Essays in Idleness


Why no one writes books any more

People ask why I don’t write books. Not many people, but some, and those happily among my readers. The subset of these readers who are publishers is nil. It is now almost fifteen years since the last of those bothered me, with a proposal (soon after 9/11) that I write a book on Islam. Cleverly, I did not cash the advance, for I knew the exercise would end badly. The book I could write would never be acceptable. It would be too negative in some respects, and too positive in others, and both against “the tenor of the times.”

Too, I would be likely to do what I had done with a dozen or so previous book manuscripts I had diligently worked upon, beginning with the draught of an adolescent “novel” (or rather, matrix of travellers’ tales), which filled a badly frayed side-satchel with foolscap and turquoise ink, weighing me down across India. Adding a couple of rocks for good measure, I tipped it into the Mekong River. Gentle reader may find it on the bottom, towards the middle, some miles downstream from Vientiane. I must assume the pla buek, or giant catfish, rejected it, too, preferring his filamentous algae. (They are huge beasts, but toothless; they come only in answer to sincere Buddhist prayers, and are thus now feared to be extinct.)

On the other hand, five, and arguably seven books that I have written, have been published, but none under my name. In each case I was employed as a ghost-writer, trying hard to suppress my own style, and contrive another. The topics ranged from shadow puppetry to case studies in development economics. For most I was paid, too little; for one far more than I deserved. It all comes out, however, in the river wash.

And then there was the thesis I wrote for a girlfriend. It was book-length, but I doubt it was published. A pity, because at the time I thought it the best thing I’d ever done; all meticulously researched and footnoted; and carefully composed in Greek-accented English. Her thesis advisor did not agree, preferring the “essays” in “comparative literature” I’d whipped off the top of my head, which he had marked extravagantly. “It will do,” he told her, “but it lacks the inspiration you showed in your term papers.” Perhaps he was right; almost certainly I was the greater fool for women.

There are two things I think cannot be written at the present day. One is poetry, and the other is books. This is not to say that they are not written; only that they can’t be. I know this from having tried both. Of course some bold literary genius might be able to do it; but I rather think that is a third thing unlikely to appear in our times. A high literary culture requires an integral civilization, which in turn provides a common stock of imagination — a live tradition on which the artist may draw. In its absence, he can only doodle.

By “imagination” I allude to imaging, not to the imaginary: to the form beneath, or transcending the concrete, as a soul might be said to transcend a body; but undetachable in our earthly sphere.

The late perfesser Northrop Frye wrote two (inadequate) books on the Bible, considered from the literary critic’s point of view. The King James Version of 1611 was, by intention, a traditionary English text in parallel with the Vulgate; it became the key to all subsequent English literature, and more than Shakespeare, the tonal foundation of our modern tongue. It remained so, up nearly to the present day. It made the richness of that literature possible, as Homer made possible the literature of the Greeks. This could be shown to be true, in a technical sense; but Frye, in turning the Bible into a textbook, purposely omitted the aspect of Faith.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, that faith began to relax. Scripture was becoming what it was for Frye: an important, but essentially decorative feature of the drawing room. It ceased to fill its readers and auditors with awe; and that in turn is what I think made possible the descent from poetry into journalism and prose fiction.

Frye correctly saw that William Blake was astounding, coming as he did so late in the day. To my mind he incorrectly read him in the post-modern way, as a kind of schema, developed from Milton. He could be studied that way, but only at the cost of overlooking his Poetics (in engraving as much as in verse). This “Stranger from Paradise” had no system at all; he drew and wrote as a direct observer. The tradition in which he swam was not something that could be labelled and encased, like a cabinet of curiosities. For Blake it was a garden, even a zoological garden, of living things. As it were, he called forth spirits from the vasty deep, and when he called, they answered.

And so for that handful of poets who in moments have risen above their craft in the time since Blake rebelled from the encasing world of “journalism” and “fiction.” But it can only be a fragmentary rebellion. It calls back a world that has passed away: a world in which knowledge must necessarily serve as the scaffolding for wisdom.

To us, catechists of the post-modern, wisdom is only knowledge in its most gaseous form. Whole books, and real poetry — the most telling tales — cannot be assembled from gas.

Do I make myself clear? I shouldn’t think so.

How to save the environment

“O Lord, deliver us from these turkeys,” is not an orthodox prayer. I cannot imagine a single Catholic saint (or saint of any of the Eastern Churches) muttering it. But then, like Pope Francis, I deny being a saint. Better, I think, to recite the Jesus Prayer, if we are in need of a one-line mantra. (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”)

When in need of profanity, there is Rudyard Kipling. (“If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you …”, &c). He had a gift for the discovery of profane ideas in happy symmetry with the Christian teachings. It was a message instilled, not only in the noble jingle of his verses, but between every line of his epic, Kim, which mesmerized me as a child. You take your lumps, you note your own failures. And you resume your journey along the Grand Trunk Road; resume your search, for the red bull on a green field.

A volume of the Bibliotheca Himalayica, which happens to reside on my shelves, was by G. A. Combe. He was one of those British colonial officers, and his work, first published in 1926, gave an account of Tibet through the eyes of a remarkably perceptive Tibetan, a certain Paul Sherap (formerly Dorje Zödba). While the book is mostly an “insider’s” account of Tibetan ritual and custom, as it was before Western and Communist subversion, it begins with Sherap’s exhilarating biography. It is a kind of Kim that has been strangely inverted. (Tibetan child runs away from home; the bonze he eventually meets is Christian.)

But it is not Sherap’s Christian qualities that are so impressive; rather his inherited Tibetan virtues, that arrest Combes and his reader. There is a quality of fatalism that is, in itself, divine.

Sherap never complains, about anything, yet he endured considerable privations. To every inquiry about his sufferings, he shrugs. Extreme cold is in nature, so is shortage of food and fuel, wild animals, or bandits for that matter. Why should we whine? And if, as a Tibetan, one is captured and tortured by bigoted Chinese — still, nothing to write home about. These things happen.

