Essays in Idleness



An Armenian lady I know is hardly speaking to me after a column I wrote five weeks ago (at Catholic Thing) on the word, “genocide.” I dislike the word, for reasons I gave there: it is legalistic, and to my mind, while claiming to increase, it actually reduces the weight of terrible atrocities, to the small and tidy parameters of “due process.” It was consciously invented, by a legal scholar (Raphael Lemkin towards the end of the Second World War), as if a new word were needed to describe a phenomenon not new to history: attempts to wipe out a whole tribe or people. It is what I call a “boxcar” term: carrying freight to unknown political destinations. The old expression, “Armenian Massacres,” was adequate, once we accept that language cannot substitute for realities. It happened in fact, and past events cannot be altered by new vocabulary.

But post-modern man prefers words to things, and theory to fact. The controversy is now over the word “genocide,” which the Turks, as a people, are commanded to accept. Insofar as they remain unmoved, by what was done by Turks to the Armenians one hundred years ago, they are in a sense off the hook. The debate is now about whether the word “genocide” applies, no longer about what it applies to.

My Armenian friend is swept up in this argument about nomenclature. She insists that because I oppose the word, I deny the thing. I am very far from denying it, and very much wish the story to be told, truthfully and completely from what can be known. Horrific crimes were committed, in the last years of the Ottoman Caliphate, against Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, and other Christian communities. They continued in irruptions within the successor states, and may be said to continue to the present day in such countries as Syria and Iraq. All these stories should be told, and remembered.

The annihilation of more than a million Armenians cannot be disputed. The larger estimates seem to be justified. April 24th is accepted as the triggering event, when Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were rounded up in Istanbul, on the pretext that they were aiding the Russian enemy, but there were events before that. One thinks of the Adana massacre of 1909, of the Hamidian massacres of the 1890s, and so forth. The event in Istanbul was immediately preceded by one in Van; the very charge that Armenians were working with the Russians was occasioned by the fact that Russians had come to the aid of the Armenians in Van to prevent their slaughter. In the end, Djevdet Bey, the murderous governor of that vilayet, was anyway able to exterminate more than fifty thousand of his Christian subjects.

Curiously, or not, the events of “Red Sunday” in Istanbul, then many similar as prominent Armenians were rounded up from all the other towns and sent to holding camps at Ankara from which they would never emerge, is closely connected with the other centenary we are celebrating, today. That is Gallipoli. The Ottoman authorities were acting under the impulse of war, in a moment when they began seriously (and reasonably) to doubt their own survival.

Under the notorious Tehcir Law, a model later for Hitler, all property belonging to Armenians could be seized, and arrangements began for their deportation to — undisclosed locations. These were prison camps on which Auschwitz and Belsen would later be modelled. As we now know from documents, Germans and Austrians in the realm as allies of the “Sublime Porte,” were horrified  by what they saw, often using terms such as “bestial cruelty.” There was no possible question that the authorities intended to exterminate, not incarcerate. The Turkish people at large could also plainly see what was happening, when they were not participating in the slaughter. There is no extenuation for them.

The Treaty of Sèvres, after the War, proposed restorations of Armenian lands to a new Armenian republic, but in turn triggered another campaign by the Turkish nationalists who succeeded the Ottomans. Their law allowed remaining Armenian property to be seized by the state on the glib ground that it had been “abandoned.” During this later, post-Ottoman phase, ten thousands more of Armenians were massacred. Still between the Devil and a very hard place, they were pressed back to the tiny quarter in which they were then “rescued” by the Bolsheviks. There followed three score years and ten of slavery, now under Communist apparatchiks. In the course of delivering them to this fate, Western hypocrisy had a good airing, and guarantees of life, liberty, and security to the Armenians from Woodrow Wilson and other liberal, rhetorical stuntmen, were shown for what they were. But this is an Idlepost, not a history.

It is noteworthy that Djevdet Bey and others of the Ottoman court seldom if ever referred to their victims as “Armenians,” however. Rather they were called, “Christians.” The “genocide” wasn’t against a race, but a religion; against persons of Armenian ethnicity not because they were Armenian but because they were Christian. Likewise, the Greeks not as Greeks but as Christians, and so forth. This is not a small point, and it is overlooked for the very purpose of misrepresenting the history. Conversely, it was not only the Turks but the Kurds who participated in the massacres.


The term “genocide” is used in this misrepresentation. It reduces everything to racial terms, thus paradoxically echoing Hitler. In doing so, it neglects the longer relevant history.

From the time of the First Crusade, the Christians of Egypt were similarly under threat, from the fear that they would side with the invading Christian Franks. They did not, and history would of course be rather different if they had gone over, but the Franks proved as alien to them as to Egypt’s rulers, who wisely decided to treat their Christian subjects better, instead. For the Christians were then still the majority in Egypt — a large part of the reason they could still command respect, or at least caution. (This is an aspect of history no longer explored: that it took many centuries of ratcheting for Islam to become the majority religion in most of the lands the Arabs had conquered; and that meanwhile, Muslims were hardly the only contributors to what we now view as the Islamic golden ages.)

Persecutions of dhimmi-status Armenians by Muslim Turks and Kurds were already old hat in what was once Armenia — but where Armenians had ceased to be the majority. These were already rising to pogroms. Economic causes came into this, owing to the advance of Islam. The wealth generators were in decline, and the wealth appropriators in proliferation. Throughout the Dar al-Islam, from their status as dhimmis, Christians and Jews had paid the taxes. As their communities shrank proportionally, often from conversion to avoid the tax, the Islamic realms fell into poverty; and this in turn helped inspire the pogroms. The Ottoman state in effect nationalized this operation, their soldiers systematically shooting Armenian men of military age, and killing off the old, the women and the children, in forced desert marches without food or drink. (The rape of the women was also officially encouraged.) Armenian districts were thus “ethnically cleansed.” But the result was also Muslim starvation.

Greeks, too, carry their memories of parallel ethnic cleansings, as they were run out of territories that had been settled and occupied by Greeks through millennia before the arrival of the Turks, and indeed the whole of modern Turkey is ultimately an artefact of Turkish Muslim conquest and subjugation.

It can also be said that whole centuries went by when the various communities lived in relative peace and cultural autonomy within the Ottoman and other Turkic realms; though Christians, Jews, and all other religious minorities always with that dhimmi status. It can also be said that Jews and Muslims were in effect dhimmis when under Christian rule. History is not simple or formulaic, and my opposition to such terms as “genocide” is also resistance to attempts to make it into a morality play.

One crime does not excuse another. But neither is everything “relative” and grey, even in the general view of history. Turkey, as Iraq and Syria, the Levant, Egypt, North Africa, were once highly civilized Christian lands. The Armenians, displaced in stages from their ancient homelands to their tiny state today, are among the ancient peoples who retain some part of that older Christian heritage. As traders, they were known in distant places through all the centuries, but the common view is that the bulk of the Armenian diaspora today was scattered as a consequence of the First World War.


Boarding once in an Armenian hostel in Calcutta, I learnt something of the complexity of that diaspora. Armenians had come to India in the armies of Alexander the Great; perhaps before. They were famed as entrepreneurs in Kerala and Malabar in the seventh and eighth centuries AD. Vasco da Gama found them still there. By the time of the Mughals, they were known throughout the Subcontinent as traders, and as merchant princes they flourished under the British Raj. They built their first church in the swamps of the Hooghly, to the north end of what would become Calcutta, at the end of the seventeenth century. There are five old Armenian cemeteries in the city. Many refugees arrived after the Ottoman massacres, but the suggestion that the community dates from that is obtuse. On the other hand, it had received migrants from previous Ottoman pogroms.

As Catholic Christians may learn from the Armenians and Jews, it is important to preserve the diaspora. Never leave your eggs all in one place.

The Armenian Massacres loom large in Armenian history, but they cannot delete the rest of that history, and must not be allowed to do so. Armenians must not be cast as mere victims. Nor should even their history as victims be confined to a single era.

Armenians have travelled everywhere in joy, admixed with a history of grief. It is a history so deep that it has conferred a peculiarly ancient quality: an ability to assimilate without assimilating, without forgetting, wherever they may go; a certain aloofness that is carried almost like a genetic marker; a knowledge that things will happen and they will once again have to move along. I have an especial love of this sabra quality, carried with them in Armenians as in wandering Jews. Often they are rude and prickly.

This was perfectly expressed by my lady friend, the Armenian one, who in her irritation with me, ignoring my attempts at appeasement, communicated something along the lines of, “You are not one of us, don’t pretend to be.”

In my youth I travelled also through eastern Turkey, enjoying many adventures, including a narrow escape from murder while being robbed, on the road east from Erzurum (at Agri). Two English girls had, according to then-recent report, been pulled off the street in broad daylight and raped. In my own case I was struck by the indifference of bystanders, watching the assault on me as if it were televised entertainment, and mildly cheering when a knife came out. I was aware that I was moving through country once inhabited by Armenians, and may myself have acquired a prejudice against the current inhabitants from my own experiences (including several other ones). I anyway acquired a small taste of what it would have been like, to be an Armenian in those parts, perhaps on one of the better days.

