusion. Published on September 28, 2010.

The photographs from last week’s seven-minute meeting between President Benigno Aquino III and US President Barack Obama are rich in nuance. Allow me to add another possible layer of meaning: the Indonesian connection. First, both presidents have suddenly cancelled state visits to Jakarta, because of domestic politics (Obama cancelled twice). And second, Obama has a statue in the Indonesian capital, showing him as a little boy, to mark the years he spent in the city; because of a backlash, the statue (built with private funds) was moved from a public park to the grounds of the government school he attended. In contrast, Aquino doesn’t have a statue in Jakarta, but should. I don’t mean a monument or a marker of himself, but of a Filipino whose cause the President can advocate and make his own when he meets, finally, with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Continue reading

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Column: Aquino and the “evangelist”

A continuation. Published on September 21, 2010.

President Aquino’s once-postponed state visit to Indonesia, tentatively rescheduled for October, may profit from a detour through the steppes of Siberia. A side trip only in the imagination, I must add, but one that helps place the influence of both Jose Rizal and the Philippine Revolution on Indonesia’s nationalist awakening in a new, perhaps brighter, light.

It involves the memory of a controversial Indonesian mestizo (an “Indo”) whom biographer Paul van der Veur calls “the evangelist for Indonesian political nationalism”—the very first, in fact, to demand independence for Indonesia, and who spread the good news through his work in journalism and political organizing. “The Eurasian E. F. E. Douwes Dekker, through agitation and the establishment of a real independence party, the Indische Partij (Party of the Indies), was the first to make a major contribution in the field of political nationalism.” DD, as he was more familiarly known, was a grand-nephew of Eduard Douwes Dekker, who as Multatuli wrote “Max Havelaar,” the searing anti-colonial novel which preceded “Noli me tangere.” Continue reading

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Column: Aquino and “the troublemaker”

From September to October, I had the good fortune to be allowed to go on book-writing leave. The following column, and the two that come after, were written as I was first coming to grips with the research I had done (or failed to do); they were, I guess, a way of writing a book by other means. This first column was published on September 14, 2010.

The distinction does not belong to Executive Secretary Jojo Ochoa, who looks more and more like President Aquino’s weakest link; or Undersecretary Rico Puno, who revealed yesterday morning in a TV interview with Anthony Taberna that he is not playing hardball with the country’s jueteng lords; or my friend Billy Esposo, whose dismaying descent into factionalism has him all but foaming at the mouth, describing erstwhile allies as enemies of the state, and “stray dogs.”

The title refers, instead, to Jose Rizal himself, as Sukarno, Indonesia’s charismatic founding president, described him in yet another rousing speech in 1962. “And I also ask the United States of America, is it true if people say, for instance, that the independence of the Philippines was the result of the troublemaker Jose Rizal y Mercado, or Aguinaldo? No!” Continue reading

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Kermode, the sense of an ending

A sample of the many sendoffs to the great literary critic Frank Kermode, whose books helped give shape to my reading:

The New York Times: “I wanted to write about Kermode because I admired him. In my years in academia, I had watched the study of literature go down any number of rabbit holes — chasing after theory and ideology and system. The very point of reading and talking about what we read seemed to have been lost in a kind of strangulating self-seriousness and alienation. That’s where Kermode came in.”

The Telegraph: “Kermode had initially been a scholar of the Renaissance, notably of Shakespeare, Spenser and Donne, but he came to the attention of fellow academics with Romantic Image (1957), a study of the use of imagery in poetry by romantic and modern writers.”

“He continued thereafter to combine Renaissance and modern studies, but in both his preoccupations remained broadly the same – the relationship between art and order, and that between writers and the changing world of which they had tried to form a coherent vision.” Continue reading

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Column: Worth a life

Published on August 24, 2010.

A change of pace, from the political: Frank Kermode, the finest literary critic of our time, passed away last week, at the age of 90. I discovered him—that is to say, for myself—in the 1980s, when I was haunting the airy rooms of the British Council when it was still based in a converted house in New Manila. Finding him was a fruit of that habit that a reader who has no means of income quickly learns to make his own: inhabiting the spaces between bookshelves for hours on end. It was, in other words, pure accident, the result of one book, one author’s name, leading to another.

