Essays in Idleness


Perylene Friday

First, a mendicant item. I am of the Scotch genetic persuasion, devilish proud. I do hate begging. But this can be a problem, if one is a beggar. So please, gentle reader, go now to the “Pay!” button. I haven’t asked for a long time (owing to Scotch pride), and my supply of money dwindles. Now, there is a small number of people who send me money without being asked. They are much blessed, up here in the High Doganate. If you are one of those people, ignore this request. It would be too embarrassing if you sent more. But if you are not, and you think these Idleposts of any little value, then yes, I am begging. Or, if you are as poor as I am, send nothing. I’m in an excellent position to understand. And just reading me is, I suppose, a favour. Even if, in this advertisement-free environment, I have no way to sell your eyeballs.


A little boy of my close acquaintance (he is my younger son) was, from the age of five or so, in the habit of asking profound questions. Finding me with paint one day, he stared at the brush.

“What colour is that, dad?”


“But what kind of black?” (He always wanted to know: What kind?)

It was an astute question. There are many blacks. Those who have, as the present writer, sufficiently proved their incompetence in painting, may well have learnt this to their cost. There are blacks and blacks; and blacks are the most dangerous thing to apply for shading. There are people who think that if you allow any sort of black in a watercolour palette, you should be hanged. I call these people Puritans.

“Perylene black,” I declared.

He did not seem satisfied, so I explained it was really a perylene green, but mixed with a quinacridone violet to make it blacker than black.

“It’s a kind of green black, very dark, and not shiny at all when it dries. I would call it a botanical black. Not for painting shadows. It is for darkening the foliage in the distance. So maybe we could call it a landscape black, for things that are far away.”

My child (Down-syndrome, incidentally) listened with his customary total attention. He might not have understood, but loved to have things explained to him. How I miss the companionship of the little guy.

“Barrelly black,” he repeated.

“That’s it, exactly.”

Today I shall apply it to Black Friday. I think of it as a kind of dusking, towards the horizon. It adds some depth to our post-modern composition; an additional darkening at the edges.


If we could only go back and live our lives again, knowing what we know now: ah! what a mess we could make! In my case, the mess I made of life was appalling, but could have been much worse. That it wasn’t, I attribute to beginner’s luck; and perhaps, a lack of ambition. For I was born with a wee angel on my right shoulder, who is in the habit of shouting, “No!” — right in the hollow of my starboard ear. It (I have never known how to sex angels) has interrupted many things I might have done, by my own inclinations. Would I get the angel for my second try? A bore if I did; a catastrophe if I didn’t.

A priest in Italy (Don Minutella) was granted nine months’ silence, in return for some criticism of his bishop and pope. On emerging, he compared this to time in the womb. I suppose, given one’s life to start over, we would get these nine months to think things through. I suppose this would be an advantage. I made poor use of it, the first time round: hardly a thought about how I would play the big game. Or so I construe, in view of the results, for I think I was born with no clew whatever.

We encounter the same problem whenever we reverse time. It changes everything going forward. We enter an entirely new time series, in which the shares we buy in, say, the Apple corporation, turn out worthless. Gold will rise and fall in different order, and so our scheme to get stinking rich quickly ends in the usual bankruptcy. Similar things happen on all other channels, so that our plan to fix history also comes apart. This is a problem with alternative worlds; bigger than we guess in any Faustian bargain. Best leave God in charge of this one; and the young to endure the advice of the old.

But what can we tell them they don’t think that they already know?

Hence my dated advice for “depenguinification.” I allude to a mistake in my self-education I would surely correct if I had another go. “Dewikification” might be the updated term.

I had the stupid idea that I could read everything. I read hundreds if not thousands of Penguin books, or their equivalent in other pulp series. And even when I did not read them, I read the blurbs. Soon I acquired what might be called a “blurb view” of the universe. Only with advancing age have I come to realize that almost everything I thought was wrong. I look back on, for instance, the Penguin translations, all of them redolent of the ’sixties. I look back on what I learnt of Greece and Rome, and recall the quick confident summaries, also redolent of the ’sixties. For that past, and all others, are murky. One cannot ride a bicycle through a mangrove swamp.

The popularization of all arts and sciences has played a significant part in our civilizational disaster. I may claim to be among the victims; “me too” let me tweet. Our cockiness has gone to extremes, as our cultural heritage has been journalized by hacks. We were tricked into self-destructive glibness.

“In order to read Virgil, one must read Virgil.”

This was advice from an old Latin mistress. She meant, no smooth translation would do. A crib might help the beginner, or a commentary if it is reticent. But the smoother the translation — the more it is in step with our times — the better it will defeat one’s purpose. We haven’t read Virgil, only passed him by.

Two for the ages

The combination of intelligence with integrity is rare, but it does happen, and a friend points to Jacob Rees-Mogg in the British House of Commons. My curiosity for what goes on in that chamber has waned over the years, but I had noticed this unusual man in news dispatches, and found myself alertly attending all of a 32-minute speech (this one), on my friend’s instruction. It is worth hearing, on several levels, not least for an example of extemporaneous elocution in the best Parliamentary tradition.