It has, generally speaking, not been entirely convenient to be a Jew, or an Armenian, through most recorded centuries. Which is an indication that God especially loves them, in His mysterious way.

There is little to find in this world beyond injustice, unless one is looking to God. I don’t believe the crimes of this world can ever be adequately punished or atoned, and moreover the attempt leads invariably to new crimes. There is a Heaven; and there is a Hell. The best we can do is remember, disguising nothing; hold what we have learnt for as long as we can hold it. And plead, “Father, forgive.”

A sister

It is galling to take out one’s winter clothing, after having packed it away. I say this as a Canadian, but from the banana belt of Canada — the extreme south. In the north they never put anything away; just dig things out of the ice every morning. Let me add heated words for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the USA. These shysters have announced the warmest year since planetary record-keeping was first impostured in 1880. NASA joined in with the same ludicrous result.

Both agencies receive huge amounts of public money to “prove global warming,” and both have been caught fiddling the books in the past. It would be quite impossible to get a reliable average from the system of spot readings they use, at carefully selected, changing locations. But this aside, their raw data is further “seasonally adjusted” like the unemployment figures. Too, like the communists of old, they keep adjusting the records from the past, to make the present ones look better. They retain credibility only among the credulous. Among those who have lived in North America recently, their po-faced announcements can be greeted only with guffaws.

My finches are with me on this. These would be the raspberry juice-dipped “purple finches” who breakfast on my balconata (Haemorhous purpureus). Surely I have mentioned them before. My balconata has become a truckstop for several species, ranging up in size to that buzzard I mentioned a few weeks ago. An ornithological friend tells me they must be house finches. They are not. (I suspect he is in the pay of the NOAA.) They have been driving the sparrows of Parkdale into the pigeon niches. A country bird that can beat an urbane sparrow at his own game has got to be banqueted, and prized.

These finches are erratic migrants, who may winter in Florida like many other Canadians, but breed in our north woods. From my limited observations, they would seem to have chosen the city not as a place to live, but as a kind of free public foodbank in which to loiter and bulk up, en route both ways.

Their breeding success may have some small part to do with this adaptable foraging, but in the main I attribute it to the jealousy of the male. For I’ve noticed that, having entrapped a female, he will not leave her in peace, nor let her out of his sight for a moment. (Anecdotes could be supplied.) He will even push sunflower seeds on her, as if the delicate little creature couldn’t pick them out of the trough for herself.

Any one of these finches has taken more spot temperature readings than all the satellites in the sky, and from much closer to the ground in question. And as I say, they get around. They aren’t stuck like machines in fixed orbital paths: they can out-change NASA not only for locations, but for skill in selecting the warmer ones. And while the males may have their thoughts fixed on other things, the females are quite philosophical.

Now, I’ve consulted my finches on global warming, and they reject the idea completely. I’ve asked the question often enough, and each time, without fail, they just fly off dismissively, in their droll, slightly looping way.


My spine having improved from its condition in Advent through Lent, I am out walking again to my own selectively warmer locations. Was walking, and shivering, through an abnormally chill spring, till I relented and retrieved my winter gear. We have clear skies and temperatures to shoot up into the fifties today (Fahrengrade; I don’t do centiheit); but that is from the Weather Network, whose predictions of what will happen in the next six hours are about as useful as those from the United Nations for the next six decades.

Among my moral flaws, manifested in my urban ambulations, is the inability to keep away from secondhand bookstores, antiques emporia, street stalls, and other provisioners of junk. In this respect, I am something like a bird. Money I have little, but this is the golden age of recyclement, when for instance the best books may turn up in the general house-clearing mounds, sold off to dealers by the large cardboard box, or rather, mischievously insinuated into boxes falsely labelled, since the booksellers sure don’t want them.

French books, for instance, are at the opposite of a premium in Parkdale just now. Earlier this week I walked off from one basement, hardly lighter in loose change, but with a rucksack of Pléiades including Alains, Balzacs, Camuses, Valerys, even a Descartes and a Spinoza. I couldn’t help myself: I couldn’t leave them there absorbing cellar-rot. And these were all older editions, before the pointillistes of the Académie française got at them, fluffing out each volume with hundreds of pages of mostly irritating textual and interpretive notes, making them too fat for a jacket pocket. For gawdsake, I cuss, has no one ever heard of an editio minor?

Older they are than the current hundred-dollar editions, but too often with leather covers cracking from a simple cause. The poor things were never read. (Except sometimes the first five prefatory pages, where 99 percent of ballpoint pen marks will be found.) Those acquainted with book-leather may understand the problem: leather requires treatment. Old leather books that have been properly read and handled, have by and large endured.

This is demonstrated by a beautiful missal, also found this week — that by Provost Hussenbeth of Cossey, in Latin and English, first published 1871. (The supplements show it is a later printing.) It contains dozens of exquisitely cut engravings on biblical and symbolic themes; and too, the latest revisions from the Rome of Pius IX (“the Infallible”). Needless to say, it is my latest guarantee of avoiding the Bugnini desecrations that began in the 1950s.

My eye had been drawn to it (lying in a heap on a dirty concrete floor) by the patina of the leather; then when I picked it up, by its wonderful state of preservation. Internal evidence of Mass cards, inserted notes, and devotional passages neatly inscribed on blank pages at both ends, suggest the book was much used, but always gently, almost certainly by a nun. Those passages show her special mystical devotion to the Holy Family. The oils from her clean hands treated the leather, over many years. That is what preserved it.

From the saddlers and connoisseurs of horse tackle, one learns the use of first-pressed neatsfoot oil. This must be applied sparingly and skilfully at regular but not too frequent intervals. Neatsfoot is made from the lower legs (but never the hooves) of cattle. It may also be known to the keepers of precious baseball and other gloves. Though it will darken the leather over time, the oil makes it ever more supple.

But here is the strangest thing. God seems so to have arranged the universe, that the oil from human hands is even better than neatsfoot, and does not darken. It would seem to be the best possible treatment, not only for calfskin, but deerskin, sheepskin, goatskin, and all other fine book-leathers.

The missal now in my possession was printed on a superb bible paper, thinner and lighter by weight, yet more opaque than that used for the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. I am no Victorian, and the typographical and decorative features are not to my taste, yet every detail of the book’s manufacture has been done with such durable care and craftsmanship that I love it to distraction.

I seem to have become a missal collector, without quite intending it. Like the Duke of Wellington before me (who learnt Spanish from a missal purchased in Dublin, on his way to the Peninsular War), I look out for foreign missals especially. They make wonderful language textbooks. They were indeed the old method for learning a foreign language, unless one was an anti-Catholic bigot. For if one has fully mastered Latin (a claim I can never make), or become familiar with the Mass, one may pick up any modern language from the close translations in the parallel columns. Better yet, the language one picks up will be elevated, not coarse.

Likewise, those who know their Bible well, have the inestimable advantage when seeking a reading knowledge of any other language into which they find it translated. And with that, the perfect preparatory tool for reading any national literature new to them, for the greatest works in every Western language depend on biblical allusions. A facility in the spoken language can then be obtained, upon arrival. (There is no nation on earth whose people will not generously help you in this task.)

All such advantages are alas lost to the modern, fast-food, cafeteria Catholic, along with the Latin Mass itself and the eloquence of the Vulgate, that were until recently his birthright. Nevertheless, this will all be recovered when our generation of Vatican Vandals has finished passing away.


One thing was omitted, from the many things written in my latest missal (acquired for a price so low I am embarrassed to state it). The owner failed to write anywhere in it her own name. I found memorials in the book for eight deceased nuns, whom I suppose to have been among her friends; but of course, no one lives to add her own final Mass card. Still, on the possibility some kindly fellow nun slipped it in while clearing her possessions, I will ask gentle reader to say a prayer with me for the last of those remembered: Sister Mary Gertrude of the Convent of Notre Dame, at Birkdale (in Yorkshire?), née Agnes Collingwood, who died 3rd December 1918, in the 55th year of her age, and 34th of her religious profession:

“O Gentlest Heart of Jesus, ever present in the Blessed Sacrament, ever consumed with burning love for the poor captive souls in Purgatory, have mercy on the soul of Thy servant Mary Gertrude; bring her from the shadows of exile to the bright home of Heaven, where, we trust, Thou and Thy Blessed Mother have woven for her a crown of unfading bliss.”

Saint George

“God for Harry, England and Saint George!” It is the 399th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, after a drinking bout with Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson, and perhaps a few other old pals at a Stratford inn. It may also be the Bard’s 451st birthday, and — who knows? — perhaps the 416th anniversary of the performance of Henry V. Numerologists may further be reminded that, come Saint Crispin’s Day this year (October 25th), it will be the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.

