Essays in Idleness


Tombs for the living

It has been a “ha!” week in the news. Today alone, after a quick sweep of the Beeb, Mop & Pail, Drudge, & so forth, I count about a dozen easy marks for Idlerine mockery. Lord grant me the power to resist, as most of these “stories” have “tragic” undertones, if not overtones, & my mommy taught me never to mock someone in pain, unless he is family.

Nobody was killed, or even seriously harmed at the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library, however, so let me have a go at that. The man himself, & all current & former “Potusas” (“President Of The USA” in plural) were present for the ceremony yesterday, each on his best behaviour. We are told that the new facility in the Southern Methodist University at Dallas is the biggest yet, certainly the most expensive; so that we anticipate the Obama Presidential Library may usefully take out a substantial chunk of Chicago.

Now, a leftoid might observe that “Bush” & “literature” do not naturally pair, but let us avoid that swipe. At second hand, but also briefly at first, I noticed that Mr Bush is an intelligent man, married to a small-town librarian & himself an avid reader — if almost exclusively of beuks I wouldn’t have bothered to read myself. He graduated from a prestigious university, & was clocked, even in his youthful drinking days, with an IQ far above the national average. His “Bushisms” were frequently hilarious, & usually intentional. They were a tool in his political bag of tricks, performing two functions. The first was to make his enemies misunderestimate him. The second was to help his own constituency identify with him.

(Alas, meanwhile behind the scenes, he was doing things too clever by half, perhaps by three-quarters.)

In the days when I had a slight “in” to that White House, I once received a private “hedz-up” that Mr Bush would be delivering a crass remark at a press conference in France. The remark itself would be left to his spontaneous genius, but surely it would come. At the press conference, a New York Times reporter asked President Chirac a reasonable question, in elegant French. Bush seized the moment, interrupting his host to sneer at this reporter, then boasting that he could speak Spanish. It was a brilliant way to antagonize all the sophisticated people who’d never vote for him anyway, while cheering up Middle America — where the phrase “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” had become implanted.

I was delighted, in a low way, as I get a kick out of political craftsmanship, & have to suppress a giggle before condemning it. Bush played dumb to trick his opponents into playing dumber. This invariably worked, for their vanity made them unteachable. Of course, all this contributed to the further decay of political standards. One recalls the observation of Mark Antony: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

Tombs for the still living are an American innovation, an extension perhaps of the California funerary customs satirized by Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One. The idea of filling them with video exhibits, state papers as well as state furnishings, & housing yet another Think Tank within, adds surreal touches that might have titillated the ancient Egyptians. For when contemplating the U.S. Presidential Libraries, I think of the Tombs of the Pharaohs. And of the desert sands blowing over them.

Not why but how

“Think globally, act locally” could be taken as the slogan of any radical ideological cult, but it applies with special force to Islamist terrorism. It provides an adequate answer to the question, “Why, why, why?” now being asked in e.g. Boston local media. I had plenty to say on this, right after the surprising conclusion of this year’s Boston Marathon, but thought I should leave it until the smoke had cleared, & all the bodies had been counted.

There were not one but two forms of ignorance that Socrates was attacking in old Athens. The first is people claiming to know what they do not know. But his dialectical process was designed to uncover the complementary opposite, too: things people know but pretend they don’t. He was the original warrior against political correctness in a democracy, who paid the price for exposing the malice, the hypocrisy, & even the defeatism of the political class in his day. And yet that was not his project. Upsetting the municipal authorities, exciting the demos or mob, was merely a by-product of his quest for truth.

“Why, why, why?” is not a Socratic question. It might be too flattering to call it a rhetorical question. I cannot imagine a Sophist who wouldn’t sneer at such a confession of helplessness.

Terrorism has been adopted by political Islam (“Islamism”) because it works. It works especially well against politically correct secular humanists, & more generally a population whose moral & spiritual formation is vague. They can be counted on to miss the point of it, which puts the perpetrators at a large advantage. It is of course intended to make us fearful, to make us respond emotionally & mindlessly, to run about squealing “why why why.” From what I can see through our North American media (both mainstream & substream), the most recent hit in Boston had its intended result: the wallowing in grief & confusion, the lockdown of an entire city while the police searched for a couple of young thugs, the rivetted attention to an incident in which the number of casualties was comparatively small.

In the state of Borno at the moment, in the northeast of Nigeria near the border with Chad, hundreds of corpses are being added to the many thousands so far created by Messrs “Boko Haram” — the generic name for the Islamist operatives in that country. Western media present them as a “separatist movement,” or where factions have been detected as “separatist movements.” The Philippines, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, & Russia are five more countries with active Islamist “separatist movements,” counting only from news reports in the last week. For that matter, across Europe, Islamism is seething in hundreds of “banlieues,” & each might be presented as a “separatist movement.” In France, Sweden, & elsewhere, many of these have become “no go areas” for police & other emergency services, who will be greeted with rocks if they answer a call for help from within.

