Essays in Idleness


A good shove

There are lines which are old, worn, and commonplace, but to hear them delivered to the General Assembly of the U-nighted Nations is pure joy:

“The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.”

The President of the Natted States Merica fleshed this out, as obviously: “Wherever Socialism or Communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish, devastation, and failure. Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.”

The only way I can think to improve that, would be to have a pope say it.

Now, up here in the High Doganate we’re inclined also to criticize the Capitalist ideology, in its current recension, but not for its failure to generate material wealth. Trump’s remarks were spot on, as far as they went, and as a bonus we got to sit back and watch various progressive heads explode, starting with Maduro’s. So we can’t say nothing was accomplished.

Trump, it has been noted, can be “politically incorrect.” To my mind this is his signal virtue. While I understand the need for diplomacy in mumbling and grumbling with one’s putative allies, it is good to speak plain truth sometimes. And since the gliberal media dare not quote such lines, they travel through the aether unadulterated.

Cue Belloc, and Chesterton: not “an army of Davids” but single Davids with their slings.

There is no reasonable immediate prospect of progress in the right political direction — towards the dismantling of Twisted Nanny State, and the restoration of Christendom. And it is true that words are just words. But they may carry the power of Heaven when truthful, even when spoken by morally imperfect “artists of the deal.”

Indeed, so greatly do tyrants fear truthful words that they go to extravagant lengths to suppress them. Yet murder will out, and so will sharp phrases that cut to the heart. This is what Solzhenitsyn was saying: that if everyone spoke the truth of a morning, the Soviet system would collapse by noon. It took another fifteen years, but by the accumulation of such trumpet blasts the wall came down.

I have been writing lately about “pushing back.” Some gentle readers imagine by this that I am proposing some sort of violence. So I give this as an example of the sort of violence I approve: to speak the truth plainly.

And why should we leave this pleasure only to Trump?

The push-back chronicles

My idea of Christianity came from reading the Gospels. There was the Christ of Hungerford Bridge (whom I have mentioned elsewhere), but too, the Christ of intellectual apprehension, upon whose acts and sayings one might make notes. Or if gentle reader will indulge, the Mystical and the Theological, respectively. These are not contraries. As very God and very Man, they are not two natures.

I had been subjected to some Bible reading as a young lad, though not much. Most came from a New Testament, with Psalms, published by Messrs Gideon, that had been set into my pocket by the school authorities. I would take it hiking with me, and there was a brief phase of fundamentalist Christianity around the age of ten. This washed over quickly, however. It was when I came back to the thing as a curious adolescent — an atheist reading “the Bible as Literature” — that it began to make sense, the way books do, when they are coherent.

The Christ I met then came as a surprise.

Already, by the ’sixties, in the time after Vatican II — or by the ’twenties, according to plausible sources — the Milquetoast Christ had prevailed in the “freethinking” popular culture. By 1970 at the latest, complete fatuity had been achieved. The Good had been reduced to niceness; coupled with sanctimonious moral display. Moreover, Christ had become a team player, a kindly captain (as of a team that always loses) accommodating of our little foibles; a benevolent figure of smiling encouragement. A kindergarten teacher.

But this was not the frankly confrontational Christ of the Gospels. Several times, before I embraced Christ as Christ myself, I recall thinking, “Has anyone actually read this stuff?” If He wasn’t the Son of God, He was a dangerous madman (as C. S. Lewis explained, in a widely circulated tract).

The puzzle is that I know many who have read Scripture; and either I have missed the point, or they have. For like old age, the Christ of the Gospels is not for cissies. Often He is not even charming. Ask the money changers outside the Temple if he knew how to crack a whip. Ask the Roman soldiers if He could take a beating. Ask the thief on Golgotha what kind of man he was. For the mob that had followed to the foot of the Cross couldn’t tell you. They were too busy laughing.

Christ’s followers weren’t cherubs, either. They did not, unarmed, take over the Roman Empire, by being shy or “engaging in respectful dialogue.” The dialogue in which they did engage was, by any standard ancient or modern, rather edgy. It got all but one of the Apostles killed.

My Chief Western Ireland Veterinary Correspondent claims in email this morning that he is a coward. However, he does not consider his cowardice a virtue. That, I would say, would be a difference between him and several other self-declared Catholics in old Eire at the present time.

Me too, me too. Total coward. Or rather, we are somewhat incomplete, for sometimes we see some unpleasantness in which we must intervene, or forfeit our claim to be Christian. And we do it flinching; my own prayer being: “O Lord, do I have to?” When the answer is obviously, “Yes.”