That play, incidentally — the concluding work in a tetralogy which offers an extended meditation on the nature of kingship in both world and soul — contains more ironies than the modern mind can keep up with. We are genuinely naïve if we accept Henry V as the model of a noble Christian hero. The resolution, in blood, of human inadequacy, has been undertone through all four plays, and the “patriotism” attributed to the dramatist in this case is very far from triumphal. As I’ve been teaching my young charges in the seminary, quite apart from paper evidence for his Roman affiliation, Shakespeare is a deeply Catholic thinker, a child of the lost world of Thomas More, and no Little Englander. For all the splendour of his love, chiefly for his native Warwickshire, his allegiance is consistently to the Far Countrie.


Saint George himself is much bigger than England; and patron in many other places beyond his native Cappadocia. Venerated both in East and West, he was a figure of holy significance in Palestine long, long before his red cross was raised on the standards of the Crusaders. A soldier in the retinue of Diocletian, born around 270 AD, he was “about the age of Christ” (as Robert Southwell put it) when he went to his death as many another Christian in the Middle East — dragged through the streets of Diospolis (now Lod) and beheaded. For he had ignored the instructions of his caesar, to persecute other Christians in that way, resigning his commission instead.

Diocletian was not an emperor to be toyed with. He was the tenth in the line of Roman emperors persecuting Christians, starting with Nero. To this day the Copts of Egypt count the years in their calendar from Gregorian 284 AD — the year of Diocletian’s ascension to imperial majesty. Many other Christians throughout the region mark with especial gravity, too, the great moulid of 23rd February 303. For this was the date of Diocletian’s most definitive Decree.

(Moulid means “birthday,” in this case the day a martyr is born, in Heaven. The Khedive Ismail formally imposed the Gregorian calendar on Egypt in 1875 — he was a modernizer — but in rural Egypt the Anno Martyrum calendar is still observed, not exclusively by Christians. It preserves the old procession of the year through the three seasons of the Nile — flood, planting, and harvest — in months named for ancient Egyptian gods, reflecting an order of life continuing from the Pharaohs.)

Note, carefully for justice, that this Decree came centuries before the launch of Islam, for the Muslims have never had a monopoly on monstrous behaviour. Then consider the details: All churches to be demolished. All scripture to be burnt. All suspected Christians to be removed from public office. All clergy to be arrested and tortured.

The Emperor Diocletian himself came to Egypt, to supervise the slaughter of Christians, vowing to remain until their blood reached the depth of his horse’s knee. Hence his especial infamy in Egypt.

Yet strangely enough, we and even they “owe” Diocletian. In a similar way, we owe the heretics for the development of Christian orthodoxy. It could not have been expressed with such spiritual depth and rational consistency had the antitheses not been stated with such force. Developments were inspired by the most painful “events.”

There is no evil in this world from which good cannot be drawn. The treasures of Egyptian and Syrian monasticism, and all that followed through that first Benedict, of Nursia, and even before him through the Irish saints (with their Egyptian contacts), and other coenobitic movements finally from all around the world, are indebted to Diocletian. This is because so many Christians fled his ministrations — were driven out into the deserts in pursuit of obscure wadis, and up into mountains beyond the pagan soldiers’ reach.

Only today, these eighteen centuries later, aided by modern Western inventions such as GPS, are the Islamist fanatics able to locate some of Diocletian’s monastic descendants, still out in the wilderness. I pray some may remain too far away for them to bother.


Martyrdom is ours, and births out of this world, but alongside runs the train of memory. Time and memory are elusive things, which, as Augustine explained, we may think we understand, until our thinking is examined.

In my experience, the people of the Middle East have long memories; not only the Muslims. I have myself a strange memory, for I experience flashbacks to moments in my former life, of a seemingly eidetic precision. (This dubious gift was inherited from my mother.) Often, in Egypt, Syria, and the Holy Land wherein they overlap, I had the sense of whole cultures with this curious condition, able suddenly to refer to an event many centuries before, very much as if it had happened yesterday. How often, too, the papyrus fragments that wash up from the desert sands, seem to participate in the same “dream,” by confirming little details.

Saint George on his charger, rescuing the maid, is known as a European invention, an expression of our antique mediaeval whimsy. It is dismissed as so much poetical fluff. But it is the echo of something much older, of which I became aware in my travels. There is a bay just north of modern Beirut, where something like this event is said to have happened. It is recorded in speech, and also in the disintegrating frescoes of ruined Christian chapels, in the hills some miles inland. My mental archaeologist is still working on those details. In the narrative I think it was a small Christian boy whom Saint George rescued, descending from the skies. Not the earthly biological Saint George, but the posthumous one, if I understood correctly.

The saint is often invoked in this way, to this day, in Syria and Iraq. He acts out of a kind of whirlwind, comes from nowhere to intercede in the most fearful circumstances, as an angelic soldier — now retired from Diocletian’s command and instead in the retinue of Saint Michael. And as the satanic spirit of Diocletian has returned, so too that of Saint George — now as adversaries within this theatre of the battle that rages in the heavens as well as upon this earth. Many saints, many angels, many evangelists in many kinds, were once recorded on those walls, and illuminated in the monastic scriptoria — now fully eradicated from everything but memory. But nothing is lost, for that includes the infallible memory of God.


The tourists used to find such art in, for instance, the monastery of Mar Musa al-Habashi (“Saint Moses the Abyssinian”), a wonderful elaboration of square-turreted masonry crooked into the hills, fifty miles north of Damascus. The ruin of it was meticulously restored — the roofs replaced; missing stonework patched with exactly matching stone-cutting methods; ancient frescoes patiently cleaned of coverings and reset in the traditional plaster; and all conscientiously recorded in modern scholarly form by Jesuits from Aleppo, led by the Italian archaeologist and priest Paolo Dall’Oglio. They made it into a retreat for “Christian-Muslim dialogue.” (A dialogue that had left off in the nineteenth century, when the paintings were whitewashed over, and the old Syrian monks fled, in deference to local Islamic sensibilities.)

A fine art historian, Erica Cruikshank Dodd, and her team, wrote a handbook of the history of Syrian Christian painting from the remains still traceable in that monastery — reflecting styles marrying Greek and Oriental traditions together, reaching back long before the Crusades. (Huge compositions such as the Last Judgement on the west wall of the monastic chapel have the quality of unfolding, as if from a grandiloquent Chinese ancestral scroll.) This work was published by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto (2001). Robert Mason, an archaeologist with the Royal Ontario Museum, found evidence in the vicinity of its much longer history as a sacred site, going back to Neolithic times. Of course all this was cut off by the war.

Father Paolo, previously on the enemies list of Bashir Assad for his (rather pointless) peace activism, was captured by the Daish in July 2013, and not heard from after. An eyewitness reported that he was beheaded, and his body thrown into a hole with … many other bodies.

Having glimpsed this Deir Mar Musa myself, I have been eager to hear any news of its fate. The last mention I can find is a Christmas letter from 2013. A certain Sister Houda Fadoul confessed the bitterness, pain, and sadness in her heart, leaving us to guess at specific causes. Previously she had written: “Few of us come to a deep experience of faith other than through a profound depression. Often it seems that men are only capable to open themselves to the Lord through hopelessness and vulnerability of a complete disaster.”

Again, the Christians, in strident opposition to the wisdom of this world, look for good in the uttermost pit of evil, and beg forgiveness for their worst enemies, and seek deliverance from unseen places.

To which end we might pray, to Saint George on his “birthday.” For he is an old centurion, “a man under authority,” now under Christ’s, and thus like the faithful soldier to whom Christ said:

“Go! And as thou hast believed, be it done.”


A correspondent tells me that these daily lucubrations are “too long and involved.” Another asks if I could “keep it short.” A third, who is a veteran journalist, says the important thing is to hold the reader’s attention to the end.


NOTE. The last of these correspondents now writes: “Overkill. The third sentence is unnecessary.”

The valour deficit

When I am asked, “So what would you do?” about the circumstances I touched upon yesterday, I reply by looking glazed. Fortunately for me, if not for others, I do not hold a powerful political office, and am quite unlikely ever to do so. As a pundit once, I believed it my duty to think in these terms, however: not only negatively, to describe what is wrong, but positively to propose or imply what is right. Yet one must acknowledge limitations of view. Power corrupts, as Lord Acton said, but only from within a position of power can one see many of the pieces in play. From outside one must use the projective imagination.

That we have difficulties in and from “the Middle East” — essentially a continuum from Morocco to West Irian, as Christendom was once a continuum from Ireland to, say, the Urals — is the consequence of our own failings. Prior to the Great War we had few problems on that geopolitical front. This was because we occupied most of it. Extraordinary acts of self-destruction were necessary to get ourselves into the position of weakness in which we are now found. What led to August 1914 is too long a story; what led from it is too long a story. The transformation of Europe by that War, or rather, the completion of its transformation, is too long a story.