Except in some superficial & irrelevant sense, these are not separatist movements. In each case, the Islamists have thought globally, but acted locally. In each non-Western case, I might add, the number of casualties has been somewhat inflated by local resistance — for the Catholic Christian majority of the Philippines, the Theravada Buddhist majorities of Thailand, Burma, &c, are not yet in the Western “negotiation” mode.

I recall an email from an old Delhi friend a couple of mornings after 9/11, in which he expressed bewilderment at the restraint of the American people. “Where are the retaliations?” he asked. “If that had happened in India, there’d be fifty thousand Mussulmans floating down the Jumna by now.” (He was alluding to the number of Sikhs assaulted in Delhi after the assassination of Indira Gandhi by a Sikh bodyguard, in 1984.)

In at least one incident in Sri Lanka, I noticed, there were violent clashes involving Buddhist monks, simply because the word “halal” had turned up on food packaging in Colombo supermarkets. From what I can make out, the monks were the aggressors. They, too, were “thinking globally, acting locally,” in a pro-active way. As the late Samuel P. Huntington famously observed, “Islam has bloody borders,” but only where those borders are shared with people trying to resist dhimmitude or enslavement.

In the West — as also now in the East, where progressive secular consumerism has made its biggest advances — it is generally believed that resistance is futile. In Europe, I am still sometimes surprised by the fatalistic glibness with which “Islamicization” is received. Of course “they” are going to take over. They have children, & the will; the European natives have neither. The notion that “demography is destiny” has settled in minds right across the mainstream political spectrum. “Expecting to lose improves the odds of losing,” as a hockey coach once explained to me.

It is only about one thousand years since Western attitudes were much different. More precisely, it is 1,004 years since the Fatimid caliph, Hakim, began levelling Christian churches in the Holy Land, massacring Christians (& Jews), & arresting the flow of Christian pilgrims. The “Franks” (Latin Christian Europe) took their time deciding what to do, & assembling their resources. But in due course, the Crusades were their answer.

The day after 11th September, 2001, a certain George W. Bush, then president of those United States, happened to use the word “crusade” to describe his intended response to “terrorism.” He wasn’t really thinking at the time: he meant a “crusade against terrorism,” not against Islam, rather on the analogy of the “war on drugs.” He & his staff spent the next several weeks taking the word back. I have sometimes briefly entertained myself with a counter-factual: how current history would now be playing out if instead Bush had told a press conference, “I said ‘crusade’ & I meant Crusade.”

As we saw in Afghanistan, then Iraq, the United States alone had the military means to change any number of irritating Middle Eastern regimes. It could help itself to all their oil, if it wanted. Though unthinkable to us, this was thinkable to the Arabs, who kept it constantly in mind when judging how far they should go in antagonizing USA. At the height of the American “outreach” to Iraq, even so irritating a malefactor as the late Muammar Ghaddafi of Libya was politely abandoning his nuclear & chemical weapons programmes, at Washington’s request; & the ayatollahs of Iran were being downright cooperative with American efforts to eliminate the Taliban.

And then, everything went wrong. The Islamist enemy watched the Americans snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The subsequent public relations campaign, to instil “democracy,” cost USA many times what the invasions had cost, in both blood & treasure. Their final accomplishment was the “Arab Spring” — the victory of Islamists at the polls in one previously allied Muslim country after another. To this day, the West is doing what it can, in the name of “democracy,” to advance the cause of our mortal enemies against our (admittedly ugly) friends. Among other consequences, there is now a Christian exodus from lands where they had lived continuously, since centuries before the first Islamic conquests.

Distinctions could be made between “Muslims” & “Islamists,” exactly as distinctions could be made between Germans & Nazis in the 1930s. Churchill came to power in 1940 when the British had tired of making such distinctions. Not all Germans were Nazis, not all Muslims are Islamists, but then as now the trendline is discouraging. This is the big fact — the very big fact — that we in the West are trying to ignore. A generation ago, the notion that the people of, say, Egypt, or Pakistan, were eager to see the strict imposition of Shariah, would have been ridiculous. In each case only a tiny, if often violent minority were demanding this. Today, it could fairly be said that the cause commands a majority in Egypt, probably in Pakistan, & soon in Bangladesh.

What has changed?

Through terrorism, & every nuance of what the nice people in the Pentagon call “asymmetric warfare,” the Islamists have proven to the Islamic world that they are the wave of the future. They claimed that the West was rotten at the core, that it hadn’t the will to defend its own interests, that the “Great Satan” (USA) would cave when put to the test, that the Europeans had caved already, that the “Little Satan” (Israel) would get no support when it came time to exterminate the Jews. They claimed that former Christendom was utterly decadent, & the Dar al-Islam could now push it over. (None of these claims were or are made subtly, by the way.)

This is an old story. One thinks of the over-civilized Chinese, succumbing to barbarian Mongol invasions, when they had the Mongols not only vastly outnumbered but, in man-for-man technological terms, seriously “outgunned” & out-organized. One thinks of later Rome, for that matter, collapsing before the incursions of tribes which had given them no hardship for centuries. Gentle reader may consult Toynbee & many other standard sources for the full list of “asymmetric warfare” victims. The details vary with each time & place, but the background condition is unmistakeable: a civilization that has inwardly decided it no longer wishes to be preserved. The one statistical constant is perhaps a declining birthrate; or in deeper Christian terms, this is the invariable marker of a “Culture of Death.”