At least that is how I remember it, of how I came to fall under his spell. It seems a long way from the common rooms of Cambridge or the Isle of Man to the tragicomic reality of Philippine politics and journalism, but I did learn at least two formative lessons from two decades of reading Kermode. (It should come as no surprise to his devoted readers that he wrote a charming piece on the very notion of “formation,” too.) Bear with me. Continue reading

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Column: “Shadow of Doubt”: Concurring opinion

The second of a two-part review of the must-read book of the year. Published April 6, 2010.

Last week, I outlined some of my reserv-ations about the must-read book of 2010, Marites Vitug’s “Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court.” My attempt to sketch a fuller picture was part of a two-step process. “I thought, borrowing the conceit of legal language, I might devote much of today’s column to a dissenting opinion, as it were,” I wrote then. “Next week, the concurring opinion follows.”

Herewith, the second step. Continue reading

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The proper task of the critic

Found a note I made just about 20 years ago, in which I copied the definition of “the proper task of the (social) critic,” as defined by J. Peter Euben, a university professor writing for the New York Times, in his review of “The Company of Critics,” by Michael Walzer:

exposing false appearances of his own society and pointing at the systematic abuse of power; giving expression to his people’s deepest sense of how they ought to live, using the common language which he raises to a new pitch of intensity and argumentative power; reiterating the regulative principles by which one might set things right; and insisting that there are other forms of falseness and other, equally legitimate, hopes and aspirations. Such a critic is bound but never wholly bound to the life he shares with others. He is never uncritical of those in power or of his allies whose similar complaints he often regards as wrongly directed or incompletely stated. He is at once inside and outside, a member apart, a critical patriot, civilly disobedient, committed to a democratic politics that is never democratic enough.

Something about this nuanced formulation (a response to Walzer’s idea of “connected criticism”) struck me in the gut when I first read it, years before I became a full-time journalist. Indeed, the phrase “at once inside and outside” stuck in my head, as a noble ideal of writing and a neat summing-up of the writer’s ideal life. I still think the same way today.

Of course, when I first read it, I had no idea that in 20 years’ time I would be able to find the original review online and, if only I owned a Kindle, buy the book off Amazon — “in under a minute”!

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The Fili, in the original Spanish

A 1990 reprinting of the 1891 Ghent (first) edition. A PDF file, also found online

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The Noli, in the original Spanish

Some kind soul uploaded the  original, Berlin edition to Scribd.

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Updike at Rest

A favorite author passed away yesterday, in Massachusetts.

At 4:57 am, I received the following message from good friend Gibbs Cadiz: “Just in: John Updike dead at 76.” He knew I admired the man and master.

When I started this blog, I did capsule reviews of some books I thought said something about me: It was, so to speak, an About Me in books. Of the many Updike books I could have reviewed, I chose More Matter:

John Updike: More Matter: Essays and Criticism
Perhaps John Updike’s best stuff is in some of his short stories, his poignant, precise miniatures of American suburbia, but boy can the man write sweepingly, paint the broadest canvas. In his criticism, he displays a generosity of vision that matches his panoramic gifts, his Nabokovian ease in writing exactly and yet ecstatically. More Matter is the fifth collection of his essays and criticism, after Assorted Prose, Picked-Up Pieces, Hugging the Shore, and Odd Jobs. (The first volume is the only one I haven’t read yet.) He pokes fun at his own prodigious productivity (“more matter,” he quotes Queen Gertrude telling Polonius, “with less art”); even he knows the sheer volume of his output diminishes scholarly and critical interest in him. But I suppose he can’t help himself from writing (and publishing). More Matter includes learned, writerly disquisitions on freedom and equality, religion and literature, and reconsiderations of American past masters. But inside every syntopical impulse, I guess, beats the pulse of the miniaturist. Updike’s short essays on iconic photographs, for example, shine brilliantly, like unfading colors in a book of hours. A powerful anthology, searchingly intelligent.