I feel sorry for the miserable munchkins of modernity. They had no good examples, growing up. I’d have had Christ, had I stuck with Him. But meanwhile I had my papa, who though no formal Christian had the lionheart Christian sensibility, and was not inclined to tolerate evil. Got himself fired innumerable times; might get himself gaoled were he young today. Flew Spitfires against the Prussians in his time. I think of him every day, and of how inadequate I am to his example.

Politics of the risible

You have to laugh.

That is an actual instruction, gentle reader. Please obey.

Through long-settled bad habit, I look at “the news” every morning. Sometimes I have the wisdom to leave this until I have swallowed the full pot of coffee; sometimes my will cracks early. What I find, every day, is a farce. True, there are “tragic overtones,” drawn out with hyperbole. But then the hype itself, and the theatrical gravity of the newscasters, undermine this effect.

We have not “fake news,” in the sense of false information. Or rather, that fakery is elevated in significance by the choice of fake (i.e. media-manufactured) “issues.” Conversely, anything which constitutes a genuine threat to life and liberty, to health and longevity, will be ignored.

Passing example: North Korea’s latest missile over Japan. We exhausted the possibilities for yammering on the last such lune-shot. Now that “Rocket Man” shows he really has both the means and the will to trigger an international conflagration, words fail us. So we ignore it. The story slipt “below the fold” to accommodate the latest jejune terror attack in Europe, and the posturings of our Hollywood stars. Stephen Colbert, who is no threat to anyone in his right mind, currently gets more airplay than Kim Jong-un. Verily, Kim Kardashian beats him out in this morning’s Google-count.

In my opinion, Donald Trump watches too much television. (How would I know this?) Moreover, he keeps tweeting about it. In the world I came from (yes, another planet), presidents were assumed to be fairly well informed. They were thoroughly briefed on the hot topics; they carried hard information in their hearts and minds. They had not the time to prattle. Mr Trump seems to get his information, instead, from the same places we do — from the tabloid media — and while he tweets back with commendable good humour, one is left with the impression he isn’t all there. Who is following whose agenda?

The same could be said of all the other national leaders, whose sound bites fill our air. Each has devolved into a talk show. They seem powerless to influence the course of events. Far from being a new kind of politician, Mr Trump has merely taken the old kind one step farther, into the lunatic unknown. We escaped Mrs Clinton, and whew. But next election, maybe we’ll get Mr Colbert.

I was amused to watch Trump sell out his entire populist base in return for a few moments of Washington flattery. And yet that base doesn’t care. It’s a gameshow to them, so after his deal with the Democrats they want to know only, “Who suckered whom?”

Under current mass-democratic arrangements, I see no prospect for recovery of normal civic life. It can’t be sold. The public and their politicians can be persuaded to accept tax cuts, on the one side, or the reckless expansion of government programmes on the other. Anything else ends a politician’s career. But only God could fulfil the promise of something for nothing. Who, in office or aspiring to it, can withstand the overwhelming public demand to be lied to?

Here’s an amusing item. There is a homeowner in a low-lying Houston neighbourhood who has successfully billed the government twenty-two times for flood damage. It’s his entitlement, he can’t be cut off. (Think of the media outrage when anyone is cut off anything.) The authorities want to buy his house, and demolish it, but he won’t sell. Why would he, with a goose that lays such golden eggs?

Now here’s another giggle. In this “fine province of Ontario” I see that our government (which carries a larger debt than California’s) is establishing a monopoly on marijuana retailing, to match its monopoly on liquor, and gambling. They will open 140 “drug stores” soon. They are desperate for revenue, and this is a new way to tax the mentally and morally disabled.

Let us consider, for one brief moment, the evolution of government in our time: from protector of society, to monopoly racketeer.

You have to laugh. … Now! … Laugh, I tell you.

The long march

There is a secret about the Devil that I propose to share with my readers. I hope it doesn’t get me into trouble.

It is an interesting secret, which emerges from the careful study of Catholic doctrine, as it has been articulated through the centuries. If we want to understand the Devil, that is the first place to look. The Church is the expert on demonic activity, having been in active competition with the infernal powers all this time. She is kept on her toes as their principal target. Until recently, she spoke with one clear voice, the words of Our Saviour, and indeed, were it not for divine assistance she would have succumbed to the satanic service, long long ago.

The Italian cardinal, Carlo Caffarra — outspoken in defence of rooted Catholic dogma, and in his demand that the Church teach the same — was unusual in his clarity. He died, as we learn, in holy desolation, appalled by what is happening in Rome; yet not without a useful reminder that the game is not up. There will always be faithful bishops and priests; the gates of Hell will not prevail against them. God will not abandon them, nor us, if we are faithful. And note: it is His Church we must defend. We’ll never be alone in that.

Which brings us to the Devil’s embarrassing secret: the flaw that must finally bring him down.

