Essays in Idleness


On public statuary

A newspaper for a gentleman should be full broadsheet, which is to say, in the English-speaking realms, a page 24 inches deep by 18 inches wide — divided, ideally, into six 15-pica columns, in 8-point type with another point of leading to yield about ten thousand words per page (without headlines or illustrations), while allowing generous margins. This opens out to a yard wide, by two feet deep, which is the minimum a gentleman needs to cover his face and upper body, while snoozing in an armchair at his club.

John Richmond, “sketch-paddler” of fond memory, was the last to publish such a paper in Canada, to my less than certain knowledge. He did this from his residence in Claremont, Ontario. The journal was one sheet (four pages), and somewhat eccentric in character. It was launched slightly before my Idler magazine, and expired soon after launching. I was aware of at least three issues, but find only the inaugural number in my files.

It was entitled, The Bicameral Review, and announced itself as the “Official Organ of the Bicameral Society for the Stimulation of Brainwaves while You’re In, Above, or Near the Water.” An heraldic device with the title might be blazoned thus: “Twinned brainlobes, sable, affronté within a roundel, superscribed with the initials ‘B’ and ‘S’.”

Contents of the first number included a sixty-fifth anniversary commemoration of the Royal Visit of 1919; a half-page Crosshatch Puzzle with forty-five twinned clues; miscellaneous lesser contests and quizzes, in which the prize was invariably a copy of the same remaindered book; a “Plowboy” interview with Mr Significant; surgical advice to help skiers become more serious, high-minded, well-proportioned, keen; tips for rock-fishing; and street interviews with various persons on the breaking-news question, “What does the Provincial Bicentennial mean to You?”

Richmond’s elegant penmanship in captions and caricatures added dimensionally to the enchantment, and while one item was confessedly prurient (a miniature diagram of “the structure of a spermatozoon”), most were in good, or at least acceptable, taste (“Writer Brooke Salmon dressed for a border-crossing,” &c).

A “man of true genius and creative wallop,” as Richmond said of another, more than three decades ago. He was old enough when I last spied him, in white hair and beard; he disappeared from my vicinity without mentioning whether he had died. Only yesterday I discovered that he abandoned this planet in January, three years ago, having taken extended holidays from it in Mexico beforehand. I imagine him still sketching in the refreshing uplands of Purgatory, bounding about in his peculiar way, trailed by numerous small children.

“Dear John,” as one might begin a note to him, to leave at the counter of the Zanzibar, or wherever.

It struck me, after yesterday’s effusion, that in addition to artists who lived and died poor, but whose works now command millions of dollars, there are those who lived and died poor, and are utterly forgotten. In addition to the Unknown Soldier, whom I would never wish to overlook, we might want to subscribe for public monuments to the Unknown Poet, the Unknown Flautist, the Unknown Greengrocer, and so forth. Surely this city is in need of more statues, and it is a pity Richmond can’t be found to design them.

Meditation on a potato

My Chief Texas Correspondent forwards a rather fetching picture of a common tuber — a potato — taken against a black background with a high-end digital camera, by the society photographer, Kevin Abosch — an Irishman. He recently sold it to a Continental businessman, whose identity was undisclosed, for one million euros. (I should like to know where that businessman lives.)

Let me not be vulgar. I will have no fun at the expense of the Irish, or of the rich. This is not a tabloid, like some other websites I could name. Without prejudice I observe that it is an attractive potato, presented in fine detail, unwashed and unshaven. A “nude,” I was thinking, while looking it over. Mr Abosch must have some expertise, for I notice his title is “Potato #345,” which suggests he is an old hand at photographing spuds.

Should memory serve (I don’t like Google-searching) $170,405,000 was paid for the Modigliani nude that sold at Christie’s in November; and something more than that for a Picasso, earlier last year. By this standard the Abosch is a dollar-store item. An auction house like Christie’s can turn over a thousand million dollars in a week; even before the real estate transactions.

Not only in tabloids, scandal sells. My guess is that Modigliani’s Nu Couché took a premium because it got in the history books, a century ago. It offended a lot of old ladies, at the time. And one may see why it would. Amedeo Modigliani himself lived and died very poor, but somehow acquired along his way the most alluring, even daunting mistresses; such as my admired poetess, the young Anna Akhmatova — his sketches of whom, I am sorry to say, still fetch only in the low millions. (I’m fairly sure Nu Couché is not of her.)

He had a way of life, tubercular and alcoholic, that is the joy of every adolescent mamma’s boy, and helps account for his success with models. He had a simplified and repetitive style, that is the joy of forgers.

One goes to the Prado in Madrid to see the really high-class mistresses. One thinks immediately of Goya’s La Maja Desnuda, painted more than a century before the oldest of Modigliani’s. It bothered the old ladies of that age, so much, that it spent some time in the hands of the Inquisition. Today, there is something about the “full effrontery” of the past, that gets a rise from a certain class of art collector. They will bid a price up and up; although in Goya’s case I must say his companion painting of the Duchess of Alba, fully clothed in the same reclining pose, is the more shocking. (Some art historians say it depicts another of Goya’s mistresses; but I tell you it was the Duchess of Alba.) I think it’s the subtly bolder look in the eyes, of La Maja Vestida. She seems more shy with her clothes off.

But getting back to our potato, I can detect no “attitude” at all. I have indeed been unable to discern much emotion, in any of the potatoes I have handled over the years. One gets more feedback from a live lobster; from potatoes, only the Sartrean ennui. But I would not wish to depreciate this one, the price of whose portrait is itself enlivening. Or one might, given the black sheet background, mistake it for the latest moon of Pluto, in which case the high-resolution detail increases the excitement.

Let me be plain: it is a handsome potato. But I am one of the Scottish genetic persuasion, and can find its like on a local barrow for less than one (1) inflated Canadian dollar. And as to the fine resolution, I have magnifying glasses in the High Doganate up here. Rather, for a million or up, I would expect Van Gogh’s “Potato-Eaters,” or at least a potato by Joan Miró.

We (my CTC and I) were discussing the question of “idea” behind a work of art. “Function follows form,” I declared, in defiance of the moderns; but in agreement with Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and McLuhan. I was stumped, however, on the question of “found art.” I suppose all photography to be “found art,” at best.