Recently, breezing through Margaret MacMillan’s blockbuster, Paris 1919 (2003) — the kind of book I am apt to pick up from the Salvation Army thrift shop — I considered her mildly revisionist account of the Peace Conference that held the world rivetted through the first six months of that year. Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, and Georges Clémenceau are rightly absolved of responsibility for everything that happened in the next twenty years; for there were clowns after those clowns.

I think of them as the “Three Stooges of the Apocalypse.” They were themselves not causes but symptoms of a disease, which for a word we might call post-modernism. President Wilson did the most permanent damage. He was the Barack Obama of that historical moment, enjoying an immense charismatic popularity in Europe. A moral and intellectual simpleton, he had handy to his lips a short list of glib progressive nostrums that appealed to great masses of the war weary.

All three were men of terrific ego, and little substance: models for the new kind of politician that would emerge more fully from the War. Each was from his own peculiarly desiccated cultural background a man largely free of any religious conviction. Wilson had the Calvinist Puritan sensibility, to the degree that he was privately well-behaved; Lloyd George and especially Clémenceau were just old rogues and whoremongers, charming from a distance. Paradoxically, it might have helped had Wilson been more corrupt, and less “principled,” for his principles were exactly those on which post-modern liberalism was awkwardly erected: democracy, equality, bureaucracy, national self-determination, and all the rest of that rot.

To the point, the British and French dealt out pieces of the collapsed Ottoman Empire between themselves like patches on a Monopoly board, except for the Turkey of Ataturk’s fait accompli. Wilson watched with mild distaste while focusing his own efforts on rewarding every poisonous little balkanic European nationalism he could find under a rock. Other problems, like the new Soviet Russia, that could not be painlessly fixed, were progressively ignored. The Old World of aristocratic family orders, above nationalism, was unceremoniously trashed for the new one of seething demagogic republics, and all that would follow from that. It was a Brave New World that would be implicitly, and often explicitly, post-Christian.

This was the opposite of what was required. The Great War was caused by demagogic politics, and the real problem of statesmen was to find a way to put nationalism back in the bag. Instead they emptied the whole bag out on the table. Too, the agonizing economic decisions needed for the generous settlement of unpayable debts, and the restoration of hard, gold-based currencies, were omitted for a first frolic in the new fairyland of Keynesianism. It was the birth of that perpetual “creative destruction” that now endears itself to the adepts of “change,” both Left and Right.

A worse mess resulted than even war could cause, and while they hardly foresaw it, the Three Stooges and their vast supporting casts opened the road to the roaring ’twenties and the catastrophe of the ’thirties that would inevitably follow. Yet invincible error forgives the participants.

There were superficial, material effects, which in themselves contributed to the moral and spiritual disaster of the twentieth century, but something deeper had happened. The cancer beneath the skin was not addressed. Western man had abandoned his religion as a factor in public life. The very idea of Christendom — of an order larger and more consequential than that of any nation state — had been definitively buried. We had done to ourselves inwardly what we had done to the Ottomans outwardly. We had emasculated ourselves.

I cannot tell the history of a hundred years in an Idlepost, but I can insist on a single point, and this would be it for today. Western, and once Christian, man has lost his ability to man up in the face of evils he cannot avoid in this world. He has become chestless, he has lost the convictions of his Christian heart. He has, practically, no stomach left for the long haul, for maintaining permanent institutions, for keeping boots on the ground even where they must be kept (in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so forth). He cannot face any large problem, in other than a mechanistic way, looking for the quick fix.

And this is one of those problems: the re-irruption of a violent, seventh-century tribal religion from beyond the civilized frontier, after centuries of effort to contain it (as much by noble effort from within Islam, as from active external resistance).

The spirit of the Crusades, persisting over so many generations, and likewise of the Reconquistas in the Iberian peninsula and across the Hungarian plains, were those of a manly civilization, self-consciously determined not to be rendered extinct. Western Christendom stood up to the Islamic threat, over centuries, though deficient in wealth and resources, through a kind of “holy will.” We would not accept any setback as permanent, we would not adapt to the consequences of defeat, we would keep fighting. Curiously, the much admired, but only slightly Christian, Winston Churchill briefly embodied this old, “mediaeval,” knightly ideal: that we must “never surrender.” He was also among the last statesmen to speak of Islam without an affected awe.

Without a conviction that our own civilization is worth defending, or even imposing in response to attack, I don’t know where we are. The idea that we must not only resist Islamicization, but roll it back, is inconceivable to contemporary Western man. He is incapable of stating: “No, your religion is wrong, and this is why. Yes, our religion is right, and this is why. Therefore you must abandon Muhammad, and follow Christ.” (That, incidentally, is what the real Saint Francis of Assisi did.) Without that, Western man is defeated before he starts. For his vague belief in “progress” carries no real conviction, only the convenience of avoiding thought, commitment, labour, and risk.

Let me add, to avoid confusion, that by “manly” I do not mean specifically, “ready for military action.” That is only part of it. I mean more fundamentally, ready to uphold the Christian standard in heart, soul, and mind. This is a multi-dimensional proposition, and requires valour in every dimension. But we have abandoned the Source of that valour.

Camp of saints

In their latest promotion video for Islam, just released, the Daish proudly show a fresh atrocity: the murder of thirty kidnapped Ethiopian Christians, who had been working in Libya. The slaughter is presented in two parts: those beheaded by the seaside, and those shot in the desert, respectively. A narrator introduces the film with a message to all Christians:

“To the nation of the Cross, we’re back again! … We swear to Allah that you will not have safety even in your dreams until you embrace Islam.”

But lest that message seem a little harsh, an elderly captive is shown in Iraq: a Christian who has been allowed to live because he is paying the Jizya. One wonders whether the many thousand Christian women and children, kept alive as sex slaves, are deemed to be paying their Jizya, too. Perhaps there are Shariah rulings on this.

Meanwhile Europe’s conscience is troubled by the failure to provide sufficiently prompt and generous welfare assistance to the Muslim refugees, streaming across the Mediterranean in flotillas that may help us to recall Jean Raspail’s apocalyptic novel, Le Camp des saints (1973). The headlines currently focus on one of the larger boats, the latest to capsize with the loss of hundreds. This drowned the news from a smaller boat whose survivors had been rescued by the Italian navy two days before. From that one, the Muslim refugees had tossed a dozen Christians overboard. They had been praying to Jesus Christ. They’d been told they must pray only to Allah.

There is no country with a Muslim majority or even a significant Muslim minority where Christians are not now living under threat of lethal violence. This includes countries like Egypt, where the government is in fact trying to protect them; or like the Philippines, with its strong Catholic majority but a significant Muslim presence in the south.

In Syria, the Christians overwhelmingly support the monstrous dictator Bashir Assad, against his opponents. This is because his opponents are worse. (Some are called “moderates” by e.g. the Obama administration, which specializes in terms that are void of meaning.)

From once-Christian Lebanon — a country carved out of Syria by the French for the express purpose of giving Levantine Christians a safe place to live — the remaining Christians now look for a way out. Beirut, once the cultural centre of the entire Arab world (Christian, Muslim, and “other”) because of the freedom it offered to artists, musicians, writers, is finally an Hezbollic shambles, Christians having been pushed out as from once-Christian Bethlehem. It is an understated preview of what will happen to the Jews of Israel should they ever make the peace the liberals have prepared for them. Once beaten, Lebanon’s Maronites focused on getting out quietly before the worst of the pogroms. In the Israeli case, however, the ones who get out alive will be extraordinarily lucky. Their enemies don’t want them fled, but dead.

As we have been reminded in Yemen, recently, the battle goes to the most ruthless. What the majority of Yemenis think and feel is of no consequence. The civil war is now being conducted between Shia Muslim fanatics under the sponsorship of Iran, and Sunni Muslim fanatics under miscellaneous Arab sponsorships. The Saudi air force is selectively bombing the Shias, with discreet Western support. Elsewhere, we hardly know which side to bomb. In Iraq, for variety, we have decided to help the Iranians by bombing the Sunnis. In Libya, we are trying to decide which of our five or six major allies in deposing Gaddafi would be most suitable for bombing now; all are murderous. The massacre of Christians is a shared enthusiasm among all Muslim “militants”; we might be accused of an unconscious bias against the faction that is massacring most Christians at any given moment.

I am skimming the surface. It is a commonplace that other minorities are under siege, too, throughout the Dar al-Islam (“realm of submission,” i.e. to Allah). Christians are hardly indifferent to their fate, and Christian charities have come spontaneously and universally to their aid as well as to the aid of their fellow Christians. (This is one of those stories our media find too boring to report: that in all of the world’s most dangerous “hot spots,” Christians are risking their lives to deliver food, shelter, and medical services, from out of the inexplicable motive of religious faith.)