The secret is that, he can create nothing. He is utterly powerless in himself: a blank, a nullity, a zero. He can compel us to do nothing; his threats and taunts are empty. Any Christian, indeed any human being can, if he wills, have the upper hand. All it takes is to refuse the Devil’s bidding. (The harder part is to identify it.)

A crocodile can eat you, as a young Financial Times correspondent discovered the other day. (Sad story from Sri Lanka.) But a crocodile is a thing, with a body. It has fierce jaws, claws, and so forth. It can be quicker and quieter than one might expect. But it can occupy only one place at a time. The question of evil in nature is for another day and a thousand books. For the moment: all animals are good, except when they’re not. That they can be inhabited by “spirits” is, curiously enough, confirmed by Our Lord in the Gospels. But there’s only so much a demon can do when he gets at the controls of a dumb animal.

Much more can be done at the controls of a human. Which is not to say the Devil’s task is easy. He needs the man’s cooperation just to get in, and must manoeuvre carefully to avoid setting off various internal alarms. Yet as a fallen angel, he can be quite adept. Once in the driver’s seat, he can do incalculable damage. He can now do whatever a human can do; even use the human’s brain to strategize mischief. (Humans are suggestible; often we can improve on a suggestion.)

Worse, he can “network,” with other humans of demonic inclination.

Of old our ancestors created many institutions. In my own lifetime I have seen a few set up, to resist an evil or advance a good. One may see the good intentions, however naïve. The creative powers with which we were endowed, in the image of our Maker — the ability to “co-create” through art, music, poetry, and marvellous acts of charity — must be something that excites the Devil’s envy. He wants power, and finds in us a power that he lacks. How to turn it against us?

Too, he needs to disable what most interferes with his own operations: to pervert men and twist their institutions. For this reason he takes the Church far more seriously than the average Catholic. If he can somehow twist that — even mix its messages for a season — he can disorient millions.

But the same is true with lesser institutions. The Devil does not, because he cannot, found human institutions. (Only humans can do that, with God’s help.) But by tireless effort, he can take them over, and by “progressive” increments adapt them to serve the very opposite of the purposes for which they were established.

The phenomenon to which I refer is, of course, der lange Marsch durch die Institutionen (“the Long March through the Institutions”), conceived and successfully executed by the Left through the last few generations. It is a conscious effort to infiltrate and subvert organizations both public and private, then like a cancer, metastasize. The better the reputation of the institution, the better the weapon in diabolical hands, for it can play on a heritage of trust, to sucker the innocent.

So that finally we must either purge or extinguish the very institutions upon which the good for man and society once depended, and start over modestly again. For the Enemy now controls the media of news and entertainment, our schools and universities, all government departments and increasingly, the law.

Note: men who create nothing; only seek to appropriate what other men have made.

The strait, and narrow

Well, I suppose a lot of people are selling swamp land in Florida now.

In other news, the school year has recommenced, and I find myself once again modestly deranging the minds of innocent young seminarians, on the topic of Literature. Catholic Literature. (All great literature is Catholic: did you know?)

Here are five things I like to emphasize, from the start. Each is the most important.

Item. … Keep your thinking “inside the box.”

“Inside which box?” the clever one may ask.

“The Box of Reason and Revelation,” I then reply, smugly.

For everyone else is thinking “outside the box,” these days. This leaves the box empty. But it is a handsome box, and it is warm inside, and winter is coming.

Item. … Avoid “lateral thinking.” It is linear thinking we need. To which end, lock your laptop away, and write with a pen. Not only should each sentence “flow” from the last, it should be internally coherent, too. Provide a beginning, a middle, and an end in all you write. Keep everything in that order.

The West was able to conquer the whole world, thanks to linear thinking. We aced all the sciences, thanks to linear thinking. We will get to Heaven by the strait, and narrow.

Item. … Eliminate ring binders. You need a notebook so bound, that the contents cannot be re-arranged, and you can’t take pages out except by ripping. Retain all your stupidities. Date the pages. Flag keywords if you still can’t find anything, and create an index.

You want to make something substantial, that will be truly worth burning on the last day of school.

No scanners or copying machines, either. Everything you want to retain, write down, in an increasingly legible and elegant longhand. Anything you are tempted to underline in books: write down. If the quotation is three pages long, faithfully transcribe it. And learn to draw, so you can provide the illustrations.

This is how you become intimate with the written word, and gradually engage memory and attention. It is a method that will help you stay inside the box, and on the linear trail. Within weeks, you will find yourself beginning to remember things. Eventually, you might even become articulate.

Item. … If there is anything you fail to understand — such as a play by Shakespeare — read it six times. To discourage yourself from looking too much up (which is a distraction) use only heavy cumbersome dictionaries. Keep reading like a tank, with no reverse gear. Blast through the obstacles.