Combe tempts Sherap with questions to elicit his thoughts on the Chinese. He cannot possibly like his ancient racial enemies, but will confess to no opinions. Only, “eh” and a shrug. He implies: they are people, and people do things like that. It is hardly surprising.

Pushed, to give his candid opinion of what, if anything, might be wrong with the Chinese, he finally obliges. He throws his interlocutor a sop: “I think their women are a bit loose.”

But then he looks ashamed of himself, and the conversation moves on.

As I suggest, this fatalism, or rather, this aspect of fatalism, is something I find profoundly impressive. In my own youthful, Asiatic travels, I sometimes glimpsed it; never in the cities, but in remote rural places. Had I travelled, instead, in mediaeval Europe, I’m sure I would have encountered it there; or in rural Canada, during the dustbowl years; or anywhere far away in space and time from Parkdale, where I live, in the constant state of critique.

It is mimesis, I swear. One picks up one’s habits from one’s environment, and by condemning that environment, one condemns oneself.

Therefore: environmental change begins with not whining.

All the bells are ringing

Was Melania’s speechwriter being droll, in using lines resembling those in an old speech by Michelle? Or perhaps Melania’s husband let her write the speech herself? Or did Democrat hackers break into her teleprompter? In which case, why didn’t they just change the text to Hindi as she came on stage? (Hindi not being among her five languages.) Maybe her spellcheck inserted clichés as she typed? (Mine did that, until I found a way to disable it.) Has anyone checked where Michelle got the lines?

They were scintillating, to the media, when Michelle uttered them. She praised hard work, and family values. No one must have thought of doing that before, in a stump speech. How her words must have resonated over the last eight years, for liberal journalists spotted them in seconds. According to my chief social media observer, the charge of “plagiarism” was filling the twittersphere before Melania finished speaking; possibly before she started. He is checking the time logs now.

A question: Were the journalists plagiarizing each other?

Or had they all decided on the meme in advance?

Melania is the whipping girl “du jour”; the new Sarah Palin. A quick bark, and the whole pack is on her. Every dog wants his piece of her flesh. It is not true, however, that they are misogynist. Their war is only on Republican women.

And this is what has come to pass for “investigative journalism.” It was the top story everywhere before I retired last night; it was still the top story in the morning. By now, any Internet search that includes the word “plagiarism” will stream innumerable attacks on Melania Trump. Too, any search that includes the word “Melania.”

But between us, gentle reader, don’t you think she’s pretty hot for forty-six? Shouldn’t we be asking what moisturizer she uses?

Why our problems are insoluble

As previously reported on this website, the world is falling apart. It has done so before, however, so we should not be unduly alarmed. Given only a few centuries of “dark ages” with physical insecurity and economic stasis, it is quite capable of reassembling itself. Patience is the key.

Let us take Turkey, for this morning’s lay sermon. The democratically-elected tyrant, Erdogan, has now been entrenched and in growing power for about fourteen years. During this time he has “transformed” his country. This invariably requires turning each section of the population against each other. The “Islamic” constituency was already growing, from its habit of generating more children than the “secular” constituency. This was the demographic wave on which Erdogan surfed to power; the tiger he continues to ride — upon the illusions of the ignorant masses who, unbeknown to themselves, are truly godless on both sides.

To the best-informed sections of the Western media, misreporting events in Turkey as elsewhere — and even to media in Turkey herself — the country has been moving “backward” from its “forward” inclination through the decades after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the “transformative” presidency of Kemal Ataturk. This reflects the media’s settled bias towards some antique and incoherent (because self-contradicting) revolutionary goal of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Turkey was becoming “modern.” Now, according to the gliberal sages, it isn’t any more.

By this callow definition of progress, Turkey is moving backwards; but the real gift of modernity is not “secular humanism,” per se. It is popular enthusiasm for the organized, centralized, transformation of society, by political means to idealist ends; for the grand Pharaonic projects of social engineering.

A term like “progress” is meaningless without at least an implied direction. Erdogan in Turkey, as the ayatollahs in Iran, or before them the sheikhs of Wahabi Arabia, show us that the direction need not be towards the liberal, Enlightenment ideals. It could be “progress” in some other direction. What we have in common is the machinery for “change”: the large, bureaucratized, central state, with its monopoly on worldly power.

We will eventually learn if Erdogan “staged” the incredibly naïve and disorganized weekend coup attempt. This would be his style. His theatrical return from holiday to the Istanbul airport stank of it; his calls to the mass of his supporters to take to the streets in defence of his authority. He often creates crises, to justify the violent extension of his personal control. Like the French revolutionists of 1789, he knows how to use the aroused masses as a battering ram or siege engine.

I put “staged” in sceptical quotes, for the method was most likely focused provocation. The high command of the Turkish military was already purged of men whose personal loyalty to Erdogan was in question. He has been replacing or imprisoning “secularist” generals for years. (He also gaols prominent “secularist” journalists.) By threatening to purge lower ranks, he could induce the hopeless rebellion that would then justify their purge. It would further help him identify his opponents (arrests so far announced include 8,000 police and 6,000 soldiers). Several hundred are dead in the crossfire (again, official numbers), but to a psychotic, this is a small price to pay.

Friday night, no one knew what was going on. As of Monday morning, we know that Erdogan’s power has been considerably extended. This does not portend increased law and order. It creates instead a more profound disorder: “progress” towards a more terrible catastrophe. As we have seen through history, especially that of this last and most violent of centuries, tyrannical regimes will eventually disintegrate by their own internal contradictions, if they are not first consumed by war.


Civilizations are created by religion, and destroyed by politics. In the very word, “religion,” we find the principle of true social order — the voluntary direction of each human soul to a higher, encompassing, futurity. It is the unifying principle: men, animated by faith, gathered to serve something “higher” in the sense of transcending the conditions of human existence.

Politics consist in the appropriation of this organic authority by specific men, who put themselves above God, and naturally demand worship. (The vanity of tyrants is on public view.) The religion itself becomes a political tool, as today throughout the Islamic realm. In the West, the triumph of Man over the fear of God is more openly celebrated.

