Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

The good Samaritan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bread, cheese, & ale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chilcot Report

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

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

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

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

But again, this isn’t news.

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

That I despise these people is not news, either.

The magnanimous gesture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Layard to Ninevah

Each summer, with the intention of adding leisure to the spirit of idleness, I choose an historical topic for general reading. Or rather, it is chosen for me some time in late May or early June, when some book or books fall into my hands, from my peregrinations about the flea markets and second-hand shops of Greater Parkdale.

This year the signal was provided by a lovely old copy of an enthralling memoir by the late Right Honourable Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817–94), his Early Adventures in Persia, Susiana, and Babylonia. (One may read along, here.) My copy washed up with a clump of other tomes carrying the bookplate and signature of a certain Colonel Stucley — I assume among the Stucleys of Affeton in Devonshire, who are also in possession of what physically survives of the twelfth-century Hartland Abbey. It was the very last of the innumerable religious houses dissolved by that monster of depravity, Henry VIII, half a millennium ago. (I have not inquired, however, lest the Stucleys want their books back.)

It is now forty-five summers since, at age eighteen, I stood myself in the ruins of Ninevah — across the Tigris from Mosul in post-modern Iraq, the seat of Christian Assyria. Gentle reader may be aware that the Assyrians, Yazidis, Armenians, Turkmen, Shabaki, and for that matter, a portion of the Arabs who once lived around that town have been slaughtered or exiled over the last two years by the Daesh. The self-styled “Islamic Caliphate” has also made a show of demolishing Mosul’s remarkable Museum, and the more celebrated ancient monuments, starting with the purported tombs of Jonah and several other Old Testament prophets.

How one wishes that the French and British, rivals for archaeological glory from the early Victorian age, had succeeded in floating more of the treasures they had uncovered, on great rafts down the Mesopotamian rivers to Basrah and the sea — and then by ship to safe new homes in the Louvre and British Museum. That was the heroic age of “Orientalism,” when under the burning sun, and the noses of Ottoman administrators, and in the face of Arab raids and depredations — goaded by popular excitement over the recovery of deep Biblical history — the lost kingdoms and empires of the Near and Middle East were being rediscovered. Not only the tireless spadework, but the ingenious decoding of ancient tablets found in subterranean libraries of clay, extended our detailed knowledge of the human past by thousands of years.

This was a gentleman’s contest, and I am struck by the way, without rules or treaties, the French and the British (later joined by Germans, and eventually Americans, Poles, Italians, and even Canadians) peacefully recognized each other’s stakeholdings and claims, and honoured each other’s adventurers and scholars. So much of what we now reflexively condemn as “European Imperialism” was conducted at a level of civilization that is unimaginable today. We ritually sneer at digging practices that were primitive and inexact, forgetting that our own “modern methods” were being devised by these men, as they went along, starting only from rumour and wild surmise.

We have now, thanks to them, a vista over ten thousand years, to a time when human beings were a rare and endangered species, before towns or villages or farms. About the time our Western ancestors used to associate with Adam and Eve — the fifth millennium before Christ — we have suddenly a whole human world along the Euphrates, the Diyala and the Tigris; the extraordinary facts of the Ubaid and Sumer. In a rapid blink of geological time, we have Semitic, Hamitic, and other peoples, spreading their fields, their works of irrigation, their roads and their laws by hereditary overlords. (In the time since Layard we have discovered scattered, fragmentary remains of still older “cities”; yet only by a few millennia.)

The Assyrian Empire, for one, rises and falls, rises and falls and rises from the twenty-fifth century BC, to its final collapse at the end of the seventh, leaving a people like those who succeeded the Romans, with the memory of order, and the principles of productive agriculture. They, too, were Christianized in their course, and many to the present day continue quite recognizably Christian, in the shadow of Islam.

Our post-modern habit is to glibly despair, and fickly surrender to any pressure of “events,” often brought on by our own irresponsibility. Iraq is one huge case in point. We cared for one media moment and then, experiencing difficulties, we packed up and turned away, leaving people we had rescued to another hideous fate.

In my summer reading, I am trying to reassemble in my mind the fragments of my knowledge of Mesopotamia, acquired piecemeal over decades. Beyond history, I think of it as a remedy for despair. Even were my fascination restricted to archaeological research, so much is unscathed. The destruction of the Daesh is itself shallow and piecemeal: my Layard (pronounced as “Laird” incidentally) found in multiple locations that he had to trench down only twenty feet to yet another rich store of artefacts. They in their millions will stay buried to some happier time; and the current barbaric tyranny will pass at the surface. We can have no idea what is to come, even in this world; for better, for worse.

