Glen Newey, the LRB blog’s most prolific contributor, died suddenly on Saturday morning. He was an implacable opponent of cant, in all its forms, not least concerning the dead: ‘De mortuis nil nisi veritas,’ he wrote on the demise of the US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia last year. His last post, published just over a month ago, commemorated the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana: ‘On a scale unseen since Queen Victoria hoofed the pail, grief totalitarianism raged across the land.’ So I’ll try not to say anything that would have made him cringe.
Not that he was much given to cringing. Never shy of causing offence, especially where he considered it due, he was unimpressed by the powerful, whether they were elected or appointed to office, or came to it by accident of birth. He wrote a piece for the paper on the monarchy in 2003, and returned to the subject more than once over the years. ‘People sometimes ask me why I moan on so much about the royal family,’ he wrote on the blog in 2013 (Prince Charles was about to visit Saudi Arabia):
Aren’t there more important things to worry about, like war, political repression, man-made climate change or Arsenal’s exit from the Champions League? To give the short answer, yes. But in a funny way, no.
Never exactly on anyone’s side, he heaped scorn on Boris Johnson, the tabloid press and other cheerleaders for Brexit, but at the same time was always a clear-eyed critic of the EU. Yet he was careful to withhold his contempt from those he called, the day before the EU referendum, ‘the serially shat-on’.
Labour’s relative success in the general election in June took him, like most other commentators, by surprise. But in January 2016 he had correctly predicted the outcome of the EU referendum, though he took little pleasure in saying ‘I told you so’ the day after the vote.
He paid closer attention to the odds on elections than he did to opinion polls – ‘the odds on Leave still under-price it,’ he pointed out on 22 June 2016 – and not only because his father was a bookie:
In a school-gate encounter with my mother, a fellow parent, Mr Crapp – a pillar of the local chartered accountants’ guild and man of God – voiced his surprise that she had the brass to show herself in public, given her husband’s job. My doubts about moralism surfaced around this time.
‘Words are for me what shoes were for Imelda Marcos,’ he wrote in a piece about learning Dutch when he went to teach at Leiden University:
It’s not enough for them to be out there somewhere – in a dictionary, say – as, I imagine, it didn’t do it for Imelda to know that there were slingbacks and mules, pumps and brothel-creepers, espadrilles and clogs, laid up in a Dolcis warehouse. They have to be owned, tried on, worn in.
A post from August 2013 on the ‘literal’ meaning of the word ‘literally’ finished with a few thoughts on the Home Office vans that roamed the country that summer, telling ‘foreigners’ to ‘go home’:
We all know what is meant … by ‘home’. Except for those of us who, literally, don’t speak English. And those who, because they left poverty, or forced marriage, or other kinds of servitude, or came to join loved ones, had no home there, but came to find one here. Literally.