We have neglected the symbolism in each Islamist attack. The Boston Marathon was as appropriate as the Twin Towers, the transit platforms of Madrid & London, the pizzerias of new Jerusalem. They are hitting us where we live, in the crowd scenes of modern consumerism. Note how seldom the terrorists have selected churches; how they left the Ultra-Orthodox quarter of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem alone. It is only where they have found a committed Christian minority, in Iraq, in Egypt, & soon in Syria, that the churches get attacked to drive them all away. The Ultra-Orthodox of Israel will be comparatively safe, until Israel falls.

And think about it. Think about all Boston huddling indoors until one young immigrant Chechen psychopath was found. The enemy knows what he is doing, & he is doing it well.

The beuk chronicles

I did not lie to gentle reader when I said, nearly a month ago, that I was “likely to become more ebullient again after Easter.” It was indeed likely, though my discomfiture, amounting almost to a “writer’s block,” evaporates more slowly. Only narcissistic writers have blocks, of course, & I’ve noticed even they have them only for unpaid work. The exception would be holy persons, who have little to say in the first place, & that little carefully considered, as “yea, yea; nay, nay.” But it is hard to imagine a person of saintly disposition starting a blog of any sort. A Twitter account, maybe.

Well, spring has reached the Greater Parkdale Area, or may have done after a prolonged occupation of the Province of Ontario by Arctic air. Up here in the High Doganate, while indulging the writer’s block, I have been spring cleaning. Following advice we gave to the rest of the world (Girolamo Savonarola & I) to make a “bonfire of your vanities,” I set about removing a selection of luxurious, but pointless things, that were crowding my immediate environment. Many of these had been obtained originally by serendipity from flea markets, Sally Annes & the like, & to them they were returned, satchel by satchel. Five cumbersome articles of furniture were identified & cleared, at risk to my enfeebled back (twenty years since I slipped a disc, & my spin-bowling days were over).

A fair part was inherited a few years ago, when my dear parents, through their own aged enfeeblements, had suddenly to move from their house. Sentiment had prevented me from parting with e.g. redundant kitchen equipment, or large accumulations of my ancestors’ artistic impedimenta, added to my own. The High Doganate has less than 600 square feet, counting the balconata. There is no space for a pack rat, here. I waxed ruthless.

Nostalgia for the irrecoverable past is a natural part of the conservative outlook, but a time comes for one last loving look, then “rise & be on our way.” I am persuaded that everything is anyway sustained in the memory of God; that nothing is lost. In moments I have sensed this: the immortality even of the tiniest events & objects; the impossibility of eradicating what has happened. We have been moving through the “time capsule” of this world, & will move outside, yet it will not cease to have been there, when we leave only our dust behind.

That balconata faces west, & I have glimpsed by now several thousand sunsets, each unique. They were more beautiful than anything I own, yet not one could I keep. My primitive attempts to capture something of the colours with a brush on paper (the old tin palette from my Great Aunt Alice has been retained) came to nothing more than exercise. But a useful exercise: to learn, by degrees, how much greater is God, & how little one is, beholding.


On the email list that preceded this blog, I would irritate my friends by persistently misspelling the word “book” as “buke.” This was in order to suggest the Scots pronunciation, but a genuine Scotsman has since proposed that “beuk” would be a more appropriate misspelling.

By weight, I would guess that more than 90 percent of my possessions have been & continue to be beuks, & beukcases. There were about 10,000 of these things accumulated in the house from which I was removed, about the beginning of this century; three-quarters of those had to be abandoned. I had long shared with Cicero a certain notion of domestic bliss: that a home should consist of a library, in a garden. But in the normal condition of modern life, this is not possible, or not possible for long. Modern man is a nomad again; a high-tech nomad.

Many of these beuks I had never read, & would never have the opportunity to read, given the length of one human life, but possessing them I was possessed by the belief that such a fine library would be a delight to generations after my own. In my time I would lay down the basic structure, lay in the classics across the fields with which I was acquainted; & my children’s children would grow up surrounded by beuks, & add knowingly to the collection. Since late adolescence I have had a clear idea of how beuks should be typographically designed, printed, & bound, along with snooty bibliographical positions. Not one in those ten thousand was a cheap paperback.

Aheu, it is gone, except the part that was most important & familiar to me; & with the passage of time this has been shrinking, overall. Two beuks out for every one in, by estimate, through the last decade. After this latest round of de-acquisition, I have noticed how Catholic the collection has become; my Anglicana retained only where it was also beloved English literature. The point has almost been reached, when each surviving beuk is too precious to part with.

They are, in a sense, live things. Coleridge, admittedly often on drugs, noted once how the spines on his beuks seemed present to him as the bellies of living, winged creatures, containing the shades of men long dead. Though down to one room, towards the end of his life, he could not separate himself from such angelic companions.

When the hearth was built into the old Idler Pub, we had an inscription set into the concrete, in brass letters reading, Hae nobis propriae sedes. It was from Virgil: “Here we have found a suitable abode.”