The New Yorker’s open line for tributes: Remembering Updike

Jay Parini’s take, in the Guardian (there are others): American Splendor

Michiko Kakutani’s appreciation: Updike Made the Mundane into a Saga

Salon’s appraisal: John Updike’s Life and Work (from 2000)

Not least, James Fallows’ blog post: “When a figure of this stature passes…”


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Ethan Zuckerman, Michael Holroyd–and Arnel Pineda

It's already been two and a half years since I started reading Ethan Zuckerman, but the Global Voices co-founder remains my favorite blogger. (He was in Manila in 2006: a big bear of a man, but open and friendly.) His blog posts, even the more technical ones, always strike me as deeply humanistic. To mis-appropriate famous jurist Felix Frankfurter's categories for measuring Franklin Delano Roosevelt: I sense through Ethan's writing a first-class intelligence in a first-class temperament. 

He reminds me of one afternoon I spent in the British Council's library, in its old digs in New Manila, when I stumbled on Michael Holroyd's introduction to the last volume of his exhaustive (exhausting?) life of George Bernard Shaw. This, I remember thinking, responding to Holroyd's massive, deeply appealing intelligence, is what the humanities are about. (And that is why I collect Holroyd's reminiscences. I have Works on Paper and Mosaic; I'm looking for Basil Street Blues. But that, as biographers and bloggers alike would say, is another story.)

Last month, Ethan wrote a moving meditation on the bridging of cross-cultural divides, with the now-famous Arnel Pineda, the new lead singer of Journey, in the role of makeshift bridge.

I’ve been researching stories that help demonstrate how the Internet has helped people make connections across cultural boundaries… and the ways in which it’s fallen short of its potential to do so. One of the stories that’s fascinated me is the story of how Filipino singer Arnel Pineda became the new lead singer of US rock band, Journey.

He explained what he saw in the story.

I’m interested in the story because it seems like a realization of the highest aspirations some of us had for the internet when it entered the public consciousness in 1994. Here was a space that promised a common ground, a level playing field for people around the world to share their ideas and talents. (Needless to say, it’s never been truly level, as barriers of language, education and access make it likely that many geniuses living in rural Africa will go undiscovered.) The internet hints at a truly globalized world, one where the best person for the job has a chance at it, no matter what her accident of birth; a world where the best idea, invention or performance might win out despite the origins of its author.

Of course, that quasi-verb "seems" tells us there is more to Arnel Pineda's story than the clear triumph an Internet pioneer would have liked to see. As we say in Tagalog, abangan!

(Stick around for the comments, too; a Filipino, apparently — and unfortunately — using a handle instead of a real name, affectingly translates an evocative phrase.)


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Another reading of Solzhenitsyn

Last month, I marked the passage of a writer for the ages by appropriating a line from one of his novels and applying it to the ancestral domain controversy in Mindanao. But I was working in the office with a quote from one of the many wire stories on the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. When I got home, I looked him up in Pritchett (a photocopy of the 1,300-page Complete Essays, bound in two volumes — possibly the most important thing I have in my library, but that's another story), to see what my favorite critic had written about the Russian dissident.

Pritchett, as it turns out, thought very highly of Solzhenitsyn. "As a novelist Solzhenitsyn is very much in the powerful tradition of the nineteenth-century Russian novel as it appears in the prophet-preacher writings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, now one, now the other; as a polemical writer, in the tradition of Belinsky and Herzen." And again: "And now [apropos of Cancer Ward] we see Solzhenitsyn's mastery as a novelist: he is able to see the consoling contradictions of human nature and how they fertilize character." And yet again: "The density of Solzhenitsyn's texture owes everything to the ingenious interlocking of incidents that are really short stories. This is the form in which he excels."

But Pritchett's review used a different translation of the key passage from First Circle ("a secret government") I dared to use in my column. The difference is slight, but instructive.

"… a great writer — forgive me, perhaps I shouldn't say this, I'll lower my voice — a great writer is so to speak a second government, that's why no regime anywhere has ever loved its great writers only its minor ones."

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Guilty pleasures

Summer's books
Between the end of March and the first week of June, I bought 26 books, most of them second-hand, all of them at a discounted price. (It has been ages since I paid full price for a book.) One day I decided to stack them up, one  on top of another. How many have I read? I’ve finished reading three in full; four more books fall under the heading “largely read.” One book remains unopened. My good friend Vic was right, when he reproved me all those years ago: I bought books not only to read them, he said, but to possess them. Guilty as charged.

