Essays in Idleness


Meditation on an electric lamp

As a Goethean, sometimes almost Hypsistarian, Mehr Licht! kind of guy, I am a great fan of electricity. I love the way it can light up the interior of one’s dwelling, without setting fire to it. Or, usually without doing so. If there is one thing by which I am captivated, in looking upon a post-modern city, it is the bright lights. From a distance, if one could only make some distance, it is most impressive. Sometimes it is possible to come over a hill, and see all the lights together suddenly.

From a ship, as a child, I so vividly recall the waning lights of Karachi; the approaching lights of Aden, Suez, Valletta, Gibraltar. Or flying over New York, London, Tokyo, in the dark: as in a space ship, passing a galaxy by.

Modernity isn’t all bad, you know; there are parts of it to keep when we move on, and perhaps we should be planting brass plaques here and there that explain how to make a light bulb, and how to wire up a lamp. (I’ve been making a hash of it in the background.) Alas, it is when we must explain how to make a hydro dam, or a nuclear fusion reactor, that this starts getting complicated and we begin to need more plaques. But perhaps we start with the simplest rotational dynamo, and leave our descendants to figure out the rest.

Goethe’s deathbed cry for more light is often misunderstood. Our spiritualizing contemporaries assume he was asking for “enlightenment.” In fact he had been discussing optics with his daughter-in-law, and if one reviews his entire final sentence one realizes that he was asking someone else to open a window shutter. The statement was “edited,” to make it less prosaic.

Similarly my wild claim, and his, to be some kind of Hypsistarian, cannot be consumed without the superaddition of a quantity of salt. He was not, and neither am I, a member of the cult which flourished around the Black Sea, from a time preceding the Descent from Heaven, when Our Lord told us everything about the Hypsistos that we needed to know.

The cultists had been partly acquainted with the doctrines of the Jews, and with the more exalted ravings of the Pagans, and were syncretists determined to worship the most elevated Godhead that could be defined. They must have persisted six centuries or more, because Gregory of Nyssa mentions them in the Christian fourth century, and others too, I think. Moreover, they left enough plaques or votive tablets to keep our modern archaeologists entertained.

Light of light, “the light of the world,” is a different thing than electrical fixtures, as perhaps gentle reader knows already. (Most of these latter made I suspect by prison labour in China, and no better from the hardware than from the dollar stores, just more expensive.)

The light that can be seen even by the blind, who by analogy need no eyes to know from where the sun is shining. And we who are quite spiritual, but spiritually demented, are in need of this more singular, solar guidance. It is possible especially those who are sighted become confused by all the lights of the city, which bleach out the stars, and make the Sun seem unnecessary.

O Sun of Justice, teach us sometimes to extinguish our own lights, and bathe in Thy glory.

The ha! chronicles

There are reasons for everything, yet the reasons are not always the first to occur to a glib and unphilosophical mind.

“In the early twenty-first century, satellite-derived tropospheric warming trends were generally smaller than trends estimated from a large multi-model ensemble.”

This earnest attempt at bafflegab comes from the abstract of a paper just published in Nature Geoscience, by Benjamin D. Santer et alia, et alia — a list of “global warming” respectables that is almost a who’s who. It means they are now conceding, as quietly as possible, that there “was” an “hiatus” in the warming trend perceived by their instruments in the previous generation, despite their best efforts at fudging the data. The “sceptics” had already pointed this out, and were persecuted for it.

In plain English, the computerized climate models were wrong. Rather than continuing, or even accelerating, the global warming stopped. They assume, perhaps desperately hope, it will resume shortly.

I don’t. I don’t assume anything, except that the world grows gradually warmer after the trough of each Ice Age, then cooler towards the next; that there are trends within trends within trends through the centuries; and that the Sun has something to do with it. Moreover, I aver that if Man thinks he can undo God’s work in the Creation, he is optimistic. For the planet was designed to cope with us.

We can have some transient effect, however, through our urbanization, and our gardening. This makes common sense, and I fully believe that our aggregate efforts have contributed to the measurable increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. I don’t believe we can predict temperatures from it, however; and computer modelling strikes me as an exceptionally naïve dead end, for it requires assumptions piled upon assumptions. The meteorologists’ computer models cannot tell me if it’s going to rain in the next three hours. (I was soaked to the skin for believing them the other day.) The chances the climatologists can predict overall weather patterns through many decades, by elaborations of the same methods, are — I would estimate — zilch.

Meanwhile by long experience we should be prepared for warmer or cooler or just the same; more rain or less in the fluctuations; and Arctic icecaps that expand and shrink. The mean sea level, barring some astronomical event, will rise and fall gradually, as it has done through the ages, and archaeological enthusiasts such as myself note that land levels do that, too. And this quite apart from the fact that every non-buoyant human construction is sinking into the ground.