The most successful photographer I have met — a Welshman practising in the Far East, who still owes me some rent, incidentally — told me, many years ago: “Painters are born, sculptors are born, composers are born, poets are born. Photography is a hobby.”

I will allow this insight was worth something, but still find him a little in arrears. Though perhaps he made up the difference with other apperceptions, rendered before he flit our shared, over-priced flat — such as how to size up a portrait client. Vanity, he told me, has a certain cash value, and the trick is to estimate well. Too high, or too low, and you have lost the sale.

Though I have liked some potatoes more than others, I can’t reasonably say even one of them was vain. It is the apparent indifference of the potato, to human evaluation, that now has my attention; together with its capacity to sprout in the dark (thus actually diminishing its culinary value). The sensuous young nude, as it were, earth-apple of one’s eye, becomes old and wrinkled.

Not even Durer could impute a motive to any vegetable within his earthy still-lifes. Though here it must be said he never had the chance, with a potato, since these tubers did not penetrate to Nuremberg from the New World — via the Canaries and Antwerp, I think — until after his decease. (Basque fishermen first brought them to western Ireland, I believe, in the 1540s; only a couple of decades after some Spaniard had spotted one in the Quito market.)

Durer’s contemporary and pen-pal Leonardo might also have done immortal justice to this tuber, on first sight, if he had ever seen one. To this day it offers a certain je ne sais quoi to the ambitious botanical illustrator. But what I long for is a potato by Bellini.

The yachtsman

“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a foundation of financial insecurity. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea. ‘Cruising’ it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change.”

This is one of those quotes one copies into one’s commonplace book, forgetting to note where one found it. Journalists have been hanged for less. A quick Internet search suggests it was probably by Sterling Walter Hayden. It was the sort of thing that appealed to me when young.

Now that I am old it appeals to me more.

Consider likewise the Spanish folksinger María Salgado, on whom I have a big fat crush — her song, Sólo por miedo (“Only for fear”):

Qué bonito es el miedo cuando es sincero,
Qué brillante el futuro cuando es oscuro,
Qué exquisito el delito cuando lo grito,
Cuando lo grito. …

Una vida más tarde comprenderemos
Que la vida perdimos,
Sólo por miedo. …

I dare not translate this, for too many of my readers know Spanish. And besides, this lady sings with a clarity so distilled, that anyone can understand. And moreover, it is too good a song (an Argentine vals, I am told), woven from beautifully precise contradictions. Translated, it can only be ruined. And the music makes it better: the contralto tone of resignation, for instance, when the words speak of shrieking.

Still I would have you consider, gentle reader:

How pretty is fear when it is sincere; how bright the future when it is in darkness; how exquisite the crime when they scream, when they scream! … Only a lifetime later to understand, that life is lost from fear, only. …

(There are a few more stanzas.)

Yes, I should think, that would make it a love song. But for whom, one might plausibly ask? And plausibly answer, for some long-lost love, never met, and never to be forgotten. And a good love song is erotic, and spiritual, so that it echoes in some way, The Song of Songs.

We do not have the guts to live — to risk, and to adventure. That is why, today, even those who get married, never get married; even those who go to church, never go to church; even those who travel, never leave home. We feast without feasting, fast but never fast. And then in the end we fear, for nothing — for all that never happened, that we have lost.

Yesterday we entered Septuagesima, the turning point in voyaging from Christmas to Easter. (Though till Candlemas, Christmas remains alight.) From life to death, from port to port. And on this day of Saint Paul’s going forth, suddenly in the garments of a Christian, we may see that all this life is an adventure — from the setting out, to the coming in; through the transcendent joyful agony of “real life.” Or we look on graves and remember, the Love that was not spoken, nor died for even once.

Snow in New York

There could be no mercy, were there nothing to forgive. This is why Confession precedes Absolution. I’m sure the pope knows this — for he has said as much in his new book, The Name of God is Mercy, a conversation with the liberal Vaticanista, Andrea Tornielli. And it shouldn’t be necessary to point it out, to anyone who has been exposed to Catholic teaching, and/or logic. But it is lost on some.

Plenty of sound Catholic teaching to be found, between the lines of this new book. I have not read it through, but in what I perused, I found nothing to disagree with strongly. Questions of emphasis arise, but these will always do in a religion that cannot be reduced to a single tweet, or curt either/or, though it has inspired thousands of millions of them. You see, God is simpler than a tweet, but also infinitely larger.

People read tweets and do not read books: this is a problem I am perhaps not the first to call to gentle reader’s attention. Moreover, I cannot think of a tweet that will make them change their ways. I have just, for instance, read a review of the pope’s new book in a “nice” liberal organ, that could be reduced to, “the pope is wagging his finger at people who wag their fingers,” and thinks this all for the best. The writer seems blissfully unaware that she spends the whole review wagging her finger — albeit in harmony with the pope’s finger. I think they are wagging at people like me, and as it were, goading us to wag right back. Then we can be got for wagging our fingers at the pope.

John Podhoretz, incidentally not a Catholic, is a masterful tweeter. I spent nearly half an hour, yesterday morning — “time I will never have back,” as they say — reading nearly a hundred of his tweets, as they were being generated, sometimes a little faster than I could read them. He had put his neck out, as he loves to do, criticizing the Mayor, for telling the wusses of New York to stay in from the snow. Podhoretz is very tired of these Nanny State pronouncements, to people of small if rapid brain. (So am I.) In the time, he very wittily deflected dozens upon dozens of insults directed at him. I read them because they were so amusing; but regret that such a clever man is wasting his time on fools. (For he can also write very witty essays.)

Perhaps we might call it “the culture of New York.” Or even more grandly, “the culture of cities,” which by their nature reward quick thinking, but tend to neglect the profound. Indeed, at a dinner, recently, my hostess expressed her shock at the decision of a younger couple, also at table, to move out of the inner city entirely, to a rather distant small town, in the hope of raising their children properly.

“But they will grow up as dolts!” she expostulated.