Content is crucial in all communication, however. The speech expounds what “Brexit” is really about, and why it must be pursued, not for some short-term economic advantage, but to save what remains of the British constitution from the overriding tyranny of the European Union. I don’t entirely agree with Rees-Mogg’s arguments (I do not worship at the shrine of Magna Carta); but he takes the matter back more than seven hundred years, and that is the right time frame in which to discuss matters of real significance. Moreover, he puts it in the light of human will and freedom.

An English Catholic, and a genuine patriot; how often these two supposed irreconcilables have gone together, in the spirit of Saint Thomas More.

Rees-Mogg’s speech was delivered, as one might expect, to a House almost empty. Politicians tend to avoid such places, except in the grandstanding moments, and journalists, too, stay away, unless some vulgar theatre can be promised, and the bombast is running high.

But God works in mysterious ways, and among His eccentricities is work through individual men and women, to whom no one appears to be listening. History is guided by devils; but against them God has arrayed a few hidden, yet effective saints. We can hardly know the true αἰτία or “cause” of much that happens around us, far distant from any final cause; the “butterfly sneeze” that changes the course of events.

Now, Rees-Mogg has been noticed by a fairly large public, who love or hate him in the usual partisan ways. Within the British Commons I see that, according to some poll, he is the man most Conservative members would choose as their leader, were it up to them. In the old days of Westminster, party leaders were chosen by the sitting MPs — by the people most familiar with the candidates, and thus best able to make a sound judgement. Today, they are chosen by immense electronic mobs, who don’t know the candidates at all, and are drawn towards the puffiest bladders.

But the man himself does not covet the job. He does not consider himself a serious candidate for any ministerial office, and states that his ambition to contribute usefully to public debate is already fulfilled. His constituents in North East Somerset appreciate him; he is grateful to them, and that is enough. He is not opposed to ambition; but won’t let improbables go to his head. For he has a cool head and a steady hand, and he is not the sort who can be corrupted.

There are people like that, still; God has contrived that there always will be.


Another on my current hero list is a certain Lindsay Shepherd, age twenty-two, a grad student and teaching assistant in one of Ontario’s fifth-rate universities. Under cowardly attack from the faceless wonders who impose “political correctness” on campus life, she had the wit to sound-record their disciplinary “hearing,” then post it without comment on YouTube. She sobs at one point during the inquisition, from the stress of their grilling, but she stands her ground. (One might start searching here.)

One little person; against the massing ranks of drivelling poltroons, “dressed in a little authority.” One small, quiet, honest, and courageous person, willing to take the consequences for doing the right thing. And she has set in motion their worst nightmare: the truth, on public display. (What I once thought journalism should be.)

Thank God for her; thank God for all her kind.

On lacking respect

Wit, to some purpose, is satire, and satire is a spoliation of dignity, according to D. J. Enright, the late British “mendicant professor” (as the authorities in Singapore labelled him, after he mildly criticized their “sarong culture,” in 1960). He wrote, too, about his experience of Japan, and tried to explain why Japanese humour is incomprehensible to the Western mind. It exists, to be sure; it can be very dry indeed; or alternatively crude, and unmistakably drunken. But its most sophisticated expressions are usually unintended, and immediately apologized for. This is because in the Japanese, as all Oriental cultures I have passingly adored, “face” must be preserved at all costs. The crass European might laugh at this. Too, he might be killed for laughing.

Can the Japanese do “ribald,” I once wondered, when I too briefly lived there. I could see that they could do “obscene.” But using Rabelais as my standard, I could not find Japanese examples. I could, on the other hand, find woodblock prints that might be mistaken for ribald. They were what an old-fashioned Western simpleton might describe as “dirty pictures”; but, so to say, “aestheticized.” Our Rabelais doesn’t aestheticize. I am fairly sure of that, having worked all my way through Gargantua and Pantagruel. There is a different approach and, I have suspected, even in the production of pornography, the sleaziest Japanese adopts subtle devices to preserve not the anonymity, but the dignity of his subjects. We might read satire into his “floating world,” but we read in only. The intention is not in the composition itself, any more than in, for choice example, Les Fleurs du mal, where a spiritual japanaiserie is being affected. But there, only at the surface; there is a (very Catholic) satirical undertow.

Now, everything is changing in the world today, but some things do not change. Travellers have often discovered this to their cost. We are under the impression that the “Mysterious East” is becoming less mysterious daily, as it imports and then embraces and generates the various baubles of post-modernity. Every place becomes like every other place, and the term “globalization” is meant to acknowledge not merely economic integration but cultural deracination. We mistake this for “Westernization.”

Often I think it is the opposite: that, to my point, the metastasis of “political correctness” through all the “safe spaces” it is able to sequester, represents an Easternization of our own culture. We have either imported, or are rediscovering for ourselves, a heathen outlook (as our ancestors would have called it), in which “face” is critically important, and in which stripping a man of his self-importance — “making fun of him” — can only be the prelude to destroying him, and is thus equivalent to a serious death threat. Satire, against any class or type, therefore becomes the equivalent of terrorism, and must be absolutely forbidden. It becomes “genocide,” or the equivalent by intention.