So many of these beuks have been with me for decades, now. The very pages are coloured with personal associations, & I recall for instance the pain of shipping many from continent to continent in my wandering youth.

There was an incident last month when I was donating a significant clump to a second-hand dealer who, while making mildly insulting remarks about how unsaleable they were, threw one onto his trash pile so roughly that the spine, already weakened by use, was finally broken.

I kept my silence.

The dealer noticed from my eyes that I was very angry. I explained that I had not brought these beuks for the money, but in the hope they would find good new homes; that nothing I had brought him was “junk.” His store was among the few places left where suitable new keepers might be found for my orphans, & I would have left his shop happily without a penny from him, so long as I knew he would care for them, & price them instead of tossing them away.

Crimine ab uno disce omnes.

Faction against faction

Arguably, politics is the oldest profession. By convention, we acknowledge prostitution instead, but I wonder if the two aren’t closely related, even different versions of the same enterprise: politics being the masculine way, prostitution the feminine way, to obtain things not legitimately available. Which is hardly to say the two provinces of human activity are restricted to the respective sexes.

As the more masculine enterprise, however, politics has tended to attract more male participants. There is, contrary to official secular belief, a serious distinction to be made between the sexes, & I have often noticed that despite what everyone says they are not the same. It is not just biological, or else, the biological goes deeper than may first appear. That women alone have babies is sometimes allowed, even by the politically correct; & I have met feminists who still claim that women are more “nurturing.” (Being male, I hardly know what that means.) Other distinctions may be more controversial.

Example: men are team players. Not all of them, of course, & not all women aren’t; it is time to invoke Warren’s Rule of Thumb. This is modelled on the Pareto Curve, & I first proposed it to explain the presence or absence of a geographical sense of direction. Some 80 percent of men have this, 20 percent do not. Perhaps 20 percent of women also have it, & let’s leave it there, as a recurring ratio in nature — four to one, or that of fingers to thumbs. So when I say, “men are team players” I don’t mean you can’t find me a tomboy.

Indeed, if gentle reader has ever wondered why, no matter what advantages are given to women, men usually emerge to rule, I can answer in four words. Men are team players.

Hence, the common observation of the resemblance between party politics & another essentially masculine activity, professional team sports. From what I can see, it has been so from the beginning (the Byzantine political parties began as horse-racing factions), & while representative democratic arrangements bring this into full bloom, we may also detect party formations within entirely non-democratic political orders. They are, potentially, a highly unpleasant fact of life. For men not only play in teams, they are also in their nature highly competitive. The word “tribal” could be inserted somewhere around here.

Ask a democratic politician why he got into the trade, & he is likely to claim some absurdity, such as, “to serve the public.” He will then claim one party is more apt to serve it than another, & give that as the reason for his party affiliation. But no: it is the game of politics that appeals more deeply to the “alpha” male participants (along with female thumbs), as well as to the more numerous “beta” spectators egging them along. It is a tribal contest, & as I have actually come to believe, the motive for opposition between parties is not disagreement over public policy. That is the ball that is in play, & anyone who has looked into political history should have noticed that possession of any given “policy ball” changes sides frequently over time.

The motive is instead tribal. It is mutual pathological hatred, that quickly associates with class & ethnicity. Under earlier, more aristocratic regimes, when the idea of a Christian gentleman was still in play, this was masked behind sportsmanlike etiquette. Indeed, British parliamentary practices were until recently imbued with a tremendous quantity of unwritten rules, now lost upon our over-literal society. The masks have been coming off, together with the gloves, & rather than a contest confined to at least a semblance of policy debate — to playing the ball not the man — we have sheer barbarism.

I was struck, in following arrangements for the interment of the late Baroness Thatcher for instance, by the fear it might turn into a circus. There were already people — so young as not to have been around when Mrs Thatcher was in power, & therefore trained to hate her by another generation — doing their Morris dancing in Brixton, & Glasgow, singing songs with unbecoming lyrics, & so forth. As the politicians say, “The youth are our future!” & one may glimpse the future of our politics in such performances. Not argument, nor even a pretence of argument, rather, straightforwardly violent public demonstrations of moral filth & satanic ugliness.


When Thomas Aquinas & others explain why democracy will never work, some emphasis is placed on its divisive nature. In announcing himself for limited monarchy (1a 2ae, question 105, 1st article & thereabouts), Saint Thomas expounds the typically mediaeval & Catholic notion that all should participate in government, in such a way as to sustain unity. Electoral democracy does not follow from this. In the Summa, & in his political treatises, he is vividly aware that tyranny is borne of faction & disorder. The basic problem with democracy is not “the people” per se, but the cultivation of faction inevitable when men form into competitive political teams. By increments, unadulterated democracy leads to civil war. Even the adulterated sort will get there if the mix is heady enough.