Then apologized, saying, that while she granted rural people the right to life (she is very conservative by city standards), they are slow and, you know, rather drooling. You should see how they drive in the city, she added. I dragged my own knuckles into the debate, in defence of slowness and drool.

And, I insisted, consecutive reasoning. I am a great fan of the linear, and of thinking “inside the box” of custom. Also, I advocate lip-reading to my students, to enjoy the aesthetic dimension of those works intended as “literature.” Country people would know what I mean.

Snow in Washington

Forty-three years now, the marchers have gone in to the middle of Washington, DC, to mark the anniversaries of Roe v. Wade. It is the world’s largest annual pro-life demonstration. Marchers in other countries commemorate different dates; in Canada for instance, we fill up the space in front of Parliament in May, while the media take their holiday. In our case, the full slaughter began forty-seven years ago; in Britain, forty-nine. On the Continent, the case is more complicated, for to this day there remain some restrictions on the mother’s “right” to have her baby killed. But by and large it became, almost everywhere through the ’seventies, open season on the wee bairns. (Little countries like Ireland only going to Hell now.)

They have the perfect weather for the celebration of life, this year and this day, in Washington. According to my information, all government offices are closed. The downtown looks abandoned, and the snows had started along with the marchers: the weathermen predicting two-and-a-half feet. In such circumstances, Christ is taking attendance personally.

A reader provides this link (here) on what it’s all about. It is to a most memorable pro-life speech, delivered by the late Father Richard John Neuhaus in his own last year. I read it then (2008) with distracted approval; I see that it has grown on me since.

For he is right: the issue does not go back only half a century. It goes back to Adam, via Cain and Abel, and can be shown to do so. And the enemy have not been so many named judges on a law bench, for their name is Legion.

At times, I have myself thought all marches pointless, and all large congregations ineffectual — except alas those who gather to empower a Trump, or an Obama; a Mussolini, or a Hitler; or in every European capital a century ago, to demand entry into the Great War.

What can be the meaning of a “March for Life”? It will not change anything. The eugenic liberals, the parenthood planners, who exulted in the U.S. Supreme Court decision, will go to any length to defend it — so long as only babies are paying for their sins. Only if the danger were instead to themselves, would they cut and run.

By now, it is well over sixty million slain, in the USA and Canada (less than one in a hundred of those after rape or incest, or with the mother’s life in danger); and well over another thousand million around the world (thanks e.g. to western-financed population control programmes, chiefly through the United Nations). And now we move into the era of euthanasia, for the old, the depressed, the sick, and abandoned, who weigh upon our own “quality of life” by their demands on our medical and welfare budgets. I mention this only to contradict the Pollyannas who say, “it can’t get any worse.”

Whatever comes, we must bear witness. And this, not only to the evil that is done, but also to the joy that cannot be defeated. For the Life, conceived for each, in the Love of our Creator, will bear us forward through all Satan’s wiles; and in this moment it is trudging through the snow; and Christ will collect His sheep to Him.

On political lowness

Diplomacy is war by more devious means. Politics are the continuation of civil wars, ditto. The former are uglier, in spirit, and more so, the better the opponents understand each other. Von Clausewitz didn’t know the half of it.

Well, perhaps once again I have aimed under the top, but shot just over. I am reacting in horror to present electoral campaigns, in the USA, and in most other places. I mentioned before, I think, Donald Trump, whom I described as “nauseating.” But I hope I didn’t leave the impression I’d never vote for him. A more nauseating candidate might emerge.

Together with most of my contemporaries, I like to slight politicians. But I am conscientious, in my opposition to democracy, and try to depreciate all round. The “pols” become, with each passing election, more crass. They no longer pretend to be gentlemen or ladies, who would never descend to ad hominem attacks. Some now go so far, in debates, as refusing to laugh at each other’s jokes. Or omitting any line of self-deprecation. Lying, I can understand, for that is after all their trade. But these days, they lie without artifice or charm.

They can be blamed for so many bad things; but the people who vote for them can be blamed for worse. We, in the mass, and also individually, have played the larger part in reducing public life to a crude mud tussle. It must of course be acknowledged there were mudfights before, in the more Jacksonian reaches of the past. And that they tended to be witless. But those were pioneer days, on the frontier.

Among my reasons to prefer the despicable, and often murderous life of ancient royal courts, to the despicable conventions of democracy, is the class thing. Courtiers were better dressed and spoken. They were never reduced to shouting over crowds. The monarch was likely to have been raised with some culture. Even a bloody monster, like Bad Queen Bess, had elegant handwriting. She could explain herself in Latin verse, and dance a galliard or lavolta. Many of her executions were performed in the “silk rope” style, leaving a little dignity for both victim and observers.

I frankly do not think Hillary Clinton could do a quadrille. (Though a lady once told me her husband can waltz.)

Granted, we must live under the direction of malicious clowns, I still want to see an effort at concealment. Are they so poor they cannot afford elocutionists, or drawing masters? Could not one give an account of himself with rapier under the code duello? In moments I wonder if any (since Reagan) have equestrian skills. Must they all be so vulgar?

Comfort food

As I write, the Dow is 500 down and plunging; the Footsie (London), likewise crashed; and so, everywhere else there is a stock market; while at Davos in Switzerland the world’s leading politicians and movie stars sound pompously glum. All this makes me happy.

The race is on, into government bonds, as the IMF begins to realize that we are in a worse position than 2007, facing worse than in 2008. The Chinese Communists turned out not to be magicians. More, the world’s financial assets are all tied up in computer algorithms, better than red tape; they all come down together. The central banks have run right out of “quantitative easing.” And now a tiny inevitable rise in interest rates prepares to tip everything off the table. Oil is become almost worthless; and did I mention the competitive currency devaluations?

The castle in air is descending, oh la! … Watch out below! …

Of course I saw this coming; everybody did. That’s why I called my (inner) broker and told him to shift all my money into second-hand books. They’ll be a real treasure when the Internet collapses. I have half-a-dozen stacked by my bedside already. …

But darn, Wall Street did a correction, from the time I last checked. It seems to have restored about half of its losses. There is still a danger “market forces” will recover. We might, by some demonic miracle, creep back to where we were. But also a good chance not. For the precipice remains before us; and surely this is the year for the great dive.