A lot of government money — both directly, and by regulatory piracy — rides on “anthropogenic global warming,” and the Trumps of this world are right to cut it off. If the sky does not fall, Chicken Little should not receive another grant.

The best part of the satellite surveys, is the evidence that carbon dioxide may be having some effect. The planet has been overall greening, these last fifty years or so. You see, plants need it, and flourish when it is more plentifully available. To identify this colourless and odourless gas as a pollutant was what we call a “try-on.” The trees do not appreciate it, however; and I like trees. I also like food, and am in favour of growing more.

Now, were this Idlepost to meander beyond my current self-imposed daily limit of two handwritten pages, I might begin trying to explain why liberals and progressives will continue to bank on scare-monger stories. It’s not just the money. They are working on a conception of “science” from out of Descartes and Bacon, that should have been discredited for good by the quantum mechanics of the twentieth century. In a word, they are victims of their own scientism.

Is Realism realistic?

A priestlie friend forwards the review of a beuk about John Senior. (This one.) He was a figure in American religion and pedagogy (died 1999). He was the author of two works that have been extremely influential in a small but persistent circle: The Death of Christian Culture (1977), and, The Restoration of Christian Culture (1983). In a time of what Senior called “The Dark Night of the Church,” he proposed a return to basics — to the Greek and Roman classics, to those of Christendom, to poetry, music, architecture, art, and joy in pursuit of wisdom, centred on the Mass. He conceived of higher education as a glorious boot camp; as the philosophical life restored.

The reviewer calls him “a romantic,” which I think is fey. The original Benedict — not of Option, but of Nursia — would be dismissed by that standard. You assemble your plan, compose your Rule, and just do it. The Word spreads among those who are listening for it, and others copy.

Cutting TV and drugs isn’t actually impossible. Neither is getting up at five in the morning, I’m told, once you get used to it. At Natrun in Egypt they’re still getting monks, having changed nothing in sixteen hundred years. You just keep it up until ISIS arrives to saw all your heads off.

But that is joyful, too. For as Senior explained:

“It is not enough to keep the Commandments, though we must; it is not enough to love one another as ourselves, though we must. The one thing needful, the unum necessarium of the Kingdom, is to love as He loves us, which is the love of joy in suffering and sacrifice, like Roland and Olivier charging into battle to their death defending those they love as they cry, Mon joie! — that is the music of Christian Culture.”

Though one can see how, to the contemporary academic, this might not seem the most prudent advice, or how Senior’s scheme of teaching as if the Truth were knowable (it is, incidentally) might constitute resistance to the Nominalism and Relativism of the established regime. The very idea of a moral compass is taken by these rogues as a moral affront; for the nominalism must be cheap, and the relativism total. To add a reinforcing appreciation for beauty and “poetics” must seem to them absurd; as a gratuitous threat to their malice and ugliness. Of course they will try to suppress you.

But to hell with them all. As Jordan Peterson, a mere psychology professor, has been demonstrating at the University of Toronto, when you are surrounded you make a stand. Marshal Foch advanced on similar principles. (“My centre is giving way, my right is in retreat; situation excellent. I shall attack.”) The enemy may collapse in surprise. For the whole tendency of post-modern education is to tranquilize the brain. They have police, but aren’t ready for any kind of intellectual challenge.

The task of advancing philosophical Realism — and the life of gallant sacrifice it supports — is never quite dead. Like Christ, it keeps popping up again. Even Sartre, I was reminded recently, had a deathbed conversion — according at least to Simone de Beauvoir, who berated him for it. And this after an entire lifetime of constructing defences against such a thing.

Already, in the America of today, there is a network of small, potent universities, graduating people who become priests, monks, and nuns; or if they don’t, become subversives within the liberal and progressive order. The Church herself may be trying to enforce her own decline, but she has no stamina for it. Real, and very traditional Catholicism keeps emerging.

No cure for a broken heart

The assertion in my heading comes to us via the Journal of the American Society of Echocardiography, via the Daily Telegraph, via the Drudge Report. Which is to say, by the usual route from the labcoats through the tabloids. We, or at least that portion of us who take our news on the wing, sans prayer, are told that victims of “tako-tsubo cardiomyopathy” (named for a Japanese octopus trap that resembles a broken heart) may never recover from their vasospasms or infarctions — which, with a little journalistic licence, we might associate with being jilted in love.

Of course the whole thing is nonsense, as one discovers by reading the originating article with attention. The truth is, almost everyone whose left ventricle suddenly dilates, in a way that brings the trap image to a Japanese cardiologist’s mind — though he might look at first like a goner — will recover from it in a few days, and is as likely to live to a ripe old age as the next ippan-jin. Few are permanently impaired. He will probably be a she, since the condition most commonly affects women, so that with a little more journalistic licence we may cite the old stereotype that women suffer more acutely from broken hearts. (And like most ancient stereotypes, it is almost certainly true.)