In the comparison of cultures, the Judaeo-Christian tradition has been, for lo these last several thousand years, the odd man out. Or so I am not the first to assert. Even, perhaps especially in the prophets of ancient Israel, the (non-violent) expression of contempt has been among our eccentricities. The admixture of humour may be more distinctly Hellenic, but is of great antiquity. We make fun of things because they are wrong, yet at the same time, we candidly admit their attraction. We use humour to flash moral insight, and to disarm. Where I saw this sort of thing in Asia, it was invariably among the Western-educated, and those at least unconsciously Christian. To others, it was incomprehensibly rude.

We “lack respect.” We have lacked respect for a very long time, even for ourselves, and only in the last generation or two have we begun to regain it. It marks our own embrace of “globalization,” or to put it another way, our recovery of the heathenism that is the background condition of the gentile world, prior to its invasion by Christ.

Scalfari & the phantastiacal

In a dream, I was having an argument with Steve Bannon. He wasn’t listening to me, he was hectoring me instead, about this and that. I love the guy — he is quite the character — but he can be overbearing at times. I was making a point he should jolly well have understood, but he pretended to mistake it. I was telling him that I do not object to having an Establishment. Rather, I object to having an Establishment that is unworthy of its place in the social and economic order. Had we a more worthy Establishment, I argued, it would be easier for us to meekly obey, and constructively imitate our betters. Instead we have these malicious clowns.

Bannon and I have both read T. S. Eliot, and so he winked when I, recalling “Prufrock,” repeated, “That is not what I said at all.”

Good man, he changed the topic to Henry James. The last I remember of the dream was walking through Paris, crossing a bridge over the Seine, then along the immortal book kiosks, where we stumbled on some glorious Old French texts. Bannon was telling me that one cannot love a city that seems too fixed in present time; that one cannot walk through Paris without a sense of movement through time, and of the layers of history La Cité presents in constantly reassembling shape and order; that the present must seem fleeting itself, in order to be loved. I agreed with this, but when I turned to reply, Bannon had himself somehow reassembled as James Russell Lowell, en route to an ambassadorship in Spain.

Were it not for these dream interviews, I might seldom have met great men. But there is a prejudice against the journalists who publish them, and let me own it can be so withering that I hardly mention them, even in Idleposts.

My dreams are not always so evanescent. For instance, in late 1975, while according to the newspapers Francisco Franco lay dying, I had a fascinating conversation with this authoritarian and monarchist hidalgo. It continued night after night. Our talk fades in memory today, but he was explaining the principles on which he had ruled, and I was struck by their plausibility. Had I only published these dream interviews, my liberal friends of the time might have understood Franco better, and been more inclined to tolerate his occasional excesses. Instead they shed no tear on his demise.

There was Walter Savage Landor, of course (his Imaginary Conversations), and there is a journalist in Italy, Eugenio Scalfari of La Repubblica, who puts his interviews with our pope into print. An interesting man, Scalfari, he is getting through his nineties and still spry. As many Italians, he made the transition from strict Fascist to strict Socialist smoothly in the days after the last World War. He is a man who apparently never takes notes (I admire palle in a journalist), yet is able to transcribe his dialogues at great length and in exacting detail. His frequent interviews with our Holy Father have been Roman entertainment for several years. In those, it appears that Francis is an atheist, much like Scalfari; and his aspiration is to sabotage the Church, much as Scalfari’s.

Recently, for instance, Scalfari was able to report that, “Pope Francis has abolished all the places we were supposed to go after death: Hell, Purgatory, Heaven.” … Then in his L’Espresso column, Sandro Magister (the doyen of Vatican-watchers) quotes from one mechanically-recorded audience and homily after another, in which the Holy Father gently assumes not only the character but the lines that Scalfari has attributed to him.

This shows, to my mind, an invincible good humour. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was, after all, raised in the Buenos Aires of Jorge Luis Borges, whose phantastiacal tales were an inspiration to my youth. In the spirit of that gracious author, the currently incumbent Bishop of Rome seems happy to play along with phantastiacal reporting. … (Yes, I made that word up.)

I have myself interviewed the Holy Father in the course of at least one long night, however, and am tempted to emulate Scalfari, if only to provide a corrective to some of his more importunate assertions. For in my dreams Bergoglio is almost stridently conservative, a real enthusiast for the Old Mass, and an extremely well-educated Thomist, cautiously orthodox in every particular.


Something & Roy Moore

I don’t think I would flourish as a big league politician; or even a little league politician. Faced with a problem like Roy Moore, the Merican Senatorial candidate who is the target of rather florid accusations in skunk media such as the Washington Post — and charged with the task of defending the blighter — I might say something like,

“Okay, so he chases after under-aged girls. At least he’s a heterosexual.” …

Or, “Give the guy a break, he’s from Alabama.” …

Or, “Hey, I chased after a fifteen-year-old girl once.” …

“You wott?!?”

“Chased after a fifteen-year-old. Back in 1968, when I was fifteen myself. But I still think of her with unqualified affection.”

And then when, reviled for not taking the matter seriously:

“I take the matter seriously enough. It’s you I don’t take seriously, my darling.”