In the memorable words of Flannery O’Connor: “Go warn the children of God of the terrible speed of mercy!”


The other topical point I wanted to make today, is on comfort food. Consider your options here, gentle reader, in the sweets portfolio: a rippled chocolate bombe; a mousse; crêpes suzette; upside-down puddings; butterscotch apple charlotte; a pavlova; a torte; perhaps a roulade; a Battenberg cake, or Bakewell tart; indeed, anything under a layer of marchpane.

Or before we come to sweet, to meat: and that with plenty of potatoes. Consider, my dear market investor: Pot-roast brisket in beer! Roast pork with crisp, and rosemary! Sirloin with red onions in a dark port gravy! Steak pies! Roast lamb with mint sauce, or in apricots! Lamb shanks! Venison and mushrooms! Glorious rich stews! Braised partridge! Coq au vin!

The truth is I am flipping the pages to the photographs in a cookbook I picked up in the laundry room downstairs. It is morally disapproving of itself. The captions speak of sin, guilt, and indulgence. They warn us of the calorie counts. They flinch at the mention of fats; beautiful fats. Yet there is nothing wrong with any of these fine meals. What a weight of self-reproach, that could have been presented in the Confessional, and shriven. For in addition to the fake ones, we do have real sins.

So recently was this laundry-book published that it mentions not “your mother,” but “your grandmother,” as the maker of such delights. (Your mom probably had a boring, pulverizing dayjob, just like you, young miss — thanks to the triumph of feminism.) Soon it might have to be your great-grandmother, who brought such magnificent fare before the sparkling eyes of her big family, famished from real work, outdoors. And great-grandpa saying grace from the other end of the table; and all joining in a hearty Amen!

Poor people, by any modern statistical standard. Home-owners, back when land was cheap. Or, people who actually built their own houses; and grew vegetables in their sidelot; and even before the delivery of city milk in bottles, got it from their own cow.

Decades have passed, and those people have gone under; but there they all once were. I recall the last glint of that rural and small-town way of life — subsumed in the words “comfort food” today.

I can see it when I close my eyes: the picture of my own beaming grandmother, as if in halo, surrounded by all she loved; and with this grand, Protestant turkey on her tray. Lost world.


Compare: all those monied folk in flash restaurants today, with their troubles, surreptitiously consulting their hand-helds to watch their stockholdings slide, their savings tank, their retirement schemes evaporating, minute by minute. As dull, one would think, as watching paint dry. And all of it abstract; just numbers. And none of it worse than a house on fire.

Still, for some strange reason, they fret about their diet plans, as the “servers” bring them miniature food fragments on giant, vacant plates.

No, no, forlorn besuited people! Forget your depression in your joy! Do not jump off your balcony like that!

It is a day to order every course doubled. Enjoy it before your cards are all called in. Order the best wine. Order another bottle. It is a day to propose marriage; to throw a child in the air, and catch him in your arms. To look upon all the beauty of the world; to walk out under the heavens.

And yes, the future may be more difficult than the past; and if we wish, vastly more rewarding. For the angels have spoken, and we don’t have to be robots any more.

Eat, drink, and rejoice!

Nasty surprises

As gentle reader will know, I am very timid, and could never wish to be the first to criticize a pope. Not only do I hesitate, to see who will go first (the Rorate Caeli website, here, is always a good bet), but also because I want to be sure he merits the criticism. I have some books up here in the High Doganate, to look things up; too, there are websites like The Denzinger-Bergoglio (here), wherein some better heads than mine go to the trouble of looking things up for me. They juxtapose the great written sources for our Christian doctrine, starting with the Bible, and continuing through the Fathers and Doctors, the great Councils and so forth — with the recent words of our current Bishop of Rome. Generally without comment. Verily, comment is seldom needed. And there are other places to go, of which I especially recommend The Catechism of the Catholic Church (here).

But we shouldn’t, to my mind, be hoping to criticize. And where the issue is doubtful, we should let it pass. Father Kevin Cusick, the old navy chaplain, provides a more gruff and charitably broad approach. As he writes in his Twitter account: “Join me in praying that our Holy Father will consider what he says and does in light of its effect on the universal Church before acting.”

This approach is not sufficient, however, when we find the pope teaching active and dangerous, outright heresy. For then, as Catholics, we have a solemn duty to correct him. This was the case after his homily yesterday (see here), which has already been flagged in many places. Father Hunwicke perhaps reacted most concisely this morning (here), by reminding us that popes do not make Catholic doctrine. They teach it, and are as subject to it as any of us who claim to be Catholic Christian. He quotes these plain, authoritative words from Vatican I:

“The Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter so that, by His revelation, they might reveal new teaching, but so that, by His assistance, they might devoutly guard and faithfully set forth the revelation handed down through the Apostles, or in other words, the Deposit of the Faith.”

Rather than accept my paraphrase of Pope Francis’s homily, I would have gentle reader consult the official report first. In my view, the homily offered eccentric interpretations (or wilful misreadings) of several Gospel and Old Testament passages, and repeated his frequent assertion that the Holy Spirit likes to “surprise” us with His latest revelations. It concludes with a throwaway line, which allows that some fundamental things don’t change, without telling us what these might be. It leaves the faithful Catholic totally at sea about what his Church might now be teaching, and grievously insulted for having been faithful, under the world’s duress. It flatters that Catholic’s most contemptuous and vindictive enemies.

Now, in a Catholic view, the Holy Spirit does not surprise us, but conveys that same old Deposit, to each new unregenerate generation, through the ministry of priests. The conceit that we were somehow born knowing it, or have already mastered it by attending Mass occasionally, and therefore need check in only for what’s new, is itself worth pointing to with great alarm. The catastrophic failure of our Church, from the 1960s, to teach the most elementary catechism to her children, should be known to those with half a brain or more. The idea that Catholics at large are stuck in slavish adherence to “the old ways,” and therefore need a bit of tickling to wake up, is a pose so false as to be ludicrous.