It would be anachronistic to make Saint Thomas into a pundit of our present political order. He died in AD 1274; he doesn’t give sound bites any more. It is thus wrong to assume that despite what he says, he would be in favour of “Democracy” were he alive today — perhaps as “the worst form of government except all the others.” That was not the set of his mind. He did not advocate limited monarchy, & the subsidiary institutions the monarchy crowned, as a least evil. Rather, he considered it as something good intrinsically. Nor did he restrict his understanding of the fallen nature of man to political behaviour. He was aware of it in many more dimensions than we are, in our philosophical poverty. He was also aware of the human propensity to distort language, so would have cut through a great deal of the bafflegab we employ, in championing democracy — in particular the purposeful confusion of specific institutions with abstract ideals, as if one constitution or another were the inevitable embodiment of civic freedom & virtue.

He assumes politics is a male sport. We assume that is only because he was limited by his time to assume that. Perhaps he wasn’t. His remarks show an acute grasp of the masculine nature of this sport, regardless of the sex participating; so much, it can turn women into men. I think, though I cannot yet prove, he understands that this sport is as much in need of public repression as, say, prostitution. To the Christian, sin needs repression. We need not “give it an outlet,” it can find its own.

The Thomist, as more generally the mediaeval mind, looks for ways to restrain the evils associated with each known form of government, while also looking to the good that each embodies. It seeks the best available combination of the virtues in monarchy, aristocracy, democracy — & finds in each bulwarks against the vices to which each other is prey.

While modern teaching on the Catholic principle of “subsidiarity” is associated with the Jesuit, Oswald von Nell-Breuning (who helped Pius XI draft Quadragesimo Anno); & behind that goes back only to Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum of 1891; the thinking which animates it is thoroughly mediaeval, indeed formatively Christian. It is a view of society so organized that the higher genuinely serves the lower, rather than the other way around. The last eleven popes have been struggling to interpret this teaching in terms comprehensible to our Age of Revolution. It is a struggle because political factions are determined to use whatever the popes say for their own immediate purposes.

Party is itself the insuperable obstacle here. It is hard to conceive of a party whose purpose is to obviate party, as it is hard to conceive of a centralized government whose purpose is to restrain centralized government. Only Marxists can believe in that sort of thing. To my mind, it is what stands in the way of any direct, genuinely Catholic participation in the democratic, party political order. One is put in that odd position described by Malcolm Muggeridge: of being the pianist in a brothel, playing “Abide With Me.”

My thought for today is that we do not need a Catholic Politics. On the contrary, we are desperately in need of a Catholic Anti-Politics, & if someone could tell me of what that might consist, I would join up right away.

Margaret Thatcher

Let us add our voice from the High Doganate to those of the world’s more prominent statesmen & cultural figures, regretting the death of Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, the retired research chemist & barrister. We are all so terribly sorry. She was also, as I vividly recall, wife to the late Major Denis Thatcher, MBE, and prime ministrix of one of the larger states in the European Union for an extended period.

Mrs Thatcher (as she then was) rose to prominence herself in the 1970s, as ministrix of education in the Edward Heath cabinet, when she cut funding for a free milk programme & thus became “Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher” to the people her husband characterized as “bloody poofs & Trots.” Then she replaced Mr Heath, after his defeat in the second 1974 election, to the consternation not only of the Left, but of the old guard in her own party.

At the time I lived in England, in a small workman’s cottage in Vauxhall, at the north end of the Borough of Lambeth, inner London near the Thames. I was in a parliamentary constituency where the Tories could expect to finish sixth, behind not only Labour, Liberals, Leninists, & Maoists, but also the Monster Raving Loony Party of Screaming Lord Sutch. It was therefore provocative of me to put a party poster featuring Mrs Thatcher’s smiling face in my parlour window, & I remember the tinkle of glass when a rock came through it the first night.

(It was a large window, & cost me just over 4 pounds to repair. A few months later I repeated the experiment with a Yankee flag crossed with the Union Jack, & the legend, “O Say Does That Star Spangled Banner Yet Wave!” in commemoration of the U.S. Bicentennial. By this time the price of the glass had risen to 4 pounds, 90 new pee, & I resolved to stick with velvet curtains.)

An enthusiast for the death penalty, who had voted in Parliament for the decriminalization of homosexuality, & of abortion, back in the 1960s when both measures were certain to lose, the Iron Lady was in no sense a “social conservative.” She became one only in the Left’s fevered imagination. Nor, curiously enough, was she ever fundamentally opposed to the welfare state (which continued to grow under her premiership), nor any kind of Imperialist abroad beyond a mild nostalgia for the old British Empire, & opposition to Soviet Communism.

She was most certainly a larger than life politician. A unique case, at the time, of a woman becoming head of a national government whose father or husband had not preceded her, she belongs to the history of politics, not the history of ideas. The most useful comparison is I think to Charles de Gaulle, a man whose interests were neither Left nor Right but vested entirely in France. Thatcher winced, physically winced, at the decline of Britain, & like de Gaulle would do anything necessary to reverse national decline. Her embrace of various economic measures was not ideological. A very intelligent woman, capable of thinking even while in elective office (extremely rare), she became sincerely convinced that privatization, deregulation, & breaking the back of the unions was the only way for Britain to pull out of its post-War death spiral.

