By Richard Lofthouse

The University’s recent appointment of a female Vice-Chancellor (Louise Richardson) is the perfect occasion to mention OUP’s new edition of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other Essays, with updated and improved notes by editors Mark Philp and Frederick Rosen, the former an emeritus fellow at Oriel.

It is a shame that Mill’s essay The Subjection of Women is relegated to the end of this volume, as has historically been the case. Could it not have been brought forward and mentioned somewhere in the title? It is absolutely splendid. ‘The claim of women to be educated as solidly, and in the same branches of knowledge, as men, is urged with growing intensity, and with a great prospect of success; while the demand for their admission into professions and occupations hitherto closed against them, becomes every year more urgent.’

This in 1869! Mill would have been absolutely appalled at how little has really changed a century and a half later, not least in academia, where at least there is a claim to act in accordance with reason rather than instinct.

Not forgetting the seasons, it’s time for a crisp G&T with Olivia Williams (St Edmund Hall, 2006), author of Gin Glorious Gin (Headline). As she notes immediately, and in case you hadn’t noticed, we are in the grip of another gin craze. Having been almost entirely neglected as a category in the 1980s and ’90s, now there are freshly distilled brands by the month hitting a duty-free shelf somewhere in Terminal Five of Heathrow. So vodka is out and gin is in — and somehow this most English of spirits captures the London-as-global-capital zeitgeist.

A wonderful cultural history written with lots of pace, the only thing I’d change is the author’s initial sketch of the ‘classic trinity of Gordon’s, Bombay Sapphire and Beefeater’. Gordon’s, despite its low ABV, yes (1769); and Beefeater, yes (1862). But Bombay, launched by IDV in 1987, and by no means universally liked? I’m not so sure. A mug’s game this, but for my money the third name might have been Plymouth (1793) or Tanqueray (1830).

Moving on again, this time to the land of ouzo, an anise-flavoured liqueur that goes very cloudy when you tip it into a glass of water, and is no match for a crisp G&T. Yes, I mean Greece. What the monks of Mount Athos, who originally distilled the drink in the 14th century, make of current affairs I do not know. But there is a strong case for stepping back (or climbing to the summit) and surveying the horizons. Roger Bootle (Merton, 1970), whose Monday column in the Daily Telegraph may be familiar to some readers, does exactly this with his excellent The Trouble with Europe (Nicholas Brealey Publishing).

He’s not anti-Europe and goes out of his way to say that when in America he feels intensely European. We all eat baguettes nowadays. But he would see the single currency disbanded. His sign-off note on Greece, penned earlier this year, is already fading in the face of events, yet still hits the money. In short, the reason why Greece is playing hardball with everyone else, and vice versa, compared to three years ago, is not because of the election of Syriza but because Greece’s economy is in primary surplus, meaning that tax revenues cover government expenditure if debt servicing is removed. This puts Greece in a very strong position to default.

If you are the EU or the IMF, the prospect of losing all that money is much better than the moral jeopardy of letting Greece off the hook only to face similar but much, much larger debt default situations in Portugal, Spain and Italy. The book is about so much more than Greece of course, but by reading it you’ll be in a good position to peer through a glass, cloudy (Corinthia, geddit?)

Next, to Wildlife in the Anthropocene (University of Minnesota Press) by Jamie Lorimer, Associate Professor in Human Geography at Oxford, and a fellow of Hertford College. This term ‘Anthropocene’ has been making the rounds. It recognises that humans have fiddled with nature since day one, so the world with humans in it becomes the Anthropocene. But there is a big argument about whether that means ten thousand years back or merely the industrial revolution, when large-scale human activities began to alter the climate. If you go back ten millennia, then the Anthropocene — not an officially sanctioned geological term by the way — might even be considered the same as the Holocene, which came after the Pleistocene.

The trouble with this book, and I say this merely adopting the casual half-wittedness of a lay person, is that it is written in theory babble. There’s a lot of first-person ‘First I do this and then I’ll do that’, instead of just doing it. Then we hit Gilles Deleuze. On page 132, I liked the following critique of wildlife documentaries: ‘We are presented with an improbable feast of expansive and unpopulated locations inhabited by exotic animals, which are forever fighting, fucking, eating, migrating, and dying for their impatient channel-surfing audiences.’ The goldfinches still come to Hackney, is what this book says. But the language is rhetorically tortuous despite the gorgeously designed cover. You have been warned.

How many Oxonians have visited or will eventually visit Japan? A reasonable number, I’d guess. My recent holiday there was greatly enriched by R. Taggart Murphy’s Japan and the Shackles of the Past (OUP, 2015). You’ll want the Kindle version of this otherwise handsome and heavy volume, if travelling. The author, a Professor of Political Economy at the University of Tsukuba in Tokyo, offers us the sum of a lifetime living in Japan, trying to make sense of the place.

The results are terrific, because the analysis is bracing, yet cast sympathetically and intelligently. He never forgets the historical context — all-important as the title makes plain — but he still makes deep inroads into wacky cultural stuff and gender inequality, political economy and international relations, as ways into an understanding of the world’s most baffling culture. The book can claim to be the finest single-volume treatment of Japan currently in print — and of course you don’t have to travel there to enjoy it.

  • Coming soon at Oxford Today: Ten things about Japan you’ve got completely wrong.


By Ann Spokes Symonds

My husband Richard Symonds wrote 'Oxford and Empire: The Last Lost Cause?', published by Macmillan in 1986, and 'In the Margins of Independence', published by OUP in 2009, which may be of interest for further reading.

By Colin O'Halloran

Richard Symonds' book is outstanding. It explores in great detail the often complex relationship of Oxford and the Empire, with a wealth of detail.