I cannot understand this. Why, when a considerable portion of Catholic folk don’t know A, B, or C, does the pope preach what might come after Z? Especially when he has been told, again and again, that such reckless chatter is splitting his Church into rival camps, and causing terrible destruction all the way down to ground level in the parishes? What is he hoping to achieve?

The Deposit of the Faith became complete upon delivery by Our Lord Jesus Christ who, unlike Allah in the Koran, did not correct Himself or change His mind from one surah to another. The intellectual challenge for us is to understand what was, is, and will be there, every time we turn to it. We may see it from new angles as time passes by — that is one of the uses of Time for us — and thereby, potentially, see it more fully. But only if we can remember what we saw before. We aren’t going to find anything new, except to us. Most decidedly, the orthodox was there before, and can be orthodox only if it can be shown to have been there.

The Church in each generation is inhabited by men, and we should know by now all about men, and their need for salvation. Starting from Adam, we have been somewhat wayward, and as the Church teaches, this is not a good thing. Obedience to God would be categorically better. But men we have, for bishops in this world, and I don’t mean the pope only. One might say these are dismal days, when it comes to episcopal waywardness, though in fairness we must remember that we have had dismal days before. I tend to think that tyranny is now among the issues extending, from the top, down.

Among bishops, bound in discipline to the pope’s managerial instructions, we have always had the risk of the courtier, or “company man.” This guarantees an easy life, even a life of luxury within the company, and for at least as long as that pope reigns, there is the dangle of promotion. Even among those with their private sceptical opinions, it is easiest to salute, then pass the order down; especially when what slides down the pipe is the same smug liberal sludge that comes from most other directions. The argument, “I was only following orders,” can then be tried if circumstances change, and the bishop in question must quickly adapt to pleasing a new managerial regime, with its revised (or the old restored) “agenda.”

But the Church is not a royal court, or a multinational company, and our “big boss” is not the pope. He is himself only a line manager for our immortal Saviour, Christ the King — His “rep” on Earth for a certain short period. A wise bishop will remember this, in all moments: that he, also, answers finally to Christ. Best for bishops not to be put in positions of conflict between head and heart, as they were not by such fine popes as Saint John Paul II and beloved Benedict XVI. The worst is when their own ranks begin to fill with “yes men” for some New Age, revolutionary agenda. The extremely low quality of this pope’s appointments is compounding and extending the mess, and this gnostic heresy that, “the Holy Spirit speaks through the pope,” is spreading. It is totally wrong. The pope is not a ventriloquist’s dummy.

It is a notion not merely unCatholic, but anti-Catholic. It ignores the distinction between Holy Church and Holy Rollers. It undermines the whole fabric, and leaves the sheep, whom the Church was charged to guard, utterly confused about who are their Shepherds. Those who echo Christ? Or possible wolves who arrive with some “surprising” new marching orders?

Interesting if true

My title is from some long-forgotten world of journalistic near-integrity. That is, from a time I am old enough to remember the end of, when a “normal” hack was an almost anonymous, flat-foot fellow, who went about gathering “news” from those most likely to provide it, and used his salty judgement about who was telling how much of the truth. While he used the electric telephone, the telex wires and other modern innovations, he looked most of his sources in the eye (whether in Orangeville, Ont., or Washington, DC). This kept him out and about all day. As he had a “beat,” which he held for years, decades, or his whole adult life, he would more or less know his way around it. Returned to his corner of the big office, where he had no privacy and got no unearned respect (even from the copy boys or the sweepers), he further used his judgement to determine what the requirements of a “family newspaper” were, with respect to basic decency. None of his kind would have university degrees; especially not the editor-in-chief. They smoked and drank a lot. But as they had few, if any woman colleagues, and went boozing only with “the boys,” they didn’t have affairs: staggering home to a lonely room, or to a little house with a wife and disorderly children. There were exceptions, but this was “normal.”

The current sort, an increasingly endangered species, because there is no use for them at all, sit hunched over a computer all day, checking various websites for “leads,” and “messaging” with total strangers — including the people they purport to know. They have by-lines, but no beats, and they work in self-decorated cubicles, which they leave only to fetch coffee. The management give them nothing but “respect,” publicly. All have degrees, mostly in “journalism,” but sometimes in sociology or “gender studies” or “international relations.” They are non-smokers, and close to teetotal, and as they say in Alberta, “dumb as a sack of hammers.” This goes also for the women; and to understand the office, one must know who is sleeping with whom.

And then of course we have our “citizen journalists” — people like me — but I’d rather not go there.

It is hard to navigate between the Scylla of naiveté, and the Charybdis of cynicism, in times like these. I refer, for instance, to a “news” story, that was prominent this morning, suggesting major tennis tournaments are fixed. Some of the biggest names, it is alleged, take bribes to lose important matches. I have no idea whether to believe it. I know nothing about tennis anyway.

And yet the story was, to my mind, “interesting if true.” This is an ancient journalistic phrase, warning the reporter to err on the side of scepticism. But in order to follow it, one would have to know, from the start, what is likely. One would need to be deeply embedded in that beat, and to have looked often in the eyes of each of the accused. As well, to have all one’s facts lined up, like toy soldiers. And then write each word, thinking, “Will I have to eat every one?”

This is not only because there are people who could be falsely and maliciously accused. For as in the soccer scandal that preceded it, or Olympic drug scandals, passim, one is confronted with a worldview question. If, Heaven forfend, it is possible to fix international sports tournaments, over long periods, while “the whole world is watching,” what does this say about other popular events, perhaps beyond sport? (Elections come to mind.) Is it possible, for instance, that everything now in the news has been fixed in some way? In which case, as a lawyer might comment, “madness is indicated.”

I don’t actually believe very much is fixed, or in its nature, fixable. While I have no opinion on tennis scandals, my understanding of the world is that conspiracies are much harder to arrange, and sustain, than in the jaded popular imagination; that tyranny requires some threat of brute force; that the world is full of lies, but few of them well-organized. Moreover, I think that lies appeal only to those who want to believe them; and are otherwise conceded only by those who do not know any better, or want a quiet life.