Soon the pennies will begin to drop. Pennies from Heaven.

Item. … Read with your lips. Sound everything in your head. Read passages aloud, to each other. Perform them, with gestures, and hands. Recite them in the shower. Use the exclamations to scare the cat. Chew lovingly on each delicious phrase, over dinner.

Soon you will be able to understand what is meant by rhythm, in prose and verse, and even the rules will become comprehensible. Soon you will discover that half the meaning is in the music. And the other half is between the lines.

Remember: “Only the lover sings.”

Timor mortis

A poet from the other side of Lake Ontario, John Ashbery, died last week. I’d been so busy not looking at the news, and finding it full of air when I saw it (weather news, mostly) that I didn’t know until a poet in California tipped me off this morning. Ashbery himself — who like all aspiring poets, and the accomplished ones, too, had to take jobs — feared death. We all fear our own, but he also feared the deaths of others, as he explained. As art critic for a nasty rag called Newsweek, in some previous century, he especially feared a major artist would die. This meant he would be called into the office in the middle of some dark and dreary night, and not allowed to go home until he had written the obituary.

Only recently did I begin to appreciate Ashbery’s long, almost Egyptian meditations on death. They weave through all his poems, but unlike Death himself, Ashbery is never confrontational. He wasn’t political, either, and in his prime, would get in trouble with the Official Guardians of American Literature by, for instance, not mentioning Vietnam. He praised other poets for not doing so, either; yet still won all the prizes because he was so large, and articulate.

He wrote an incredible amount of verse– two thousand pages of it in Library of America editions so far — and to my own frustration, I never catch him nodding. Clichés of popular speech wink from here and there, but they are never slips. He had the gift for elevating the plain and common to a fine opacity, in glinting sea-light rich and knelling strange, in the ding-dong of his internal half-rhymes and sparkling assonance amid, as he put it, the weird fragrances of Persian and Aramaic. Sight, sound, smell: but all in American English. And all to no purpose, no purpose at all, that was not poetic.

I can’t explain why I avoided him so faithfully, until what seems just the other day. He was a poet’s poet, I suppose, and I’m not clubable. As allusive as a Chinaman, and insistent as a Goan, he would threaten to flood out one’s mind. Young poets, in particular, should probably avoid him until they have become strong swimmers. Those who try to “surf” him (as I am doing now) wash in pummeled, drilled, and axelaxed.

From the next poem in his exquisite collection, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), he writes by the open window where

… the air pours in with piano notes
In its skirts, as though to say, “Look, John,
I’ve brought these and these” — that is,
A few Beethovens, some Brahmses,

A few choice Poulenc notes. … Yes,
It is being free again, the air, it has to keep coming back
Because that’s all it’s good for.
I want to stay with it out of fear …

Ninety he was, when the air stopped, and he gave the “curt greeting.”

Of providence & order

Trust in Providence is an attitude of mind, installed at conception, but later it becomes a choice. On this Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary we recall the place of choice in human history: of God’s choice of the path to redemption for fallen, sinful man. It was not our choice. God chose Mary; and then, Mary chose God.

Much would follow, along this path, but in this moment the miraculous die is cast, and events beyond the comprehension of this world are set in motion. To my poetical imagination, it is the most extraordinary possible course. God will continue to surprise us, by doing things in the most unlikely ways. His providence is founded in unutterable mystery, yet it is plain and simple. A Savour will be born of a perpetual virgin, in the mystery of the Incarnation. What could be simpler than that?

The Feast, I gather, is much older or earlier in the East than in the West. In some respects we Catholics are still catching up, not so much with the East as with what is called the Deposit of Faith. Such information as we required was there from the beginning. Yet after two thousand years, and more, it is still surprising us. Nothing in this world makes sense, until it will be ordered in the womb; our own little lives can make no sense. Providence, for the heathen, is unaccountable. Good things happen, and bad.

There are floods, hurricanes, earthquakes. There are terrible plagues; there is war and death. There is not only the fact but the history of human suffering — none of which could ever have been felt had we not existed. And there is also Love, which I type with a capital L, for in the absence of Incarnation it is strange beyond inscrutable. We live in this odd, and in the ancient sense comical circumstance of, “Love among the ruins.” (It is the title of a poem by Robert Browning.)

Our Holy Mother, this Theotokos, “Mother of God,” is our guide through wilderness of our own making — the wilderness not of this Earth, but in the heart of man. She will show us to Our Lord. Always there was Providence; always there will be. In the beginning was our end; in the end is our beginning. We live in a place that is indestructibly ordered.

On pushing back

I beseech you, gentle reader: abjure the bait of praise and the dread of blame. I can see no other path to recovery from constant retreat in the Culture War. For there is an even better option than the “Benedict” one, currently in fashion among the Catholic genteel. It is to stop sulking, and win the War.

