Essays in Idleness



In an iron pan, in butter, lightly braise beefsteak shavings (from raw, of course). Pour over a green peppercorn sauce — made from beef stock with wine & shallots, thickened with cream. Toss in some sliced mushroom, & garden peas, then simmer patiently. On a deep plate of frites (“freedom fries”) spread a layer of cheddar cheese curds. Then pour the molten content of the pan over top of this. We have decided to name our collation of the evening, “Poutine High Doganate.”

The wine for this, both for sauce & table, is a masculine, plummy, Alentejano from Portugal. It is called “Lóios,” in honour of the monks who once dominated the local economy; & should be drunk down at one sitting, for it gets a little inky once the cork is out. Very cheap at the Ontario Licker Control Board, currently, or would be if they took off all the taxes.

(Give us a choice between domination by bibulous monks, or Kafkaesque provincial control boards, & we’ll take the monks, thank you.)

That swart ship

The preceding post was perhaps more appropriate to the season of Ashes than to the season of Advent, yet in both we consider a world without Christ. Advent waits hopefully upon His arrival, & so the character of the fast is different; Lent faces down the Crucifixion. (Happyface Christians skip that part.) But what of a world in which we are not waiting hopefully; of our New World, our America, our new found land, in which the toll from Operation Meetinghouse is reprised semi-annually, in the form of smoothly performed abortions? In Canada since the Omnibus Bill, & in the United States since Roe v. Wade, we have achieved about ten times the number who perished in the Nazi death camps.

The facts, when reduced to numbers, leave us cold. In the course of checking a few little facts last night, we saw a photo from that Tokyo holocaust of the remains of a young woman, charred black & brittle (one limb still lifted, like a burnt stick). We had to examine it for a moment to see what she had been before the incendiaries descended: a young mother carrying a baby in a pouch on her back. The two charcoal forms had become separated, but could be fit back together in the forensic imagination. Of course, one of the difficulties in counting the dead, supposing some attempt to count honestly, was that the great majority of corpses had burnt beyond this state; were for all practical purposes vaporized.

One of the progressive innovations feminist activists now pursue is to stop the abortion count: to remove the requirement for hospitals & clinics to report the numbers. This way the unborn child, already transformed by ideology into a “foetus,” & then by a “procedure” into medical waste, will lose his status even as a number.

There are many ways to achieve the same result in politics, & through the 20th century, & into our 21st, the human race has proved quite innovative in finding ways to make people disappear. With “deep ecology” our philosophy is catching up with our empirical science. For now the need to make humans disappear actually becomes the first principle of ideology: de-population as an end in itself.

Which takes us back to those Ten Commandments. Not any ten, randomly selected, but the specific set dictated to Moses, which the civil libertarians want stripped from court walls & any other place where they might be visible, as an affront not only to Atheists, but to moral relativists of any kind. “Thou shalt not have strange gods before me” has admittedly the authoritarian ring; but “thou shalt not kill” might be even more inhibiting of the great progressive project. And where would “democracy” be, to say nothing of the real estate markets, if we did not covet our neighbour’s house, glom his wife, eye his car & appliances, or envy his disposable after-tax income? Call him a member of the “one per cent,” & it will be seen that he is himself disposable.

The Plan, so far as we are able to follow, is to replace the superannuated Ten Commandments, from a law-giver anyway deposed, with new commandments of our own choosing. From that “primitive” beginning we have already progressed, & will continue to progress. From innumerable hints in this morning’s news we could clearly discern the direction of this progress, but from none of them a reference to the destination. Democrats all, aboard our great Ship of State, we decide where we’re going as we’re going along, voting as we sail on which obstacles to our progress we will recognize, & which ignore.

The quaint Mediaeval mind, with its delight in allegory, had already envisaged what we call the progress of democracy, though not our technological accomplishments (except in their most horrified nightmares). They called it the Ship of Fools: passengered & crewed by the frivolous & oblivious, & liberated from the ministrations of a pilot. They understood its destination, too, which they called the Fool’s Paradise, & in the same frankly reactionary view, believed that the ship would soon get there.

Dave Brubeck

Years ago, living briefly in Tokyo, & wandering through the Nakano campus of “Todai,” hungry in mid-afternoon, we discovered an immense cafeteria. It consisted of long, very narrow benches — hundreds of them. Not one had a person sitting at it. The cafeteria line was open, however, & the myriad serving stations staffed. By our customary barbarous method of pointing & grunting, we selected a meal, & took a seat half way down this rink of benches, over by a wall where a juke box had started playing — by a kind of spontaneous combustion — Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” This was followed by the rest of the Time Out album.

A young lady, spied in the distance, became the cafeteria’s second customer. We were chuffed to see her approaching our section, given the choice of so many others; then startled when she set down her tray brazenly opposite our own.

“Do you like hot jazz, or cold?” she asked.

We had already discovered, in bookstores, how forward Japanese girls could be. This, anyway, after several years on the Asian mainland, where no respectable woman, married or unmarried, would be caught dead alone in the company of a “European” male. But Japan was rich, like Europe. This seems to do things to people. And a Japanese girl who wants to practise her English, knows no shame.

