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This month Catallus, the Holocaust, making money from Space and a new biography of Oxford big beast philosopher J.L. Austin

Published: 26 July 2023

Author: Richard Lofthouse


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Book jacket for Catallus

Switch: The Complete Catullus by Isobel Williams (31 August 2023, Carcanet Classics)

'Translating Catullus has been, for me, like cage fighting with two opponents, not just A Top Poet, but the schoolgirl I was, trained to show the examiner that she knew what each word meant.' So notes Isobel Williams (Somerville, 1972). But she’s done it in an extraordinary style that is razor-edged and completely 2023 – translation in the most vibrant sense. It’s often strikingly undergraduate and a welcome riposte to all the doomy codes that seem these days to police every action:

‘Come clean. That fuck-wasted look

Says you’ve done something regrettable.

Who is it?

Don’t worry about my reaction.’

Isobel published Shibari Carmina to great acclaim in 2021. Now in this volume, Catullus’ complete works. To the uninitiated, the illustrations within a Japanese bondage tradition (shibari) are accomplished, graceful and always suggestive, but the words are frequently, as one critic put it, ‘bracingly foul.’ What’s going on? Williams has sketched live performances of Japanese rope bondage at fetish clubs; she came to the view that it was a perfect metaphor for the voluntary emotional enslavement of a bisexual, vicious, hopelessly romantic Roman poet, whose works remain compelling after 2000 years. He is the switch of the title – oscillating between dominant and submissive. At the very end a note of caution: ‘Please do not try shibari without instruction.’


Kinder and Kino, book jacket

Kino and Kinder: A family’s journey in the Shadow of the Holocaust, by Vivien Sieber (i2i Publishing, 2022)

Although published last year, this book has just come to us and in light of the ongoing abduction of thousands Ukrainian children to Russia and Belarus it seems particularly resonant, and disturbing, in the summer of 2023.

The author, a former Churchill Hospital post-doc and member of the then Green College from 1987, says, ‘the book tells the story of my grandmother Paula Sieber who owned the cinema Palast Kino in Vienna before becoming a refugee in 1938. She became the second matron in a hostel for girls saved by the Kindertransport whilst my father was interned and the first enemy alien to serve in the Royal Navy.

The rise of antisemitism in Germany and Austria is recorded by children who experienced it. Much of this history is told using contemporaneous writings – journals, letters, archive documents along with adult reflections on their experiences of the girls cared for in the hostels. The girls describe leaving their families, their journeys on Kindertransport and adjusting to hostel life. Their writing is heartrending and provides a straightforward introduction to their experience. What happened to the cinema during the war and Paula's battle to have it restored was reconstructed using papers from the State and City Archives.

With over 80 evocative original photographs the terrible story of twentieth century genocide is told through the lives and writing of the survivors.’


Book jacket for The Space Economy

The Space Economy: Capitalize on the Greatest Business Opportunity of Our Lifetime by Chad Anderson (Wiley, 2023)

The author (St Hugh’s, 2012) attended Oxford’s business school having previously run a large real estate fund for an investment bank. He pivoted to space entrepreneurship while still wearing an investor/venture capital hat. This reviewer like many readers will then, presumably, shake their heads and consider that space exploration is where tax payer money disappears at a frightening rate. Chad would argue otherwise, in particular citing 2012 as a pivotal moment, the year that Elon Musk successfully sent its Dragon capsule to the International Space Station before safely returning to earth. On page 7 he offers a dramatic graph showing financial takeoff in the sector – from $3 billion in venture money in the four-year period 2002-6, to $158 billion between 2017-21. Under the banner heading of ‘inexpensive orbital access’ Chad goes on to extol his key colleague Tom Ingersoll; remind us that every time we use our phone or car sat nav we are part of the space economy; decry all the froth and all the money that will get wasted on this sector unnecessarily, and finally bring it all down to earth by explaining how ‘most of the Space Economy’s economic potential for today’s entrepreneurs lies in leveraging the data provided by satellites with new software applications.’ His point is that satellites are unobtrusively linked to almost everything. Fortunes will be made and fortunes will be lost, but the private, commercial side of this industry is an interesting place to pay attention to whether in search of a career or a 'not a widow or an orphan' type of investor.