Dysopia (no relation to “dystopia”) will be our Greek word for the day. It is from Aristotle via Plutarch; a term held to be untranslatable into our modern tongues. By the dictionaries it is defined as “the embarrassment that compels us to grant an unjustified request.” The closest we come in English is “compliancy.” They get no closer in German or French. Philemon Holland, in his lively and learned Tudor translation of Plutarch’s essay on this topic (number 96 in the Lamprias catalogue; volume VII in your Loeb Moralia) called it the “unseemlie and naughtie bashfulnesse,” the “foolish and rusticall shamefastnes”; Erasmus in his hammerblow Latin, vitiosa verecundia.

In the traditional opthalmic jargon the Greek word survived with its ancient etymology. It is a defect of vision, triggered by the sight of unpleasant things. The sufferer cannot see what he doesn’t want to see; he gets a pain in his head when he looks. Alas, we have ceased to appreciate that psychological causes spawn physical effects; that a mere eye-roll may induce the dysopic to dissolve. Pills will not cure what requires a goodly will.

So mark it down in your commonplace books, my dears: dysopia. Pour a shot of rum, and swear off it entirely.

Compliant, complaisant, acquiescent. Docile, submissive, ingratiating. Servile, tractable, obsequious. Ever deferential, glad to be of use. This is what my fellow Canadians have become, though we were not in the past, according to my elders (now mostly dead). When unreasonable demands were made upon them, their inclination was to stiffly resist. Ours is to be chumps, patsies, dupes, treacle saps. In our vanity we think that we are “nice” people, and celebrate our own gormlessness.

And that is why what we too mildly call “political correctness” has advanced so far, through barrier after barrier, erected by our ancestors against perversion. It begins with a small minority of fanatics, bent upon turning our world upside down. It continues not by conversion but by dysopia. We look upon those making the demands, and can no longer see what they are, owing to the pain in our heads. We think we can buy peace with concessions. But the devils are encouraged by our every retreat.

“Stand your ground” is the useful American expression. Be not embarrassed into compliance by importunity. Let not the shameful “shame” you. Wear their smearing froth and spittle with some pride. Succumb no more to that unseemlie and naughtie bashfulnesse. Push back hard.

Calcutta, my love

Gentle readers sometimes ask, and a few asked yesterday, where they can find my works prior to the inauguration of this Idleblog. The answer is generally, I don’t know. There is much on clippings, collected mostly by my late father, and discovered in his files when he died. I had no idea, until then, to how much trouble dear papa had gone to collect every word of pieces which I casually threw away. I keep all that now, from filial duty; but have not the technical means to digitize it, nor the time to exhume, given the great bulk. I leave fate to fate.

Much exists, since the later 1990s, in the computerized memory banks of the publications for which I wrote, to which I no longer have access. In almost every case, anyway, the copyright belongs to them — even if they never got around to paying me. I am constitutionally unable to retrieve the rights to my own work. This is because I cannot bear to deal with the present holders.

Or to push myself on publishers, for that matter. If any seriously wanted a book from me, he would find me and make an offer. From experience, I ignore vague suggestions. Most of what I wrote was journalism, only for the moment. The poems and more pretentious literary works are not of the first order, and deserve to die.

As I mentioned in a Thing column the other day (here), the public libraries are divesting themselves of all printed matter not in immediate demand. The university libraries, too. It seems to me the height of insolence to print anything new, when the works of e.g. Homer, Aeschylus, Pindar, &c, are (as in the case of Toronto’s Central Reference Library) going to some landfill in Indiana. (I’m still trying to establish which.) That is where we should now look for the heritage of Western Civilization.

What follows is a short patch transcribed from one of my Calcutta notebooks. Or rather, I transcribed it four years ago on this website, and bring it forward, shorn from the context I gave it then. Let it stand for everything I wrote from Calcutta.


A little man came by me in the shadows of the early morning light. It was raining. He came by, through the slime, under the dissolving colonnade of an old Raj building. He was less than 5 feet high, a wisp maybe 80 pounds, maybe 60. And his wife was thinner & much shorter. I think less than 4 feet high. He was holding her hand, she was slightly behind him, her head was turned away in a cloth; she is blind, I realized. Only he looked at me: human eyes.

O God have mercy.

He was leading her along the street. Their children are all dead — somehow I knew this. The depth of experience in those eyes; it is a perfect love. They live out here in the open, in the rain, in the slime, in the gutters, with the rats. They eat what they can find.

O Christ have mercy.

He is leading her by the hand, his bride; he loves the mother of the dead children. O how did they die? He loves this filthy little woman, who has no eyes! He is Jesus, I think. Surely he is Jesus. He is leading his bride through the streets by the hand!