Men today cannot imagine an auctoritas like the mediaeval Catholic; or even like the bourgeois Christian order that persisted into the twentieth century. This is because the present generation have never seen such a thing: even in the debased currency of “motherhood and apple pie.” To them, as to Mao, authority comes down the barrel of a gun. They quail only when it is pointed at them.

From what is familiar to us, we can imagine only a mediaeval Church with the legislative power (which it never had); and popes commanding police and armies (which never existed). We cannot imagine an authority in the minds of men, that was not installed by brain-washing. We do not “reject” the authority of religion. Rather, we cannot imagine it.

We cannot imagine a society — whether Christian or of some other religion — governed ultimately by faith, or genuine belief in a cosmic order, which the ruler himself must serve, and to which he must appeal for his own brief authority. The integument of every such social order has been shattered, in the course of “events.” At best, we imagine a ruler responsible to the wayward people; or to a magically non-violent “multiculture” from which all positive virtue has been eliminated.

Saint Thomas More is to my mind among the greatest statesmen because he could, with sublime courage, articulate the limits of political power. He was martyred because he delineated them in the presence of a great tyrant. He was not executed because the monster, Henry Tudor, was stupid or a hothead. He was executed because Henry was intelligent enough to see that More had got to the crux of the matter. He knew, in effect, that More was a saint, and that other people could see that he was. And that was the very reason he had to kill More — to “gore that sacred cow”; to cow his opponents by showing that he would stop at nothing.

For the man in pursuit of absolute power dares not stop at anything. He dares not ever be humble and meek, nor dream of reconciling with his enemies. He must not concede; he must break them; he must be seen to break them. It is “triumph of the will.”

Religion, by contrast, is ever commanding us to stop; to study and to know our limitations. It builds upon humility, not wrath.


Rouault, as everyone knows, was born under a bombardment of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. (In 1871; died 1958.) It happened in the district of Belleville, before it was an arrondissement, that he first saw the light of this world. A shell hit the side of the house, sending his mother into labour. The extended family within retreated to the cellar. Grandfather was separated from the rest, as bombs landed in the street like hail; but during a lull he found his way back to what was left of home.

“Is everyone dead down there?” he called, into the hole.

“No, in fact we are one more,” replied the grandmother.

The story appeals to me on multiple levels. At the top, what a fine setting for dry humour. One knows immediately that these two oldies had a happy marriage. That they were ready for anything, all along. Birth, death, war, carnage: you take it as it comes. Through all, you stay Catholic.

This maternal grandfather (Alexandre Champdavoine) was not rich. He had foresight, nevertheless, having blest the new grandchild with many wonderful aunts. He was an art collector, owning in total two plaster busts: one of Racine and one of Corneille. Too, he collected cheap art reproductions, being addicted to Manet and Courbet. He could not afford books, but would borrow and copy them out. Among Rouault’s prize possessions, in later life, was his grandfather’s Orlando Furioso, patiently transcribed: every page of a French translation.

For years I did not like Georges Rouault’s paintings. They struck me as crude and “simplismic.” Perhaps if he had taken up stained glass, I thought, the style would be more appropriate. (I did not know Rouault had worked as a stained-glass restorer.) It needed backlighting. I had seen several of his oils, hanging in museums. The impasto was impressive. It seemed, from close, that one was looking over the relief model of a battlefield. Could he do anything more delicate in pencil?

This was when I was quite young and, arguably, even stupider than I am today. Eventually, however, the penny dropt, and I began to understand what Rouault was about. Then he became one of my major heroes: an artist of commanding grace.

But of course he could draw, delicately, and I have since seen the sensitive sketches of his youth and early manhood. He painted the way he did on purpose, when he came into his powers. He painted in the confident lines of the artists in the caves of Lascaux. Neither he, nor his talent, were narrow. He painted, set aside, returned to his paintings. There was nothing unintentional in them. He had what we call “a vision,” and would not compromise.

He belonged to that generation who came to full maturity “between the Wars” — the fathers of twentieth-century “modern art,” building upon Cézanne and Degas; or rebuilding. Each was a traditionalist of a certain kind, more aware and more devoted to “art history” than painters of any previous generation. A surprising number were intensely Catholic, and among those not, a surprising number were some other sort of religious nutjobs. I think I wrote about this somewhere: that one cannot begin to understand the greatest art of the twentieth century — extending into the 1950s and sometimes beyond — without beginning to understand the artists’ intentions. They were publicized as revolutionaries, but in almost every case, the artist was instead a thundering reactionary, whose actual views on almost any topic would curl your ears.

Rouault, among the least intellectual, had perhaps the clearest idea what he was doing. He drilled shafts to older artists long dead (including Rembrandt, whose prints, I think, provide a skeleton key to Rouault’s tactics), without the props of “analysis”; he dealt in mysterious continuities. I would characterize his whole production as an attempt (remarkably successful) to perdure in Christian art, for all that had been lost through meretricious generations. He is romanesque, gothic, baroque — and something else that carries beyond them. It is as if Christian civilization had never been diminished. For where others sought to recreate or reinvent — to make a new start, to find a new path — Rouault took only the old road home.

He loathed, even more than I loathe, sentimental clutter — the kitsch that is still merchandized to the guileless faithful in Catholic trinket stores — not because it is “in poor taste,” but because it dulls and degrades their faith; drains the blood; makes us anaemic. There is nothing cheaply “romantic,” nor “pretty,” nor prissy, nor prudish, in Rouault’s depictions of Paris street life. He paints souls, through faces; he can show us the squalour of a prostitute, and through it to her immortal, God-created worth. His pictures belong in churches, not museums. I imagine them sometimes as altarpieces. I transfer them, by recollection, into an apse that looks empty or weak. The real presence has infused them.

He is such a gift, to the meek of a Church that has been losing her way; to those led, as today, by cowardly or false shepherds. How natural that he should be delivered into the world by a cannon.