This is not how it’s played in either league. One is supposed to be appalled. And since one is not really appalled, nor even surprised, a bit of acting is called for. I think the Republicants’ parliamentary leaders are fairly good at this; especially Mitch McConnell. He has the jowls for it.

“Please, tell me it isn’t so,” is another response that came to mind when Mr Moore, a big fan of our Ten Commandments, was first beaded. This accompanied the notion he will win in Alabama all the same. And then, amid much partisan hysteria, the august moralists in the Senate will have him removed from their chamber, thus showing that their commitment to “democracy” is less fervid than they had previously declared.

That the man might be innocent of all charges I would think not worth mentioning. The Court of Public Opinion has fairly relaxed evidentiary rules.

When I wrote on Harvey Ween-stine et alia recently (here), I was berated by many readers: and those mostly severe, somewhat feminist, Catholic ladies. (I was also thanked by other Catholic ladies, for telling the plain truth.) Nothing in the Hollywood swamp could surprise me — for example, the fact that Ween-stine’s accusers, whose careers he had advanced in return for whatever “favours,” had all waited until they could pile on. Perhaps my least popular remark was the observation that by doing so, they had scored off him twice. (Or only once, but for free, if they were lying.)

Men behave like dogs, as is widely conceded, by men themselves. “Not all men,” of course, but enough to maintain the stereotype. The fairer sex seem more cautious in making their concessions. As a woman of my once acquaintance put it, “Men will do things for sex what women won’t even do for money.” The remark was funny, because it grazed the truth. Not quite a bull’s-eye, however. I think of what Ween-stein’s women did. (I don’t bother with Mr Ween-stine himself, as he’s been taken care of.)

We are, generally speaking, a depraved race. Often we underestimate our depravity. On this continent, with its Puritan heritage, Primness remains part of the get-ahead game, but one will find that affectation everywhere. Only in the locker rooms (and powder rooms, I’ve heard) is the truth sometimes told; though even there, admixed with holier-than-thou affirmations.

Apart from its value in the salvation of souls, the Catholic Confessional has certain prudential uses. One is invited to tell the truth, not about others, but about oneself; and to a priest trained to expect it; and through whom, alone, absolution will be conducted. A good priest (and they are not so rare) is not there to collect excuses. He is there to hear patiently what you did. The “you” in this formula may, from sheer embarrassment, get out of the habit of doing just those things that will need to be confessed.

The Ten Commandments are all well and good. Not one suggests that the recognition of reality is sinful. They should be upheld in their totality. They, and the other wingéd instruments of Christian faith, should be taken with deadly seriousness against the gravitational pull of Hell.

But the truth is not only appalling; often it is quite ridiculous. In addition to the apprehension of fire and brimstone, it requires light humour.

We are not told by our religion to “command the good” (as in e.g. Islam), but to embody it; to be good ourselves by the command not of humans but of God. It is a pity that, in our contemporary confusion, we have become so accustomed to getting it backwards. This has the disadvantage that it leads to catastrophe, as the social and political order becomes a tyranny, or falls apart.

Near & far

Will there be a baby boom when the Culture Wars are over? Or will there be none because they never end? The thought occurred to me while reading that, with a wink to our Holy Father, their government has instructed the Poles to, quote, “Breed like rabbits.”

The virtue of your old-fashioned, apocalyptically violent war, is that it does, eventually, end. The world, which is to say, both sides, are devastated; but one, a little more than the other, is finally willing to call it quits. There is always a surrender, even if it doesn’t come from the last bunker. Some are still alive on the ground, and even if they are just civilians, they make their capitulation known. Life again stirs from under the rubble.

Thanks to their après-guerre deregulation, the West Germans recovered much faster than, well, Labour-governed Britain; and frankly capitalist “economic miracles” similar to the German happened in Italy and France. Western Europe rebounded from six years of unprecedented physical destruction, in more-or-less six years. People wanted to laugh again. Secretly they had wanted to live, even while the bombs were falling, but now the boys were home, and the girls were having babies.

Our flickering cultural memory of “the ’fifties” (beginning 1945) is of some brief moment when happiness prevailed. There was broad consensus on such topics as, 1. which way is Up and, 2. which way is Down. The churches were fuller than they had been for a long time; food was plentiful and cheap (except in England); and anyone who wanted one had a job. The lights had come on again, all over the world, and there were movies, and soda fountains, and avante-garde in Paris and New York. (London a bit grim, perhaps.) …. I was myself born into those halcyon days.

Now, from our present vantage we may deny all this. Yes, it was a time when “father knew best,” and the young were not all juvenile delinquents. Dead white males were in each college course, and the colleges themselves were vastly expanding, in the naïve belief that knowledge is a cure. The “counter-culture” was confined to a few jolly beatniks. Communists and perverts had to hide in the closet. Let me not go on: repression was everywhere! … (How I miss repression.)

On the plus side, the War was over. And people (if we overlook those in Britain) “never had it so good.” From all those births, the planet seemed young again, and the future positively rosy.