Prior to about 1974, she was not even clearly a “Thatcherite.” She deeply admired Keith Joseph, for his courageous & independent view of British realities. It was through his circle she heard of Friedrich Hayek, whom I’m sure she never had the time to read, but was called in to explain to her some of the broader points of economics. A give-&-take politician, she sounded more strident than she was thanks to a screechy Lincolnshire fishmonger accent which she had “fixed” with professional voice training. (Sarah Palin would be President today if she’d taken lessons in voice & deportment.) Thatcher stepped forward as candidate to succeed Heath only as a replacement for Keith Joseph, who was convinced he did not have the temperament for the job. Thatcher, he believed with characteristic foresight, had that temperament.

She was lucky to remain in opposition through four full years, thus given leisure to complete her self-transformation. She won in 1979 perhaps only because James Callaghan made a political miscalculation, not going to the polls the year before. It was the shivering “winter of discontent” that steeled the British public to abandon Labour’s badly failed industrial policies, & it was the behaviour of the radical union bosses that made voting for Thatcher thinkable even among the working classes.

I will not go into more of the long history, but skip forward to the moral, or morals, which are three. The first is to admire the character of Mrs Thatcher, the politician, holding her ground when she “knew” that she was right. Courage is a rare thing in any walk of life, but the kind of courage that was required to stand up against received opinion & attitudes not only in the country at large, but within her own party, & among her own cabinet colleagues, was quite extraordinary. She was the equal of Churchill in that regard.

The second is to acknowledge providence. She rose to office, survived in it, & prevailed on major policy questions, against formidable odds, thanks often to sheer luck. Some of this happened in plain public view (e.g. the Falklands crisis that saved her government in 1982, or the Brighton hotel bombing in 1984), but much of it below the radar of the media, in the “constellation” (nice old Elizabethan astrological term) of chance events in individual lives. And each she seized upon, without much choice, as she was sinking. When she did finally go down for the count in 1990, it was with all luck expired & one last knife in the back from her contemptible deputy, Geoffrey Howe. She very nearly survived that, too, but in the end personal grit was insufficient.

The third is to recognize how difficult it is to put & keep a decent politician in power, at any time in any genuinely representative democracy. “The lady is not for turning,” Mrs Thatcher famously said, but the British public was always for turning, & never bought into the “Thatcher revolution,” or felt the least commitment to it. Her doctrine of enterprise was taken up, mostly, by a small minority of hucksters, who made Britain not only superficially much richer, but also much more crass. The people at large learnt nothing, even from their pain, & casually abandoned the course she had set soon after she was gone, retaining only the crassness. Whether for better or for worse, they never much loved, usually despised, & did not deserve Mrs Thatcher.

What they have now, in the slimy David Cameron, is closer to what they deserve: a typical politician floating with the jetsam on the shallow waves; a man not of character but of rat cunning, like the overwhelming majority of successful politicians in every democracy; who will flourish until his own luck runs out, & leave a legacy of waste, moral stench & dissolution.

Gentle reader will know me for a fairly rabid “social conservative,” who could not possibly approve much of the Thatcher agenda, though I was with her entirely through the Cold War, both foreign & domestic. She was hardly an enemy of “statism” — she was saving the state, & the bourgeois economy upon which it depends for its sustenance, from ruin. In the larger sweep of time, we cannot know whether doing that was a good thing. It may well have been irrelevant to Eternity.

But one of the great men of history, graced with an exemplary spine.

Among the dead

Over Easter we lost two old Idler magazine contributors, & one drinking companion. On Holy Saturday, David Dooley died, age 91: emeritus English professor in St Michael’s College. He was active to nearly the end in pro-life causes, & the Catholic Civil Rights League. He once wrote a few book reviews for the Idler. I first met him, back then a quarterish century ago, when he was already facing the university’s compulsory retirement requirement, enforced the more strictly in the humanities because modern universities were finding themselves seriously overstaffed in such departments, no longer in consumer demand. By now I should think their problem has been resolved.

A real professor, & Dooley was certainly one of those, comes into his own around age sixty-five. That is when he has amassed sufficient learning to begin teaching in earnest, as Dooley explained. He was a fighter by disposition, a good old-fashioned Irish Catlick scrapper, who was doing his best in a hopelessly lost cause. He was from the glory era at St Mike’s — when it had J.M. Cameron, Tom Langan, John Kelly, & many more; had Étienne Gilson & his Pontifical Institute; had Marshall McLuhan & his Media Studies; had the finest humanities library in the Province — not the biggest, but the most carefully chosen, book by book, & extensive archival holdings such as the Newman papers, heroically obtained. Today that campus is largely a waste of valuable downtown parking space. It has ceased to be a Catholic institution except in some obscure, nominal sense, & the Basilian Fathers who once provided impressive spiritual guidance have long since gone over to the other side. In my humble but fierce opinion.