Here we had been thinking of a broken heart as a spiritual rather than material condition. Because it is. And like most intense spiritual conditions, it may have physical consequences, and some of the victims drop dead. This is especially the case with those who hurl themselves off bridges, auto-defenestrate, or leap over cliffs; though other medical emergencies are possible.

Modern science, delivered through the tabloids, will have the latest word. It delivers what was once detected only in the stars, or by casting straws. (Which is not to mention the daisy-plucking method.) “Oh look, science!” the ignorant reader may conclude, without having assimilated details. The “discovery” then spreads by word of mouth.

One cannot really blame the scientists for doing their research. I only blame them for publishing it.

My own heart has been broken several times — several dozen if I count the more passing fancies — without any perceptible cardiovascular complications. It began when I was fifteen. No, it began when I was six. For all I know, it may happen again. Perhaps I have broken a few hearts, myself; men can be terribly clumsy.

But this is to make light of the grief some others have endured, such as the loss of a mate, or of a child. I shall never forget the look on the face of a young Irishman, whose fiancée had been (quite literally) backed over by a truck. No witty expression came to mind. Or rather one did, about how this had the makings of a classic C&W song, but I was able to suppress it.

Today, that man has been happily married (to another woman, I should explain) for two score years, and the lyrics that come to mind are those of A. E. Housman. Though I am sure some part of his heart remains broken. We pass through our lives with broken parts, that time can never mend.

There are moments when people want to die, and the human body will sometimes oblige them. It has a broad repertoire of ways to do this. It probably works upon some pre-existing flaw: the chain usually breaks at its weakest link. We ought to know that by now, after so many millennia of human experience. We ought not to need any scientific studies. Medicine can focus on repairing the weak link, if that is still possible. Only elderly and wise family doctors could ever hope to do better.

King Kohl

Saumagen is stuffed pig’s stomach. I deeply regret I did not know of it when writing my “Gimcrack Gourmand” pieces, some years ago in the Tottawa Zit. Placed in a Wednesday food section among innumerable hints on healthy eating, and moderate drinking, I decided to lead the opposition. This was the most Catholic thing I could do. (Granted, I was still an Anglican at the time.) My maiden column was entitled, “Why Vegetarianism is Morally Wrong,” and concluded with a recipe for Serbian sheep’s head. (I believe Clinton was bombing Serbia at the time.) I took it from there; and within several months was removed from the section, by the unanimous demand of my fellow writers, and all the supermarket advertisers.

Ah well, back to the editorial page, where it seemed that my function was to make nice liberal people choke on their coffee over breakfast each morning, and spit up their corn flakes.

Had I only known at the time, I’m sure I would have worked in a column about stuffed pig’s stomach. I was then in the possession of several hundred cookery books, and one or another would have contained a recipe; perhaps an historical one, untreated by the modernist airbrush. Then I could have attempted to make it in my Kingston test kitchen (shared with my wife, now alas estranged).

“Sow’s stomach” is I think a more accurate translation of the German term. It is no mere sausage casing. A pig has a formidable, muscular stomach — a meat course in itself.

A Scotsman will immediately think of an haggis, which also comes in a stomach, albeit a more prim one that formerly belonged to a sheep; stuffed with more oatmeal and suet than any other sort of Aryan would think proper.

Now, being myself somewhat of the Gaelic genetic persuasion, I had a recipe for that. (The Western Islands, then farther west to Cape Breton, on my maternal side.) An haggis is a marvellous savoury thing, sadly confined to celebrations of New Years, and tragically combined with unintended parodies of Robbie Burns. Whereas, your saumagen comes full of what appear to be partially digested vegetables.

Helmut Kohl, the former chancellor of Germany, deceased this week at the sort of age picky eaters never live to, loved to serve saumagen to foreign guests. He did not ask them if they wanted it. He was very tall, and large, and could probably make them eat it.

My more immediate ancestors had some “issues” with the Germans, during historically recent World Wars, but the country was allowed some place in the world, and Kohl knew how to occupy it. He was a tactical genius, as his domestic foes would eventually concede, yet like others with his skills he benefited from not looking very agile. Not at all. More like a gigantic smiling peasant, or meandering buffoon, though with enough vanity to resent the caricature.

Apparently, Kohl was despised, across Germany, and even in his native Rhineland-Palatinate, but “the peeple” consistently voted for him, and he did manage to choreograph the German reunification, and dance his way through Maastricht.

I am perversely impressed by politicians who can keep getting elected, without ever being “approved.” This Kohl had in common with Margaret Thatcher, but not with Attila, nor even Genghis Khan, whom I gather were quite popular with their respective hordes.