Among my mottoes is the observation of the poet Wallace Stevens, that “all history is modern history.” That is why I like to look back thousands of years; and at this moment have, with the aid of a few books, been able to reimagine a time, four thousand years ago, when the traffic on the Tigris, the canals and royal roads, is so thick with merchants that we have complex traffic regulations in the ancient cuneiform.

Our own generation is one among hundreds, and our own conceits are as fatuous as any that might have been encountered then. Far from being “the end of history,” our time is among the passing scenes. We are, or each of us soon will be, contemporary with all humankind; and our “progress” is not towards any historical goal, but in each soul, to salvation or damnation.

Un canadien errant

Today is once again Dominion Day, as it is no longer called up here in “the True North strong and free” — as it is still called, but with irony. I like to enter my protest annually.

In Toronto this year we now celebrate the “Canada Day” weekend with three big parades: Trans Pride today, the Dyke March tomorrow, and the grand Pride Parade on Sunday. Meanwhile there will be the throb of heavily amplified funk bands, paid for with my taxes; and a Sudanese Rap festival at City Hall. There will be other celebrations of Multiculturalism (any culture that is not natively Canadian). But there is only so much room in my head for what I read on posters.

One recalls the remark of the late immigrant George Jonas, after one publicly-funded multicultural performance: “I left Hungary to escape Communism, but even more to get away from Gipsy Dancing.”

The Canadian folk song, “Un canadien errant” (Ian and Sylvia version, here), was written after a rebellion in Lower Canada, going on two centuries ago. Some French Canadians found themselves exiled to exotic countries such as Vermont, and Australia. They looked homeward with nostalgia, to the old (very Catholic) Quebec; and recalled the fate, too, of their fellow countrymen banished generations before from Acadia.

In fact the older Acadian hymn, still known among the “francophone” survivors in our Canadian Maritimes, is a variation on the eighth-century plainsong of Ave Maris Stella, sung by preference in Latin. (There is a lovely anecdote in some album notes I have somewhere of broadcast types trying to get the choral inhabitants of St-Antoine in New Brunswick to sing it in French for their cameras; and they refused, such was their loyalty to their actual traditions.)

Un canadien errant: we have achieved today a kind of inverted national unity, between French and English, as everyone still attached to that old bag of a country we both called “Canada” — as it was before the Martian invasions of the 1960s — shares in the sense of an internal exile. Wherever we are, we find around us a Canada that does not resemble the one in which we were raised, and with which we were contented.

Next year will be the sesquicentennial of the proclamation of that Fair Dominion, in the British North America Act of 1st July, 1867. That Canada had many flaws and foibles, which we may also recall with a dripping nostalgia. But when asked to stand, she stood. For she had also many virtues, and did not deserve to die.

My thoughts turn also east this morning, to Newfoundland, which lost the “best of its best” in the mud, blood, and futility of the Somme trench offensive, launched one hundred years ago, on 1st July, 1916. Altogether at least 57,000 were killed and maimed, among the British forces who thrust themselves into the German wires; by far their largest bloodletting on a single day, in the course of history so far. So great a stream, that even to criticize the allied generals is pointless. For all Europe had embarked on the ultimate, post-modern, voyage au bout de la nuit.

Un Chrétien errant: from knights-errant, to the most spectacular, heroic, and obscene acts of self-destruction, only modestly echoed in our domestic Canadian experience. It is Friday, now: a day for fasting and atonement; for the observation that we have got what we deserved, or so much less than we deserved, by replacing Christ in our hearts with the vanity of our progressive human wishes.

And farther east, one’s thoughts wander to Heaven’s Gate in Jerusalem Wall.

An artist is a solitary

The Japanese draughtsman, Hokusai, admitted to a mania for drawing the forms of things, from the age of six. He could not get anything right until the age of twenty, however. By age fifty he had produced a great deal of work which other people liked. Writing at the age of seventy-three, he believed that he was finally learning a little about the actual structure of trees, birds, fishes, and insects, for the depiction of which he was famous. He begged Heaven to give him him five more years, or ten if possible, for he thought that he could still become a real artist. In fact Heaven, which is always more generous than we deserve, and sometimes even more generous than we ask, gave him fifteen more years. But he did not think he had yet mastered his craft, for he still could not penetrate “the mystery of things.” If he could live to one hundred and ten, he estimated, he would be able to paint a dot or a line that was truly alive. He is now two hundred and fifty-five, by our earthly reckoning. Unfortunately his works of the last one hundred and sixty-seven years are invisible to us.