This view is quasi-theological. God will put men in tough positions, but not in those where they cannot guess at the truth, or what is reasonable. He wouldn’t make it that easy for the Devil. He (God) doesn’t do X-Files. He is consistent, and consistently allows the contradictions within every attempted conspiracy to break it down. Perhaps this is what is happening within tennis; or perhaps the reporting is cynical and jaded. The truth will eventually find a way out, here or hereafter; but usually quite soon. “Interesting if true” becomes interesting if false: for not only tennis stars are sinners.

Somewhere there is the draught of an essay on, “The Uses and Abuses of Paranoia,” meant for “P” in an alphabet book I was once compiling on the uses and abuses of this and that. My point, then and now, is that sanity requires an understanding that all human evils are in their nature passing; that each corresponds to a potential good; and is limited by its circumstances. Moreover, I believe that sanity requires a certain worldly detachment, and thus absolutely, faith in a Loving God; that this isn’t “an option” but the beginning of comprehension, or “wisdom” in the old-fashioned sense.

For at the back of things, benevolence shines; and though malevolence is no illusion, it is passing cloud.

Pray for Taiwan

Miss Tsai Ing-wen, the president-elect of Taiwan, after winning about three-fifths of the vote in an election this week, has nothing resembling the conventional political charisma, and poses as a quiet old maid. But she doesn’t need it because she has two cats, Think-Think and Ah-Tsai, who are both charismatic. They were able to corner the youth vote, or so I gather from my only remaining correspondent in Taipei.

I have not myself been on that island for about fifteen years. My last visit, written up in a dead-tree medium, was a shock to me, because my penultimate visit had been another twenty years before. I was bewildered by the transformation over less than one generation, and was delivered by airport bus to the centre of a city I could not recognize: at first, not one building. Taipei had been hit by some wealth tsunami, and even so sleepy an east-coast town as Hualien — still described as “pristine” in the travel guides — was hopping with such stuff as “nightlife.”

Those cat-loving youth were everywhere in abundance, and the serene tyranny of the Kuomintang years had been unambiguously disturbed. Chen Shui-ban, master of the vote split, had just become the first president of Taiwan (or “Republic of China” as the KMT called it) who was not KMT. This on a nationalist platform against the imperial intentions of Beijing. A subtle mixture of hope and terror had settled over the political landscape. A lot of blood under the bridge, since then. (Taiwan has marvellous corruption scandals.)

“Democratic” and “progressive” are not my two favourite words, but this is what Chen’s party was called, and Miss Tsai now runs it. The KMT came back to make its characteristic mess and now, just like in a democracy, the DDP are back to make theirs. Miss Tsai explains her own rise to the presidency as the unexpected consequence of “an accidental life.”

Women who run countries come almost invariably from dynastic political families, who do not currently have a male heir, and are daughter or wife to some previous national ruler. Mrs Thatcher of the United Kingdom was a rare exception, and Miss Tsai studied for lawyer in Thatcherite England, rather admiring the way that lady got things done.

But the limit of her own ambition at that time was to become the lawyer her father needed, thanks to his rise back home from garage mechanic to property developer. She was zero on Taiwan’s political scene until the mid-1990s, when it turned out one area of her expertise was needed by a national agency trying to construct the precise legal argument to show that Taiwan had not been ruled from Beijing for centuries; and before that never except in the most whimsical and non-material way, from the belief that every other known country on the planet was a tributary state of the Middle Kingdom.

For some strange reason, committee after committee began to defer to Miss Tsai’s judgement; she was needed by President Chen, in turn, and the rest is now history. I am persuaded from what I have read that she is one of those weird cases of a person with great natural ability, actually rising to the top. I think of her as of a type with another Chinese lady to whom, due to a linguistic misunderstanding, I once found myself engaged: the dutiful daughter of a minor vegetable-oil empire in South-east Asia. Calm, diplomatic, ridiculously well-informed, kind and charitable to all family retainers, respectful to all elders, honourable in all situations, and with her eye constantly on the ball. Not anything like an Evita.

Miss Tsai has walked into one of the hardest jobs on Earth. It is to preserve the independence of Taiwan, against a politburo in Red China that has been determined to swallow the island next, ever since they ate Hong Kong. Miss Tsai has steel nerves, by reputation. Her style will be to avoid contention; to distract from the big with small details; and pray the Seventh Fleet of the United States Navy sticks around.

All the subsequent politics of Taiwan, to my understanding, were shaped by facts circa 1947, when the beaten KMT army came ashore in flight from Chairman Mao. Along with Israel, and formerly South Africa, she has been an uncool “pariah state”; my favourite after Israel. How to survive in a world where all the big states, including your allies, find you inconvenient? In which you need some friend with a very big stick, but long otherwise to be left alone?

The perfect woman for the job, I should think, and her people have come to embrace her as such. (Her predecessor was rather giving the shop away.) She is Hakka, not Mandarin; has even the requisite tiny sampling of indigenous mountain blood; and seems to personate what a Taiwanese wants to be: Chinese insofar as he is Chinese, but an Islander first. And with a tenaciously independent spirit, founded on family in the broadest sense, to include ancestors — a stereotype the monster Mao Tse-tung spent decades trying to snuff out on the Mainland, and his successors pursue by more bureaucratic, slightly less psychopathic methods.

They, for their part, have several thousand ground-to-ground missiles aimed at Taiwan from just across the Strait, and their own irrepressible urges.

Lost tunnels

They’re gone, I think. Not the cockroaches. The exterminators. They’ve moved on. And the water is coming through the taps again, from the other adventure in the High Doganate this week. And everything that had to be removed from every corner (by polite request, backed with the power of law), is back on my shelves and in my cupboards, so that with nothing more than an all-night stand, or two, order is superficially restored. And ho, it even went above freezing today, in the Greater Parkdale Area. Thick overcast and drizzle.

Gentle reader will want to know what the other adventure was; or else he won’t. Either way, I am going to tell him: about tea, and the earthquake. (Tea goes with anything.)

You see, good old G.R., I was walking home, after an exceptionally cold and howling windy day as a street person, the day my flat was “done” by the bug killers. We had all to stay out there, for hours, until the pesticides had settled a bit. I pitied especially those with small children and animals, and thought of all the legitimate refugees in this world. Also, of the illegitimate ones; for the snow, it snows on the just and on the unjust.