Against innovation

We are pressed on every side by the “demands of modern life,” to which, as gentle reader will understand, I am generally opposed. Not entirely, of course, for I am on record allowing the use of electricity, and certain labour-saving devices, on the one condition that they do not disturb the background audio-visual and tactile quiet. Even at that, I am a reasonable man. I have allowed into the High Doganate, for instance, a manual coffee-bean grinder; and there was already a similar device, used to grind spices. There is the grinding sound, when one uses these inventions. But it is not unpleasant. The turning of the crank is physically satisfying. Whereas, an electric grinder makes an extremely unpleasant noise, and is the devil to clean.

In a sound-proofed room in a factory, we might perhaps tolerate powered, specialized equipment. Circular saws and the like: the Shakers allowed them (indeed, invented them), and what was tolerable to the Shakers is tolerable to me.

It is possible to construct an electric fan that is essentially silent. I know, because I have seen and heard such a thing. One is conscious only of the whoosh of air, put in motion by the blades. I’m with the pope on this one. Higher ceilings, ceiling fans, and natural ventilation (including wind shafts) should make whining air conditioners unnecessary. How often the noisome device was installed, to compensate for design errors: to force a result that could have been obtained peaceably. Marble floors, or terra cotta for the poor; thick walls of stone, or adobe — it is possible to create the cool of a cave against the baking sun. And conversely, as the Romans taught us, hot-water pipes can be run through the masonry to spread warmth in winter, and the walls then store heat. Stoves can be adapted to burn all manner of rubbish; Stirling engines to quietly generate power. Intelligent design is possible, that seldom requires service or repairs, and once made, costs little or nothing.

True, any of these measures will have what the hucksters call a “positive impact on the environment,” by which they mean, a slight reduction of some screamingly negative impact. They speak sometimes of “passive technology,” which is what humans were using since time out of mind. Many of these greenish people are unstable, however, and should not be trusted. They are apt to recommend technical “solutions” uglier than what they replace (e.g. those vile, bird-killer windmills). Aggressive commercial interests have no trouble cashing in, with tawdry and unnecessary “eco” products.

Whereas, tranquility in domestic and common life requires not more but less. We should edit what is ugly out of the picture, gradually in the calm of a benign outlook.

Is it sound? Is it moral? Is it beautiful? These are the questions to put before the court. Is it proportional? Does it fit with the location? Is it “ergonomic” and otherwise humane? Such questions were routinely asked by all workmen in all cultures before the Industrial Revolution, which had the effect of suppressing them. To recover sanity, children must be raised to know serenity, and the aesthetic means to “peace and quiet.”

And this can begin in no other way than with the prayerful apprehension of God. For God is to be found in the Real Presence, yet also in the unspoken liturgies of work, meals, play. Homo ludens is in his element, in a mimetic dance within the time He has ordained. We learn the harmonious steps, we fall into order.

Perhaps I am not even against innovation, but against the forced innovation that is characteristic of our age; the totalitarian impulse at its root. Men wish to impose their own order; but God’s order was sufficient to the day.

Prophets without honour

John Galt’s Annals of the Parish is not towards the top of any college reading list, yet read patiently through its very mild Scots English it gives a good account of the Revolution that came to industry and society towards the end of the 18th century, and into the early 19th. Moreover, it does this in a manner cozy and compact, as the diary of a country clergyman in Ayrshire, far, far from any world-historical events.

It is the book in which John Stuart Mill discovered the word “utilitarianism,” putting it to use many decades later in the service of liberalism and progress; whereas Galt’s decent if vain and rather conceited narrator, the Reverend Micah Balwhidder, knew better. In the rural Jacobins of his age he saw the wicked appropriation of all Christian ideals to the new materialist creed, and with that the formation of the Big Lie that has governed every “enlightened” machination through the two centuries since his time. Not all Galt’s many novels are strictly readable today, but he left an half-dozen whose gentle irony is seriously addictive. He was what we call “a natural” in the art of prose fiction.

With Galt himself (1779–1839), and his “Canadian angle,” I will hardly deal. Yes, on sojourn from his native south-west Scotland, as superintendent of the Canada Company, he pioneered settlement of the Huron Tract in southwestern Ontario. Founder of Guelph, Goderich, and so forth. Recalled to England, he was rewarded with imprisonment for sloppy bookkeeping. His services to the British Empire elsewhere were significant, and his earlier adventures with such as Lord Byron in Europe, add to the largeness of his biography; but as I say, he is forgotten. We now live in a society that has no use for great men, whether living or in recollection.