I have the information above from a catalogue of the porcelain works of Brother Thomas Bezanson, who is now eighty-seven years, but has been dead for the last nine. The catalogue, from Boston, in 1987, presents him in the prime of life. I often wish that I could insert pictures into these little essays, but either I can’t or I won’t. If gentle reader will simply search “images” with the name of this Benedictine, he will get a general idea.

The man had an extraordinary gift, not only for the production of difficult, traditional clay shapes, which require an athletic balance, but for glazes. What makes them extraordinary is not their composition, but their setting and firing in the kiln. This requires an almost inhuman patience and skill. He uses the basic copper and iron materials, in standard, rather ancient, Oriental formulations (tenmoku, “peacocks,” “chrysanthemums,” sang de boeuf, celadon, kaki, “black olives”). But with these he produces effects that are … unprecedented, extraordinary. There, I have used the word extraordinary four times.

Brother Thomas was what we slobs call a “perfectionist.” Four in five of his pots were discarded. Yet from his notes one discerns that many he kept were happy accidents. These included several “miracles” — defined as an emergent colour that the known laws of chemistry will not permit.

He was a solitary. His relations were chiefly with his materials. In one of his notes he expresses a gushing boyish love for a tessah iron glaze, because it is made of the clay, hematite, and magnetic ores of his own native province, Nova Scotia. He seems to indulge self-flattery in his description of its “seed” (little reticulations). But to understand him, we must realize that he believes the pots are making him, as much as he is making the pots:

“The human soul is shaped and fed in the experience of the beautiful.”

Elsewhere he writes, “Art speaks ultimately of an inner vision of the transcendental value: beauty. It is glimpsed, not grasped. Once glimpsed, it brings an inner imperative to concretize it. This can never finally be done, but it cannot be left untried.”

He speaks of freedom as the highest creative value; a freedom that is contemplative, and rooted in theology:

“I want my work to be prayer, and my place of work to be a place of prayer. Noisy, meaningless intrusions, chatter, unannounced visitors all obscure or even block the creative spirit.”

His work is intuitive: “Prayer engages this power. … Prayer, meditation, solitude, and silence, are the keys to it.”

Like Hokusai, he notes that all artists are beginners.

Bonnie & Clyde

I see that Parkdale (or, Vallis Hortensis, as we say among the elect) is back in world news, despite the distraction of Brexit. Indeed, it was while reading a European website, yesterday, that I learnt of the recapture of the second errant capybara in High Park, a few blocks away.

“Bonnie and Clyde,” as they had been dubbed, escaped 24th May from the park zoo, minutes after arriving from Texas. The story has feminist legs, or should have had, for both were female. (The Toronto Scar reports otherwise, but it is always wrong.) The names are apt, for “Clyde” was a girl’s name before it was a boy’s. They were to be locked in with a male, named Chewy; but one look at him and they made off.

Since, we have had capybara-sighting parties all over the surrounding Parkdale, Roncesvalles, High Park, and Runnymede districts. The animal cops (from “Toronto Wildlife Centre”) ran Bonnie to ground on 12th June, after three weeks of freedom; Clyde proved wilier. She — who resembles a deformed, anurous beaver; or hybrid of beaver and pig, with perhaps a side of llama — not only remained at large, but achieved rock-star status, with many public appearances around Grenadier Pond.

Alas, dear thing. She was finally tricked into one of the innumerable baited cages set out for her — otherwise replete each morning with local raccoons and pet cats. It’s back to Her Majesty’s Prison for her. And the threat of sexual abuse from Chewy. And the guards will be more on their toes, I expect, after their recent embarrassment.

A pity, it has been argued, for in addition to people, capybaras are quite popular with the other animals. Birds love to alight on their backs; turtles to cuddle around them; even crocodiles, I am told, would rather buddy than eat a capybara. They are extremely social animals; and contented herbivores. People want them for pets, as they will bond like a dog. Or more so.

That is where the trouble starts, from what I understand. Having bonded, they will not let you out of sight. They will go wild and psycho till you return. And meanwhile they have razor teeth, and no understanding of our social norms, or of the excitable behaviour of our small children. You don’t want confusion with the world’s largest rodent, whose own mores and herding instincts have been undermined. And the only way to avoid misunderstanding is to deny yourself sleep, then devote your waking hours to keeping the capybara happy. This will require flooding your basement, laying hay on your floors, and allowing it to interact with all your possessions, to give your house a more attractive scent. We like it bland; they like it intense.