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Best quote (ever) on writing

My money’s on this line from a letter Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter “Scottie”:

All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.

I don’t know why, but maybe because I am not a good swimmer, the image appeals deeply to me. It certainly has great explanatory power; I’ve used it many times, in classes and seminars, since at least the mid-1990s.

I found the line in a book of Fitzgerald’s letters, which I bought in 1988 or 1989, when good friend Gigi brought me to a wonderful second-hand bookstore somewhere in Greater L.A. Still have the book, although I found out today that the line is actually the first quotation listed in Fitzgerald’s Wikiquote page. Breathe deeply.

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More about used books

As it turns out, my copy of Picked-Up Pieces is with good friend Exie Abola. That means one less excuse, I mean book, to scour the used books bins for. For a good scouring, I would recommend Buy the Book, a bookstore in Walter Mart Pasay Road where Powerbooks sells assorted used books. Last month, to give a for instance, I bought seven books: The Meaning of Recognition by Clive James (hardback), The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (in one of those big fat paperback formats I like very much), an immaculate Monte D’Urban by the unfortunately neglected J. F. Powers, A Serious Way of Wondering by Reynolds Price, State of Denial (the third volume, hardback, of Bush at War) by Bob Woodward, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (still in its shrink-wrapping) by the eminent Gordon Wood, and — not least, at least as an experiment — A Case of Two Cities, a gritty crime thriller (hardback) set in Shanghai, by Qiu Xiaolong. Total damage: About P1,100 (a third of it for the latest James collection). The week before I had seen a copy of The Meaning of Recognition in Powerbooks Greenbelt, retailing for something like P1,800. So, yes, I felt good. Then I started to read Welty, and realized I had seriously underpaid.

The first story I read was “A Piece of News,” which includes the scene of a young, slow-witted woman encountering her name in a newspaper for the first time. Damn thing blew me away.


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Used books

We all have our reasons, I guess, for frequenting used books bookstores. Mine has a strong element of serendipity: Would I have even known about Alec Wilkinson’s affectionate if not entirely sympathetic memoir of the great editor and fictionist William Maxwell, if I had not bumped into “My Mentor” while combing through the bins in Baguio last December? But it isn’t all discovery either. I am also looking for particular books: books I’ve read before and would like to read again, books like Reflections without Mirrors, by Louis Nizer or Picked Up Pieces, by John Updike (I used to have a copy, but I can’t find it anymore).

If you see any of them, give me a shout out.


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The man with the blue guitar

Man_with_a_blue_guitar I didn’t think I’d find Wallace Stevens in China, especially not in the heavily touristed water village of Zhouzhuang, but there he was, a shearsman of sorts, not at all bent over but standing upright with his blue guitar. They said, “You have a blue guitar,/ You do not play things as they are.”/ The man replied, “Things as they are/ Are changed upon the blue guitar.” And, yes, the day was green. (Read Miranda Gaw on one of Stevens’ most famous poems, long or short.)

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Between Deadlines: Christmas in the Senate

The December 22 issue featured Leila Salaverria on Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez’s late night monitoring the non-release of convicted child rapist Romy Jalosjos; Dona Pazzibugan’s revealing round-up of politically aligned Christmas parties in the Senate; Jocelyn Uy on Joseph Estrada’s complaint against Inquirer coverage; and Abigail Ho on PSALM’s attempt at a transparent bidding.

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A small, personal voice

Doris Lessing, 50 years ago:

“The novel is the only popular art-form left where the artist speaks directly, in clear words, to his audience…. The novelist talks as an individual to individuals, in a small personal voice. In an age of committee art, public art, people any begin to feel again a need for the small personal voice; and this will feed confidence into writers and, with confidence because of the knowledge of being needed, the warmth and humanity, and love of people which is essential for a great age of literature.”

A couple of hours ago, Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The story in the New York Times noted that, at the time of writing, her agent didn’t know whether she had heard the news, since she was still out, shopping.

Could the author of The Golden Notebook be the first laureate to actually have her own website?