My interest of the moment is Galt’s depiction of “a natural,” plural capitalized as “Naturals,” of the Ayrshire landscape; “haverels” in Scots. The term refers to the village idiot or fool, there being by reputation one in every place. They were by ancient custom not allowed to travel, both for their own good and the public weal; as wandering they would tend to collect uselessly in the cities. Davie Gellatley is the male model in the Annals, Meg Gaffaw a female equivalent; “Daft Jamie” is memorable in another work. Each plays the part of The Fool in the mediaeval tradition preserved in Shakespeare — being given the ancient liberty to “speak truth to power,” and to be fonts of paradoxical wisdom and wit.

For, Davie was “no sae silly as folk tak’ him for,” or rather, from frequent contact, folk would often tak’ the “puir fellow” for a kind of prophet. And this is only possible among people who may glimpse Christ in him.

Today, in for instance greater Parkdale, his descendants are placed on the welfare rolls, and offered the attention of social workers, when not simply left to the ministrations of the weather. They are defined as “homeless” and as “social problems.” Sympathy is directed to them as a class, but in a cold, abstract way. Our ear buds help us to ignore what they are saying. They disrupt the sterility of conurban life, get in our way on the sidewalks, and should they become more a nuisance can be drugged into docility as outpatients of our “mental health” bureaucracy.

Knowingly, or perhaps unknowing since he was himself somewhat prophetic, John Galt celebrates an aspect of that antediluvian world, before utilitarianism was legislated. What to us is a bother and worriment for the authorities, was to the mediaeval and earlier modern mind instead a community resource.


Perhaps I should clarify that the above has nothing to do with the character “John Galt” in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; or any other garage mechanic from Ohio. Nothing whatever. I’m sorry to have to mention that woman’s name in an Idlepost. I hope it will not be necessary again.

Avoiding traps

I know a lady — a real lady — who has mastered a most useful virtue. Let us call it, “incuriosity.” Recently it was tested when she was informed — by the usual electronic means — that she had become the subject of conversation among certain “friends.” Pressed for reply, she announced herself bored. Tempted further, she disappeared.

Her strategy is all but infallible. They will soon move on to someone who cares.

The birds have incuriosity. Here I am touching on the science of ornithology, but my observation could be extended through much of the animal kingdom, and of course, expressions of indifference from plants are nearly universal. A sparrow will look you over, and not decide if you are friend or foe. He may flee you by an abundance of caution. But unless bearing food, you don’t interest him.

Pitfall traps, flypaper traps, snap traps, sucking traps, and ah, the notorious no-exit hairs, have been employed by Mother Nature in her sometimes sadistic design to keep the food chain moving. Or perhaps she is merely unsentimental, filling our world with aphorisms which, like human proverbs, can be read different ways.

Now, here is an aphorism nature can supply. To work, most traps supply an attraction.

Consider the sweet-scented pimpernel sundew of Tasmania. It combines the snap and flypaper routines. The little ones eat mites and the big ones eat flies, that spring their tendrils. These catapult the luckless insect into their sticky-goo. This shows great enterprise, in a plant. A fly should be more careful where he lands.

If sheer size is requested, I recommend the giant montane pitcher plant (Nepenthes rajah), to be found on the fog-dampened serpentine, about half way up Mount Kinabalu in what we used to call North Borneo. The mountain, a thousand miles from the nearest to approach its height, offers a freakshow for Darwinists and other tellers of imaginative “just so” stories. This plant’s lidded urn holds more than a gallon of water and digestive fluids. It will take frogs, lizards, shrews, and small avians, showing a locational partiality for other endangered species. Mostly, however, it subsists on rare insects and spiders.

Except journalistic fabrications, there is nothing big enough to trap a living man. He must be dead first, before his nutritive properties can be appreciated by the scarcely mobile.

So that men are compelled to make traps for themselves, which range from the military, to the legal, to political conventions of slander and defamation, often quite satanic in a considered way. And it is true, one must walk carefully through the jungle of e.g. any tax code, for all are designed to drain the lifeblood from people, no matter what they do. Each is made intentionally complex, so that an auditor will always find something to drop, stick, snap, suck, or pierce one with. The departments are naturally staffed with “sick puppies,” who get their kicks from watching the struggle of their prey.

The dangers of incuriosity are well-advertised, however. Gentle reader could spend all his waking hours weighing dietary risks, or what people are saying about him on Facebook. One might even fret about such as “global warming,” over which one has absolutely no control. Or a pope, or a president, who will be forgotten in another fifty years. It is all time wasted, and what is worse, nervous energy wrongly applied.

Eventually, something will get you. Against obvious threats, precautions might be taken, but for the rest, who cares?

Debating point

Resolved: that a faithful Catholic today has more in common with an old-fashioned Orangeman or violent Paisleyite than with most of his own bishops.

The point, raised hardly for the first time, came to me again with the British election, from Eire — the southern, not the northern jurisdiction, and indeed, my Chief Western Irish Veterinary Correspondent, whose subscription to the Catechism of the Catholic Church is not in question. He wrote, “Perhaps the result has a silver lining. The DUP may keep the Tories honest.”