As I have written before, the major battle in the Middle East, threatening to become a region-wide conflagration, is between Shia and Sunni factions — the former likelier to be first in bringing nuclear weapons into play, via Tehran. Both sides understand this battle is winner-take-all within Islam. Yet both agree on their primary external enemy. Curiously enough, it is not “the West,” not “the Zionist entity,” not “infidels” of any other kind — neither the “great satan,” nor the “little satan,” but what they call “Rome.”

This aspect of the Muslim matrix — a compound of myth, legend, and some actual history — has been ingrained through several dozen generations. It is not “an artefact of the Crusades,” as is falsely taught by liberal apologists for Islam in the West. The conflict preceded that. Eastern Christendom was overrun. African territories were overrun. Central Asia was overrun. Hindustan was overrun, from what is now Pakistan to what is now Indonesia (where Bali is the only surviving enclave). Everywhere Islam marched, it conquered, and everywhere it conquered, it scoured. (For example: not one ancient Hindu temple was left standing across the plains of northern India.)

Only Western Christendom withstood the successive tides of Islamic conquest; only “Rome,” though it was often touch-and-go. (They almost managed to keep Rome after sacking it in 846 AD.)

We, Catholics, have the honour to be their ultimate enemy, in their apocalyptic scenario (in which their Koranic Jesus comes down from the clouds to slaughter all the remaining Christians).

In the absence of historical memory, or even basic intelligence, the “infidels” of the European Union will not grasp nor consider what is stated plainly in video after video from the Daish and other Muslim incendiaries. Again and again they state that their target is “Rome.”

Even the swords dripping with blood from the slaughtered Copts on Libyan beaches are raised towards Rome, with the pledge that Rome, across the water, will soon also be awash in blood. (Depictions of Saint Peter’s, remodelled with minarets, are a standard conceit of Islamist propaganda.)

That the great majority of Muslims around the world would rather live in peace, may well be true. This is certainly my own overall impression. But whether true or not, it is irrelevant. The great majority of Muslims have no standing in the Islamist scheme of things, and will never be consulted.

Samuel Huntington famously wrote, “Islam has bloody borders.” As historian, he had noticed this phenomenon was not new. It is fundamental to Islamic teaching: that outside that “realm of submission” is only the Dar al-Harb (“the realm of war”). He had also noticed the complementary feature of Islamic civilization: that where Islam has conquered, and humbled or destroyed all rivals, it becomes just as remarkably placid. Well within those bloody borders, inanition rules. The society becomes quiescent in its obedience to absolute rulers. It falls asleep, for centuries on end. Only the prospect of Jihad can awaken it again.

For this reason, it seems to me, we are witnessing something historically unprecedented. By increments the usual violence around the circumference of the Dar al-Islam is spreading, but unusually, more inward than outward.

I cannot see the future; I merely speculate, as I have done for many years now, that an even greater crisis is overwhelming the Islamic domains, than is overwhelming the old Christian ones, in response to “modernity.” Our primary rival, when not our real and present enemy through the last fourteen centuries, may well be collapsing even faster than we are.

As I have also argued, violent Islamism in this generation is an expression not of hope in conquest, but of despair. For centuries now, the evidence has been accumulating that the old rivalry was decided, and that the West won. In its wake, Western Imperialism left no doubt. To the apocalyptic Muslim mind, it was Roman Imperialism. It wasn’t “technology,” but the despised Christians who had humiliated them.

The “Islamism” of the twentieth century was a response to this. It was founded in the last ditch. Its proponents are on the edge of atheism themselves. They are in effect tempting Allah: demanding that he prove himself the True God by granting them the most unlikely victories. In the lives of the terrorists we find little that resembles religious faith. They go out on the town before committing mass murders. They may recruit in mosques, but hardly ever pray there.

Whereas, the older victorious Islam had confidence — whether merited or not — that it would prevail in righteousness. It carried some sense of honour onto the battlefield; there were certain atrocities it hesitated to commit. It is that righteousness, that honour, that is missing from the current onslaught, both without and within the Dar al-Islam. What I can discern is only desperation.

Materially, the threat may be terrifying. These modern-day desert savages are armed with vastly destructive weapons, which unearned oil wealth has paid for. Yet they hardly know how to use them. Spiritually, they can make some appeal to the “home-grown terrorists” of the West: loners and psychopaths converted in prisons; the fatherless young and hormonally unstable; or at the very bottom, intellectuals in our universities craving radical chic. Yet this is all empty show. They rise above the dysfunctional only with luck. In proportion to the evil they intend, the terrorists deliver little. Most of their schemes end in farce. They can succeed only against the defenceless. Their cause could itself suddenly blow over, the way Arab nationalism did.


This, anyway, is my sense of the matter: that we witness the last flail of a dying enemy, in the final act of his old rage. He is locked in a fantasia, a wild gesticulation against a “Rome” that should surely have fallen by now; yet which is still, despite everything, somehow, unfallen. It is a “Rome” that has now converted sub-Saharan Africa, right under his nose. Which is converting China. Which is even converting Muslims who have settled in defunct Christian Europe. Which just will not die, no matter how many heads he cuts off. And which lacks even the decency to fight back. How incomprehensible! How ridiculous!

(The pagan Romans asked themselves questions like this.)

And mysteriously, to my mind, this Muslim enemy reaches out to Rome, to Europe and the West, for a purpose he does not himself understand. For the truth, expressed in history but larger, is very mysterious in this case. It must necessarily include the fact that Islam was, in its formation, the development of a Christian heresy. It arose from an errant, monophysite Christology: a classical inability to cope with the whole idea of a Messiah who was (and remains) very God, and very Man.

He comes, and he keeps coming, to Rome, to conquer. Yet there is more to it than that. He comes in a sense to “crucify Christ” — what he imagines a false Christ — to where this false Christ is presumed to be living. It is the very Christ whom the Christians claimed was crucified before, but they were lying — that crucifixion was faked. This time the fake Christ will be really crucified, and the lying Christians put to shame. The score with them will finally be settled. And when Rome falls, the Christians will all surrender. Including, of course, all the lapsed ones, and the lapsed beyond lapsed.

Outwardly the intention is violence, but inwardly and at a more profound level this Muslim enemy does not come to defeat Rome at all. Instead he is drawn to that strange and unaccountable “City of God,” for another reason.

It comes finally as a terrible shock to him, a paradox even more invincible than the singularly Triune God, or the singularly dual nature of the Son, whose own Mother has been leading him here. The long path of carnage behind him, he has come to collapse into Christ’s arms.

And that is how he defeats us.

A good shepherd

But of course our bishops “smell of their sheep.” That is part of the problem, for we ourselves smell of corruption. I wouldn’t want to be a bishop today, for the smell. It would be an impossible job. Suppose, like Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, one set out to be a good shepherd. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Now, suppose that your See is Chicago. …

That recently retired bishop, who was among my constant reminders that good bishops are possible — one should try to keep at least a shortlist — died Friday morning of his unshakable cancer, in fulfilment of a famous four-part prophecy about the future of the Catholic Church in America:

“I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.”

The remark was made at a private conference of priests, and was never meant for publication. Someone captured it on a “smartphone,” then it “went viral.” Note that the last, most hopeful part of the quote, is usually omitted. This is itself a sign of our times. We are optimists on our material prospects — that’s the “American Dream” of the politicians, with variants adapted for use by politicians in two hundred other national jurisdictions. We are pessimists on all other aspects of futurity. Our interests are strictly short-term.

As Christ explained in today’s Gospel, within the Old Mass, the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. The good sheep also know his voice.

The wolf is very much on the loose in the public square, across North America, and around the world for that matter. Catholics and all other Christians are up against many enemies, but the most lethal is a satanic creed, directly opposed to all Christian teaching. It is the “agnostic,” secular, anti-religion of “human rights,” in all its bottomless stench.

But of course, to us, there is hardly a smell at all; or rather, it is almost sweet. For we are narcissists after all — happier every day to admit it — and the narcissist enjoys his own smell, whatever its cause may be. It is only the odour of others that disturbs his nostrils, and tabloid journalism gives him plenty of that to rail against. We glower at what the other narcissists are doing. Oddly, everyone knows the world is going to Hell. We have become glib about it.

As Cardinal George said, we will start picking up the pieces after the catastrophe has run its course. Preventing it is by now well beyond us.

This good priest, called “the American Ratzinger,” perhaps more by his enemies than by his friends, shared with that Bavarian a remarkable clarity on the order of things. That is, quite apart from deep knowledge (and Cardinal George was a formidably learned man), he could arrange the goods, beauties, and truths with which he was entrusted in his teaching assignment, in crisp mental hierarchy. He could see what was more important, and what Most, and could articulate this, to those prepared to listen and think. Alas, neither listening nor thinking are rewarded virtues, in our current pandaemonium.