Nasty in Nice

What is the news here? … A lorry drives a mile through trapped crowds at a Bastille Day celebration, killing dozens of people along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. The driver was a Muslim terrorist, as usual. Police finally shot him dead. They are now looking into his background and connexions.

And? … That is the whole story.

Anything the media can add to these plain facts is prurient and macabre. Moreover, it is helpful to the other side. Grand public displays of “mourning” make it worse; for that is the effect the terrorists are seeking. Why should we play into their hands?

Each victim had a family with a circle of friends, for whom the horror is real, and the mourning may be genuine. The rest — the millions — are putting on a show, advertising France, and the West generally, as squeamish and unmanly; as one big soft underbelly. It “sends a message” back to the Islamists, and that message is: “Keep it up!”

But I am myself looking through the front pages of newspapers from France and all over: covered with the colour photographs to full bleed, with big banner headlines. Nor is there a news website not painted the same way. Somehow (and I know how, from having worked with these ghouls) they manage to fill page after page with redundant or unnecessary details.

To condemn such attacks is pointless. The iniquity is too obvious for that. Every form of venting can be done privately. Those who applaud such carnage, will not be reached by words of disapproval. They need no publicity, either; we only need to know where they live, so those without citizenship can be deported; and those with, watched carefully.

Supposing we wanted the terrorism to stop, this is how we would do it. As a practical matter of security, it would be good if Europe’s Schengen area could be broken up again, into national sectors. (Illegals may get across one border; but can they get across two?)

And so on: I have visited this topic before. When we have an enemy who is infiltrating, to purpose of our harm, we should not play nice. If we do, we make ourselves complicit in the evil. Self-defence is not only a “right.” It is, as Western man once understood, a moral duty.


Shame is not guilt. There is no social value in shaming individuals; this only corrupts the shamers. There is no intrinsic moral value in the feeling of shame, as there is none in any other common human emotion. Feelings are just feelings. Everybody has them. Shame can only be of value as a first corrective, to the man or woman who is going very wrong. But for the sake of redemption, one must feel not shame, but guilt. And not merely feel it, for guilt is not a “feelie”; rather one should learn and know it, objectively. We have too many “feelers” today; we need more “knowers.”

Thus let us say, know guilt — for what one has done; for what was objectively evil. Guilt thus accords with voluntary penance, in the sight not of man but of God; and with accepting the punishment proportional to the crime, in the sight of man, only.

Whereas, shame is just an involuntary penance. A penance hardly counts, until it is consciously embraced. When publicly expressed, it is mere showboating. One is too many; showboats should be sunk.

On the other hand, we need not worry about a person’s emotional or spiritual condition, to punish him for a crime. All we need to prove is intent. That, too, should be objective. Find the appropriate law, and nail him, by the correct procedures. We never needed murky “hate laws” for this. We already had a fairly good hold on what is a serious crime, and what isn’t.

There are, however, in this fallen world, true outlaws — and the Islamists provide a good example. The correct procedure in this case is instead, to track them down and kill them. For true outlaws are outside the law. They seek the destruction of reasonable positive law itself, and will not politely surrender.

One could easily be too gentle with such people. They are psychopathic killers, and we need to get them before they get us. This is war, not Judge Judy; war is not like theft or tax evasion. Those who can be rounded up — who can be arrested and hand-cuffed without excessive drama — need trials. Those who can’t, need killin’.

Verily, the law itself used to understand this.

We should get these things straight, once again, by recovering a calm, rationally consistent, Catholic worldview — that does not tolerate grave wickedness, but is not much surprised by it, either. Instead we seem to have everything crooked. We tolerate wickedness; we cultivate our surprise.

Books for a dollar

I am working now, up here in the High Doganate, on the accumulation of what I count as my sixth library. The first five had to be dispersed, for one reason or another, which means that many of the books around me have been bought several times. When possible, I obtain the same edition and printing of a book I once owned, and still value, hoping to fool myself into believing that the same copy has been with me all along. For while I am an ardent reactionary, in the main, in some respects I am just an effete conservative, who enjoys the familiar, and does not like anything to change.

This is the story of my life: rebuilding libraries — the last of which will probably be consigned to a landfill by my heirs. But I’m inspired, as the Scotch, by the little spiders, who will resume the weaving of their webs no matter how the winds blow, the tempests fall, or rude little boys put sticks to them. Their activity might seem hopeless. But they are spiders, they know what a spider is about, and they will never despair.

For the spider must catch gnats to eat; how can he surrender? The bibliophile’s web traps food for thought, but the principle is the same. And with this one advantage over the spider, that, confined to a cell from which all books were removed, I could still spend my day in imagination, wandering through pages remembered from the past.

At present, I am permitted to walk the streets, and furnish my own quarters. I exult in this freedom, and effetely hope that it can be maintained.


We often complain about the decline, or collapse, of Western Civilization (which can exist only insofar as it is Christian), and perhaps make ourselves tedious on the point. We should not always be acerbic, and today I should like to hail one good thing. It is to note our abundance. How impressed my ancestors would be if told it is a time when anyone can make a thousand dollars, from pogey if not from work, save two, and borrow perhaps five thousand more against little cards that are freely available. They would be astounded by our wealth and ease. (The trick with facts, as every journalist knows, is in their selection.)

Imagine, further, what a great age in which we now live; for within my own lifetime books, which once fetched a pretty price from knowledgeable dealers, may be found (if slightly mildewed) in the barrows of flea markets and the bins of charity stores, each for a dollar; rounded down if you pick a few. Sometimes I have found my own former possessions, with my name still in them from my earlier life — books I had been forced to sell for five or ten or twenty dollars apiece — which I could now retrieve for a small handful of base-metal change. Or books which belonged to my book-buying rivals, now sadly deceased.