From what I gather, they are very smart, but manipulative and moody. The ducks in High Park are happy to accommodate; even the geese and swans will adapt to their needs; but humans tend to resent excessive intelligence. Which is why cats have the sense to be discreet about it, pretending whenever they can to be stupid, in their trawling, rope-a-dope way. A capybara would lack their thousand-generation, cumulative experience. His attempts at manipulation would be clumsy.

Which is why, in turn, though I sympathized with the beasts, while they were “homeless” and on the lam, I decided not to offer them shelter in the High Doganate. My heart goes out to refugees, but as a non-liberal, non-progressive person, I am mindful that certain lines must be drawn.

The secret government

I stand accused this morning of embracing “democracy,” or even “populism” as another correspondent alleges. They refer to my delight in Brexit, mildly expressed in passing last week. But the charge is unreasonable. I would never do such a thing. I was simply stating my slight preference between two, typically modern, democratic sides, where there was no third option (such as, “Status quo ante 1532,” which would have allowed me to take a more Euro position). I did mention that, as advertised, both sides were repellent, did I not? Two jabbing arms of the same, seemingly invincible Power, whether it projects from London or Brussels.

As a man of the thirteenth century (now trying to read the Cursor Mundi to bring myself more up-to-date), I am suspicious of any profane ideology. My opinion of “the peeple” is low; it is securely founded in observations of myself. They have all the foibles of our current politicians, including our populist pope: low intelligence, poor education, overweening vanity. I recognize each of these qualities immediately; I suffer from all of them myself; everyone in Parkdale suffers from them, except a few graced souls who, I notice, avoid politics altogether. Permit us to make important decisions, and the world will be as you see around you, gentle reader! It will become “a mess,” that only Christ can fix.

This is because of the Secret Government; but bear with me for a moment.

Popular belief in conspiracies should be dismissed before we proceed. I hear them in every bar; they lie beneath the result of every election. Some of these beliefs are more entertaining than others, but none are sufficiently plausible to explain any public event. For here is another thing to say against “the peeple.” They, or more precisely, we, don’t think through our conspiracy theories well enough. For if we did, we would have to abandon them.

Take for instance the anti-Semitic theories. Have you ever sat down to table with a couple of real Jews? I have, many times, with two or more of them, and I can assure gentle reader that they don’t agree on anything. The notion that they could conspire is ludicrous.

And if you think the Muslims are conspiring, think again. Far from agreeing, they are blowing each other up. It is true they blow us up sometimes, too, but this is seldom personal. It is minor and incidental compared to what they are doing in their own countries. I do not undertand how people who cannot form a common front, can possibly mount a conspiracy. Even within the factions, there is reckless violence. (Though among the great majority, a more peaceful sleep of reason.)

Presbyterians have traditionally thought Catholics conspire against them, and vice versa. (There was some violence in Ulster, don’t ye know?) But again, plain experience does not support such beliefs, which cannot stand through any sustained religious conflict. Even the murderous Thirty Years’ War was a squalid double farce: neither party has ever been properly organized. For sure we get waves of deluded enthusiasm, for one silly topos or another; we get mobs. But a mob is hardly a conspiracy. It has the direction of a school of herrings, or a shoal of piranhas. For while given promising circumstances, one may conceivably plot to trigger a riot, the thing itself is too spontaneous. Conspiracies must be more thoughtfully planned.

And as for those secular humanoids, please, don’t try my patience. As some debater in the Brexit campaign observed, these are people who cannot organize a take-away curry, let alone the European Union. To accuse them of conspiracy, whether for or against the public will, is to endow them with magical powers for which they can provide no evidence. Clowns they may be, but neither skilled nor talented in that default vocation. Unhappy clowns, if the truth be told: all make-up and malice, with a defective script.

More generally, no conspiracy can work, beyond a small size and a very short period, given the human condition. As a species, we cannot keep secrets. We are endowed with a neurotic facility for communication — from words to body language to our shifty eyes. We downright broadcast what we are about, when tactics require methodical concealment. Even when formed into hunting packs, we cannot agree on our quarry — thanks to inherited ADD.

Otherwise, we behave as sheep, mindlessly “following the leader” who is himself cluelessly wandering away. And the shepherds too, distracted by a shepherdess, piping their Arcadian melodies and forgetting to give chase. But did the sheep conspire? Only in your dreams.

Nevertheless, there is a Secret Government.

This information was imparted by no less than the Founder of our Church. Too, it was known among the Hebrews, and perhaps some others, for millennia before. It is a permanent conspiracy. It works, more or less, because it does not depend on humans. Moreover, it is perfectly aware that it cannot depend on humans, who are so perverse, that sometimes they do good when they are intending evil. Not even the Devil can trust us.