From the Internet (the blog of Tim Drake), I retrieve these remarks, in which Cardinal George extended his memorable quote. He did not consider his words “prophetic.” He merely observed the direction of things:

“Analogies can easily be multiplied, if one wants to push a thesis; but the point is that the greatest threat to world peace and international justice is the nation state gone bad, claiming an absolute power, deciding questions and making ‘laws’ beyond its competence. …

“God sustains the world, in good times and in bad. Catholics, along with many others, believe that only one person has overcome and rescued history: Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, Saviour of the world and head of His body, the Church. Those who gather at His cross and by His empty tomb, no matter their nationality, are on the right side of history. Those who lie about Him and persecute or harass His followers in any age might imagine they are bringing something new to history, but they inevitably end up ringing the changes on the old human story of sin and oppression. …

“The world divorced from the God who created and redeemed it inevitably comes to a bad end. It’s on the wrong side of the only history that finally matters.”

So much more could be written, about this good shepherd, and actual native of Chicago. But the obituaries are appearing — a genre in which the best is often brought out, even from writers who tend to the malign. God is plainly opposed to Death. Nevertheless, He uses it for His purposes.

The Ezekiel airship

My thanks this morning to several correspondents who have told me their early aviation stories, but especially to the estimable Lord Jowls, who calls my attention to the Ezekiel airship, designed and built at Pittsburg in East Texas, which lifted briefly off the ground in anno 1902.

As I mentioned yesterday, the (1903) claim of Orville and Wilbur Wright to precedence in launching a man-piloted, heavier-than-air o’plane, cannot be challenged. This is because it has been lawyered so carefully, that it might as well be phrased: “The first flight by a member of the Wright family in the Outer Banks of North Carolina with all susceptible media in attendance.”

I rank it myself somewhere below the proud claim of Mrs Graham (“first ascent in a balloon at night by an Englishwoman,” 1850).

Of that feat I was entirely aware, yet knew nothing of this Ezekiel airship — one of innumerable aircraft, considerably heavier than air, built before the Wright Flyer, in which pitch, yaw, and/or roll were not perfectly under control, as they often aren’t today. Its builder was the Reverend Burrell Cannon, itinerant Baptist minister and sawmill operator, whom God rest.

Working from a design he had abstracted from the Book of Ezekiel, it consisted of curtain hoops of angelic sailcloth stretched on metal frames to make a great dipping circular wing, and a gas engine turning “wheels within wheels” of gearing to rotate four larger “paddle wheels,” or caged propellers. A man, harnessed standing within, bridled the parts by various levers.

The machine rose ten feet above the cow pasture in which it was demonstrated, drifted downfield and was safely landed before it could endanger a pack of fleeing, joyous children.

Satisfied that he could repeat this performance, the good pastor had his machine loaded on a railway flatcar, for the St Louis World’s Fair. Unluckily, it blew off in a considerable storm, and was smashed to pieces. The Rev. Cannon then speculated that God had not meant men to fly. (Uncertain of this, however, he had another go at it himself a decade later.)

In tracing this story, overlooked by the Wicked Paedia, I found a detailed refutation attempted by someone named Scott Gold, consisting mostly of acid sarcasm spat towards the good folk in East Texas, of a sort that would be actionable for “racism” had it only been directed against “African Americans,” or Muslims. This poisonous liberal gasbag sneers at every detail of the story in turn, while bleating his obeisance to the Wright brothers and the received, extremely selective account of the history of flight from the functionaries at the Smithsonian. He disproves absolutely nothing, demonstrates abject ignorance passim, and finally proves only the grave illness in his own soul.

Gentle reader may have noticed that on the point of dripping sarcasm I am not beneath replying to liberals in kind. I take my signal from Saint Thomas More who, in his epistolary replies to one Martin Luther, proved that he could out-gutter the greatest guttersnipe of his age.

Suffice to add that Rev. Cannon (born in Coffeeville, Mississippi; 1848–1922) was from an inventive family. His father held patents for various devices including a marine propeller, a wind-driven water pump, and a specialized camera. The son had been working on his ideas for an airship since the 1890s. This Bible Belt Hick spoke eight languages. His 80-horsepower, four-cylinder gas engine was custom-built by himself, and the four “paddle-wheel” fans were pivoted and directional so that they could, in principle, control pitch, yaw, and roll. There is copious contemporary documentation for the project, including many local newspaper accounts, and we may see the original Ezekiel airship in a photograph. (It has also been rebuilt.)

An ingenious mechanic, to be sure, but Rev. Cannon was also a man of burning faith, which is exactly what makes him so distasteful to the atheist vipers who drool for the Wrights.

God bless Baptist pastors in East Texas! God bless every God-haunted, Walker Percy character in the Deep South! And God bless all Lutherans, too, but only if they are true religious nutjobs, in the manner of mystical Catholics.

Verily: God bless all godly, and Saint Michael defend them against the legions of the depraved!

The Wright brothers

Though he broke both legs, Eilmer the flying monk of Malmesbury is reputed to have exceeded a furlong (40 rods) in his experimental flight of 1010 AD, inspired by the legend of Daedalus — father of Icarus; artist, craftsman, and Leonardo from the age of Homer. We do not find working drawings of Eilmer’s flying machine, in the Gesta Regum Anglorum, only the hint that it might have resembled a biplane. But like the Chinese (who were experimenting with manned flight a few centuries earlier), he would have had working knowledge of kites, and other airborne mediaeval contrivances.

Children of his day played with drawstring helicopter toys, for instance; and depictions of angels in contemporary art show a growing understanding of camber in the design of wings. We needn’t assume Eilmer was naïve.

Having correctly deduced that something Newton would later analyze as gravity, could provide him with something later called momentum, if he affixed wings, he saw a way forward through the breeze. For contrary to most modern teaching, mediaeval men had also observed the wind, and were thus surprisingly familiar with the properties of air.

It started well, from the tower of the old (later rebuilt) Malmesbury Abbey, leaning into an updraft and gaining additional ground clearance from the downward slope of the fields to the Abbey’s south-west. Eilmer was sailing triumphantly along. But then he experienced certain aviatory control problems — chiefly on the pitch axis though perhaps first on the yaw — that left him lame for the rest of his life.

Witnesses there seem to have been aplenty, and doubt there is little that the flight occurred. Still, it wouldn’t be acceptable to the American authorities who credit the Wright brothers with the original manned, powered flight, a scant 993 years later. First: there was no mechanical engine. Second: Eilmer used the height of the tower for his launch, instead of the catapult the Wrights used. Third: the witnesses weren’t American.

“Engine schmengine,” Eilmer would have replied. For he realized after the flight (as William of Malmesbury records), that what he needed was a tail. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in a condition to develop his invention, and perhaps short on volunteers for the next flight. (The Chinese had used death-row prisoners to pilot the kites off their towers.) Too, his Abbot had told him that, “enough is enough.”

Various further criteria are applied, to put the Wrights ahead of, say, the Frenchman, Clément Ader, whose steam-powered and gorgeously bat-winged Éole left the ground at Brie, in October 1890. Owing to an extremely poor power-to-weight ratio, it did not get very high or very far, but then, the first Wright flight near Kitty Hawk wasn’t that impressive, either.

Indeed, it takes a great deal of lawyering to establish the Wrights’ priority over, say, the Brazilian, Alberto Santos-Dumont, merrily flying his gas-propelled dirigible around the new Eiffel Tower; or for that matter the manned, steerable balloons that began littering the French skies from 1783.

Work on powered, controlled flight in the United States was far behind that in France, or England, but fell farther behind thanks to the Wright brothers. Fixated on the problem of converting invention into wealth, they pursued rival aviators around the USA with teams of lawyers. Their numerous, voluminous, cumbersome lawsuits were based on often fanciful patent claims, emerging from their own intensely secretive research.

One thinks for instance of the great aviator, Louis Paulhan (first to fly London to Manchester), who arrived with two Blériot monoplanes and two Farman biplanes to give flying demonstrations across the USA. Amazed at the workings of the American judicial system, but ignoring legal injunctions to prevent them from flying their machines, they took every prize at the Los Angeles Air Meet in January 1910, setting new records for altitude and endurance.

The Wrights were present, there as elsewhere, though never competing. They and their gaggle of lawyers followed Paulhan and the other foreigners around the country, serving them with process papers, and demanding unbelievably huge sums to call off their dogs, in vile and obvious attempts at extortion. And then they’d hit the local impresarios with additional suits to impound all the cash from ticket sales, &c. Truly: vicious and contemptible men.

To avoid fines or imprisonment in backwoods American jurisdictions, the visitors took to giving their demonstrations entirely for free, but still the lawsuits kept coming. Finally they gave up and went home.

Part of the reason for Canada’s early advances in aviation (first flight of the Silver Dart at Baddeck in Cape Breton, with its ingenious ailerons, &c) was the migration of American inventors, such as the brilliant motor-mechanic Glenn Curtiss, to safe territory away from the corrupt and unpredictable U.S. courts.