Take Wolfson’s Philo, for today’s example. It is in two volumes, and I distinctly remember a brief scene at a college book sale many years ago, when two scholars vied for it with their sharp academic elbows. One had laid hold of volume one, the other of volume two, and no third volunteered to render the Judgment of Solomon. On Tuesday I found both volumes, equally neglected, in the dollar rack outside a second-hand store that prefers fresh paperbacks, and will take “hardcovers” only if they have retained their lurid dust-jackets. The tattoo’d child at the cashpoint inside interpreted the set as one volume only, and thus charged me 50 cents for each half. He did not notice that the name of the late beloved A. Robinson Orr was signed on the fly-leaf. Why would he?

Nor did I vex him by explaining that Harry Austryn Wolfson, late professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard, was a learned expert on Spinoza, whose purpose in expounding Philo Judaeus — that beacon of first-century Alexandria — was to show the background condition of religious faith common to all the philosophers (Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) through the intervening seventeen centuries. Through Philo, Wolfson showed, gracefully set up, what Spinoza devoted himself to taking down: a sophisticated trust in Scripture. In his attempt to prove the consistency of Judaism with the finer Stoic teachings, Philo had plumbed rich veins of allegory (a kind of rabbinical Edmund Spenser) and … well, a lot of other things. Leafing through, one realizes that one has shamefully belittled the significance of Philo; how, in some sense, we may see the “Middle Ages” unfolding in his work, co-terminously with the Life of Christ.


Actually, I parted with two dollars, for I had also spied a copy of The Milk of Paradise. This last volume of (the twelve of) James Lees-Milne’s diaries was in fact a shiny, new-looking book, with its dust-jacket intact, so that at first I didn’t see it. But the store sorter had decided it was worthless, notwithstanding. No colour photographs, and from a glance at the blurb, somewhat highbrow and elitist. Perhaps the thing had fallen open at one of Lees-Milne’s sneers against “coffee-table” books, remainders of which were the store’s founding raison d’être. The sorter could have no idea how much entertainment was obtainable, from the running commentary on our own times.

Consider, for instance, this entry from the 1st of September, 1997:

“The grieving over Princess Diana is beyond all belief. Radio and telly given over, and today’s Times contains not one paragraph which is not devoted to her. Now undoubtedly she was a great beauty, and had star quality of the film actress sort; also seems to have had a genuine caring side. Q. rang yesterday to ask what I felt. I said the tragedy seemed pre-ordained; and dreadful though it was to say, it would be recognized as a mercy in the long run. Q. admitted that to see her with old or mortally ill people was a revelation; yet it was terrifying that the world regarded her as a saint. People did not realize that few of her staff could abide her, and that she was odious to the Prince ever since they became engaged. She was shallow and devious, cunning as a vixen, determined to do him down, motivated by malice and spite. She took no part in his interests and his intellectual friends, never read a book, and was totally uneducated and stupid.”

How wonderfully poised and just — though written in a moment when, as a friend calls to say, anyone critical of the Princess in the London streets risked being lynched.

To be fair, there were lynchings too, sometimes, in the streets of old Alexandria, of those whose views varied from the opinion of the pinguedinous mob. But some truth has been preserved, in the mouldering pages of a few printed books, which may still be found in the bins, for a dollar. (Or ignored, for free, as long as they stay posted, in the memory clouds of the Internet.)


We are reliably informed that Larry, the cat, will remain in No. 10, Downing Street, as David Cameron and his family move back to their home in Oxfordshire, after their six-year stint in public housing. He (Larry) has proved a first-rate mouser, and is able to hold the media in thrall. The incoming prime minister, Theresa May, and her husband (some investment flak with Deutsche Bank or whatever in the City) will need Larry’s steady paw in his quasi-Cabinet position, as the Exterminator-General for small rodents; which, as one might expect, abound in proximity to power.

I never liked the fellow (Mr Cameron). Gentle reader might refer to the works of the Daily Mail pundit, Peter Hitchens, for my approximate view, on him and most other British politicians of the current “Blairite” generation.

Larry, who technically “belongs” to a civil servant in the Cabinet Office (cats are quite indifferent to whom they technically belong), holds what is, like so many others in Britain, an office that originated in the Middle Ages. The first Prime Mouser (as we might call him today) is lost in the mists of time; but it is known that, for instance, Cardinal Wolsey’s cat played a distinguished role in the background of the English Reformation, trying to distract her nominal “owner” from his work on the annulment papers for King Henry VIII. She was a fine papist cat, who unfortunately went down when the Prelate of York fell out of favour, and seems to have been dissolved with the monasteries. Somewhere in my files was a secret history of Cardinal Wolsey’s cat, Feronia, drafted decades ago in the manner of Procopius. Alas it, too, seems to be lost.

All cats are papists, incidentally, by old arrangements going back to Egypt. The ancient Romans shared the high Egyptian regard for these animals — the only species to which they accorded the liberty of their temples. It was a wise pagan custom which, as some others, was retained by the Holy See, down at least to the aptly-named Ratzinger, often photographed with pussycats. As to his successor, I don’t know what to say. The Spanish expression is, I believe, dar gato por liebre.

Tradition, which sometimes counts in England, recognizes the feline office at its most fundamental in the expression, “The cat can look at the Queen.” (Cats, I should mention, disapprove of corgis; or corgwyn, to be more correctly Welsh.) They were adjuncts usually to the Treasury, but later also to the War Office. Not even Feronia was a breed cat, as I understand. The tradition is tabbies, usually male, and by preference, strays. Larry, for instance, was obtained from the Battersea animal shelter.

It should be explained to North American readers, who are often under-informed, that the seat of the Chancellor of the Exchequer is No. 11, Downing Street — a house that communicates with No. 10. It has larger and better residential appointments, so that First Lords are in the habit of appropriating those quarters, leaving the Second Lords to make do with the more cramped facilities at the better address. Cats, of course, sleep wherever they want, and are no respecters of persons.

“Rufus of England” was the first media star in the twentieth-century line. He insinuated himself in the time of the Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, about 1924. So called when in No. 10, he was better known in No. 11 as “Treasury Bill.” No mere mouser but an accomplished rat catcher, he formed the habit of leaving the corpses of his victims at Mr MacDonald’s feet; but on finding that the prime minister removed them to a trash bin, adjusted to delivering them there. With their usual fiscal recklessness, the Government granted Rufus an official subsistence, and an unnecessary title as Chief Mouser (which has republican overtones). Cats do not need titles, and never use them.