And he, let me say, is the master conspirator. He is working with a very large cast of little subordinate devils, sneaky and diligent about their work. (As we might be, if we had no tomorrow.) Their chief has been identified as the Prince of This World, and he is in charge of the Secret Government. The Christian is instructed to revolt against him, openly by means of an ungovernable Love. To do so regardless of cost. But this revolt would appear to be still in its earliest stages, and moving backwards at the moment.

I know all this because I have myself a little devil, permanently installed on my left shoulder; and a guardian angel, balancing on the right; and a head in the middle, to complete this triumvirate. This last has the deciding vote, but wobbles.

The devil on my left has much more to say, and some of it is subtle. He has a certain infernal charm. I know perfectly well that he is an agent of the Secret Government. I’ve known it for decades. By now, he does not even bother to deny it; all he offers is the prospect of an easy life.

“Do as I say, and there will be pleasure. Do as that angel says, and we can make difficulties for you. Rather serious difficulties, if you want to know.”

From the infernal POV, of course, the angel is the rebel. It is the devil who is “dressed in a little brief authority,” and has the pride which comes with his appointive office. One may catch him on that, sometimes: he preens. He is cocky and self-confident as a tax collector, and insists that you must pay — with charm, if you are being cooperative, or without, if you try to dislodge him by getting your back up.

Whereas, all my angel ever says is, “No!” — and then only in extreme circumstances. And very loud, coarse, and sudden: entirely without that demonic finesse.

Now, the Secret Government is not very secret, when it comes to that. We all know it is there; we’re just in the habit of pretending it is not, in the vanity of an affected freedom. Nor is the tyranny of this government unknown. We only think it is easier to obey; that we will get along in this world if we are “good citizens” of the infernal commonwealth; that we’ll prosper and contribute to a rising GDP.

Whereas, if we resist, we are likely to be punished. We might succeed in overpowering the little devil on our left shoulder. But he has friends.

However, so have we. And there is an Even More Secret Government, that only appears to be out of power — that distant monarchy under Christ the King. And given, by the grace of God, a fuller view of Eternity, that looks beyond any superficial trouble, you want to be an agent of that EMSG.

The in & the out of it

“If you’ve got money, you vote In. If you haven’t got money, you vote Out.”

This quote was collected by a Grauniad reporter, from one of Manchester’s suburban slums. He could not find one “Remain” voter in the Collyhurst district. Earlier in the day, however, he had attended a graduate recruitment fair in the middle of the city, where his trouble was finding a “Leave” supporter. Typical quote from a scrubbed, besuited kid: “This is the twenty-first century. Get with it.”

(My Parkdale loyalties come to the fore. We are salt of the earth around here. They spread us on the streets in winter.)

The political coroners do their forensics as I write. They pour over the demographics from the Brexit poll. They acknowledge that their corpse has a couple more dimensions.

For instance: if you’re quite English you voted Out. If you’re a bit foreign, you voted In. If urban, In; if rural, Out. If young, you voted In; if old, you voted Out — the more certainly the older you are.

Or if you’re Scottish you voted In, to stick it to the English. Or if Protestant in Northern Ireland you voted Out, to stick it to the Catholics. Or if Welsh, you had more resentments than anyone can count, and so couldn’t decide until voting day, when you voted Out to stick it to everyone.

If you are an impoverished, sixty-third generation, English Protestant centenarian in a Manchester slum — who voted, In — I would like to meet you. We might not agree on politics or religion, but I love a character. And you probably also smoke and drink.

My own attention is rivetted upon the age factor. My resentment is growing for the young. Most of the elderly in Britain never wanted to be in the European Union in the first place. The British were dragged in by their politicians, who are mortally attracted to anything big. For forty-three years they were compelled to stay, by the tremendous weight of “expert opinion.” During this time, the young were indoctrinated.

It took more than a generation to click, but it finally did. The young can no longer imagine a world without complex bureaucracies, built upon simplistic ideas. (Morality, for them, is reducible to hygiene.)

What they need is a food shortage. And if Brexit can deliver that, all well and good.

*

P.S. a point which my Chief Texas Correspondent has elicited from me:

There are reasons why the economists have always been wrong in their predictions. (And see that supercilious rag, The Economist, for examples of their mindset.) However, it may make little sense to look to the past, in order to correct them today. For while they are still always wrong, they may be so for different reasons than they were in the past — as they feed the crooked timber of mankind through the perfectly straight rotating blades in their intellectual sawmills.