Dooley was of the vintage that fought against the merger of St Mike’s into the University of Toronto. He understood why it was a lost cause. The staff who voted on this nasty question were willing to surrender all their independence, together with their Catholic identity, in return for an approximately 5 percent raise in their salaries, that would bring them into line with pay levels in the larger bureaucracy. They were openly bought, & they went cheaply: in a word, prostitutes. Dooley knew every historical detail of the once-proud St Michael’s University, built with the pennies of old Irish widows so their grandchildren could receive a superb education, & stand tall in this Protestant town; so that Catholics could have a cultivated clergy, ornaments to the Church. It was the splendid product of sacrifices over several generations, not least from faculty once ill-paid. All gone in the end for a contract settlement, for an extra 5 percent & the promise of better sports facilities.

God bless this man, God bless his spirit. A lot of people didn’t like him, he was a fusty old dog. This is just why I loved him, & his knowledge of English literature made him (even when I was just an Anglican) the sort of man to drink sherry with. He was one of the few I could entrust to review a book, who would actually read it; an interpreter of 20th-century “EngLit” who could supply so much by knowing its antecedents, by knowing the classics its authors knew. And thus, seldom welcome in the pages of the more fashionable reviews, where theory prevails & men like that are marked as “plodders.”

I remember him over at my house (I once lived in a house) scanning my bookshelves. He took down a volume of the first Keynes edition of Sir Thomas Browne, which had library markings in it.

“Did you steal this book?” he asked forthrightly.

“No, I bought the set for a couple of dollars in a library sale. You will find the discard stamp on the back endpaper.”

“O Lord, oh my blessed Lord,” was his observation. For yes, this was the sort of literature modern libraries were dumping. He said he would be happier had I stolen it.


“RIP Kildare Dobbs, the greatest & quietest of raconteurs,” as Richard Lubbock (the Idler‘s old Chief Cosmological Correspondent, now himself mid-eighties & nursing-homed) tweeted on Monday. That Kildare, in his ninetieth year, would die on April Fool’s Day, was of a piece with the rest of his life. It was his last gently mischievous wink.

One had to see Kildare’s eyes to follow his anecdotes, for his voice was so provocatively soft. The light in them provided important clues to the narrative. You had to sit very close, stare, & hope others in the room would shut up. For every anecdote was worth hearing, & most of them were side-splitting funny. Yet as the telling continued, the voice would become softer still. We see the result when these anecdotes are repeated among Kildare’s old friends: no two versions ever quite agree.

I asked him once what he’d done for a living when he first washed up in Canada (around 1953). He’d found a job teaching in some “godforsaken” two-room schoolhouse in northern Ontario, beyond Sudbury I think. He wasn’t at all suited to it, & his students were soon out of control. But the old man commanding the other classroom had all his charges smartly in order, & Kildare often wondered how that was done. He could never meet this colleague, who disappeared instantly at the end of each school day; till finally he spotted him in the town’s hotel bar. It turned out the man was an alcoholic, & could have been found any evening in there.

Searching for some way to endear himself to this frosty superior, young Kildare confessed that he had problems with class discipline, & had been deeply impressed by the punctiliously correct behaviour of every pupil in the other room. “How do you do it? How do you get them to behave?”

“I hate the little bastards. And they know it.”

That will have to do as a Kildare Dobbs anecdote. He collected stories everywhere. Some people become magnets for the memorable, because they put themselves consistently in harm’s way; though I doubt Kildare would ever have been so crass as to ruin a good tale with excessive fact-checking. He was a connoisseur of corruption & hypocrisy; a diligent observer of how the world really works, & people get what they want. He was delighted to discover a new swindle. He earned his living through much of his life as a travel writer, with frequent excursions to exotic places in search of “local colour.” He had a gift for discovering high life in the low places, & vice versa. Every artist needs patrons, & in his case, the patrons found were first-class hotels, airlines, & travel agencies. Knowing he would actually be read, such sponsors endured his little eccentricities, & let him live off the fat of the land.

He was also a poet, & among my regrets, the Idler went down before we could publish a selection of his hendecasyllables. (They have since appeared in a book, The Eleventh Hour.) This is a reasonably obscure, classical, quantitative measure, nearly impossible to manage in English. (I know because I’ve tried.) Developed in ancient Alexandria, it takes the sapphic, essentially lyric rhythm, & extends it towards narrative — floating it, as it were, on the air. Kildare daringly rejected the standard models, to turn the measure back again, towards lyric. To my knowledge, no one had ever tried this before, in English. Somehow Kildare, with the ear of an Alfred Lord Tennyson, pulled it off: made hendecasyllables sound natural, almost conversational in English, while restoring the sapphic clip. I still have the manuscript marked with typesetting instructions, somewhere in the High Doganate. If I could find it I would give an example.

The 17th-century Thomas Browne was mentioned above, famed as a model for English prose style. Kildare was — & I mean this — the best prose writer of his generation in English, up here in America’s mad attic. By some genetic freak, his nearest rival was his cousin, John Muggeridge (son of Kitty, née Dobbs, the wife of Malcolm Muggeridge). John was as infallible, except, one could seldom extract copy from him, for all one’s pleading & begging. He’d think too much about what he ought to say. But Kildare was spot on deadline. Neither ever constructed a sentence that a subeditor could improve. (Not to say the idiots didn’t try.) It must be something in the water from the River Liffey: from that Ireland entirely within the Pale. It makes prose perfect, immortal. Indeed, the day Kildare made a spelling error, our whole office rejoiced.