They (cats) are more usually associated with the Conservative ministries. An exception was “Nemo,” who arrived with Harold Wilson. A breed cat, in breach of tradition (a male sealpoint Siamese), he was greeted with contempt by the neighbourhood tabbies, who attacked him frequently.

“Wilberforce” was the longest-serving Downing Street cat-lord. By way of restoring custom, the next prime minister, Mr Heath, introduced him as a kitten from the Hounslow RSPCA. When grown, Wilberforce proved able to dominate large dogs, as well as prime ministers, three of whom he outlasted. Mrs Thatcher was in the habit of bringing him sardines, a tin of which she once obtained in Moscow during the period of detente, to the amazement of Politburo members, none of whom understood cats, and the need to keep them politically onside. But Mrs Thatcher understood cats very well.

“Humphrey” we associate with John Major. Both were underestimated. In fact he was appointed under Mrs Thatcher, who finally approved his annual budget of £100 as a wise expenditure, noting that the clowns who preceded her had been paying £4000 to a “pest control professional,” who had never caught one mouse.

A black-&-white stray of winning charm, natural dignity, and occasional pomp, Humphrey narrowly missed compression under the tire of Bill Clinton’s heavy, armour-plated Cadillac. (The visiting president was impeached shortly after.) He was also targeted in a smear campaign by the British press, who alleged that he was a serial killer of robins in the Downing Street garden. Mr Major rose gallantly to his defence in the House of Commons, and it was later proved that the Daily Telegraph had made up the whole thing. There was then a premature announcement of Humphrey’s death. He had only wandered, as he often did, a mile away, to the Royal Army Medical College in Millbank, where he was soon identified, and ceremoniously returned. Indeed, Humphrey enjoyed these little adventures, of which there were apparently several, for he considered his demesne to include St James’s Park.

But the real scandal of Humphrey’s tenure was in no way his fault. After eight years in office under the Conservatives, he was suddenly faced with the ailurophobia of Cherie Blair. (The term is from ailouros, the Greek for “cat.”) She may have been allergic, and I will guess she was, for there is a most unpleasant look on her face when holding Humphrey for the cameras. To this she was obliged, to dispel rumours that he had been quietly put down. As with Mrs Wilson before her, who once suffered septic shock after being scratched by Nemo, we had another unhappy cat/mistress relationship.

For the truth is that cats do not like Labour prime ministers, and cannot abide their wives.

Now that Mrs May has taken the office (of prime minister), we will see what Larry thinks of her. For the moment he is biding his time.

Parliament of the three ages

There is a lovely alliterative late mediaeval poem in what seems the north Midlands or south Yorkshire tongue: a dream-sequence debate between brave striding Youth and glumly self-serving Middle Age, conducted in a wood, among the streaking shafts of a brilliant May morning. Youth seems to be winning, by Oxford Union rules; until the two speakers are brought short by the intrusion of Old Age. He comes as a death’s head on the both of them. The dreamer wakes, to a homily, in which (of course) we hear:

Vanitas vanitatum & omnia vanitas.
That all vayn & vanytes & vanyte is. …

And gentle auditor (not reader, for the poem was meant to be recited and performed) is left with his instruction:

Ite ostendite vos sacerdotibus.
Go shryve you full stilly & shew yow to prestes.

But that was hardly all. For in the meanwhile we were shewn the Nine Worthies, or we to them; and were touched by the breath of that distant spring — by waggynge of leues, by the mud that dagged the coat of a spaniel, by the buzzing gnats — the glory of this world, and the sweat of our labour. All to one end, at the moment of waking, in the final disclosure of Old Age:

Dethe dynges one my dore, I dare no lengare byde.

The very Catholic Shakespeare, too, came up with such a line, to conclude his song upon “Crabbed Age & Youth”:

Age, I do abhor thee; youth I do adore thee!
O my love! my love is young;
Age I do defy thee: O! sweet shepherd hie thee,
For methinks thou stay’st too long.

Where, in six words of the minstrel, the vision of youth withers.

This is what, I suppose, makes Christianity so grim, to those who are trying to avoid it; or actually to suppress it, as we do these days. There is that death’s head within the Church: the unpretty aspect of the Crucifixion, that needs to be put out of thought and mind, as we troll for fresher scapegoats. Rather, the glib apologists today, as all the happy-faced before them, wish to strip the Corpus from the Cross; to make it, as they say, “the Cross of the Resurrection,” and skip the painful bits. For a mangled body is in such poor taste — the blood might drip on your shoes.

In the olden time, before the Reformation, they never skipped that bit. Instead they kneeled before it, and repeated: “This is my blood.”

Nor made old age attractive, as did not the skilled composer of The Parlement of the Thre Ages, whoever he was. (One version, here.) He would have understood, perfectly I think, what I can only half understand, through what I have seen in the nursing homes — where our own unwanted old are tucked away, and boxed in unvisited despairs, till some cry out for the terminal syringe. Dethe will take each of them, in his turn, whether it should be by nature or by murder; and their children, too, all will come to dying in their course.

I am in the peculiar position of often liking mediaeval verse better than its editors do. I am struck by how often the scholars apologize for their texts, as if the age of the manuscript was its only excuse; how often they seem not to hear the music, nor enter into the imagery — which rises from a silence, not a background noise. Instead, they enumerate the “symbols” from an academic checklist.

Life itself is more vivid to those, who apprehend the transient, chastely; who know to the bones within their fingertips that all the “useless beauty” of this world shall pass; shall be destroyed, and irretrievably lost. And that it must be; must be felt and seen, in the beauty beneath the ineffaceable stillness.

The good Samaritan

God knows, — or I hope He knows, — I try to avoid subtlety in these Idleposts; that I mean to focus exclusively on what is obvious; upon things that are as plaigne as daeg. So too, in any pieces I write elsewhere (such as yesterday, here). For sure, I am not one of these “German philosophers,” from the time since Albertus Magnus. (Who had the same “barn door” policy.) Give me the broad side of a barn door, and I will try to hit it. Of course, I often miss.