O God have mercy.

A memoir

Twenty years have now passed since a Saint of the universal Church died and was translated to Heaven, from Calcutta. I remember it vividly, because I was soon there, as correspondent for a Canadian newspaper chain. I’d come away suddenly from a week of Princess Diana-mourning, through which I’d made myself increasingly unpopular by failing to “emote” in my op-ed columns. I was appalled by the show of mass-maudlin, in England and everywhere, and said as much; then sneered at the deluge of hate mail.

Calcutta (spelt “Kolkata” today, but not by me) was from my first immersion in its heat and squalour, nearly half a century ago, perhaps my favourite city. It would be hard to explain why. In a sentence, it seemed the purgatorial convergence of all human realities in space and time. The city’s crumbling palaces completed the effect; many juxtaposed with beggars’ hovels. (Now all is being crushed under glass and steel.) Too, I have a fierce if unaccountable love for the race (in the old ethnic sense) of Bengalis. Too, as I’d been fortunate to know from the start, it was the City of Teresa.

Two correspondents were sent from Canada to cover Mother Teresa’s funeral. The other, whom I need not name, had not been to Calcutta before. He took one good look around him, discovered that his hotel booking was worthless, and went right back to the airport, leaving all our readers to me alone. My own booking, in one of the city’s few hundred “first class” rooms, had also been cancelled. Hillary Clinton’s entourage, and the crews of the USA television networks, had appropriated them all, and even those guests already in situ were turned out to accommodate them. I was man-handled by the security detail of the ABC network — the usual pack of liberal and progressive goons.

But why waste time even trying to negotiate? An Indian concierge looked on me sadly — said there was nothing he could do against “these animals.”

Happily the town was familiar to me, and with my luggage I proceeded on foot up Chowringhee until I had found the old Raj hostelry called the Great Eastern, its air swished by rusting oil-sputter fans from high cracked-plaster ceilings. Now a government hotel, it was also booked out — for the Republic of India’s governing elite — but I knew I’d have a chance there. Theatrically declaiming my plight at the counter, the governor of the State of Kerala stepped forward to say he would share a room with his deputy, surrendering his own quarters to “our foreign guest.” This is the sort of thing that only happens in that country; why I have loved India so intensely.

I was exhausted from twenty-four sleepless hours of air travel, through multiple time zones and flight connexions, hungry and sweating like a white man, but also purpose-driven. Tossing my satchel on a marble floor, I hiked immediately to Mother House — on foot, because vehicular traffic was at rush-hour standstill. I joined the media mob outside the locked gate, nearly forfeiting my head to the swinging boom of a television camera. A diminutive Filipina nun was just inside the iron bars, explaining to the animals that no interviews would be given, and no journalists admitted. “This is a Christian convent,” she insisted, patiently. “There is no news here, please to go away.”

Then she caught sight of me, perhaps the least equipped of the mob.

“You look pale, you need a glass of water,” she said, then magically slipt me through. I found myself in a small crowded kitchen with a chapati and glass of tea. I was at the epicentre of some cosmic event, near a lady I soon identified as Sister Nirmala (Mother Teresa’s successor) among my new companions. I got to hear everything. One nun was on a telephone to Delhi — pointlessly demanding that all this State Funeral business be called off, in a colourful mixture of Bengali, Hindi, her native Tamil, and English.

Later, back in the lobby of the Great Eastern, I was now (alone among journalists) at command HQ for those official arrangements. Four miles of Calcutta boulevard were being swathed with thick bamboo fencing, for the parade route; and every single pothole filled. The ancient gun-carriage that had wheeled the corpses of Gandhi and Nehru was en route via the Indian Air Force. It was an incredible scene of army signals, into clunky field radios, spiralling around a turbaned officer with a classic handlebar moustache. His word was law. A vision of cool efficiency “under fire,” it was already the third miracle I had witnessed on the day.

My quiet Anglican prayers (as they then were) carried me along. A fourth miracle was my success in bribing a fax operator to transmit my extensive hand-written copy back to a newsroom in Ottawa, in precedence over Indian state papers. (My cutting-edge laptop had fritzed, of course.)

In the next couple of days, almost entirely without sleep or food, I scrambled, wrote, scrambled. Back home, the editors of the Ottawa Citizen transcribed what was perhaps the last hand-written copy a Canadian newsroom would ever receive — one of my pieces more than twenty pages (ending mid-sentence because the last page had jammed).

When I finally was able to pass out for three hours (awakened by a bearer for a trunk call from Canada) I needed minutes to shake myself awake. All I could remember from the previous evening was a moment of pause atop page seven, when I’d turned to pray, with great urgency: “Lord, you write this, for I cannot.” The rest might as well have been an experiment in “automatic writing.” I had no memory of doing it, and only much later, reading the tearsheets, did I discover (to my relief) that it was weirdly coherent.