We still wear the plastic poppies for Armistice Day. We still acknowledge sacrifices made. The men and women who made the sacrifices are now mostly dead — the Western world has grown much older — but the belief that sacrifices were once made lingers as a cultural relic. Curiously, it is the time after the war that has sunk deeper down the memory hole.

A few oldies have said, “We need another War.” Yet it seems to me that we have one.

A plea for selfishness

I have been told the central problem in politics is that people are selfish. I don’t believe this. I think the central problem is spite. I think that if the “natural man” would vote consistently in his own interest, and by extension in that of his close family, the world would get along tickety-boo. On the other hand, I also think the art of politics, in a modern mass democracy, is to deprive the voter of this option, either directly by removing it, or indirectly by scrambling his brains with sweetly perfumed abstractions.

Here, we are dealing with a legacy of the Reformation, by way of the Enlightenment, by way of sundry Revolutions. Christianity comes down to us through all this mess, alive but not well. “Altruism” comes down, as the degenerated form of the selflessness enjoined by Christ and His Apostles.

They recommend something personal and crisp. One ought, voluntarily, to look out for one’s neighbour. Or more precisely, we ought to love that neighbour; doing good for him would follow. But now we must ask, who is my neighbour? The question is answered succinctly in the Gospels. One’s neighbour, to the Good Samaritan, was the man he found beaten and robbed along the highway. The case was a parable, but within, the stranger was a real man. He wasn’t a statistical abstraction.

So let me be clear, I am not saying that one should walk by. Or as the Altruist today, call it in on one’s cellphone. Let us wait until the ambulance arrives. Let us see if there is not something to be done, while the ambulance is caught in rush-hour traffic. Or if nothing else is possible, let me at least stay, as an individual, rather than part of a mob of gawpers, and provide for the poor man the compassion that Mother Mary did for her Son, while he carried His Cross to Calvary. She said, “I am here.”

There are people who do this, you know. More, I suspect, in this blighted neighbourhood of Parkdale, than in the better sections of town. But that’s just my spite talking.

I am wandering off topic, to clinch a point. It goes beyond the human, but is not abstract. I have been next a dying cat, who purred for me when I gently stroked her uninjured head. And neither of us were vegetarians.

The point I make is on behalf of reality. One’s neighbour — and even in this last instance a brute animal, who could have eaten me were she much larger and in better shape — is a real thing. Insofar as our charity is real, it is directed to real things. Insofar as we are “friends to humanity,” or “friends to the poor,” or “social justice warriors,” we are putting on a ludicrous show, in which spite adopts a pretence of charity.

“Treat others as you would yourself be treated.” There is more to this than first meets the eye. An interesting thing about neighbours is that they are comparable to oneself. What’s good for you is very likely to be good for them.

Example: it might be in your interest to pay less taxes. It would almost certainly be in your neighbour’s interest, too. This will be true even if he has more money. He’d have that much more to “Samaritan” with. Or possibly you don’t think he is generous. After all, you’re not. But you have less, and he has more. Make him pay.

That is where the spite comes in. And in, and in, till it afflicts the whole system.

The kids today

Only ten thousand or so were slaughtered in the initial stage of the Red Terror, which accompanied Lenin’s German-assisted coup d’état in Russia, a hundred years ago. This first slaughter was selective, and personal; the Bolsheviks had made lists. We commemorate not a “revolution” but a successful putsch, in which one faction (the most fanatic, violent, and evil faction) appropriated a Russian Revolution that had already been started by others. Their targets were mostly Tsarist officials, already displaced with Tsar Nicholas and family.

But through the civil war that followed, as the Bolsheviks consolidated their power, many more than a million were butchered. Lenin himself — a parody Satan incarnate — lived through to its end. By the last of his strokes and his death in early 1924, he had seen off all rivals within and without benighted Russia’s socialist movements; his own understudy Stalin had now seen off him.

In the coming decades, some twenty millions were starved and slaughtered to achieve full “socialism in one country.” Mao’s Chinese Communists would kill several times more. Add many millions in the smaller countries of Communist triumph and occupation, through a century which exceeded all others combined in the production of e.g. Christian martyrs. Then add the millions more from alternative Atheist creeds, such as National Socialism.

According to a recent survey of “millennials” (or as I prefer, “the kids today”), about half would like to live under “socialism,” instead of whatever they have now. They are the latest generation educated, or more precisely idiotized, by our state school systems. Among my baby-boom contemporaries coming of age in the ’sixties, the proportion was about one-quarter. We need not wait more generations to forget completely the most obvious lessons of recent history. One has only to ride the trolley through Greater Parkdale to watch the little thumbs texting.

Chiefly, they want to be taken care of. They want to make the mess that others clean up. They want a paradise in which they will not be held accountable for their actions, one that will ultimately compass the execution of those to whom they have taken a dislike. By comparison to them, one might account the earlier, minority, socialist generations heroic in a way: they were willing to do their own killings. The kids today come late to this game.

By the humble method of hospital abortions, and in North America alone, we have already killed ten times as many as the Nazi death camps, though only half as many as the Communists. I know this is to reduce modern history to mere body counts; but anything more subtle would be lost on our millennials. Indeed, even the subtlety that abortion means killing a human being is lost on most of them, so effectively have they been infused with the euphemisms of progressive thinking.