This was precisely what the young lady intended. Having answered her question with a question of our own (“What do you mean?”), we found that her English did perhaps need some practice; but her knowledge of jazz was encyclopaedic. Too, that her preference was for “cold jazz,” of just the kind that was playing.

A very pretty girl, as we recall. … And, since gentle reader may be wondering: “Warm jazz plays red notes, cool jazz plays blue notes, & cold jazz plays purple notes with white edges.” Brubeck, we were given to understand, plays all the notes; but yes, purple, edging sharply to a very pale blue.


We knew then, as we know today, nothing about music. But let us add, we know what we like. For as long as we can remember we have been attracted to Brubeck (our papa had his records), through all his phases to his latest choral odes (“Christmas Hymn” & “The Peace of Wild Things”). For he was one of those glorious artists who go on working to the end, in Brubeck’s case composing into his nineties & no doubt up to the moment when “his number was called” — in 9/8 signature, if we know anything about God.

That was yesterday morning. David Warren Brubeck, to give his full name, was not nearly finished as a composer. His later work, “progressively” (hate that word) more orchestral & choral & explicitly religious, seems as all his previous work to be leading somewhere, to something even better. As the later Bach, he is as much exploring as composing. He has discovered some sublime things no one ever heard before, because they are not of this world.

For reasons of pure sentiment we are playing “Brandenburg Gate Revisited” just now, past midnight up here in the High Doganate. It is the version he scored for the full London Symphony; a live recording from a decade ago, led by Brubeck himself on piano, with a couple of his six talented sons also in the foreground (Matthew on cello & Dan on percussion we think; no album notes). Curiously, it is rather warm. There are pink notes in it, & violet, & some yellow-orange at the end. There is a passage on this track, where string replies exquisitely to keyboard, that required the whole preceding nine minutes to set up. And it is utterly timeless, beyond era or style. Brubeck is full of moments like that, in the course of something between storytelling & a lively sermon, expressed in pure musical phrase; & presented entirely without presumption.

The man was, rather as other jazz greats yet more so, free of posturing. That is, he was not full of himself; he was only full of music. There is the modest serenity of a man about his job. In Brubeck, in Duke Ellington, in the voice of Ella Fitzgerald or the fingers of Art Tatum, we have to our mind audible “glimpses” of what our civilization might have been: of a music that is at once in thick with tradition, & shock new; of high classical precision, yet accessible to all.

In Brubeck particularly, we hear a mind consciously returning upon that euphonic order, in which large, even prophetic things can be said — whether by the cantor of a single melodic line, or polyphonically, & even polyrhythmically. And not for passive entertainment, for as the Psalmist we must dance. Not “easy listening” but the full reply. (The Mass was never confined to words & music, incidentally; being in its nature, too, a solemn dance at the meeting of worlds.)

He was born on a California ranch, of an English mother herself a concert pianist, so that he started piano before he was born. He followed his elder brothers into music, & his sons followed him. In this broad world he was assimilating influences all his life, & through his travels everywhere; but assimilating always to some ineffaceable core. His sound is never mistakable, & like Bach’s, unified beginning to end. (He was often in conversation with Bach.)

Raised as a “nothing” in denominational terms, in 1980 he walked into a Catholic church and simply “signed up.” He denied having converted, for he hadn’t converted from anything. Decades before he had been assembling oratorios & cantatas on frankly Biblical themes, & when he tried to explain his religious position it was too simple for anyone to understand. He’d been in the war — World War II — & he’d seen things there that were “against the Ten Commandments.” You can’t get simpler than that. He didn’t judge people, & so hung out with a wild variety; surely bringing out the best in each.

And he was so American. One wants to weep sometimes at how great Americans can be.

Joyous news

We were delighted to learn, from the most official sources, that Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge (“Kate” to the tabloids) is carrying an heir to the heir to the heir to our throne. Twins, according to some press speculation, bringing to mind the old vulgar but practical adage, “an heir & a spare,” while generating some foreboding. For we must consider the propensity of low-life, such as British prime ministers, to toy with the law of succession (which was plain enough to start, & fixed in the constitutions of many Commonwealth countries).

There was a time, unhappily now passed, when in these British realms the press would become quite excited by such news, while yet trying to reflect the dignity of a public occasion. We have, or rather had some old newspapers around the High Doganate, giving examples of how such “joyous news” was once presented, kept for the purpose of explaining it to our younger colleagues. With the decline of monarchy, seemingly everywhere, “royals” are now treated instead as glitterati, stalked & paparazzied just the same, then described with that gutter familiarity we once associated with the criminal class.

But then, “Hollywood royalty” has been, for its part, also brought down, from the days when even the biggest stars signed contracts with their studios, committing themselves to dress well & behave respectably in public, so not to bring scandal to their trade. Our art director at the Idler magazine held a stock of old magazine photos to illustrate this point. Look at the pictures of twenty-something starlets from the 1950s & before. They appear to be adults. Then look at even forty-something starlets today, who appear to be cheap tarts. Notice not only the (often ghoulish) attempts at pornographic display, but the childish immaturity in the faces: “role models” for people who will never grow up.