That was the biggest miracle. In my life as a hack journalist I had no other experience like that. It was perhaps the closest I would ever come to being in God’s active service; to knowing He had a job for me, to witness what I was meant to see, and write it all down.

Among the soft-bodied eight-limbed molluscs

Lovely piece on the octopus linked through Maggie’s Farm this morning (here), after one gets through the mandatory Japanese eroticism. They are wonderful slimy things, if you have ever wrestled with one. I haven’t, myself, but the (magnificently Catholic) poet Roy Campbell used to do bouts for the tourists, back home in South Africa. It was a good panhandling gig; earned him enough to get out of the country.

All the octopodes are smart, as too the cuttlefish and squid, though to my certain knowledge, some are smarter than others.

They are very smart, but are they “conscious”? This is a silly question the cognitive types ask, to which the answer may be given by any marine biologist. Of course they are conscious! They observe, they learn, they remember, they adapt; they psych out an adversary; and they don’t waste time on the Internet. True, their brains are distributed through eight arms, which are able to act independently of each other (while humans get flustered with just two). But it is a fine choreography, and the arms will move splendidly to a single end. Never underestimate the dexterity of an octopus.

I should like to solve Peter Godfrey-Smith’s “consciousness” problem for him, mentioned in that link. It is true that the consciousness of an octopus is different from the consciousness of a human, or the consciousness of a fruitfly. This is because God created them severally. The consciousness of one human is different from the consciousness of another, too, because each was endowed with a unique immortal soul. And God didn’t make the octopodes interchangeable, either.

Verily, I am able to report, that even the fruitflies after the nectarines on my counter vary in their caution. Some are easier to kill than others.

From other sources, I must vindicate the reputation of octopodes as talkers. The Darwinoids assume the ability to change colours through intricate patterns in a sudden spectacular way (so that an octopus may disappear without moving) was some evolutionary development for camouflage. But it is also their method of communication. Though solitary by disposition, a travelling octopus can hold one conversation with his swim-mate to the right, another unrelated with his swim-mate on the left — flashing his chromatophores distinctly to each, by way of rhetorical emphasis. (Our politicians have a more primitive form of this ability.)

They, and the cephalopods generally, can hunt in packs when they want to, and by signalling back and forth, become masters of predation against quickly scattering fish. They can open coconuts, and jars — even jam bottles from Bulgaria. They can turn taps on and off; squirt unwelcome guests with water or with ink. They have deadly accuracy, and from a considerable distance, can get you in the eye like a cowboy marksman. For the studious octopus knows exactly which human you are, and has already decided if he doesn’t like you.

Put one in an aquarium, where all his Houdini tricks are foiled, and he gets bored. This is a universal sign of native intelligence; why intellectuals can be such trouble. He (the octopus intellectual) starts looking about for mischief. He protests stale food by jamming it down the drains, as the reviewer reports; he pulls plugs from curiosity, including those on machines; he likes to short out light bulbs. He hops out of one tank then slithers to another, where the fish is fresher, or there’s a cuter octopus babe. The octopodes can design and build themselves little forts, then disassemble and reassemble at another location, using tools where required. Such anecdotes have filled many books already.

Five hundred million years, say the deep-time palaeontologists. That’s the least amount of time since our last plausible common ancestor: some tiny indifferent worm, this side or that of the Cambrian boundary, when the myriad body plans for all future life on Earth suddenly, simultaneously sprang. The deeper we dredge into the geological and biological history of this planet, the odder it appears, and the less we can believe the Darwinian just-so stories.

Include me in

“Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my Browning.”

This, attributed to Goering but rather indited by some other nutjob mediocrity, is among my favourite phrases. Often I cite it with glee. I know just what he meant; rarely has one the chance to empathize with Nazis. Monsters they were, but also human, and if we lose the means to recall what made them tick, we are disadvantaged against their successors.

Ditto with Islamic terrorists, incidentally. Unless we can see them, sometimes, from the angle that makes them most attractive, we miss the whole picture. Know the enemy, I say. The worst psychopath may offer to share some droll humour. It is my firm belief that even liberals and progressives can be charming, sometimes.

One wonders, of course, which Browning Herr Goering would reach for. Would it be an earlier work, as Paracelsus, or Sordello? A later, such as Jocoseria, or Asolando? Me, I think I would start with a dilatory romp through the Dramatic Idylls, then hunker down with The Ring and the Book.

Start again. …

Whenever I hear the word “Baroque,” I reach for my Bach. But soon after I think of Rubens. (In point of historical sequence, Bach might rather be termed “Rococo.”) And then all these churches come to mind, from walking tours in my distant past. England was very poor in Baroque (and Scotland could be omitted entirely); Mitteleuropa quite rich.