The DUP being the Democratic Unionist Party, founded by Ian Paisley in 1971, whose anti-Roman propensities were formerly not in question, either. Theresa May will need their ten votes from Ulster in the British House to retain the confidence of Parliament, and that means she will have to listen (very politely) to a party that is against (for instance) abortion and same-sex marriage. This, to my mind, made the Thursday election almost worth having, and might indicate, according to another correspondent in Yorkshire, the “hidden hand of the Highest” in the redistribution of seats.

I am myself still smiling, at the discomfiture of scribes in even the Daily Telegraph, who have trotted out their feminist ponies to bray. For to the modern, urbane, forward-looking, wide-tent, so-called “conservative,” ideas such as “never kill babies,” or “marriage is between a woman and a man,” have passed through debatable to unspeakable. They know they have allies who harbour such views, but come as close as they ever do to praying, that those allies will have the good manners to shut up.

And I could quote contemporary Rome to the same effect, telling pro-life advocates to pipe down a bit; to stop being so darn judgemental about objective mortal sin, and get on the Climate Change Chariot instead. Oddly, I am told to go to Confession for my “sins against the environment,” in which class would be my earnestly-held belief that most environmentalist propaganda is sham and imposture.

Not all bishops, I should add, in returning to the debating resolution, above. Each time I hear a remark from e.g. Cardinal Sarah, I am reminded that orthodox Catholics still exist, and that their focus remains on the spiritual. But when it comes to moral, and by extension, political principles, what the Church has taught through the last two millennia is unambiguous. The preaching, specifically against abortion, and sexual perversion, was a feature of the Church in her first centuries; and among the Jews it goes back millennia more. It won us enemies then, and ought to be winning us enemies today.

Call me an Orangeman or a violent Paisleyite. By whomever the ancient Catholic doctrines are taught, I propose to respond with a resounding, “Hear! Hear!”

The youff have spoken

“We have people never trained to think anything through, leaping to their grimly predictable conclusions, with the strange complacency of a seething mob, animated by demagogues, and monitored by pollsters.”

I am quoting myself, from this morning’s Catholic Thing (here). Or rather, I am quoting my muse, Calliope — who is, if possible, more contemptuous of democracy than I — in light of the British election I was foolishly watching past midnight last evening. Congratulations on her victory to Theresa May.

And yes, I am being facetious, for the “youff vote” seems to have come out, after all, for the socialist lunatic, Jeremy Corbyn, so that Mrs May is now perhaps the only voter in Britain who does not know she is finished. (“Stiff upper lip.”)

Nostalgia comes into all of my examinations of British constituency results. I read numbers but remember voices, and faces — by now from another generation, and many surely dead. Another generation that was, in its way, no wight more sane. On topics they knew anything about — gardening, for instance, or how they liked their tea — they could be quite thoughtful, and informed. Politics were not a topic they knew anything about, or that anyone could know, since they are invariably conducted in a dark place.

By which I don’t mean to suggest conspiracies. There are, in mass-market democratic practice, too many factors in play to let any conspiracy work. Like many other human things beyond human control, to fully appreciate the possibilities and angles, one would have to be The Devil. Among my reasons for keeping things as simple as things can be kept, is to somewhat limit his scope. Democracy may sound simple, in the mouth of a rhetorician, from a plain tally, but it is reached by a complex and devious route that is constantly changing.

What good can come of this? I was trying to think of the upside while noting the sudden rise of Corbyn, in the gaming hall of a hung Parliament.

I lived in England — London, to be more frank, but with much wandering about — through the middle ’seventies and for a shorter spell in the early ’eighties. By the late ’nineties I visited a place that had been in many ways transformed, and clearly for the worse, by the Thatcher Revolution. Tinsel wealth had spread everywhere, trickling down into every crevice. Tony Blair surfed the glitter, and people with the most discouraging lower-class accents were wearing loud, expensive, off-the-rack garments, and carrying laptops and briefcases. No hats. It was a land in which one could no longer find beans-egg-sausage-and-toast for thirty-five new pence, nor enter the museums for free.

I missed that old Labour England, with the coalfield strikes, and the economy in free fall; with everything so broken, and all the empty houses in which one could squat; the quiet of post-industrial inanition, and the working classes all kept in their place by the unions. I loved the physical decay, the leisurely way people went about their charmingly miserable lives. Cricket still played in cricket whites; the plaster coming off the walls in pubs. It was all so poetical. And yes, Mrs Thatcher had ruined all that. For a blissful moment I was thinking, Corbyn could bring it back.

Actually, he would bring something more like Venezuela, but like the youff of England, one can still dream.