There is no debate; there can be no argument with people of any age who are incapable of grasping that murder is always wrong; that killing human beings (including ourselves, when we’re feeling down) must not be reduced to a political option, or consumer choice. How to discuss history with these people?

My parents’ generation failed their children; we failed ours; our children are failing theirs — so far as they even get born. Only in this sense is progress real: a kind of progress towards the Hell-gates. Imagine where we’d be if God were not constantly intervening, in His unimaginably reactionary way.

On the 365th day

I was not surprised when Mr Donald Trump won the Natted States presidential election last year. I didn’t want him to win — I didn’t want anyone to win — but it seemed to me from the start of the campaign that he had the formula. That is, lots of people liked him. Whereas, nobody really liked Mrs Clinton. Compounding this, the “mood” in America was, to my mind, not so much angry as bewildered. All the good things that were supposed to come from an Obama administration didn’t come. The country was believed to be in economic decline. Mrs Clinton promised more of the same. Americans like to “do something.” It bugs me today that I declined several $100 bets, on the reasoning, “What if I’m wrong?”

This is a question which, I have noticed, the progressive types don’t ask themselves. It was very apparent in the media coverage the night of the election itself. Disbelief, horror, sullen outrage, was written on the faces. This helped me finally take a stand. Towards two in the morning, alone with my laptop, I found myself almost involuntarily chanting, “Call Michigan! Call Michigan!” Next morning I was mildly disappointed that Trump hadn’t taken California, too.

But it was just an election. One cannot know what will come of such things. The winner will have little control over events in his coming term. He has a character that may or may not show well in the circumstances. Trump has many personal flaws, but his innate, very American, candour and optimism are showing well so far. I suspect many who remain formally appalled by his existence are secretly rooting for him; and those genuinely appalled are afflicted with incomprehension. A year has passed, and they still can’t believe it. They still think his victory can be reversed, forgetting perhaps that he has a large and very powerful Right “base” who wouldn’t take that quietly. (And who are better armed.) They are insulated from this base in the big cities, and within the liberal media warp, where what is not compatible with their prejudices is simply not reported. Verily, Trump’s “fake media” trolling resonates with his supporters, and some of his less urbane opponents, because they believe it to be true. Also, one might add, it is true.

He is a surprisingly easy character to read, if one is reading. As all politicians, he indulges hyperbole, yet as few, he sincerely believes most of what he is saying. Journalists tend to be incurious people, but to any who did their homework, his views on all the major issues have been available for many years. Some of these have “evolved,” slightly. For instance he has become pro-life, and developed some respect for religion. This was hardly a concession to public opinion; he puts his neck out when called. His luck, since he became a politician, is to have views quite similar to those of most Americans. He is no libertarian, nor any kind of “racist” or “fascist” as the Left base continue to allege. The allegation that he was in bed with the Russkies is likewise insane.

Americans want to keep their Nanny State, but they want it to work. Trump looked like the right guy to deliver. The system of “entitlements” is bankrupt, however, and must eventually crash. At most Trump might delay the day of reckoning.

Indeed, there is no major Trump view or policy with which I entirely agree, and much of what he stands for I detest. I am not a nationalist, not a populist. I think the vast mechanism of contemporary government and regulated monster capitalism should be not fixed, but dismantled. I think we’re too rich and spoilt for our own good; that most of what we have is ugly; that we live in a moral, spiritual, intellectual and material septic tank, and might start by downsizing.

Secular government is in its nature a protection racket, and I think it should focus on our real needs: law, order, sane diplomacy and military might; on the defence whenever possible of received, conventional morality, and mundane human freedoms. It should recognize that bureaucracy is evil, and make government agents accountable for their acts. It should be aligned with mom and apple pie, and generally try to avoid excitement. In fact, it should be boring. (That was the best argument I could find for Hillary, last year: that she was predictable and boring; personally irritating, and profoundly corrupt; thus, unlikely to do as much damage as Obama.)

The politicians put ideas in people’s heads that aren’t good for them; ideas like, “You can have stuff for free.” Trump does this, too. Yet he does not appear to be an agent of the Devil, as so many of his adversaries; and I am already willing to pronounce him better than the average Roman Emperor, in their period of decadence.

Death the real illusion

In this Catholic season of death — All Hallowtide, still within the Octave — one’s thoughts run to the whole history of death, and dead people. This especially in light of advancing age, and the prospect of becoming dead oneself. The topic is so large, a certain focus is inevitable. England, for instance, where I lived as a young man (see last Idlepost) struck me as a country rich in dead things and people. Walking the hedgerows and fieldpaths there, as on the Continent, one encountered death at every turn, as much in the facts of agriculture as in commemorations of church and churchyard. It is a fault of America, and of rural Ontario, that there are few rights-of-way for the long-distance walker. We are stuck in our cars, whizzing through.