As an addendum to my link, let me mention a fairly clear point about the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which was told in church this morning, the Eighth Sunday After Pentecost. I would hope gentle reader knows the story. It is Christ’s answer to the question, Who is my neighbour? It is the man beaten, robbed, and left crumpled in a ditch — quite regardless of anyone’s race, creed, or colour.

Notice that the good Samaritan stops, himself, rather than just reaching for his cellphone and dialling “nine-one-one.” That he attends to the injured party, directly. That he takes the poor man to an inn, and pays for this shelter, out of his own wallet. That he makes only a deposit, promising to pay the balance on his return — prudently to assure that the man will be well treated. (This is something I have noticed in many Lives of Saints: that they are canny, that they are not suckers. That they do know how the world works.)

Mother Teresa of Calcutta is, as I have mentioned before, a great heroine of mine (from sight as well as reading). She took upon herself a considerable number (countless thousands; millions and counting if we include her sisters) of what could be called “good Samaritan” activities; done almost invariably out of public view (and never in public view by intention). She also lectured people from time to time, imparting to them a constant instruction: “Do it yourself!”

Our contemporary way is to seek publicity, and lobby. Bucket after bucket of sanctimony is poured, along with “symbolic gestures.” We demand that other people show some responsibility. We demand that the government take care of it. We demand that the State provide welfare services, with mountainous overheads, and then, that they “make the rich pay.” This is what makes us feel good about ourselves.

We do not do what, for instance, the cops in Dallas were doing the other day: running towards the gunfire to protect innocent black people from getting shot. It was their job, of course, but also an affirmation of who is their neighbour.

Now consider, yea, this excerpt from the long and windy July Prayer Intentions of a certain Pope Francis, forwarded to me by an unhappy priest:

“That political responsibility may be lived at all levels as a high form of charity and amid social inequalities, Latin American Christians may bear witness to love for the poor and contribute to a more fraternal society.”

All this drivel about inequality; about “love” for an abstract socio-economic group; all these cant phrases from the twisting, serpentine Marxist past. One tires of it.

Bread, cheese, & ale

The current definition of a “ploughman’s lunch” (up here in the High Doganate) is a large and crusty bread roll from the oven, a pretty mound of butter, two generous chunks of cheese (one always cheddar), pickled onions and, on principle, an aluminum cylinder of ale, translated into a handled, white ceramic jar. A cold veal sausage from Benna’s (Polish ethnic shop up the way) I would count as a festal variation; to be avoided on Fridays. Aha, and I almost overlooked the tomato chutney. (Modernist touch.)

My understanding, from Piers the Plowman (his Crede), is that bread, cheese, and ale are the staples of a manorial diet; and this is also my understanding from Cobbett’s Cottage Economy, five centuries later, in those passages where he is not rebuking potatoes. (Home-baked bread was the freeman’s glory, in his considered view; potatoes were indecent and unrighteous — unsuitable even for the Irish.)

In summer, all heating wants to be inclosed, and in the absence of a thick clay oven in my wall, I make do with this metal electrical contraption that came with the apartment. But the bread, if fresh enough, could also be dispensed at room temperature.

When run out of chutney, perhaps, a modest bowl of unheated baked beans, from the Heinz corporation. Or in their seasonal prime, gorgeous fat sliced tomatoes (under a sprinkling of salt and herbs) — unknown to our mediaeval ancestors, but leapt upon the moment they had landed from the New World.

There are many variations on the ploughman’s lunch, which, according to the Wicked Paedia, was invented only in the 1950s as a marketing gimmick by the British Cheese Bureau, just as cheese finally came off ration. (The Germans, who did not have the blessing of a Labour government, were of course eating cheese to their hearts’ content soon after the War; but now I am getting distracted.)

In Canada today, we also have Kafkaesque dairy regulators. They do not ration cheese, but content themselves with making it unnecessarily expensive — at minimum, doubling the retail price — while assuring a consistently bland, low, homogenized standard for the masses. To which those masses are now trained and accustomed, in their characteristic obsequiousness. (I could get very distracted.)

Bread, cheese, and ale. … That is what I wanted to communicate today, in the muggy heat of an Ontario midsummer. I hope that I have done so effectively.

“Small beer” for the kiddies, by the bye, when they come in from the fields, for they are themselves small, slight, rather puny, and yet unready for the full siren of a larger ale — which might divert their return to the berry harvest. Small beer at breakfast; small beer at lunch; a little stronger to send them off to bed.

Alas, my own small kiddies have growed. And too, I have sowed no berries.

The Chilcot Report

The Chilcot Report (here) is 2,600,000 words. The Bible in English is less than 800,000. As there are time constraints on all mortal creatures, I think any gentle reader who hasn’t already done so, should read the Bible first. It ranges more widely, is more interesting, better written, better focused on various moral and spiritual questions, and benefits from divine authority.

On the other hand, Sir John Chilcot’s summary of the Report is only 3,000 words, and will reward reasonably close attention. I have just read it twice; the second time to confirm my first impression, that the Report is unlikely to contain anything I did not already know. I already knew that, for instance, the USA and UK invaded Iraq without the explicit encouragement of the full United Nations Security Council; that they did not find deployed “WMD”; that Western intelligence agencies are a shambles; that politicians make serious decisions anyway; that they are influenced by political considerations; that the budget-cut UK military was overstretched; that the planning for post-war Iraq was as inadequate as all other government planning, in war and peace, these last six thousand years; that it was over-ambitious, ditto; that the UK occupation of Basrah and environs was something of an under-equipped farce; and so forth.

On the plus side, the allies did succeed in their principal intention, by deposing Saddam Hussein and his murderous regime, inside a month. This is worth remembering sometimes. While the Chilcot Report nods empathetically to the families of the British fallen and wounded in that war and occupation, and to the courage of the soldiers themselves, it can only restate what the liberal media told them before the liberal media lost interest: that they were used and abused. This must be discouraging.