I gave Kildare a very poorly-paid, extended regular column in the Idler, entitled “The Rambler.” It was an opportunity for him to write memoirs of his travels, without having to acknowledge sponsors, or take much care over fine little points that might offend them. Happily for me, he leapt at opportunities like that, doing his best work for the smallest sums.

We used to use Dobbs copy at the Idler in training some of our younger writers. I recall telling a certain fellow, now an august media pundit, but then an over-ambitious subliterate nobody of twenty-two, to read Kildare’s columns through again & again with only one thing in mind: where he had placed his commas. For they were a guide to his “perfect pitch” — the musical (as opposed to quasi-logical) pauses that prose rhythm requires, to achieve sublimity. A beautiful bird, or flowering plant in nature, is seen to be lovely at first glance. Yet it is only when it is examined that one begins to appreciate how lovely, how intricately & how exquisitely the whole creature is designed; what a universe of incredible detail has gone into the unified overall effect. That is when we see where God has placed the commas.

Kildare was a patient artist, making his way in our impatient world. And this he did artfully, presenting himself as a rogue, dropping hints that he was not to be trusted, that he was selfish & conniving. Typical was the profession of love remembered by the wife who survives him. (His third wife, but a love-match that endured.) “It has been my experience that beautiful women usually have unworthy men in their lives,” he wrote to the young painter, Linda Kooluris. “I want you to know I’m as worthless as the next.”

This irony was the reverse of modern: Kildare was not really such a rogue (notwithstanding the shocking & self-deprecating anecdotes), nor the coward he professed to be (witness military medals). He was extremely reliable, & secretly generous in a reckless, uncalculating way. He was, in fact, a gentle man, with real empathy for human suffering: a genuine carrier of other’s pain. The eyes, once again, told much, for he could laugh merrily at the bloody farce of it all, tell jokes in the darkest black humour, but in his eyes the wince could be seen.

Christian he was not. He loved the outward artifice of religion, by which he was inwardly puzzled. I got from him good-natured mockery for my own entry into the Catholic Church, during his 80th birthday party (combined, in a pub, with John Muggeridge’s 70th). To him, dogmatic certainty was the normal cause of bloodshed & uncharity, of which he’d seen enough in his youth. He was Japanese in his religious disposition: a faith inexplicably transformed into an aloof aestheticism, a cherry-blossom exhalation upon the transience of things.

Nor was he in any sense a political “conservative,” except perhaps in my intensely apolitical sense. He despised the doctrinaire proponents of “economic freedom,” just as he despised Marxists & all other ideologues. But he loved the thing itself: the buy & sell. He would explain that for real capitalism, one must go to the bazaars of the East, for what we have in the West is only stage-show competition, fake at every level.

Canadian letters had no better friend. Kildare Dobbs, the immigrant, quietly “discovered” a great deal of fine Canadian writing that had been overlooked; quietly ignored what was coarse & over-celebrated. He played a major, mostly unacknowledged role in the “gardening” of our literature, both in the backrooms of publishing (at Macmillan’s of Canada in the 1950s, in the founding of the Tamarack Review & at the magazine Saturday Night in the 1960s), & later in the foreground, as genial advocate in newspapers & broadcasting.

Thus he fully deserved the Order of Canada he finally received, in January. (Immobilized by his congestive heart, & a hundred other ailments, Kildare could not visit Ottawa to receive it. So our governor-general, the Right Honourable David Johnston, came to him, delivering it in person to his Toronto apartment.) They give these things out by the hundred each year; two or three are often quite deserved.


Selwyn Owen died Tuesday. He was one of a pub table of drinking buddies, who have been meeting Tuesdays since well back in the last century. We are all defunct artists of one kind or another, from the convenor down — Paul Young, before his retirement the last skilled drawing master at the Ontario College of Art (since renamed to increase its pretension). Selwyn was only in his sixties. He made his way as a realtor, while secretly persisting as an abstract painter. Others at the table retired from art more completely, at an early age, becoming bank managers, storekeepers, office workers, lawyers, lexicographers, whatever; I can remember most from when they were giddy young aspiring poets & artists, before “reality” set in. Selwyn’s kids came to work with him in the real estate business; he found some happiness there. He ended up withered on a hospital bed, in the unspeakable final stage of Lou Gehrig’s disease. A granddaughter “checked in” to the planet at East General, just as Selwyn was “checking out.” That was, he said when he could last speak, what he was still living for: to see that little girl if he could, perhaps hold her in his dying arms.

I did not know him so well, for I am among the least regular of the regulars at that table; but did know him for a modest & kindly, thoughtful man, who gave little glimpses into a sensibility that was amazingly colourful, behind an outward reserve. He could articulate connexions between visual art & music, that struck me as brilliant. Few have the gift of listening as well as speaking, & Selwyn was one of those, staying remorselessly on topic. A Londoner by birth, another Canadian by immigration, he discarded the accent but retained the manners of a well-bred Englishman. Not all artists are buffoons.