Will Britain be better or worse off, economically, as the result of Brexit? The answer is they don’t know; and between us, I don’t know, either. I do know the British were, commendably, taking a chance.

During the campaign, I was fascinated by attempts to manipulate fear in the electorate. This came from both sides, but the Euro-sclerotics did the better job. They purveyed the notion that, while the Euro economy may be the world’s slowest growing, there remain huge opportunities for wealth. But the bureaucrats do actually have the power to determine who will get it. Therefore, it is foolish to get on their wrong side.

It was not that Brexit would make the British economy any less efficient. Indeed, the new challenges would likely make it more. Rather, the opportunities for business would be diminished, with nearly half of exports in the European power to restrict or disallow or punitively tariff.

Note this subtle reversal, on the part of economists, of the classical “free trade” position, in which trade now becomes some unnatural thing, which governments may nevertheless encourage by treaty. To Adam Smith and company, trade was the natural thing, with which governments unnaturally interfered.

The premiss of the contemporary argument is that bureaucrats do control trade; and with this comes their “right” to determine who should get rich, and who should be ruined. That position is now taken for granted, by the young and all others of unphilosophical mind — not as an ideological, but as a natural principle. (They don’t think of themselves as socialists; rather as pragmatists of “open mind.”)

It seems to them the most natural thing, that the successful modern business should depend on comprehensive political suck-up; that this is much more important than competitive efficiency, to the man who sincerely wants to be rich.

Brexit

Frexit, Swexit, Netherlexit; Espanexit, Portugexit; Czexit, Slexit, Luxembexit — they’ll all want out now, till the European Union is down to just Germany and Greece. And maybe Scotland. Can we leave, too? Do you have to be a member to quit? Let’s have a referendum on everything, and everyone vote Leave.

There is great blather this morning about the triumph of democracy. If the EU’s executive were elected by the unwashed masses, it would be no different. It would be no closer to any classical British conception of “responsible government,” in which the executive is accountable to “the peeple,” whether starkly or through the romancing smoke and mirrors of Crown in Parliament. No such arrangement is possible once bureaucracy has spread through the whole sprawling body politic, twitching and prone.

Balancing, or rather, contesting this, we have the predictable liberal freak-out on the triumph of “far right parties,” which is equally risible. Fifty-two percent of the current British electorate is hardly Far Right Haters, or if they are they might have accomplished something by now. In current circumstances such terms are meaningless. There is populist discontent with opposite things — with too much taxes, and not enough welfare. The most anti-mass-immigration parties are conventionally nanny-statist, and only promise to dole more to their constituents from the money that closed borders might save. When in fact we are in debt above our ear lobes.

Are people racist? Of course. Nationalism is racist, by definition. People are racist; always were and always will be. “White people are racist” is racist, as well as true. Liberals are the worst. They are absolutely obsessed with race, colour, and creed; with the manipulation of “identity politics.” Thus they are constantly promoting racism.

Sound statesmen do what they can to avoid this malicious bilge. They will be, by nature, “elitists,” seeking conditions for good order, domestic and foreign peace — for the rule of just law, and a diffused prosperity. This means, usually, changing the subject of political discourse; for “the peeple” (they include me, I’m afraid) are more interested in vengeance, and cash. This would be true at all levels of government.

It is true, I am delighted with the Brexit win. I prefer a pint of 568 millilitres, to a pint of 500 mL. Yet too, I grieve the obsolescence of the Scottish pinnt or joug, which was nearly three times the size of the Imperial, and could be sensibly fractioned into chopins and mutchkins as well as gills; and more generally for government on a much smaller scale.

You cannot order lunch for 500 million people; or rather, you can but it is awkward. You cannot order lunch for 64 million, ditto. Decisions touching upon everyday life should be made on an everyday scale, where relations between cause and effect are perceptible, and “the peeple” can learn from their blundering mistakes, their abject stupidities, and sharping moral failures. To my mind, the downsizing has a long way to go.

The purpose of large entities, such as the EU or the Roman Empire, is to keep roads open to trade, and the long frontiers of civilization defended; to provide circuit courts and enforce criminal law. This is the most secular power can achieve: a chaste and impartial protection racket, too big to challenge. It is already a tall order. Pile it too high — put all the weight at the top — and it will surely topple.