This, I suspect, was among the reasons that the spectacularly inventive Scotchman, Alexander Graham Bell, re-located from his grand mansion in Washington, DC. At first he went north, back to Canada (where he had settled before), only for the summers; but soon he was staying through the winters, too. Not only in flight, but in all the many other areas of his pioneering work (he invented the telephone, &c), he was afflicted with lawsuits from American cranks, with those dollar signs twirling in their eyes and the slick lawyers lining up behind them, ready to exploit a patent regime wide open to political manipulation. For apart from the beauty of the Bras d’Or landscape, Bell was back under the protection of British Common Law.

Terror birds

From what I can see, one would not want to be pecked by a terror bird. These venerable South Americans, called phorusrhacidae as a clade, flourished back when that continent was an island, the last of them perishing scarcely more than a couple million years ago. They could stand up to ten feet tall, and had beaks alarmingly large if narrow, coming to a point at a hawk-like spike, of an exceptionally hard material, which could be driven down and through a victim with uncommon force, opening him like a tin on the recoil. They seem to have eaten almost anything smaller than they were, and almost everything was smaller, so there you go: an apex predator. Fortunately, they were flightless.

My fascination with bio-engineering has been growing lately, with the arrival of spring. The buzzard I described in a previous post has practically moved in, and is now using my balconata rail as an habitual perch, to the distress of my sunflower seed-bribed purple finches, one of whom actually flew in the door of the High Doganate a few days ago, seeking protection. His friends, equally surprised, scattered in other directions as the big, mean-looking bird alighted. I had on my hands, briefly, one seriously distressed little avian, unable to decide whether I or the buzzard would make the better companion.

Now, some of these phorusrhacidae were rather smaller, and would thus be a problem only for the time traveller’s spaniel. From my glance at the skeleton, however, the neck seems sufficiently coiled and articulated for a strike from the side, in a scything action, provided that it does not wobble indecisively. So that, as a traveller myself, I would be seriously reviewing my commitment to biodiversity.

Still, if we can ranch an ostrich, I’m sure we could ranch a terror bird.

There are some parallel, coterminous species whose remains have been exhumed on other continents. As I say, these birds didn’t fly, and the Panama Isthmus to North America rose out of the sea hardly three million years ago. From the look of, for instance, the Titanis walleri who settled in Texas and Florida (no fault of Barack Obama’s here), we see a different design plan entirely. Similarly, or rather, dissimilarly, the North African “cousins.” It seems to me a bird of roughly that design and equipment was simply made for the Cenozoic. Once we get over this Evolution nonsense, we will see that chance plays no part, and that our planetary zoo is intelligently arranged in successive temporal sections.

The phorusrhacidae are stars of the moment, and I see them in all the pop-science ’zines. Last week the BBC picked up a nice item from the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology, adding those “artist’s impressions” that make a dry scientific tract into a crowd-pleaser. Argentine palaeontologists have been picking them out of the cliffs by Mar del Plata, before the sea erodes them, and recently found a nearly-complete skeleton of a new species, Llallawavis scagliali (“Scaglia’s magnificent bird”). This included the intact chamber for an inner ear. From this we gather that the bird’s hearing was adapted to quite low frequencies, so that we might imagine it sang in a rich baritone.

The bigger the bird, the lower the pitch, is among the more plausible rules of thumb. Elephants roar and mice squeak, as they say. I seem to recall a (typically fatuous) Darwinoid nostrum, that honesty in signalling is essential to sexual selection and … blah, blah, blah. The observation was never true, of course, and gradually even Darwinoids have noticed that a little wren can sing a very low-pitched line — whether to con a predator into not looking closer, or to impress a chick.

In fact the complexity of birdsong, and its astounding range, not only in solo performances but in conscious choral singing, is only beginning to be appreciated. With the collapse of neo-Darwinism, we will get a much better view into the phenomena of joy in nature, as we once had in the heyday of natural history, before the Great Bearded Killjoy of Down House arrived on the scene.

With joy comes paradox and scintillating reverses. The point was brought home to me recently when a large tall muscular young fellow (human) was singing for his supper at Yonge and Bloor. He had the most amazing high countertenor voice, with which he was doing Schubert’s Ave Maria — easily earning a toonie from me. By analogy I imagine this lately-found Argentine terror bird shocking his audience with the voice of a Franco Fagioli — bringing, as it were, just when they were expecting the floor to resonate beneath them, instead the chandeliers down on their heads.

Actually, I was intending today to launch a brutal and possibly gratuitous attack on the Wright brothers. But I’ve been terribly busy this week, so perhaps will leave that until tomorrow.

A yarn

In my dream, I was looking for help in a computer: trying to translate a poem from Basque into Urdu. This, I should mention, was not something I had ever previously attempted.

I was in a flat, full of my old things. It is a place I have returned to sometimes in dreams: one of several I visit while asleep, each quite specific in layout, furnishings, and address, and non-existent only in the real world. This one has high ceilings, tall windows, and gets plenty of sun; it is in a factory district. It bothers me I have not been paying rent, and must owe a lot of money by now: more than I could possibly pay. And as I seldom visit, my possessions must be insecure. I suppose this makes it an anxiety dream.

The computer is seriously out-of-date; by dream reasoning I conclude that the search function is pre-Internet and useless. Then I remember an old Basque dictionary, in a pine sideboard within this flat. I go digging for it, and find it on a bottom shelf, beside some tattered storybooks. These seem to be in various Occitan languages: Catalan, Provençal, Gascon, whatever. They are illuminated codices! How could I have forgotten that I owned them? I must pay the rent or they’ll be lost!

A duffle bag is stuffed behind the books. It contains old sweaters, boots, a radio, toys from my childhood, notebooks, discarded drawings and maps — all things I’ve been looking for!

And what’s this? A tabby cat, lost decades ago: alive and purring. She’s been feeding off what’s left of a barbecued chicken, in a plastic bag.

Waking, I try to capture the dream, and transcribe it into conscious memory. I know that some of these things once existed, others could not have. I did once own a Basque dictionary. I never owned such codices. The cat had a name, Meggins. The chicken reminded me of a carcass the landlord in a rooming house once abandoned in the back of a fridge. …

But I have left out the yarn. It was among the objects in the duffle bag: a spool of ancient yarn, very soft and silky, and of a distinctive colour: snow ivory with streaks of mottled brown and grey. It had unravelled, was entangled with everything else. It was when I pulled it, the rest came out. Somehow I knew it was spun from arctic hare. And that it came from somewhere.


The archaeologist, Patricia Sutherland, found such yarn some years ago, in a museum at Ottawa. It was from a box of curiosities a Catholic priest had collected on Baffin Island. It had struck him as odd, too: for the Inuit hunters use twisted sinews for cordage; yarn was a recent import. But this was no recent site; it was Dorset age, when neither spinners nor weavers were conceivable. The fragments were from Tanfield Valley, a sheltered cove at the southern extreme of Baffin, by the entrance to Hudson Strait. Carbon dating took the samples back to pre-Columbian times. How puzzling.

Until Professor Sutherland came along. This battle-axe, of a kind I much admire, remembered similar yarn from the ruins of a twelfth-century Viking farmstead in West Greenland. She leapt to a conclusion soon supported by other objects in the museum’s own collections, from several sites in Canada’s eastern Arctic. These included whetstones with tiny specks of copper and bronze, and wood fragments with iron rust from square nail holes. Other items long overlooked, now shouted through the lens of her microscope.

Funding comes from somewhere, and after some digging through the frigid muck at remote Tanfield Valley, what have we? A rather un-Eskimo stone wall: forty feet of unmistakably Viking masonry.

As a boy I was enchanted by the discoveries at L’Anse aux Meadows, near St Anthony on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland. Through the early ’sixties the archaeologists fought over what they were; until it became dead obvious that Helge Instad and company had uncovered the remains of a sizable Viking settlement from 1000 AD. All these years had passed without the discovery of another. Now more villages are coming into view.

Later, much later, Basque whalers came this way. Their sunken galleons and long boats have been recovered here and there, and onshore, the iron trypots in which they rendered blubber. But that was a little after Columbus.

For now we glimpse a trading history, between the lost Norse settlements of Greenland, and the native peoples in the western reaches of Helluland (Baffin), Markland (Labrador), and Vinland (Newfoundland). Once again, ancient chroniclers are proved exactly right, after scholars had convicted them of “myth” and “fantasy.” All of this fits, too, with the climate history, through that “mediaeval warming” the global warmalarmists want us to forget, when these places were much less arctic than they are today. And a picture emerges of the West Vikings, as traders, more than raiders.

All of it retrieved as in a dream, along a string of yarn.

Hunwickean in Parkdale

An anti-blogger or Idleposter is likely to read others, from idle curiosity if no better cause, and the commentarii diurni to which I first turn most days is Father Hunwicke’s Mutual Enrichment. Surely he is the world’s greatest Catholic blogger in English (mostly), though Hunwicke himself assigns the title of Archiblogopoios to America’s Father Zed.