I was raised not to appreciate the Baroque, by an industrial designer tending more to the Bauhaus, but for that very reason the fleshy curves and high choral contours became my guilty secret. The choice is finally that between a bulminic and a healthy girl. The attraction to these starved fashion models is not healthy at all; how easy to confuse them with little boys.

The whole question of art and cultural history turns on such terms. They are necessary if we will talk at all. But too, they are always misleading. Discretion is the better part of valour, sage Falstaff says, but really it is the sceptical judgement that we require, to keep valiant assertion on the rails.

Browning, one might say, was very late Baroque. We read him today (if at all) through the eyes of Ezra Pound, who looked for that part of Browning that was least Browning. Pound, as many who blossomed in the ’twenties of the last century, was the opposite of extravagant. As master craftsman his constant instinct was to pare down. And yes, that is an aspect of master craftsmanship. But Browning’s constant instinct was to add what was missing. (Pound should rather have embraced Tennyson, his fellow “pure craftsman.”)

The whole mission of Rubens and (Vivaldi and) Bach and Baroque (and Browning) is to recover what has been lost: to put the quivering flesh back on the stripped skeleton; to restore the decorative flourish. The priggish Victorians did this mechanically; Rubens did it resplendently, in defiance of all the prigs in his day.

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith, “A whole I planned …”

On further thought it is to Browning’s “Rabbi Ben Ezra” that I first turn; and to its declarative faith, that the good may be found in the least expected places.


POSTSCRIPTUM. … Please, gentle readers! Stop sending emails to advise me that the “Browning” to which Goering referred was actually a high-powered pistol. I am grateful for your concern, but must insist that my misunderstanding was intentional and an attempt to be … well, cute.


A storm which with high and howling winds, crosses over the city, funnelling some trillions of gallons from the Gulf of Mexico, then pauses, and backs over it again, must really dislike Houston. That it now proposes to inundate New Orleans, reprising the track of Katrina, suggests animus of a very high order on the part of the gods. My instinct would be to appease them.

Our Chief Texas Correspondent found himself in Colorado when Harvey came ashore — five thousand feet above sea level. Noting the rise, he then proceeded to eleven thousand feet, “just to be on the safe side.” He may return to view the damage to his Montgomery County estate when the airports re-open. Meanwhile, give the water some time to drain. Please say a prayer for dear Ed and some millions of others displaced and dispossessed. I have an aunt and cousins in the flood zone, too, and notice news reports on the circulation of alligators.

Texas, of which I’ve seen too little, has impressed me as post-modern places go. A combination of historical circumstances have contributed to the character of a people who, more than most, can cope with life. I am not surprised to learn of backbone and enterprise, on the part of those disinclined to play victim. They do not blame politicians for the weather, and even the politicians seem to get their priorities right. For instance, the iron hand with looters is as important as the rescue efforts; and the refusal to compound the difficulties with political theatre such as mass evacuations speaks well of them. But Texas, too, becomes monstrously urbanized.

Of course, this is the Age of Media (a.k.a. the Age of Bullshit), and authorities from the governor down, who should have no time for such nonsense, spend much of it on the talk shows. Alas, this is probably necessary to limit the media storm that will greatly aggravate the natural one, as the usual demons of the Left, who “never waste a crisis,” use it to advance their political schemes. We have now had, for instance, forty years of the vastly incompetent FEMA bureaucracy (one of President Carter’s bright ideas), and sixteen of metastasizing Homeland Security (one of President Dubya’s).

The task of government, in the course of a natural catastrophe, is to maintain order and provide the simplest possible traffic directions to the response. For the most part this must necessarily be neighbour helping neighbour. Relief efforts on the national scale need some coordinating, too, but they should be drawn from military and other “fixed assets” — from organizations that should themselves be designed to respond, nimbly and flexibly, to any kind of trouble. A bureaucracy that does nothing but wait ghoulishly for the last widely-publicized disaster to repeat itself is merely a cash pyre.

With less technology but perhaps more science, public authorities in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus, north China, built canals and reservoirs for irrigation and transport, which also anticipated floods. They did not e.g. spread suburbs across flood plains, then invent insurance plans to recompense the stupid. An extraordinary event might still overwhelm them, but if survived it would provide hints for general improvement and reinforcement. Prudence anticipates the known, but sensibly leaves the unknown to propitiatory prayer.

This we might do again, some day, should we happen to recover our sanity. Build to withstand what can be withstood, whether the power holds or fails. Go with the grain of nature. Think like engineers, not social workers. Let the people make provisions for themselves, and let them, too, learn from experience.