On nature

Water is not as innocuous as may first appear. Those who have experienced floods will know this. They may associate water with disorder; their imagination of what happens should the seas rise will itself be disordered. They see nothing positive in it. They value water only to the degree that it is useful for their own purposes; they want it piped and dam’d, or at least prettified; when it is unwanted, they want it to go away. They understand water to be stupid; “inanimate” and thus lacking a brain. Even a pigeon, or a squirrel, has “consciousness,” but water, not so. They are contemptuous of water, in all those moments when they are not frightened by it; or parched, longing for its return.

But water has a mind of its own. I noticed this on the weekend, while admiring a small creek or brook through a meadow, three feet at its widest. It had self-organized, neatly. Without the slightest assistance from bureaucrats and environmentalists, the water had designed and cut its own path. It had exploited gravity to govern its own flow; it had even thoughtfully supplied itself with a little floodplain to accommodate special occasions. Yet with carefully drawn banks to which it might or might not return.

It had arranged the pebbles in its course in a way to its liking, showing to my mind an exquisite taste. Liberal, in the best sense, it was also sheltering some little fishes, defined broadly to include a crayfish or two; and other miniature animals in their exoskeletons, and their sparkling veinous wings. It was watering the wildflowers of the field, without making an oppressive show of the enterprise — leaving the wildflowers to advertise accomplishments it was itself too modest to declare.

As we could say of the saints, it was knowing. It knew enough to find its way to a river, but along that way, had created a delightful little pond. And like a fine artist, it refused to be rushed. Here was an artistic sensibility superior to my own; for I could not have done half so good a job of planning its meander, with my cruelly limited gardening skills. I would surely have geometricized somewhere, and spoilt the whole effect.

That was a minor work; there are larger canvases on which the water will “express itself” — sometimes as liquid, sometimes as vapour, sometimes as ice. Even without leaving the High Doganate, I am constantly impressed by its meteorological works; as too, by its extraordinary ability to focus. It will not be put off or distracted, even by the presence of a large conurbation. In cooperation with the elements of earth, air, and fire, it renders scenes of extraordinary beauty, never repeating itself. Sometimes when a fog rolls in from the Lake, I think it is taking a break between compositions; but no, the fog turns out to be a composition in itself. For the water is tireless.

Recently, I made an old point from theology — queen of the sciences. As pagans, and verily, atheists, we comprehend nature from the ground up. We proceed from our own random location, outward. Nature to this view is infinite, so that we will never get to the end. But if Christian, we may take it from the top down. We can see that it everywhere makes sense, on multiple levels, thanks to the existence of a Divine Plan. Nature cannot explain God, for this reason; but God can explain nature.

Somewhere up here is or was a thin book of lithographs, reproducing pencil and watercolour sketches from the rambles of the young J.M.W. Turner. I think he left about twenty thousand of them, to be meticulously catalogued by the British Museum, and then hidden away. Ruskin famously sneered at all this work (little of which he saw) as Turner’s “learning period.” As the author of the book (Gerald Wilkinson) avers, it could not have been. Turner sprang almost fully formed with the ability to paint the weather; and to the last, this is what he painted so well. Even a sketch we could never have seen before, we immediately recognize as “a Turner,” paradoxically because of truth not to a style, but to nature herself. We think we have seen it before, when we haven’t.

What we see, as Turner ages, is less an artistic than an intellectual progression, from the pre-industrial world of the eighteenth century, to the industrial one of the nineteenth. This becomes visible in the vortices of his later works. He pursues drama.

The paradox here is that, in his transitions from watercolour to oil, the scenes become more stilted; and this although his canvases are vast, in comparison to the size of the pocket sketchbooks he took on his walks through England, Scotland, Wales. He tries to make statements in those giant canvases.

He should not have tried; he should have “sketched” with the oils, as Constable before him. As Ezra Pound said, in his latest Canto, “Do not move / Let the wind speak.” Like every other modern, Turner is now trying to control the message; he is trying to put the blissful skies to his own use. In the course of which, he must lie about the skies, when he never lied before.

It is the Victorian affectation. It continues to the present day. We do our romanticizing in a factory. We push for the special effect. We will not let it happen, on its own terms. Always, there is a message, some “unique selling point.” Always, we are trying to write the message; to put the jingle into the music. Always it seems, or rather, does not seem but is, that we are defeating ourselves.

Instead, we should be content, and unambitious; we should try to be the messenger only, like the priest performing the ancient Mass. Until, as it were, entirely by surprise, someone shoots us for it.

That little stream, that brook (I will not tell where I found it) knows better than a squirrel, better than a pigeon, better than a man. Quietly, I think, it is carrying the Word; and patiently, to anyone who will listen. But the sounds of the city make it impossible to hear.

That, anyway, is my message for this morning.