Once tired of here, gentle reader will find, there, a rich fund of learned and penetrating remarks on every passing liturgical, scriptural, patristic, doctrinal, homiletic, canon-juridical, historical and general ecclesial matter, along with fine classical asides, a typographical dog’s breakfast, and some good laughs. A man of Oxford and of the English Church, returned to Rome through the Ordinariate, I know him not, personally, yet am gobsmacked to think such a dinosaur still roams this Earth. And, as gentle reader may appreciate, “dinosaur” is my fondest praise.

Hunwicke lays it on with a trowel (the preferred tool of gardeners and Nehemiah), and with that glowering Oxonian glee, discernible in his photograph. Truth matters to him; the reputations of persons, not so much. Yet still he doffs his hat to the authorities, in the time-honoured mediaeval manner; doffs, as it were, what is lawfully owing to the office or chair, regardless of the clown who may be sitting in it; doing obedience, when necessary, with humour. (Saint Thomas More was like that: going to the block with a little joke to the axeman.)

Chiefly, Hunwicke has focused on the problem of repatriating Greater England to the Civitate Dei; which is to say, that City of God — contra Paganos. This is the task of bringing the best of the Anglican heritage of mediaeval continuity back into communion with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church; and thus Lancelot Andrewes, Richard Hooker, Jeremy Taylor and the rest back into accord with Anselm, More, Newman. Et cetera.

The challenge here, or rather, part of the opportunity, is to grasp the significance, not only for England, and for every living English-speaking soul, but for the Catholic Church at large, of Anglicanorum Coetibus: the apostolic constitution with which Pope Benedict XVI began an extraordinary act of reconstruction, under the patronage (and guidance, I should think) of Our Lady of Walsingham. There was nothing casual in this; nothing small.

In the fullness of time, I think it will be seen that through this and his yet more important apostolic letter, Summorum Pontificum, Benedict began a process that can enable, practically, the restoration of Holy Church, after her period of wilderness desolation (which continues yet, in the shadow of Vatican II). However modest these measures may seem, in terms of the number of people who have seized upon the opportunities immediately presented, they are Pauline in their implications. Within a Church that is outwardly shrinking, and retreating from her contest with the Dictatorship of Relativism, there is a Heart that will grow and restore circulation to her re-animated parts.

To my mind, Hunwicke is among the few who fully understand these implications. Rome, post-Benedict, may be in many minds and much confusion, but the means, even the mechanisms for recovery are now there; and from many dispersed locations that recovery has begun.

Recovery of the Catholic heritage — spiritual, intellectual, and material — has many further dimensions. Currently, Father Hunwicke is drawing attention to another. He returns to the Regensburg address of 2006, so maliciously misrepresented in the media. In a series of three posts (beginning here) he reviews some of its actual content.

Benedict was also working on the recovery of the scriptural tradition: the Catholic understanding of what the Scriptures are, and of the nature of their inspiration expressed in historical time. The interested reader should study these posts carefully because something subtle is conveyed, easily lost on academics in the contemporary biblical field. In a phrase: there is no such thing as an “original text” of the Bible. The search through “textual criticism” is for a chimera. Such texts as the Septuagint, and the Vulgate, are independent witnesses — not for some antecedent texts that might be reconstructed by “getting behind them,” but instead, canonical in themselves.

And they are attested through actual use in ancient church and synagogue, as throughout the life of the early Church. They were intrinsic to that life, and the life was witness to them.

The texts are what they are. They are neither interchangeable nor manipulable. There is no “theory” that can aggregate then refine them into one homogeneous substance, like corn, barleyseed, and municipal waste into methanol. There are only the texts in themselves, uncontaminated by modern hypotheses and speculations. Take them or leave them. What lies behind is not some “primitive text” that had been “redacted.” No such thing is to be found. They contain what they contain, including all the bits sinful modern men would like to excise or revise.

Each, from its angle, stands witness — not to some lost textual history, but to the Christ.

Fixate upon that, and the penny may eventually drop. It is Christ we worship, not scholarly chimeras. Turn your attention from what does not exist, and therefore can never be proved, and take instead what you were given in that ancient “deposit of faith.” In other words, turn your attention from the vanity of human wishes, and look behind Scripture to Christ.

For that is what the Church has been teaching all along: come, to Christ, comprehensible through history, and actually Present in the Mass.

As Joan of Arc put it: “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.” (It was she, too, who stated with such beautiful clarity, that she did not know whether God loved or hated the English, only that they’d be kicked out of France.)

The effort to complicate the matter requires much complicated resistance. Father Hunwicke has a genius for disentanglement. It would be worth “following” him, if only for the entertainment of watching how he does it. Go follow. And then for godsake go to Mass, and apply what you have learnt.

Model T

It is odd, spooky perhaps, to discover after the fact, and in conversation with a dead person, areas of agreement one never suspected. This comes from reading, principally; and in today’s case from reading the teaching notes of my father. (Much better organized than mine; he was less susceptible to asides on asides.) Too, a little heartbreaking sometimes, to recall so many things since I lost him, so many little discoveries that have inspired me to run and tell my father; only to realize the years that have passed.

An industrial designer, and a “flyboy” from the Hitler War, of Spitfires and other good things “in the service of his late majesty, George the Sixth,” papa was no Luddite. On the other hand, like my son the electronic engineer, he appreciated Luddites. Once, for instance, he read aloud from a popular science magazine, a mocking quotation from the turn of the last century. An old geezer had predicted that if everyone started driving cars, the world would choke on noise and pollution, with people and animals being run over, and collisions everywhere. Papa noted it was odd to mock a prediction that had come true.

He admired technological innovation, but thought the best could not be brought out unless resistance was constantly offered. It is the duty of the inventor to offer better ways of doing things. It is the duty of the craftsman to defend the way things are done, and to insist there shall be no sacrifices of quality to quantity. It was the duty of “the people” generally to resist change. Thus was “progress” humanized, to the  “classical liberal” mind, which could distinguish between improvement and its opposite — in the days before the “liberal and progressive” lapsed into unchecked depravity.

As my son puts it, “Luddites” are hugely valuable to computer designers, in forcing them to adapt their inventions to human use. Whether or not they enjoy this “feedback,” they should become patient. They should think through the consequences of what they are proposing, and “first do no harm.”

Caught between these generations, I am struck on both sides by the acknowledgement of social solidarity. Without continuity, without a view to common purpose that extends beyond the moment in time and space, evil must necessarily triumph. We must remain a closed camp against it. All the goods in “Western Civ” required, and then assumed, this solidarity.

Even in politics, the concept of the “loyal opposition” expressed this: that our purposes must be constructive, not destructive. The opposition does not exist to defeat a government’s best efforts, but to improve them. They must look for the holes: for the unintended consequences of what has been proposed. By the old Parliamentary arrangements, founded in the Middle Ages, a government was compelled to hear this criticism; to defend itself with wit and vigour on the floor of the House; but also to relent, and amend, and accommodate interests that cross all party lines. Only on those terms was “democracy” feasible.

Or call this “old fashioned liberalism” if you will: the kind Chesterton and Belloc thought themselves a part of. It was a secular expression of Christian ideals. It could not, as they understood, have survived the destruction of an essentially Christian intellectual order. Indeed, it has not.

Words have changed their meanings, almost of their own accord, because the premisses of civilization have changed, and at the heart of it, this rather Christian notion of a “solidarity” which extends across all classes, through successive generations, and beyond any national frontier. As recently as the 1950s, the term “Christendom” could be used, sometimes, without irony.

Common understanding of what is up and down, good and bad, right and wrong, was first directly challenged in the French Revolution; or rather before that, by the atheist philosophes who brought the revolutionary principles of Hell to the surface — opening those spiritual chasms through which demons might walk openly on this Earth.

The polarities were reversed, then in France, and now in an accelerating way across Europe and America. Down becomes up, bad becomes good, wrong becomes right. The whole task of the “liberal and progressive,” as he himself now sees it, is that of social re-engineering: to “liberate” us from the past and its “conditioning”; to remove God from every public place; to replace Christian Hope with the promise that through technology and the unshackling of the human will to power, “men shall be as gods.”

And then, the enforcement of new positive law, to bind everyone to their agenda, in constantly metastasizing detail.

(It is curious how in his notes and diaries, as in his conversation, my father — who was not a church-goer, nor in other outward sense a religious man — so often and unselfconsciously mentioned God. He did this in casual expressions such as, “God is in the details,” or “God sees what you are hiding,” or “the truth is holy,” or what he always said to me on parting: “Go with God.”)

A correspondent reminds me of Hilaire Belloc’s paraphrase of Thomas Aquinas, somewhere in The Cruise of the Nona. “All evil exists in the mistaking or confusing of the means for the end.”

One aspect of our reversal of polarities is technological. To the barbaric savages who have come out on top, technology is no longer means, but monster. It has acquired a capital T.