The urbane have perhaps always been busy erasing death from their picture of life. We imagine farms as places “full of life.” But the old farmers could tell you that is less than half the story: just a brief passage in the history of death. The groaning table of reunion, at harvest and thanksgiving, is death on turkeys and geese; our daily bread is golden death on the green and waving corn. Finally the grim reaper appears, and it is death on us. Our winter is death; death then resurrection.

Long I have been curious about the Great Pestilence that trimmed the population of Britain and Europe by a third or more, in the fourteenth century. I make too much of it; the plague was a recurring event for centuries before and after. I notice from the tabloids that it is returning, through Africa this time. (Indeed, it is already here, in the form of voluntary abortions.) I know there will be pestilence to come, when we will all think it terribly important. It rivetted attention, I’m sure, in the autumn of 1348, and through the summer of 1349. And yet within a generation it is hardly mentioned.

England, below the Ribble and Tees, is special, thanks to the Domesday Book of the invading, tax-loving Normans, and their general propensity to good record-keeping. The towns and villages ennumerated in 1086 can be traced to the present day; more than nineteen-in-twenty are still there. Having figures to start, and through the parish books later, we can track an economic and demographic history with an accuracy possible in no other country. We can know, for instance, of the population boom through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which had slackened well before the “Black Death.” And with that boom, impressive advances in farming, technology, and building, as today. Nothing conduces to technical improvement, as a bit of crowding.

This proportion I cited — the nineteen-in-twenty — which I have from reading in economic history mostly years ago, fascinates my attention. We know large tracts were depopulated, we find the archaeological evidence easily enough. They were planting rye within the walls of Winchester, and many other towns. Everywhere, they had elbow-room again. Our deep ecologists would have been pleased — those who think life on this planet would be better had a few billion souls not been born, or would politely disappear. As Christianity, and environmentalism, are mortally opposed, and the fourteenth century was overwhelmingly Christian, I expect complaints of overpopulation were differently expressed at the time. Mostly it would have been moaning from younger brothers about the distribution of inherited land.

Always, there have been younger brothers. Always, there have been survivors. What delighted me was the speed with which all the vacant places were filled. As we’ve seen, too, after ghastly wars — or by the immigration after ten-millions of abortions — demography abhors a vacuum.

Death may win in the end, but needs life to sustain it.

I love it when we give death a good run. But a time comes when the contest is over, and we shake skeletal hands. For life is God’s, and He bids us move along.


[This item brought forward five years, and rewritten.]


One of the first things I did, upon becoming a Christian, is stopped going to church.

Er, perhaps that sentence will need glossing. It is intentionally misleading. Except weddings and funerals, attended from politeness; except a few events in childhood, dragged or pulled; I was no church-goer. The idea, “It is Sunday, therefore I must go to church,” had never occurred to me through my adolescent, atheist, wandering years. The contrary idea, “It is Sunday, therefore I won’t go to church,” had occurred quite often. I would see people going there and think, “I’m not one of you. Not now, not ever.”

Yet while living and travelling in England and Europe, I often went into a church. Never on a Sunday or Holy Day, however. My interest was archaeological. A history buff: I wanted to see the art and architecture while it still stood. I was also curious about the music, and drawn in sometimes by the sound of an organ. But if I found a choir, too, and a “church service” in progress, I would take flight.

I became a Christian in my twenty-third year, on the 15th of April, 1976. I’m sure I have explained this elsewhere. In the weeks and months that followed, I did not enter a church, even as a gawper. The last thing I wanted, was to meet a priest.

For I’d resisted “deism” as long as I could; resisted Christ, when that proved impossible; finally surrendering to the Holy Ghost. But still I wanted no part of “organized religion.” It was enough of an embarrassment to have lost my faith in Atheism; there’d be nothing left of my dignity if, like some bowl-capped Boy Scout (I despised Boy Scouts) I was found-in at a Jamboree. Verily, I recall one of my first sincere prayers: “Please, Lord, don’t make me go in there.”

But the Lord made me go in. In fact, He tricked me.

From what I can make out, vague belief in “God” is the easy part for most people (though it wasn’t for me). “Christ” is the hard part, because He is not vague. (Whereas, I demanded some precision from the start.) Soon you are beaten by the One-in-Three. But then, Church comes as another hard part. As Chesterton said, the worst thing about the Catholic Church is, that it’s full of Catholics. Who can stand them? Even today, I find them quite a trial.

A proud lad, I prided myself on knowing more Church doctrine than the average Catholic, more Bible than the average Protestant; and for being able to reject it all. As things turned out, I tried the Anglican Communion first. (If you can take them, you can take anything.)

Today, the Feast of All Souls, would be the forty-first anniversary of my breakdown.

It is a blustery November in 1976, and I am on one of my long walks, through Suffolk. Truth to tell, I’d already looked into “contemporary Catholicism,” assuming the Roman Communion to be the definitive Christian one. A close friend, and beloved old atheist companion from the road in Asia — giant, red-haired, Edinburgh Scottish, brilliant and philosophically ruthless, had put the matter plainly for me. This had been after, with perfect attention, listening to my account of conversion.

“If I’d had your experience,” he said, “I wouldn’t fart about. I’d go straight to Rome.”