Better homes & gardens

While I risk agreeing with Voltaire (“we must cultivate our garden”) I should wish to do so in the cause of the organized religion that he was satirizing. The man had so many opinions, he could not help getting some right, and in Candide’s foolish and persistent optimism there is that seed of quixotic Hope which his author was determined to extinguish. Both views are correct. One should be eternally hopeful, and one’s hopes should be repeatedly crushed. This is how wine is made from grapes, if we add a certain ageing process.

Moreover, we should cultivate our homes and gardens. The shelter we seek from an unpleasant human world — growing worse in its unbelief and faithlessness — is a human shelter. That is to say, something better than the nest Bodo and Katrina (a pigeon couple of my over-acquaintance) have tried to build on my balconata, while I have tried to disrupt them. All is lost, all nests are lost in the end, and a time will come when no trace remains of pigeons or persons alike — ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The wine, too, will be spilt forever. That is how things are. Those without a view of Perfection, have, like the height-impaired in the old song, “no reason to live.” They only seek wretched transient pleasures, from which they will guiltily “move on.”

Last week I sat in a small and delightful fern garden; a little patch of paradise set apart yet within the crashing vulgarity of contemporary London, Ontario. I was house guest to my friends Herman Goodden and Kirtley Jarvis, both artists of some kind. Herman I first met thirty years ago: a talented essayist and playwright, stuck in the toilet of modern journalism. Kirtley is an inspired graphic artist, with an eagle eye for detail and chance.

You have a bowl of glass and porcelain marbles that no one plays with any more; and a gravel path through the ferns and flowers. What is more sensible than to scatter the marbles along the path? The effect was beautiful, and within the security of garden walls, it will remain for a generation. (Civilization starts with walls.)

The whole tiny yard is like that, made a vast space from found objects concealed and revealed: a garden of inscriptions. Kirtley’s tiny studio presides from the rear; a bicycle shed has been subtly accommodated. The bicycle that comes out is a dark red one-speed antique, that puts all high-tech bicycles to shame. For the slower one rides, the larger and more interesting the world becomes.

My friends are poor, by the minimum-wage standard. They have always been so — God meant artists to struggle — yet raised a flock of children with one closet-sized bathroom. They have never moved, and will never, voluntarily. Within, the bungalow is a mansion, every corner an exhilarating feast for the eyes. An art gallery, a big library, and multiple workplaces have been somehow fitted in. With the simplest market ingredients, banquets emerge from the kitchenette. For of course the place also serves as a guest house, and a modest community meeting hall.

Disaster will strike, and we must be ready. But meanwhile there is time for us to cultivate our garden. My friends are internal exiles from that old Puritan Ontario, who turned back into mediaeval Catholics; for also they rebelled against the deadly grim consumerist machine to which America’s dourness descended. With time and love it can be overthrown. For in time, ancient traditions are rekindled, and the mystical life is patiently restored. “Be still and know.”

I have known several such homes and gardens, and some like this still exist. They are the small centres of our renewal, walled in from the barbarity outside. But this has always been so, and as Mr Goodden says, he need not buy any spanking new “Benedict Option,” for he owned one already. The words, “Bless this house,” announced it from the start.

D Day

An image that sticks to mind is of the phosphorous shells.

Gentle reader must imagine himself a German soldier, in a bunker or pillbox atop the cliffs over the Normandy beaches; or elsewhere in the concrete maze of their “Atlantic Wall.” He could be young or old. If the latter, he has already served on the Eastern Front, and may be missing bits of finger from frostbite. Or he is sixteen and freshly enlisted. In either case he may be suffering from some further disability: slightly retarded, perhaps, or gimpish, or entirely lacking in family connexions.

Being sent to France had seemed pure luck. Of course, any place might be paradise, compared with Stalingrad. This place had French cheeses, fine asparagus, and all the other products of the Normandy farms; and pretty French girls, strangely addicted to German boiled sweets; officers, too, a little soft in the head; and, … taverns! Weeks would pass with no indication of war. Most days, no traffic whatever on the English Channel. Sometimes, through binoculars, a lonely destroyer could be seen hugging the English shore. Sometimes the Allies sent bombers — hit or miss. Mostly miss.

The night into June 6th, 1944, was disturbing, however. No one could recall such sustained bombing: from around midnight, wave after wave. But the ominous thing was when the bombing stopped: everywhere, at precisely 5:30 a.m. That, and the fact that thousands of vessels, of all sizes but many of them huge, were gradually approaching the French shore. No one had ever seen so many ships, and it remains the largest armada in history. Some day, each German had felt in his gut, this was going to happen. Just another Dieppe, his officers told him. Evidently it was happening today.

My details are from a new German “oral history” of the Normandy landings (this one), gathered from that side. My Chief Texas Correspondent sent me a copy when it came out last March. I found it gripping.

Now where were we? Ah yes, in that bunker, in that concrete maze, staring in amazement at the approaching Allied fleet. Binoculars no longer needed.