And all the way home, through what the British call “brass monkeys,” and for a reason that I will not explain, I was thinking of the chaos I would soon be confronting, in the place where I live; but that the nightmare would soon be over and, “I will make a nice pot of tea.”

Turning into my dear street, I noticed of course the big earth-moving machines, that have been digging it up these last few months (for the fourth time in a few years). Dig, lift, fill; dig, lift, fill; … forever, as in Hell. Something to do with the pipes underground, and how they freeze and crack each winter. For this latest turn, some genius at City Hall has come up with the idea of burying them a few inches deeper.

What surprised me was the new, very large, and impressively deep hole they had excavated, just where the water mains go into my building. Our new superintendent, a sweet yet gritty woman, with no fear of work, was looking into it from the entrance patio she had recently repaired, that had just mysteriously cracked again. (A cracked patio is a magnet for lawsuits.) She had on her worn, worried, sleepless face, an expression of ineffable sadness.

Cheering at the sight of me, she said, “We have decided to install a swimming pool.”

I expressed my preference for a goldfish pond.

“I’ll tell the workmen to change the design.”

So now our water will be shut off “for some time,” I reflected. She confirmed that would be so.

There was another lady standing there, a co-tenant of face quite familiar, who expressed my very most inward thought: how she had been longing for tea, tea, in all her long ambles through the ice and snow. (“Blow, blow thou winter wind.”) I told her that we were in profound agreement.

People are so kind in a disaster. For just before I had entered the fourth stage of mourning (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), she had fetched for me a four-litre plastic bottle, charged with mineral water. And on presenting it she said, “Here, I am over-supplied.” Then added words to the effect that no one could want to make tea from the taps in this building anyway. (Cross-on-the-wall Catholic woman.)


Which takes us to the earthquake.

About Richter Six in magnitude, estimating by the clatter in my crockery cupboard. Caused, I should think, by the giant earth-moving machine, using its immense shovel as a kind of pile-driver, tamping down the earth as the crater it had previously dug was refilled. It felt rather as if the building would come down, imminently, and I pictured all my irreplaceable books in the rubble. Together with their owner.

But no, this building was erected during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and was designed by another generation of builder, to withstand a direct hit from a descending Soviet ICBM. Though I wondered if they’d calculated for a hit from the bottom.

The machines, too, have now moved to the next building, obliterating yet another front lawn, at cost to the unlucky landlord; but the shaking here is now below Richter Five. And after all these months, and months, and months, I am almost accustomed to the noise. (The constant daily mechanical noise of the post-modern city, that keeps our minds off God and our salvation.)

And am once again having a cup of tea, a fine strong Assam, thinking of those cities built before the twentieth century, with the tunnels and the sewer courses run under the streets. Why? So workmen could repair little breaches and blockages without the slightest disruption to life above ground.

And thinking of people like my father, the late industrial designer, who used to preach, “Do it right the first time.”

And of his bearded artist friend (beloved John Sommer), who said, “It is a lie that anything has to be ugly. Everything is made ugly by choice.”

Whole fascinating cities underground, like ant colonies of stone, brick and mortar; sunken canals, tow-paths and arches, deep below “cut-and-cover,” in London, Paris, New York.

And even in Toronto, below the oldest parts of town.

It is true, I am a dreamer, living in the past, oh my!

Death in pearls

George Jonas, along with Catullus and I, had an allergy to prudes. I still have it. As George said, Mrs Grundy disappeared briefly in the 1960s, only to return in the 1970s as Ms Grundy. (I think of George’s brilliant pastiche on Carmen VIII.) It is a Roman and Catholic, anti-Puritan proclivity, to despise prudes, and thus a common property among the truly civilized. Though I must add, in these oecumenical times, that the disease has been entering the Church by stealth.

Of course it would help if people knew what prudery is. It is not defined by its passing targets. It is a mode of pinched disapproval, like political correctness. It can as easily be expressed through a Gay Pride Parade, as by high bonnets and low hemlines. It involves a display of personal virtue. Of all the Presidents of the United States, I think the current one by far the greatest prude: worse even than that whited sepulchre, “Jimmy” E. Carter. (And certainly the most pinched anti-Catholic.)

Prudery finds easy passages in every era, and can invade the moral sense from many sides. Religion becomes bourgeois, and the distinction between sin and virtue is redrawn, corresponding to the distinction between bohemian and respectable. From my reading, all of the Saints were bohemian, and none were prudes. It goes without saying that the Martyrs were, invariably, unrespectable.

Our whole view of “sin” today is essentially prudish. We do not think an act to be wrong on any coherent, catholic (i.e. “universal”) principle. We will abort our own children if they might prove inconvenient to our social standing. But change our view if the process begins to appear “icky.” The prudish mass media — the tabloids especially — home in on something that will turn our soft little tummies. But a sin isn’t a sin because it is icky; rather, a sin is a sin because it is evil.

The first question, from a good Confessor, might well be: “What did it look like?” This may seem a counsel of prudery against scandal, but is actually the opposite. The priest is asking the penitent to stand back from himself, and observe what he did as if he were some other person; to look at the sin “objectively,” thus. Suddenly what seemed small and excusable looks larger and much harder to shrug, and the question of motive may be re-assessed. Why did I do it at all, if I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to see me?

But from the Confessional, the whole world looks quite different. We needn’t accuse others to see that this is so. The principle of Mercy towards others begins to shine, with the light directed upon our own souls.

As Mother Teresa said (one of my favourite of her sayings), “I wouldn’t touch a leper for a million dollars.” She could, after all, imagine the bourgeois position, against ickiness. “I only touch him for the love of Jesus.” She was a lady who engaged all her later life in icky operations, right down to taking money from totally unrespectable donors, and shamelessly applying it to good works, while gratuitously praying for the skunks who parted with it only for show.

The audacity with which she walked away from perhaps the most respectable job a woman could have in old Calcutta — memsaab Principal of a high-class girl’s school — and walked straight into the city’s most stinking slum — showed her indifferent to public honour. And then, picking the dying off the street, and taking them home. She had no idea of social advancement; for the penniless dying are not in a position to help one get ahead.