But upon looking in, I was aghast. Those were the days of the “Dutch Catechism,” and the clown masses, and the socialist priests (remember them?) — of obvious heresies and intentional vileness. I couldn’t believe the “Catholic Church” retained any standing, with God or anyone else; it had so obviously gone to the dogs. Whereas, the higher Anglicans still had smells and bells. And beautiful music, and tasteful decorations. So far as I was unconsciously church-scouting, they had already moved to the top of my list.

Where was I? … Yes, in Suffolk, with satchel, proceeding on the footpaths, village to village; mediaeval spire to mediaeval spire. Viewing “humble country folk” with my city bug eyes. I had no business there; was only passing through, Ipswich to Woodbridge I believe. Oh dark: the sun was well set. Came, in due course, to St Mary’s, Great Bealings; though can’t be sure it wasn’t St Mary’s, Playford.

The tower bell was ringing. On a sudden whim, entirely out of character, I went inside.

There were parishioners in there, kneeling in the pews. Pray, stand, sit, mutter; kneel, sit, stand, sing a hymn. Then they rose and began to stumble about.

My memory fails, compounded by my confusion at the time. I had read the Book of Common Prayer, but quickly lost my place in it. I was ignored, stepped around, and almost through, as if I were the ghost. There were candles, a procession was forming: “What now?”

The procession led out, through the arch under the tower, into the churchyard. On clearing the portal it scattered, into small, purposeful groups.

And then I realized: these people are carrying their candles to the tombstones; each family to their own family graves.

For centuries, they had been doing this; from time out of mind. Ploughed into the ground, generation by generation; waiting patiently for the Judgement Day. “With the Lord, one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”

I had come as a spectator, I suppose, or voyeur; as an intellectual, some kind of anthropologist. Now as a Christian, but from very far away. And now, here I was among the natives.

As I say, my smugness suddenly broke down. The bell again chimed: “I am one of these people.”

Protestant Hallowe’en

My Chief Texas Correspondent, who loves to tease, sends me this morning an electronic clipping from the Wall Street Journal. It is entitled, “The Real Story of the Reformation,” and is by Eric Metaxas, darling to a certain class of “conservatives.” The account is no more “real” than the standard fairy tale of Luther nailing his theses to the church door at Wittenberg, 31 October 1517. Metaxas is indulging a very old journalistic conceit: “While no one can know what really happened, let me tell you what really happened.”

So I am a journalist. Let me tell you.

The truth is that people like to appropriate things that do not belong to them. And then they like to justify what they did. Ah, what a tangled web they weave. We have had five hundred years of this particular run of “progress,” through which Protestantism itself has “evolved”: largely into extinction, but partly into other evanescent things, such as the current fad in social justice warriorism.

As a Catholic, let me tell you plainly: Jesus Christ founded One Church, and warned against every attempt to divide her. There can be only one “Body of Christ.” He did not do avatars, like some Oriental gods; only angels and saints at His service. (And the saints as inexplicable as the angels.) His teachings are always recoverable in the Deposit of Faith. These things are not discoverable by reason alone. But they are, to the tranquil, in accord with reason.

Of course the Church descends into error and corruption: constantly. She needs fairly serious housecleaning from time to time. She is staffed by men, in each generation. Men make mistakes. Luther made plenty. The idea that he could personally, as one man, rethink a fifteen-century heritage of Faith and Reason — constantly and mysteriously self-correcting — was a tad arrogant. But many men have tried that.

I repeat myself from last week: neither Luther nor any other Protestant “reformer” can be held responsible for what the secular powers of their day did with their little thoughts. What Luther himself wanted started small, with the question of indulgences: an issue in his diocese more than in most others. He seems genuinely to have wanted to improve the religion all along. He was certainly very smart; but with time the complexity of the task defeated him, as it defeats all others.

This is why I’m opposed to every ambitious scheme of reform; why, even in the paltry matter of economics, I am “Austrian school.” (Whose philosophical antecedents are Catholic not Protestant, incidentally.)

No one man, and no committee of men, and no continuing party of men, alone or in committee, can possibly manage what God has given us through Nature. No genius or combination of geniuses can master the complexities, let alone the simplicities of our world. Do not look the divine gift-horse in the mouth; do not let thanksgiving falter. The Church herself is under the rule of her Founder, only passingly in the care of corruptible men. Her own operations, in and through Time, are beyond the human imagination, let alone our analysis. In the words of the poet, “Let it be.”

The intentions of the secular powers who embraced Lutheranism, and other Protestant creeds, were much simpler than those of ecclesiastical reformers. They genuinely wanted to acquire real estate. At a time of massive and accruing state debts — themselves typically the consequence of crude power plays — the “reformers” provided the perfect excuse. Rather than reform their own ways, they could seize Church properties in their domains, and reform that instead.

This is a much older story. Charlemagne wanted the Church to be the theological and liturgical arm of his imperial administration. So did Henry VIII. There is a very long history of Power, trying to appropriate Religion for its own purposes, right around the planet. It goes back to the beginning of recorded history. No: it goes back to Adam.

And the Church for her own purposes in this world, has entered into concordats of many kinds. So long as the world wags, this will continue. Which is to say, until the world ends.