A most amazing thing was the amphibious tanks, dropped in the water then driving out onto the shingle. Was such a thing possible? Another was the Luftwaffe — oddly missing from this scene. An aeroplane requires a lot of vital parts, and shortages had grounded all but a few, quickly shot down when they attempted reconnaissance.

The German front line was there to slow and scramble the landings; the serious defences were a few hundred yards inland. It was now that the soldier realized that his function was to die in a hopeless cause. The strafing proper began.

A phosphorous shell lands in your chamber, among a dozen or so of your recent friends. At first you almost laugh. The effect is comic. You were bracing for the big bang; this thing just splashes what looks like white paint, all over the place. But you have perhaps three minutes to live; less, if you are lucky. Those who inhale burn from the inside out; those who don’t, from the outside in.

These munitions were most likely “made in USA,” but every side used them in this Total War. I’d rather have been at Hiroshima.

Trying to surrender was a hare-brained idea: stand up and you’re instantly a bullet bag. You gave the enemy everything you had, then laid down with your ancestors. By miracle, perhaps one in twenty, or one in a hundred, survived the frontal onslaught. It depended where you were. In that case you went to a prison camp: the best fate of all.

Spin forward a day or two. German prisoner is now in Allied troop boat, ferrying to England. Like a tourist, he takes in the view.

As far as he can see, along the beaches, a carpet of British, Canadian, American, and miscellaneous corpses. And in the water, this carpet floats, for the better part of a mile offshore. Tens of thousands of them, linked together in victory, face up or face down.

Of idle lingering

I am not the world’s quickest take-charge, get-things-done sort of guy — that’s why they named me after Fabius Cunctator. The agnomen of this Roman general and Censor (280–203 BC) was not “idler” but rather “lingerer” in its nearest English equivalent. But this is a variation on idling. He was famous for winning by putting decisions off, and hanging around instead of doing something. He was also known among the troops as “Wart Face,” incidentally.

This is a gift shared among few generals, or Censors for that matter. (Not warts, but the do-nothing skill.) The Censorship was a marvellous Roman office, the holder of which was wise to do as little as possible. He was a man with extraordinary power to say, “No.” True, he oversaw the public census, a wickedly activist enterprise. But at its most innocent its point was merely to find out what is going on. For the rest, our hero, when in the office of Censor, could stop things from happening, including stupid and vicious government programmes. How I wish our modern government had a Censor, and how I should like to have that job. (Cato the Censor is another of my heroes.)

Now, the person who seems to do nothing isn’t necessarily doing nothing. He might instead be doing something invisible. As a general during the Second Punic War, Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (this last refers to his lemon scabs), my celebrated Cunctator, did quite a few invisible things. Badly outnumbered on any conceivable battlefield, he focused on whittling the Carthaginians down, with frequent, often quite devastating, commando attacks on their supply lines, and similar aggravations. Make the enemy punch the air, as it were. Deny him the big battle he so earnestly wants.

This is the strategy of that ancient Chinaman, Sun Tzu, praised recently in another context. The ideal is to patiently allow the enemy to defeat himself, while one appears only to be watching, or even not watching, from a distance.

As this is not a Roman History anti-blogue, I will not go into such details as I recall from school days; but Mrs Hansen, my Viking (Danish) sometime Latin teacher, was especially entertaining on Fabius. For you see, he was turning tables on opponents who were themselves adept in unconventional warfare, as Hannibal taking his elephants through the Alps to surprise the Romans during the same Mediterranean conflict. (I often have heroes on both sides of a good war.)

My purpose this morning, back in the High Doganate after a week of jet-setting, or more exactly omnibus-setting in the Upper Canadian hinterland, is to recall gentle reader to the virtue of inaction. Or more precisely, apparent inaction.

I notice there has been yet another terror hit in my absence, by bad Muslims in the United Kingdom. I am of course appalled, though as Theresa May was pointlessly projecting, we’re getting sick of this kind of thing. I’m now sick of our characteristic response, which is to make fresh protestations of how brave and tolerant we are, while loudly bombing people elsewhere.

Whereas, I’m for quietly settling scores. Our enemy du jour benefits from our democratic lust for a puerile and showy activism. They are flies, and we are swatting flies like crazy. The bigger the fly-swatting operation they can inspire, the better for them. Indeed, for this enemy we are dumber than Carthaginians, who did not need to signal their virtue by encouraging Roman emigration to their native North Africa.

Our liberalism has deranged our minds, and it is a little-appreciated truth that the deranged are easier to sucker than the sane.

We should pay no more attention to the latest terror hit than to a grisly traffic accident. We should leave the minimum of flowers at the scene. The outpourings of grief should be kept decently private. We should never ever publicly announce what we are going to do in reply. Let our high-strung enemy discover what we have done, after the fact.