Blair is not accused of dishonesty. He is rather accused of reaching different conclusions from the authors of the Chilcot Report, in their hindsight of seven to fourteen years. But as I say, after reading the summary, I can expect nothing in the Report that could not have been said even before the invasion, and which for the most part was said, with plenty of publicity. The continuing belief that “international law” is reducible to decisions by the Security Council reveals a ludicrous naiveté. At best, we are reminded that the government bureaucracies on which Blair (and Bush) relied were, with the singular exception of their militaries, ignorant and incompetent beyond words.

But again, this isn’t news.

Many, including mainstream politicians of all stripes, supported the invasion at the time, because they expected it to be an unqualified success, and they wanted to be “on the right side of history,” or at least of the next election cycle. And many of these fairweather friends turned promptly with fortune, presenting themselves as victims of lies and deceptions; which was itself a bald and atrocious lie. Those who have admitted to personal misjudgement are so few, that I cannot think of an example. The rest use documents like the Chilcot Report, to resume their flogging of the dead horse.

That I despise these people is not news, either.

The magnanimous gesture

There is a minority school of political thinking — perhaps it is confined to the High Doganate — which holds that the British Empire and Commonwealth became doomed on the 6th of December, 1906. This was the day that “responsible government” was granted to the Transvaal. On 7th June of the next year, the same was extended to the Orange River Colony (soon to be called, unctuously, the “Orange Free State”).

At the time, it was celebrated as the “magnanimous gesture” — the most liberal and enlightened act ever performed by a politician. It was Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s signature contribution to history: the restoration of self-government to those bands of Dutch-descended trekkers, who had gallantly stood the whole weight of the British Empire for a brief moment in the Boer War, before being utterly smooshed. It was what in turn made possible the negotiation of the Union of South Africa (1910–61), as a dominion or confederation modelled roughly on Canada and Australia. It was what then made possible the political domination of that Union by the Afrikaaner minority, and ultimately their apartheid policy; and the fallout from it, to the present day.

Sir Henry, or let us call him “CB,” the radical shipowner from Glasgow was, as I should explain, the first “prime minister” of the United Kingdom. (Before his accession to the Liberal Party throne in 1905, the job was called First Lord of the Treasury.) To contemporaries, CB was known as the one member of a cabinet of all the talents, who happened to lack talent. Which is why, I suppose, he rose to the top, and had he not made the mistake of dying in 1908, might have dominated British politics instead of H.H. “Squiffy” Asquith down the long slide across the glittering Edwardian façade, into the gas trenches of the Great War.

Perhaps I should also explain that “radical” in those days meant something different from what it means today. It meant radical free trade, along with Home Rule for Ireland, and the first cautious moves towards poor relief, pensions, and the welfare state. But then as now it also meant “enlightenment” and “idealism” and the “good guys” of media celebrity; and the dots between that and later, more degenerative forms of progressivism, are not impossible to connect.

Gentle reader will be aware that my own habitual prejudice is for the Tories, or let’s call us the Bad Guys Party; and that I look back with grave regret on the loss to history of the rotten boroughs and toff manipulation of the House of Commons in the bad old days before Wellington and his like were obviated.

Mistakes had been made in the conference of responsible government on the Canadas and Australias, too; we do not look for perfection in this world. But the radical experiment of empowering “the natives” — and thus inevitably, one group of natives at the expense of all others — became dear to the liberal mind. Along with that, or rather guiding it, was the settled liberal habit of thinking big.

These Essays in Idleness are not meant to burgeon into multi-volume annals (I leave my minions to do that; unfortunately I am fresh out of minions at the moment), so that I now propose to skip wingfully over a terrifying canyon of detail. Suffice I say the great “magnanimous gesture” did not, as Tories feared at the time, inspire the Boers to immediate opportunism. Rather it touched their hearts, and won their fleeting, qualified loyalty to the British Crown. The opportunism came naturally, with the cunning political exploitation of their ascendant place within the new Union.

South Africa was not ready for self-government, and especially not ready to be formed into a large multicultural federation. The result was a huge disaster, superficially masked by immense mineral wealth.

Yet South Africa became the model in turn for similar acts of Imperial magnanimity, through a half-century or more — in which the Empire was surrendered, piece by piece, to other multicultural federations, and expressly into the hands of small tribal vanguards of the politically adept — left in control of all other peoples. (Having often as not first been tutored in socialism at the infernal London School of Economics.)

We had, in little time, the forging of a new nation from Pretoria, from out of the mythology of the bearded Voortrekkers in their ox-wagons, whose twin principles were escape from the humanitarian notions of the soft English settlers at the Cape, and ruthless battle against the interior hordes of native “blecks.”

I suppose every nation is founded upon some mythology of flight and liberation. This is all slightly poetic so far as it runs, but “issues” arise when one national or racial mythology collides with another. Put all the scorpions in the same bottle together by an act of Union, and eventually one fat scorpion emerges.

The price to be paid for that typically Liberal (and, liberal) magnanimous gesture was paid by others: by the English of southern Africa and the great majority of “blacks” and “coloureds.” Later, by the South African example, it was to be paid by all the hundred millions of incidental peoples in India and Pakistan, for instance, through the machinations of a Congress Party and a Muslim League. Indeed, it was the mythology expounded by a liberal South African barrister, one M.K. Gandhi, that led to another grand constitutional imprudence; and through it to the sorry end of a British empire that had delivered to so much of the world a de-politicization, a live-and-let-live, in which not dozens but thousands of vaguely definable nations could find their own paths to development — each at its own pace, free of the imposition of centralized bureaucracy, and secure from the threat of constant invasion from their neighbours.

In the end the rewards for political “magnanimity” accrue only to the magnanimous party, and then only temporarily. The price must be paid by many, from near to far away in space and time.

I mention this because it seems to me that the story of Western Civ, through the last century and more, could be told as a sequence of ever more giddy and expansive “magnanimous gestures,” and of the real consequences of them.