I wouldn’t be the person I am, I wouldn’t understand what I understand, were it not for certain books. I’m thinking of the great question of nineteenth-century Russian literature: how should one live? A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.

– Susan Sontag, “The Art of Fiction No. 143,” The Paris Review (No. 137, Winter 1995)

Taste has become so debauched in the thirty years I’ve been writing that now simply to defend the idea of seriousness has become an adversarial act. Just to be serious or to care about things in an ardent, disinterested way is becoming incomprehensible to most people. Perhaps only those who were born in the 1930s—and maybe a few stragglers—are going to understand what it means to talk about art as opposed to art projects. Or artists as opposed to celebrities.

– Susan Sontag, “The Art of Fiction No. 143,” The Paris Review (No. 137, Winter 1995)

How did the nation’s home-dwellers, whether homemakers or not, spend their free time? Not on the whole in reading, let alone self-improving reading. A Mass-Observation survey in the summer of 1947, carried out among almost a thousand Tottenham residents, revealed that ‘“reading” was given as the favourite hobby by three in ten of the middle class, by two in ten of the skilled working class, and by one in ten of the unskilled’. Almost half the sample said they never read books at all, but only one in ten went without reading a daily paper (the Daily Mirror, the News Chronicle, the Daily Herald and the Daily Express being the most popular), and a mere one in 20 did not read a Sunday paper (with three out of five favouring the News of the World).

– David Kynaston, Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 (2007)

Enid Palmer was in her late 20s when in April 1948 – after military nursing service in India and Burma followed by a lengthy stay with her parents in Kenya – she disembarked at Liverpool and caught the train to London. […] ‘England’s countryside is beautiful,’ she wrote, ‘but there are too many restrictions – everything is crowded & there are queues everywhere.’ And: ‘Life is narrow and bound by documents.’ And again: ‘There is one standard topic of conversation in England – “coupons”, “food”, “clothes”.’ She was also rather dismayed by the lack of hygiene, and one day in London, finding herself near Victoria station, she did the enterprising thing:

I found a public Baths building – after queuing for an hour got a good hot bath for 6d. It was most enjoyable as it was 6 days since I had had one. They are short of coalite here. Today Uncle George said, ‘You may have a bath today’. I am afraid he runs this house. I was rather amused at being told when I may have a bath. Nobody else seems to have a bath except Uncle George who has one on Sunday night.

– David Kynaston, Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 (2007)

‘Programmes must at all cost be kept free of crudities, coarseness and innuendo,’ insisted the BBC Variety Programmes Policy Guide For Writers & Producers (generally known as ‘The Green Book’), a long-lived document assembled and taking force during the second half of 1948. ‘Humour must be clean and untainted directly or by association with vulgarity and suggestiveness. Music hall, stage, and to a lesser degree, screen standards, are not suitable to broadcasting . . . There can be no compromise with doubtful material. It must be cut.’ The following were the subject of ‘an absolute ban’:

Jokes about –


Effeminacy in men

Immorality of any kind

Suggestive references to –

Honeymoon couples


Fig leaves


Ladies’ underwear, e.g. winter draws on

Animal habits, e.g. rabbits


Commercial travellers

Extreme care should be taken in dealing with references to or jokes about –

Pre-natal influences (e.g. ‘His mother was frightened by a donkey’)

Marital infidelity

Good taste and decency are the obvious governing considerations.

The vulgar use of such words as ‘basket’ must also be avoided.

Religion, politics and physical infirmities were all heavily restricted areas, though ‘references to and jokes about drink are allowed in strict moderation so long as they can really be justified on entertainment grounds’. As for expletives, ‘they have no place at all in light entertainment and all such words as God, Good God, My God, Blast, Hell, Damn, Bloody, Gorblimey, Ruddy, etc, etc, should be deleted from scripts and innocuous expressions substituted’.

– David Kynaston, Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 (2007)

While someone who has a gay identity is doing more than simply acknowledging the fact that he has homosexual desires, and someone who has an identity as a black person, identifying with his or her African American identity, is doing more than simply acknowledging an African ancestry, it is nevertheless true that they are responding to a fact (about desire or ancestry) that is independent of their choices, a fact that comes, so to speak, from outside the self.

– Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (2005)

The names are excellent—an atmosphere of legendary melody spread over the land. Older than all epics and histories which clothe a nation, this undershirt sits close to the body. What history too, and what stores of primitive and savage observation it enfolds! Cambridge is the bridge of the Cam; Sheffield the field of the river Sheaf; Leicester the castra, or camp, of the Lear, or Leir (now Soar); Rochdale, of the Roch; Exeter or Excester, the castra of the Ex; Exmouth, Dartmouth, Sid-mouth, Teignmouth, the mouths of the Ex, Dart, Sid and Teign rivers. Waltham is strong town; Radcliffe is red cliff; and so on—a sincerity and use in naming very striking to an American, whose country is whitewashed all over by unmeaning names, the cast-off clothes of the country from which its emigrants came; or named at a pinch from a psalm-tune.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, English Traits (1853)

The disappearance of a widespread belief in the biological category of the Negro would leave nothing for racists to have an attitude toward. But it would offer, by itself, no guarantee that Africans would escape from the stigma of centuries. Extrinsic racists could disappear and be replaced by people who believed that the population of Africa had in its gene pool fewer of the genes that account for those human capacities that generate what is valuable in human life; fewer, that is, than in European or Asian or other populations. Putting aside the extraordinary difficulty of defining which genes these are, there is, of course, no scientific basis for this claim. A confident expression of it would therefore be evidence only of the persistence of old prejudices in new forms. But even this view would be, i n one respect, an advance on extrinsic racism. For it would mean that each African would need to be judged on his or her own merits. Without some cultural information, being told that someone is of African origin gives you little basis for supposing anything much about them.

– Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (1992)

I have found that Englishmen have such a good opinion of England, that the ordinary phrases in all good society, of postponing or disparaging one’s own things in talking with a stranger, are seriously mistaken by them for an insuppressible homage to the merits of their nation; and the New Yorker or Pennsylvanian who modestly laments the disadvantage of a new country, log-huts and savages, is surprised by the instant and unfeigned commiseration of the whole company, who plainly account all the world out of England a heap of rubbish.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, English Traits (1853)

The Englishman is intensely patriotic, for his country is so small. His confidence in the power and performance of his nation makes him provokingly incurious about other nations. He dislikes foreigners. Swedenborg, who lived much in England, notes “the similitude of minds among the English, in consequence of which they contract familiarity with friends who are of that nation, and seldom with others; and they regard foreigners as one looking through a telescope from the top of a palace regards those who dwell or wander about out of the city.” A much older traveller, the Venetian who wrote the “Relation of England,” in 1500, says: “The English are great lovers of themselves and of every thing belonging to them. They think that there are no other men than themselves and no other world but England; and whenever they see a handsome foreigner, they say that he looks like an Englishman and it is a great pity he should not be an Englishman; and whenever they partake of any delicacy with a foreigner, they ask him whether such a thing is made in his country.” When he adds epithets of praise, his climax is, “So English” and when he wishes to pay you the highest compliment, he says, “I should not know you from an Englishman.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, English Traits (1853)