The Ottoman Intellectual



‘What, him? An intellectual? That thing over there, lying on the ottoman scratching himself? That’s your idea of an intellectual, is it? Well, heaven help us. The only thing he knows about books is how to run them.’ – Tony Hancock talking about Sid James

What now constitutes our idea of an intellectual? The dictionary definitions are broad-ranging but basically suggest a superior mind, or at least a quest for knowledge, to which we can also assume a curiosity and a willingness to learn? The term has become more narrowly used over the last five decades, so that we now only think of bookish classical scholars and grand political ideologues. The Ottoman Intellectual probably arrives with Bertrand Russell, whose essays found a readership his publisher never expected. His abstract ideas created unlikely fans so that he came to occupy the bookshelves much as Yuval Noah Harari does now.

We could certainly use it to describe George Orwell, who spent his life exploring the mutual roots of fascism and socialism, who fought against Franco and relished the thought of combating German invaders while abhorring and condemning violence. And we can link him to other intellectual writers; Orwell’s other huge influence was HG Wells, the inventor and innovator who virtually created science fiction singe-handedly, who was quite capable of writing in the manner of pulp magazines when it suited him.

In America the idea of intellectualism seems more clearly defined. The strength and benefactor-driven wealth of the academic world protects it and allows for the spread and development of clear thinking; I’m always amazed by the range of fine writing that comes from their literary magazines and websites. Last week I had this essay published on Crimereads which requires writers to submit a theme, synopsis and samples. The site is an embarrassment of riches; already the piece is hard to find amid a welter of superbly written new articles.

Most UK sites cannot compete with this level of excellence. Theoretically they should be able to because sites are only limited by the English language and have a potentially enormous market waiting. It is possible to find source your week’s intelligent writing entirely from US publications. Here we rely on the London Review of Books and GoodReads. On some UK blog tours I’ve been shocked by the paucity of writing, a quick synopsis, and repeat of the PR blurb and that’s it, no thought at all, and in many cases bare literacy.

If we treasure the ability to connect conflicting ideas without letting them smash each other to bits, is it asking too much for that to be reflected in British publications? It’s not shameful to know a bit about a lot – but I fear that in the UK every new magazine aimed at making us think harder closes by Issue Three.


16 comments on “The Ottoman Intellectual”

  1. Ken Mann says:

    Bring back The Listener

  2. Liz Thompson says:

    Daniel Dennett, Douglas Hofstadter, Noam Chomsky. No, I haven’t read all their works, and some I have read I struggled with, but by hell, they stretched my mind. All American of course, but there are UK writers producing interesting stuff in the non fiction line. Some on linguistics that are innovative, books of collected essays are often worthwhile. It takes some digging around to find them, and the reviews and synopses on Amazon are too brief and often misleading.
    I’ve come across remainders and overstocks on Bibliophile that I never encountered on publication, that was how I came across the first of your Bryant and May books I’d ever seen! And subsequently bought every one, plus your other books too. I pre-order them as announced now.
    So keep looking and don’t give up. Intellectual may mean a lot of things, including some meant to be derogatory, but they are out there, frequently under-reviewed and hard to locate, and not infrequently published by small presses.
    And can I put a word in for poetry? Some really excellent stuff being written. Ignore the anti-populists, just because they started on Twitter or self published doesn’t mean they’re rubbish. OK, some are! But supporting new writers and poets is always a case of you pays your money and you takes your chance…..

  3. John Griffin says:

    Orwell was essentially a middle-class Fabian socialist and misanthrope, comparing Stalinist communism (not socialism) and German fascism and occasionally skewering the submissive gentility of the aspirational ‘upwardly mobile’. Wigan Pier evokes a world I knew as a Manchester child, parlours with chintz, lace curtains and antimacassars on the chairs, outdoor toilets and flagged ‘backs’ with wash-houses, where ‘intellectual’ was posh people you discussed at the WEA.

  4. Brian Evans says:

    Here’s someone else who would like The Listener to return.

  5. admin says:

    Orwell was also an old Etonian, biting the hand that fed him, rather like Lindsey Anderson making ‘If’.

  6. eggsy says:

    In modern Britain, I would hesitate to trust anyone who would define themselves as an intellectual. Or who uses the term to describe a set of others.

    Got nothing against people having intellectual tastes or interests, its just the use of the term to define a person. One lot clearly deem themselves superior, and the other lot appear ready to whip up the mob against them.

  7. Crprod says:

    Some American professors of English seem to claim that “intellectual “ should apply to them and no one else.

  8. Colin says:

    Try Strong words magazine, think you would really enjoy it and it needs all the support it can get!
    Have a look

  9. Helen Martin says:

    I am constantly enthused by the thought processes of this site’s inhabitants and the material which they have ready to hand. I don’t like the word intellectual as it brings up images of pipe smoking indoor men (except Arthur) who are familiar with old universities, old Greek and Roman writers, and not much else. I do like people who look analytically at ideas and are prepared to listen to the analyses of others. If that is what is meant by intellectual, then we have to do something about the image. I’m not sure what to say about the pipe smoking club.

  10. Roger says:

    Wasn’t one of Boris Johnson’s ancestors an Ottoman intellectual?

    To the man-in-the-street who, I’m sorry to say,
    Is a keen observer of life,
    The word intellectual suggests right away
    A man who’s untrue to his wife.
    -W.H. Auden

    Why do secret policemen go round in threes?
    One can read, one can write, and someone’s got to keep an eye on those two intellectuals.
    -Czechoslovak joke.

  11. Martin Tolley says:

    Love it Roger. Thanks.

  12. John Howard says:

    Talking about minds being stretched Liz T, I went to Clive James for that. I have his collected TLS stuff and his poetry to stretch my mind.
    Loved the jokes Roger.

  13. Mike Campbell says:

    Ditto from me regarding The Listener as well – much missed (and only partially because it was kind enough to publish an article I sent in on spec about the visual aesthetics of television drama!)

  14. Wayne Mook says:

    Pelican launched for or five years ago, more political science and sociology in it’s line up, but still some interesting titles.

    There are plenty of academic periodicals, if a little expensive. A lot of universities have their own press.


  15. Ian Luck says:

    A friend of mine, years ago, went to University after College (basically to prove an unpleasant teacher wrong – he succeeded, and took great pleasure in returning to the school after several years, and showed that teacher that he was now considerably better qualified than him), and found that most of the required titles on his book list were either long out of print, or only available, hugely expensively, from the University’s own press. I wonder if this practice still exists?

  16. Helen Martin says:

    The practice of publishing professors’ work as text books for their courses is alive and well and ripping off students all over the place.

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