Book jacket for J.L. Austin

J.L. Austin, Philosopher & D-Day Intelligence Officer by M.W. Rowe (Oxford University Press, 2023)

As we have noted recently on QUAD, the story of Oxford’s role in the service of World War Two intelligence, via staff and students, remains fragmentary and in large part unacknowledged, principally because of the Official Secrets Act rather than deliberate neglect. One possible (and striking) conclusion to take from this superb biography is that John Langshaw Austin may have been more important for his role in World War Two military intelligence than his philosophical thinking, viewed over the long run. At least you could take that view, resulting in a complete upheaval in our understanding of him and despite that fact that approximately a thousand times more words have been written about Austin the philosopher than Austin the WW2 intelligence officer.

Look at the situation. Rowe takes nearly 400 pages to arrive at what traditionally has been taken as the starting gun on Austin’s ‘main’ career, his post-war ascent in Oxford as a plain language philosopher. He was cut short by lung cancer and died in 1960. He did not publish much and by general agreement his grip on Oxford philosophy was partly down to his terrifying manner, long since dissipated.

Yet this same individual Austin left the army with the rank of lieutenant colonel and was honoured for his intelligence work with an OBE, the French Croix de Guerre, and the U.S. Officer of the Legion of Merit. We find out here not only about the D-Day intelligence for which he had already been cited, but his minor-major role in cottoning on to what Germany was planning to do in North Africa and making the high-ups take notice, a much more delicate and earlier juncture in the war, when an Allied victory was totally up in the air. Austin also played a major role in the intelligence side of the Ardennes counter-offensive mounted by Hitler in the winter of 1944-5. He was one of those individuals who was famous among his immediate colleagues for his mind and his work ethic rather than his ability to party.

Having said that he was nearly killed gawping at a night time London blitz from a roof top - a fashionable thing to do if you were posh or fancied your chances. 

Aside from the war, Oxford looms large as it might. Austin attended Balliol in 1929; before the war he was at Magdalen as a don, and after it as the White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Corpus (from 1952-).

It is not for this tiny review of an evidently great book to wade in on the philosophy, but it’s interesting to note the degree to which Austin appears to have struck very different appearances to very different audiences; kind and generous in private or in supervisory roles towards students, but formidable in public or in combat. All the ‘a’ words exude from this book like linguistic toothpaste. Acid, ascerbic, astringent, arrogant, and most of all austere.

So scared were other philosophers of wrongly deploying language, that they lowered their scope to the detriment of debate, philosophy and maybe even the University. ‘Papers tended to concentrate on small verbal matters, and be unambitious, short, and read very slowly.’ It was an intensely critical air that prevailed, Austin at the top. Years later there was a tendency to couch questions in convoluted layers of caveat, noted a contemporary. This excessive caution came to define bits of Oxford well into the late 20th Century and even beyond, not just in philosophy but in ordinary matters of college management. That was a shame.

On a lighter note there was a bottled, non-alcoholic apple drink Austin would pick up for his children alarmingly called Cidrax! That was when he and his wife Jean, an alumna of Somerville, had moved to a large house in Old Marston.

Jean outlived John by over half a century, and only after her death in 2016 did the copious evidence emerge for this study in the form of cardboard boxes full of letters and documents. Seven years later, which is not long, we have this book. This is a formidable contribution by Rowe as well as an intimate portrayal of one of Oxford’s most famous recent philosophers.

Off the Shelf typically concerns books where there is an Oxford connection, whether the place, the University or of course the author. Our editorial selection rests on books appealing to the broadest alumni audience.

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