Compared, if you will, with the women in pearls — the church ladies wearing their rosaries, as it were, around their necks as nooses. And sneering, even fibrillating at the gauche; and being somehow not there, in the moments when their Church really needs defending. It would be invidious to associate them with any specific lay order.

Pope Francis is sometimes scintillating good, in condemning this kind of hypocrisy. And sometimes, according to me, he gets it all backwards. Sometimes I discern a fine orthodox intention, gone badly wrong in an “aeroplane” comment. Often I wish he would think before he talks.

Mother Teresa was the mistress of silence in this respect; speaking, for the most part, only in response to a specific request. And with respect to sin, so utterly unsurprisable. It seems easy enough to say, “all men are sinners,” but it is much harder when one considers what we do. The real shame is not before men, however. It is before God — before our heavenly peer, Jesus Christ — who may terribly condemn, but is not prissy.

To “give scandal” by merely leaving an appearance, may plausibly be sinful in many circumstances; but in others may impute only indifference to the prudish crowd, eager to condemn without trial.

To live for appearances, will not do at all.

Peter Paul Rubens is among my heroes, in this respect. He was always turning eyes, if only from his delight in being over-dressed. I should specify that my celebration has nothing to do with his “fat” ladies, either, except that he does rippling naked flesh so well. And there is life in them, as Mother Teresa would say, of the much thinner “babes” her nuns kept discovering, while rooting through the trash.

The parallel struck me once, in “Kolkata” itself (as it has been re-spelt by the nationalist prudes in Delhi), while rooting instead through the treasures of the (formerly “Royal”) Asiatic Society. It is a few blocks away from Mother Teresa’s nunnery, and where I happened to be on the day after her (unwanted) grand public funeral. It contained several sadly peeling Rubens paintings, and other works of his school, imported in the heyday of what was once “the Second City of the British Empire.”

Rubens’s nudes were drawn and painted almost purposely to scandalize the tight-assed Puritans of his day, and generally to disconcert the masses. But that was only a hobby with him. To fully appreciate his gifts, one must look across the whole majestic range of his art, and too, glance through his biography, noting his accomplishments in European diplomacy, his standing as a classics scholar, his heroic loyalty to the Roman Church, and so forth.

O Kolkata! … In so many strange ways, I have thought, she could once have been a second Rome, thanks to the genius of the Bengalis. A city of incredible, shameless juxtapositions, of wealth and poverty, beauty and ugliness, truth and lies. Catholic in her contradictions, and the inward flame of her peoples, whether Hindu, Muslim, Christian, or Jain. (God I loved that city, which scandalized every tourist with Puritan attitudes towards hygiene.)

The pesticide chronicles

I am pleased to inform gentle reader that I have been allowed back into the High Doganate, and so may now upload another Idlepost. (See yesterday.) All I need is to think of a topic. … Very well then. …

Did you know? That nicotine is a natural insecticide, and cockroach repellant? I knew this, but only vaguely until I looked it up. It was a suspicion that arose from the fact that I don’t have cockroaches (now proved), in a building which is infested by them (as evidence the exterminators who drove us all out on the streets today).

Nicotine may be found not only in tobacco but many other plants. It is the plant’s own protection from insect pests. This is a “duh” proposition. Ingested, it will kill cockroaches; I would tell you how, but it is too gross. A tobacco-rich atmosphere may not kill any, but will at least drive them off, to the flat of the conceited non-smoker next door. (Yet another win/win for tobacco.)

Too, I like to wash things with borax. Borax is good; and harmless in most applications. Do not eat it, however. Cockroaches (and some other insect pests) can hardly taste it. But it is no good for them at all. They are touchie-feelie animals (a cockroach wants to feel surfaces on both sides of him). They spread the residues around, streaking it into all the recesses and cracks where their wives or mistresses and children are hiding. (Female cockroaches are harder to get because they are real home-bodies. One’s roach traps will fill mostly with able-bodied males of military age.)

But if you really want to give your Blattaria a hard time, steep your cigarette butts in water overnight, or longer, and paint the liquid here and there. It’s organic. And it has great staying power. (Come spring, you may want to use it in your garden, too: not on the flowers, which is over the top, but splashed and dribbled in the soil around them.)

My gun-loving readers may prefer the kill-on-contact approach. But stomping cockroaches is a fool’s game; you will never win. They go places where your shoes can’t reach them. And once the light is on, they go there fast.

In my good old days, of childhood in Lahore, some time back in a previous century, all we needed was a spray-can of “Flit,” or DDT. Very quick and effective on the smaller beasties, and eventually on the large. And one didn’t have to move a thing; one just sprayed everywhere. If it got on the plates in the pantry, one gave them an extra wipe. Life was so simple then. Until Rachel Carson came along.

And in my Idler magazine days, we ran an article with the title, “Rachel Carson killed millions.” It was by an Italian gentleman who had calculated the number of Third World deaths that resulted from the U.S. ban on DDT — by adding together the estimated tolls from all the epidemics that could have been prevented by generous spraying of the same. The ban had to be observed by every government that wished to continue receiving Yanqui foreign aid. This in turn was needed in all developing countries, to line the pockets of their ruling classes. Moreover, by obviating work and investment (“capitalism”), it helps keep the poor in their place.

Indeed, one small joy, on my return to the High Doganate this evening, after hours on the street very cold, waiting for the pesticides to settle, was the scent of the place. It reminded me of the DDT of my childhood, and made me feel so nostalgic. Alas, the exterminators wouldn’t let me stick around, to see what they were using. Can I get it in a hardware store, I wondered? Not because I need it; just because I like the smell.

That, and the Dettol, which I praised yesterday.

Big cities. Full of pests. (The Trudeau boy was in town today, as I saw from the widescreen in a hamburger joint, while I was trying to eat. The media actually cheering him at a press conference, as he um’d and ah’d through their softball questions, then tossed us sixty billion from his petty cash.)

And here we are, picking on the smallest. Which does strike me as cowardly, sometimes, and a little unfair.