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Notes on Coates’ Rizal: Medieval Twilight

Coates seeks to put Rizal in his proper place among Asia’s pioneer nationalists. He may at times err on the side of hagiography —- “Every one of his early ideas had to be evolved in silence, his only aid being books and his own observation” —- but then who can fail to be impressed by Rizal’s many qualities?

He is compelling in his treatment of Tagalog poetry, and its role in Rizal’s relationship with his mother and the hero’s own role in the making of a nation. A Tagalog poem Rizal wrote when he was eight, for instance, “embodies Rizal’s earliest known revolutionary utterance —- that Tagalog was the equal of Spanish, English, Latin or any other language, and that moreover it was the Filipinos’ own.”

He reminds us of Rizal’s scrupulousness in the handling of facts, a discipline he learned from his own family’s example. “If he ever told a lie in his life there is no reliable evidence of it. The volumes of his correspondence are in content a monument of factual accuracy.”

He fully evokes Rizal’s first infatuation (with Segunda Catigbac, of Lipa; surely a member of the famous Katigbak clan) and Rizal’s first love (Leonor Rivera, she of the almond eyes, the devoted correspondence).

He recreates the hero’s student days at the Ateneo Municipal and at UST —- with a bit of help from Rizal’s own student memoirs.

Above all, in these first chapters, he captures the uncertainty, the “medieval twilight,” of a distant colony ruled by friars.

“In the Spanish Philippines there was no such thing as public opinion, still less divergent lines of it … There was in fact no opinion; it was as simple as that. There was God’s will, as made known by Spanish friars.”

And: “The scene of Rizal’s youth is set in the brilliant sunlight of the tropics; but the mental climate in which people moved was one of perpetual semi-darkness, a medieval twilight in which nothing could be seen clearly, nothing was known for sure, and no one could decide or move on a determined course because no one could say where they were going.”

It is a semi-darkness those of us who lived through martial rule, a hundred years after Rizal was in school, remember all too well.

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Notes on Coates’ Rizal: Introduction

It starts with a bang. “There was to be a public execution, and consequently the streets and buildings were hung with flags. A day of execution was a fiesta.”

If one were writing a biography of Rizal, the day of his execution wouldn’t be a bad place to start. It is the defining moment; besides, it is the most celebrated event in an eventful life. No use keeping it till the end.

A phrase leaps up, recommends itself to memory: “It was the tropics’ apology for winter, the start of another warm blue day …” A detail engagingly imagined (or so I imagine) makes a vivid impression: “the hems of their long skirts [even ladies turn out before 7 am to watch the execution] dampened a little here and there by the dew which still lay on the grass.”

But the rest of the Introduction makes for slow reading. In part, it must be the dated attitudes, which force me to shift in my chair or look up from the book. “His eyes … came out to meet whomever they looked at, as European eyes do.” Or: “He had very little European blood, yet in the broad forehead, the high, straight nose, the firm chin and perceptive lips, could be sensed at once a mental affinity to Europe, expressed through an Asian physique.” [And what, exactly, are Rizal’s lips perceiving?)

But in part it must also be the sweeping statements, the straining-after-universality of a frustrated novelist, that effectively postpone the suspension of disbelief, the reader’s willing embrace of the author. “As he passed, there was silence, while people stared, some in surprise, others with concern, and all with the uneasy sense of being confronted by something they did not fully understand.” All? Every single one?

In the succeeding chapters in Part I, Coates indulges this suspect gift too.

In I: “Comparison with other countries, other histories and other contemporary events are the essence of ideas and change …” Is comparison, in fact, the essence of change?

In IV: “A crucial moment in family life often precipitates a wise decision, one that has perhaps lain somewhere beneath the surface, unable to find expression.” Well, yes, but it can also, and perhaps even more often, precipitate unwise decisions —- precisely because of the pressure of the moment.

In V: “It is a truism that men who achieve something notable in their lives are born at the right time and place.” I certainly think that heroes rise to the occasion; in that sense, they ARE at the right time and place. But surely the accident of birth is another matter. Churchill was an old man when he finally became Prime Minister; it took a Galileo to complete Copernicus’ revolution.

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