When pushy meets touchy

A note from my chief Irish veterinary correspondent calls my attention to the current spat between Obama/NATO and ex-Soviet/Putin, which is being conducted over many issues, some perhaps too subtle for the mass media to have catalogued. Indeed, so subtle that even I, a connoisseur of subtle conflict, would have to retreat to the foreign policy journals to make a good list. And I’m no longer willing to go that far.

But the Anakonda exercise in Poland, which ended last week after ten days of fun and war games, involving tens of thousands of NATO troops, and quite a few aeroplanes, was designed, as the Obama administration blatantly hinted, “to send a clear message” — we all know to whom. Frankly, sometimes I prefer a message to be garbled.

There is some history here. Perhaps gentle reader may recall it. As an old Cold Warrior, I remember it almost with nostalgia.

A country the physical size of Russia has a lot of “backyard,” and the country is ringed by ex-Soviet republics, many of which, if not all except Belorus, are enthusiasts for NATO. They do not wish to be “forgotten” by their historically more recent allies, and the demand for some show of force did not come primarily from USA. Perhaps our diplomats have privately asked the ex-KGB agent who rules Russia today why he thinks this would be. Or perhaps they have not thought of it. They’d be sure to get the answer that, for allied historical reasons, there are substantial Russian ethnic minorities in many of these countries, too, and that none of those have been “forgotten,” either.

Georgia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine, could be mentioned, as examples of Russian behaviour that does not display a perfect understanding of international law pertaining to the violability of national borders. But then, the Russians could cite instances where the same was overlooked in the West. Verily, the redrawing of boundaries is an ancient practice, usually accompanied by main force, and not necessarily by chaste arguments. And often, it has gotten out of hand, as we remember from two World Wars — from which, it strikes me, we may not have learnt so much as we imagine.

Obama is often criticized, from the Right, for being flaccid in defence of American and Western interests; for appeasing enemies, and sacrificing allies. I do not think this criticism is entirely just. In my own view, which dominates this website, the problem with them has more to do with weak heads and general incompetence. Their rhetoric means almost nothing at all: it is spacey and “academic” and naïve, in the smug Harvard manner. It is not pacifist, as some of my best warmonger buddies allege. It is instead lackadaisical. The Obamanites are willing to assert American superpower, but only after events have migrated beyond their control. They vaguely understand that “the world is a dangerous place,” that “the law of the jungle” governs much of it. They do not, most certainly do not, intend surrender, even to the ayatollahs of Iran. They are, sincerely, trying to be tactical. The difficulty is that, if I may resort to a vulgar, commonplace expression, they don’t know their ass from their elbow.

Moreover, it is fair to add, the mismanagement of the Russia file goes back ninety-nine years. (Our ancestors realized that Leninism needed snuffing at birth, but in their moral and physical exhaustion after the Great War, could not summon the will to complete this task.) Through all this time there has been a misunderstanding of the nature of that country: that it is, even remains, essentially Christian. By the progressive loss of our own Western Christian sensibilities, we became unable to appreciate this fact.

Communism, and Islam, are genuine opponents. But Russians, and Muslims, are not. It is wiser to appeal to the best in them, than to the worst.

In the case of Russia, the fatuous “reset” of a simple-minded former secretary of state inspired only derisive laughter from the other side. She did not understand that change is not effected by pressing buttons, which are not connected to anything. (Indeed, as we gather from the email scandals, button pressing is not her forte.)

What for all their own flawed judgement the Bush administrators did understand, was the need for best efforts behind the scenes. Bush himself tried to befriend Putin, over a barbie at the ranch. This was part of a larger scheme to improve contact between the countries, beginning with tone. It required, behind the scenes, diplomatic acknowledgement that, strange to say, the Russians might have some plausible grievances; that there could be some merit in their analysis of the historical fallout from the Soviet collapse; that there could be some comprehension of views that the (unpleasantly aggressive, if substantially weakened) successor regime shares with most Russian people. Like us, perhaps even more so, they do want to look after their own.

Let me mention that I think Putin is vile. I think Obama is vile, too, but in much different ways. In the virtual world of the Internet, everyone may “comment” — showing that we are all pretty vile, in our respective ways.

In the world of diplomacy, however, the tradition is to keep opinions to ourselves. The task is to identify common interests, including an interest in not killing each other. This is not, as often thought, a vain activity. It beats, I think, making threats to people likely to retaliate in kind, when we have no idea what we will do if they do that.

Perhaps this, in a sentence, is what Bush understood, and Obama does not understand: That threats should never be empty. That empty threats should never be made.