It was not the business of the common people, in days gone by, to gape lewdly into the private lives of the high-born. Conversely, it was not the business of the latter to slum. Yet all participated, according to station, in that pageantry by which noble aspirations were vindicated through public art. Deep, deep, in immutable human nature, is the need for that pageantry, that beauty in motion — that parade in which there are no pure spectators, because every soul has taken his place. The production of an heir was indeed of interest to every subject; the continuation of a dynasty being after all a guarantee of peace & good order & the freedom that allows. But it was also a reflection of Advent: an earthly mimesis of heaven to come.

Under present conceptions of “democracy” the opposite principles are now maintained, & increasingly enforced by the egalitarian gestapo. We become outsiders now, all spectators purely, including the starlets who spend their lives leering at themselves.

Human nature continues to require leadership, & therefore something to look up to, tier by tier towards God. We instinctively require not merely order, but a dignified order, sanctioned by time. We still crave the continuities, by which we & our ancestors had been able to converse; by which our descendants would converse with us; by which we could build without constantly losing what our forebears had built. Inwardly we long for a country where the cathedrals & palaces might still stand, together with our own little castles. At least, not all of us long for a government of the depraved, by the depraved, for the depraved.

We are accordingly disturbed, disoriented, demented, by an environment in which nothing is fixed, in which our landmarks are scoured daily to make way for the latest commercial latrines; where no tradition commands respect or, as it were, “nothing is holy.”

Yet we must live with this new “democratic” totalitarianism, in which the slightest assertion of nobility will be spontaneously confronted with crass gestures. Our new aristocracy is itself “democratic.” It consists of those starlets & runway models, nominally male or female or transvestite; of “people like us if we won the lottery.”

Contemporary royalty must negotiate with this; they have no choice. And given the collapse of social standards (including those which were assiduously maintained even in republics), the argument is made that we should now abandon monarchy entirely. Canadians, it could be argued even from the monarchical perspective, no longer deserve to have a Queen.

To us, this earthly Majesty is a symbol of more than legitimate nationhood, of public order & the continuity of Christian law. In one sense it is more than a symbol of the hierarchy that connects by degrees the smallest to the largest, the lowest to the highest, in one continuous organic progression — the lynchpin of unity in all of our variety. For in our contemporary circumstances, the Queen becomes, more, a symbol of Resistance: an inspiring reminder that everything is not yet lost. For on our throne still sits a very fine woman, an embodiment & exemplar of righteous duty, who has herself diligently resisted the collapse into squalor.

All trends are reversible, & while we cannot reasonably hope for the recovery of dignity in our public life, through the foreseeable future, or perhaps for centuries to come, there is joy to be had in every reminder that our world was not always a cesspool; that throughout Christendom, we were once lifted out; that every surviving particle of it still labours to lift us out of this mire.

Another for Hector

We had intended to assault gentle reader with expostulations of Scotch chauvinism on the occasion of Saint Andrew’s Day, then our “DOS Devil” took the site down again. (From Glasgow, perhaps?) But as Lord Jowls insists, we cannot let the occasion pass without some Caledonian gesture. Let us therefore belatedly resort to YouTube, recommending this old Capercaillie chestnut, “Canan nan gaidheal,” which laments the loss of the Gaelic language in the Scottish uplands:

          It wasn’t the snow from the North
          It wasn’t the chill from the East,
          It wasn’t the gale from the West,
          But the disease that blanched from the South
          The blossom the foliage the stem & the root
          Of my language, my race, & my people. …

As we were given to understand, while rising & falling on the knee of Annie Graham, our beloved Cape Breton grandmother, Gaelic is unlike English. It is spoken & sung with the full mouth & throat. (“There can be no Gaelic ventriloquists.”) This would seem to be how they can cluster or “dipthong” consonants together — four or five of them into a single sound. Notice how the adored Karen Matheson’s lips curl as she is forming the words, first left then right, as if she were Jean Chrétien on both sides. That cannot be an affectation, for our grandma did it, too. Mrs Matheson was evidently born into the language, & the near impossibility of mastering the physical means to Gaelic, for those not acculturated from birth, helps explain why so much Celtic fringe music sounds shallow & inauthentic. Or so we opine: that God is in such details. The band are prob’ly all commies & nationalist hooligans, of course, but who bloody cares so long as they are singing?

It is in this version by our fellow Torontonian, John McDermott, that we are inclined to present the Scots’ anthem. The alternative lyrics are priceless, for they start with gratuitous insults to foreigners, then descend through degrees of glowering aggression to what we might call the full Scottish “psychopathos,” steeped in gore:

           Let Italy boast of her gay gilded waters,
           Her vines & her bowers & her soft sunny skies;
           Her sons drinking love from the eyes of her daughters,
           Where freedom expires amid softness & sighs. …